Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Question of Perspective

"I am unhappy," my friend keeps bemoaning.

Happiness is a state of mind just as unhappiness is.

One can be in Tibet savouring the beauty of Manas Sarovar, one can be surrounded by the beauty of the lakes and flowers of Kashmir, one can be amidst the beauty of the Alps or the lakes of Scotland, or one can be vacationing on the beaches of Hawaii with one's love. Yet one may not be anywhere close to happiness - except the transient euphoria we often mistake for happiness.

One must have seen a beggar or a rikshaw-puller breaking into a hearty song at the dead of night while trying to sleep on the roadside amidst the stench of drains, swarms of mosquitoes, and clouds of dust all around him. And the carefree attitude in the voice is unmistakable. What makes this beggar or rikshaw-puller happy? Don't they really have enough difficulties to distract them?

No matter where one is, what one is doing there, or who one is with, happiness is not guaranteed except very transiently. One is happy just as long as there is a pleasant stimulus (unless the stimulus itself is there for too long - in which case one's mind would start asking for something else by way of a stimulus!) and once the stimulus is removed, one is back to the usual state.

If you have fallen down and sprained an ankle, u can be upset that u have sprained an ankle. Or u can be happy that u have not fractured the ankle - a mighty serious problem compared to the fracture of a femur or tibia.

I had a fairly serious accident riding my motorcycle a few weeks ago. I escaped with relatively minor injuries: just two fractured fingers and three fractured ribs. Well, I could have fractured my jaw, arm, forearm, hip, thigh, legs or skull (and the consequent medicare could have cost me a fortune) or even the vehicles behind me could have run over me. The man who ran across the road and caused this accident in the first place got away with a minor concussion. The man could have died on the spot (had I not been alert enough or had I been riding very fast) - and I would have ended up with a serious criminal case on hand.

Well, I was not all that unhappy about the injuries suffered. I was rather happy - and thankful to God - that things didn't turn out to be all that bad, after all.

I guess it was this sense of relief or happiness and the consequent absence of negative emotions that helped me handle the post-accident scenario very efficiently and effectively.

Perspective makes a lot of difference.

If we learn to see the bright side of a situation and be happy for the small mercies strewn in our way, we learn to be happy. The thought "Gosh! It could have been far worse!" is often enough to make us see sunshine where we could once see nothing but the darkest of clouds.

I don't for a moment suggest that there is nothing painful in life. The issue is how we react to a stimulus, the cause of what we perceive to be pain or pleasure.

The key is in how one reacts to an experience, a situation, a stimulus.

Responding pleasantly to a 'pleasant' stimulus is nothing unusual; responding pleasantly to an 'unpleasant' stimulus is.

The pleasant response leads to a happy frame of mind; the unpleasant response leads to an unhappy frame of mind.

Unless one attains that capacity to condition the way the mind reacts to a situation, one cannot conquer unhappiness because, no matter where one goes, one is accompanied by one's mind and, hence, the state associated with the mind : happiness or unhappiness.

The ancient rishis of this land had no fancy labels for their timeless wisdom. But their prescription for Man's woes was simple. The problem is not with the stimulus but with one's reaction to it; by controlling the reaction, one can control the effect of the stimulus.

Yes, training the mind is a tough job, a very tough job.

It is a slow process and one experiences tremendous despair along the way. Often, one marches ten steps ahead but goes back twenty in the face of some severe problem. And again struggles to regain the lost composure.

But that is the only way to go. And master one's reactions to any stimulus.

Nothing else yields happiness - happiness that lasts.

I Am So Lonely!

"I am so lonely!"

One often complains that one is lonely because one does not have a girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband (or even some 'friend' to while away time talking inanities) and that one is, therefore, unhappy.

It's a complaint that I don't see much sense or substance in.

I firmly believe that if one knows how to live with oneself, one is never alone.

We are born alone; we live alone - though we all erroneously believe that we have friends, relations, and companions; and we all die alone. When we ultimately reach His Abode, we reach it alone never to return to the Cycle of Births and Deaths and remain alone there.

This is not something to grieve; this is in the nature of Creation.

Call it Divine Comedy, call it Divine Tragedy, it is all woven around this and a few other simple 'realities'.

"Kaa te kantha? Kaste putrah? Samsaroyamatheeva vichitrah ('Who is your wife? Who is your son? Life is indeed ludicrous.)," averred Adi Sankara in the famous "Bhaja Govindam".

