Genuine human progress begins when we acknowledge our predicament: our failure at material enjoyment.

By Devamrita Swami

Wandering the forest of our hopes and dreams, we desire more than to survive – our hearts long to thrive.

[Excerpted from Hiding in Unnatural Happiness, Copyright 2015 The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. Available from the Store.]

Chapter 2: Walking the Forest of Unnatural Happiness

“I’m famished for satisfaction,” the mind begs the body. “Make me feel like a natural enjoyer.”

“Set us loose,” the senses respond. They need no pleading. “We’ll satisfy your every desire.”

“I’ve worked hard for the right to enjoy,” the mind computes. “I’ve earned it. Senses, lead me on – happy times are here!”

The Crucial Admission

Amazing opportunities open up for us when we admit that we don’t know real happiness. Genuine human progress begins when we acknowledge our predicament, which is actually universal: our failure at material enjoyment. The struggle, the daily grind to squeeze true satisfaction from the rock of material nature, has cheated us. Wielding bodies and minds in countless lifetimes, we’ve gained only a mirage. But who would dare confess this?

When Hollywood megastar comedian Robin Williams took his life in 2014, the world took note. How could a man with everything – talent, wealth, fame, a cherished wife – wrap a belt around his neck and kill himself?” Once, walking off the stage to thunderous acclaim, his fans on their feet, Williams disclosed to talk-show host Dick Cavett, “Isn’t it funny how I can bring great happiness to all these people, but not to myself?

Less funny than tragic.

What may bewilder us even more is a report by social scientists measuring global happiness that a coolie carrying loads on his back through the streets of Kolkata experiences the same level of life-satisfaction as the average American.

How can we solve the riddle of real happiness? Brave minds abandon fantasies like “Be happy in your own way” and “Whatever gets you through the night.” If the courageous, potential inner explorers, frustrated by today’s predatory lifestyles, take the path of valor, they can do the most good for the outer world.

The reality check begins with classic honesty that cuts to the chase: “Never mind the media-hype; the hell with what people say – I don’t think I actually know what is substantial or lasting happiness.” This entry-level candor can swing the door open to real answers – to the timeless wisdom of the ancients. In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna explains, “Now please hear from Me about the three kinds of material happiness by which the illusioned soul enjoys, and by which he sometimes comes to the end of all distress.”

Material Happiness Laid Bare

Repeatedly stung and bitten in the forest of temporary enjoyment, how can we reach the end of suffering and despair? First, let’s get an overview of Krishna’s three categories of material happiness.

Type one is rare these days – virtuous goodness. Relished by those dedicated to mastering their own mind and senses, this topmost material happiness can lead further – to spiritual enlightenment. “In the beginning,” Krishna tells us, it “may be just like poison, but at the end it is just like nectar . . . and awakens one to self-realization” (Bhagavad-gita 18.37).

To the uneducated eye looking through the lens of material consciousness, a lifestyle of self-discipline and sense control can seem unattractively strict and rigorous – even repressive. Our vision victimized by hedonistic propaganda, we think the more we toss away the reins to our mind and senses – the more we let them stampede, consume, and cavort – the more pleasure we’ll achieve.

But if we become determined practitioners of authentic yogic discipline, climbing steadfastly up the ladder of self-awareness, we can work through this misguided understanding and experience true inner calm and tranquility. This goodness of self-mastery, the highest level of material happiness, can then become a springboard for accessing the nonmaterial pleasure of the nonmaterial self in connection to the Supreme Self.

The second type of material happiness is the most common – passion: work hard, party hard – the grunt and groan approach to life, with the attractions of mind-numbing entertainment and sexual encounters, spiced by intoxication. It is a seductive process, hard for most people to resist. Happiness in passion, Krishna tells us, “derived from contact of the senses with their objects . . . appears like nectar at first but poison at its end” (Bhagavad-gita 18.38).

Sooner or later, passionate, mundane accomplishments and sensual gratifications all lead to dissatisfaction, disappointment, and distress – even disaster, with the heavy price of depletion and dehumanization.

