A talk given at Cambridge Buddhist Centre Oct 2011
I want to begin with a few quotations from different periods in history.
The first is from an 8th century Indian poet called Shantideva. He says:
"All those who suffer in this world do so because they seek their own happiness. All those happy in this world are so because they seek the happiness of others."
Then from the 18th century we have the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who is seen as the father of the European enlightenment. He says:
"The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation"
And influenced by Bentham we have Thomas Jefferson with the American Declaration of Independence, which states:
"We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying it's foundation on such principles and organizing it's powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
Then coming right up to date here is quote from Professor Richard Layard. He says:
"Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier. This is no old wives tale. It is a fact proven by many pieces of scientific research. We have good ways to measure how happy people are, and all the evidence shows that on average people are no happier today than people were fifty years ago. This paradox is equally true for the United States and Britain and Japan" Layard, Happiness, p.3
The first quote sees happiness as a profound paradox. The second and third quotes see happiness as a right and the last quote says happiness is much more elusive than is generally suspected. It points to another seeming paradox - more wealth does not equate with greater happiness. And perhaps hidden in there is another paradox - even though most of us may have no difficulty in believing that greater wealth does not equal greater happiness we still want greater wealth.
The American Declaration of Independence was mainly written by Thomas Jefferson who visited Paris around the time he was working on it and had contact with the revolutionaries there. The French revolution's declaration of human rights was influenced by Jefferson and that in turn has had a huge influence worldwide that continues to this day.
The American Declaration of Independence was written in 1776 and it states that the pursuit of happiness is a God given right. It also infers that government that is not effective in helping people to be happy is not an effective government.
What has it meant for the modern world that the pursuit of happiness is seen as a right and that governments are to some extent judged by their ability to effect the happiness of the citizens?
Well governments can only do so much and the way in which they can affect the well-being of the citizen has often been seen in material and financial terms. So happiness has come to be associated almost exclusively with material prosperity. Partly this is because this is what governments can help to bring about but also it is because the evidence shows that when people are lifted out of poverty their level of happiness and well-being increases. It is also one of the easiest things to measure.
However as with many things in the affairs of human beings we have taken something that brings positive results and assumed that if we multiply it indefinitely we will continue to get more and more positive results. The evidence shows this to be untrue.
This is where the economist Richard Layard comes in. In his book Happiness he quotes many experiments which have shown that beyond certain levels extra income does not give rise to more happiness and in fact can have the opposite effect because of disappointed expectations.
In the same vein Barry Schwartz, Professor of Social Theory and Action at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, has shown that increasing choice can enhance life up to a certain level but when choices continue to multiply they can have an adverse affect on well-being. His book is called The Paradox of Choice.
I think these two books, Happiness by Richard Layard and The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz are quite important contributions to any debate about consumerism, ecology and well-being.
We live in an age of consumerism which is to some extent an experiment in social engineering. During the 19th and into the early 20th century there was a strong culture of frugality, however in the 1920's in the US the economy was changing rapidly and this had far reaching consequences. To quote from America: a Narrative History by Tindall and Shi :
"Dramatic changes in efficiency meant that the marketplace was flooded with new consumer delights. Goods once available only to the wealthy were now accessible to the general public. Middle-class consumers could own cameras, wristwatches, cigarette lighters, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines. But those enticing new goods would produce economic havoc if people did not abandon their traditional notions of frugality and go on a buying spree. Hence, business leaders, salesperson's, and public relations experts began a concerted effort to eradicate what was left of the original Protestant ethic's emphasis on plain living. The public had to be taught the joys of carefree consumerism, and a new industry of mass advertising obliged. By portraying impulse buying as a therapeutic measure to bolster self-esteem, advertisers shrewdly helped undermine notions of frugality."
However the Depression of the 1930's and the world war of the 1940's reinforced habits of frugality, such as, saving rather than spending, repairing rather than replacing and valuing what lasted over the new. This meant that the US economy faced the same problem of over supply in the 1950's. To quote from America: a Narrative History again:
"To perpetuate the post war prosperity, economists repeated the basic marketing strategy of the 1920s: the public must be taught to consume more and expect more. Economists knew that Americans had more money than ever before. The average adult had twice as much real income in 1955 as in the rosy days of the late 1920s before the crash. Still, many people who had undergone the severities of the Depression and the rationing required for the war effort had to be weaned from a decade and a half of imposed frugality in order to nourish the growing consumer culture.
