Cup of tea with 'Simple is Beautiful' around the edge

Attention, intention and the onset of happiness

In Metaphysics, Philosophy and Traditional Wisdom, Mind and Movement by LivingNowLeave a Comment

In Central Java the mystical traditions are still very much alive, particularly in Solo, where I stayed for five years. I joined a fairly large mystical group called “Sumarah”, which, in Javanese, means “Surrender”. They had graciously decided to appoint a few of their Pamongs (highly-trained psychics), who also had some English, to look after the small group of foreigners who had come to experience this ancient approach to spiritual growth.

In this way I met Pak Wondo, a bank manager and also a Pamong who loved sharing his passion, Sumarah, with us. His English was quite good, and when I offered to help him with some of the complexities of my language, he accepted without hesitation. A wonderful friendship ensued.

Once a week I would visit his sprawling old house on the outskirts of town. We would explore the bewildering world of English with all its tortuous grammatical twists and turns. Afterward, we would sit till late into the night drinking tea and talking philosophy. As I had become his English language tutor, so he became my guardian angel of all things mystical in Java. His many years of special training had endowed him with a wonderfully philosophical view of life. And he had a sense of humour.

It was a steamy July evening. The tropical gardens around the house seemed alive with the chirpings of insects and frogs. Pak Wondo and I sat in our usual places underneath the high ceiling fan. We had had a particularly lively English lesson, investigating my favourite word in the language, <is>, and all its spin-offs and implications. We were relaxing the verbal exchange for a moment, sipping our tea quietly.

In the lingering silence I could feel Pak Wondo’s immense presence. Meanwhile, I was hoping he might be able to counsel me. I’d been having a bit of a bumpy ride with my current girlfriend. This had brought up a deep feeling of unhappiness. As I was continuing to turn this over in my mind, Pak Wondo turned to me, smiling benignly.

‘So you think you’re the only person who’s ever been in love,’ he said matter-of-factly. I wasn’t surprised that he knew what was on my mind. He usually did.

He continued, ‘Of course, I’m only kidding you.” Kidding – a word I taught him, which he now loved to use, since he was always doing it. He turned to look at me more directly, and continued soberly, ‘You know, it’s not really about being in love. It’s about how you’re feeling about it. Right? Check it out.’ Another Americanism I’d taught him, I surmised, as I began to take his advice, realising that he was right; this was about my sense of hurt. ‘You’re right,’ I admitted. ‘It’s just that I feel so sad.’
‘Unhoppy,’ he interrupted.

‘UnhAppy,’ I corrected. Then I indulged myself a bit. ‘You see, “hoppy” means excited, like hopping around. So “unhoppy” might mean unable to hop around.’

He was already on his feet, a surprised look on his face, pumping his knees up and down, feet glued to the floor. He was a big, rather corpulent man, and his whole torso was shaking up and down.

‘Like this?’ he queried, with exaggerated seriousness. When he saw the awestruck look on my face, he burst into laughter, and I soon followed. The crescendo echoed through the big room, and brought the servant anxiously peeping around the doorway.

Gradually, our laughter subsided and Pak drew a large handkerchief out of his pocket, blowing his nose loudly. He collapsed back into his chair and then loudly ordered the servant to bring us some fresh tea. He turned to me once again, still panting a bit, wiping his damp brow with an index finger.

‘Hot work, this English language,’ he giggled, then paused. ‘UnhAppy. So right now still feeling unhAppy?’ He was still grinning widely.

‘Uh, no, not just now. Much better. Things have changed.’

‘No!’ he interrupted, ‘Not <things> – your <attention> changed! Do you remember my advice: <let your attention be with your intention>?’

I nodded. He repeated it all the time. ‘But what does that have to do with unhappiness?’ I was wondering where this conversation was going, trying to keep it on track. I needed real answers, and it was getting late.

Upon hearing my question, Pak Wondo smiled faintly and looked off into space for awhile, then responded, quietly but firmly, ‘It changes everything. You may think that happiness is some <thing> – a thing that’s easy to get by satisfying the senses alone. Fine, but if <happiness> is really your intention and you continue to <really> pay attention, you will notice that your understanding will begin to change. Gradually, or perhaps more suddenly, you will wake up to the fact that <all is consciousness>. When you awaken to this peculiar realisation, your whole definition of happiness will change forever.’
‘Does this mean that I will no longer seek pleasure?’ I queried.

He turned and met my eyes, with a look of great compassion. ‘Of course you will seek pleasure! More than ever before. Yes! You will be driven to pleasure, but your whole concept of pleasure will become transformed. You will be a hedonist of the soul with an insatiable appetite for the pleasures that satisfy consciousness. Formerly you thought that happiness would result from getting things for yourself, even emotional things. As your perspective matures, you will discover happiness of consciousness then your joy will arise, not from getting, but from sharing.’

