The Pursuit of Happiness

The Pursuit of Happiness

Rector, Rajghat Education Centre, Krishnamurti Foundation India, Varanasi 221001, India

(Based on a talk delivered at the Krotona School of Theosophy, Ojai, California on May 17, 1994)

I am thankful to the Theosophical Society of the Ojai Valley for inviting me to speak this evening on a question that has puzzled man from times immemorial. The ancient texts of every religion talk of man’s pursuit of happiness, and it has been man’s endeavour to come upon it. But it is quite clear that, barring a few unique individuals, like the Buddha, or the Christ, or in more recent times, people like Ramana Maharshi, or Krishnamurti, the vast majority of us have really not been able to come upon what can be called true happiness. Therefore, this evening I would like to examine this question of, why happiness is so elusive ? Why in spite of thousands of years of effort of different religions that have been founded to find peace and happiness, it continues to elude man ?

Let me start from first principles. That means without assuming any prior knowledge, and without referring to other people’s opinions. To start an investigation from first principles, one must begin with observation. So I observe what is going on around me, and I notice that everyone is making tremendous efforts to achieve something or the other. The businessman wants to build his factory; the scholar wants to write his book; the student is struggling to complete his exams and get a degree; and the religious man is busy with yogic practices of meditation, austerity, self-denial, brahmacharya and so on. Each one, in his own way, is seeking fulfillment of his own ambition, whether he is a student, a religious man, or a businessman. One thing common to all of them is that they are seeking, and they think that when they achieve their heart’s desire they will find happiness at the end of it. Why then do we not come upon happiness ? If happiness can be posited in the future, and worked for, and achieved, then why have we not been able to achieve it ? Surely, if I’m seeking happiness, it means that I am not happy. I wonder if human beings would have instituted religions and all the religious practices, if they had come upon happiness; whether a human being who lives with joy, with happiness, is at all concerned about any religious practices whatsoever ? So in a sense, all that has also been evolved in order to seek happiness of the spirit. The very fact that we are seeking it indicates to me that we don’t have it, because you don’t seek something that you already have !

Why don’t we have it ? Again, as I look around, I see that people live in very different circumstances. But every human being stands on a line between the pleasures and the experiences to which he has access, and those which lie beyond the line, to which he does not have access. This is true of the poor man; this is true of the rich man; this it true of the President of the United States; and it’s true of the gardener around the corner. Every human being has a certain amount of property, a certain amount of money, knowledge, good health, a number of things. And then beyond that line are things which he doesn’t have. It’s also true of intellectual things. He might have a B.A. degree, and wants to work towards an M.A. degree, or a Ph. D. degree. Wherever he is, there is still more to be had. And he thinks that by pushing that line, and having access to some of the things that are beyond that line, he will find happiness, he will come upon joy and peace of mind. But, whichever line he may be standing at, aren’t there still going to be things beyond that ? A rich man may stand at a line which is farther down the road of acquisition, but there are always things beyond that line, and he’s still desiring those things. And the same is true of the poor man, and the ignorant man, and the learned man. So does pushing that line bring him any closer to happiness, or is happiness independent of the line he is standing at ? Perhaps it depends upon how he looks across that line and not which particular line he is standing at. Of course one may have access to a greater number of pleasures, one might have a greater amount of comfort, or a greater amount of knowledge, but you are still at a line, and across that line are those things which you don’t have. And so long as you are seeking what is beyond that line – whatever line you are standing at – there is desire. And so long as there is desire, either it will be fulfilled, or it will not be fulfilled. If it is not fulfilled, there is frustration, which destroys happiness. If it is fulfilled, for a time being there is a release of tensions. You were trying to achieve something, and you achieved it. For a time being there is the joy of having experienced success. So now you have one more thing on this side of the line, and you have pushed the line a little further. But there are still things across that line, and for the same reason for which desire was born when you were at the previous line, it’s born again when you are at the next line. And when desire is born, the need to fulfill that desire comes along with it. So one is again, faced with the same problem: either frustration or fulfillment followed by boredom, and this is an endless chain.

So, is happiness only to be had temporarily, at moments of fulfillment, and the rest of the time it is inevitable that one must struggle and live in conflict ? And fulfillments are so few and far between; a lot of times one comes across frustration. This seems inevitable so long as I am using the present to secure happiness in the future, using today as a passage for happiness next year. But this year was the future of last year, and last year was spent similarly, working for happiness in this year. Similarly a year later, the next year would be the present, and there would still be another year ahead. So I notice that it’s a little like a dog chasing his tail. As long as I posit happiness in the future, and use the present to seek satisfaction, to seek fulfillment, to bring me to that happiness in the future, the future continuously recedes. One can go on this way, until the day of death. After that, I don’t know if there is a future !!

