What Makes You Happy?

We all know that money is the root of all evil, that you can’t take it with you and that the only source of real happiness is religion — or a spiritual life of some sort. Right?

Well, I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with religion for nigh on half a century. I want to believe but I can’t. I love Christ but am wary of Christians. I suspect the Buddha was on to something, but when Buddhists bring ultimate truth and transcendental reality back to the table I groan in disbelief. Could it be that people see just what they want to see? Have I become a cynic?

I’ve never been more sure that I’m not, perhaps simply because I’m happy. This isn’t some theory subject to repudiation, or a belief based on my psycho-cultural needs. It’s something I taste as fully as a fine Mendoza wine. I smile so much these days I hardly recognize myself; on the whole, I take life and death with a pinch of salt; I make fun of myself; I’ve never cared less about convention and — best of all — I’m content to let people dislike, misjudge or besmirch me. I’ve no time to prove them wrong.

Just why is it better to nobly suffer outrageous fortune than
to hunker down to a life of mindless distraction?

It helps that I’m over the hump. With more years behind you than in front, your priorities naturally shift. A lifetime of spiritual books and teachings encouraged me to contemplate my mortality and savor the moment, but none of them convinced me quite as viscerally as turning sixty. I’m one day closer to death and happier for it. Strange but true.

Which brings me back to religion. I don’t mean organized beliefs, systematic practices or comforting ritual. Just the psychological drive for more — more to life than just … just, this. One of the things I have yet to accept gracefully is that so few people question our life of consumption and disposal. It confounds me. I’m an existential wreck — always have been. I’m intelligent and skilled in more ways than most, but have never made much of myself in the world. I struggle to take it seriously.

That’s driven my family and friends to knuckle-gnawing exasperation. I even feel that way about myself from time to time — when things are precarious and the cupboard is bare. It focuses me sufficiently to do what’s necessary, but the urge eventually passes and I’m lured back to my penniless scribblings. I’m a proverbial artist, I suppose.

My feelings about Catholicism and Buddhism today are live-and-let-live. Having known them both from the inside, I comfort myself with the acquaintance of a few good men and women therein. My ire these days is reserved for the touts of positive thinking: think good thoughts, they say, and banish the bad. Pretend that life is as simple as an idea, and drape yourself in spiritual complacency.

At the other extreme, Buddhists say that life sucks — we just don’t realize it. How patronizing is that? And how absurd? After all, how would we know how miserable we were if things were never good?

Bottom line: just why is it better to nobly suffer outrageous fortune than to hunker down to a life of mindless distraction? Actually, I know why. As any addict can attest, dosing yourself continuously with endorphins doesn’t work. They grow stale. Which brings us right back to where we started. What gives us direction and force? If life’s a creek, where’s the paddle?

Perhaps life is just life…

This really is the question, even if you’d rather phrase it spiritually. What it demands is a solution. What it implies, oh so surreptitiously, is that life’s a problem.

Well what if it’s not? Perhaps life is just life. What if we who soak our grey matter in the obtuse ramblings of saints and philosophers, or dedicate our lives to silent meditation, are no better off than couch potatoes?

That’s sort of a rhetorical question, but once again the only answer that rings true is one of experience. Sitting quietly alone in a room is good for me, providing I don’t overdo it. Sainthood is first cousin to insanity, after all. Look at Saint-Francis, or Milerepa — nutcases the both of them and yet absolutely inspiring. They’re so damn human and simple-minded that we can’t resist them. Oh to be so vulnerable, childlike and free!

I once tried to understand what ‘my way’ should be. Fortunately, life’s not that organized. Thank God — or whoever it is that one should thank. It’s odd how many times I use that phrase each day. I’m an atheist, after all.

Then again, am I? My instincts are clearly religious. My choice to not believe has hardly diminished my wish to do so. Lord only knows what a muddle I’m in.

But that’s okay. Life’s a smorgasbord. I love it, especially in the company of others. So where does that leave me and my profound questioning of life’s profound profundities?

God, I’ve no idea. You?


Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

11 thoughts on “What Makes You Happy?”

  1. Well, first off, congrats about 60 are in order. I’m right behind you, by the way. I read once that in Indian culture, not presently so much but a few centuries ago, and I think among the Hindus moreso than the Buddhists, it was considered perfectly respectable and natural for a man rising up, upon reaching 60 years, bidding farewell to his family and relations, and taking up wandering and pondering, in humility and wisdom, to encounter the final destiny of his life. Perhaps he would find students, or epiphanies, or consolidate old questions into a new meaningful blend. In a way, seems to me you just started early.