Pak’s voice trailed off, then he took a deep breath and looked off into space again, as if contemplating his own words. At length, he said quietly, ‘I’ve said enough; I shouldn’t give away the punch line!’

He flashed a big smile my way, then resumed looking off into the spaciousness of the evening. He spoke quietly, as if he was addressing both of us simultaneously. ‘I remember an old saying of my teacher, Pak Sree: “First the frog climbs into the hole, then the hole climbs into the frog.”’

He paused briefly, then resumed, ‘It may seem rather dark and lonely when that hole first opens up in the midst of your reality, but, actually, that is the beginning of your liberation. Not only your liberation – everyone’s. Then happiness becomes your life, and your life becomes happiness.’

These words plunged deep into my heart. Now as I recollect that evening, I am reminded of the succinct conclusion of the Dalai Lama: ‘The purpose of our life is happiness.’

In recent times, America has spawned a prominent group of academics who specialise in studying happiness. An interviewer asked Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert why he had chosen such a specialty. Gilbert quipped, ‘Why study anything else? It’s the Holy Grail. We’re studying the thing that all human action is directed toward.’

According to the research of the most prominent “happiness experts”, almost all our actions are based on our predictions of the emotional consequences and whether these emotional states are aligned with our perception of what will make us happy.

Economists have also taken to the field of happiness research. The high-profile financier George Lowenstein often ponders over why economists focus on the financial aspects of decision-making rather than the emotional ones. He agrees with his colleague Gilbert, ‘It isn’t really about money; it’s about happiness. Isn’t that what everybody wants to know when they make a decision?’

Nevertheless, these researchers have come to the surprising consensus that, most likely, the things we normally believe will make us happy will not. In other words, we might believe that a new sports car, computer or relationship will make life just perfect. However, it will almost certainly be less gratifying than we anticipated, nor will it gratify us for as long as predicted. The vast majority of Gilbert’s test participants have validated these sorts of breaches in judgment both in the laboratory and in real-life situations.

We don’t really need research from the experts to know that intentions to be happy based on the acquisition of things and pleasant experiences produces little more than a fatuous and fleeting satisfaction, a momentary distraction from our habitual feeling that something is missing. The point is that missing something is not external to us. There is a grand irony here: it seems that if we really want to experience happiness in a consistent and lasting way, we shall first need to reject the things that have conventionally defined happiness.

With the publication of his book, <The Art of Happiness> (1998), the Dalai Lama took up the subject of happiness with gusto. He has pointed out emphatically that, from his perspective, external circumstances alone cannot produce happiness, but that ‘in order for an individual to enjoy a happy and fulfilled life, one’s state of mind is critical. It is crucial.’

When I began to ruminate on this article and the deeper meaning of happiness, I felt inspired by these wise words. I have always maintained that we cannot create happiness, but for many years I have observed it is possible to maintain core intentions that enable us to respond to life in a way that invites happiness. Often, however, we find the business of establishing a personal intention a confusing process.

Consider the following story: an old Cherokee is telling his grandson about a fight that is going on inside him, a fight between two wolves. One is evil — full of anger, envy, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good — full of joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, ‘Which wolf wins?’
The old Cherokee simply replied, ‘The one I feed.’

So, the question arises, ‘Just what is it that the old Cherokee feeds his wolves?’ Clearly, the only “food” that will nourish the “wolves” of thought forms is attention. Thoughts and ideas fed on attention will grow, those denied attention will atrophy and perish. This is the law of survival in the jungle of the mind.

But it’s not just about survival; it’s about quality of life. This is determined by what we pay attention to, and for how long. Check it out. How we feel now and how we respond to the challenges of daily living depend on the quality and the quantity of our attention – how we pay it and for how long, and this depends on our intention.

Yet intention can also default to all sorts of subconscious agendas. Therefore, I often recall the wise words of Pak Wondo, and apply my sustained attention to potentialise my intention. Over the many years since Pak counselled me on this point, I have validated in my own experience that the more attention paid to the intention, the more resolute and coherent it becomes. This, then, is the essence of all successful manifesting — not just cars, boats and relationships, but, more importantly, states of mind/heart.

Psychiatrist Howard Cutler recalls the conclusive comment spoken in an interview with the Dalai Lama: ‘The turning toward happiness as a valid goal and the conscious decision to seek happiness in a systematic manner can profoundly change the rest of our lives.’

In other words, the best gift we can give ourselves is to get definite with the infinite about establishing conditions that will invite lasting happiness to become our state of mind and heart. It may be the only gift truly worth sharing.


Mas Rogers passed away in Melbourne on 3/1/2011. His gentle nature will be remembered by all his friends and workshop participants and his contribution to the holistic niche is substantial.

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