Seeing this vicious circle, I say to myself, there is no release in this. It’s not possible to come upon happiness that way; it’s a kind of dead-end. Bernard Shaw put it in his inimitable way. He said, “There are two great tragedies in life: One is not to get your heart’s desire, and the other is to get it !” Because when you get it there is stagnation. All the drive, the activity, everything has ended and there is stagnation until a new desire is born. And when it is born, you are back in the same circle.

So, I ask myself, am I approaching this whole thing wrongly ? Is it possible that happiness does not lie in the future at all ? It’s either now or never. That means there isn’t such thing as becoming happy. There is only such a thing as being happy. If that is so, then all this effort at becoming is a waste of time and energy. And I must find out why I am not happy now. Which is the same thing as saying that happiness does not lie in circumstances. It appears to us that it lies in circumstances, but it does not lie in circumstances. May be it’s something within, and so long as I am not looking at life rightly, so long as my outlook is not right, I don’t come upon it. It appears to me that the problem is out there, but it may be really inside me.

So I ask myself, is the problem inside me ? If I can’t become happy through effort, then I have no time, so there is an urgency. Either I must be happy now, must come upon it now or I will never come upon it. Time does mot help me. So I must ask myself why am I not happy ? After all, I have a whole lot of things and pleasures – especially the pleasures which one can’t buy – which all of us human beings, rich or poor, have. I am talking of pleasures of friendship, of affection, of the beauty of nature, of the smiles of children, of good health, of just being able to go for a walk. None of these require money, and we all have access to them. Why have I become dissatisfied with what I have ? Is it because I am bored with what I have ? Then I must find out what is boredom. Why am I bored with what I have ? So I look around in my own life, and I watch others. I see that when I first learned to bicycle, there was a great thrill, a great joy in it. But after six months, the bicycle was lying there, and when my mother sent me for an errand, I said, “Uh, I don’t feel like it.” The thrill was gone, I was bored. So I was seeking something more, something new. I was bored with what I already had. I notice that a young man chases a woman, seeks her, solicits her, falls in love with her, cares for her, is tender and affectionate, and all that. Then he marries her, and after that boredom sets in. And I find that after a few years, he is seeking something on the side; he’s no longer satisfied with what he has.

So I must find out what is boredom. Why are we bored ? It seems a great tragedy in life that every new experience thrills us, but after a while we become insensitive to it. If you build a house on the seaside, you are thrilled by the beauty of the sea. But after you have lived there for a month, you don’t want to look at the sea anymore, you want to go to the town. And the people in the town want to go to the seaside all the time. So there is this constant desire for change, for something new to happen. Why do we become insensitive ? Boredom is insensitivity. Why do we become insensitive to something that we already have; to our house, to the sunrise, to the sunset, to the hills out there ?

Why do I become insensitive ? Is it because I don’t pay attention? Is it because I don’t really care ? And why don’t I care ? I cared jolly well when I was pursuing my lady friend. But why don’t I care now ? Because there is a new object of desire, a new ambition. The mind is chasing another object across the line. And when it gets that object, that object will come on this side of the line. And then I’ll become insensitive to it too, I’ll be bored with it for the same reason I’m bored with everything else. That’s the experience of each one of us. That when we are sick and lying in hospital for a month, we pray to God and say, “I don’t want anything, just give me the ability to walk on that road.” But when we have health, when we have the ability to walk on the road, we neglect it, we ignore it, we don’t value it; it’s just there, we take it for granted.

