On the Subject of Happiness

The following is the general text of Mr. Goenka's remarks at one of the panels of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January, 2000 on the subject of "What is Happiness? Is this all there is?"

Every person who is attending this Forum is among a unique group of people on our planet. They are generally among the wealthiest, most powerful, most accomplished individuals in the world. Even being invited to attend the World Economic Forum is a great recognition of the status that each participant has reached among his or her peers.

When someone has all the wealth, power and status that anyone could ever want, are they necessarily happy? Are all these accomplishments and the self-satisfaction they bring "all there is?" Or is there some greater degree of happiness, which it is possible to achieve?

Happiness is an ephemeral condition. It is rapidly fleeting. Here one moment and gone the next. One day when all is going well with your business, your bank account and your family, happiness is there. But how about when something unwanted happens? What about when something entirely outside of your control happens to disturb your happiness and harmony?

Every person in the world, regardless of their power and position, will experience periods during which circumstances arise that are outside of their control and not to their liking. It may be the discovery that you have a fatal disease; it may be the sickness or death of a near and dear one; it may be a divorce or the discovery that a spouse is cheating on you. Among people who are addicted to success in life, it may simply be a failure at something: a bad business decision, your company being acquired and the resultant loss of your job, losing a political election, someone else getting the promotion that you wanted, or your child running away from home or rebelling and rejecting all the values that you hold dear. Regardless of how much wealth, prestige and power you may have, such unwanted events and failures generally create great misery in the life.

Next, the question comes: how to deal with these periods of unhappiness, which spoil an otherwise ideal life? Such periods are bound to come in even the most charmed life. Do you behave in a balanced and equanimous manner or do you react with aversion for the misery that you are experiencing? Do you crave to have your happiness return?

Moreover, when one becomes addicted to happiness and to everything always going the way you want, the misery when things do not go the way you want becomes even greater. In fact, it becomes unbearable. It often motivates people to resort to alcohol in order to cope with disappointment and depression and to resort to sleeping pills in order to obtain the rest we need in order to keep going. All the while we tell the outside world, and ourselves, that we are sublimely happy because of our wealth, power and position.

I come from a business family and was an entrepreneur and businessman from a very early age. I built sugar mills, weaving mills and, blanket factories and established import-export firms with offices all over the world. In the process, I made a lot of money. However, I also vividly remember how I reacted to events in my business and my personal life during those years. Every night, if I had failed to be successful in a business transaction during the day, I would lie awake for hours and try to figure out what had gone wrong and what I should do next time. Even if I had accomplished a great success that day I would lie away and relish my accomplishment. While I experienced great success, this was neither happiness nor peace of mind. I found that peace was very closely related to happiness and I frequently had neither, regardless of my money and status as a leader in the community.

I remember a favorite poem of mine related to this subject:

It is easy to smile, when life rolls along like a sweet song;
But the man worth while, is the man with a smile,
When everything goes dead wrong.

How each of us copes with these periods of things going "dead wrong" is a major component of the "meaning of happiness," regardless of our money, power and prestige.

It is a basic human need that everyone wants to live a happy life. For this, one has to first experience real happiness. The so-called happiness that one experiences by having money, power, and indulging in sensual pleasures is not real happiness. It is very fragile, unstable and not lasting long. For real happiness, for real lasting stable happiness, one has to make a journey deep within oneself and see that one gets rid of all the unhappiness and misery stored in the deeper levels of the mind. So long as there is unhappiness and misery in the deeper levels of the mind and so long as unhappiness is being generated today this stored stock is being multiplied and all attempts to feel happy at the surface level of the mind prove futile.

So long as one as one keeps on generating negativities such as anger hatred, ill-will, animosities, etc. the stock of unhappiness keeps on multiplying. The law of nature is such that as soon as one generates negativity, unhappiness arises simultaneously. It is impossible to feel happy and peaceful when one is generating negativity in the mind. Peace and negativity cannot coexist just as light and darkness cannot coexist. There is a systematic scientific exercise that was developed by a great super scientist of my ancient country by which one can explore the truth pertaining to the mind body phenomenon at the experiential level. This technique is called vipassana meditation, which means observing the reality objectively as it is. The technique helps one to develop the faculty of feeling and understanding the interaction of mind and matter within one's own physical structure.

During a 10-day course in vipassana meditation one observes silence by not talking to any of the other participants. This is to help the mind become more calm and sensitive. Of course, you are free to talk with the teacher about any questions you have or with the management about any personal requirements or problems you encounter with the facilities. Otherwise silence.

The course begins by focusing your entire attention on your own respiration: the flow of the breath as it passes into and out of the nostrils and the physical sensations that occur as it passes through the nostrils, past the rings of the nostrils and across the area below the nostrils and above the upper lip. When you first begin this practice the mind will almost immediately wander away into thoughts, fantacies, memories. As wander away almost immeditely. As soon as you realize that it has wandered away, you gently return it to awareness of the breath. Slowly over the next three days the mind will settle down and become much more concentrated. By the fourth day, most students experience that the mind is relatively concentrated and will stay on the single object of the breath for 1, 2, 3 or maybe even 5 minutes at a stretch without wandering at all.

Another thing happens over the first few days of the course. This is that the mind becomes much more sensitive than it has ever been before. The silence and the continuous meditation on the breath causes the mind to begin to feel physical sensations in the body at a much more subtle level than it has ever felt in the past. First, in the area around the nostrils: subtle vibrations, oscillations and other sensations.

On the afternoon of the 4th day of the course, the object of meditation is switched from awareness of the breath to observation of the physical sensations in the body. Starting at the top of the head, the attention is moved slowly and carefully down through the entire body, one part at a time, observing each and every sensation that one encounters and training the mind not to react to any sensation that it experiences. Not to react to the unpleasant sensations, such as pain, with aversion and hatred wanting it to go away and not to react to the very pleasant, blissful sensations with craving and clinging and wanting them not to go away. Simply training the mind to observe all the physical sensations in the body equanimously and without any reaction.

In our past experiences, each time we have experienced anything, along with that experience there was some sensation in the body and the mind reacted to that sensation by either liking or disliking it. The mind is usually too insensitive to be consciously aware of the sensation that occurred but there was always a reaction at some unconscious level of the mind and that reaction is stored up in the mind-body complex. The stored conditioning eventually comes up again and magnifies any new experience of a similar type.

The observation of the physical sensations without reaction during Vipassana meditation produces a remarkable effect. It causes the old stored-up past conditionings such as anger, hatred, ill-will, passion, etc. to come to the surface of the mind and manifest as sensations. Observation of these sensations without any reaction causes them to pass away, layer after layer. Your mind is then free of many of these old conditionings and can deal with experiences in the life without the color of past experiences.

The whole point of Vipassana is to decondition the mind so that one can live a happy life. A life full of love, compassion and good will for all.

Removing old conditionings from the mind and training the mind to be more equaimous with every experience is the first step toward enabling one to experience true happiness.