"Olive Branches on the 4th of July"
- At the Desert Retreat House -
Today the American people remember what happened on July 4, 1776 - the signing of the renowned Declaration of Independence and the formal break from British rule. Today many people will hear snippets from that famous declaration signed those many years ago, a proclamation that all people are given the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
As I think about it, plenty of people go about the business of pursuing happiness every day of their lives, and yet it seems to me that the “pursuit of happiness” is perhaps the most elusive of all those “unalienable rights.”
People often pursue happiness through their continual effort at accumulating more and more “stuff” in life - nicer clothes, bigger houses, faster cars, better jobs, fatter bank accounts, more prestige and power. I do wonder however about how much “happiness” is actually found in all these pursuits?
On this American Independence Day I think about the wisdom offered by the Buddha and Buddhist teachers regarding what genuine happiness is - they make a very clear and helpful distinction between pleasure and happiness. Food gives us pleasure, so does sex, wealth and prosperity are pleasurable, so is fame and social power. But the pursuit of these pleasures does not necessarily lead to happiness.
As I see it, there is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying the pleasures of life. In order to find genuine happiness we don’t necessarily have to “sell all we have and give it to the poor,” walking around emaciated, clothed in rags and living in hovels. On the other hand, the course of the pursuit of happiness follows a path that leads in the opposite direction of “acquiring” and instead follows a course of “letting go” - letting go of a tight grip on life, letting of long-held and rigid ideas, letting go of a constant desire for more and better and bigger and newer.
Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, puts it this way:
Letting go gives us freedom
and freedom is the only condition for happiness.
If in our heart we still cling to anything –
anger, anxiety, strongly-held ideas or possessions
we cannot be free and therefore we cannot be happy.
The well-know Christian Monk and author, Thomas Merton, out it this way:
When ambition ends, happiness begins.
Furthermore, as I see it, the path to pursuing happiness goes even a step further than “letting go” of ambition and clinging, the pursuit of happiness also points us in a way of compassion for others. In fact, we can only be happy by making others happy, we find genuine happiness when we give ourselves for the good of others, for the common good.
I think about something Martin Luther King Jr. once said:
Those who are searching for happiness forget that
the surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others.
On this day, as many of us celebrate the signing of that Declaration of Independence, I want to re-calibrate the direction of my own course of pursuing happiness by “letting go” more boldly and by loving more fully.
The Dalai Lama once said
If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
Such great wisdom for American Independence Day.