All the Joy the World Contains
I recently posted this quote from the 8th-century Indian Buddhist monk and scholar, Shantideva, on Facebook. I received some comments and questions in response that helped me realize that these words, when taken out of context, might send the absolute wrong message — the myth that the most important (and spiritual) thing we can do is to sacrifice our own happiness for the sake of others’. This couldn’t be further from the truth of the teachings of the Buddha, so I wanted to unpack this quote a little bit in order to clarify things.
First of all, self-care and love are healthy (and necessary!) And the Buddha recommended in no uncertain terms that we include ourselves in our circle of self-care and love. The root of that particular teaching are these words from the Pali canon (translation by Bhikkhu Thanissaro): “Searching all directions with one’s awareness, one finds no one dearer than oneself. In the same way, others are dear to themselves. So one should not hurt others if one loves oneself.” (Basically, the truth that everyone suffers and wants freedom from that suffering just like we do, and when we remember this about our common humanity it is easier to practice love and compassion for everyone, without exception.)
In Lovingkindness practice, for example — especially in the West where we are notorious for having entrenched self-hatred and self-judgment and a lack of capacity for self-compassion — it’s usually recommended that we cultivate kindness and friendship for ourselves as the first step before venturing out to cultivate same for others. Self-care creates the foundation for other-care. Nowhere in the Buddhist teachings, to my knowledge, is there an advocation of sacrificing for others at the expense of self (insert oxygen mask analogy here) unless one is already spiritually strong enough to handle said sacrifice.
“Pleasure” (in the quote) is very different from “love and self care”. I believe Shantideva was getting at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching on the Four Noble Truths: that clinging and craving are at the root of all suffering, and that pleasure-seeking often has misery as its close-following companion. Shantideva’s words alert us to the truth that when we are not able to find a way to be satisfied with the way things are and we pull and push to move the externalities around ’til we’re comfortable, we may achieve relief for a moment or a day or even longer, but these machinations do not ultimately lead to sustainable and long-term happiness and peace because everything necessarily changes.
So seeking after pleasure as an antidote for our deep dissatisfaction will always fail us in the end. “True happiness” (as Thich Nhat Hanh calls it) can only come from within, and from the realization and acceptance of the impermanent nature of reality, and from developing equanimity and compassion and clarity and insight and other qualities that help us relax into the moment, into what is actually happening.
The Buddha taught, in most basic terms, the cause (clinging/craving) and end (eightfold path, which includes meditation along with ethical living) of suffering. In Shantideva’s quote, as I understand it, “pleasure” is meant to refer to the kind of pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance that is associated with clinging and craving — when we want to obtain that which we do not currently have (stuff, people, feelings, mind states) and want to push away that which we do not want (stuff, people, feelings, mind states) in order to feel better or avoid feeling bad. It’s this desire+aversion dance that causes us to suffer when we don’t get our way, and when we can’t be ok with things the way they are.
Obviously, sometimes we do need to change things in our environment (job, relationship, furniture arrangement, etc). But we also need to develop enough discernment to figure out when it’s appropriate to change things (because they’re not supporting our highest good rather than because we need a fix), and learn to live with the parts of life that are not going to be “solved” by any sort of external shift (insert Serenity Prayer here). Within that process, developing the ability to “calmly abide” no matter what’s going on is key to our happiness and sense of true and long-lasting well-being.
A few more words about the pleasure-misery connection. In our personal lives, pleasure-seeking has the potential to keeps us from meeting our issues head-on and working with them in ways that might take more work but could lead to true healing in the end. I’m sure if we look closely and honestly at our own personal lives, each one of us can come up with examples of situations where our clinging and craving and desire for the short-term fix (rather than a commitment to the effort and sometimes renunciation necessary for long-term healing) have caused harm to self or other. So there is one form of pleasure-induced “misery”.
And there’s also a darker and more insidious and rampant result of pleasure-seeking, a direct and overwhelming cost to ourselves, our community, our planetary home. The misery people and animals and plants and Earth are experiencing in war-torn regions and as a result of the hurricanes and droughts and fires and increasingly rampant climate disasters is a direct result of human beings’ addiction to fossil fuels and the pleasures offered by its byproducts. In the big picture, the current climate chaos is a result of the developed world’s manic seeking of short-term pleasure, instant gratification, and the illusion of safety and comfort promised by consumerism and consumption.
In general, the suffering of the poor and downtrodden of the world, the animals and our beautiful planet Earth can be linked to the greed, hatred and delusion driving attempts by humans to fill coffers and hearts and hours with power, money, control and other things that bring pleasure in the moment but long-term strife in the grand scheme. Our comfort in the West literally relies on the discomfort and often destruction of people and ecosystems in developing nations that are at the receiving end of our insatiable greed for more, more, more — all in vain attempts to fill holes that cannot be filled that way. Our Pleasure == Their Misery.
We desperately NEED everyone to wake up right now. And practicing love and compassion and tenderness for oneself is a huge part of that — actually inseparable from that, since we’re all interconnected and interdependent, and loving me means loving you! It’s the truth of inter-being…we all inter-are. And then we direct this love and compassion outward, to all beings, in every direction. It’s something we can, and must, do. When you can’t figure out what to do about the state of things, at least do this.
To listen to the Dharma talk which inspired me to post the quote in the first place, go here. (Jill Shepherd: Anatta, Not-Self, and the Five Aggregates Subject to Clinging).
Now, go forth, with love for yourself and all beings!