The Paradox of Happiness

Real happiness is what we all want, but none of our strategies for finding it seem to work. Maybe it’s the search for happiness that makes us unhappy. John Tarrant has some thoughts on why the Buddha smiles.

John Tarrant
1 January 2004
John Tarrant, Happiness, Zen, Shambhala Sun, Lion's Roar, Buddhism
Photo by Malovika.

Everyone knows happiness is a good thing, more desirable than say, vacuum cleaners or eye shadow, and right up there with fame, fortune and the love of beautiful women (or men). The founding fathers of the United States offered happiness as part of the mission statement for a people coming together as a nation, encouraging them to pursue—and perhaps to go so far as to chase, harry, hunt down, subdue and corral—happiness. Even the Dalai Lama has said that happiness is the point of Buddhism.

At the same time, happiness is, as quarry, elusive. Happiness is a unicorn. Everyone wants to find it, yet, just when you are hoping for its company, it has a way of disappearing into the leafy shade of its forest. Then the family barbecue or job interview or visit to the hospital just has to stumble along with ordinary human skills and no special blessing.

While a lot of time is spent pursuing happiness, the evidence is compelling that if you plunge toward this unicorn directly, you will miss it by miles, and therefore won’t receive its famous kindnesses. Doesn’t everyone know this already? Yes. Does that stop anybody from chasing happiness? No.

Mostly, if a method for achieving happiness is not successful, people think something like, She should have loved me more. Or, I wasn’t trying hard enough. Or, I wasn’t holding my mouth right. Or, If only I had bought a different car. Whether the needle on the blame meter points to yourself or to others, that particular machine will always seem to be malfunctioning, since it never gives a diagnosis that is useful for fixing the problem. You try to do the method better, rather than looking at whether the method works. So let’s look at the method.

The Direct Approach

The direct approach to happiness is splendid in its simplicity. It comes down to a bold slogan: Get the Loot. This is the basic happiness-is-a-warm-gun or diamonds-are-a-girl’s-best-friend tactic. There is an endless quest to store happiness in objects from which it will seep out like golden light in the winter of any sadness that may come upon you. Variant and popular forms of Get the Loot are: “Get the Girl” and “Get the Prince.” More subtle variations are “Get the Spiritual Transformation” and “Get the Psychological Adjustment to a Difficult Childhood”—”I’ll take a nice enlightenment to go with my espresso please.”

While a lot of time is spent pursuing happiness, the evidence is compelling that if you plunge toward this unicorn directly, you will miss it by miles, and therefore won’t receive its famous kindnesses.

The obvious problem with the Get-the-Loot approach is that loot doesn’t last. My really cool linen jacket from last year looks, well, so last year, and my nice, new Volvo has become my mechanic’s friend. It doesn’t seem that happiness can be stored in any stable way—it’s even worse than electricity in this regard. You might try to make things last a little longer. You could buy an extremely reliable car. You might extract a promise that your partner will always love you, but would you believe such a promise? Aren’t there some Monday mornings when you don’t love even your dog? And if you did believe such a promise, would it work? Would you really get happiness?

The Indirect Approach

The ancient authorities, including the Buddha, are convinced that you cannot just waltz right up to the unicorn of happiness. The unicorn disappears if you even look straight at it. You have to take an interest in the rosebushes or the child playing with dolls, and then you might see the unicorn out of the corner of your eye. At first nearly everyone thinks you can just pretend an interest in the rosebushes or the child, but you can’t fake out the unicorn. Pretending an interest in the rosebushes happens when you say to yourself, “I’m meditating to get healthy, to grow kinder, to get enlightened, to pick stocks better and be happy.” Though some of these purposes might be noble, this approach doesn’t work; you can’t manipulate yourself into changing any more than you can manipulate other people into changing. A unicorn is like a human being in that relations with it are fatally compromised by coercion and demands. You can’t make a unicorn come to you; it has to want to.

The Approach Without Guile

A spiritual practice is different from many human endeavors in that it does not have a pre-designed goal. You have to just do the spiritual practice without guile and be a courteous host to whatever comes. That’s when unicorns appear. The nakedness of this practice makes you unicorn-prone. The unicorn of happiness is not elusive because it is an illusion. It is real. It just inhabits a different dimension from getting and losing and good and evil and pleasure and loss, which are the places we usually look for it.

