In the nineties I went to Israel to teach, and spent sometime staying in the Old City of Jerusalem, where there is a wonderful open-stall marketplace. It is a narrow set of alleyways, with vibrant sights and sounds and goods for sale.
One day as I was walking through the market, one of the merchants called out to me, “I have what you need!” I stopped, and felt a thrill go through my entire body. “Wow, he has what I need.” I turned around and started walking toward him. Then I wisely thought, “Wait a minute. First of all, I don’t need anything, and secondly, how does he know he has what I need?”
In many ways the world is calling out to us all of the time: “I have what you need! I have what you need!” In response we internalize those voices into: “I need. I need something. I’m in a state of deficit, of deprivation. I don’t have enough. I am not enough” and we turn to grab something.
Because we tend to hear that message from so many differing sources, we spin around looking for satisfaction. We get anxious, agitated, and ultimately exhausted. But what is it that we really need?
It is true that all of us want to be happy. We want a quality of happiness that isn’t so fragile as the conditions of our lives revolve and shift. We want to feel at home in our own lives. We want to feel a part of something greater than our limited sense of who we are. We want a quality of inner resourcefulness, centeredness, no matter what is happening. We want a sense of connection to ourselves, to others, and to the world.
But in a busy day, with so much going on, and so many competing voices coming at us, it is all too easy to miss where our deepest, most sustainable happiness lies. This is where I see a role for meditation. When we practice meditation, we discover the treasures of concentration, mindfulness and compassion. We see that these are actual skills that can be cultivated, not gifts that some people have while others don’t, and if you don’t have much you’re just out of luck. There are real and practical trainings that can nourish and develop these skills.
When we develop greater concentration we take our generally rather scattered and distracted attention and gather it together, which empowers us. When we develop greater mindfulness we refine our attention so that we can see much more clearly what is happening in the moment, which clarifies what our experience actually is. When we develop greater lovingkindness or compassion, we open our attention, so we are much more inclusive and connected to those around us.
As we practice meditation, we learn to let go of that cacophony of voices, shouting at us about what someone else thinks we need, and look inside for an authentic sense of what will fulfill us. We learn not to get twisted up in the force of habit, feeling trapped and alone, when actually we might have many options and genuine connections. We have many avenues to real happiness, and ties to a bigger sense of life, but only if we learn how to look and go towards it. As Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “Happiness is available. Please help yourself.”