“We don’t want to be unconditionally happy. I’m ready to be happy provided I have this and that and the other thing. We cannot imagine being happy without those conditions. We’ve been taught to place our happiness in them.”Anthony De Mello, Awareness
Here is the simplest definition of wisdom: being unconditionally happy.
As De Mello says, this is very counter-intuitive. Because it is natural to think – we are even encouraged to think – that happiness must be conditional. I need the things I love to be happy. If the things I love and want are bad things, then I am seen as a bad person – if I want drugs, bloodshed, to make others look bad, etc. If the things I love are good things, then I am seen as a good person – if I want peace, cures to diseases, to help others.
One sense of wisdom is knowing how to want the good things as opposed to the bad things. So that I want not to spend all my time belittling others or looking out only for myself, but that I want to focus on cultivating my talents or seek to help others or pray or meditate. If I can just do the latter, then I will be wise. So this thought goes.
But on this conception, wisdom itself is conditional. On my seeking the good things and avoiding seeking the bad things. Or on my gtting those good things rather than being stuck in a rut in making progress on the good things. If this happens, then I am fated to be unwise. So wisdom in this sense forever has a sword hanging over you to see if you are really being good, or if you are sliding bad into being bad.
In my experience, this is how most people think of wisdom. As a beautiful fruit to be gained as long as I can get things right. And so an internal pressure builds on getting things right, and maintaining that. This is how I thought of it too for a long time.
But I have come to think this is not really wisdom. It’s wanting to be a good person. It confuses being a wise person with being a good person. As if wisdom is something we need to grab hold off and not let go, lest we fall back into the morass of being bad.
It’s a simple enough distinction, but it cuts to the heart of the issue. Seeking to be a good person brings with it emotions of potential guilt, anxiety, nervousness – what if I don’t succeed? what if I don’t make it? what if the conditions I need to be good fail to obtain? what if I fail to be good and wise?
For wisdom in a deeper sense these doubts are entirely out of place. Its happiness is unconditional.
It is just there within us, untouched by the passing conditions. It never leaves us no matter what happens, or what doesn’t happen. Like an eternal flame it burns within us, oblivious to the winds and storms and sunny skies of life’s ups and downs passing by.
This kind of wisdom isn’t gained through vigorous planning. “I will first eat right, meditate, read the right books, be still, not get pulled into arguments with people… Then I will be with the eternal flame, I will catch it and it will be glorious.” The planning makes the happiness conditional – and so the unconditional happiness slips out of the hand. The more vigoriously you plan, the less it seems visible and graspable. Because you are treating the unconditional happiness as a special kind of conditioned happiness – as the best kind of conditional happiness. And so as you plan to get all the conditions just right, you feel the flickers of the happiness, but the essence of it – its unconditionality – feels out of grasp.
So what then: one just has to wait for a miracle to strike for me to just become unconditionally happy? No! That waiting too is just another condition.
Don’t wait. Don’t plan. Don’t think what you will do now so that later you can have wisdom and be serenely happy. Not even if the later is a hour from now or five minutes from now. Not even if the later comes after reading great books like The Bible or The Gita or the works of Emerson or Eckhart Tolle or Marcus Aurelius or Confucius. Not even if the later comes after, you swear and promise, you will try really, really hard to be the best you that you can be, and will get up on time and meditate and do all the right things needed to be wise.
Instead of waiting or planning, and thinking about how glorious that future moment will be when the conditions become just right for the light to dawn and for your soul to be opened to bliss – instead of waiting and planning, do something else right now.
Right now, in this instant, there is a part of you which is unconditionally happy. Find that part of you and focus on that. Worries about your income or your health or your loved ones or the coronovirus or politics and the fate of the world might be overwhelming your consciousness. But still, if you notice it, there it is: in a corner of your mind, just observing all of your worries, without judgment, without worry, without condescension.
A big part of you might be petrified with worry or buzzing on a sugar high or worried about the interview tomorrow or happy about how the date went tonight. These ups and downs loom large in your consciousness. But if you just notice, there is a part of you that doesn’t care how the interview goes tomorrow, or is indifferent to the how the date went tonight. Even if the concerns are as big as something horrific happening to you or to a loved one, and as exciting as winning the Nobel prize or the lottery – there is a part of you that just doesn’t care that much one way or the other. That part of you isn’t moved too much one way or the other.
It can be surprising to call this part of you unconditional happiness. Normally depending on the circumstance, we call it something else. If something bad happens to a loved one, then I might feel that part of me that is unmoved is callous or uncaring, selfish or emotionally distant. If something great happens and yet a part of me is unmoved, we might then call that part of me jaded or detached, pompous or holier than thou. Either way, when really painful or really happy things happy, we look on that part of us that is just observing with disdain, as if it were belittling our emotions and our situations. “I just lost my job, you sanctimonous prick! Feel something! It matters!” Or: “I am finally getting that promotion I have been waiting years for! Now my kids can go to a better school! I don’t care what you say: it matters! I am not going to be numb like you!”
Of course one can be a santimonous prick and not show concern. Or be numb even when happy things happen. We are familiar with those parts of us. We can be pricks and assholes, refusing to show sympathy. We can be numb and ironic, raining on happy events with a dour realism.
But we confuse these parts of us with the unconditionally happy part of us, as if any part of us that doesn’t go up and down with our conditions and emotions is lacking in life. And we distrust it. This is what De Mello means by, “We don’t want to be unconditionally happy.”
We trust wisdom when we think of it as a conditioned good – when wisdom itself is like the rest of our emotions. When we think of wisdom as the hard to grasp fruit, the very image of it as unavilable to me now is soothing – as if thereby that wisdom and my day to day concerns can co-exist. As if wisdom doesn’t have to remove me too far from the things I like and the things I hate. Wisdom as a future, conditional good I might get down the line if I am good feels ultimately non-threatning to my conditioned happiness now.
In contrast, that part of me right now which is unconditionally happy feels like it is an alien part of me. Something I can’t quite understand or fit into my narratives about where I am going in my life. I worry that it might be too intense or too flighty, too serious or not serious enough, too wise or not wise enough.
In the name of looking for the wisdom I hope to find tomorrow or a year from now, I push away from my mind the wisdom of unconditional happiness which is within me. I say, “That part of me – I don’t what that is. It’s too strange, too mysterious. Too unhuman. Too disconnected from my life. Too above my life. That is not what I am seeking. It will be the death of me and all that I hold dear.” This is our fears and our anxieties, our conditioning and our habits talking.
We have to do just one thing to be wise: make friends with the part of us that is unconditionally happy. It is there right now within you, as you are reading this, and right now within me as I am writing this. It is within us at every moment. It is unconditionally within us. Just there. Just happy. Just serene. Just observing. All of our awareness of life and the infinity of the universe is within that part of us.
In reality, it is not just a part of us, but the whole of us. We imagine the conditional happiness is who we are, and the unconditional happiness within us is but a nagging, confusing speck which we can do without. But as we open up to that unconditional happiness within us – as we let it into our lives and our habits, into our family and our jobs and our interactions with our neighbors and our politics and our ups and our downs – we find something magical and wonderful.
The unconditional happiness isn’t just a part of us. It is us. It isn’t one part of our consciousness. It is the essence of our consciousness. That all along when we tried so hard to find just the right kind of conditional happiness, what we were looking for was the unconditional happiness.