Yuval Noah Harari on Buddhism’s Central Insight

(Source: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari)

“Buddhism shares the basic insight of the biological approach to happiness, namely that happiness results from processes occurring within one’s body, and not from events in the outside world. However, starting from the same insight, Buddhism reaches very different conclusions.

“According to Buddhism, most people identify happiness with pleasant feelings, while identifying suffering with unpleasant feelings. People consequently ascribe immense importance to what they feel, craving to experience more and more pleasures, while avoiding pain. Whatever we do throughout our lives, whether scratching our leg, fidgeting slightly in the chair, or fighting world wars, we are just trying to get pleasant feelings.

“The problem, according to Buddhism, is that our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations, changing every moment, like the ocean waves. If five minutes ago I felt joyful and purposeful, now these feelings are gone, and I might well feel sad and dejected. So if I want to experience pleasant feelings, I have to constantly chase them, while driving away the unpleasant feelings. Even if I succeed, I immediately have to start all over again, without ever getting any lasting reward for my troubles.

“What is so important about obtaining such ephemeral prizes? Why struggle so hard to achieve something that disappears almost as soon as it arises? According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness.

“Rather, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction. Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satisfied. Even when experiencing pleasure, it is not content, because it fears this feeling might soon disappear, and craves that this feeling should stay and intensify.

“People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them. This is the aim of Buddhist meditation practices.

“In meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realise how pointless it is to pursue them. When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied. All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing – joy, anger, boredom, lust – but once you stop craving particular feelings, you can just accept them for what they are. You live in the present moment instead of fantasising about what might have been. The resulting serenity is so profound that those who spend their lives in the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it.

“It is like a man standing for decades on the seashore, embracing certain ‘good’ waves and trying to prevent them from disintegrating, while simultaneously pushing back ‘bad’ waves to prevent them from getting near him. Day in, day out, the man stands on the beach, driving himself crazy with this fruitless exercise. Eventually, he sits down on the sand and just allows the waves to come and go as they please. How peaceful!

“To sum up, subjective well-being questionnaires identify our wellbeing with our subjective feelings, and identify the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of particular emotional states. In contrast, for many traditional philosophies and religions, such as Buddhism, the key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself – to understand who, or what, you really are. Most people wrongly identify themselves with their feelings, thoughts, likes and dislikes.

When they feel anger, they think, ‘I am angry. This is my anger.’ They consequently spend their life avoiding some kinds of feelings and pursuing others. They never realise that they are not their feelings, and that the relentless pursuit of particular feelings just traps them in misery.

“If this is so, then our entire understanding of the history of happiness might be misguided. Maybe it isn’t so important whether people’s expectations are fulfilled and whether they enjoy pleasant feelings. The main question is whether people know the truth about themselves.”

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