Thursday January 10, 2008
I’ve been spending much of my time over the past few weeks reading about happiness. My new course on the philosophy of happiness begins on Friday – with Aristotle – and so I’ve been putting in a fair amount of preparation. The course is designed to look at various approaches to happiness from the perspective of philosophy, the sciences and systems of practice such as Epicureanism, Stoicism, Taoism and Buddhism, and I hope that it will be a truly hands-on course, looking hard at the roots of happiness in our lives and trying to put these various philosophies to the test. At the moment, I’m looking forward to the whole experience immensely.
It is an unadulterated pleasure to be unashamedly studying happiness after years of reading somewhat overwrought philosophy. The Western philosophical tradition is not a tradition known for its cheerfulness and sometimes, I fear, it is marked by the tendency to mistake gloominess for profundity. But, after all, it is not philosophically more correct to rise up in the morning with a sick and heavy heart than it is to leap up with alacrity and enthusiasm for life; and although as a philosopher one could, as the sublime Magnetic Fields once sang, “make a career out of feeling blue… dress in black and read Camus… smoke clove cigarettes and drink vermouth…”, such behaviour is not, thankfully, required for those with a vocation for philosophy.
The thing is, studying happiness cheers you up. Or so it seems. And whilst some gloomy philosophers might claim that this good cheer blinds us to the howling misery of existence, I think that on the contrary it is the only possible basis for any kind of useful or effective response to the various miseries in life. I love the insight found in certain Buddhist texts that a basic happiness and a sense of well-wishing towards oneself and others – or, in Pali, metta – is the necessary basis for a compassionate response to suffering. Far from being a selfish pursuit, the cultivation of happiness is a public good.
But we are not used to thinking this way. Over ten years ago, I went on a two week meditation retreat on the subject of metta – the basic positive emotion talked about in Buddhism. For the first few days, I sat there in silent meditation hating every moment of it, gritting my teeth, trying to crank out this positive emotion, getting frustrated with myself for my failure, cursing the whole business. This metta I was supposed to be feeling and wasn’t seemed heavy, a kind of burden or a duty. I struggled with it for days on end. Then, towards the end of the first week, something changed. I went into the meditation hall, sat on those accursed cushions, and took a deep breath. “What do I want most?” I asked myself.
The answer was one that Aristotle would have recognised. Happiness. Then it became clear to me. Metta was the most obvious and straightforward thing in the world. It was really astonishingly simple. Of course I wanted to experience positive emotions. What, after all, could be better? What more satisfying way of spending one’s time than bringing into being the thing that, when it came down to it, I cherished most. And not just for myself, because that made no sense at all. Happiness could not be hoarded or grasped on to as a possession. I wanted happiness not for myself, but for all. And as soon as this became clear, I experienced it. Happiness. Positive emotion. Well-wishing. Relief.
Of course I forget these things. Sometimes I find myself entangled in webs of my own making, webs of ill will and frustration and gloom. But it is for this reason that I find reflecting and studying happiness so valuable. It is for this reason that I still on some mornings sit down practice metta meditation. And it is for this reason that I am looking forward, so very much, to the explorations and investigations of the following few weeks.
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