three truths and a question about happiness

I am a cheerful guy, happy with my work and family life, able to enjoy mundane events and relish extraordinary experiences. But for me, as for virtually everyone, an undercurrent of sorrow and fear is never completely absent. The sorrow is for pain and loss; the fear is anticipation of more. The individuals who are suffering or who will inevitably suffer include the billions of strangers whose pain is superficially noted in the  newspaper; the hundreds of strangers whose tragedies are vividly described every day; one’s close friends and family (including the ones who happen to be healthy, safe, young, and happy today); and oneself. The Buddha was right that the First Noble Truth is suffering.

I respect, and perhaps envy, people who believe that suffering is limited or illusory because a reward follows death. I may envy, but I do not respect, people who simply don’t care, who live for themselves or in the moment and push suffering out of their minds. Even if not caring were possible, it seems dishonorable.

I can imagine a state that requires neither supernatural intervention nor moral oblivion. This state would be difficult to attain, and in fact I do not expect to see it. But it violates no laws of nature. I take some consolation merely in envisioning it.

In the state that I imagine, I would live a life partly devoted to improving or repairing the world. Here is why: Complex and intricate systems are more likely to survive and reproduce if they have an inner drive. That is true of trees, cities, and anthills: they strive to grow, which is why they are prevalent. But they don’t know that they are striving, hence they do not suffer. Sentience is a particular kind of will that is useful for promoting survival. We happen to have it and it explains why we have grown to number seven billion. Because every sentient system is vulnerable and ultimately dies, sentience introduces fear and suffering into the universe. That is a version of the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth.

At the same time—and on this point I think the Buddha might disagree—the existence of animals and other complex, fragile, sentient systems creates opportunities to reduce suffering and to promote at least a transient security and happiness. If one envisions, helps to create, enhances, or preserves a garden, a city, an institution, or a life, it does not become immortal, but one’s work reduces the suffering and enhances the flourishing of sentient beings, including oneself.

Note that “service” will not quite capture what it takes to improve the world. It is not about acting for others, but participating in the development and maintenance of complex systems that include oneself. Much evidence suggests that people who work in that way are happier: not liberated from the fundamental reality of suffering, but absorbed pleasurably in their activity while it lasts.

To devote oneself with perfect efficiency and relentless focus to public work would be excessive. If everyone did that, there would be no point to any of it: we would be taking in each other’s laundry. Or (to use another analogy) it would be like envisioning and building a great cathedral which no one ever visited for prayer or pleasure. So, in the state that I imagine, I would place work in balance with two other activities. One is intimacy, time with family and friends, whom I would treat with partiality and loyalty regardless of their needs. The other is pleasurable appreciation of the complex systems around me, especially people and animals, society, nature, and art.

Co-construction, intimacy, and appreciation are already components of my life, and of most other lives. But I don’t manage them with what could be called equanimity. Here is a little fable about how life could be lived better.

One day, I would go to my doctor’s office for a checkup. I would chose to do that because my life, although fragile and limited, has value, and it is my duty to preserve it if the means are reasonable. On the way to the doctor’s office, I would not be able to work or to spend time with the people I love, so I would appreciate the world. Instead of fruitlessly fretting about the tasks ahead, or even about more important causes and issues, I would be absorbed appreciatively in physical things. They could be evidently beautiful objects: the changing leaves glimpsed through a bus window. Or they could be objects whose beauty is easily overlooked: the impasto of scraps on the wet floor of the bus. One can always turn inside– to the reality of one’s own breath, the feel of one’s weight–or to language and imagination.

On this occasion, the doctor would have news for me: a brain tumor, giving me at most three months to live. As I left her office, I would have different thoughts from when I had entered. I would have to change priorities, giving more attention to planning an orderly succession and documenting my work than to launching new projects. I might be in a bit of a hurry after the appointment, because there would be a lot to do. Yet I wouldn’t feel fundamentally different. I knew my life was limited that morning; it is still limited now. It always promised suffering, but it also offered opportunities for absorption and construction. I would still have those opportunities.

On my way to the next activity–since once more I could neither accomplish work nor spend time with beloved people–I would again become thoroughly absorbed in the contemplation of physical objects, present or imagined. My immanent death would not be on my mind. I would heed the Buddha’s Third Noble Truth: suffering ceases with the abandonment of excessive attachment. Another way to put this point is that we are constantly being reborn, so the moments of biological birth and death are less important than we presume.

This fable illustrates a state that violates no laws of nature or of reason. In fact, perfectly rational people would never regret facts they cannot control. The obstacles to attaining equanimity are not external: rules, forces, or demands from outside. They are my own emotions. The Fourth (and final) Noble Truth is something like this: freedom of suffering is possible if one exercises the correct discipline, which is not merely a matter of managing emotions and thoughts but also of living right with other people. (It is what Owen Flanagan helpfully calls “equanimity-in-community.”) If that Truth is true, it offers me just as much consolation as I would derive from news of an afterlife. It represents a perfect solution: suffering would have no sting. Death would be like a wall bordering a field: visible, significant, but in no sense spoiling the space it surrounds.

This Fourth Truth could, however, be false if our physical constitutions simply preclude our attaining equanimity. But one thing is clear: we can envision that state. The question is whether dwelling with that thought and pursuing its actual attainment can take us on the right path.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.