Most people are led to believe, at a very young age, that happiness comes from satisfying their desires. A thought of craving comes up, you then react by trying to satisfy that desire, and its consummation gives rise to a pleasurable sensation, which we often associate with happiness.
Take for instance, Sunny, a restless, hyperactive young boy heading home in his mom’s minivan after soccer practice. They pass by a park and Sunny sees some children eating ice cream. Sunny immediately gives rise to the thought of how refreshing a double scoop of ice cream would be in this scorching summer heat. He begins to arouse a desire. His craving is finally satisfied when his mother gives in to his incessant whining. When Sunny takes that first bite into frosty wonderland, his whole body is soothed and he feels completely at ease with himself. Sunny is very happy at this moment, until his attention is hitched by a group of young teens performing tantalizing acrobatics on their undersized BMX bikes.
Sunny, like many others including even adults and seniors, are falling into the trap of associating happiness with the satisfaction of their cravings. In fact, what we often take to be pleasurable, the pursuit of material possessions, sexual gratification, money, power and status are actually what lead to our habitual suffering and dissatisfaction with life. We make our happiness dependent upon the existence of external conditions, which we unconsciously set for ourselves the moment we first experience emotional craving. When the conditions are present, we feel happy. When they do not show up in the here and now or are taken away from us, we suffer. Subsequently, our life becomes much like a pendulum, swinging back and forth from the extremes of pleasure and pain.
The Buddha, 2600 years ago, discovered this inherent human problem of craving, which he attributed as the cause for our suffering. Through morality and deep introspective contemplation, he found a solution to the problem of suffering, which by nature of its self-sustaining force, leads to countless rounds of birth and death. The Buddha ultimately transcended this vicious cycle of birth and death, also known as Samsara, through the practice of the eight-fold path. The eight elements comprising this path can be categorized into three key steps: morality, samadhi and prajna. Morality refers to the ethical principles that stop us from creating negative karmic energies. It is the foundation upon which all Buddhist practice is built on. Samadhi, also known as calm-abiding, is the stillness of mind that is the prerequisite for developing wisdom. Only when our mind is still do we begin to see things clearly, much like how we are able to see what lies under a lake only when its water is still. Prajna, like Samadhi, is a Sanskrit term, meaning wisdom. This is the wisdom that penetrates through the delusions of our suffering and releases us from the shackles of Samsara and into the pure bliss of Nirvana.
The path to true happiness can only come from first changing our common misconception about where happiness really comes from. Contrary to popular belief, it does not come from the satisfactory alignment of external conditions. External circumstances are always subject to change and are not within our control. They are the karmic threads that weave the fabric of our human experience. We have no say over the circumstances we face in the present moment as they merely reflect the results of our past actions. What we do have control over, though, is our response to the circumstances that befall us. The Buddha taught us to withdraw our attention from the external world of sensory desires to a deeper realm within that is perfectly still, perfectly peaceful and perfectly happy. Through the practice of the noble eight-fold path, we can learn to tap into the spring of our inner wisdom and unleash the limitless flow of true happiness that lies deep within all of us.