For most, the third, rock-bottom level of material happiness is easier to reject, at least as a constant way of life. Krishna classifies it as ignorance – outright darkness from beginning to end, “blind to self-realization” (Bhagavad-gita 18.39).

Absorbed in this debased happiness – a type easily recognized as perverse – dedicated devotees of drink, drugs, and half-day sleeping waste their life. Lost in cloudlands of intoxication, inertia, and daydreaming, these most unfortunate persons are more self-destructive than even those driven to achieve and indulge on the hedonistic treadmill.

The everyday go-getter, committed to passion, pursues happiness in the routine slavish existence that consumer societies promote. Attracted by the mirage of material success, this false hero labors mightily to squeeze out some shadowy, insubstantial version of happiness. At the onset, these gutsy adventures seem sure to deliver their promised fulfillment, but the thrill inevitably fades, abruptly or gradually – morphing in the end into painful dismay. The temporary, false reprieve of intoxication – the weekend foray into ignorance – segues into the hung-over reality of Monday morning.

The hardcore inhabitant of happiness in lethargic ignorance fares much worse: aimlessness and intoxication almost 24/7. Not even a false ray of light beckons them onward. All is darkness and delusion – a wasteland from start to finish.

Genuine Heroes

Sometimes, however, a soul journeying through the matrix of these three flavors of material happiness, trapped in the maze of illusion, may reach the end, escape. And that greatest fortune can be yours – if you can count as your friends, your allies, experts who can expose the illusion for what it is and the naught it is worth.

The preeminent bhakti preceptor of our time, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, world-renowned for his Bhagavad-gita As It Is, elaborates on what could happen to us while trekking through the forest of material fulfillment:

The conditioned soul tries to enjoy material happiness again and again. Thus he chews the chewed. But sometimes, in the course of such enjoyment, he becomes relieved from material entanglement by association with a great soul. In other words, a conditioned soul is always engaged in some type of sense gratification, but when he understands by good association that it is only a repetition of the same thing, and he is awakened to his real Krishna consciousness, he is sometimes relieved from such repetitive so-called happiness. (Bhagavad-gita 18.36 commentary)

Yes, it can happen – real light at the end of the materialistic tunnel. But we don’t get there by attempting to “thoroughly” experience material happiness. Endeavors to experience illusion simply grant us . . . more illusion.

The night of the forest of self-deception finally turns to enlightening day when we associate with the right people – society’s genuine heroes – living and thriving outside the stale materialistic mirage and inside a dynamic spiritual reality.

Come in from the storm. Directly from Krishna – the ultimate goal of all yoga and meditation – the wisdom-culture of nonmaterial life and happiness awaits you.

Chapter 3: Hot for the Party That’s Not: Dance to Keep from Crying

“You’re too late.”

Who savors that news? Flights missed, business opportunities squandered, romantic possibilities bungled – “too late” means time has hurtled onward, forcing us to accept outcomes ranging from routine inconveniences to devastating setbacks.

The roomful of South African university students peer at me silently, thoughtfully. Have I delivered the goods compassionately? They are processing.

These members of the “Rainbow Nation,” mostly African, are burning with the desire to succeed. The barriers of apartheid now twenty years gone, their eyes are glued to what appears to be an open expressway ahead, and they’re pressing the pedal to the floor.

Vroom, vroom!

Destination? The hype of material prosperity and happiness.

Craving a consumer paradise, my audience is desperate to join the First World in the soul-killing flames of material satisfaction. Like people throughout the developing world, these South African hopefuls feel they’ve stood by long enough. Now they want to take their place on the planetary stage of the materialistic bash. The global party-lights are flashing, bewitching – who can resist?

“Our ancestors died, the freedom fighters endured, and the national leaders connive,” they say, “all to award us precious entrance to the party. Why just survive? Sense indulgence, gratification, is a basic human right. Let’s get it on!”