Why ? Is it because my mind is so busy seeking something new that it has no time to attend to what I already have? And because I don’t pay attention to it, therefore I lose my sensitivity to it ? So it’s another vicious circle. Because I’m ambitious, because I think the things across the line are more important than on this side of the line, my attention is always riveted on them, on the desire to acquire them. And so long as my attention is riveted there, I neglect this, I don’t look at this. I say it’s already there, I’ll look at it tomorrow. I already have that picture in my drawing room, I want to get the one that isn’t there in my possession. So this quest for the new, for the accumulation of the more, for the pleasure which I don’t have is itself responsible for the insensitivity; which is responsible for the boredom; which is responsible for seeking thrills. And the entire entertainment industry makes money on us, because we are caught in this circle. They know we are bored human beings; they offer us an easy escape. But that’s just an escape. I can escape into pleasure. But is pleasure the same thing as happiness ? When that pleasure is over, I’m either tired, or bored with it. So it’s back to square one. And this goes on day after day. Is the problem with pleasure ? One of the factors that has been advocated in several religions is to cut out pleasure, because pleasure creates desire. Desire gets you into this endless cycle of frustration and boredom ,so they say cut out pleasure. Can I cut out pleasure ? I look at the sky, it gives me pleasure. If I meet a friend, it gives me pleasure. If I see a tree in bloom, it gives me pleasure. If I eat good food, it gives me pleasure. What does it mean, “Cut out pleasure”? They say, “Don’t look at a woman, because it creates desire.” But that’s like cutting away my senses. If I carry it to its logical conclusion, I must invite physical death, because then there is no pleasure. That seems so unnatural, like throwing away the baby with the bath water. So I ask myself, is there a different way to relate to pleasure, or must pleasure inevitably create desire ? And must desire inevitably be fulfilled ? Is it pleasure that creates the problem, or my craving for it, my desire to repeat it, my desire to ensure that it will always be there ?

So I ask myself, is it possible to relate to everything in life – to all my pleasures, to all my friends, everything around me – without craving, without possessing, without dependence ? Is it possible to make my happiness independent of the circumstances – not insist that I must have this pleasure, or that pleasure ? Accept life as it unfolds; cherish it, experience the joy of it without choosing and measuring, and wanting the `more’. Is that possible – to relate in that way ? Otherwise, I want the `more’, I want to possess, I want to acquire; and I am caught in the cycle. I have already examined that cycle. I have said it is an endless cycle in which the mind gets caught. Which means, is it possible not to be dissatisfied with the present; not to act out of dissatisfaction ? We tend to act out of dissatisfaction. We are dissatisfied with what we have , or with the circumstances in our house. And out of that dissatisfaction, I posit what would create satisfaction and I work for it. That is what produces ambition, that is what produces desire. And I am back into that cycle, the rat-race of achievement. So is it possible to relate and to act, and to experience pleasure as well as pain without this constant demand from my own side for maximizing the pleasure and minimizing the pain ? So I must ask myself what gives rise to that demand ? Why do I seek satisfaction ? What creates dissatisfaction ? When you examine that, you will find that the mind compares, it evaluates, measures its present state; compares it with something imaginary which it has projected, or with its neighbour. And out of that comparison, dissatisfaction is born.

Suppose I ask myself the question ‘Am I fortunate in life, or am I unfortunate?’ I look at my own life, my home, my wife and children, my job – as it is – and I ask myself, am I satisfied or am I dissatisfied ? How do I answer that question ? How does my mind approach that question ? It has to have a scale with which to measure. How does it choose that scale ? I compare with my friend, or my neighbour, or my colleague in the office. And in comparison I say, “He has got more, I have less; he is fortunate,” and therefore, a feeling of being unfortunate is born. The desire to overcome that, to become fortunate is born out of that and I am back in that cycle of desire. It begins with comparison, and I myself choose what to compare with. I could compare with someone who is much more unfortunate than I – or so I think because he has fewer things, less of the pleasures which I am seeking – and therefore, I can feel I am very fortunate. Or I can compare with someone who has more of it, and feel I am unfortunate. So, to feel fortunate or unfortunate is entirely in my hands. It is a game my own mind plays; it chooses the scale; it chooses who to compare with; it makes the measurement, it stands in judgment; and it passes me, or fails me.

So I see that it’s all relative and this feeling of self-pity, this feeling of misery is something that my own mind creates. And if I am observant, I also notice that many people who have much less sometimes live with greater joy, more happiness. So I ask myself, “Is it that my mind is creating these problems ? That the happiness is really not born out of the circumstances at all ? ” May be it lies in the way I am viewing those circumstances. May be it is destroyed by the disease of comparison from which we human beings seem to suffer. We have never examined it very carefully, because we have been encouraged right from childhood, through our process of education to compare with ideals and compare with our neighbour, compare all the time. The animal doesn’t measure, doesn’t compare. He looks for food; either he gets it and enjoys eating it, or he doesn’t get it and suffers the pangs of hunger. But having got it, he doesn’t say, “The other one got more,” or ” I got it later.” The sense of injustice, of comparison is entirely our own making. I make that for myself. So I create my own misery, and then I say I am unhappy, and I seek happiness.

