The alchemy of happiness: how to achieve sustainable pleasure

Whatever you are getting from Allah, even if it is deprivation, is far better than all the abundances of this world put together.

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Whatever you are getting from Allah, even if it is deprivation, is far better than all the abundances of this world put together.

“For thirty years I have fasted by day and prayed by night, but have found none of that spiritual joy of which you speak,” a friend once grumbled to the great Sufi master Abu Yazid Al Bistami.

The Sheikh replied that his friend would not find it, even if he had prayed and fasted for three hundred years, as long as selfishness acted as a veil between him and God.

Pressed by his friend to prescribe a cure for this veil, Al Bistami said, “Go to the nearest barber and have your beard shaved; strip yourself of your clothes, with the exception of a girdle around your loins. Take a horse’s nosebag full of walnuts, hang it around your neck, go into the bazaar and cry out, ‘Any boy who gives me a slap on the nape of my neck shall have a walnut.’ Then, in this manner, go where the Qadi and the doctors of the law are sitting.” This seemingly strange prescription was not acceptable to the friend, who sought another remedy. But the Sheikh who had found his friend’s malady too deeply entrenched to be cured with a lighter remedy pronounced him as incurable.

Imam Abu Ḥamid Al-Ghazali, who narrates this beautiful anecdote in The Alchemy of Happiness (Kimiya’e Saadat) says that Al Bistami suggested this bizarre remedy because he had already understood that his friend’s path to God was clogged up with pride and selfish ambitions. Highlighting this incident, Al-Ghazali, who dethroned philosophy from the highest pedestal of knowledge enthroning spiritualism in its place, was addressing an age-old question in human history: What is happiness all about, and how do we achieve it? From time immemorial, happiness has been enshrined as the central purpose of human life and a goal in itself. Every human being aspires to be happy, and one of the questions we are frequently asked, and one we do ask others as well, is about happiness. The World Happiness Report, a landmark survey of the state of global happiness, initiated by United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, argues that happiness provides a better indicator of human welfare than any measurement of income, poverty, education, health and good government.

But what does happiness mean to each one of us?

How do we achieve it? How do we measure it? Is there a barometer to gauge our level of happiness every now and then? What brings happiness to life? In our daily life, there are a lot of things we seek pleasure from. Are we really happy when we say we are happy? Is happiness all about scoring marks, winning medals, bagging awards, earning money, purchasing your favourite brands, flaunting your wealth and possessions?

In today’s world, we have a close to $2 trillion dollars worth industry working round the clock to entertain us, by heavily bombarding us left, right and centre with all sorts of fun, games, music, dance, movies, comedy, farce, gossips and what not. The entertainment industry has grown up exponentially, assuming sweeping powers and influence across the world and among people of all age groups. Never before in history have luxury and entertainment occupied the centre stage of human life as they do today. Luxury products of all stripes are presented to us in an appealing way, with ostensibly beaming faces of men and women staring us from billboards and television screens everywhere. They all say the products they vouch for are conceived, designed and produced to make our life happier and to get us relieved of stress and boredom – but does our happiness graph go up constantly… or has it plummeted? We are still in the pursuit of happiness, moving from one destination to another, flicking through TV channels, frolicking on the beaches, hanging around on social media, hoping from websites to websites, but hardly finding real pleasure anywhere we go. The true and lasting happiness still eludes us.

This means that you are seeking pleasure in the most unlikely of places. Most of those things you seek pleasure from are not capable of exuding enduring happiness, therefore the pleasure you derive from them are not lasting. Since they are momentary in nature and bound to perish, their beauty and attraction are fleeting. None of them can please you forever, as the moment their pomp and splendour dwindle, you will start feeling boredom. Simply scratch the surface of their veneer, and you can feel the boredom underneath. It is ridiculous to seek happiness in something that will perish. A true believer in God can sustain these blessings and convert the momentary pleasure obtained from them into eternal bliss. The only means to sustain our enjoyment in this world is to shift our focus and convert them from ‘transient’ to ‘eternal’ mode.

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Maintaining our relationship with God is the one and only means to sustain and eternalize our pleasure.

As Al Bistami advised his friend, we need to remove the veils that block our access to God. However appealing and tempting they appear to be, they have no enduring value. Whatever they bring cannot be compared to the true happiness you get by connecting to the Almighty. What the devil promises is destitution and what he enjoins on us is eternal lewdness, whereas what Allah (swt) promises is forgiveness from Him with bounty. [Al Baqara: 268] Whatever you are getting from Allah, even if it is deprivation, is far better than all the abundances of this world put together. As Sheikh Ibn Ataillah observes in his magnum opus ‘Kitab al Hikam,’ Allah has arranged another eternal and lasting world for rewarding his obedient servants, because this world is so transient and small.

Al Ghazali, who extensively wrote on the topic of happiness, defines true happiness as the enjoyment of God. The alchemy of eternal bliss, he contends, is found in the divine treasure. He maintains that happiness is necessarily linked with the knowledge of God and will be in strict proportion to the degree in which we love God. Happiness consists in the transformation of the self, and this transformation consists in the realization that one is primarily a spiritual being. The ultimate ecstasy is not found in any physical thing, but rather lies in discovering, through personal experience, one’s identity with the Ultimate Reality.

The 2016 edition of the World Happiness Report published recently recommends that at an increasingly irreligious age we need to accord top priority to promoting ethical values and an ethical system which can inspire and unite people of all ages from all backgrounds and cultures. It means even when religiosity is waning rapidly across the world, religious and ethical values need to be preserved to keep the world smiling. The report declines the crude form of Darwinism which says human nature is inherently selfish and it is the fittest who survive, describing it contrary to the modern understanding of human nature.

There is no denying the fact that a world built on the fragile foundation of soulless consumerism and unbridled extravaganza is not going to bring you lasting peace and happiness. Only by building a connection to God and developing a lasting and meaningful relationship with Him, can you solve your most complicated problems and make your life blissful forever. That will open up many doors in front of you that you once believed were locked with ten deadbolts. Get connected and stay in touch with Him, in order to keep enjoying the fruits for all eternity.

by Muhammed Nafih Wafy



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