Advertising became a more crucial component of the consumer culture than ever before. Expenditures for TV ads increased 1000% during the 1950s. Such startling growth rates led the president of NBC to declare in 1956 that the primary reason for the post-war economic boom was that "advertising has created an American frame of mind that makes people want more things, better things and newer things.". Paying for such "things" was no problem; the age of the credit card had arrived. Between 1945 and 1957 consumer credit soared 800%. Whereas families in other industrialised nations were typically saving 10 to 20% of their income, American families, by the 1960s were saving only 5%."
So while in the Soviet Union and it's sphere of influence there was a Marxist/Leninist social engineering experiment, in the US and it's sphere of influence there was what we could call a consumerist social engineering experiment. The Soviet experiment has more or less come to an end, however the consumerist experiment continues.
And now with the wide acceptance of concerns about the earths ecology and the continuous population growth, some prescient voices are beginning to question whether this consumerist social engineering experiment can continue unabated.
And also apart from the questions about ecology and population growth, there is the simple question of whether consumerism works as a way to give human beings a better quality of life.
The answer to this question seems to be no - at least according to the research quoted by Richard Layard and Barry Schwartz. No, having more and more choice or having more and more money does not improve quality of life or increase happiness. The reason for this is what is known in the field of psychology as adaptation.
Adaptation simply means that we human beings quickly adapt to new conditions and circumstances. We get used to things so that they quickly cease to give us greater satisfaction. If you buy a new TV or computer you may have eagerly anticipated its arrival and excitedly set it up, but within a very short time it is just another thing in your life and your level of happiness and satisfaction is back to where it was before you got it.
However, the research also shows that there are some things we never fully adapt to, some pleasant for instance, intimate relationships and friendships and some less pleasant, for instance, bereavement or a serious illness of someone close to us. Also, those things which give us a sense of life as meaningful, such as spiritual understanding and practice within a community of like-minded people.
So the secret of happiness according to Richard Layard is "to seek out those good things that you can never fully adapt to."
What we get used to most easily is material possessions, and to quote Layard again. "If we do not foresee that we get used to our material possessions, we shall over invest in acquiring them, at the expense of our leisure. People tend to underestimate this process of habituation. As a result, our life can get distorted towards working and making money, and away from other pursuits."
We could say that the problem for contemporary Western societies is that while material prosperity has multiplied many many times, the general level of happiness and well-being has either stayed at the same or declined for the vast majority of people.
So the big question is, is it important to be happy? If so what's the best way of going about it individually and communally? What are the implications for our daily lives? Can Buddhism help?
Happiness is about how much one likes the life one lives. There are two components, firstly, how well we feel most of the time, and secondly to what degree we get what we want from life. To be happy means that, broadly speaking, you like the life that you live, you feel good most of the time and to a large degree, you get what you want from life. Being happy in this sense has advantages, for instance, research shows that happy people are healthier and have a greater life expectancy than those who are unhappy. This is a mundane level of happiness and from a Buddhist perspective is just a stage on the way to complete liberation of the mind which is the supreme happiness. Although happiness is quite subjective, it is important that we don't think that our happiness is totally divorced from that of others. If each one of us pursues our own happiness in an individual and selfish way, then our happiness would contribute to the misery of others, which in turn would come back to bite us one day. And in fact, Jeremy Bentham was quite clear about this, our own happiness is intimately tied up with the happiness of others especially those we are in close contact with. He wrote in a birthday letter to a friends young daughter:
"Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains. And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find a harvest in your own bosom; while every sorrow which you pluck out from the thoughts and feelings of a fellow creature shall be replaced by beautiful peace and joy in the sanctuary of your soul." (quoted in Happiness, Layard, p.235.)