You need measurement when you have to construct a bridge. You need measurement to do a scientific experiment. But do you need measurement in order to become happy ? Is there any such thing as becoming happy ? Or, measurement and comparison have no validity whatsoever in this field ? There is only `me’ experiencing joy; no holding on. It’s the holding on to that joy, the desire for repetition of the pleasure which creates dependence, which creates the craving; which starts the conflict and destroys happiness. So, is it possible to free the mind of all measurement, all comparison in this psychological area ? Use it for driving the car, for planning our life, but not use it all in order to become happy ? In this field of religion, measurement has no value. I don’t know, but maybe that’s what Christ might have meant when he said, “Judge not others lest ye be judged.” Because to judge needs measurement, needs comparison.

So I must understand all this. If one doesn’t understand all this, one lives with illusion – the illusion that happiness lies in the future; the illusion that happiness can be pursued and worked for. We have assumed that but it may be an illusion. We must examine it, find out if it is an illusion. If the mind sees very clearly that it is an illusion, then the illusion drops away. There is no other way to end illusion. You can’t get rid of it by creating a bigger illusion. But if one observes, if one examines with a passion for the truth, with a view to understand oneself, then – as a by-product of that understanding – one relates rightly with life, with objects, with people. Then there is no desire to exploit, to get something for oneself. Then there is freedom from desire, from the craving for pleasure, and the consequent dependence.

I would like to end by stating, that it seems to me that happiness is denied if it is pursued. Please do not accept it, do question it, look at it, doubt it, don’t take this as a conclusion.

Maybe we can have some questions now.

Question : I’m very materialistic, so how can I rise above the physical and become more spiritual ?

Answer : I don’t think there is a tremendous difference between a spiritual desire and a material desire. It’s not the object of desire which makes the difference, but the understanding of desire itself. Even if you desire enlightenment, as religious people often do, it’s the same process. You desire it, you want to work towards it, and you are looking upon it as an achievement: therefore there will be either frustration, or the illusion of fulfillment. If there is fulfillment, there is stagnation, and a new desire must be born in order to awaken us from that stagnation. If you approach it that way it becomes an object of desire, then there is an obsession with the fulfillment of desire, so it is not freedom from desire. I am not saying that there must not be desire — desire may be natural. But when I identify with my desire, and say it must be fulfilled, that entity which identifies with it and says it must be fulfilled, is creating the problem. So I must find out whether it is possible to relate with desire differently. If it can be fulfilled without violence, without harm to anybody, one does not object to its fulfillment; but if it cannot be so fulfilled can I just let it go, and that is all right too ! Question : It is wrong to feel desire all the time, but will isn’t strong enough; so what can we do when we are overwhelmed by desire ?

Answer : It overwhelms us because have not looked at it, we haven’t understood it. Your statement that it is wrong to feel that desire may be another judgment of a mind which is confused, which doesn’t really understand. Therefore that statement does nothing to help us. So what one needs is clarity, and clarity comes in examining that, not condemning it, not saying it is wrong. Can I notice things in myself because they are there ? To condemn myself is just as stupid as to condemn another human being. But our religion has taught us to condemn ourselves, to feel guilty. I question whether that helps. Because behind that is still the feeling that if you are guilty, and you exercise your will power, and you suppress yourself, it will prevent evil from emerging. But that is the way of conflict, because I have not really understood and eliminated the evil, the evil being ignorance. Ignorance is the source of conflict, of evil in us; whether it is violence, whether it is envy, whether it is jealousy, it is all born of ignorance. Not ignorance as lack of knowledge, but as lack of understanding, as lack of clarity. We don’t see how it is happening in us, and how we are ourselves creating it. If we see how it operates, it will drop away, but not by suppressing it. One is just being violent with oneself in suppressing it. So to suppress a desire is not to understand it. And then once you win over it, you must win over it everyday, because it will arise again tomorrow, for the same reason it arose today, so the whole of life becomes a battlefield. That’s not the way to go after it. Not to judge it and say, “This is wrong, that is right; I will suppress the wrong, and I will cultivate the right.” You can’t do it that way. That’s the way of conflict. That’s only control. It won’t change anything within our consciousness. It will only control the outer manifestation of the disorder that is there within. But disorder doesn’t end by disciplining it, by my forcing it. It ends on seeing the truth. And to find out the truth we must look at it, observe it. To observe it closely one must have affection also for oneself. You must be a friend to yourself, not condemn yourself. Then there is a possibility of seeing how it operates. And out of that seeing the false drops away.

Question : In a deep sense isn’t being also a form of becoming?

Answer : The questioner says that in some sense, being is becoming.

