Happiness in the Era of Trump

Bodhicitta is a way of connecting to other lives, of saying we are nothing without that connection and that our connection to each other is deeper than we can ever truly know.

As if suddenly dropped into an alien landscape or the toxic atmosphere of a foreign metropolis, now all plans, intentions, contemplation, associations and actions exist in the era of Trump.  Is this the dream, or am I waking into a nightmare?  The landscape is familiar, but somehow different, no longer safe. Everything, values, lifestyle, morality and an ever-fragile peace, balances on a precipice.

I go through the motions of normalcy, repeating familiar patterns of activity. Yet nothing is familiar anymore. Everything seems to require a little more intention. Insofar as I can become absorbed, focusing on something compelling and becoming temporarily lost, I am happy. But upon completion, drifting back to the larger awareness, I am reminded in the next breath of a less stable and more threatening world, not merely in a physical sense, but in a deep moral sense. Grief remains just below the surface. Happiness–true equanimity–is more elusive.

There are those who would surely say something like, “Welcome to reality, dude!” As if not much has really changed. We have been on this trajectory toward dissolution for a long time, they would say. And I might agree. But no, with the election of Trump, we just went geometric. We have just amplified the suffering of the many for the sake of the happiness of a few. The great irony of the electoral decision made by so many is the belief that they will be spared the consequences of the agenda they have endorsed.

Which brings me to ponder happiness itself. Now, we might well ask what that is or how we will know it when we see it. When I say “we,” I  reflexively refer to those who regard Trump as a threat multiplier of unknown proportion. In truth, however, when it comes to happiness, all of us fall into the same category. Those who voted for Trump have been mostly unhappy for a long time (never mind how they might define happiness), though I suspect they will soon see that Trump cannot (and is not inclined to) resurrect the American Dream for them in the way they might most desire or believe is possible. Or, if he makes a serious attempt, it will come at great cost to the cohesion of the nation, not to mention our international stature.

More precisely, I think about how I think about happiness–because the answer to that question has a lot to do with whether I am happy–or not. The intention to be happy is innate to many decisions every day; but what does happiness now mean in the era of Trump? We’d better know what it is, because we’re gonna have to work harder for it.

Dharma regards everyday happiness as transient since it is entirely based on a dualistic view. Happiness is defined as the absence of suffering. But for there to be happiness at all, there must be something we call suffering. Happiness may be a benefit we wish for others by our aspiration and by our action.  We may wish everyday happiness for everyone, as if the satisfaction of having “enough” is sufficient, even if it’s temporary. Beyond that, we wish for a release from the cyclic behaviors that drive us to seek happiness in ways that are not truly satisfying.

The metaphysical perch from which we view happiness is bodhicitta, a comprehensive compassionate view. We want to enjoy the relative happiness that flows from realizing the Four Noble Truths: the universality of suffering and the fact that there is (the Eightfold…) path through suffering. We extend that wish to those who are experiencing the suffering of pain and the suffering of change. We extend these wishes to those closest to us, and can also extend it to everyone in general.

Beyond our immediate circle, there are those to whom we do not feel close. We may feel neutral or even indifferent, but we can extend a wish for happiness to them. There are still others with whom we have a negative history and residual negative emotion. It’s more complicated to erase negative emotions completely, to extend a genuine wish of happiness to such a person because negative feelings don’t just dissolve upon request.

To transform negative emotions into unequivocal, refreshing, clear and unlimited positive regard is not trivial. It’s not an act of mere will. It is a deliberative process, sometimes a sharp reality check requiring that I go beyond what I merely wish to be true to true forgiveness and compassion– for myself as well as for another. At the heart of those judgments about others, I am likely to find a judgment about myself, which may itself arise from a painful incident buried in the past. It is only in looking at the origins of those judgments, at the emotional anchors and core beliefs that hold them, that they can be seen for what they so often are: self-cherishing stories, baseless assumptions, limited beliefs.

I’ve practiced this with romantic partners, family members, an ex-spouse, a former supervisor, co-workers and even former friends. Admitting the deep attachment we have to our judgments about others is often slow and careful (not to mention uncomfortable) work, especially if we believe we have been personally wronged. But working through the resentment or anger to an authentic clarity is possible.

