Vishvapani is a Buddhist writer and teacher based in Manchester. He discovered meditation and Buddhism at the age of 14 and became a Buddhist soon after. He became a member of the Western Buddhist Order in 1992. He is the editor of Challenging Times: stories of Buddhist practice when things get tough [http://www.vishvapani.org/] and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day slot.
I began by asking Vishvapani what happiness means to him.
Mulling over this question, a number of words went through my mind alongside ‘happiness': pleasure, joy, satisfaction, fulfilment, flourishing. All of these have slightly different connotations for me (and, I guess, for the dictionary), and happiness is one of the most elusive. I feel that I know what it means, but I don’t have a definition. Here are three thoughts:
Happiness isn’t a thing. You can’t pin it down. It emerges from an array of conditions, and maybe you only see it in retrospect: ‘yes, I was happy then’. You can’t make yourself happy (I think you can make yourself unhappy, though). It’s the feeling of flourishing and wellbeing that fills you when your needs are met.
I associate one kind of happiness with relaxation and ease, calm and peace. I particularly associate that with meditation.
Another kind comes when I am very engaged with a person or a project. That’s a more dynamic feeling. I think I need both.
Tell me about what makes you happy.
Leaving aside particularly joyful events, I usually feel happiest when I go on retreat. If I let go of the stimulation and stress of daily life and tune in to myself more fully I can feel myself expanding into a more spacious and joyful experience that is free from restlessness.
When do you remember being at your happiest?
Two moments come to mind very strongly.
The first is when I was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order in 1992. The ordination ceremony came halfway through a 4-month retreat, following a period of intensive meditation. There was a private ceremony and a public one, separated by a few days. In both cases I felt incredibly happy. The happiness had something to do with psychological satisfaction: relief after a long process and affirmation from other people. But it was also about feeling linked to a sense of meaning that was far bigger than me, in which my own life had a place. Part of that was being connected to other people, especially the existing members of the Order.
The other moment is the birth of my son, 11 months ago. My partner had a very long, intense labour, and when Leo was born there was tremendous relief. Somewhat to my surprise, a great sense of joy filled me as I looked at him and held him for the first time.
I’m interested in how you think our concepts of happiness have changed over the years, especially in recent times.
I think the main change is in the nature of our unhappiness. It is less associated with physical hardship and poverty, more associated with the stress caused by the speed of modern life and the deluge of stimulation that leaves less room for more satisfying kinds of experience and less time to absorb them. Also, as we tend to be more isolated, we get depressed.
Do you think the influence of the teachings of the Buddha – and other Indian religions – have changed how we think about happiness?
Buddhism can mean many things, but in this culture it has come to represent alternative values to the problems of stress and isolation. It has an important place among the representatives of the view that we should look for happiness in our experience, rather than finding it in external stimuli.
Do you think the Buddha was ‘happy’? And what happiness meant to him?
I am sure that the Buddha was happy.
The Buddha said that he discovered the path to enlightenment by recalling an experience of childhood joy. That set him apart from his contemporaries who mostly believed that ultimate happiness was to be found through physical pain and self mortification. It also revealed a distinction between different kinds of happiness.
The Buddha agreed that one kind of happiness, which is based solely on sense pleasures, leads to craving and then to suffering; but he added that another kind of happiness is non-sensual. It comes from the mind and does not lead to craving. His approach to meditation emphasises the cultivation of progressively more concentrated, refined and joyful states.
More precisely, the Buddha said that he experienced pleasure and pain, like anyone else, but he responded to them in a very different way from ordinary people. He didn’t push unpleasant experiences away or grasp on to pleasant ones. That brought an equanimity that surpasses both pleasure and mental joy.
Vishvapani is currently writing a book about the life of the Buddha. Gautama Buddha: The Life and Teachings of the Awakened One is scheduled for publication in January 2011. You can read Vishvapani’s writing and the text of his contributions to Thought for the Day at www.vishvapani.org.
Vishvapani is also a trainer in mindfulness-based stress reduction. Details of his short courses are available at: www.mindfulnessinaction.co.uk.
I interviewed Vishvapani in April 2010.