In Search of Happiness: Relative and Absolute Solutions
This article was originally published in Russian on December 29, 2014, in Eros and Kosmos magazine. This is a slightly corrected version.
Many clients come to mindfulness instructors searching for a little more peace, centeredness, wholeness, and happiness, as well as balance in life. This is what the practice of mindfulness meditation provides, according to modern research and thousands of years of tradition.
Helping people find a little more peace and harmony in their lives brings me a lot of joy, and I know that mindfulness techniques really work. However, I try to keep in mind that peace, centeredness, and happiness mean something very different in today’s non-religious meditation practice than they do in religious contemplative traditions.
First of all, in the modern secular tradition of meditation (which claims to have discarded all the 'mythical baggage' of traditional religions), there is a certain 'sleight of hand' in play, where the features and (side)effects of meditation replace its original goals, and become its new 'secularized' goals.
Meditation was designed for no other purpose than the complete and radical transformation of our consciousness to achieve liberation from the fundamental anxiety caused by the imaginary limitations of our 'self'.
In some traditions, this is achieved through insight into the illusory nature of the "self", and in others, through the realization of Oneness of the 'self' and God, and so on. For thousands of years, no one has practiced meditation to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease or to optimize their work processes.
I don’t want to say that some goals are necessarily better than others, and that we cannot practice mindfulness to achieve more 'mundane' goals. After all, the client's goals set the direction of my work, and when the client does not understand their goals and values, the therapist/coach helps the client to clarify these goals. Meditation, like any other self-exploration tool, can serve a variety of purposes.
Nevertheless, many neuropsychologists (as well as teachers of spiritual traditions) have recently expressed concerns that dozens of books and thousands of studies are now giving or even selling an overly positive and simplistic view of meditation. For example, the idea that a simple exercise of concentration on the breath can help you get more peace and focus in your life, more vivid sensations, less "radio" in your head... And indeed, meditation practitioners get similar effects. In fact, that's exactly what I recommend to many clients! And yet, some of these effects can probably be obtained from regular trips out of town or by changing a diet.
How is the practice of formal meditation (say, sitting quietly with eyes closed) different from a trip out of town? For the most part, the difference is only in the purpose. We go out of town for something: to unwind, to get some fresh air, to see something new and interesting. Perhaps to fill life with new experiences, or to switch from routine, or for better health.
Ultimately, I suppose, in order to have more pleasure and fun. Motivation for any activity, any life, in general, comes down, eventually, to a desire for pleasure, peace, interest, or happiness.
And if so, then desires for happiness, pleasure, and peace are, in fact, our fundamental desires, our deepest desires. There is also the motivation of efficiency and achievement, but if we deconstruct them with a simple "why?", it turns out that the desire for efficiency and achievement is related to discomfort due to their absence. In other words, the subjective feeling of efficiency and achievement (and these things are always subjective!!) still leads to a state of satisfaction, happiness, and peace.
However, anything that gives us joy, pleasure, and peace in our human lives is temporary. No matter how delicious my meal was, in a couple of hours, I will want to eat again; no matter how well I spent my vacation, I will get sucked back into the routine; no matter how amazing the project I just completed is, I am already looking for something new to do; no matter how good yesterday was, today I am arguing with my beloved again... All these are relative, temporary measures, pushing us again and again to find temporary means that give us relative pleasure and peace. And this is neither bad nor good; it is simply our human situation, in which the only absolute is that at some point our life will end in death. And in the face of this absolute, does it matter how many times I've had a good meal? How happily or sadly I’ve lived? How much money I have accumulated in my account?
This is where spiritual contemplative practice enters the stage, and it declares something quite amazing: that the realization of absolute happiness, pleasure, and peace is possible. It is possible not just to "reconcile" with one's mortality from the position of the limited little human being but to realize death as part of life, to realize oneself as an integral part of life and death, to realize oneself as their complete and absolute embodiment, to recognize oneself not only in life and death but also outside of them altogether.
And this is what distinguishes spirituality for me from any other areas of human rational activity. Its goal, unlike any "worldly" affairs, is the absolute, not the relative. The timeless, not the temporary. The practice of mindfulness, the practice of meditation, has always been a simple tool in the service of such spirituality.
There have been many spiritual traditions in human history that have chosen the absolute, denying the mundane, denying life with its temporal pleasures and personal meanings; they have extolled asceticism. And of course, that's not what I am writing about here.
As I see it, it is in our human nature to reduce everything to simple but temporary pleasures. This includes the fact that our planning horizons usually do not take into account the imminent and absolute nature of death. Death is much more abstract than the real feeling of satiety or joy from a new plasma TV. Both spirituality and meditation have not escaped the same simplification - substitution of absolute for relative. As a result, meditation helps to increase immunity and reduce nervousness, forgetting its basic question: "Why?" In the face of absolute death, what is the subjective line between my happiness and suffering? How satisfactory is that line? Can it even be satisfactory until I solve the basic riddle - how I am born and die in each new second? And can it be solved at all?
The practice of mindfulness answers these questions.
It does not skew towards the absolute, since its only task is to continually observe the relative, to constantly observe everything that our attention highlights: sounds and smells, bodily sensations and emotions, thoughts and images, states and judgments... And yes, it makes it possible to experience more joy and happiness, to perceive life more vividly and fully. But all these temporary experiences of joy and happiness, even if they are more "pure" than the pleasure of a delicious hamburger or vegan pizza, start making relative sense only in the context of the absolute.
This is also what the incessant practice of mindfulness contributes to. It begins to show any phenomena as they actually appear to our consciousness before we impose our personal meanings on them.
And it begins to reveal the source of all phenomena – where everything comes from and where everything goes.
First, it makes us witnesses to every second of life-death, then participants and a part of this life-death, and then — that life-death itself, which incarnates and dies as our body and consciousness hundreds of times every moment.
Nothing makes sense without revealing and realizing the absolute in the relative. I mean, it does, of course, but the meanings are temporary and ultimately unsatisfying. This is the essence of spirituality as I see it, and this is what modern "militant atheists" fail to understand. Spirituality is not a set of mythical beliefs and unscientific convictions. It is the practice of discovering the absolute and realizing it in the relative. The practice of fulfilling walks in the woods, eating pizza, and loving your neighbour with absolute meaning, when each such action becomes the most complete and perfect expression of life-death in all its beauty.
And the fact that in doing so (or on our way to it), we find a little more joy in life, a little more peace, a little more beauty, is a pleasant side effect. As well as the fact that meditation helps us to sleep better, to overeat less, and to fight less with our loved ones.
Another important point I mentioned at the beginning is that many modern studies of mindfulness practices put it in an extremely positive light; and indeed, there are many positive effects! However, these effects are usually measured after the standard 8-week MBSR program, which is the most researched. And yes, if you practice meditation to lower your cholesterol (and I have nothing against that!), then it is possible that you will notice linear positive changes. But if you practice daily and regularly, then you know that the dynamics of change are not at all as linear and positive as one would like them to be. Indeed, with each week, you may find more happiness and more peace, but you may also find difficulties and hindrances, emotional lows, and so on, but we'll leave that for another article.