Seeking Happiness: Try to Get What We Want or Practice Giving Up Desires?

A talk by the Warden of Shanti Sadan leading into a meditation session.

As enquirers into the highest human potentialities, we may feel that we are being presented with a choice: whether, in the pursuit of happiness, it is best to whole-heartedly try to get what we want, or to practise giving up desires, which seems to be the example set by some of the great teachers of humanity. Let us consider this question from the non-dual perspective.

The first thing to be clear about is that happiness is the goal. We are meant to be happy. To be a really happy person is a great, and perhaps quite rare, human achievement. Our pursuit of happiness is sometimes inhibited by fear of failure. But there are good reasons why we can and should be truly ambitious when it comes to happiness. And in this the outcome is very much in our own hands.

The second point to recognise is that it is natural and inevitable for us to have desires. At the root of all desires is that fundamental desire for happiness and well-being. To be entirely free of desires while living in this world is neither realistic nor necessary.

So is there anything fundamentally wrong with desire? It is only that to have a desire implies that we are not yet fully happy, that in some way we feel incomplete and lacking. The ultimate message of the non-dual teachings, and the root of all authentic wisdom traditions, is that ultimately we are not incomplete or wanting in any way, and in fact never have been. Our highest Self is, in truth, at one with the supreme Being, perfect, invulnerable, beyond all limitations and suffering.

Even the desire to realise this truth of our own nature is in a sense misplaced, as it arises from the conviction that we are somehow separated from that Truth, and this starting point is ultimately a distorted view. It is in this sense that all desire is based on a profound misconception, which can be dispelled through deeper self-knowledge.

This then, is the standpoint of those who have awakened to the highest Reality—the view, so to speak, from the summit of wisdom. Still, the non-dual teachings fully recognise that for many of us, most of the time, our actual experience is of being very much affected and limited by all the joys and sorrows, well-being and hardship, that the mind and body are exposed to. When this is where we find ourselves, it may seem that we are indeed presented with that choice: whether our best chance of finding happiness is by wholeheartedly pursuing the satisfaction of immediate, tangible wants, or, by exercising self-restraint and endurance in pursuit of the ultimate, but apparently distant, goal of inner illumination.

We do have to make choices and decisions, and choosing one thing may mean letting go of another. Yet learning how to be happy in the here and now is an essential part of the path to enlightenment, not an alternative to it. The teachings do not just tell us that we have to learn to be content and cheerful amidst the flux of life; they provide practical help and guidance.

This begins by prompting us to ask first, what is happiness? What makes us happy? We may provisionally say that there are three forms or sources of happiness: the happiness associated with having; happiness connected with doing; and happiness related to being.

It is certain that one kind of happiness is what we feel when we have something we really like. Most intense is how we feel at the moment of getting what we want. We are all familiar with this kind of experience. We also know well that such happiness tends to pass quickly. Clearly, this kind of happiness includes not getting what we do not want. Again, we feel this most keenly at those moments when we are relieved of adversity.

Secondly, there is happiness connected with doing. The quality of our life depends much on the sense that we are engaged in useful, purposeful activity. This may come simply with being in a situation which we like, so that is really just another case of getting what we want. But that is not always so. Sometimes there is a real sense of happiness arising from the knowledge that we are doing the right thing in the right way. This kind of happiness is clearly distinct from simply getting what we like, and can affect us deeply, so we have to include this in our consideration of what actually is happiness.

Finally comes what we called the happiness of being. If we are seriously interested in these teachings, we have already begun to perceive that true happiness is not something we gain from outside, nor is it something we become. True happiness, joy— in Sanskrit, ānandam—is intrinsic to our nature. It cannot come or go, or increase or decrease, and, as such, it is free of all fear, which is why it is the greatest happiness. This can be confirmed in direct experience.

In the light of these teachings, we will see that daily life provides many intimations and indications of where true happiness lies. It is a partial glimpse of this happiness that makes deep sleep so sweet. The happiness of knowing that we are doing the right thing is the feeling of harmony with the reality in our own being and in all beings. And increasingly we will realise that even the happiness of getting what we want does not arise from the object but in the momentary freedom from want that occurs at the instant the desired object is achieved. It is this pause in the mental activity that gives us the sense of completeness and self-sufficiency which is our true nature.

What we have called happiness then, in truth, always arises from a realisation of our own Being. Our passing and partial experiences of happiness are a brief thinning of the fog of irrelevant and distracting mental activity that seems to cut us off from what we really are.

How then are we to make this experience complete and perfect, while addressing and balancing all the competing demands of life? It is not by trying to fulfil all desires, or to give up desire completely, but through overcoming our sense of limitation and the anxiety that springs from it.
Let us try to understand our situation. The real reason we cannot give up desires is because we cannot give up doing. Our bodies and minds belong to this world of time, space, matter and energy, so we find ourselves inextricably being and doing amidst this flux. As conscious human beings, there is always some choice in what we do, and we act according to a range of motives, at the root of which is the fundamental desire to be happy and avoid suffering. So giving up desire completely is no more possible than getting out of time and space and this changing world.

