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Dharma Connect: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Unreal Happiness

Philip Seymour Hoffman, the marvelous actor who died recently with bags of heroin around him, was interviewed about a year ago by Simon Critchley at the Rubin Museum. The topic was happiness, and it's poignant, almost painful, to listen to now.Hoffman says in the interview that he doesn't know what it means to be happy.

But, he tells Critchley, pleasure is not the same as happiness. In fact, he says, "I kill pleasure. I take too much of it and make it unpleasurable, like too much coffee and you're miserable ... There is no pleasure that I haven't, actually, made myself sick on."

The Buddha's First Noble Truth says that life contains suffering -- all life has the suffering of birth, old age, sickness, and death -- although some teachers talk about dukkha as stress or pervasive dissatisfaction or unease. We look for all kinds of ways to find satisfaction, ease, happiness. On the Buddhist path, we come to see that attempts to escape or cover over the unhappiness, to avoid it, to bypass it, don't lead to lasting happiness.

When we think that happiness depends on external causes and conditions -- chocolate cake, coffee, harder drugs like heroin -- we can be happy only as long as we have that. And in an effort to become happier, we can go too far. We lose sight of what we're chasing and chase the causes of happiness rather than happiness itself.

Hoffman asks: "Was I happy, and I just wasn't aware?"

What is happiness? How do you know you're happy, not just feeling pleasure? Hoffman's death -- with its impact on his family, friends, and those who were touched by his work -- can lead us to contemplate our own relationship to pleasure and happiness, as well as dissatisfaction and suffering.

For another take on happiness, listen to Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, sometimes called the happiest man in the world. In this TedX talk, he says we can train our minds in habits of well-being, to generate a true sense of serenity and fulfillment. (He prefers "well-being" to "happiness.")

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what is happiness (well-being), really?

This is a big onion of a question, and when I peel away all the layers of what I have thought happiness was, I'm left with a really modest, quiet answer: authentic connection/contact.

One time I was strolling through the city park in Amsterdam early in the morning when there were just a few people and dogs walking and running around. I imagined that I had 10 minutes to live and asked myself what I would do. Relaxing into that question, I started to weep as all I could feel was the urge to rejoice--and share in that with the other humans and animals around me--in how exquisite, wonderful and mysterious this life is. Of course, that would've looked crazy to the conventional viewer.

Alas, how far we are from true being.

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