key to happiness

impermanence keri smith flickr

image: Keri Smith

People often stop me on the street and ask me what the key to all my happiness is. No, they don’t. But if they did, I would tell them: Impermanence. The idea, the truth really, that nothing lasts. Buddhism teaches us that all our human suffering is caused by our constantly chasing after things that don’t last. Relationships, feelings, thoughts, ideas, music, gastric pleasures, tropical vacations, our pets, even our lives.

This sounds pretty depressing, right? Only if you look at one side of the equation. Impermanence is actually a great gift that allows us to be born anew every day.  True; joy doesn’t last, but neither does anger. Satiation doesn’t last, but neither does hunger. Pleasure doesn’t last, but neither does pain. Happiness doesn’t last, but neither does sadness. You can see this working in your own life. Are you the same person you were yesterday, much less a week, a year, ten years ago? What of all those things that pissed you off last week or last night? Do they bug you still, or have they too passed away?

Right now, all over the world, people are killing other people because of ideas. Not because of politics, or hunger, or religion, although all those things seem to be real. They are killing each other over ideas. When ideas, which are just thoughts in our heads, manifest themselves in the real world, and we act on them as if they were permanent objects, we cause each other great suffering.

A question I like to ask myself is: In a hundred years, who will remember the point of my anger? There’s the story of two Zen monks, travelling along a muddy road after a rainstorm. The older monk sees a wealthy lady carrying packages who is trying to cross the road. The old monk, without hesitating, picks her up and carries her on his back. Setting her down, she huffy away, not even thanking him.  The monks continue on their journey, and after a few hours of silence, the younger monk says, “Why did you pick up that woman back there? We’re monks. We’re not supposed to touch women. And after you helped her, she didn’t even thank you!” The older monk replied, “I set that woman down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

What are you still carrying? Set it down, now. Your journey will be so much lighter.

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