If, by giving up a lesser happiness,
One could experience greater happiness,
A wise person would renounce the lesser
To behold the greater.
Dhammapada, v. 290, translated by Gil Fronsdal
A premise of Buddhist practice is that worldly, sensual pleasures provide the lesser happiness and that a contentment independent of circumstances is the greater happiness.
Until you experience this greater happiness, it’s hard to imagine it. For most of our lives, we seek pleasure, and then try to hold onto it; we avoid pain by ignoring or rejecting it, even when it is inevitable. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we assume that if we are experiencing pleasant feelings, things are going the way they should, and if unpleasant feelings arise, we’re quite sure that something is wrong. In both cases, we are striving for a lesser happiness.
The greater happiness stems from an inner conviction that whatever experience is present right now, is OK – it will change and fade and is, in any case, not me or mine, and so not worth attaching to. Maybe you know someone like this, who seems unfazed by recognition or other things that generally excite people, and who handles difficulties with apparent ease.
What choices to we have? We can grab and cling to things or experiences, or we can let go and feel the lightness and freedom of that activity. We can be generous or stingy, compassionate or judgmental. We make these choices all the time.
Whenever a strong pleasant feeling comes up, we can reflect that it is just a feeling, a pleasant feeling, and that, nice as it is, it will pass shortly. Whenever a strong unpleasant feeling arises, we can know that it is just a feeling, an unpleasant feeling, and if we don’t feed it, it will pass pretty quickly.
The ordinary activities of liking and disliking can show us where we are clinging to things not worth clinging to. As Ajahn Chah says, where there is suffering, there is the opportunity for wisdom to manifest. It’s in our experience, nowhere else.