Do we need to give up the sense pleasures to find true happiness?

Light always finds a way...

Light always finds a way by flickr user Katarina 2353

A few weeks ago I wrote about what true happiness is. The Buddhist teachings explain that there are two kinds of happiness: One is an ordinary, fleeting and unreliable happiness which is based on physical comfort and feeling good about outer circumstances.  The other is a deep and lasting happiness which comes from within. This true happiness comes from a sense of mental contentment that is not dependent on external possessions or conditions. Of course, the deeper, longer lasting and more reliable happiness is what I am trying to aim for in my life. In this quest one big question for me is: In order to find this kind of happiness do I need to give up physical comfort and sense pleasures?

As far as I understand from studying the Buddhist teachings, the answer is that it is not so much about having to give up pleasure and comfort but about how we relate to them. There is nothing wrong with taking care of our relative needs or looking for good outer circumstances.  Pleasure or physical comfort is not “bad” in itself.  The question is  how we relate to these things! Love, appreciation, pleasure, well being and so on help us to nurture and sustain ourselves and to live productive meaningful lives. There is nothing wrong with that. What the teachings are saying is that if we depend on these things for our happiness, we will be disappointed. Why? Because these things are very impermanent and unreliable.

To investigate this more deeply I have been trying to observe how I am looking for happiness in my life. Initially it seemed to me  that most of the time I am not consciously looking for happiness. But when I looked a little closer, I found that from the morning when I get up until the moment I go to bed I always seem to be doing something, or looking for something that will make me “feel good”. It happens on a very subtle and almost unconscious ways.

I noticed that I do so many  things just to make myself “feel good”.  Whenever I feel uncomfortable I immediately adjust my posture. Often I reach for something tasty to eat just. When I work I get a lot of satisfaction out of getting things done, much more than from the process of doing. I seem to be looking for entertainment, distraction, pleasure all the time. I found it very insightful to see the many different ways through which I try to make myself “feel good”.

As I mentioned above, intrinsically there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel good. Looking for comfort and avoiding discomfort is not necessarily bad. These desires can help us take care of our physical and emotional needs and our responsibilities. However, I found it helpful to look more closely at the ways I go about “feeling good”. It helps to examine which are healthy and useful and which are counteractive to what we really want. It allows me to consciously decide instead of letting my unconscious habits and addictions be in control.

The important question is whether I make my happiness dependent on these factors. There is a danger that we can get caught up in constantly wanting to “feel good” and mistaking that chase with searching for happiness. So for me the important question is whether I am looking for happiness and contentment in “feeling good” and outer circumstances.

I noticed that when I look for happiness and contentment outside, I usually try to achieve it with wanting, trying, creating. Then my happiness is dependent on satisfaction derived from outer circumstances like the pleasures of the senses, being successful, getting material things, being praised, feeling respected by others. It is hoping for these and fearing and avoiding the opposite of these experiences. In the teachings these are called the eight samsaric dharmas (hope for pleasure, gain, praise and fame and fear of pain, loss, criticism and infamy).  It is not easy to give up these eight samsaric dharmas but as I understand it, this is the key for being authentic dharma practitioner. I want to reflect on this more in my next post.

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2 Responses to Do we need to give up the sense pleasures to find true happiness?

  1. sunil says:

    I heard a teacher recently mention that we feel pleasure not because of the outer sensations but our innate ability to feel happy by those sensations and that feeling is karmic. He used an example of how some people get drunk on a glass of wine while others never do. Here is the paradox; we feel good because of our positive karma. So if we had no positive karma, we would never get addicted to something as we would never feel good? Can you comment please.

  2. Bernie Schreck says:

    Hi Sunil, thanks for your comment and the excellent question. My dictionary defines addiction as “dependence, habit, problem.” It is really an unhealthy conditioned response habit that controls us. It is true our experiences of pleasure and pain are due to karma. But rather than saying the pleasure makes us dependent I would say it is our wish for pleasure behind it. The way I understand the root of samsara boils down to attachment and aversion. The teachings say that all beings want to be happy but that we have a misunderstanding about what really brings happiness and what brings suffering. In our search for happiness we have developed strong habits of attachment and aversion. We to get attached to things that we think brings pleasure and feel aversion to things that obstruct it. Unfortunately it doesn’t work because we are not able to see reality as it is and don’t understand what real happiness is. Cheers Bernie

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