This echoes what the Indian Buddhist poet Shantideva said in the eighth century:
"All those who suffer in this world do so because they seek their own happiness. All those happy in this world are so because because they seek the happiness of others." And Shantideva goes on to give a Buddhist analysis of why this is the case. " the calamities which happen in the world, the sufferings and the fears, many as they are, they all result from clinging on to the notion of self, so, what good is this clinging of mine?" verse 134.
He is saying that the root of human suffering is clinging to a sense of self -- or to put it in more contemporary terms -- the degree to which we protect and defend our ego identity determines the degree of our happiness or unhappiness.
What does it mean to cling to the notion of self? The first thing to note here is that Shantideva talks about a notion of self, rather than a self -- from the Buddhist perspective -- the self is an idea, a construction, a notion. It is not a reality. What does this mean? It seems to contradict our experience. I experience myself -- you experience you. So the notion of self that Shantideva is referring to is the idea of a fixed, unchanging, separate self.
So, to put it rather paradoxically, you could say that the Buddhist perspective is that there is a self but that it is constantly changing and has no boundaries -- so it is not fixed in time or space or anywhere else.
To put this more simply, what we experience when we experience ourselves is constantly changing -- physically, emotionally, mentally -- nothing ever stands still. We are not things, we are processes. We are not nouns we are verbs. Each one of us is a dynamic process of changing thoughts, changing emotions, and even physical change.
This perspective grows out of the more fundamental Buddhist view that everything changes always.
The most fundamental teaching of Buddhism is what is referred to as conditioned co-production (translating the Pali paticca samutpada). What this says, in a nutshel,l is that everything in the entire universe -- material and non-material -- arises in dependence upon conditions. In other words, there is no chance or randomness -- there is an ordered universe in which all phenomena occur because of preceding conditions. This is relatively easy to understand intellectually but the aim of Buddhism is not simply to have an intellectual understanding of this teaching, but to have a full and profound realisation of all its implications, so that our lives are permeated by its significance to such a degree that our actions, our words, our thoughts, our emotions -- the totality of our being -- functions on the basis of this realisation. There are many implications of conditioned co-production, of conditioned co- arising, but for the purposes of this talk I want to just talk about the implications for the self -- the notion of self -- which dictates so much of our thoughts and actions.
Because everything arises in dependence upon conditions -- everything that we are, everything that we experience also arises in dependence upon conditions. The implication for us is that everything that we do, say and think is a condition in dependence upon which future experience will arise. So not only are we a process, an ever-changing flow of thoughts, emotions, actions and words -- we are also participating in the creation of this process. To put it another way -- the self that we are is a self that we are constantly creating. This fluidity of self and self-creation confronts us with a huge opportunity -- the opportunity to create the best of all possible selves -- the possibility of actively intervening in the evolution, the creation of our consciousness; the possibility of expanding our consciousness, or, more rightly of becoming aware of the expansive nature of consciousness. And the implication of conditioned co-production -- everything arising in dependence upon conditions -- is that we are part of the conditions that give rise to the rest of the world, to the social, ecological, political, economic environments, we find ourselves in. We are part of the conditions that create and mould the consciousness of a whole society, a whole community.
A further unfolding of the Buddhist teaching of conditioned co arising is spoken of as the law of karma. Karma means action. The law of karma applies conditioned co arising to the ethical dimension of life. When we act, we and others experience consequences. An action can be by body, speech or mind. Thoughts and ideas are actions that can have powerful consequences. Words are extremely potent forces for good or ill, and of course deeds can easily be seen to have consequences that ripple out in all directions. The law of karma simply states that skilful or positive actions of body, speech and mind will have positive consequences for ourselves and others and unskilful or negative actions will have negative consequences for ourselves and others. So it is not just an ordered universe, but you could even say a benign universe.
So to come back to the topic of happiness, from a Buddhist perspective, the happiness of an individual is a condition for a deeper insight into the nature of reality and the nature of self and it is also a result of any such Insight. When one sees deeply into the profound and far reaching implications of patticca samutpada -- when one realises in the depths of ones being that our self is a flow of conditions, many of which we create and that we are connected to all other selves by an intricate web of interweaving and interpenetrating conditions -- out of this realisation there grows a compassionate, imperative.
