One question I'm often asked is, "What attracted you to Buddhism?" This is difficult to answer succinctly because there was an amalgam of factors ranging from my background in martial arts to my need for a rationalist spirituality. However, if I wanted to answer the question in one sentence, I'd say the following:
I started practicing Buddhism because I wanted to be happy.
I've always been a goal-oriented person. I make lists, I create plans, and I execute on those plans until my goals come to fruition. This process helped me move through the ranks when I served as a U.S. Marine.
It allowed me to build a career in the tech sector despite having a non-technical degree. And it afforded me life experiences like canoeing through the Canadian wilderness and building a tiny house.
I say all of this to say that planning and goal-setting have their place. And there are aspects of our lives where they can be useful. But happiness isn't one of them.
Before Buddhism came into my life, I had a plan for how I'd become happy. It was standard stuff. I wanted a nice place to live, a job that I didn't hate, a fast car, and some extra money in my bank account.
When I finished my college and military commitments, I had the typical struggles that come with starting a career. But crappy jobs led to less crappy ones. And I started eating less PB&J for dinner each night. Eventually, I checked everything off of my happiness to-do list, and I waited impatiently to be filled with joy. But it never happened.
So, I decided that I must have done something wrong. And I changed my list. Instead of seeking happiness in material possessions I tried to find it in politics, religion, and activist work. I don't regret any of that. My religion and activism have given me many gifts over the years. But the fact remains that once I checked all the boxes on my new list, the result was the same. Happiness never came.
Clearly, I have no idea what it will take to bring joy into my life. In fact, I don't know if such a thing is possible. Perhaps happiness is a lie created by society to keep us running in circles. Or maybe there's some errant portion of our DNA that makes us seek satisfaction outside of ourselves.
Either way, Buddhism has shown me that the search for happiness is a fool's errand; rooted in desire. And desire always leads to despair.
On the other hand, I find that the dull, aching feeling in my chest goes away when I focus on contentment. When I strive to be satisfied with what I have instead of striving to get or be something new, my mind state becomes more peaceful.
Gratitude practices are helpful in this regard. When I remember to say "thank you" for my job, my apartment, my cat, etc., I'm reminded that there's nothing missing from my life. In fact, one of my favorite gratitude practices is to recite the following benediction before a meal:
May the merit of this meal benefit all beings. I give thanks to the universe that made it.
When I express gratitude for the gifts that life has given me, something rises within me that's warm and comforting. It helps me notice the beauty of a freshly cut lawn and feel the sun against my skin. I don't know what to call this feeling. In fact, I'm starting to think it doesn't have a name.
But it's real and it's pleasant. And I've learned to be content with that.
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Sensei Alex Kakuyo is an author, activist, and Buddhist teacher in the Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism. He teaches a nonsectarian approach to the Dharma, which encourages students to seek enlightenment in everyday life.
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