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Saturday, February 6, 2016

Meaning and Happiness Part 2

In a previous reflection, we examined studies contrasting meaning and happiness as goals of the good life.  For Maurits GT Kwee, the interpretation of Buddhist teaching and practice in relationship with social psychology, shows the path to Meaning as Sustainable Happiness. He presents a contemporary positive psychology that builds on the insights of Buddhism.  It is an excellent presentation informed by years of study and practice.

In Buddhist terms, suffering is caused by the grasping for and clinging to permanence in an impermanent world. Happiness is achieved when we fully accept that all is impermanent; and we live a life without clinging of loving kindness, compassion, and shared joy. The way to achieve this is through a meditation in which we experience the becoming of things and thus acknowledge the emptiness of thoughts including self, world, god, and truth.

But that is a formulation of an insight that has no clear and distinct formulation. And therefore centuries of teachings by practitioners have accrued over the 2600 years since Prince Gautama had and began to teach his insight. Kwee's formulation using the thoughts of positive psychology and social construction epistemology is very useful in the transference of the Buddhist insight into contemporary secular and, I would add, postmodern culture.

Rather than summarize Kwee whom you can read here, let me instead present my own reflections in dialogue with him and the Buddhist tradition in which I too have had some training and then come back to a consideration of meaning and happiness in our postmodern times.

I recognize the concordance of Buddhism as a discipline in positive psychology with my study of thinking which draws on pragmatist, social constructionist, and symbolic interactionist theory and practice which  pushes us into the "postmodern" age as I am trying to describe in my writings. Indeed, I might argue that the "postmodern" insight that is evident in our contemporary art, religion, philosophy, and even now our science is a kind of retrieval of the insight of Buddha and many other great-minded souls throughout history. And I might argue that it is an insight to which we are all called in our own transient, contingent situations with their special languages, belief systems, institutions or habits of mind and behavior.

What Buddhists call meditation, what Christians call contemplation, what contemporary psychologists call mindfulness, I am calling "mindful thinking" trying to show both continuity and disruption in our characteristic way of coming to terms with our environment.

Thinking, i.e. social construction of our world through symbols, opens the door to illusions -- what Dewey call the objectivistic fallacy, what M-P called the illusion of the absolute, and what Francis Bacon called the idols of the mind. Those illusions come from the characteristic of thinking as positing objects through media to pattern the fluctuating, chaotic environment in order to remember, communicate, collaborate, and plan. Those mediated things or truths are useful to human evolution. But when we forget where they came from and consider them eternal, infallible, or permanent, which we are prone to do simply because the positing of truths is what we do, we suffer and cause suffering.

So thinking as Eve and Pandora discovered is the root of good and evil. While it causes suffering, it is also the way to meaning and happiness.

Suffering (pathos in Greek, passion in Latin) is physical and emotional. But as therapists, whether physicists dealing with bodily hurt or psychologists dealing with mental pain, realize, they go together and so holistic medicine, which treats the body/mind/spirit whole, is preferred. Suffering is also personal and social: existential angst and political oppression. While psychologists focus on relief of personal existential suffering, I believe it is important to deal at the same time with the suffering of those who have been made into things of manipulation, who are objectified, brutalized, dehumanized, and thus oppressed.

The practice of dispelling illusions and idols is contemplation in action. It is Buddhist meditation or mindfulness with which we see the "becoming of things," the pre-conceptual and intersubjective activity of structuring our world through media. I equate this with the "consolation of philosophy" and "existential phenomenology" properly understood not as an academic exercise, but as a personal exercise. Here we wrestle with our illusions and idols and deeply experience the interactivity of creating ourselves and our worlds. Here we grasp the relationality of all that there is and the fullness of contingency and impermanence.

But I would hold that contemplation in action means interacting with others to restore the relationality of the world by overcoming the illusions and idols that have been institutionalized in our social order. If we truly grasp that the self, all selves, all living beings, and all things in the Universe are not only in relation, but also are relationships, that is, constituted by relationships, we will decide to remove the obstacles to relationship, again, the institutions or habits of mind and behavior that deny and impede relations. This means mindful social action by which communities recognizing their shared suffering of oppression, that which holds them back from being innovating subjects interacting to create their world.

The Buddha pointed out that greed (the clinging to wealth), hatred (the clinging to self), and ignorance (the clinging to illusion) are the obstacles. They are countered by friendliness, compassion, and shared joy. To contemplate in action is to enter into and identify with the sufferings of others, sharing their sense of contingency, impermanence, and oppression. It is through empathy and compassion that we discover solidarity and the ability to act for relational interbeing and a relational world.

Thus I propose that sustainable happiness is in the continuing realization of meaning by collectively restoring a relational world out of one that is broken by our institutionalized illusions. Mindful thinking, contemplation in action, which is both personal civility and social action, consists in working with others to become more mindful by discovering and removing the obstacles of our illusions towards a more relational world.

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