The legend of the unicorn says that it is attracted to virgins; indeed, virgins are its only known weakness. Before you despair, it might be interesting to take this bit about virgins as an image of what goes on in the mind. The virginal mind is innocent in the positive sense. The innocent mind is not thinking about itself and what it can get. It isn’t thinking, “How do I look as unicorn bait?” “No unicorn could ever be interested in me.” “I’ll be famous if I catch a unicorn.” “How do I construct the best unicorn-catching machine?”

Instead, the innocent mind is just hanging out, living its life. It attracts the unicorn because it is like the unicorn, who is also just hanging out, living its life. The innocent mind is the meditation mind, the mind before the world was built and populated with stories about what to think and do. It is sometimes called beginner’s mind. It exists before enlightenment and before theology and theology’s argument with human desire. The innocent mind is not spending all its time scheming to get others to do what it wants or policing its own impulses. It’s open to something new, something that it hasn’t thought of. It’s the person at the party who doesn’t network or try to impress you.

In the legend, the unicorn has another property: its horn stops the action of poisons. This image refers not just to the openness of the meditation mind but also to the way it actively undermines unhappiness and delusion.

The Chinese unicorn is sighted even more rarely than the European one. It is said to have appeared at the time of Confucius’ birth and to have a taste for wisdom. One sage had the interesting thought that if a unicorn is so seldom seen, you might not know for certain what it looked like. It might be capable of changing shape. In fact you might meet one and not realize it. How can you be sure that a unicorn is not present on a given occasion? You might be sitting with the unicorn of happiness at this very moment and not know it. Perhaps when you are unhappy, you are just not paying attention.

Security & Insecurity

The strategy of “Running Straight at the Unicorn and Getting the Loot” has another serious drawback, which is that it is asking for too little. When you are unhappy, you look for a remedy that is in the range of what you already know. Yet what you already know might be precisely what is obscuring your vision of the unicorn. There is a Hindu story about a person who prayed to see Krishna. She meditated hard and it so happened that the blue god was meandering along the woodland path and noticed her. He bent over and tapped her on the shoulder. She did not open her eyes. “Please don’t distract me,” she said, “I am meditating with a sacred goal in mind.” “Oh, O.K. then,” thought Krishna, “I wouldn’t want to interfere with that,” and wandered on down the path.

This is a version of the map-and-territory problem. When you rely on what you know you are always relying on a map which, as soon as it is drawn, has begun to diverge from the territory it intended to describe, which is life. You make adjustments to fit the map, you stand on your head to fit the map. Yet happiness adheres to the territory. Happiness is rooted in what we do not know; otherwise everyone would already be happy. No one knows what a unicorn is before they meet one, and no one can know what their life will look like after they have met one. The unicorn won’t change the stuff in your life; it will change you.

If the unicorn is pursued through the getting of things and experiences, the basic idea is that something from outside will make you happy. Then the hidden assumption is that what is inside is pretty pathetic or at least not worth considering in the happiness stakes. Yet what is inside is the only source of happiness.

The big secret is that the unicorn already lives inside you.

The big secret is that the unicorn already lives inside you. If the unicorn is already here, the unicorn comes. If it is not here, it will never come. Zen teachers sometimes carry a carved stick as an accoutrement, an indicator that they are important in case no one otherwise notices. One old teacher said, “If you have a stick, I’ll give you a stick. If you don’t have a stick, I’ll take it away.”

The desire for loot is usually in some way a hunger for security. A dedicated collector learns quickly that another pair of shoes or another epiphany will not be the final and necessary contribution to happiness. This is why collecting has a melancholy, poignant air. The quest for security is doomed, and its failure is what makes it interesting. It’s like taking certain drugs, say, or skipping classes at university or gambling in casinos—it’s so bad for you that it feels cool; it gives you a sense of wealth since you are squandering life as if you were immortal. Seeking security is a rebellion against the unpredictability of reality and also against its demanding fascination.

The deep reason things coming in from the outside are not ultimately consoling is that there is a bigger question going on— security for whom, happiness for whom? You might have an idea about who you are, and the security is a support structure for that idea. Security is always for an idea that you are “a someone.” Yet it is hard to prove that you really are “a someone.” If you check your thoughts out, they come and go, they change radically overnight or according to the state of your digestion, and you may find that you often don’t even believe them. If you look, you can’t find who is thinking your thoughts.

