Why Can’t “I” Be Happy?

The four noble truths tell us that to be happy we must first discover the causes of our unhappiness. This is the approach of the renowned French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, who says that genuine happiness is only possible after we understand the fundamental mistake that is the root of our suffering.

Matthieu Ricard
1 July 2006

The four noble truths tell us that to be happy we must first discover the causes of our unhappiness. This is the approach of the renowned French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, who says that genuine happiness is only possible after we understand the fundamental mistake that is the root of our suffering.

An American friend of mine, a successful photography editor, once told me about a conversation she’d had with a group of friends after they’d finished their final college exams and were wondering what to do with their lives. When she’d said, “I want to be happy,” there was an embarrassed silence, and then one of her friends had asked: “How could someone as smart as you want nothing more than to be happy?” My friend answered: “I didn’t say how I want to be happy. There are so many ways to find happiness: start a family, have kids, build a career, seek adventure, help others, find inner peace. Whatever I end up doing, I want my life to be a truly happy one.”

The word happiness, writes Henri Bergson, “is commonly used to designate something intricate and ambiguous, one of those ideas which humanity has intentionally left vague, so that each individual might interpret it in his own way.” From a practical point of view, leaving the definition of happiness vague wouldn’t matter if we were talking about some inconsequential feeling. But the truth is altogether different, since we’re actually talking about a way of being that defines the quality of every moment of our lives. So what exactly is happiness?

Sociologists define happiness as “the degree to which a person evaluates the overall quality of his present life-as-a-whole positively. In other words, how much the person likes the life he or she leads.” This definition, however, does not distinguish between profound satisfaction and the mere appreciation of the outer conditions of our lives. For some, happiness is just “a momentary, fleeting impression, whose intensity and duration vary according to the availability of the resources that make it possible.” Such happiness must by nature be elusive and dependent on circumstances that are quite often beyond our control. For the philosopher Robert Misrahi, on the other hand, happiness is “the radiation of joy over one’s entire existence or over the most vibrant part of one’s active past, one’s actual present, and one’s conceivable future.” Maybe it is a more enduring condition. According to André Comte-Sponville, “By ‘happiness’ we mean any span of time in which joy would seem immediately possible.”

Is happiness a skill that, once acquired, endures through the ups and downs of life? There are a thousand ways of thinking about happiness, and countless philosophers have offered their own. For Saint Augustine, happiness is “a rejoicing in the truth.” For Immanuel Kant, happiness must be rational and devoid of any personal taint, while for Marx it is about growth through work. “What constitutes happiness is a matter of dispute,” Aristotle wrote, “and the popular account of it is not the same as that given by the philosophers.”

Has the word happiness itself been so overused that people have given up on it, turned off by the illusions and platitudes it evokes? For some people, talking about the search for happiness seems almost in bad taste. Protected by their armor of intellectual complacency, they sneer at it as they would at a sentimental novel.

How did such a devaluation come about? Is it a reflection of the artificial happiness offered by the media? Is it a result of the failed efforts we use to find genuine happiness? Are we supposed to come to terms with unhappiness rather than make a genuine and intelligent attempt to untangle happiness from suffering?

What about the simple happiness we get from a child’s smile or a nice cup of tea after a walk in the woods? As rich and comforting as such genuine glimpses of happiness might be, they are too circumstantial to shed light on our lives as a whole. Happiness can’t be limited to a few pleasant sensations, to some intense pleasure, to an eruption of joy or a fleeting sense of serenity, to a cheery day or a magic moment that sneaks up on us in the labyrinth of our existence. Such diverse facets are not enough in themselves to build an accurate image of the profound and lasting fulfillment that characterizes true happiness.

By happiness I mean here a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. This is not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being. Happiness is also a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.

Changing the way we see the world does not imply naive optimism or some artificial euphoria designed to counterbalance adversity. So long as we are slaves to the dissatisfaction and frustration that arise from the confusion that rules our minds, it will be just as futile to tell ourselves “I’m happy! I’m happy!” over and over again as it would be to repaint a wall in ruins. The search for happiness is not about looking at life through rose-colored glasses or blinding oneself to the pain and imperfections of the world. Nor is happiness a state of exultation to be perpetuated at all costs; it is the purging of mental toxins, such as hatred and obsession, that literally poison the mind. It is also about learning how to put things in perspective and reduce the gap between appearances and reality. To that end we must acquire a better knowledge of how the mind works and a more accurate insight into the nature of things, for in its deepest sense, suffering is intimately linked to a misapprehension of the nature of reality.

