Jihad and the Pursuit of Happiness
The Battle for Life
Life it seems flits between two points, which can often be at cross purposes with each other:
- The need to survive.
- The need for lasting happiness.
In many of us, one desire or the other takes precedence at any given point in time. Our society and its various institutes and systems prepare us to meet the first objective – survival. And it must be said that to a large degree, much progress has been made on this front over the centuries. However, very little to no training is given to us in preparation and fulfillment of the second pursuit. It seems almost as though there is hardly even any recognition of the latter need. So people are left to fend for themselves when it comes to the pursuit of happiness.
Even worse, the effort taken to fulfill the first need is often such a time and energy-consuming affair that very little ability remains to engage in need #2. Many even conflate needs 1 and 2, that is, work under the assumption that the aggrandizement of survival tools is the secret to happiness, and therefore proceed headlong into a life of accumulation – from material goods to educational degrees to even more extreme achievements. Most people find themselves so exhausted that they just collapse on their couch at the end of the day. Perhaps after a drink or two to ease the pain and emotional labor that the day has extracted from them. Still, others might get this relief by passively soaking up some form of distracting entertainment.
These temporary fixes only serve to push the exploration of lasting happiness further to the fringes. The world keeps us busy with work, responsibilities, chores, etc., who has time for such “luxuries” one may ask? The problem with this headlong pursuit of just survival is that along with it comes endless desire, corresponding fear and insecurity, and a sense of complete dissatisfaction. Consider for a moment that most people are dissatisfied at their workplace, and a good portion of this dissatisfied population actively hates the work that it does.¹ Keeping in mind that most of us will spend a major part of our lives in the workforce, these data points hardly bode well for our sense of happiness and wellbeing!
This struggle it seems is inherent to the cycle of life on our planet – does not the Bible say that humans were cast “down” upon the earth as a punishment? Similarly, didn’t the Buddha conclude that life is an unending story of misery? True enough. But the upside of it is that if we are fortunate enough to realize the futility and pain of pursuing need number 1, there is indeed the possibility of realizing and fulfilling need number 2.
However, this fulfillment often requires the deliberate decision and action to move away from #1, which can indeed be a struggle. This eternal struggle – the struggle to be free and happy is in essence, Jihad.
It is the result of awakening to the idea that a relentless pursuit of need 1 is ultimately a struggle in itself with little to show for it at the end. Except for temporary fixes like material possessions, occasional celebrations, and the far too common use of substances like alcohol and band-aids like entertainment, survival pursuits hardly offer anything more lasting. These can dull the pain momentarily but an honest introspection will quickly out the reality of this situation – the freedom and joy gained from these trappings are at best, fleeting.
Jihad is the struggle that is born out of the realization that if one has to struggle anyways, why not do it for something more lasting and permanent? Jihad is the struggle to break free from the habit of engaging the reptilian, fight or flight brain so as to engage a more peaceful calm, and cerebral inner center. This is the great defining war of humanity across all the ages. It requires constant skirmish, losses, and the indefatigable willingness to continue despite the odds. There is no greater battle to be fought. And it is for this reason that the Prophet Muhammad called it Jihad al Akbar, the Great Struggle.
The other lesser struggle that is associated with defending oneself in the pursuit of survival, is paltry by comparison. And thankfully, it has been rendered almost obsolete in our times largely due to the material progress of the last 200 years. Most of humanity today doesn’t face the specter of lawlessness and the need to protect itself from some aggressive external threat. At least not to the extent that we did only a few centuries prior to the present day. Not to say those remnants of this painful past don’t persist, but we have come a long way. The data on human development indices is plainly clear in this matter. That said, the promise of technological and material advancement (that it would provide more leisure for greater pursuits) has hardly materialized. It seems as though the more we pursue material advancement and innovation, the more we get mired in our fight or flight impulse interrupted perhaps by the occasional vacation, movie, party, etc.
Perhaps the wisdom traditions were correct – “God and mammon cannot live in the same heart.” A choice has to be made by each of us – will we continue on the road of senseless pain or evolve to a higher reality and potential. It is our decision now which route we wish to take. A future with endless possibilities of joy and human progress or the old ways of pain and fear?
Tradition tells us that there is one crucial benefit to the road less traveled – one always stands to gain, whether or not the destination is reached. Says Sri Krushna in the eternal Song of God, The Bhagavad Gita (2:40): “Working in this state of consciousness, there is no loss or adverse result, and even a little effort saves one from great danger.”
¹ In what might be only assumed as an attempt at euphemism, a recent Gallup poll shows that worker engagement was at an “all time high” of 64% in 2018 in the United States. One can imagine what this could mean post-pandemic, and in poorer regions of the world.
² If you are wondering what concrete steps you can take towards lasting happiness, we recommend some spiritual practices. See our articles below for more information: