Is This the Secret to Happiness?

Buddhism, psychology, and life experience all agree on one point, says Zen priest and psychiatrist Robert Waldinger: a larger, more connected sense of self makes life fulfilling and meaningful.

Robert Waldinger
24 August 2022

“I’m embarrassed to say this, but I’m a bad Buddhist.” This was Rachel’s confession to our Buddhist group at the end of our weekly sitting. Meditation hadn’t ended her suffering, so she must be doing it wrong. After years of practice, her preoccupation with self had stubbornly refused to go away, so she must be a bad Buddhist.

To Rachel’s relief, everyone in the group nodded in recognition. She had had the courage to speak to the shadow side of Buddhism’s promise of healing—the misperception that if practice does not take away your suffering, then there’s something wrong with your practice.

For those who embark on the Buddha’s eightfold path, his promises of healing can seem like the proverbial bait-and-switch. The bait is that, once and for all, Buddhist practice will shield us from the pain of life. The switch comes when we see that the enemy is us—that the judging, clinging, small self is the source of the suffering the Buddha promised to relieve.

In meditation, deep engagement in the present moment is commonly experienced as a softening or disappearing of the sense of self, a sense of oneness with the world that eases loneliness and isolation.

In our Zen group, we chant the five remembrances. These remind us of the truths about the small self—that each of us gets sick, grows old, and will die. Some people run away as fast as they can from these “gloomy” facts, but for others the act of speaking these truths is a balm to the soul. When we acknowledge them, we can let go of some of the impossible demands we make of life, acknowledge our shared human predicament, and start to discover a larger self that is spacious, ever-changing, and boundless.

The discovery of this large self happens for many of us through the simple meditative practice of being present, whether sitting on a cushion or walking on a sidewalk. In moments when, in Dogen’s words, “body and mind fall away,” we experience a sense of spaciousness and interconnectedness that brings welcome relief from the sufferings of the small self. But how does this work?

I have the privilege of looking at the experience of being human through three different lenses. As a psychiatrist, I share in the lives of people who come to my office yearning to be known and understood. As a researcher, I shepherd the eighty-four-year study of adult life and happiness known as the Harvard Study of Adult Development, watching how hundreds of individual life journeys progress from adolescence all the way to old age. And as a Zen practitioner, I see the arisings of my own heart and mind as I struggle to bring my awareness to the present moment.

I am continually astonished at how these three windows on human existence—psychology, people’s life experience, and the dharma—all echo what Hongzhi called “the long, broad tongue of the Buddha’s teachings.” Perhaps the strongest convergence is in their revelations about the connection between suffering and the nature of the self we experience.

All three sources of evidence tell us that preoccupation with the small self—the sense of ourself as fixed, unchanging, and independent—makes us suffer.

In meditation practice, we see how the self-absorbed mind frequently whisks us away into realms of emotional pain that seem to offer no escape. In those moments, we are trapped in what David Foster Wallace aptly labeled “our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms.” In psychiatry, entire realms of mental illness are defined by a core preoccupation with a hermetically sealed sense of self plagued by fear (anxiety disorders), hopelessness (depression), and a gnawing sense of inadequacy (narcissism). And in our lifespan research study, when we asked study members in their eighties to look back on what they most regretted in their long lives, their most frequent lament was, “I wish I hadn’t spent so much time worrying about what others thought of me.”

That’s the negative side—how the small, solid, separate self causes suffering. On the other side of the coin, these three ways of knowing about life tell us that the felt experience of a more spacious, fluid, and interconnected self is the foundation of well-being.

In meditation, deep engagement in the present moment is commonly experienced as a softening or disappearing of the sense of self, a sense of oneness with the world that eases loneliness and isolation. In my consulting room, the healing that takes place through psychotherapy almost always includes relief from a sense of unique defectiveness that is replaced by the recognition of one’s shared humanity. And when our octogenarian research participants were asked what they were proudest of as they reviewed their lives, the most common source of pride was having dedicated themselves to others (partners, children, colleagues) and to causes bigger than the small self.

Each of these practices—meditation, psychotherapy, and understanding our life stories—is a corrective. The Buddha understood that the mind of the individual self, which is so helpful for planning a meal or building a house, repeatedly deludes us into the belief that we are separate and static. He knew that we need constant reminders of the truth of our boundless nature, through practices that bring us back again and again from the persistent delusion that we are alone in our splendid and miserable isolation.

We are not bad Buddhists when we’re trapped in our skull-sized kingdoms. The Buddha’s promise was not that practice would bring us a permanent cure, or that the preoccupation with the small self would ever go away completely. The promise of practice is that we can join others on a path of waking up from the dream of a small and separate self, an awakening that is never finished. Communities dedicated to saving all beings are the places where we wake up, living into the truth of our larger selves and reminding each other that this realization is exactly the medicine we need.

Robert Waldinger

Robert Waldinger

Robert Waldinger is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who directs the Harvard Study of Adult Development. A sensei in Boundless Way Zen, he leads the Henry David Thoreau Sangha.