Beyond Happiness: Buddha and Yuval Noah Harari on Nirvana

Yoga and meditation practice have given me many things: More mental clarity. Insights. A reminder to observe before reacting. And the awareness that we’re all suffering and deserve a little kindness, even at our worst moments.

But one thing my practice has not done is make me happy — not even mildly blissed out on a daily basis. 

For a long time I thought this was a problem. 

As a meditator I still feel fear, anger, sadness and all the other garden variety emotions that I experienced as a non-meditator. 

I wondered if I was doing something wrong. Weren’t those unpleasant emotions supposed to all go away?

Then, after many years, I got it: meditation is not about being happy. It’s about cultivating nirvana, which is something different.

Lessons from a historian

One person who makes this distinction with supreme clarity is Yuval Noah Harari, a historian and author of the best-selling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

Sapiens is the most ambitious book I’ve ever read — a sweeping survey of our species from its beginnings to the present. And one of Harari’s major conclusions is that even with all our science and technology, we humans of the twenty-first century can still be as miserable as our ancient ancestors.

Harari is not the first person to make this point. But as a student of Buddhism and dedicated practitioner of Vipassana meditation, he has some trenchant things to say about the modern pursuit of happiness and how it can backfire.

First comes dharma

But first: Who was the Buddha? 

A man, says Harari, not a god. 

And what did the Buddha teach? 

Well, it all begins with the law of dharma — that suffering arises in a specific way, and that we can free ourselves from it

For Buddhists, the law of dharma is as dependable as the law of gravity. And obedience to this law comes before anything else, including creeds, rituals, or a relationship with God. 

As Harari notes:

The first principle of monotheist religions is ‘God exists. What does He want from me?’ The first principle of Buddhism is ‘Suffering exists. How do I escape it?’

Suffering is an inside job

We suffer in countless ways. There are external causes — poverty, pandemics, racism, war, natural disasters, and more.

But the Buddha saw that even the youngest, healthiest, richest, and most powerful of us still suffer. Even in the midst of heavenly circumstances, we can feel like we’re in hell. 

As Harari observes:

Those who have a million want two million. Those who have two million want 10 million. Even the rich and famous are rarely satisfied. They too are haunted by ceaseless cares and worries, until sickness, old age and death put a bitter end to them. Everything that one has accumulated vanishes like smoke. Life is a pointless rat race. But how to escape it?

According to legend, the Buddha sat down one day to meditate and vowed never to rise again until he answered that question. 

He emerged with an insight that became a pillar of his teaching: The source of suffering is craving. Harari describes it well:

When the mind experiences something distasteful it craves to be rid of the irritation. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure will remain and will intensify. Therefore, the mind is always dissatisfied and restless. 

What nirvana means

Thus far we’ve covered the first two of the Buddha’s noble truths — that suffering exists, and that it has a cause. 

Many people stop there and conclude that Buddhism is simply about explaining our misery. 

Actually, the Buddha went on to a third noble truth — that suffering can end. And a fourth — that there is a path to releasing craving and realizing the end of suffering, which is nirvana

What we need, as Harari points out, is practices that “train the mind to focus all its attention on the question, What am I experiencing now? rather than on What would I rather be experiencing?

This is the point of Buddhist meditation — to stop warring with our internal experience. To stop demanding that we feel differently than we actually do in any given moment.

In short, to stop craving.

A new relationship to feeling

I’ve seen people reject meditation as a spiritual practice because they fear it will rob them of their emotional life. They’re convinced that all those hours of solitary sitting and detachment from feelings will turn them into soul-less zombies. 

Harari reminds us that this is not true. As a meditator, you get to keep your full range of feelings. It’s just that you don’t cling to them any more:

If you experience sadness without craving that the sadness go away, you continue to feel sadness but you do not suffer from it. There can actually be richness in the sadness. If you experience joy without craving that the joy linger and intensify, you continue to feel joy without losing your peace of mind.

Four findings from happiness research

To understand the radical nature of these teachings, contrast them with contemporary ideas about happiness.

Over the last few decades, our cultural conversation about happiness has been transformed by science. It’s hard to believe that happiness was once seen as a subjective state that is impossible to study. Today, in fact, happiness is a hot topic in mainstream psychology. 