The imaginary isolated cocoon of the self that we had previously believed in and operated from gives way to a fluid sense of a changing and connected flow of self, which requires no egotistical defending or protecting. With this realisation we function more freely and fearlessly in the world, with a cosmic perspective and a natural kindness that requires no effort. And happiness is never far away, because the conditions that give rise to happiness are never far away. So we could say that happiness is important because it helps us to focus our minds in such a way as to lead to a realisation of something much greater than happiness -- liberation. Happiness is not an end in itself and not something that can be acquired for oneself in the way you can acquire a new coat or a new television or mobile phone. From a Buddhist perspective, what is really important and really worth giving time and energy to are the conditions that give rise to liberation of the mind, of which happiness is one.
What gives rise to happiness? I’ll have a look at this first of all from the perspectives of Barry Schwartz and Richard Layard and then see what Buddhism has to say.
In his book --' the Paradox of choice', Barry Schwartz comes to a number of conclusions about how to avoid the dissatisfaction brought about by having too much choice. Some of these conclusions are relevant to the topic of how to create the conditions for more happiness.
For instance, he suggests that it is better not to take up every opportunity to make a choice that presents itself to us. Some choices are not worth making. The time and energy expended is likely to cause more dissatisfaction than it's worth. A silly example would be if you were to spend an hour in the supermarket trying to choose which packet of biscuits to buy from the 300 choices that are usually available. Happiness and satisfaction are subjective feelings and the more objective we try to be about our choices the less likely we are to be satisfied. Another suggestion he makes is to deliberately restrict our choices -- if you are buying a coat or shoes -- just go to two shops, rather than five or six.
He also suggests that it is far better for your own well-being to just accept what is good enough rather than always wanting the best. Another way to achieve greater satisfaction is to make our choices or decisions irreversible-he gives the example of marriage -- he says, " finding a life partner is not a matter of comparison shopping and trading up. The only way to find happiness and stability in the presence of seemingly attractive and tempting options is to say," I'm simply not going there. I've made my decision about a life partner, so this person's empathy of that person's looks really have nothing to do with me. I am not in the market -- end of story". Agonising over whether your love is the real thing or your sexual relationship above or below par, and wondering whether you could have done better is a prescription for misery. Knowing that you've made a choice that you will not reverse allows you to pour your energy into improving the relationship that you have, rather than constantly second-guessing it." The point he is making is that accepting what is good enough and making a commitment to that is better for happiness.
Even in the Buddhist community we often encounter people who seem incapable of committing to a particular course of practice or a particular school of Buddhism. This is no doubt the influence of our consumer culture of unlimited choice.
Another suggestion Barry Schwartz makes is to practise an "attitude of gratitude" by giving attention to what is good and satisfying and pleasing in your life -- even quite small things or things we normally take for granted -- like being able to see, walk or hear. The idea is to help yourself to feel better about your life as it is and less driven to find all the supposedly new and improved products, activities, and people that will somehow enhance it. In Buddhism we have the Katannuta Bhavana, which literally translates as development of gratitude. This gratitude meditation has the effect of making us happier and more content with our lives.
Another important point made by Barry Schwartz is that we should anticipate a tendency to adapt to the new quite quickly -- he says. " as the number of choices we face increases, freedom of choice eventually becomes a tyranny of choice. Routine decisions take so much time and attention that it becomes difficult to get through the day. In circumstances like this, we should learn to view limits on the possibilities we face as liberating not constraining. Society provides rules, standards, and norms for making choices, and individual experience creates habits. By deciding to follow a rule (for example, always wear a seat belt: never drink more than two glasses of wine in one evening), we avoid having to make a deliberate decision again and again. This kind of rule following frees up time and attention that can be devoted to thinking about choices and decisions to which rules don't apply."
This is what is behind much of the monastic tradition. It is the counter intuitive wisdom that freedom is found through discipline and restraint of appetites rather than through unlimited choice and unlimited individualism.
I think the message of Barry Schwartz's book is an important one for our time in history and an interesting contribution to the debate about the efficacy of the consumerist social engineering experiment which we have all been taking part in for the past few generations.
Richard Layard -- who is an economist -- writes about the sources of happiness in terms of externals -- public policy and the organisation of society. However, he is also keenly aware of the internal dimension to happiness and recommends Buddhist meditation among other things.