Reality and Insight

What do we mean by reality? In Buddhism the word connotes the true nature of things, unmodified by the mental constructs we superimpose upon them. Such concepts open up a gap between our perception and reality, and create a never-ending conflict with the world. “We read the world wrong and say that it deceives us,” wrote Rabindranath Tagore. We take for permanent that which is ephemeral and for happiness that which is but a source of suffering: the desire for wealth, for power, for fame, and for nagging pleasures.

By knowledge we mean not the mastery of masses of information and learning but an understanding of the true nature of things. Out of habit, we perceive the exterior world as a series of distinct, autonomous entities to which we attribute characteristics that we believe belong inherently to them. Our day-to-day experience tells us that things are “good” or “bad.” The “I” that perceives them seems to us to be equally concrete and real. This error, which Buddhism calls ignorance, gives rise to powerful reflexes of attachment and aversion that generally lead to suffering. As Etty Hillesum says so tersely: “That great obstacle is always the representation and never the reality.” The world of ignorance and suffering—called samsara in Sanskrit—is not a fundamental condition of existence but a mental universe based on our mistaken conception of reality.

The world of appearances is created by the coming together of an infinite number of ever-changing causes and conditions. Like a rainbow that forms when the sun shines across a curtain of rain and then vanishes when any factor contributing to its formation disappears, phenomena exist in an essentially interdependent mode and have no autonomous and enduring existence. Everything is relation; nothing exists in and of itself, immune to the forces of cause and effect. Once this essential concept is understood and internalized, the erroneous perception of the world gives way to a correct understanding of the nature of things and beings: this is insight. Insight is not a mere philosophical construct; it emerges from a basic approach that allows us gradually to shed our mental blindness and the disturbing emotions it produces and hence the principal causes of our suffering.

Every being has the potential for perfection, just as every sesame seed is permeated with oil. Ignorance, in this context, means being unaware of that potential, like the beggar who is unaware of the treasure buried beneath his shack. Actualizing our true nature, coming into possession of that hidden wealth, allows us to live a life full of meaning. It is the surest way to find serenity and let genuine altruism flourish.

There exists a way of being that underlies and suffuses all emotional states, that embraces all the joys and sorrows that come to us. A happiness so deep that, as Georges Bernanos wrote, “Nothing can change it, like the vast reserve of calm water beneath a storm.” The Sanskrit word for this state of being is sukha.

Sukha is the state of lasting well-being that manifests itself when we have freed ourselves of mental blindness and afflictive emotions. It is also the wisdom that allows us to see the world as it is, without veils or distortions. It is, finally, the joy of moving toward inner freedom and the loving-kindness that radiates toward others.

First we conceive the “I” and grasp onto it.
Then we conceive the “mine” and cling to the material world.
Like water trapped on a waterwheel, we spin in circles, powerless.
I praise the compassion that embraces all beings.

Mental confusion is a veil that prevents us from seeing reality clearly and clouds our understanding of the true nature of things. Practically speaking, it is also the inability to identify the behavior that would allow us to find happiness and avoid suffering. When we look outward, we solidify the world by projecting onto it attributes that are in no way inherent to it. Looking inward, we freeze the flow of consciousness when we conceive of an “I” enthroned between a past that no longer exists and a future that does not yet exist. We take it for granted that we see things as they are and rarely question that opinion. We spontaneously assign intrinsic qualities to things and people, thinking “this is beautiful, that is ugly,” without realizing that our mind superimposes these attributes upon what we perceive. We divide the entire world between “desirable” and “undesirable,” we ascribe permanence to ephemera and see independent entities in what is actually a network of ceaselessly changing relations. We tend to isolate particular aspects of events, situations, and people, and to focus entirely upon these particularities. This is how we end up labeling others as “enemies,” “good,” “evil,” etc., and clinging strongly to those attributions. However, if we consider reality carefully, its complexity becomes obvious.

If one thing were truly beautiful and pleasant, if those qualities genuinely belonged to it, we could consider it desirable at all times and in all places. But is anything on earth universally and unanimously recognized as beautiful? As the canonical Buddhist verse has it: “For the lover, a beautiful woman is an object of desire; for the hermit, a distraction; for the wolf, a good meal.” Likewise, if an object were inherently repulsive, everyone would have good reason to avoid it. But it changes everything to recognize that we are merely attributing these qualities to things and people. There is no intrinsic quality in a beautiful object that makes it beneficial to the mind, and nothing in an ugly object to harm it.