    I can only grapple with some of your questions from out of my own experiences.

    Has long seemed to me, that whenever I encounter people who are not seduced by the deepest inner questions, they just seem to be missing a certain color somehow. They can be wonderful and inspiring, idiosyncratic, generous, funny and creative and delightful. But if they are not prone to some serious spiritual grappling, then I can not fully get onto their wavelength, nor they on mine. When I do meet such a person, on the other hand, it is like a cool breeze in the desert, and we usually share an instant kind of mutual recognition. So — that is one obvious answer as to why. I do it because I like to, want to, and experience and perceive the world and life that way. Materialists can happily knock themselves out searching for the appropriate gene sequence that drives this in me. (Though I remind them to limit themselves to investigating the 2% supposedly not in common with other primates.)

    About one of your other questions, the Buddhists vs. the Christians and so on. I just try not to very often deal with beliefs. They are a poor starting point, for one thing. You never really begin doing spiritual inner work until you can place them aside. Same thing goes for “science” in my book by the way. Throw away your critical thinking and cultivate the marvellous ability to entertain notions and ideas you would never consider if you had to remain chained within your usual framework. This cancels religion in one fell swoop. And materialistic science. Spiritual seeking relies upon oneself, what one experiences within. Inspirational religious information is more like preliminary schooling and orientation.

    But the main reason religion is not an issue for me is because I pretty much never ever meet Buddhists or Christians. I mean, these are ideals. If someone is moralizing about this or that doctrine, pretty good indicator they are not ready. A good trick to use when observing myself, by the way. Since I just about never meet real Christians or real Buddhists, the argument does not really come up.

    There’s a great little book I read once, by Raymond Smullyan, called ‘The Tao is Silent’. It is a sort of outsider’s peek at Zen Buddhism, but it contains much humor and insight. I wish it was referencable online somewhere. It contains several delicious imaginary dialogues between moralists, skeptics, monks, seekers, pragmatics, and so on. When you spoke of your joy and delight, perhaps transcending some of these questions after living them, it reminded me immediately of this book. If you like I will send it to you. Maybe we could do something funky like stage one of teh dialogues, or one of our own devising, and find the right people who’d love to voice the appropriate parts.

    Oh well, beyond this… wishing you well!

    1. I learned at a young age that my disinterest in things of this world made me unusual. Having with difficulty digested that, I then grew aware of an even more disturbing truth: that most people are content with the status quo, will willingly pursue the goals set for them by others and will go contently to their final rest without ever having cared to wake up. Sad world.
      Critical thinking post coming up…!

  2. Nice Rob. Yes, I’d love to read Smullyan’s book.
    I don’t think I can do without critical thinking, though. True, it often tends to stick its nose inappropriately into things, but it has its uses too, as I’m suggesting in my next post. Stay tuned.

    1. Don’t you think that is just a human way of letting God’, or whatever, off the hook-so to speak? A way to continue to ‘believe’ in the power of some other force to know better then we do what is needed or wanted? Perhaps an excuse to keep hanging on to something that doesn’t really exist because we are afraid to know that, that may just be true? I have often been annoyed by the fact that when something good happens we call it a miracle, a gift from God! YAY! But when it doesn’t or the opposite comes along, we say, Oh, God knows best or, It wasn’t meant to be or, He works in mysterious ways?! This is the only part I have read, FYI, I have not read the other posts.

      1. People believe what they want to believe. I’ve done it myself and it’s a real problem. How do we trust our own mind?

        Not impossible, but not easy either.

  3. Hello again Stephen

    My major was physiology with a minor in Philosophy a long, long time ago, but I was lucky to maintain an update on both subject matters.
    What attracted me to Buddhism and mindfulness as the most convincing thought processes was their applicability in daily living.
    I am a Nihilist , yet pragmatic (nihilist or not, things have to get done), therefore, having a physiology and scientific background took the “umf” away from my fervent Catholicism, I remember the bitterness it left behind… As J P Sartres would say, by denouncing God what are you doing with the Void left behind.
    When you study the internal workings, deficiencies, complexities, interactions of the organic system you cannot but FEAR life in general, as a moronic acquaintance of mine once said (my ex-wife) on the subject of dying: “its not death that scares me, its life that can turn on a dime in a fraction of a second”.
    I am 52 (trying to maintain good shape and health), yet picture this scenario at your doctor’s office, after a battery of tests…”well Mr Chidiac, I have some bad news…..”, thank you God.
    The sad thing about religions is that our naturalistic, environmental world says no friggen way, Life needs life to live, therefore, life KILLS other life. Only humans (some anyways) realize the gravity of this psychological dilemma, no other life form remotely questions this quandary.
    I believe therefore that either the Universe is out of order, or humanity is,…which do you suspect I pick.

