Ending the Pursuit of Happiness, part 2

When Thomas Jefferson imbibed John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689), and summarized Locke’s philosophy in this country’s foundational document, The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson made one crucial emendation. John Locke had said that people have inalienable rights – rights based in a foundation independent of the laws of any particular society – and Locke listed these rights as life, liberty, and property. Jefferson’s tweak was to say that all are endowed with “certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” -- replacing "property" with "pursuit of happiness."

I appreciate Jefferson’s impulse to dig a little deeper, to ask, what is property for, and to point instead to the purpose of having property at all. That purpose is to facilitate the pursuit of happiness, which is a purpose one may well choose to pursue without much property. But this pursuit of happiness idea has been interpreted as pursuit of instant gratification of desires – when what Jefferson had more in mind, we know from his letters, was limiting desires, cultivating friendships, and rejoicing in the moment.

If Jefferson had said instead that governments are instituted among people to secure the rights to life, liberty, and the means to construct for themselves the meaningful life to which they are called, he’d have avoided the implication that every unhappiness was a bad thing, that the purpose of life was to chase away every dissatisfaction. If, instead of “pursuit of happiness,” he had spoken of the means to construct a meaningful life, then he’d have better said what his letters make clear he had in mind.

* * *
After almost twenty years of starting up and leading Zen meditation groups -- in El Paso, Texas; Gainesville, Florida; and White Plains, New York -- I have a pretty good idea of the range of reasons people come to meditation. After a lifetime of being part of Unitarian Universalist congregations – and 17 years as a UU minister – I have to say that people coming to congregational life seem to have a wider range of reasons – and any given person is likely to have a number of them.

In Western Society, Zen is the newfangled thing that appears to offer a fix that ordinary American churches and synagogues don’t. Offer a fix. Most people that walk into a Zen center have an idea that something is wrong with them, and Zen might fix it. This talk they’ve heard about "enlightenment" sounds like just what they could use some of to straighten out what’s wrong with their life. If their Zen teacher is any good, or if they just read around much in the Zen section of the bookstore, they will be instructed that
“the life we’re already leading – this ordinary day-to-day life of ours is not the problem but, somehow, already the solution we’re looking for.” (Barry Magid, Ending the Pursuit of Happiness: A Zen Guide xiii)
But curative fantasy dies hard. Fantasies of being cured and brought into some model of a perfect life tend to persist. A curative fantasy, explains Barry Magid,
“is a personal myth that we use to explain what we think is wrong with us and our lives and what we imagine is going to make it all better.”
In this country, churches and synagogues have much deeper cultural roots than Zen centers, so in congregational life there tends to be a little less of the impulse to get fixed and a little more implicit understanding that attending and participating is not something that makes you special, or cured, but is simply a constituent of ordinary day-to-day life.

Congregational life appears to be fading from the cultural scene in the West, and increasing portions of what’s left of it are dominated by mega-churches purveying some curative fantasy of their own. Nevertheless, our culture still retains a wonderful sense of congregational life as simply an ordinary part of an ordinary life, an arena for making meaning and engaging in work that is real. Make some friends, and reflect a little bit about values and meaning – not because that will make you better, but because that’s how you be what you already are. Not that what you are is ever static.

Congregations are for making connections, having a community, learning things together, and doing some things together to ease a bit the world’s harshness. If Zen and meditation groups stick around for another couple generations, they will gradually move from the cultural space of
that place to get something called enlightenment, or bliss, or inner peace,
and move into the same cultural space that congregations have occupied when they aren’t devoted to curative fantasies:
one of the places where you play out the meaning of your life.
Zen Centers will then be understood, by members and outsiders alike, as churches and synagogues are understood: an ordinary part of an ordinary life -- a community within which to gradually age out of the genius of our youth and into the sagacity of our maturity and finally into the gentleness of our senescence. What could be more ordinary?

Unhappiness is not a disease from which we are suffering and of which we need to be cured. Depression needs to be addressed (whether at the individual level, or the family and friends level, or the social policy level), but simple unhappiness is just a part of the ebb and flow of an ordinary, full life – a way of calling our attention to the next challenge to bite off.

Meaninglessness needs to be addressed (at all appropriate levels), because we need meaning in our lives a lot more than we need happiness. If your life has meaning, you can put up with a lot of unhappiness. If your life has meaning, then unhappiness can take the form of purpose and drive.

Joyful creativity is urged on by an edge of dissatisfaction pushing us forward. Where life has meaning, we may even speak of the "joy of unhappiness" – an enjoyment of ongoing engagement with our very dissatisfaction. After all, to enjoy the fun of problem-solving – or just problem addressing -- requires having problems that feel meaningful.

So meaninglessness needs to be addressed. And isolation and alienation need to be addressed (at all appropriate levels), for those are the cousins of meaninglessness. But you don’t need to be happy all the time. If you are, fine. If you’re not, also fine.

Happiness works better as something you look back and notice has been with you as you were living out a life of meaning, rather than as something to chase after.

There’s a Zen verse that goes:
“Caught in a self-centered dream – only suffering.
Holding to self-centered thoughts – exactly the dream.
Each moment life as it is – the only teacher.
Being just this moment – compassion’s way.”
It’s not the dream that’s the problem. Humility should remind us that we don’t know reality – that our perceptions are inherently distorted by the bias machine that is our brain. So in some sense, it’s all a dream. But a self-centered dream only makes for suffering. The self-centered dream pushes against the world – to wrest our desires from a world that seems intent on withholding them. Instead, the meaningful work works with the flow of the world – as Piercy’s poem described it: “moving in a common rhythm” as “when the food must come in or the fire be put out.” We add our work to the current, rather than against the current. We don’t have to paddle upstream – but we do have to add our energy to assist in and be part of the "common rhythm."

So there’s another verse that isn’t from the Zen tradition – that every one of you, I think, knows and has known since childhood – and it is this verse I leave you with:
Row. Row. Row your boat.
Gently – down the stream.
Merrily. Merrily. Merrily. Merrily.
Life IS but a dream.
Blessed be and Amen.

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