In the same way, a person whom we consider today to be an enemy is most certainly somebody else’s object of affection, and we may one day forge bonds of friendship with that selfsame enemy. We react as if characteristics were inseparable from the object we assign them to. Thus we distance ourselves from reality and are dragged into the machinery of attraction and repulsion that is kept relentlessly in motion by our mental projections. Our concepts freeze things into artificial entities and we lose our inner freedom, just as water loses its fluidity when it turns to ice.

The Crystallization of the Ego

Among the many aspects of our confusion, the most radically disruptive is the insistence on the concept of a personal identity: the ego. Buddhism distinguishes between an innate, instinctive “I”—when we think, for instance, “I’m awake” or “I’m cold”—and a conceptual “self” shaped by the force of habit. We attribute various qualities to it and posit it as the core of our being, autonomous and enduring.

At every moment between birth and death, the body undergoes ceaseless transformations and the mind becomes the theater of countless emotional and conceptual experiences. And yet we obstinately assign qualities of permanence, uniqueness, and autonomy to the self. Furthermore, as we begin to feel that this self is highly vulnerable and must be protected and satisfied, aversion and attraction soon come into play—aversion for anything that threatens the self, attraction to all that pleases it, comforts it, boosts its confidence, or puts it at ease. These two basic feelings, attraction and repulsion, are the fonts of a whole sea of conflicting emotions.

The ego, writes Buddhist philosopher Han de Wit, “is also an affective reaction to our field of experience, a mental withdrawal based on fear.” Out of fear of the world and of others, out of dread of suffering, out of anxiety about living and dying, we imagine that by hiding inside a bubble—the ego—we will be protected. We create the illusion of being separate from the world, hoping thereby to avert suffering. In fact, what happens is just the opposite, since ego-grasping and self-importance are the best magnets to attract suffering.

Genuine fearlessness arises with the confidence that we will be able to gather the inner resources necessary to deal with any situation that comes our way. This is altogether different from withdrawing into self-absorption, a fearful reaction that perpetuates deep feelings of insecurity.

Each of us is indeed a unique person, and it is fine to recognize and appreciate who we are. But in reinforcing the separate identity of the self, we fall out of sync with reality. The truth is, we are fundamentally interdependent with other people and our environment. Our experience is simply the content of the mental flow, the continuum of consciousness, and there is no justification for seeing the self as an entirely distinct entity within that flow. Imagine a spreading wave that affects its environment and is affected by it but is not the medium of transmission for any particular entity. We are so accustomed to affixing the “I” label to that mental flow, however, that we come to identify with it and to fear its disappearance. There follows a powerful attachment to the self and thus to the notion of “mine”—my body, my name, my mind, my possessions, my friends, and so on—which leads either to the desire to possess or to the feeling of repulsion for the “other.” This is how the concepts of the self and of the other crystallize in our minds. The erroneous sense of duality becomes inevitable, forming the basis of all mental affliction, be it alienating desire, hatred, jealousy, pride, or selfishness. From that point on, we see the world through the distorting mirror of our illusions. We find ourselves in disharmony with the true nature of things, which inevitably leads to frustration and suffering.

We can see this crystallization of “I” and “mine” in many situations of daily life. You are napping peacefully in a boat in the middle of a lake. Another craft bumps into yours and wakes you with a start. Thinking that a clumsy or prankish boater has crashed into you, you leap up furious, ready to curse him out, only to find that the boat in question is empty. You laugh at your own mistake and return peaceably to your nap. The only difference between the two reactions is that in the first case, you’d thought yourself the target of someone’s malice, while in the second you realized that your “I” was not a target.

Here is another example to illustrate our attachment to the idea of “mine.” You are looking at a beautiful porcelain vase in a shop window when a clumsy salesman knocks it over. “What a shame! Such a lovely vase!” you sigh, and continue calmly on your way. On the other hand, if you had just bought that vase and had placed it proudly on the mantle, only to see it fall and smash to smithereens, you would cry out in horror, “My vase is broken!” and be deeply affected by the accident. The sole difference is the label “my” that you had stuck to the vase.

This erroneous sense of a real and independent self is of course based on egocentricity, which persuades us that our own fate is of greater value than that of others. If your boss scolds a colleague you hate, berates another you have no feelings about, or reprimands you bitterly, you will feel pleased or delighted in the first case, indifferent in the second, and deeply hurt in the third. But in reality, what could possibly make the well-being of any one of these three people more valuable than that of the others? The egocentricity that places the self at the center of the world has an entirely relative point of view. Our mistake is in fixing our own point of view and hoping, or worse yet, insisting, that “our” world prevail over that of others.