    Buddhism may appear pessimistic, yet after my rambling I can see that they are spot on. It is not a question of adding another variable to the equation of EXISTENCE we call God, (after all Occam’s Razor has some sensibility to it) that is going to resolve our situation, but changing the thought mechanism itself for better adaptation.
    Human foresight is a double edge knife, it makes our ideas die in our stead physically, yet annihilates us psychologically, as I do believe (human) IMAGINATION (left to its own device) IS discontentment. As for the HAPPINESS, it is not consumption, money, power or exogenous drugs, its not OUT there, but more so the right neurotransmitter, at the right Brain region in ALL experiences of HAPPY, HAPPY…
    Enough drama, after all, life is possibly rare in the distal Universe, but definitely NOT on this planet, after all, 7 billion + STORIES? Hard to feel special I think, and not feeling special, as much as distressing by design, it an alleviation for our inevitable finitude.
    Apologies for this long windedness, but it was letting some steam out, and as Rob in the previous post said, not too many people are on the same wavelength.
    Thank you again Stephen for a very,(and possibly one of the best) engaging blog.
    Take care and HB sir.

    1. Bitterness seems to be a common reaction to the loss of faith. After rejecting my Tibetan teachers I learned (in time) that the real agent of my disappointment was my expectation. As for whether it’s humanity or the universe that’s out of order, I’m not sure there’s a difference. Someone (probably Alan Watts) once said that we’re not born into this world, but out of it. Chaos begets chaos, and then we spend our lives trying to inject meaning into it. Ha! The sad thing about atheism is that there’s no one left to shake your fist at.
      Never fear Ralph, you are special to me. I greatly appreciate your constant engagement and passion.

  4. Hi, Stephen. My name is Roger and I am a Catholic.

    I met you a few times for my computer before I moved from Hudson to Vaudreuil-Dorion in June 2010. You gave me good service and I .

    I like your article in the “Your Local Journal” of Aug.16, 2012.
    like meeting you.

    The following quote of Mother Teresa may interest you.
    “The fruit of Silence is prayer. The fruit of Prayer is faith. The fruit of Faith is love. The fruit of Love is service. The fruit of Service is peace.” (Mother Teresa)

  5. Hi Stephen
    I enjoy your site. Neat and thoughtful, provocative in an intelligent way. Refreshing. I have been a practising Buddhist for many years. I can sense the limitations of Buddhism as raft, model, doctrine … I can also sense ‘the more than’, the finger pointing to the moon, and the paradoxes of no finger or moon. Abstruse to say the least. Personally I don’t have an issue with the label, I know it is a label. And I can see how oppressive it can become to follow the path as object (getting over literal) …. through time this path has become more subtle and intuitive, leading me gracefully, if not bumpily at times, to a more intuitive sense of the finger and the moon.

    For me the main issue is one of literalism, and not moving from doctrine to experience, (but thinking the raft is a raft instead of means for example)
    or not connecting practice to principle

    The issue of labels and identity is more one of convenience and skilful means, a foundation, a platform from and through which others can connect with the ‘mystery’ or ‘higher meaning’, whatever term works for you here. I am aware everyone is so different and at different stages. Offering a ‘no path’ or ‘way’ which — actually if we are to dig deep enough with your understandings would reveal some system of being and doing — may lead to a lot of confusion and even more suffering.

    I offer this in the spirit of exploration … I notice myself becoming less and less bothered by the systems and labels in Buddhism, paradoxically, a quiet yet deeper reverence shines for the Buddha. With it humility and humanity abound in me. I am nothing special. His way is abstruse, subtle, and indeed plain to see for those with but little dust in their eyes. I have a lot of eyewash to get through before I am done!

    Best wishes, Sinhaketu

    1. Hello Sinhaketu, and thanks for your beautifully-crafted comment. There’s a good case to be made for this all being about labels and identity. I’m honestly not sure whether I’m offering a ‘no-way,’ but I’m confident that it’s not a system. We have to find our own way, and accept the fact that we sometimes lose it again.

      I love to hear you say that the Buddha’s way must surely be ‘plain to see.’ If it weren’t, who would be interested?

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