I believe that the theme of Bhaja Govindam is the place where one starts one's philosophic inquiry. One may not have read Bhaja Govindam and yet the mental state leading to one's initiation into spiritual inquiry would correspond to the theme of Bhaja Govindam.

Then there is the complaint that one feels a lot of pain or that one is unhappy because some given event has happened or not happened or because one doesn't possess a certain object of pleasure.

Does any event or possession have the capacity to make one happy for a lifetime?

"Pain is my only companion," a friend of mine insists.

Is that indeed so?

Pain is no more real and no more one's companion than Happiness is.

One is miserable today? It shall pass. One is happy today? That too shall pass.

The future Dawn of Happiness is no more permanent than the present Darkness of Misery. Both shall pass - only to occur in unending cycles.

"Dhyaayatho vishayaan pumsah, sangastheshoopajaayathe ..." So go a couple of stanzas in the Gita. As one keeps thinking about something, one develops a longing, an attachment. And ultimately, the discontent of Man is rooted in that.

Have wife/husband, children, money, a plum job, a palatial house, orchards, cars, ornaments, social standing, learning, or any of the umpteen things that people covet and possess ever made a man happy? There are people who have given up huge wealth to seek a higher happiness - higher in the sense it lasts a lifetime.

One may not have a companion to live with. So what? Is every person with a companion really not alone? Or happy? Or contented? If one has a companion, one may end up complaining about the quality of the companionship!

Does one have enough means to have two square meals a day, decent clothing, and a kind shelter to live under? If one does have these, then one indeed has a cause for celebration.

All of us who have the means to live with dignity - satiate the hunger of the stomach, have something decent to wear, and have a comfortable shelter to sleep under - have a reason to be thankful to Life and God. Because by taking care of these three very primary needs for survival, God has given us a chance to live honestly and a chance to seek Him in relative peace.

Anything else beyond these is a luxury; if one has it, fine; if one doesn't, well, just as fine!

Because there is just no end to what we can wish or seek.

If one wish or desire is gratified, another steps in; a fulfilled desire gives temporary happiness till the new desire creeps in. And the unhappiness created by a frustrated desire lasts only till the next desire creeps in. In either case, the happiness or unhappiness of one moment is replaced by anxiety about another desire; that in turn leads to momentary happiness or momentary unhappiness. This is an unending cycle - as long as one is alive.

Nowhere in the history of humanity has the satiation of desires been found to ensure happiness. Actually, the contrary has been noted to be true. Because desires are a never-ending stream. Then, what is the solution?

The hoary men of the past ages have all been telling us in resonating unison that developing contentment through control of the the mind is the only key to happiness - happiness that lasts.

The happiest of the people we know have their own causes for unhappiness; either we do not know the people sufficiently to realise it or they mask it well enough - for a while, at least - to present a picture of happiness. So, there is no point in comparing our lot with what seems to be the better lot of someone else.

It could be useful, though, to compare our lot with those who are in a condition worse than ours. It would at least make us grateful to God for what he has given us.

Pain is somewhat relative too.

For the man sleeping on the road, sleeping under the hot sun on a bed of hot, dusty soil is the cause for unhappiness; for the delicately-built, pampered princess disturbed by an irritating strand of hair in her cushioned bed, that strand of hair is the cause of unhappiness.The man sleeping on the road would laugh his heart out at the princess upset by that strand of hair; it is simply unimaginable for him that one could be unhappy for such a trivial reason.

There is none who doesn't experience pain - or pleasure.

Sometimes the duration of one is longer than the other even as both Pain and Pleasure are cyclic in their occurrence.

Perhaps that is where the Law of Karma comes in. We cannot mitigate past Karma except through suffering. But we certainly can - we are told - control the accretions to Karma by controlling our present and future actions.

Pain is as real as life - though neither is real in a philosophical sense.

Coming down to the mundane, I think it makes for greater happiness (or lesser unhappiness) to find ways to modulate our reactions to pain. It is this control of the mind that ultimately ensures happiness.

This is where the spiritual path comes in; this is where the various spiritual practices and the help of Guru come in - if one is unable to find one's way along at least in the initial stages of spiritual endeavour and mitigation of misery.

A Guru can certainly help - provided one sticks to a well-chosen Guru instead of flitting from one Guru to another in expectation of an instant solution (or, what is even more ridiculously ambitious, instant salvation).

There are no instant solutions to the fundamental problems of life.