Many studies have shown that human relationships are what make people happiest -- friendship, marriage, and family. In Britain and the United States in particular -- economic policies that have encouraged mobility have been very effective in generating more wealth, but have also had the unfortunate effect of destroying communities and dispersing families, thus undermining one of the primary sources of happiness. Many of the things which are lauded as beneficial to us, such as choice, flexibility, change are actually not that helpful in creating a stable society where people trust each other. When the level of trust drops in a society, the level of happiness and well-being also drops and this is what has happened in Britain and the United States -- since the 1950s -- the percentage of adults who think most people can be trusted is half that of 60 years ago. The upshot of this is that for the general well-being of society there are huge advantages to inflexibility and predictability -- in short stability.
Richard Layard also makes some interesting points about the role of taxation in creating a happy society, but I won’t go into that here.
Turning to the inner dimension of happiness, he thinks that it should be a major goal of education to develop an inner strength of character, which allows people to accept themselves better, and to feel more for others. He goes on to say " for adults there is a range of spiritual practices that help to bring peace of mind from Buddhist meditation to positive psychology. For those who are struggling, cognitive therapy has a good record of success. For those in the extremes of misery, psychiatric drugs and cognitive therapy have probably helped more than any other changes in the last 50 years, and we can expect further major advances."
His recommendations for a happier society could be summarised as follows:
monitor the development of happiness
* re-think our attitudes to taxation
* re-think our attitudes to performance related pay and bonuses
* re-think our attitudes to mobility
* spend more on helping the poor, especially in Third World countries
* Spend more on tackling the problem of mental illness
* introduce more family friendly practices at work
* eliminate high unemployment
* in schools teach the principles of morality as established truths, rather than as interesting points for discussion
* prohibit commercial advertising to children, as in Sweden
I found this last point interesting. I had not given it any thought before -- probably because I don't have children -- but thinking about it I could see his point very clearly. We are conditioning children from an early age to be consumers. I suspect that in 150 years time people will look back at the practice of advertising junk food etc to children in the same way that we now look back to 150 years ago at the practice of sending small children up chimneys. They may very well wonder why we considered it okay to abuse the minds of young children with advertising in this way.
Those are some of the thoughts of Professor Layard on the happiness of society and whether we agree with him and not, his arguments are well worth considering and discussing.
What about the Buddhist perspective on the conditions for happiness? Not long before his death, the Buddha spoke to his followers about the conditions for the stability of society and the conditions for the stability of the community of his followers. This is in the Parinibbana Sutta of the Digha Nikaya. The Buddha outlined seven conditions for the stability of society and seven conditions for the stability of the spiritual community. The first four are the same for both.
The first condition for a stable society and a stable spiritual community according to the Buddha is that the people meet together in assemblies regularly and frequently. This is acknowledging that a society or community is based on relationships of trust and meeting together is a way to build those relationships and foster that trust.
The second condition is that people meet in harmony -- the text says -- "meet in harmony, break-up in harmony and carry on their business in harmony." I take harmony here to mean that there is genuine communication -- listening to the views and opinions of others as well as proffering our own.
The third condition for the stability of society and the spiritual community is respect for tradition or not introducing change just for the sake of change.
The fourth condition is the honouring of the elders. The text says honour, respect, revere and salute the elders and consider them worth listening to. This is of course quite the opposite to the cult of youth that often pervades our society. The elders are repositories of the values and the story of society and therefore worth listening to.
The fifth condition for a stable society is that there should be no abduction of women. I think we could broaden this out and say that the exploitation of people for sexual purposes -- whether women, men or children -- causes great distress and undermines the stability and happiness of society.
The sixth condition is to honour, respect and revere shrines at home and abroad and continue to give proper support to them. This is a call to respect the diversity of religious belief.
And the last condition for the stability of society is to support those who are trying to live a spiritual life full-time -- support here means material support, guaranteeing their safety and allowing them to establish temples or other appropriate buildings.
These are the seven conditions for the stability of society, according to the Buddha and of course that stability is the condition that gives rise to both prosperity and well-being. Some of these overlap with Richard Layard's suggestions about the sources of happiness in a society -- for instance -- promoting community life and having established moral principles.
