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The downside of happiness

What I learned about purpose from a Buddhist monk.

Shunkoin Temple, Kyoto
Shunkoin Temple, Kyoto

At the start of this year, I took a trip to Japan. I wanted to learn more about meditation but without the hype that surrounds it in the UK and US. I found Shunkō-in Temple, which teaches Zen meditation in English and became intrigued by the monk behind it all.

Takafumi Kawakami turns out to be an extremely modern Buddhist monk. He comes from a long line of Buddhist priests but studied in the US before returning to Japan. He embraces Buddhism as ritual, as his heritage and as an intellectual practice, but without any slant of dogma. His traditional robes belie his modern approach; he travels to the US frequently, has taught at IDEO and works with several startups. 

I was curious to know what he would say about purpose.

What does Buddhism say about purpose?

“In a way, there’s no purpose in your life. The Buddhist approach is: you’re born – you’re born, you die – you die. Like physics. Like dominos; you knock one and they keep falling that way. For individual human beings, there is no purpose. Originally.”

And just like that, Taka Kawakami wiped the slate. I stalled at this point. How do you even follow that? Purpose had just become a non-question.

But his response was also liberating: the purpose in our lives is what we create for ourselves. There is no right answer, or potentially, lots of right answers:

The purpose in our lives is what we create for ourselves. There is no right answer, or potentially, lots of right answers.

“In that sense, you can actually make up any purpose.  Some people say the meaning of life is adding purpose to your life. In that sense actually, there’s no right answer about your purpose.”

Taka’s approach is to search for a purpose that’s not self-centered, that reaches others: “Look outside. Even find one person in a day, (and ask) how can I make this person happy? Even just 5 minutes. If you keep doing that you’ll probably start seeing what society needs.”

I admit that I came expecting profound truths. I was hoping for something epic that would shift the way I saw the world. But what Taka said was so simple that at first I was disappointed. It’s only now while writing about our conversation that the meaning is starting to stick. One of the reasons I’ve struggled with the idea of purpose is that I’ve been waiting for something big, something I couldn’t ignore. I wanted something that would hit me dead on and change my course. In the midst of this, it’s easy to miss the difference you could make on your doorstep; the small change that could be the most profound.

Even if you find enlightenment, you will still be you

As I was telling Taka that I was flying back to San Francisco after Japan, he started laughing. He notices that lots of people from tech companies and startups leave their jobs to go exploring, but then, inevitably, go back to the valley. 

He says some people expect everything to become clear after they reach some measure of enlightenment. But the challenge is reconciling our revelations with our imperfect lives, as Jack Kornfield’s writes in After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.

So many of us go hunting for experiences that change our perspective. In the process, we hope that somehow these experiences will change us, that they will improve us. But this is fiction. Travel, experiences, meditation and all kinds of soul-searching might change your viewpoint, but at the core, you’ll still be the same person.

Sometimes wisdom brings more questions

Rev Takafumi Kawakami. A very modern Buddhist monk

I asked Taka whether he’s had moments of doubt about his direction and he told me directly: “I still don’t know. I have no idea sometimes.”

Taka told me about comparisons he makes with other people. His nuanced approach makes him less media-friendly because he is unwilling to make bold claims that get attention if he knows those claims aren’t totally true.

“The truth is happiness also has side effects. Sadness has benefits.”

Taka Kawakami

“I could say ‘everyone should be happy, happiness is good’, but the truth is happiness also has side effects. Sadness has benefits. So we cannot just say ‘this is a positive emotion, this is a negative emotion’.”

Happiness has side effects

Taka argues: “people don’t define happiness, and that’s an issue”. There are eudaemonic and hedonic kinds of happiness and getting caught up in the latter traps you in an endless spiral of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Ultimately this leads to suffering. But eudaemonic happiness focuses on meaning and self-realisation, on having a purpose.

Each emotion has an upside and a downside: happiness can make you complacent, and sadness or other negative emotions can provide the motivation to change. Taka put it more poetically: “Suffering and motivation are two sides of the same coin.”

“Suffering and motivation are two sides of the same coin.”

Taka Kawakami

We talked about very human tendency to compare ourselves with others. Taka noted how people in the west tend to compare themselves to see how they could be different or better, while people in Japan tend to compare themselves to see how they could better conform. In either case, the outcome is unhappiness. “People are insecure about their own happiness. They don’t know what makes them happy, so that’s why they’re looking at other people. Why does that person seem more happy? Because they have more money or a bigger house or more experience? Anticipation brings anxiety and disappointment because you might reach that goal but it might not be as you expected.”

I had all kinds of expectations from my conversation with Taka, but the notion that there are two sides to every emotion is one that has stuck with me.

There’s a lot of pressure to maintain a happy exterior and to constantly be seeking pleasure and fulfilment. But in doing so sometimes we ignore the more difficult feelings that can bring nuance, change and motivation to our lives. In this sense, we should not look to mask our feelings of sadness, discontent or tension, but to embrace them. In the process we stand to learn more about our deeper selves.

This interview is part of 100 conversations on purposeful work  – read more at questionsonpurpose.org

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