The Anxiety of Happiness

 

His life is a pursuit of a pursuit forever.
It is the future that creates his present.
All is an interminable chain of longing.

–Robert Frost

 

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I’ve long thought that in this section of his poem, “Escapist–Never,” Robert Frost captures a lot of what contemplative traditions describe as craving, a source of great suffering. Craving is distinguished from motivating force, intentionality, and determination; in craving there is an element of fixation on what we don’t have, to the detriment of appreciating and being grateful for what we do have. There is an endlessness to that pursuit, a going on and on in thinking about the next potential source of joy while a sense of sufficiency or satisfaction right now eludes us.

Look at where we are looking for happiness: at what is not yet here.

In the poem, there are also hints at the ways in which we can mistake temporary pleasure for the deepest happiness available to us.

There is an anxiety in happiness that is solely based on the experience of pleasure (as nice as it is) because along with that dependence comes a need for the pleasure not to change. We have likely experienced the weariness of going from object to object, from experience to experience, needing more and more intensity, not feeling we have enough stimulation right now to feel alive, and that we must find it…somewhere. This is the addictive spiral: not being mindful enough to connect strongly to what is happening now, and trying to avoid the dissatisfaction that is inevitably provoked by focusing on more craving.

So how do we break free of the habit of craving?

An example is given of a frog that is in a small pond and is told about the existence of the ocean. The frog does not believe what he is told because of being so long submerged in his small pond, so familiar and so lost to that circumscribed world. The frog cannot even imagine other possibilities. To explore the world beyond the fixation of craving, we need to enlarge our imaginations, our sense of aspiration, of what is possible for us, and explore our own minds.

We can establish a relationship with our own dissatisfaction, so that when it appears we can look at it in a healthier way, rather than trying to avoid it or cover it up. We can remember to appreciate what is here, what we have, and remind ourselves that everything inevitably changes. This is all within the purview of mindfulness meditation, which is the cultivation of a quality of awareness that changes our relationship to whatever our experience is right now. If we feel that experience to be pleasant, we learn to be with it more fully, with less distraction, and allow it to change. If we find our present moment’s experience to be painful, we learn to face

it more honestly and with greater compassion, instead of trying anything to flee from it. If our present moment’s experience seems to us to be neutral, not pleasant or unpleasant, simply routine or ordinary, we can learn to break the cycle of endlessly seeking more intensity, and connect more fully to what is here.

This is how we come out of the hold of craving. 


sharon-salzberg

Sharon Salzberg is cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts. She has been a student of meditation since 1971, guiding retreats worldwide since 1974. Her latest book is The New York Times best seller, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program, published by Workman Publishing. She is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and is also the author of several other books, including The Force of Kindness (2005), Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience (2002), and Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (1995). For more information, visit: www.SharonSalzberg.com.