The Deceptive Ego

In our day-to-day lives, we experience the self through its vulnerability. A simple smile gives it instant pleasure and a scowl achieves the contrary. The self is always “there,” ready to be wounded or gratified. Rather than seeing it as multiple and elusive, we make it a unitary, central, and permanent bastion. But let’s consider what it is we suppose contributes to our identity. Our body? An assemblage of bones and flesh. Our consciousness? A continuous stream of instants. Our history? The memory of what is no more. Our name? We attach all sorts of concepts to it—our heritage, our reputation, and our social status—but ultimately it’s nothing more than a grouping of letters. When we see the word JOHN, our spirits leap, we think, “That’s me!” But we only need to separate the letters, J-O-H-N, to lose all interest. The idea of “our” name is just a mental fabrication.

It is the deep sense of self lying at the heart of our being that we have to examine honestly. When we explore the body, the speech, and the mind, we come to see that this self is nothing but a word, a label, a convention, a designation. The problem is, this label thinks it’s the real deal. To unmask the ego’s deception, we have to pursue our inquiry to the very end. When you suspect the presence of a thief in your house, you have to inspect every room, every corner, every potential hiding place, just to make sure there’s really no one there. Only then can you rest easy. We need introspective investigation to find out what’s hiding behind the illusion of the self that we think defines our being.

Rigorous analysis leads us to conclude that the self does not reside in any part of the body, nor is it some diffuse entity permeating the entire body. We willingly believe that the self is associated with consciousness, but consciousness too is an elusive current: in terms of living experience, the past moment of consciousness is dead (only its impact remains), the future is not yet, and the present doesn’t last. How could a distinct self exist, suspended like a flower in the sky, between something that no longer exists and something that does not yet exist? It cannot be detected in either the body or the mind; it is neither a distinct entity in a combination of the two, nor one outside of them. No serious analysis or direct introspective experience can lead to a strong conviction that we possess a self. Someone may believe himself to be tall, young, and intelligent, but neither height nor youth nor intelligence is the self. Buddhism therefore concludes that the self is just a name we give to a continuum, just as we name a river the Ganges or the Mississippi. Such a continuum certainly exists, but only as a convention based upon the interdependence of the consciousness, the body, and the environment. It is entirely without autonomous existence.

The Deconstruction of the Self

To get a better handle on this, let’s resume our analysis in greater detail. The concept of personal identity has three aspects: the “I,” the “person,” and the “self.” These three aspects are not fundamentally different from one another, but reflect the different ways we cling to our perception of personal identity.

The “I” lives in the present; it is the “I” that thinks “I’m hungry” or “I exist.” It is the locus of consciousness, thoughts, judgment, and will. It is the experience of our current state.

As the neuropsychiatrist David Galin clearly summarizes, the notion of the “person” is broader. It is a dynamic continuum extending through time and incorporating various aspects of our corporeal, mental, and social existence. Its boundaries are more fluid. The person can refer to the body (“personal fitness”), intimate thoughts (“a very personal feeling”), character (“a nice person”), social relations (“separating one’s personal from one’s professional life”), or the human being in general (“respect for one’s person”). Its continuity through time allows us to link the representations of ourselves from the past to projections into the future. It denotes how each of us differs from others and reflects our unique qualities. The notion of the person is valid and healthy so long as we consider it simply as connoting the overall relationship between the consciousness, the body, and the environment. It becomes inappropriate and unhealthy when we consider it to be an autonomous entity.

As to the “self,” we’ve already seen how it is believed to be the very core of our being. We imagine it as an invisible and permanent thing that characterizes us from birth to death. The self is not merely the sum of “my” limbs, “my” organs, “my” skin, “my” name, “my” consciousness, but their exclusive owner. We speak of “my arm” and not of an “elongated extension of my self.” If our arm is cut off, the self has simply lost an arm but remains intact. A person without limbs feels his physical integrity to be diminished, but clearly believes he has preserved his self. If the body is cut into cross sections, at what point does the self begin to vanish? We perceive a self so long as we retain the power of thought. This leads us to Descartes’ celebrated phrase underlying the entire Western concept of the self: “I think, therefore I am.” But the fact of thought proves absolutely nothing about the existence of the self, because the “I” is nothing more than the current contents of our mental flow, which changes from moment to moment. It is not enough for something to be perceived or conceived of for that thing to exist. We clearly see a mirage or an illusion, neither of which has any reality.