Bodhidharma, who brought Zen to China from India, is meditating when a student says to him, “My mind is not at peace. Please put it to rest.”

Bodhidharma says, “Bring me your mind and I will set it to rest.”

“But I’ve searched for my mind and can’t find it.”

“There, I have put it to rest.”

Being unable to find your mind when you look for it might be thought of as a moment of massive uncertainty, yet this is exactly what frees you. Uncertainty makes happiness possible because it stops certainty from interrupting happiness. Happiness is the natural state of things; the unicorn is already here.

Nothing Is Too Good For Little Me?

When the mind and heart are at rest, they are not important or unimportant, secure or insecure, and this natural state is happiness. Security, on the other hand, is the cause of unhappiness. It is in the service of a character called “Me,” as in “What about Me?” who is always worried what will happen to her. There is “Poor Little Me” and “Nothing Is Too Good For Little Me,” and both are based on the longing for security.

When I was three or four I had an imaginary playmate who was the foreman on an imaginary construction site. His name was Bill and I’d ring him up on an imaginary phone next to the black wall phone in the front hall. I used to give him orders. I’d say, “Bring the bulldozer.” We would also have conversations at lunchtime. “Another bloody jam sandwich,” I would complain to him enthusiastically, flinging it over my shoulder. Having a self is a bit like keeping Bill with you for the rest of your life, and setting your life up to assure him that he is real.

“Little Me” is a hypothesis to explain where thoughts come from. Yet no one knows where thoughts come from. Sometimes they don’t even seem to belong to anyone. The next line of the poem just arrives, the way the next moment of the world does. This is good news for you because it leaves the door open for the unicorn, who also appears out of nowhere, but bad news for Little Me, who likes you to think that she is the source of your thoughts and therefore essential.

So many of your thoughts are for the sake of preserving Little Me. When you were a child she entered your employ as a governess who promised to be a help. As you grew she became your faithful retainer, general secretary and assistant. Yet her main purpose seems to be to make herself feel secure. She exists to make sure that she continues to exist. An idea is trying to maintain itself, a phantom who asks that you serve her. Yet security for Little Me is not security for you. She is so fascinating to herself that she is uninterested in other people, including you. You have to run around and Get the Loot to assuage this phantom’s anxiety. You have to build pyramids because she is frightened of dying. The Sufis have a story about a donkey who persuades his rider to carry him. Little Me is like that donkey. She did seem to be a help at first, but pretty soon she started impersonating you and writing checks.

Little Me fields all your calls. Meanwhile she gives you the sort of plausible and utterly useless advice that Polonius offered Hamlet. The advice is useless because it is not about you, it’s just designed to hold your attention on her.

There is nothing truly wrong with Little Me other than that she, or he, doesn’t exist. The secret to happiness is that Little Me is not necessary. When you discover this you may find it a great relief.

This is why happiness is simpler than suffering, which is always working so hard. The unicorn of happiness is allergic to advice and Little Me’s complicated schemes are not interesting to her. She is a free wanderer with no fixed destination or shape; her hooves are in the Tao.

Trying Too Hard Is Always a Good Idea

When I first took up meditation I struggled a lot. I really, really, really wanted an experience of enlightenment, so I dashed straight at the unicorn of happiness. When I sat, I was consumed by physical pain, and so naturally I sat up all night. I experimented with breathing in special ways. Basically I tried to concentrate and stay alive for the next five minutes of sitting. Condemning my own states of mind—”This is not a unicorn, and neither is this”—was a lonely path and my own lack of inner kindness wore me down. Perhaps it was a way to convince myself that I was worthy of a visit from the unicorn. Yet all that effort was for the sake of an idea—wisdom will be hard for me, it will take a long time and I will have to suffer to earn it—and this idea was just a prejudice: Little Me’s opinion.

When you think that you need something to navigate by, you might cling to a bad or unverifiable idea, which might take you in some other direction than the one you hoped to go in. I was willing to change everything about my life except my ideas. In this way spiritual work which can look so sincere and revolutionary can become at bottom just another quest for security. You could make an argument that shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue is more spiritually sincere. I thought that the unicorn would appear and show me something completely surprising, and at the same time it would say to me, “Yes, John, that’s the way to meditate, steady as she goes, you’re getting it now. And as a reward, I’ll share a few additional secrets with you.”