Harari does a masterful job of summarizing the current happiness research. He emphasizes four key findings:

Happiness hinges on “subjective well-being.” This is a continuum that ranges from short-term pleasure to long-term contentment. To measure this factor, psychologists ask people to rate how they feel in different circumstances over time. 

Happiness depends on the match between your expectations and your circumstances. External circumstances such as wealth, health, and and fame do not directly cause happiness. The crucial factor is not what you have — it’s whether what you have correlates with what you want

“If you want a bullock-cart and get a bullock-cart, you are content,” Harari writes. “If you want a brand-new Ferrari and get only a second-hand Fiat you feel deprived.”

There are a few qualifications to keep in mind:

  • Money does increase happiness up to a point, after which it matters little. 
  • Chronic illness decreases long-term happiness if the condition deteriorates steadily, involves ongoing pain, or both.
  • Supportive relationships with family and a tight-knit community are potent predictors of happiness, and they matter more than wealth or health. 

Meaning matters. Beyond subjective well-being is another possible source of happiness — seeing your life as “meaningful and worthwhile.” 

The problem, says Harari, is that our lives are “the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose.” From the standpoint of science, meaning is an illusion that we impose on our experience.

Happiness is based on biochemistry. When our lives involve a consistent mix of pleasure and circumstances that meet our expectations, our bodies respond in a specific way: They deliver a steady supply of serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and other hormones associated with pleasure. 

Contrast this with distress, which floods our bodies with adrenaline, cortisol, and related hormones that prompt us to “fight or flee.”

The point is that feelings of any kind boil down to biochemistry. And from this perspective, the ultimate path to happiness is to control our biochemistry. 

Drugs, of course, offer one way to do this, though their use comes with inherent dangers. A wiser path, say the happiness researchers, is to cultivate experiences that trigger pleasure chemicals in safe and sustainable ways over the long-term. 

Beyond happiness — a stable serenity

The Buddha would have agreed with modern psychologists who insist that happiness does not directly result from external conditions. He would have also agreed that emotions have a biochemical basis. 

However, the Buddha also taught that nirvana is not a function of our feelings. And the path out of suffering is not to get rich, find a lover, discover the ultimate meaning of life, or feel good most of the time.

Instead, the Buddha urged us to remember the law of anicca — our feelings are fickle and fleeting, changing from moment to moment. This will remain true no matter how much we try to manipulate our circumstances and biochemistry. 

Does this sound depressing? Actually, it’s how we get free from suffering.

Meditation reveals the impermanence of feeling so directly and so consistently that we gradually release the habit of craving. We begin to see, at a gut level, how pointless it is to cling to some feelings while trying to deny, avoid, or repress others. 

It’s one thing to simply say this and understand it on an intellectual level. It’s quite another to see it happening in your own mind and body as you silently watch feelings arise and disappear into the holy void, over and over again, during the practice of meditation. 

Nirvana as subtraction

Nirvana, then, does not mean adding something to your life. It means subtracting craving — the futile pursuit of fleeting pleasure. 

And it’s not like you have to try to release craving. If you learn to observe how and when it arises, you may find that craving simply starts to fall away on its own.

The result is not happiness as we usually define it. It’s more like equanimity — an ever-deepening serenity that persists through changing circumstances.

In fact, Harari writes, the “resulting serenity is so profound that those who spend their lives in the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it.”

Keeping it real

For all the reasons that Harari mentions, I’ve given up the search for happiness. 

Since coming to understand what nirvana really means, I actually find it more realistic and do-able. 

One of the great things about Buddhist meditation is that no feeling is a failure. Feelings are not “good” or “bad.” They are simply pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. 

This is immensely comforting on days when I when I feel crappy. (And during the pandemic there have been a few of those, I can tell you.)

Am I feeling angry? Sad? Afraid? Confused? No matter. They’re all a passing show. My job is to just watch them float by while continuing to work and be present to the people who matter to me. 

My practice is simply to notice any feeling without judgment and without automatically acting on it. I take comfort in knowing that whatever I’m feeling, it will pass.

Feelings of pleasure are certainly welcome when they show up, as they often do. But I know that they too will pass. So, I don’t expect them to last.

Honestly, about 80 percent of the time I forget all this stuff. But every moment that I do remember gives me another dose of sanity.