What we need is a way of finding happiness amidst this flow of being and doing. And what usually prevents us from finding it, is uncertainty and anxiety about what is going to happen. How does this come about? Typically, we make efforts and act with the aim of achieving some goal or result, and we feel that our well-being is dependent on that result. Anxiety is introduced because of uncertainty about the outcome, and unhappiness arises if it is not as we wished.

How are we to free ourselves from these self-imposed limitations? The first step is to live fully in the present. Every instant is new. Thinking or worrying about what we did a moment ago, and what might come of it, only distracts us from what matters in this present moment. If something has been set in motion and it is time to turn to another task, then let us be focused on that. We can convince and remind ourselves that this is the best way of being and doing, and it will relieve us of much anxiety and tension.

As our understanding of non-duality deepens through our on-going enquiry and meditations, there is a further step we can take, which leads through the present moment to the realm of timeless truth. The best we can do with our attachment and concern about the results of actions is, to give them up, in the highest sense. We can recognise the fact that it is not in our power to control the outcome of events, and consciously leave it to the power that does underlie all happenings.

To put it another way, we can think of our efforts and actions as offerings to Truth, to the Supreme Reality in us and in all. And when something is offered to That, we let go of our attachment and anxiety about it. In this way, what was a psychological burden is turned into a liberating affirmation.

This giving or offering up, is not to a distant authority, but to the reality at the heart of our own being. By making our life a flow of action as self-giving, we can acknowledge the full force of all the desires at work in our being: the fundamental will to be free of limitations and suffering, and all the subsidiary forms that takes. We can act wholeheartedly according to what we feel is for the best. When we leave the results of our actions to the power that does in truth support all that comes into being, we can find happiness and freedom from anxiety in the here and now. In doing so, we affirm by our actions our growing realisation that the experience of separation belongs to the level of appearances and that our true Self is the universal Self of all beings.


This freedom from anxiety and attachment makes the inner space and clarity which are ideal for meditation. What follows is a set of meditation practices that could be taken up regularly. The vital truth that our consciousness and the universal consciousness are in essence not different, is absorbed through meditation into the deeper layers of the mind from which our thoughts and emotions spring. Then a tranquil happiness will be revealed as the natural condition of our inner being.

The practices begin with an inner preparation. During this time we affirm our decision to turn aside for a while from outer concerns and give full attention to what is most essential within us. We can do this by focusing on the principle that there is one great power underlying all our experience and we are fundamentally one with that power. So we prepare for meditation by dwelling on this thought:

There is one supreme power underlying all our experience and I am one with that. Strength and inspiration flow from the universal power, which I approach in myself through meditation.

Next is a breathing practice. Meditation is the time for independence, independence from outer things, and also from thoughts that are based on past and future. For with meditation we rest and recharge in the freedom of the here and now. This breathing practice includes an affirmation of independence. Hidden within us there is the reality-principle which is perfectly independent. This is our true nature, our innermost Self, which transcends both body and mind, which depends on nothing else to sustain or reveal it.

First, establish a rhythm of deep, calm, conscious breathing. If possible breathe through the nose, and make the in- and out-breath about the same length.

Then, with each breath-cycle, take a deep in-breath, and slowly release the breath affirming inwardly the word ‘Independence’, remembering that this word indicates the freedom of our inmost Self, which transcends all change and is our real foundation. Breathe in this way for three minutes.

The next practice is a visualisation. To do it we need to have in front of us a lit candle, or a picture of one.

First, look at the candle flame and let its image be registered on your mind. Enjoy its shape, its colours, note that it is pointing upwards. Do this for half a minute.

Now, close your eyes and again see the candle in front of you. As before, note its qualities and enjoy the colours, the shape and the brightness. This time we are seeing the candle flame in front of us with closed eyes through the power of our imagination. Do this for about a minute.

Next, imagine the flame of the candle in your heart-centre, shining brightly here. We are now internalizing completely this image of the candle flame. It is symbolic of the eternal light at the core of our being. So as you imagine this light in you, enjoy its warm glow and your connectedness with it. (Three minutes.)

Now we meditate on this text:


The meditation text draws our focused attention towards the reality of our fundamental being. We learn that our true nature is immortal and is the ultimate source of attraction and inspiration.

When we reflect on our true nature as independent, eternal and blissful, we are making the best use of our mental powers. To use our mind in this way negates the veils that seem to obscure the light of higher consciousness.

In meditation we repeat the text to ourselves a few times so that it is established in our mind. Contemplating the text in this way with calm alertness, its meaning and quality will begin to infuse the deeper layers of the mind and will reveal a new value in our own being. So stay alert during this time and let the meditation text be your main thought. Do this for five minutes.

We end our meditation session with a closing practice. We said at the beginning that there is one great power underlying and making possible all our experience and that we are fundamentally one with that power. We can close our meditation session, and prepare to take up our responsibilities in the world, by reflecting for a few moments on this:

I offer my efforts to the supreme power.
May I grow in wisdom and inner peace.

This article is from the Winter  issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.