Long flights are time for few guilty pleasures for me: books that I do not otherwise get to read, composing long letters to friends much beloved, and truth be told, movies. One of these, a Disney film called Inside Out, got to me.
It’s a lovely film, actually, about the emotions that we all carry inside us. Joy, sadness, anger, fear, disgust. Each one is personified: “joy” is a luminous being, sadness a “blue” little girl, anger a stocky man who shoots flames of wrath from his head, and so on. The emotions want the little girl (“Riley”) who is the main character to be happy. At one point in the film they even banish “sadness,” so that Riley can have a chance to be Happy. But then they come to see that it is not possible to be whole if we banish any part of us. Each emotion has a role in the redemption story. Eventually, they come to embrace that Riley can only be made whole by embracing the role for each of them.
Somewhere in the middle of watching the movie, it got me thinking about something much more meaningful. I want to be beyond happy. What we each of us desire is to be whole.
When you walk into bookstores, you find — often right next to the religion section, the spirituality section, and, sadly, the business section — there is the unavoidable self-help section. Self-help is big business. Amazon lists some 1635 book titles under “happiness self-help.” Billions of dollars are spent on the promise of happiness.
Books, podcasts, workshops, seminars, and retreats promise many things. They tap into many different religious traditions, spiritual teachings, and some with no discernable tradition. At their core, they have one thing in common: there is a secret to happiness. Follow this teaching and you’ll find happiness.
The promise of secret, esoteric knowledge is ancient. The Greeks, Persians, and Indians all had it. Texts attributed to both Jesus and Muhammad depict them as rising to a mountaintop with their most worthy disciples and whispering the secret of all secrets into their ears. When they get down from the mountain, the rest of the disciples ask the chosen disciple what he had been told. He simply answers: “If I told you, you would stone me.”
There is a secret so important, so lovely, so filled with mysteries, that if those wisdom-filled disciples would be stoned, not by a band of infidels but by disciples of Jesus and Muhammad. Yes, esoteric wisdom can be dangerous.
Yes, mystical secrets are taken very seriously. The very act of sharing these secrets can help shape a sense of community, of intimacy, of “belonging.”
These days it seems that there is a still a market for the secret pathway to happiness.
Everyone seems to be peddling a secret to happiness. Do this. Buy that. Repeat this mantra. Rub that oil. Place this crystal. Pray these words.
Perhaps there is much that we don’t understand. Maybe there is a room for each of these. But what if happiness Is too small of a goal? What if we are not meant for happiness?
I do not mean to say that everyone (or anyone) who speaks of happiness is a fake or a charlatan. Teachers as great as His Holiness the Dalai Lama have books with titles like The Art of Happiness. The late great Muslim scholar Al Ghazzali had a famous title called Alchemy of Happiness.
But I want to probe this elusive quest for happiness. I wonder, are we still settling for something too cheap? I wonder if this “happiness” is not somehow avoiding the real grappling with suffering, with anger, with sadness, with each and every emotion that makes us human? What if in the quest for a cheap kind of individual happiness, we lose the very grit of life that we all have to confront at some point?
We come through this world through both joy and pain. In a beautiful life, the departure of this world (and starting life in the realm beyond) is also wrapped up in both pain and joy. Hopefully. What if happiness is merely one guest in the caravanserai of our heart, and we are intended to welcome all the guests?
What if the Lord who sends the happiness also sends the sadness? What if the Lord of the sunshine also brings the sunset?
What if we strive for something beyond happiness? What if we aim for a life that is about being whole?
Whole. All of it.
I come back to Inside Out. Floating above the clouds, I have been pondering on the meaning of these teachings. We are not fools. Not all of these emotions are equally beautiful, equally luminous. Anger does tend to drag us down, and joy has a deep and intimate connection to gratitude.
I am mindful of the harm that sadness can cause us, and have seen so many lives — not merely of individuals but of families — torn asunder by sadness when it turns destructive. The same, maybe even more so, by anger.
I wonder about the being whole, about our life as a meal that needs some salt to bring the other flavors together. And if accepting this, accepting that we are meant to be beyond happy Is, ironically, the key to happiness?
Fear not, there are not and will not be any workshops or seminars attached to this. This is simply a path that we, each of us, must go through on our own. Though we need not go through it alone.
Here is to a life, everyday and spiritual,
Both individual and communal,
Meditative and ritual,
Embracing all the emotions that make us human,
Leading us to happiness,
And beyond happiness