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It’s Hard to Be Happy

One unforgettable day in New York City, over ten years ago, I was crossing Park Avenue on my way to give a lecture when a Yellow Cab that had decided not to stop at a red light careened out of control at about forty miles an hour. It sideswiped me and my wife, shortly after we had stepped off the curb, before hitting a few other people and crashing into another car. I can clearly see the picture in my mind’s eye even now. I was standing in the street, my right arm badly broken, dangling as if by a thread, and my right calf so deeply ripped open that later I was told that my shin bone was clearly visible. My wife lay unconscious at my feet with blood trickling from the corner of her mouth. In that instant, I thought she might be dead. Hours later, in my hospital bed, having received the news that she and I would recover and be more or less as good as new within a year, I remember witnessing the thought, “How could this happen to me?” arising in my awareness. And then the answer came, “Why shouldn’t it?”

For some time now I have been reflecting upon the bizarre irony of the fact that so many of us at the leading edge of Western culture—the wealthiest, most highly educated, and privileged generation ever to exist on the face of the earth—have somehow gotten the idea in our heads that we deserve to be happy, healthy, and prosperous. It would seem that many of us, consciously or unconsciously, believe that before we incarnated, we signed some sort of contract with our maker stipulating that we would be willing to endure a certain degree of fear, stress, and insecurity as long as sooner or later we got to be happy. And the wealthier and more privileged we are, the greater, it seems, is this expectation.

After more than two decades of working intensively with men and women who claim to want to transform and develop spiritually, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the reasons it is so challenging for us to attain and sustain higher levels of spiritual development is that we expect so much and are willing to give so little in order to get what we think we want. The truth is, it’s hard to be happy. These days, it’s become almost a truism that simply fulfilling our narcissistic and materialistic desires is not enough to make us deeply happy. But how many of us have really dug deeply enough to reconfigure our own ideas of what happiness means in light of a higher set of values than those held by our crazy culture? For our values to change in a way that is nothing less than dramatic, we have to be willing to make a hell of a lot of effort. These days, many people are turning to the spiritual dimension of life. But it is telling that many of the most popular expressions of postmodern east-meets-west spirituality are based on a philosophical orientation that endlessly trumpets the promise of effortless peace, joy, and happiness, as if that’s the ultimate life experience.

Why, for the luckiest people who have ever been born, should happiness be a birthright? Why should our spiritual aspirations be focused on the pursuit of inner peace alone? Did God create the universe so that you and I, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, could be happy? Is that really all there is to this fourteen-billion-year process? And why is it that so many of us presume that we deserve to be happy in the first place? What is it that we have actually done to give us such an innate privilege?

It’s fascinating to observe what happens to our perspective when we don’t assume that we necessarily deserve anything, especially not the promise of happiness or perfect peace. Just give it a try. You may be surprised to discover that a whole universe of previously unimaginable possibilities opens up to you. You may even begin to awaken to the overwhelming revelation that the very process that gave birth to your own capacity for life and consciousness urgently needs your willingness to make effort and even, I dare say, suffer, for its higher development.

I’m convinced that this evolving Kosmos is in desperate need of our conscious participation in order for its creative potential to continue to develop. Our postmodern spiritual pursuit of peace may in fact just be taking us out of the game. As our spiritual values evolve, if we reach high enough, we may come upon a surprising revelation: that in order to experience a happiness that is profound, we must be willing to struggle to find nothing less than a Kosmic sense of care for the life process that will set us free but, ironically, will never leave us in peace.

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