S E P T E M B E R 2 0 1 7
I woke before dawn this morning and, seeing it was still dark, checked the clock. 5:10. Oh, I thought, I can sleep a little more. I curled back up under the covers and fell asleep for about ten minutes. During that time I had a dream, just one short, very clear scene: I was watching at a little distance what seemed to be a holy man talking with a few students. He had a shiny, perfectly bald head and he was smiling broadly as he spoke to them. I was struck by how the light sparkled off his bald head and the vitality he exuded as he spoke. I only heard one sentence, but the words were very clear.
He said, “Never forget, you are children of the vast beautiful happiness.”
Then I woke up, went to my study and wrote down those words.
I suppose that dream happened because I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness these days, in advance of this year’s Living Sufism teleconference on “The Alchemy of Happiness.” But that explanation only goes so far. When a dream has that kind of clarity for me, which is rare, and when I can hear the words spoken in it with precision, I pay attention.
What did the holy man mean by “the vast beautiful happiness?” In what cosmos is that the reality? The picture of the universe given to us by science shows no evidence of a vast beautiful happiness. If anything, the universe is described as a vast cold vacuum with little spheres of nuclear fusion scattered here and there, stalked by black holes, everything speeding away from itself until, they think, no stars will be seen and one by one they will be snuffed out.
Scientific views of the universe cannot avoid being limited by the fact that they are derived from measurement and analysis. Scientists are loyal to empiricism, and bless them for that! But if we are to discover a more profound “picture” of the cosmos, we need to use a different talent than measurement and analysis. The philosopher Henri Bergson suggests that this talent is intuition, which he describes as a simple and invisible experience of sympathy “by which one is transported into the interior of an object in order to coincide with what is unique and consequently inexpressible within it.”
So to intuit the nature of the cosmos we must “coincide” with that nature. Since fundamentally we cannot help but be coincident with the universe, being transported into its interior would seem not just possible, but unavoidable. Yet that is not our experience. What gets in our way is our mental habit of objectifying what we perceive. Once we relax that tendency we can be “transported into” the nature or essence of all things.
The vast beautiful happiness that is the “interior” of the universe is not something that anyone can convince us of. Its realization must come first-hand. This is where the holy man’s message that we are its children gives us some help. He’s saying that we are the intimate expression of the vast beautiful happiness — from this happiness our own presence has blossomed. Now we know where to look. To intuit the universal happiness we need simply to open inwardly to what we are before any definition is applied. To the extent we can rest there, in ever-opening openness, the beautiful happiness becomes evident, without any evidence.
This is what the Tibetan hermit Shabkar Lama was pointing to when he said, “When I remain in this state which is like a transparent, empty sky, I experience joy beyond words, thought, or expression.”
Back when I was a young seeker I remember being puzzled when I read these three words of Inayat Khan: “God is happy.” That sentence struck me as almost frivolous. Now I know what he meant. It’s not the happiness we feel when things are going well, although that too is a small ray of it, a “child” of the parent happiness. The vast beautiful happiness is the great alleluia of the whole thing, empty and radiant all at once.
For countless years, mystics have tried to reveal the great vast happiness with their words, knowing it was impossible, but I imagine at least it made them happy to try. Their trying has given us some hints, some reminders (“Never forget!” as our holy man said), a threshold of faith upon which our intuition can stand and swing open the door.
Here, to conclude, is a contemporary example of this kind of mystic reminder — Jack Kerouac’s generous attempt to describe his experience of the vast beautiful happiness:
It was the womb itself, aloneness, alaya vijnana
the universal store, the Great Free Treasure, the
Great Victory, infinite completion, the joyful
mysterious essence of Arrangement. It seemed
like one smiling smile, one adorable adoration,
one gracious and adorable charity, everlasting
safety, refreshing afternoon…