In Buddhist tradition as it is practiced in Japan, it is said that, “The way of art is the way of the Buddha.” 「芸道是佛道」In the Buddhist view, one of the reasons we human beings experience suffering is that our minds get very busy wanting certain ephemeral but desirable things in life—things like love, wealth, power, or status. We feel such disappointment when we don’t get them all, or all at the same time, or when they don’t last. The disappointment is pretty inevitable. Let’s face it: when is your life going to look exactly the way you want it to, in all aspects? Probably never. Though life can feel pretty darn good for some magical stretches, like when you fall in love or win the Nobel Prize, “happiness out there” (the kind of happiness you might feel if only a number of external circumstances could be met) is going to be an endlessly receding horizon we will never actually catch.
That’s why part of Buddhist practice is to learn to quiet this busy mind that bounces around the halls of desire and disappointment. If we learn not to attach too strongly to these wishes, we reduce our suffering. If you actually get to a point where you realize that the feeling of separateness from what you think you want is itself only an illusion—because in the Buddhist view there is no true separation of any one thing from another—then in that instant you have touched your “Buddha nature.” Now, animals are considered to possess this Buddha nature automatically, because they are completely innocent in their experience of life. They do only what comes naturally to them. Although animals certainly struggle every day just to survive, they are almost certainly not tortured by their own thoughts. How does one achieve this blissful emptiness of mind? Meditating in front of a rock garden might be one way, but doing art is considered another. Therefore, “The way of art is the way of the Buddha.” When you lose yourself in the practice of a craft, you might temporarily experience something like nirvana.
A life without desires or wishes may sound bland and awful to some, but the idea is not to become an unfeeling robot. The promise is a life of greater peace, not less enjoyment. In Japan I had the opportunity on a couple of occasions to meet the abbots of Zen temples I was visiting. I found them to have a gleam in their eyes and a guileless delight in their laughter. Not bad for a mind that practices “going blank.”
In modern psychological terms, this state of “ecstasy” (which literally means you are “displaced,” “in a trance,” or, even more literally, “standing outside of yourself”) has been called “flow.” The originator of the concept, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, describes it as a state of mind a person achieves when deeply engaged in an activity that requires just the amount of skill that the person possesses, especially when the challenge in the activity and the skill level in the person are both high. In this state, time passes without the person even knowing it. (See Czikszentmihalyi’s TED talk at http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow ) Whatever you call it, or however you get to it, it feels good to be in that space.
For more on the Buddhist perspective on happiness, told by Sylvia Boorstein in an accessible and enjoyable fashion, see also: http://www.sylviaboorstein.com/books.html .