The idea that the self might be nothing but a concept runs counter to the intuition of most Western thinkers. Descartes, again, is categorical on the subject. “When I consider my mind—that is, myself, given that I am merely a thing that thinks—I can identify no distinct parts to it, but conceive of myself as a single and complete thing.” The neurologist Charles Scott Sherrington adds: “The self is a unity.… It regards itself as one, others treat it as one. It is addressed as one, by a name to which it answers.” Indisputably, we instinctively see the self as unitary, but as soon as we try to pin it down, we have a hard time coming to grips with it.

The Fragile Faces of Identity

The notion of the “person” includes the image we keep of ourselves. The idea of our identity, our status in life, is deeply rooted in our mind and continuously influences our relations with others. The least word that threatens our image of ourselves is unbearable, although we have no trouble with the same qualifier applied to someone else in different circumstances. If you shout insults or flattery at a cliff and the words are echoed back to you, you remain unaffected. But if someone else shouts the very same insults at you, you feel deeply upset. If we have a strong image of ourselves, we will constantly be trying to assure ourselves that it is recognized and accepted. Nothing is more painful than to see it opened up to doubt.

But what is this identity worth? The word personality comes from the Latin persona, for an actor’s mask—the mask through which (per) the actor’s voice resounds (sonat). While the actor is aware of wearing a mask, we often forget to distinguish between the role we play in society and an honest appreciation of our state of being.

We are generally afraid to tackle the world without reference points and are seized with vertigo whenever masks and epithets come down. If I am no longer a musician, a writer, sophisticated, handsome, or strong, what am I? And yet flouting all labels is the best guarantee of freedom and the most flexible, lighthearted, and joyful way of moving through the world. Refusing to be deceived by the ego in no way prevents us from nurturing a firm resolve to achieve the goals we’ve set for ourselves and at every instant to relish the richness of our relations with the world and with others. The effect, in fact, is quite the contrary.

Through the Invisible Wall

How can I expect this understanding of the illusory nature of the ego to change my relationships with my family and the world around me? Wouldn’t such a U-turn be unsettling? Experience shows that it will do you nothing but good. Indeed when the ego is predominant, the mind is like a bird constantly slamming into a glass wall—belief in the ego—that shrinks our world and encloses it within narrow confines. Perplexed and stunned by the wall, the mind cannot pass through it. But the wall is invisible because it does not really exist. It is an invention of the mind. Nevertheless, it functions as a wall by partitioning our inner world and damming the flow of our selflessness and joie de vivre. Our attachment to the ego is fundamentally linked to the suffering we feel and the suffering we inflict on others. Renouncing our fixation on our own intimate image and stripping the ego of all its importance is tantamount to winning incredible inner freedom. It allows us to approach every person and every situation with natural ease, benevolence, fortitude, and serenity. With no expectation of gain and no fear of loss, we are free to give and to receive. We no longer have the need to think, speak, or act in an affected and selfish way.

In clinging to the cramped universe of the ego, we have a tendency to be concerned exclusively with ourselves. The least setback upsets and discourages us. We are obsessed with our success, our failure, our hopes, and our anxieties, and thereby give happiness every opportunity to elude us. The narrow world of the self is like a glass of water into which a handful of salt is thrown—the water becomes undrinkable. If, on the other hand, we breach the barriers of the self and the mind becomes a vast lake, that same handful of salt will have no effect on its taste.

When the self ceases to be the most important thing in the world, we find it easier to focus our concern on others. The sight of their suffering bolsters our courage and resolve to work on their behalf, instead of crippling us with our own emotional distress.

If the ego were really our deepest essence, it would be easy to understand our apprehension about dropping it. But if it is merely an illusion, ridding ourselves of it is not ripping the heart out of our being, but simply opening our eyes.

So it’s worthwhile to devote a few moments of our life to letting the mind rest in inner calm and to understanding, through analysis and direct experience, the place of the ego in our lives. So long as the sense of the ego’s importance has control over our being, we will never know lasting peace.

Adapted from “Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill,” by Matthieu Ricard. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company. © 2006 by Matthieu Ricard.

Matthieu Ricard

Matthieu Ricard

Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk who had a promising career in cellular genetics before leaving France thirty-five years ago to study Buddhism in the Himalayas. He is an author, translator, and has been a participant in scientific research on the effects that meditation has on the brain. Ricard’s work is held high regard in intellectual circles in Europe, and two books he co-authored, The Monk and the Philosopher and The Quantum and the Lotus, are best-sellers in France. He lives in Tibet and Nepal.