“Happiness in a new size,” reads a billboard on Telegraph Avenue at 40th Street in Oakland. The “New 89¢ 12.5 oz.” bottle of Coca-Cola. In a time when “nirvana” is sold in a bottle, where do I turn in pursuit of happiness? Why am I looking at all?
Since the 19th century, American advertising strategies have associated products with imaginary states of well being. According to Grant McCracken, consumerism facilitates an escapist tendency to attach “displaced meaning” onto consumer goods.1 The displacement results from a gap between the real and the ideal. Unsatisfied with reality, consumers displace hopes and ideals onto objects, which serve as bridges to connect the would-be owner with displaced meaning. Like cultures, individuals seek spaces onto which they can project their ideals and thereby find their personal “golden age.” Objects become the field in which ideals are mapped onto space.
Anticipating the possession of certain objects connects the individual to a larger set of possessions, attitudes, relationships, circumstances, and opportunities.
Anticipating the possession of certain objects connects the individual to a larger set of possessions, attitudes, relationships, circumstances, and opportunities. Since anticipation provides the special distance that enables the displacement of meaning, one chooses an object beyond his or her purchasing power. If fabulously wealthy, one resorts to ogling rare collectibles to sustain the gap. McCracken explains that no sooner is an object obtained as a bridge then the consumer transfers anticipation to another object. The consumer, then, unconsciously seeks sustained anticipation rather than fulfillment, which due to the gap between the real and the ideal is elusive.
Through such advertising schemes, not only meaning, but pleasure too is displaced, anticipated in the space of unattainable objects in a time always to come. As someone who ingests few stimulants, aside from sugar and chocolate and, very occasionally, caffeine, the initial stages of pursuing a relationship provide a blast in dopamine, powerfully reinforcing the desire to continue activities that would recreate such a high. A good kiss can knock the wind out of me and leave me floating off my seat for hours. But the effect is temporary, and rather than satisfy me, for some time leaves me wanting more. And yet, any object or relationship whose pleasure is based on anticipation or on a lack sustained by displaced meaning cannot possibly satisfy me.
This is because what I think I lack…. I make up the displaced meaning on the basis of the impetus created by unstable, passing karma.
This is because what I think I lack—in other words the displaced meaning that I add to objects—is not missing at all. I make up the displaced meaning on the basis of the impetus created by unstable, passing karma. If the karmic energy that sought the high from kissing has passed, for the time being at least, all of the physical conditions for contact with someone attractive can be present, but I am not interested in hooking up.
Nāgārjuna and Aśvagoṣa, Indian Buddhists from around the second century CE, distinguished between the pleasure of desires and the bliss of the dhyānas.2 Pleasures of desire are pleasures of the senses, which are insubstantial and deceptive like a dream. They bring momentary delight when obtained, but cause great suffering when lost. If not obtained, hankering after them also leads to suffering.
According to Nāgārjuna, bliss arises within dhyāna, the cultivating of contemplative thought, characterized by wisdom and meditative absorption.3 To realize bliss, one must have no desire, let go of attachments, and develop concentration. When the mind is focused, the generation of thought rooted in lack is felt as tormenting and intense joy is experienced. But since this joy can be lost, giving rise to distress, there is suffering in bliss. For this reason, joy must also be abandoned to cultivate equanimity. When one maintains equanimity and establishes the mind in an immovable single-mindedness, one can abide in bliss and its absence without regret. Nāgārjuna tells us that the goal of this cultivation is complete equanimity and mindfulness.
… unaware that their happiness is just the absence of major suffering. The world fastens on lust and other desires, which are inimical to us, transitory, and an ongoing cause of suffering.
In Saundarananda, Aśvagoṣa relates the story of the Buddha tricking Nanda into ordaining against his will. Recently married and thoroughly enjoying his sexuality with his young wife, Nanda finds it impossible to think of anything besides his wife, much less to cultivate meditation. In an effort to steer him on the path, the Buddha takes him to heaven. After seeing the beautiful apsarases, Nanda soon forgets about his wife. At first, Nanda cultivates in order to gain the heavenly realms and satisfy his lust for the celestial nymphs, but after cultivating a while, he realizes the benefit of the Dharma in its own right. The Buddha tells him, “People are stimulated to effortful activity by the thought that there might be no suffering and that they could be happy, unaware that their happiness is just the absence of major suffering. The world fastens on lust and other desires, which are inimical to us, transitory, and an ongoing cause of suffering. It does not know imperishable bliss.”4
In Aśvagoṣa’s poem, the Buddha cautions against perceiving the source of happiness in the passions (kāma) because they are shifting, unreal, without any essence, and unstable.5 Because the happiness they bring is only imagined, he suggests not paying any attention to them. Like Nāgārjuna’s discourse, Aśvagoṣa’s story of Nanda relates how, through concentrating the mind, profound joy can be experienced. Because there can be times when this joy is not experienced, joy too is flawed and must be destroyed. Nanda realizes that nonattachment to joy yields the highest bliss, but the mind fluctuates due to the modulations of this bliss. The fluctuations give rise to motion and motion to suffering. So, Nanda gives up bliss and strives for equanimity and mindfulness.6 After removing lust and attachment to bliss, Nanda experiences utter rapture.
If this alternative bliss is so great and equanimity is even more rewarding, why are we settling for mediocre beverages and cheap thrills? Perhaps it is because we are creatures of habit and imitators. If we are not accustomed to a certain way of life, we are unlikely to adopt it. Likewise, if we have no living example of a sage to emulate, our confidence in giving up the pleasures promised by culture and the mass media is crushingly deficient. All the more so because truly following in the footsteps of an awakened teacher in our midst requires us not only to let go of our grasp of displaced meaning projected onto objects, but also of any identity with the subject who perceives such objects. In other words, we have to let go of all attachments to recognize what we already have but keep obscuring with our anticipation and lack. Only by having confidence in this alternative bliss and by transforming ourselves to be examples for others on the path can we begin to change how we as individuals and as a culture conceive the pursuit of happiness.
 Grant McCracken, Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).
 Nāgārjuna on the Six Perfections: An Ārya Bodhisattva Explains the Heart of the Bodhisattva Path. Trans. Bhikshu Dharmamitra. (Seattle: Kalavinka Press, 2008), 591.
 Ibid., 637.
 Aśvagoṣa, Handsome Nanda. Trans. Linda Covill. Clay Sanskrit Library. (New York: New York Univeristy Press and JJC Foundation, 2007), 235.
 Ibid., 270.
 Ibid., 335.