Is Happiness a Choice? Part 1 & 2

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Author: 
Karnamrita Das

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[reposted from 12-31-2014]
Part 1
In the midst of my sneezing and a hacking cough this morning I discovered a fantastically beautiful sunrise—breathtakingly inspiring for me—when I went downstairs to wake our home Deities. These days I am very taken by the natural world, the sunrise and sunset, phases of the moon, and my favorite for super variety, the ever-changing clouds. These daily occurrences are often missed in our hectic world, and thus it is no wonder that people are ever more depressed and lonely, feeling the cities are like a fast paced void. Behind Nature, and within it (and our hearts), is the Presence of the Almighty, patiently waiting for us to turn to him.

And when we are in the peace that nature can afford (if we can turn off our phone) we can feel closer to the Source of Everything, who for Gaudiya Vaishnavas, is the charming, extraordinarily gorgeous, irresistible flute player and cowherd, Shri Krishna. So I felt inspired and happy in the midst of a distressful condition—which gives a clue on how to be happy. This is the opening for today’s topic on happiness.

My wife and I gave a class last week titled, "Is Happiness a Choice?" guided by the 14th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita on the three modes, or qualities, that govern the material world. Our answer to this question was a conditional yes, since happiness is really an attitude toward life, and not the result of our material adjustments or attainments. Another way of thinking of happiness is that it is not a “thing” but a by-product of a state of consciousness. Thus we might reframe the question to read, “What state of mind is required to choose to be happy?”

From a higher spiritual perspective, one of the qualities of the soul is happiness, so the closer we come to the spiritual platform, the more joy we will naturally feel, and the less we will be searching for happiness in the world of ephemeral things. The potentiality of material goodness (sattva) is that it is the portal, or gateway, to the soul, since it can bring wisdom and spiritual illumination. The downside of material goodness—and all material qualities or things have shortcomings—is that one can become attached to being a happy, virtuous, and wise person, and remain materially bound.
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The fact that we are materially “bound” requires some spiritual philosophy. We will be helped by understanding the ultimate purpose of life along with the nature of the material world, and to develop the determination to apply this knowledge in how we live. If there is bondage there must also be freedom. A soul in a physical body is not free but bound to act according to its conditioned nature and proclivities, and to experience the “death” of their material or biological self.

The knowledge of the soul’s entanglement in the material world through the physical body, mind, and senses, and consequent suffering through worldly desires and attachments, is Bhagavad Gita 101, while putting it into practice requires coming in contact with a person or persons who have some spiritual standing in living by the Gita’s principles. We receive the opportunity to engage in bhakti, or pure devotional service, by keeping company with, serving, and inquiring from someone who has it. The association we keep defines and influences us. Thus, to make spiritual progress we have to be more than armchair philosophers. Instead we must become spiritual practitioners who keep saintly company, and whose transcendent goal guides how, and why, they interact with the world.
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The idea that goodness or what passes as religious morality is still a worldly quality is difficult to grasp since this is what is generally valued about a person or group. Certainly spiritually oriented people should be “good,” or moral, and yet the true purpose of goodness and morality is to lead to loving and serving God. Hearing this we may feel a lack of clarity in our understanding of what service to God is, because there is much confusion as to the nature and qualities of God as distinct from the world and living beings. Actually, the metaphysic of Shri Chaitanya solves many religious and spiritual dilemmas. He taught us that God is simultaneously, inconceivably one and different from the material world and all living beings. This is similar to the idea of Panentheism though more complete, Panentheism is defined as : "The Deity is the inner spiritual essence of everything in the universe, but it exists beyond the universe as well."

Thus, in my experience, I usually hear that serving humanity is serving God, both from our Christian brothers and many Hindus. To say differently may be met with anger or rebuke. In fact there is a saying in India, that “Manava Seva is Madhava Seva” or “The service of humanity is the service to the Lord.” This may sound good, and it is “good,” but is that the end goal of religion? If we only help improve people’s material circumstances without teaching them about the spiritual solution to all problems, our help is limited. Like the old saying that it is better to teach someone to grow food then to merely give them bread. This fact isn’t a vendetta against helping those less fortunate than ourselves, though any help we give should ideally be mixed with spiritual wisdom—to the degree that they can hear it of course. Our main way of spreading spiritual wisdom is to exemplify it ourselves. Example is much more potent than only our words. Compassion for the soul should include compassion for the suffering of souls in the material world. Realized detachment doesn't mean being callous or hard-hearted to another's pain, but it means being fully present in the world with the spiritual wisdom that enables us to not be caught up in material lamentation or drama, by seeing everyone's spiritual potential.

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Part 2
There is another topic regarding happiness I want to end with. I have read many “Success” or personal growth literature that promotes that happiness is possible by becoming materially successful, and success is accomplished by obtaining whatever we intensely desire by following their recommendations for thinking and acting. In my estimation there is benefit to be gained from many of the ideas that are shared in such books if they are used in the practice of our spiritually centered life.

In other words, we can use material laws in the service of God—which is truly what they are intended for. Another plus, is that most of the authors have some type of spiritual or religious underpinnings to their philosophy, or that motivates them. Never the less, their basic premise that accomplishing material goals, or even helping others, can bring fulfillment, is mistaken. It is better to be good than “bad” (even though that may be relative to one’s culture), but better still, is to be striving for transcendence, or to awaken to who we actually are as a soul.

From the Gita's perspective, success teachers are primarily teaching about the mode of passion (rajas) which is centered in intense desire for material acquisition, mixed with some clarity that comes from the mode of goodness (sattva). All the modes are binding unless they lead to spiritual practice and awakening. Their idea is that by obtaining material success or things, happiness can be obtained. While that may be temporarily true, it isn’t in an enduring sense. Material passion and goodness are relatively better than ignorance, yet the spiritual atmosphere is where true bliss and freedom reside.
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For true happiness one needs the illumination of goodness that has the potential to bring one to the spiritual platform. Since real existence is eternal, real happiness is also eternal, and contrastingly, whatever is temporary is by nature unsatisfying, and eventually, miserable. The soul ultimately desires spiritual happiness since that is its food, so to speak. When we can see the limits of the material world, and strive for spiritual perfection, we can obtain the joy of the self.

Although the theory is that anyone can apply success principles, we find that only a small percentage of people actually do. People's karma (or the reactions from their previous lives that create their bodily inclinations and current state of consciousness), determine what they will be attracted to, and what they will be willing to do. We have choice, but that is limited or narrowly channeled according to our attractions coming from these governing influences of the modes. And whatever we achieve is only temporary and ultimately leads to misery and frustration—and so we take another birth to try again. Only the mode of goodness offers the possibility of freedom and real lasting happiness when it fosters spiritual experience. This subject requires deep contemplation, study, and discussion to fully put it into practice. Otherwise, it is merely an interesting idea since what we give our time, effort, and thought to, defines us, and is our future.
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