In René Magritte’s painting “Son of Man” we see a man in an overcoat and bowler hat in front of a low wall with sea and cloudy sky behind and a green apple in front of the man’s face.
Why is the apple there? Is the man hiding? What does it mean?
Cue music: “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” Eurythmics (1983)
The painting is open to interpretation of course but the title, “Son of Man” refers to Jesus and in Christianity the apple symbolizes the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. In the Garden of Eden everything is unity until Adam and Eve eat the apple and suddenly know separation between themselves, God and the world around them.
It’s a bit like when we were newborn babies. In developmental psychology when a baby is born it has no idea there’s a difference between itself and the world, but then we chew our thumb and our blanket and notice we can feel one, but not the other. Over time we figure out how our thoughts and emotions further separate us one from another thus fortifying the notion that one’s self is separate from everything else.
We discover that instead of one big, undifferentiated “Self” we have self and other which is the birth of selfishness and the start of all the world’s problems (and the secret to knowing where happiness hides).
The knowledge of good and evil equals the knowledge of opposites and of separateness as opposed to an awareness that there is no self and other or separation between ourselves and nature.
Of his painting Magritte said, “Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see, but it is impossible. Humans hide their secrets too well…
“There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present” (source).
According to Magritte, “If the dream is a translation of waking life, waking life is also a translation of the dream.”
The dream world appears so real we don’t even know we’re dreaming which can lead us to wonder: If the dream world feels just as real as the waking one, how can we know we’re not living in a dream?
As the British professor of neuroscience Anil Seth observed in “Your Brain Hallucinates Reality,” the world we perceive through our senses is interpreted by our brain based on available information and its best guess so what we think we see, hear, feel or understand might not be true at all. Our thoughts can distort our version of reality such that we don’t see what’s really happening.
The key is in a subtle awareness beyond immediate concern (see also Enjoy a Funny Feeling). If you look at the problems we face individually and collectively, you might see the answer is in the problem itself. It’s just we don’t see it. There’s something blocking our view, like that green apple.
As the American meditation teacher Shinzen Young said, “Everybody is looking for something, but what people think they want is happiness dependent on conditions, but what they really want is happiness independent of conditions” (Enlightenment and the 10 Ox Herding Pictures).
If you watch the rats in Steve Cutts’ animation called “Happiness,” it is easy to see how the search for happiness dependent on conditions is misguided.
In the book with the loud title, “I AM THAT” (1973), Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897-1981), a Hindu spiritual teacher who lived in Mumbai, said, “Pleasure lies in the relationship between the enjoyer and the enjoyed. And the essence of it is acceptance. Whatever may be the situation, if it is acceptable, it is pleasant. If it is not acceptable, it is painful…. The personal self by its very nature is constantly pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. The ending of this pattern is the ending of the self. The ending of the self with its desires and fears enables you to return to your real nature, the source of all happiness and peace.”
To find real happiness Maharaj recommended, “Give up all questions except one: ‘Who am I?’ After all, the only fact you are sure of is that you are. The ‘I am’ is certain. The ‘I am this’ is not. Struggle to find out what you are in reality.”
In a music video inspired by another of Magritte’s paintings, “Golconda” (1953), the Beatles and Le Ballon Rouge (1956), we can see and feel where happiness is. Happiness is in our real nature beyond thinking “I want this or that.”
Happiness isn’t hiding. It’s there, in good times and bad.
It’ll just take some practice.