Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Post Number Fifteen: In the forest singing sorrowless

Of Happiness

First of all, yes, the title of this post is the last line of a poem by Tolkien, dedicated to the love story between the human Beren and the elf maid Luthien. The poem can be found in the Lord of the Rings and it's one of my favorites. Anyway, as usual I am using Tolkien's words to introduce a totally different topic. Recently I have paid a visit to my Asian friend's Blog, and that made me wonder on the concept of Happiness.

Happiness is central to Buddhism, in a certain sense, and it is central to our culture too. The American Declaration of Independence states that men have the right to the "pursuit of happiness". Nonetheless, it is never clear what happiness is supposed to mean. I am sure that in order to have the right to the pursuit of something, we should have an idea of what this something is.
I believe that each person in the world has a different perception of what should be defined as happiness, and this is the reason why no one ever managed to define it clearly. On the other hand, I suspect that some ideas of happiness are intrinsically taking us off-road, in the sense that in pursuing such forms of happiness we end up less than contented.
Personally, I deem the very concept of happiness misleading in principle, and the idea of a "pursuit of happiness" is even more misleading. There is nothing to pursue, I am quite sure. Some of my most cherished friends refer to their "doing" certain things in order to "be happy", or better, to "become happy". This implies that these people are not happy in this moment and perceive that somehow, following a certain course of actions they'll be led to a state of higher delight. Although I have been already accused to speak like a monk, which is quite funny considering I am probably the most atheist person in the world, I have pondered over the concept of happiness and have perceived an intimate truth (in the religious sense of the word), that happiness is that psychological state you reach when you stop pursuing it. Happiness, of course, is not the "contrary" of sadness. This perception of contrasting opposites is typical of Christian and Middle Eastern cultures, but it is not the only way to describe reality. Anyway, this would lead us very far from the core of my thoughts about this topic.
Some time ago, I took that Jung personality test the link to which you'll find among my favorite links, to the right. I think the result is very accurate and one of the things it says is particularly suitable to describe my attitude towards sensations. "Savor" rather than "categorize". There. I most definitely savor sensations, I really do not care about categorizing them. Some people get mad at trying to figure if they are in love or not, if they are happy or not, if they are having fun or not. They have certain ideas in mind of what being in love, being happy, having fun should feel like, and then categorize their sensations according to these standards. I don't. I don't even care about giving sensations a name. I can sit in front of the magnificent view from Stockholm's City Hall, staring at the trees in complete silence for hours. I savor the beauty. I am also the type that after spending one hour this way would raise an eyebrow and say "how pleasant".
Feelings are not really supposed to be categorized. Categories are a function of the rational mind, and feelings are by definition irrational. Careful here: feelings can be elicited by perfectly rational perceptions and considerations, but their ultimate nature cannot be described rationally. Any attempt to define happiness through a rational categorization is likely to yield no result.
The ultimate truth hidden in the Buddhist religion, the nirvana, cannot be reached through reason, that's exactly what those monks also say, and why they meditate that long. I do not really claim to be able to clear my mind like a Buddhist monk, but I believe that the first step consists in being able to savor sensations without attempting to categorize them. A good example, in my case, is eating a piece of chocolate. Have that ultimately exquisite delicacy melt in your mouth and stimulate your sensitive tongue, producing a storm of neural transmissions to the brain that signify pleasure - complete, total, mindless pleasure... (of course, I love chocolate).

The following concept is extremely hard for me to express through words, so I'll ask my reader to bear with me and excuse my failure in the attempt to communicate what is mostly beyond the reaches of spoken languages.

I think that what the Buddhist religion is trying to tell us about happiness is that, well, we must "discover" we are happy already.
Am I happy?

Well I don't like that word. Happiness usually comes with a Western idealization attached to it. We go about thinking that those smiling imbeciles in the commercials are happy, and that they have gotten that far because they bought that product. This is basically crap. Another Western society crap is that in order to be happy you must be in love (there will come a time to demote this stupid western concept called "love", just not yet). In fact, since it is almost impossible to separate my concept of happiness from that everyone else has in mind, I prefer to use the word serene. It is easier to tell people what being serene is and then explain that this is what the monks meant with the word happiness.
So am I serene?

Most definitely, I think I am. How come? Italy is led by a powercrazy dwarf, American democracy is overruled by a Texan warmonger that brings havoc everywhere in the planet. People suffer pretty much anywhere in the world, children die, my father died of cancer in 1997, I haven't managed to complete University studies after 10 years of attempts (thanks to the miserable academic system of this medieval country), we thrive on much less money than what we'd need to sustain our lifestyle, the boss I depend from in the office is an ultimate jerk whose name aptly translates into English as "Little Bitch"; I do not have a girlfriend (though I had some, don't worry) and I don't plan to have any in the foreseeable future, I do not go out on Saturday night, I do not smoke (I never smoked nor I ever will), I very rarely drink alcohol and with extreme moderation (especially because I get drunk after less than a glass of beer), I am not even particularly attractive and I am surrounded by a people of idiots that I dislike hardcore. Some people might infer that they are luckier than me. Nonetheless, I consider myself serene. The majority of reasons to be disappointed are either irrelevant (like Little Bitch) or relevant, but rational in nature (the dictatorship in Italy, the Texan warmonger in the USA). But in no way they can affect, for example, the ultimate pleasure I feel when I close my eyes for a moment and think of the gorgeous people I love and consider my friends, or the immense delight provided by the sight of trees, of flowers, of the Alps, or by listening to music, or by simply realizing that I am part of this world. This is of course, impossibly explained through words. One has to feel it, or not, there's no other way. But I think that, in the very end, we all are ultimately happy. All we need to realize is that those things that make us unhappy do not really matter. Somehow, the garden of Eden, the nirvana, are within us already. It just takes a damn lot of time and effort to realize that we never really had to go far to find them.

And then, we will find ourselves in the forest singing sorrowless.