Philosophy, Buddhism, paths to happiness … and writing

If ever there was a time when people might want to explore new paths to happiness, it is now. The world order has been turned upside down and compassion and civility across political divides is sorely lacking.

Possibly because of this stressful environment, articles on creating your own happiness seem to be popping up more and more frequently in magazines and newspapers, online and otherwise. Or maybe they’ve always been there and I’m just noticing more because of the discussions on happiness (and nirvana) that we’ve had in my philosophy group this fall.

I haven’t confessed this in a blog post before, but along with other favourite pursuits of mine that aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, I belong to a group of retired academics that meets every week to discuss philosophy. We have an ingenious plan of action. We assign ourselves philosophical readings that are dense, complex, and often nearly impossible to understand. Then we get together with coffee and goodies to dissect what we’ve read, in the hopes that someone has understood it better than the rest of us and to argue congenially about whether we agree or not. It’s a huge amount of fun. My husband thinks we’re nuts (nice, but nuts), as I’m sure most people do, certainly our spouses!

This year our discussion group decided to give the esoteric Western philosophers a rest after 7 years and take up Eastern philosophy for a change of pace. At the moment we are concentrating on Buddhist philosophy, and it has definitely got me thinking … and thinking and thinking. I’m just not sure exactly what it has got me thinking about; I believe the end game of Buddhism is to think about nothing – in the best possible way – and I’m not there yet!

Buddhism has hundreds of millions of followers and practitioners around the world, and so clearly has much to offer. Apparently there are more Americans who are practicing Buddhists than Episcopalians. I knew that Buddhism teaches non-violence (although what’s happening in Myanmar is not helping that image). And the surge in interest in meditation and mindfulness practices is following centuries-long Buddhists practices.

However, the philosophy that gave rise to these practices takes some digesting. These are my biggest stumbling blocks:

  1. The Buddha’s underlying premise is that life is suffering.
  2. The Buddha sought to put an end to rebirth – a new existence after death – and hence end the endless cycle of suffering. He achieved this by reaching nirvana (aka enlightenment, liberation, awareness) through some pretty radical meditation techniques. Apparently, once one has achieved enlightenment, death will be peaceful and permanent – and this is a good thing!
  3. A central doctrine of Buddhism is that there is no self, there is only a non-self. This principle of non-self means that living beings have no permanent self or essence (or what is sometimes referred to as a soul).

You can perhaps see why members of our discussion group might be struggling with accepting some of these beliefs. I get that life is suffering for many people, although I find that a narrow starting point, without much to inspire people. But it was the solution of overcoming one’s fate of rebirth and therefore overcoming the endless suffering of infinite lifetimes that blew my mind. I just have to put these starting premises down to different times, different places, and move on to what it is in Buddhism that has endured for 2500 years. And it’s probably this: Buddhism presents a path to overcoming suffering and finding personal happiness. And it appears that tools for happiness the Buddha introduced so long ago continue to have much to offer to our modern societies. Especially now. As if to prove that point, the main techniques that the Buddha put forward for achieving happiness, when taken in a modern context, are exactly what is being prescribed in the proliferation of magazine articles I have been reading:

  • Clear the mind of negative thoughts. Both meditation and mindfulness training – based in Buddhist practice – have you work on training your mind to accept the negative and then just let it go.
  • Be in the moment. Again, this is part of the outcome of meditation and mindfulness training. Train your mind to concentrate on the present; release your thoughts of the past or what may or may not happen in the future. Concentrating on your breathing and relaxing with it is part of that process.

Along with several other suggestions in these articles on happiness, including physical as well as mental wellness, I recently came across something in a New York Times column that I had never encountered before and is not Buddhism-inspired: Write your way to happiness! I love this. Certainly writing has always been good for my mental health. In this how-to-be-happy article by Tara Parker-Pope she describes how writing might be used specifically for working through problems that are wearing on you:

“Some research suggests that writing in a personal journal for 15 minutes a day can lead to a boost in overall happiness and well-being, in part because it allows us to express our emotions, be mindful of our circumstances and resolve inner conflicts. Or you can take the next step and focus on one particular challenge you face, and write and rewrite that story.

We all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it right. By writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of our personal well-being. The process is similar to Socratic questioning (referenced above). Here’s a writing exercise:

  1. Write a brief story about your struggle. I’m having money problems. I am having a hard time making friends in a new city. I’m never going to find love. I’m fighting with my spouse.
  2. Now write a new story from the viewpoint of a neutral observer, or with the kind of encouragement you’d give a friend.

Numerous studies show that writing and rewriting your story can move you out of your negative mindset and into a more positive view of life.”

