“Suffering may well be a human achievement, especially if the suffering grows out of existential frustration.” — Viktor Frankl
“To study Zen is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be one with all things.” — Dogen Zenji
“You are better equipped to lecture on psychology than I. This is the psychology everybody will be studying 25 years from now.” — William James to the Buddhist monk Anagarika Dharmapala
A practitioner in my Zen group recently shared that he was doing a guided meditation where he was instructed to cultivate pleasant emotions and happiness-based visual images, and the meditation practitioner found it incredibly helpful in that it made him feel very happy. Reflecting later on the experience, he asked me if the intentional cultivation of positive emotions was honest and fair, or was it just choosing one distraction over another. In other words, is the deliberate generation of certain emotions in meditation a spiritual band aid, clouding over the deep roots of what actually troubles us, and thus less authentic, resulting in blocking our progress in cultivating traits such as equanimity, acceptance and our overall progress on our meditation and life path?
The first question to ask is how do we define happiness? Noted researcher and former president of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Martin Seligman, writes in his book “Authentic Happiness” that there are four types of happiness that an individual seeks and that each successive level builds on and entails the previous levels.
In Seligman’s model, the first level of happiness is the “pleasant life.” This initial level of happiness is the lowest level and is centered on pleasant feelings and sensations. The second level of happiness, the “good life,” finds gratification in developing and refining skills that one enjoys and does well. While undoubtedly yielding pleasure, it is important to note that these first two levels of Seligman’s conception of happiness are fleeting at best. Seligman’s third level of happiness is the “meaningful life.” Here individuals devote their energy and strengths to a cause larger than themselves. Seligman’s highest level of happiness is the “full life.” In this fourth level, the pleasant, good and meaningful life are seamlessly combined. At first appearance Seligman’s model might feel worthy of integrating into our lives, especially as it involves a stepwise progression of enriching forms of happiness.
Yet Seligman himself acknowledges that his levels of happiness do not automatically entail the betterment of society or a sense of moral goodness. For example, a drug addict could meet his definition of a pleasant life, a serial killer may satisfy his definition of the good life, and a religious terrorist might meet his criteria for a meaningful life. Seligman posits that this critique, while true, does not disprove his theory. Rather, according to Seligman, the moral ambiguity of his happiness model demonstrates his moral neutrality and hence suggests his model’s scientific rigor. It might be worth noting that some of Seligman’s research was used by the Central Intelligence Agency to develop their torture techniques post 9/11.
Buddhism finds a much closer analog in the field of psychology through the work of Holocaust survivor, and noted psychiatrist, Dr. Viktor Frankl. Frankl observed that finding meaning was the primary motivational force in humanity. In his seminal text “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl observes that humans reach the pinnacle of growth through what he calls “the self-transcendence of human existence” (1992, p. 115). Frankl was not naïve; his theory of personality and change emerged as a result of his and his family’s experiences in World War II Nazi concentration camps, in which many of his closest family members died.
Frankl echoes the Buddhist idea of no-self when he envisioned the ideal course of human development as moving beyond self-oriented cares to losing one’s self in a noble cause or to serving another person through selfless love. Frankl, like the Buddha, felt that change and pain were inevitable. And like the Buddha, Frankl believed that only by overcoming our attachment to our self and fleeting pleasure could healing transformation occur and suffering be endured.
From a Zen perspective, the best meditation is the form of meditation that helps us overcoming our limited self-focused existence and emerge into a compassionate, purpose-driven state of experience where we can work to transform the deep suffering of the world. If the intentional generation of positive emotions helps you lower your stress, grounding you and sustaining you amidst the difficulty of the world, then it is likely to be a skillful meditative practice. There is no one single, universal best meditative technique. The Buddha taught an array of meditation techniques and practices to help meet the vast cultural tapestry of diversity and experience. In its essence, meditation is training your brain and body to be in the world the way you need and want to be in the world. The key question is: What is the best meditation practice for you, given where you are in your life?
Dr. David Zuniga is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Austin, and he is also an ordained Zen Buddhist priest; his website is a free, interdisciplinary source of support: drdavidzuniga.com.