The Riddle: “The pursuit of happiness is the source of unhappiness”

This statement is a paradox, and out of the process of investigating the paradox, we step closer to enlightenment. Happiness is, to say the least, a loaded word. What is it really? Is it permanent, impermanent? Is it composed? This riddle was the cause of consternation for some on my Facebook profile, but others got the answer. The unraveling of this deceptively simple riddle is akin to the solution of the Chinese finger trap. The more we resist and struggle, the more wrong our answer gets. If we meet this riddle with a stonewall, we will end up completely missing the point.

The riddle reveals a fundamental reality that we struggle against day after day. One of my friends Marla countered my riddle with one that perhaps is one of the keys to unraveling the one currently before us. Her riddle was “We suffer because we think we’re not supposed to”. Which brings us to the First Noble Truth: Life is Suffering. The fact is we suffer because we struggle, we resist, we think life should go another way, we think we should have this or that. But in fact, should it? Well, maybe, maybe not, but it’s really irrelevant isn’t it? Because in the end, is it something that in the grand scheme we can control?

The answer to that question is no. In the grand scheme, we don’t have control. And that is something that we have huge trouble relinquishing. This very control that we refuse to relinquish, is, in fact the very “pursuit of happiness” that is the first half of this riddle.We might unravel this first half by making it more descriptive: “The pursuit of temporary happiness”. Think about it. How many people push, push, push to get richer, leaner, meaner, prettier, and in the end are left with the broken pieces of their relationships, their sanity, their body, and I daresay even their “happiness”? This very struggle is so pervasive in our own minds that it even affects how we answer this riddle. Struggle is perceptible in some of the answers (even in the correct ones).

But then, what about seeking enlightenment, Buddhahood, salvation, Yoga, whatever you want to call it? Could this be the source of unhappiness or suffering? Yes and no. Depending on our motivation and the teachings we receive, this struggle could be our best blessing or our worst curse. If we are motivated to seek ultimate happiness (whatever we choose to call it) out of a sense of devotion and a desire to benefit others, and have a healthy sense of our nature and our state, this isn’t a struggle, it’s a journey (notice the difference in the tone there). If, however, we are motivated out of a desire for our own comfort or pleasure, it becomes a struggle with wrong motivation, and we can get trapped in suffering.

The key to answering the riddle is to drop the resistance, and just let it be. It’s hard to do, but unraveling this very riddle is one of the keys to a rich spiritual life.

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