Unmaking Unhappiness

30 September 2011 - 2:28pm Comments Off

People who write self-help books must know that they only reach those whose hands are stretched out. Fingers fully extended. Not like that almost reclining naked guy, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, with the flaccid index finger a hair’s distance from touching divinity. Writing a self-help book is like preaching to the choir. Of course, the curious will pick up and turn the pages of ‘WHY i make myself UNHAPPY’. The off-kilter, catchy title off-balances visually as it unbalances the commonly held notion—maybe a comforting belief—that someone else is the author of our unhappiness.

But regardless, the question is one worth asking: Why [do] I make myself unhappy? It’s a thinking man’s question. Although it should be almost everyone’s too—except for the enlightened—as there is enough unhappiness in the world to prompt the inquiry. Maybe some choose not to ask. Maybe. However, those who do ask become like the proverbial horse being led to the water’s edge. Now there, will it drink? Will you drink? Or will some distraction grab the fickle and ill-disciplined mind and usher it somewhere else and the question becomes lost in the cacophony of the city?

The author, Tsem Rinpoche, the spiritual guide of the Kechara Buddhist organization, breaks down the process to happiness by explaining it in the precepts of the religion. But lest the reader is moved more by the secular than the sacred, he also elucidates in the language of popular psychology. He writes, ‘Even if you do not believe in karma you can believe in this: the effects of your actions and behaviour stay because you reinforce them by allowing the habituation to continue and repeat each time you get away with it. A time will come when all those negative actions and all that bad behaviour will catch up with you.’ Not too different from ‘For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.’

Regardless, for a contemporary culture that has a short memory—as history for it is something that occurred yesterday and anything earlier is prehistoric—sometimes such words don’t sink deep enough to touch the core, precipitating in a desire to transform. To change. For these, such self-help books are filled with bromides and navel-gazing platitudes. Not unlike the fortune-cookie clichés of Hollywood’s celluloid sages as they train their young but hot-headed protégés in exoticized Eastern martial arts and, of course, self-control, all within about 120 minutes.

The words in this book are simple enough for almost all to understand and the message is clear: we’re unhappy because we’ve chosen that path. Or in the lyrics of a popular song, ‘We are all just prisoners here, of our own device.’

The book’s presentation is quite eye-catching with full color, full page plates of accompanying photographs which separate the sections. It is also in a size—bathroom tile sized—that allows it to be carried anywhere in anything from backpacks to car door pockets and back pockets (although the latter risk damaging the book’s spine). This self-help book for the spirit in matte-white covers and pastel-purple text is attractive enough to be placed on the coffee table.

Now at the end of the review, I realize that the opening remark in the first paragraph likely doesn’t apply at all to Tsem Rinpoche, the author.  While his hope is to bring about a change in readers, the seekers of ‘truth’ and freedom, likely there’s no attachment to that end or goal, as all things ‘based upon attachment…will not last.’ Even in such a noble desire as to invite fellow intrepid travellers to unmoor their boat, let go the things that hold them in a cycle of unhappiness and sail towards happiness.

Reviewed by SH Lim

Soon Heng used to teach writing and English. Now he freelances as a reviewer. A pen for hire.

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