Turning now to the individual -- what does Buddhism have to say about the conditions that give rise to the happiness and well-being of the individual. Well in a sense the whole of Buddhism is about the happiness and well-being of the individual, because individuals are the building blocks of community, of society, of a nation or world. To have a happy society, we need happy individuals. What Buddhism says is quite simple really -- all our suffering is caused by clinging on to the idea of a self -- a fixed and separate self -- and it is only by letting go of that idea of a fixed and separate self that true happiness and liberation are found. To use more psychological language -- ego or ego identity is the problem -- going beyond the limitations of ego is the solution or rather realising that ego is only a constructed idea and not a reality is the solution to the problem.
We don't just have ego-identity or self-centredness as individuals but also as groups. For example, nationalism in relation to a nation state is a kind of group egotism -- a limiting and separating idea. A nation state is an abstract idea that we give reality to by a complex system of symbols and rules. An individual ego-identity is an abstract idea that we give reality to by a complex system of desires and habits.
Although what Buddhism has to say about happiness, liberation and suffering is quite simple, nevertheless, it is difficult to achieve this state of egolessness. It is easy to think it, but not to live by it or from it. And so the whole of Buddhism is essentially a pragmatic system of practices that help us go beyond the habitual, narrow, limited state of consciousness.
Buddhist practices, such as meditation, ethics, reflection and ritual, aim to help us to integrate our personalities, so that we can focus our energies and develop positive emotions -- gradually transforming greed into generosity, hatred into love and delusion into wisdom. This process of practising meditation, ethics, reflection and ritual leads us to the stage of what we might call positive egotism, having a notion of self, but a healthy positive self, imbued with the aspiration to expand beyond the narrow confines of family or national conditioning, the confines of habit and assumptions. This is the level of what we could call mundane happiness. From here the practices are all about what is often referred to as spiritual death -- followed by spiritual rebirth.
Spiritual death refers to the experience of egolessness -- letting go of the notion of a fixed, separate self. It manifests in a total lack of selfishness, of self-centredness and in a spontaneous response of goodwill towards all living things, spontaneous compassion. This spontaneous flow of energy towards others is the spiritual rebirth.
I have been a Buddhist for 28 years and I'd like to talk a bit about what that has done for me. It's always a tricky thing to talk about oneself in a way that is objective and observational rather than subjective and either inflated of deflated, but I'll have a go and I'm sure you'll make allowances for any lapses into bad taste. I grew up within the world of Irish Catholicism in the 1960s, and what I gained from that was a non-materialist outlook, an emphasis on the importance of the spiritual dimension of life -- I'm not sure if that is what I was meant to get from it but I did. I left home at 18 and went to London where I drifted into a career in accountancy. There a combination of what I observed in the people around me and what I felt in myself led me to a sense of meaninglessness -- a sense that I was living a meaningless life and sometimes I felt quite despairing and wondered whether there was any point to being alive or was it all just a cruel joke. When I was 22, this came to such a pitch for me that it led me to give up my career before completing my training. I decided that I must discover the meaning of life -- I just couldn't bear to live for the sake of money, possessions, family and a cosy retirement. For whatever reason, none of these conventional life purposes satisfied the yearning in my heart.
For the next six years, I did odd jobs and spent a lot of time undertaking symbolic journeys, either on foot in the British Isles or by bicycle around continental Europe. I just travelled around, camping out in the woods, because it was the cheapest way to live and all the time I had in my mind that really my travelling was symbolic of an inner journey. But I didn't really have any idea of what I was looking for. Eventually, in January 1981, I settled in West Berlin. I had many adventures, and it was there I discovered Buddhism or perhaps Buddhism found me. I met a monk from Sri Lanka, who taught me the meditation for developing loving kindness and told me about the five ethical precepts of Buddhism. This was a big turning point in my life -- I knew immediately that I had found what I was looking for and that I was a Buddhist. I felt very happy -- even ecstatic. That was in August 1983 -- I have been a Buddhist ever since, but I didn't remain happy. Happiness was not so easily attained -- happiness proved very elusive.