But the midnight hour has long passed; the sun is about to rise: smashed furniture, broken bottles, stained carpets, drugged and drunken guests colliding or collapsed in stupor, an argument here, vomiting there, sad hookups everywhere.

“You’ve arrived too late,” I inform my audience. The all-night rave, one hell of a hedonistic blast, is over.

Politicians everywhere promise to rake the dying embers, reigniting the wildfires of materialistic hopes. But the gap between the haves and have-nots – the 1 percent and the 99 percent – continues to widen. It’s a worldwide no-win situation for everyone.

Meanwhile, maddened by the fever of false progress, we’ve trashed the planet. Our environmental woes are publicized daily, but we can’t find the collective motivation to change course.

“Admit it,” I beg them, “the revelry is finished. A long shot is the only hope – fire up an after-party! Rally a group of come-latelies and rekindle the flames – frantic, flickering, futile.

Let’s dance amidst our tears.

My challenge to the students: Why seek to beat the dead horse? Why compete for the chance to chomp what the First World has already thoroughly chewed? Don’t swallow it, I plead. Let’s start anew – build this new nation on a spiritual platform.

As the erudite bhakti-yogi Prahlada Maharaja states in Srimad-Bhagavatam, “Because of their uncontrolled senses, persons too addicted to materialistic life make progress” (7.5.30). But to where? Their achievement is ever more complicated, unsolvable distresses, both individually and socially. They “make progress toward hellish conditions and repeatedly chew that which has already been chewed,” energetically munching on the remnants of previous generations. Consequently, their dormant inclinations toward nonmaterial lifestyles, leading to the all-attractive spiritual reality, “are never aroused.”

We can no longer buy into the usual promises of material analyses. We need a new, solution-focused generation to grace the earth – a new wave that strives to make a real difference by analyzing human problems and comprehending that they are never truly solved on the same materialistic level that gave rise to them.

Real human progress kicks in when the mirage, the mass consensual trance, loses its attraction. When the constant stream of our material attempts exhausts us, when we are weary of the illusory matrix of consumer culture – that is when our actual advancement in real human life finally begins.

In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna assures us that even if we are the most deluded of hardcore materialists, acting as if nothing exists other than matter and its movements and modifications, “when you are situated in the boat of transcendental knowledge, you will be able to cross over the ocean of miseries,” the ocean of perpetual material bafflement and unrest (4.36).

Transcendental knowledge means information and education beyond that which has a beginning and an end, which is beyond the permutations and adaptations of physiology and psychology. What the Gita grants us exceeds the limited, temporal domain of time and space.

Krishna goes on to declare that we’ll never find in this world any prosperity or acquisition as sublime and pure as nonmundane, transcendental wisdom. Simply by seeking to understand who Krishna is – through authenticated, nonmaterial processes – we will walk away with what no financial market indices can measure. Our priceless treasure is irrevocably beyond the gains and losses, booms and busts, of temporary material existence.

“There is nothing so sublime and pure,” Krishna tells us, “as transcendental knowledge. Such knowledge is the mature fruit of all mysticism.” And the genuine yogi, accomplished in bhakti – the yoga of ultimate connection – experiences and enjoys this knowledge within (Bhagavad-gita 4.38). Rather than saluting a wannabe civilization insistent on partying itself to death, we can join the wise, who’ve had enough. We can work to eradicate the material illusion – both individually and en masse. And when we do, the timeless spiritual art, science, and culture that emanate from Krishna, the infinite Superconsciousness, awaits us, the minute particles of consciousness.

“One should meditate upon the Supreme Person as the one who knows everything, as He who is the oldest, who is the controller, who is smaller than the smallest, who is the maintainer of everything, who is beyond all material conception, who is inconceivable, and who is always a person. He is luminous like the sun, and He is transcendental, beyond this material nature” (Bhagavad-gita 8.9).

After focusing in this way, we can advance to the last stop in our quest for the most profound and comprehensive spiritual knowledge: awareness of Krishna as the Supreme Beloved and Enjoyer.