Sir, if you mean by being, that I am myself – and in that process I look at myself; and as I look at myself, I understand what all goes on inside me; and that brings a certain self-knowledge, a certain understanding, which brings change in my consciousness; and therefore that is equivalent to becoming – then I understand. But if you are exercising your will and making an effort to achieve, then you have already decided what you should be and in that direction you make the effort. If a confused mind, which is not clear, is first projecting what should be, and then forcing itself to be like that; then it won’t come upon it. It will only create a division between what it is, and what it wants to be. And in this division there is constant struggle, to be different from what one is. And that struggle sustains the ego. In that there is achievement, there is failure, there is shame, there is guilt, there is pride – the whole gamut of it. So, one gets caught in this whole circus back again. So can I watch myself, without condemnation or justification, merely as one watches something that one cares for, that one loves, that one wants to look at and understand ? Like you watch a pet you have affection for — you want to understand what is right for your cat, what food it likes, so you watch it. If you can watch yourself in that way, it will reveal the whole story of what goes on inside you. And from that comes clarity, and that clarity clears up the illusion. You can’t get rid of the illusion by effort. There is the effort of looking, but not the effort of projecting an ideal and then working towards that ideal. That becomes a process of achievement and desire. Whether it’s in the field of business, or in the religious field, it has the same effect.

Question : Can we not be happy and still become something ?

Answer : Yes sir, if you mean by that, be happy first and then relate with everything in life, I would accept that. Because if you think that you can do something, and get to happiness, that’s an illusion; and you have to see through that illusion. When you see through that illusion, then you know that happiness can’t be procured; so you don’t posit it in the future – it cannot be secured in the future. So one must be happy first and then relate. Then you will see that life takes on a very different view. Because then one is not doing what one is doing in order to become happy. Then you are happy, and doing what you are doing. The two mental states are very different. I can illustrate that with an example. Suppose you want to apply for a job, and you are really eager to get it. You feel nervous, you are afraid that you won’t get it, and worried what will happen if you don’t get it. So when you are interviewed, you cut a sorry figure because you are so nervous. And it spoils your chances of getting it. But if you are independent of it, if you say to yourself, “I am going to meet those people, I’m going to find out if that is right for me. If I like it I’ll do it, otherwise I won’t do it; and it doesn’t matter very much if I don’t get that job; I’ll try something else in life.” Then the whole approach is different although you still apply for the job, you still go for the interview, and you meet those people. But now you are not going with anxiety. Now you are going with joy, and you can conduct yourself very differently. Your whole capacity is lowered due to anxiety, due to unhappiness. So when I am unhappy I become irritable, I become small, I become anxious; I’m not generous, I’m not large-hearted; all the other consequences follow out of it.

So can I be happy first – not put conditions on happiness, not say I’ll be happy if my wife smiles at me, if my boss gives me a promotion, if the weather is good tomorrow, if I have no sickness – then I shall smile ! If you put so many conditions on your smile, I can tell you now that you won’t smile very much. So we must learn to smile unconditionally. Make your smile unconditional and then face life as it comes. Then there may be difficulty, but it’s not a problem. Our mind turns a difficulty into a problem, and one must understand this mechanism which is purely in our approach. If there is a certain difficulty – I want to build a school, I need money for it, and so I have to work for it; that is a difficulty. But if I create a problem out of it, I create anxiety out of it, and that anxiety prevents me from functioning skillfully.

So when I see the truth of this – not only through argument, but in my daily life, when it is actually happening then if I see that such an approach is nonsensical, it’s a poison, it corrupts my life and you feel it intensely, then it drops away. Because the mind-body system has its own intelligence. When something is perceived very clearly then that intelligence acts. Not your will; that intelligence acts, and tells you not to do something. For example you don’t get the desire to walk off a cliff. That intelligence is there in the body-mind system, to prevent you from walking off the cliff. That same intelligence has to be brought into everyday life. But that needs a lot of examination, a lot of self-knowledge, inquiry, unlearning. And we have no time for all this, because we say, I must work on my computer, I must do my job, I need my promotion, I have no time for this – I’ll do this in the evening when we go to the Theosophical Society ! It won’t come like that, on the side.

Question : Is it not natural to experience pleasure, joy ?

Answer : That’s precisely what we are saying. Live through that joy, and let it pass, too. Otherwise what happens is that thought, having experienced joy, creates a memory of it. And then it says, “I wish I could have it again,” and so desire is born. From that the addiction to pleasure is born, and then it turns into a problem. But in the experiencing of joy there is only the sensing of beauty, and then you can let is pass; you don’t hold on to it. William Blake put it very beautifully :


One who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But one who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sunrise.

Thank you Sirs. Let us end it here.

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