We can form honest intentions about others that we disliked at one time. Yet some measure of animus might creep back. One might manage an authentic wish for a moment, but find it difficult to remain in that clarity for an extended period. It’s a little unsettling to realize that if I was standing in front of someone I disliked, transmitting an honest wish for their happiness, they might get the idea that I liked them.  Could I do that face to face with a Trump supporter, a racist neo-Nazi?  They think we could be friends, which would present even more challenging circumstances. With certain people, I’m not so sure I could tolerate that. We simply resist letting go of the hardened ways that we see certain people. This gets tricky, doesn’t it? But neither does it mean I have to agree with or condone the views of any random Trump supporter.

Shantideva (The Way of the Bodhisattva) famously said that there is no such thing as happiness in samsara. He was referring to a previous statement about happiness in which he declared that the only true happiness derives from completely renouncing self-cherishing. Any wish for happiness or action toward happiness based on self-cherishing (What about ME??) would be dishonest, illusory and ultimately futile.

Everyday happiness is a product of causes and conditions, meaning it is bound by time and therefore impermanent. Shantideva is saying that any such happiness is not true happiness. From the absolute perspective, anything that arises from causes and conditions has no intrinsic reality. No matter how much we avoid suffering and no matter how successful we are, the entire charade is a product of the fundamental mistake of believing in the existence of our separate identity. From that view, neither happiness nor suffering have ever existed.

Of course, this is an idea that runs directly counter to our sensory experience. But again, neither our perceptions nor emotions have ever had independent (permanent) existence. Yet, neither are they non-existent! We are left with a perfectly clear choice to continue cultivating the bodhicitta of compassion that doesn’t take sides–which is to say, no matter how we voted, we are all equal in our lifelong dance with suffering and change.

If letting go of judgments seems difficult, it’s likely because those judgments reinforce our sense of separate identity There is no need to deny the reality of our feelings and emotions so long as we don’t get hung up believing that there is any true substance to them…or, for that matter, to the feeler. By continuously reinforcing separation, every “self,” becomes a unique pattern of inattention to the larger reality in which it lives.

We can hold the great paradox of the truth of appearances while still being mindful of their ultimate non-existence. True compassion, without making any distinctions about who deserves it or not, views all emotion, happiness and suffering as equal in nature, arising from a trance-like belief in the reality of opposites. We can still be happy … realizing that suffering will inevitably be a part of that relative happiness.

Taking this view into the practice of aspiration or active bodhicitta, we can project our compassionate intentions knowing that fully overcoming self-cherishing may be out of reach–at least in this lifetime. For now, we simply do the best we can.

A supremely spacious clarity is a prerequisite for accessing the source of happiness. From that source, happiness becomes a view as vast as space, an uninterrupted flow of sensation and feeling without attachment, an expanding, unimpeded, infinitely inclusive condition of holding all that is. Everything is included: all events (including the election of Donald Trump), all sensation and all emotion. No need to deny anything. On the contrary, everything can be used to energize our view in every moment. If that condition of possibility can be formed, arising unimpeded according to one’s capacity, then anything can arise in that space.

Moreover, everything already exists there anyway. Wherever attention may go, wherever it lands, the object of that attention—even a fear of dire consequences of current events– already exists in this spacious condition.

Does such a condition exist outside of ego-consciousness? What is “happiness” not arising as an object of intention? Do we call it happiness at all? If happiness can exist as something other than an object of “my” intention, then who is the “I” that is forming the wish?

Contemplating the supreme spacious quality found at the root of happiness, I do not create or wish happiness for myself. I don’t wish for the happiness of a single separate identity, “me,” to become just another passing object of attention. I seek happiness with no object, which is to say a wish of happiness for all others. Resting in the root of that happiness itself, arising spontaneously without intention from a dynamic spacious nature, being “uncreated,” as it were, it becomes entirely natural to extend it to all others.

I project a wish that others will also connect to that root. Inherent to such a wish is the knowledge that we are all connected by and as the root of happiness. We are not simply connect separately to some ineffable source of happiness. Our connection to each other is that source. The nature of happiness is identical to the true nature of everything; we can’t separate the source of happiness from the source of compassion, from the source of loving kindness or joy. They are all inseparable from each other.

Our work is more than the formation of wishes. It is the active removal of all obstacles to a connection to the source of happiness. Believing we are ever separated from the root of happiness or, for that matter, from any of the Four Immeasurables, is the obstacle to overcome. In the non-dual view, since there is no such thing as happiness (or suffering), connecting to the root of happiness, already pure, goes to the heart of the Mahayana view. True happiness and compassion arise in natural abundance from the same timeless and ineffable source: the realization of emptiness.

The nature of happiness becomes known as appearance imbued with the truth of emptiness in which the very idea of happiness itself has no true existence. In every time, even in the era of Trump, that is precisely why it holds unlimited potential.

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