Nearly two and a half thousand years ago, a former Nepalese prince was sitting under a fig tree in what is now the Indian state of Bihar. He’d been thinking deeply about the meaning of life. After just 49 days under the tree, he suddenly got it.
There’s a lot of depth and subtltey in what was to become his teaching, but it can be summarized quite briefly. 1: Life is characterized by unhappiness and suffering. 2: This unhappiness and suffering is caused by desire and craving. 3: It is possible to remove unhappiness and suffering by removing desire and craving. 4: The way to remove desire and craving is to live life according to a simple formula.
The formula for life is: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. Each of these headings is a mnemonic that can be expanded upon to describe the building of a “correct” life.
Of course, our hero was Siddhartha Gautama, the last acknowledged “Buddha” or enlightened one, and the founder of Buddhism. The four steps are The Four Noble Truths, and the formula for life is The Noble Eightfold Path.
I’m not a Buddhist, but there’s a lot of truth in what Siddhartha had to say. I absolutely agree that craving causes unhappiness, and I accept fully that if I gave up craving or desire, I’d lose all unhappiness.
But I’m not quite ready to give up on all desire just yet. (I suppose the Buddhists would say that I haven’t served enough lives yet to realise the error of my ways. A few lifetimes as a slug or a weevil might do it.) My way to manage unhappiness is to confront desire; to understand it as a physiological and psychological symptom; and, by understanding, to dilute its power over me.
For example, like most people, I’ll occasionally fall in love with someone unattainable (or inadvisable). Actually it happens quite a lot. See? – desire causing unhappiness. But once I realise what’s going on in my head, I can start to become more objective about it. I can even enjoy the sensation without letting it take me over.
That’s “unattainable”, mind. I’m not saying that once I begin to think “this could be the real thing this time” (again) I won’t grasp the opportunity to fall truly in love and live happily ever after. Happy-ish.