My first task as a Buddhist was to change my ethical practice, which I found fairly easy. I was already a vegetarian, and I had given up alcohol too. I just had to stop some activities that contravened the second precept. Meditation proved to be much more difficult for me -- I was a very restless and active young man and I found sitting still for more than 10 minutes very difficult. Sometimes I would prepare my place to sit, light incense and sit down with great anticipation of the wonderful experience about to unfold -- and then 10 minutes later I was in the kitchen making toast and I had no recollection of getting up and going to the kitchen. It was as if I lived in a restless daydream.
In spite of the difficulties I had with meditation it did begin to have an effect on me, and as I became more aware I discovered that my personality was quite dispersed and even in conflict. This is quite common. When people take up meditation and gain greater awareness it can seem to them that they are experiencing more difficulties than before. This is because what we first become aware of is the aspects of our psyche which were previously unconscious. When what was unconscious comes into consciousness, it can seem as if our sense of who we are is disintegrating. This was my experience. But gradually through communication with people more experienced than myself, through meditation and reflection, I began to integrate all the seemingly disparate parts of my psyche into something more coherent. This probably sounds simpler and more straightforward than it was. The actual experience for me was painful and messy, sometimes leading me into despair and depression and was characterised by almost violent internal conflict. It was a period of great unhappiness in my life. But the most intense part of this experience only lasted for about one year.
However, there was still further to go before I could be happy. There are habits of thought and emotion which are deeply ingrained. We are conditioned by our families and our societies -- by school, religion and even politics, and this conditioning can leave a residue of patterns in our mind which dictates how we think and feel, how we perceive and experience life around us. In my case, I regularly fell into a sense of isolation and loneliness, and I rationalised this to myself as being to do with other people not caring about me. I tried to explain my experience of myself in terms of the imagined thoughts and actions of others. This is another surprisingly common phenomenon. Eventually after another couple of years, I saw through this. I realised that what I was experiencing had nothing to do with others and was a habitual reflex of my own mind -- which led me to dislike myself and project that dislike onto others.
Often it was through communication with a good friend over many months and intensive reflection by writing that I broke through into greater awareness and freed myself from some destructive mental and emotional habits. Sometimes I used a stream of consciousness style of writing which seemed to enable me to objectify some intensely subjective states.
When I broke through this habit of feeling very isolated and lonely -- I started to experience a genuine happiness for the first time. I can even date that to April 1989. I mean, I experienced very positive emotions without an undertow of worry and anxiety that they were about to disappear. And the consequence of this was that I felt able to consider the needs of others in a clearer and cleaner way than before. I had always been helpful and wanted to help others, but I now realised that often that had had an unconscious motivation of wanting to feel good about myself or even of wanting to feel superior to others. Now, it felt different.
So after about five years as a Buddhist, I had finally reached a point of happiness, but from a Buddhist perspective, this was just the beginning. I won't go into what has happened for me in the intervening 23 years -- except to say that I'm deeply contented.
The point I am making here and perhaps the main point I want to make in this talk is that happiness is important, and for some people like me, it is quite an achievement, but nevertheless it is not an end in itself and there is much more to life, there is much more to being human -- meaning is beyond happiness, not just a means to happiness. And what we ought to be aiming at is complete liberation from all delusion of self, so that the fountains of compassion can flow freely. This higher evolution of consciousness beyond happiness, beyond psychological integration, to the heights represented by the Buddha -- the perfection of wisdom and compassion -- this is what makes life worth living -- we should not settle for less.
There are levels of happiness -- from the fleeting happiness we experience when we buy something new, to the deep happiness found in friendship and other personal relationships, to the happiness of a healthy and integrated psyche and all these levels of happiness prepare the ground for the possibility of something even greater -- the happiness of liberation from the confines and limitations of ego-centredness -- even from subtle ego-identity. This liberation -- this awakening from the delusion of self -- leads to an awareness of the expansive nature of consciousness and a spontaneous response of loving kindness to all other living beings. This is what is hinted at by Shantideva in that quote with which I began this talk and which seems as good a place as any to end: "all those who suffer in the world do so because of their desire for their own happiness. All those happy in the world are so because of their desire for the happiness of others."