February 8, 2007

Missing the Religious Point

What's more important, being happy or doing "well" in life?

As if it's a choice between the two!

But Gina Gorlin seems to thinks so. Her perspective - if you choose to be happy, your life will fall apart and you'll end up on the street with a glass of sour lemonade and no life.

Imagine that a Harvard freshman, inspired by Ben-Shahar’s course, accepts the Buddhist doctrine in practice. Instead of cramming all night to pass the upcoming biology exam, he will close his textbook once the stress ensues and instead take a meditative stroll around campus. When he fails his exam, he will tell himself it doesn’t really matter; external factors cannot interfere with his sense of inner worth. After he fails the semester, and his parents refuse to fund his education further unless he improves his grades, he lets himself express his anger—giving himself “permission to be human,” as Shahar puts it. So he sleeps in the next morning to give himself time to “cool off”—perhaps missing his interview for a summer internship that would bolster his career prospects (and pay for rent). When he is out of money and his academic merits are shot, and his job at Wal-Mart starts to bore him silly, he will try to “cope” with his feeling of ineptness and his waning eagerness to act; but alas, such “negative feelings” will only mount. Life will not squeeze itself into his lemonade glass, no matter how “positive” his mindset. Faced with the painful consequences of his actions on his life and goals, his mindset, too, will deteriorate.

Practiced consistently, this “mind-over-matter” philosophy derived from Eastern mysticism cannot serve as a guide to happiness, but only as an excuse for inaction. Reality is not “in the mind of the perceiver”: no matter how hard one focuses inward, one cannot cure a toothache or build an airplane by meditation. To change the external circumstances of your life, you must take external actions.

Uhm. No. First of all, which parts of this is Shahar's actual words, and what is the author's fantasy of what happens when you respect yourself and make choices for happiness?

Secondly, she totally doesn't get the "mind-over-matter" thing. It doesn't take the pain away. Meditation doesn't make things happen.

There was a great article in Spirituality and Health magazine this month about hope. People who are happy, have hope. Hope and happiness give people permission to try difficult tasks, because they aren't afraid. The perspective of happiness gives us MORE reason to go out and live and do things, not less. Happiness means we DON'T just sit on the couch and do nothing. When people are happy, they are out in the world, doing things. Engaging. Doing what they love. And being fully alive.

Perhaps it's all psychobabble. But certainly, if meditation and respecting one's own's needs makes us happy, and makes us feel good about who we are, won't it allow us to make better choices about what we do in life? And make us WANT to do well in school, in relationships, at our jobs, in our life? Why would anyone who is happy shirk their responsibilities? Why would anyone who is truly happy not study? Why would anyone who likes who they are and have lots of hope allow themselves to fail out of inaction?

It doesn't make sense.

I think that "happiness" gets confused with "brainless moving forth doing things that feel good." That's not happiness. That's hedonism. Happiness is a state of being, and it's involves a lot of pain and suffering - but because we're happy and we're hopeful, the pain and suffering isn't the end of the world. And if it is the end of the world, why make it worse by being unhappy and spiteful?

1 comment:

The Barefoot Bum said...

It's always amusing to see two superstitions collide.

I doubt that Shahar's Buddhism Lite bears much resemblance to the rigorous discipline practiced by actual Zen monks; a way of life as much as anything else a product of medieval China, where opportunity for material wealth was utterly nonexistent for all but a very few.

Likewise Gorlin's facile materialism does not seem to offer much in the way of material satisfaction: work hard all your life and die of a heart attack at 40 owning a lot of cool toys.

People worry far too much about the "right" way to live.