This is the poignant situation of the one who sets off to seek wisdom. I thought happiness would change my world completely and at the same time it would still be my world. In this way, I thought that happiness would confirm my map of the world. Actually, happiness does the opposite: it steals your map so that you can’t use it any more. And when there is nothing to navigate by, you are in Unicorn World.

In a certain kind of Zen training, the opening in which you see through your illusions is called kensho, which means, more or less, seeing your true nature. At the zendo where I practiced in the early days, we had a little kensho factory and would encourage each other to sit unmoving through pain. The meditation hall was very noisy, leaders would be yelling, and the sound of the Zen stick whacking people would cut through the air. It was either surprisingly interesting or seemed like a medieval hell, according to your point of view. For me it was both.

When I began to teach, I did more or less the same thing as I’d been taught. The method was tuned toward the direction whence unicorns were expected to appear. I noticed, though, that unicorns did not seem to come from such places, and when, on occasion, they did appear, they seemed indifferent to our methods. People didn’t seem to have spiritual openings when the system was tight and pure. The openings came when the system broke down.

Perhaps people wore out and couldn’t try any harder and then just felt their lives for a while and were amazed at the spaciousness that opened inside and out. Perhaps their minds escaped their control moves and they saw something—say a tree—as if for the first time. Looking at a tree with such purity they might have noticed a kinship with the tree and have been grateful to be alive, a gratitude that seemed irreversible. The unicorn does not come from the direction you might be expecting it to.

To be happy is to experience life not as a series of struggles but as a gift, one that has no known limit. This doesn’t mean ignoring your difficulties: it means not assuming that they are what you think they are.

After a while, I began to change my teaching method. Mainly this meant not chasing the unicorn directly and, instead, being interested in what showed up in people’s psyches. Then unhappiness became interesting rather than evidence of failure; unhappiness itself became a gate to happiness.

Here’s an example. Year after year, on the last day of a retreat, a man fell into despair believing that he had missed another opportunity for enlightenment. It was as if it was his job to sit around and be the one who failed. His mood was compounded when others seemed to be glowing and illuminated. His inner narrative went something like, “I haven’t accomplished anything or made myself admirable to myself or others. I’ve worked so hard, yet I’m really not sincere enough.”

This is the sort of thing only a sincere person would think. But he was bereft. Then one time, mysteriously, a Patsy Cline song arrived in his mind and just stayed. “I fall to pieces” repeated itself over and over like a koan or a mantra. This didn’t seem orthodox to him, but there was nothing he could do about it. Gradually he began to notice that falling to pieces could be a positive thing. The mind’s prison could fall to pieces. He was amused and touched, and a thoughtless compassion for life began to grow in him, a glimpse of a luminous animal moving through the trees. Things didn’t go further for the moment and when the retreat ended the old blues came back.

“I feel so discouraged,” he thought. “I just feel so discouraged.” This phrase began repeating itself also, many times. “I feel so discouraged.”His internal voice grew more and more depressed, and then a change occurred. Gradually the voice became energetic. “I feel so discouraged,” grew louder. He began to have fun with it. He was shouting to himself, “I feel so discouraged!” as if in triumph, and laughing. “And what’s wrong with that?” he thought, embracing his one life. Even discouragement became funny and marvelous. How good to be alive and discouraged. That was his moment of spiritual transformation.

So what is the take-away point about the unicorn?

Everyone wants to use happiness as a fix for problems, yet happiness is its own, very big thing, and it is selling happiness short to make it a fix for problems. To be happy is to experience life not as a series of struggles but as a gift, one that has no known limit. This doesn’t mean ignoring your difficulties: it means not assuming that they are what you think they are. If you throw away everything you believe about your difficulties you will notice that many of them disappear and the rest become interesting.

When you get the hang of being more interested in life than in agreeing with your thoughts, then you will get the life you get. And you will be able to have as much happiness as you want with almost no effort whatsoever. When you stop believing your thoughts, you look around just for you, just because it is interesting to look around. Some people call that enlightenment. But you won’t call it that. You’ll be too interested in the new view. And you’ll notice that wherever you look there will be nothing but those damned unicorns.

John Tarrant

John Tarrant

John Tarrant, Roshi, directs the Pacific Zen Institute, a community where koan meditation, the arts, and deep conversations meet daily practice and life. He is the author of Bring Me the Rhinoceros & Other Zen Koans that Will Save Your Life.