The Sanskrit word for ‘happiness’ is ānanda. It means total, complete and unending joy and bliss. I was thinking about this concept of boundless joy the other day, and I remembered a beautiful speech in Romeo and Juliet where Juliet is expressing the nature of her love for Romeo.
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.
I was reminded of this when thinking about happiness, because according to the timeless wisdom of the ancient sages, ānanda is the same as Juliet’s love. The wise tell us that ānanda is boundless and unconfined, that true happiness knows no limitation. It is like space, or knowledge, or consciousness, or yes, like love. And like all these other universal phenomena, true boundless joy can’t be held fast or stored away against a rainy day.
Happiness is like beauty and understanding and compassion, it is everywhere. It is available to everyone who has eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to feel.
Our individual experience of happiness resonates in all parts of our being. There is a warm feeling in our body. Our senses are heightened, and we can take in brighter colours and subtler sounds and tastes and smells. Its effect on the mind is to calm tensions and anxieties and open us to greater receptivity and creativity. When we are joyful our emotions are heightened and positive and our hearts sing.
This all sounds great, and much to be desired, but our normal experience of happiness can be a little different. Rather than everlasting, it comes and goes depending on the circumstances we find ourselves in. Instead of limitless bliss, it changes in intensity from mild contentment to joyful ecstasy. The wise may tell us that our true nature is to be eternally limitlessly blissful, but it doesn’t always seem like that. Our experience of joy seems to diverge from the view of it as boundless, universal and unending. Like love and peace, happiness appears to come and go.
How can we reconcile these viewpoints? On the one hand the wise tell us that supreme bliss is available to all of us all the time. On the other hand, our general experience of happiness is that it is transitory, and contingent on the circumstances being just right, and the stars aligning for us.
Let’s see if there’s a practical way to gain the unending, limitless bliss that the wisdom tradition tells us is our birthright.
Generally speaking, people find happiness in a variety of ways. Happiness can be found in the sight of a rainbow, or a child’s laugh, or a completed task, or a relaxing walk. Or some might find happiness in the formulation of a bright idea. For some it may just be a warm feeling that comes out of nowhere. It can be found in both the little things, like digging in our garden, or it may come from great, life-changing moments like realising we have met our life partner. Happiness can be the result of a whole range of experiences. The possibilities for finding sources of happiness are everywhere around us. If we open ourselves up to them, we can certainly find that all sorts of things can make us happy.
The common theme here, however, is that happiness appears to be the result of favourable, even serendipitous, external circumstances. Because happiness is so desirable, this leads to the endeavour to create those circumstances in our lives. This can paradoxically produce the opposite effect. The constant effort, for example, to earn enough money and create enough leisure time to be happy, can create tension and stress and misery.
At the school where I taught, we had a weekly philosophy discussion with the children. One favourite lesson was to consider a game we called “I’ll be happy when...”. We all filled in the blank differently – I’ll be happy when the holidays come; when I get a bike for Christmas; when I’m allowed to go to the party, and so on. Adults may be comfortable without the bike. However, we certainly play our own version of the game: when I get a raise; when my political party wins; when I buy my perfect home, or meet my perfect partner.
We need a way to stop playing that game, to get off the treadmill of constantly chasing external circumstances and future gains to make us happy. We need to find ready and reliable access to the everlasting bliss that is spoken of in the teachings of the wise. To do this we have to look elsewhere and in another way. We have to discover that well-spring of joy within ourselves, that continues to flow regardless of the external circumstances.
As with all the great universal energies like love and peace and knowledge, the wise tell us that ānanda is part of our true nature, it is who we really are. Like breathing, or thinking, or seeing, we don’t have to earn the right to happiness. It comes with our very existence.
Think of joy as being like the ocean. It is always there, ready for anyone who so desires to take a drop, or a teaspoon full, or to fill a bucket. Or we can plunge in and experience complete immersion. But unlike the physical ocean, this ocean of bliss is a place where we, like fish, can live and breathe. In fact, it is an ocean in which we are the water. How can we realise our true nature as being that ocean of bliss?
I had a conversation with a client on this very topic. To look at her you would say she had it all. A devoted family, lovely children, an interesting career, sufficient wealth. However, she found that fear and insecurity dogged her life. We spoke about that ocean of happiness that was available to everyone. She wanted practical guidance on how to discover it. I made some suggestions which she followed enthusiastically, and which changed her attitude and her experience.
What were those first steps to find her true inheritance of ānanda, eternal joy and bliss?
Think again of that quote of Juliet. It offers practical guidance. She says of love that “the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite”. This tells us where to begin. With giving.
One of my teachers told us to give what we think we lack. If we have no friends, we should be friendly. If we lack money, we should be generous and charitable, even with the little that we have. If we are ignorant, we should share what little we do know. If we feel unloved, we should be affectionate and loving to anyone who comes our way.
So if our experience of joy is that it comes and goes, and seems to be dependent on external circumstances over which we have no control, then a good place to start is to cheer others up. We could make them happy and spread a little joy in the world. If we want our experience of joy to be unending, then giving joy has to be constant as well.
My teacher told us that this practice, of giving what we lack, might seem impossible. Until we try it. This cannot be done in theory, or through discussion, or through thinking about it. It requires a little work, a little application of energy over time.
It also takes some trial and error. How exactly does one go about spreading joy? What does one say? What does one do? Is it the same on every occasion and with every person, or do we have to pay close attention and adjust our actions and conversation to fit the situation? How do we ensure that it is about them, and not all about us?
Even to ask these questions shows that this effort to offer happiness to others has a few moving parts: connection and attention to others; a desire that they have any burden lifted from their shoulders; sensitivity to their needs and mood; sensitivity to our own moods.
An open smile will be just the thing for one person, a cheerful greeting for another. Someone else may need silent companionship. Others may just want to be left alone!
I said this was simple, but I didn’t say it was necessarily easy. However, it is totally worthwhile both for others and for yourself. The wise promise us ānanda, unending bliss. Most of us need to apply ourselves and make an effort to realise our birthright. The path is laid out before us. A great way to take the first steps is to give happiness to everyone you meet.