30 Nov The monkey with the clenched fist. (JOHN IZZO)
The first thief of happiness is named control. This thief wants us to believe that we can control life rather than accept life on its terms. The great truth that came to the Buddha was that what causes unhappiness is the craving for life to be other than what it is.
This thief makes us like the monkeys of Southeast Asia who were captured at one time by locals through a simple yet cruel trick. Sweets were placed all around a tree, and a coconut was hollowed out, leaving a hole just large enough for a monkey to slip his hand through. Inside was placed a sweet. The other side of the coconut had a bolt that was chained to a tree. When the monkeys came and ate the sweets spread around the tree, one monkey would inevitably pick up the coconut, reach inside, the first thief: control and grab the treat. But the hole was not big enough to get the clenched fist out.
The monkey would often try desperately to carry off the coconut, but, try as he might, the coconut could never be taken nor the sweet removed from its shell. The only thing the monkey had to do to be free was unclench his fist and let go of the sweet. Yet most monkeys fought until utterly exhausted. The islanders would simply capture the monkey in that exhausted state. The monkey’s undoing was his own attachment and inability to let go.
Happiness is knowing what we can control and accepting what we cannot control. At the most basic level, happiness comes from understanding that we can control our actions and our responses to things external to us, but we cannot control the results of our actions. Focusing on our actions brings happiness; focusing on the result of our actions brings unhappiness.
The Buddha and Jesus often appear to the casual reader to be very different in their approaches to enlightenment or salvation (the two terms used in each tradition). In fact, the more one examines the teachings of each, the more one sees the way that both teachers emphasize the need to surrender to that which is at any moment. This is why the Buddhist Thích Nhất Hạnh has written extensively about the similarities of each teacher.
When Jesus encouraged his followers to look to the flowers of the field as role models because they did not seek, he was making a very important spiritual point. When he said, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” he was making the same point. It is not the lack of control that brings suffering but the desire for control, which keeps us from lasting happiness and peace.
One of the big moments in my own life was when I first understood the distinction between attention and attachment. Attention is the energy and choices I make, whereas attachment is an inner desire to control what is inherently uncontrollable. Another way to think about this is to see it as intention without tension. Having goals in life, or even desires of what we want to happen in any particular situation, is not a problem in terms of our happiness. It is when we become attached to controlling an outcome that the thief starts to rob us. The theft of our happiness rarely comes from our intentions but from the tension we feel when attached to the outcomes of things.
How do we know the difference between attention and attachment? Attention is about taking action in the present moment toward hoped-for ends, whereas attachment is becoming wed to a particular outcome’s being the source of our happiness.
The Five Thieves of Happiness