Happiness that is unending, increasing, interesting, and pure: Is it possible?
By HG Urmila Devi Dasi
Can one find happiness in this world? For most of us what we call āhappinessā is the temporary mitigation of distress, or sadness. Without sadness, there is practically no meaning to happiness in a material conception of life.
First, all that we term “happiness” depends on some sort of prior suffering. We enjoy eating because we feel the pain of hunger; without any hunger or appetite, eating will bring us no pleasure, no matter how tasty and well prepared the food. We find pleasure in sleep due to the distress of fatigue; a child who isn’t tired will be told to “go to bed” as a punishment–not a reward. Sex is pleasurable because of the urgency of lust. Those who wish to increase their sexual pleasure therefore also desire to increase their lust. On the emotional level as well, company is meaningful when we have experienced loneliness. If we examine any type of material pleasure, we will find that the experience is enjoyable only in proportion to the amount of pain it alleviates. If there is no prior pain, the so-called pleasure will be meaningless or even perceived as distress also. On a full stomach, more food is painful, and to a well-rested person time in bed is an irritation. “Happiness” can therefore be defined as the temporary absence or mitigation of pain.
We need to have the lack of pleasure to experience pleasure for yet another reason than definition. Pleasure in this world diminishes with experience. If we eat our favorite food–say pizza–for breakfast, lunch, and dinner–in a few days, or certainly weeks, we will not only cease to gain happiness from it but will, in fact, abhor it. One who is constantly surrounded by even good friends will gradually cease to enjoy their company and will desire some time alone. All material pleasures, therefore, demand a “break” from them in order to experience their absence. This cycle is termed in Sanskrit as “bhoga-tyaga” or enjoyment and then renunciation of that enjoyment.
The cycle of enjoyment and renunciation of that enjoyment is seen in our patterns of work and vacation, eating and not eating, and so forth. There is simply not one type of pleasurable activity that will continue to give the same kind and degree of happiness continuously–there must be times of abstention in order to revive the original thrill. Even with breaks, the pleasure tends to diminish unless there is some time of prolonged or intense depravation of the happiness.
However, the type of happiness described above is not the only type in existence. Evidence for the fact that another type of happiness exists is there in the fact that we humans desire happiness that doesn’t require distance from it and is not based on suffering. We write and sing and dream of a happiness that will go on forever, increasing in intensity and pleasure with no concomitant suffering at all. Our love songs are full of promises of eternal bliss that grows by the hour, and we imagine that as we progress through life, gathering education, family, money, and various items and accomplishments, that our sense of satisfaction and happiness will grow.
Why do we desire a never-ending, ever-increasing happiness, a happiness not dependent on any experience of sadness, in a world that doesn’t seem to afford such a phenomenon? In other words, if such happiness doesn’t exist, why would anyone look for it?
The answer is that we are not of this world, but rather, are eternal spiritual beings unnaturally encased in a body of matter in a world of matter. We have as our spiritual heritage varieties of loving exchange with the Lord, exchanges that are, indeed, full of ever-expanding ecstasy which continues forever without a tinge of suffering. We search for and glorify such a state because it is our nature, although not visible here. Just as a forest dwelling animal in a desert will crave shade and water, though some desert animals can do without either (some animals get all their water from the plants they eat) so we spiritual beings crave the happiness that is our birthright in this land that conspicuously lacks it.
Of course, with our experience of happiness that is fleeting and dependent on sadness, some have concluded that all types of happiness will be boring and dull without periods of either lack or distress. They cannot imagine, however much they may want it on some level, that a world which is perpetually happy would be able to exist or be interesting. They consider the talk of spiritual happiness either a myth or to imply something insipid.
Actually, however, there are many saintly persons who describe spiritual happiness as dynamic and variegated. This happiness is based on an individual loving relationship with a personal yet unlimited Lord, Sri Krishna, who reciprocates with each devotee in an inexhaustible array of ways, in an endless variety of transcendent activities. In fact, there are many types of spiritual bliss, some of which appear externally to be what we would consider suffering–fear, grief, anxiety, and so on. Because of the similarity in superficial appearance between these advanced stages of ecstasy and material suffering, many of the most elevated activities of the Lord and His devotees are subject to misunderstanding because of our projection of material experience.
But don’t we have experience of different varieties of the same material happiness? For example, one can eat many flavors of ice cream. Pistachio ice cream is quite different from butter pecan, which is radically different from strawberry. And when one combines the various flavors with toppings, there are so many ways to enjoy ice cream. The variety of spiritual pleasure is something like those ice cream flavors and toppings.
Types of pleasure in love of God can also be somewhat understood if we examine ways that people try to be happy within material life. It is not at all unusual for people to pay for movies and books which they know will make them frightened or sad or even horrified. Somehow, in those emotions we generally associate with a lack of happiness, they find some sense of pleasure. Truly, their pleasure is not in those “negative” emotions themselves but simply in a forgetting of their own life’s difficulties or in the sense of a great rush of feeling, no matter what the type.
Yet, however misguided and unfortunate the search for happiness that drives one to see, for example, a gristly horror movie, the point is that there are a great diversity of ways in which even materialistic people seek happiness. Why should spiritual happiness be devoid of such variation? In fact, because the material is a reflection or shadow of the spiritual, spiritual happiness has far more permutations and nuances, all of which dynamically increase the thrill of those who love the Lord. Indeed, love of Krishna, even in this world, can bring us to a life that is a thrill at every moment, and where sadness has no definition or trace.