What about your own happiness index at the moment? Do you have successful coping mechanisms for fighting off the negative thoughts or downright despondency that take over from time to time? Have you tried meditation? Mindfulness training? Exercise? Yoga? A big helping of tofu, quinoa, or kale (just kidding)? Have you used writing as a way to work your way through a negative situation? Do you think this could be effective?

The late Ursula Franklin, a highly regarded Canadian scientist, feminist, and pacifist, worked tirelessly for justice and world peace throughout her life. Her criteria for a good life were to be personally happy and publicly useful. Being – and feeling – useful to others may very well be one of the most effective routes to personal happiness.

Images by: BeMySearch.com (Buddha quote), writingandhealing.org

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10 Responses to Philosophy, Buddhism, paths to happiness … and writing

  1. lilie215 says:

    Tried posting earlier, didn’t seem to come through. I hope you continue to enjoy your philosophy group, that does seem fun. Some comments: 1) This is part of what is known as The Four Noble Truths, to be taken together. The buddha said that there is suffering, not that life is suffering. 2)The buddha sought simply to be awake. 3) If you look at a picture of yourself when you were 4, 10, 20, etc. You will say that is you, but no permanent, unchanging self exists. Bottom line whatever concept the human mind can create does not have a continued, permanent existence — everything changes. I would add to Quantumpreceptor’s recommendation a book by Steve Hagen, Buddhism Plain and Simple. In it he lays out these specific principles in a straightforward approach.

  2. lilie215 says:

    A great beginning for a more clear understanding of buddhist precepts is Steve Hagen, Buddhism, Plain and Simple. Good to see Quantumpreceptor’s clarifications. As Quantum Preceptor expressed, this is not the buddhism that I know either, but does appear to be disjointed segments. I, too, wish I had such a group, enjoy your pursuits.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Many thanks. It’s a long path to full comprehension. And you’re right, it’s really fun to be part of a group working together to try to figure it out … with a little necessary humor added into the mix!

  3. Hello my fellow hobby philosopher 🙂
    It’s nice to meet you and see you here on WordPress.

    I have a few things to say or add to what you have so nicely explained.

    First off the end game in Buddhism is not to not think anymore. In fact thoughts are seen an useful tool to use within meditation but they are not so important as to the space in between the thoughts. That is where things get interesting. I’ll say more in that if you are interested. But the goal of Buddhism is enlightenment for all beings. What is enlightenment? Well it’s many things but unlimited joy and bliss is what is said to result once we decide to stop swimming upstream with all life’s challenges and problems.

    The Buddha did not say that life is suffering he said there is suffering. There can be life without it, once one is enlightened. But it is important to understand that even a king who has everything suffers if he is not enlightened.
    There is no “death” after enlightenment. The cycle of rebirth ends but that which truly is the mind of a person does not die. That which is not interdependent or composite cannot be taken apart or destroyed. The goal is not to die and end it all. The goal is to realize enlightenment and then help every other being including insects to amebas until that are also enlightened.
    Do Buddhists as a lot believe in a soul? We might not all agree on this but it’s ok. Many of us call that part of us, that is timeless and full of beauty that part of us that is beyond words, mind.

    Be careful with the different way east and west see or explain philosophy they are not always the same. A good read would be https://www.amazon.com/Buddha-Meets-Socrates-Philosophers-Journal/dp/0988176238

    Have an amazing journey and I would like to recommend the works of Nargarjuna one of the Buddhist great minds if you will as a possible read for your group. Let me know how you get along. I would be happy to answer any questions you might have.
    Keep writing and keep smiling :)))

    QP

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Nice to meet you, too, QP. Your descriptions/explanations definitely resonate with everything we’ve been reading, discussing, and head-scratching over. One member of our group, who has practiced Buddhism for a long time, says that it’s easier to understand the philosophy by starting with simple practice than with the opposite approach we’ve taken. Our exploration of eastern philosophy is going to move on to Confucianism and Taoism after Christmas, but I will continue to ponder the mysteries of Buddhism!

      • Ok great I just thought I would comment because some of you wrote seemed very different from what I know and have been taught. And I find so much misinformation here and I try to shed a little light on things once in a while.
        I wish i had a group like yours it sounds fun.

        QP

  4. alesiablogs says:

    Exploring one’s own desire for true happiness on this earth is a noble cause indeed. I find mine in nature and truly believe in God who designed it. I also believe God is perceived differently by others and I am OK by that. I am always honored to discuss my views with others, but always believe letting love win out. I do admire those who live a life of integrity and giving forgiveness to each other when we fail at that. As a nurse I believe in ALL treated the same.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Alesia, you have – and describe – a wonderful outlook on life. It has served you well through life’s ups and downs. Thank you for sharing these thoughts. They work for me! 🙂

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