What is Happiness?
The Upanishads show us how to recognize the source of true fulfillment.
We all want a good and happy life. Most of our pursuits are geared toward that end. What we may not understand is that the happiness gained through changing experiences and actions is fleeting. The only way to gain the lasting happiness we seek is through the recognition that our true nature is happiness itself. This recognition is called moksha, Self-knowledge or liberation.
The Vedas are the world’s oldest-known scriptures. The essential subject matter of these revered texts is happiness and the nature of your Self. The Vedas are divided into two parts. The first part is by far the longer and contains instructions on how to achieve the best life possible in the world of changing experience known as samsara.
The second part of the Vedas is for those who have discerned that changing circumstances cannot deliver something that lasts. This part of the Vedas contains the Upanishads, the original source books of the teachings of Advaita Vedanta. (Advaita means “not two, nondual.” Vedanta means “the end of the Vedas.”)
The entire teaching of Vedanta is encapsulated in the word upanishad. The Upanishads convey the very well-ascertained knowledge (ni) of that which is most near, the Self (upa), which brings about the disintegration of sorrow—along with its cause—when the truth is revealed (sad). In other words, it is Self-knowledge that delivers lasting happiness.
The teachings of the Upanishads tell us that the cause of sorrow is taking the ever-present changeless Self (Atman) to be one with—and a product of—the body, mind, and sense organs. Thus we take who we are to be limited, subject to birth, death, and change. Vedanta tells us this is not true. Who we are is not subject to any of these things; rather, we are birthless, deathless, changeless, limitless Atman. Not recognizing the Self as it really is, we suffer.
A student of Vedanta is guided by the teachings to distinguish between that which doesn’t change (the Self/Atman), and that which does (everything else). This is done through a dual process of negation and positive assertion. “Not this, not this” (neti,neti) is the negation of the notion that our Self has anything to do with the body, mind, and sense organs, all of which change. At the same time, positive assertion is used to point out that we are “that which is changelessly ever-present, illumining all of these.”
We naturally assume that the source of our pleasure lies in the situation, experience, or object that appears to have made us happy. And so, we keep trying to gain those objects and replicate those situations that seem to produce this effect.
This is not a conceptual exercise. The teachings are pointing us to recognize directly and without a shadow of a doubt the truth about the Self. People often say, “My body has changed and aged, but I feel as if I never have.” This intuitive feeling is accurate. Although the Self has never changed, it remains undifferentiated from the changing experiences of the body and mind until the teachings clearly point the unchanging nature of the Self out to you.
Guided by the teachings of Vedanta, the student examines the phenomenon of happiness in order to ascertain its source. When we obtain a desired object, for example, we experience a moment of pleasure. A variety of other experiences—such as meditating, listening to music, or watching a sunset—may also produce pleasure.
We naturally assume that the source of our pleasure lies in the situation, experience, or object that appears to have made us happy. Thus we keep trying to gain those objects and replicate those situations that seem to produce this effect. However, the same objects and situations please some people while displeasing others. Also, what once gave pleasure may later become a source of pain. Meditative experiences don’t last. In short, no object or situation is, in and of itself, a source of constant happiness at all times, for all people, in all places. How then does the experience of happiness arise?
The mind is composed of thoughts. The Atman is ever-present and illumines the mind. The nature of the Atman is pure happiness. In the instant a desire is fulfilled the mind relaxes, and the ever-present Atman is reflected in the mind in the form of ananda (pure happiness). This produces a moment of pleasure.
In the next instant another thought or desire may arise, replacing the reflected ananda of the Atman. Rather than recognizing the Atman as the actual source of happiness, the source of happiness is projected out onto the changing world of objects, and we try to gain happiness from them, an activity the scriptures compare to trying to drink water from a mirage.
Once the Self has been recognized as it truly is--ever present, limitless, and full--we no longer need to project our well-being onto objects and experiences.
Once the Self has been recognized as it truly is—ever-present, limitless, and full—we no longer need to project our well-being onto objects and experiences. We no longer need to pursue happiness; we know our nature is happiness and we can rest in that recognition.
There is only one Self, one Atman. This same Self shines in the hearts and minds of all. Step by step, as the teachings progress, using a process of logic and reason, we come to recognize that this same Self is Brahman. This very Self, from which the world has come, is the stable being of the entire world of changing experience.
Everything we see, perceive, and experience has for its actual being Atman, which is Brahman, which is the Self alone. Once we gain this recognition we know the truth of existence. Despite any appearance to the contrary, all is in reality only one, nondual, advaita: one being, one reality, one Self, which—due to the veiling power of maya—appears to be many.
This recognition takes place over time and through the teachings. Because the verses of the Upanishads are terse, and their meaning difficult to decipher, we require the guidance of a highly trained teacher who knows how to unlock the meaning of the words, and then how to use those words as direct pointers to the Self.
Having acknowledged that the changing world of experience can never be a lasting source of happiness, the Upanishads do not tell us there is something we need to do in order to be happy. The result of any action, being time-bound, will not provide lasting happiness. Once the Atman is recognized as it is—limitless, full, and complete, ever-present, never-sorrowful, and never-changing—we don’t need to look for happiness elsewhere.
The Upanishad is the revealer of truth. Moksha is that which is revealed. The meaning of the revealer and the revealed is the same. When that which is most near and dear (upa) is very well ascertained (ni), all sorrows disintegrate—along with their cause—in the knowledge that I am Brahman alone (sad). This is moksha—the discovery that your true nature is happiness.
The Vedanta Column is published in partnership with Advaita Academy, a nonprofit organization which aims to preserve and promote the awareness of traditional Advaita teachings through a comprehensive website and in collaboration with similar associations.