For any moment of our existence, there is, on the one hand, the “content” – the specifics of what is arising in our conceptual and perceptual fields – and, on the other hand, our awareness of that content. In Indian mythology, these dual aspects of human experience are described by way of a metaphor. The human bodymind is likened to a tree, within which there are perched two birds. One of the birds is enjoying the smell of the blossoms, building a nest, and eating the fruit of the tree. The other – perched higher up – is simply observing, witnessing all that is unfolding, without becoming actively involved in it.
When the awareness aspect of experience is largely dormant, we feel “caught up in” or “overwhelmed by” the particulars of our life experience. We might have a sense of being “passionately involved with” our life, though it can also feel rather claustrophobic. A more active awareness, or witnessing function, can support feelings of spaciousness and relaxation. We’re able to access the view of that second bird: simply observing, without being engulfed by, the content of our human experience – our waking dream.
To varying extents, we can all make choices – moment by moment – which result in the fruits of increased worldly pleasure and power. In other words, if we’re skillful – have a certain clarity with respect to the mechanisms of cause and effect – we can rearrange the “contents” of our life experience. This is an aspect of what we might call “happiness” – and is what most humans are doing (yes?) most of the time. It’s that first bird, wholly engrossed in the creation and enjoyment of the fruits of life, working continually to “make things better.”
[Note: the first step in “making things better” is of course “making things,” i.e. “making matter” out of the sea of energy, shifting our perceptual lens to the “particle” as opposed to the “wave” setting.]
But it is in the view of the second bird – awareness – that our true freedom, along with an uncaused happiness, is to be found. When the witnessing function has been resurrected, I am able to choose how I relate to my various life experiences. Whether the experiences are pleasant or unpleasant or neutral, this choice – and thus my freedom – remains. While still fully experiencing the contents of my human life, I no longer get lost within them. There’s a sense, instead, of being awake within my waking-dream.
These reflections arose out of the question: what is happiness? We Taoists are considered, generally, to be a pretty happy lot: Happy as the result of our practice (the cultivation of the Three Treasures); and also taking happiness as a kind of path (e.g. the Inner Smile practice). The Immortals - along with being immensely powerful, and occasionally fierce - are portrayed also as having access to great joy, humor and care-free ease. They are, by and large, extremely happy. But what exactly is the nature of this happiness?
[First answer: what we experience, quite naturally, when we no longer feel the need to ask the question!?]
A while back, the newly-enthroned King of Bhutan announced a policy of Gross National Happiness. This was a signal to the rest of the world that the priority of this Buddhist country was the happiness of its citizens, rather than the monetary profit or “worth” designated by the Gross National Product. This was greatly inspiring to me. How wonderful, I thought. Yet the question remained: what is happiness? And more specifically: how is it related to the treading of a spiritual path?
Returning to our pair of bird-friends: It would seem that there are two kinds of happiness: (1) the happiness that arises from the enjoyment of pleasant experiences, when the content of our life is unfolding a way that pleases us; and (2) the happiness that is our capacity to be free, regardless of the content of our life experience. The former is happiness-with-a-cause; the latter a kind of causeless (or “eternal”) happiness. The former we work to gain and possess (and hence can also lose); the latter is simply who we are, in the core of our being. (A far cry from the "orginal sin" notion of the Judeo-Christian traditions!)
In relation to our spiritual practice: Much of what we call “suffering” is intimately related to our unskillful (i.e. unconscious) pursuit of happiness#1. Ironic. The good news is that we can, indeed, have our cake and eat it too. How does this work? By skillfully harnessing our desire for happiness#1 – so that the energy thus generated becomes a means for awakening happiness#2. Kind of like: the “lead plane” which pulls a glider along, until it has found its own groove – and can sail along freely, on the currents of air. Or even better: like rocket booster-engines, which propel the rocket into orbit (into a whole new atmosphere) and then themselves fall away.
The lead-plane and booster-engines represent skillfully-employed happiness#1. The glider-freely-flying and rocket-in-orbit represent happiness#2. The energy generated via my desire for happiness#1 becomes a cause for the kind of phase shift that propels me into happiness#2. In other words, my aspiration to use the activities of my daily life as support for spiritual unfolding generates a kind of energy, or “merit,” which, over time, boosts me into the wisdom and freedom of happiness#2. Wei Wu Wei would call this transition the movement from the horizontal to the vertical, from time-and-space into a timeless dimension. It is the skillful use of spiritual technology to eventually transcend any specific spiritual form.
[Note:To actually accomplish this is not necessarily a simple thing (if it were, we'd all be Immortals!)-- would seem to require some combination (unique to the specific practitioner) of great luck, boundless grace, and/or a Teacher with skills of the order of a spiritual rocket-scientist, and/or with whom our karmic connection is strong. But I digress …]