Tuesday, January 01, 2008

A cost effective path to happiness

I was listening yesterday to an NPR segment on ‘extreme sports.” It described the exploits of a skier - I can’t recall his name - who may have been responsible for coining the term. His feat is was climb to the top of precipitous cliffs in snow covered mountainous regions and ski down them. A single lapse of focus or insurmountable obstacle in his path meant instant death. In justifying this risk-taking, he described the “high” the “total focus” the “adrenalin rush” that this feat produced. And having completed one feat, it was not enough. Like Alexander the Great, he soon felt compelled to seek new worlds to conquer.

Many of us can cite similar, though less dramatic,‘highs,’ They are membered as notable, transient way-stations on a never ending quest for experiences of happiness and fulfillment. I can remember the moment I knew that the best - and most unconventional book - I ever coauthored would be completed. The first time I viewed my first child is another deeply etched, never-to-be forgotten high. First consummating a deep, passionate relationship is another.

In technologically advanced wealthy societies, the quest for happiness has become commodified and commercialized. In America, Christmas Season may be the best example. As the day set aside to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ draws near, merchants, economists and politicians wait anxiously to see whether “consumers” will make the requisite 20 per-cent of the year’s purchases necessary to keep the economy healthy. Expensive hobbies, expensive hotels, expensive vacations all seem to be part of the elusive quest. Expensive watches are featured advertising subjects in the Economist magazine, which I read regularly. Typically, those pictured wearing them are sports stars (Tiger Woods) or handsome, somewhat disdainful young men, escorting beautiful young women in elegant surroundings. Clearly the purpose of these beautifully crafted timepieces is not to tell the time. One only need read the headlines in supermarket checkout tabloids to realize that the quest for happiness of young men and women who look like those is the advertisements is often elusive.

It must be my current exposure to the Dali Lama’s thinking, via his audio book, The Universe in a Single Atom, that keeps bringing Buddhist themes to mind. Lord Buddha’s teaching reminds us that the origin of suffering is attachment, in particular desire, passion and the striving for wealth, fame and popularity. Though the book is not about meditative practice, it reminds readers that meditative practice is an important discipline whose mastery can alleviate suffering and achieve happiness. Buddhist theories of consciousness maintain that our mental states, including suffering and happiness have causes. We can alter our mental states, the theories assert, by mastering the ability to alter their causes.

My beginner’s skills in meditative practice leave much to be desired, but I have learned two lessons. First, they can be put to use almost anywhere. Doctors’ and airport waiting rooms are places where meditations on breathing and single-pointedness seem particularly appropriate. Second, they require little in the way of commercially traded paraphernalia. I do use a standard issue candle, candle holder and small stone Buddha statue in my apartment. Total cost, less than $15. In waiting rooms, no paraphernalia is needed (though a set of ear plugs can be helpful).

Meditative practice may not be the only path to happiness - there is always, yachting, costly vacations, first class travel, expensive watches, and extreme sports. My purpose is not to denigrate these pursuits, but only to suggest an alternative if funds are limited or the satisfactions those options produce turn out to be transient.

Labels: , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home