21 Jul The Cosmic Fig Tree and the Happiness Theorem
Of all the stories in Hindu mythology, the one about the cosmic fig tree is among the most profound. In this story, the proverbial rich uncle visits his nieces and nephews who are playing inside their hut. He tells them, “Why are you inside, playing with your twigs and rag dolls when the Cosmic Fig tree is right outside? Go out under the tree and wish for anything you want and the tree will give it to you.” At first, the children are hesitant but by and by, they get out and start wishing under the tree. They wish for sweets and they get them! But they gorge on the sweets and they get sick. They wish for fancy toys and they get them, but they soon get bored of these toys. They didn’t comprehend that the fig tree always granted wishes in pairs – what was wished for always came with its exact opposite. For that was the way of the universe as everything comes in complementary pairs.
The children grow up, but they can’t stop wishing under the tree. As adults, they wish for sex, fame, money and power, the four main fruits of the fig tree. They get their wishes fulfilled, but sex comes with jealousy, fame with isolation, money with worries and power with palace intrigues. Yet they go on wishing and wishing and wind up leading miserable lives. As old men and women, they congregate once again under the tree to contemplate their spent lives. The first group, the cynics, say, “This has all been just a big hoax!” Obviously, they had learnt nothing. The second group, the know-it-alls say, “We must have been making all the wrong wishes. If only we could go back and wish for different things, we would have been a lot happier during our lives.” They had learnt less than nothing.
The third group, the depressed, wish that they were dead. And the obliging tree grants them their death wish. Except that they are immediately reborn underneath the same tree for the tree always grants wishes in complementary pairs.
A lame boy had been watching all this from the window of the hut, for he was too weak to push through the enormous crowd thronging to wish under the tree. He had only wanted to wish for a strong pair of legs, but as he saw the spectacle of people struggling to cope with the consequences of their wishing, he was filled with compassion for their plight. And he lost the desire to go out and wish, thus, slicing that fig tree with detachment!
Detachment is the very foundation of happiness as clearly enunciated by the Buddha 2500 years ago and yet, humanity as a whole, has failed to comprehend his simple teachings. Not detachment through emotionless stoicism, but detachment achieved by dissociating our happiness from desires and external influences. As Anthony DeMello reiterates in his beautiful book “Awareness”, the only tool we need to achieve this dissociation is awareness, an open-minded ability to see through these influences. But, this is the exact opposite of what is heavily promoted in our current culture as the relationship between consumption and happiness is the very foundation of our consumer economies.
Consider an ordinary consumer who rushes out to buy the latest technological products from, say, Apple Computer. Sure, the acquisition of these products might temporarily raise his sense of well-being, but when he lets his happiness be altered by such external influences, he is also setting himself up for the decline, e.g., when his cat scratches the IPad case or when his iPhone drops calls. A more aware consumer, perhaps a Bodhisattva, would not let his happiness be substantially altered by the acquisition of these products and won’t be depressed when these adverse events occur, either.
The Buddha essentially stated that when your happiness is dictated by such attachments, the average of your happiness will be quite low. Indeed, you would, in general, be suffering and quite miserable. On the other hand, if your happiness is mostly unaffected by such attachments, the average of your happiness would be quite high.
One can formulate this mathematically, for example, as
average(Happiness) * variance(Happiness) = constant
so that when the variance with respect to attachments is high, the average is low and vice versa. Of course, I’m not sure whether this formulation is correct for a given definition of Happiness or whether it is the square root of the variance that belongs in the above equation, but you get the idea. In fact, the Buddha was not merely content with minimizing the variance of Happiness, but he wanted to drive it down to zero so that in the limit, his Happiness rockets towards infinity – NIRVANA! And, that is what enlightenment is all about – reaching a state of what the Hindus call “Ananda” or “Bliss”, where your feelings of unconditional love and boundless compassion is directed towards all creation indiscriminately. And nothing can touch your happiness.
Facebook ran an interesting experiment to measure the average happiness of its American users using their status updates throughout the course of the year and came up with this telling graph:
This was averaged over millions of Facebook users and therefore the variance of happiness of the average user – as defined by Facebook – is obviously much, much higher than that of this ensemble. Clearly, the average American citizen is a long way from Nirvana, perhaps because he has been sold a bill of goods from childhood that happiness needs to be pursued through the fulfillment of desires with ever increasing consumption. In direct contradiction to the teachings of almost all spiritual traditions of the east and west.