Looking in the Wrong Place

In Letting Go of Nothing, Peter Russell tells a story about Nasreddin, a Muslim folk hero. Dubbed “the wise fool,” Nasreddin is street-smart, often outwitting both his adversaries and his friends. Sometimes, however, he is too clever for his own good, thus becoming the butt of the joke. This particular tale is an example of the latter.

Nasreddin was “outside his house one night, kneeling on the ground under a streetlamp, looking for his key,” Russell writes. “A neighbor joins in, scrabbling around in the dirt. After a while he asks, ‘Where exactly did you lose it?’ ‘In my house,’ comes the reply. ‘Well,’ asks the neighbor, being as tactful as possible, ‘why are you looking for it out here?’ ‘Because,’ replies the wise fool, ‘there’s more light out here.'”

It’s easy to laugh at Nasreddin’s silliness, but when it comes to happiness, aren’t we doing the same thing? “We look for it in the world around us because that is the world we know best,” Russell continues. “We know how to change it, how to gather possessions, how to make people and things behave the way we want. We know much less about our minds; they seem dark and mysterious. And so we keep chasing things and experiences in the external world, not realizing the key to feeling better lies within.”

In Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, a young man has a similar realization. After decades of studying under the tutelage of his father, praying, sacrificing, following the rules and rituals, Siddhartha understands that the Brahmins can’t teach him what he wants to know. He ventures out into the world to become an ascetic, but that, too, falls short in satisfying his thirst. Even the Buddha himself does not seem to have any answers, but it is only once Siddhartha rejects his teachings that it finally hits him: No amount of studying anything external, no matter how rigorously, will show him what can only be found in his own heart.

We like to use happiness as an example because it’s an aspect of life where it is most tragic to miss the forest for the trees, but there are plenty of other arenas where we look for solutions in the wrong place. Anxiety cannot be calmed with alcohol. Health cannot be achieved solely with the perfect workout. And retiring in peace is more about knowing when you have enough than about picking the right stock.

Don’t start a witch hunt when you drop your keys. Simply bend down and pick them back up. Not everything in life has an unlock mechanism as straightforward as your front door, but then again, most things worth having aren’t things at all — and the passcodes to those you carry with you at all times.