Consumption Is Not True Happiness

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Dear Still Water Friends,

The Fifth Mindfulness Training, Nourishment and Healing, urges us to consume mindfully, to cultivate “good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society.” In The Mindfulness Survival Kit, Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) draws our attention to why cultivating good health may be challenging for many of us:

The Fifth Mindfulness Training is about happiness. We consume because we want to be happy. But consumption is not true happiness. People consume in order to cover up their suffering. Many people pour themselves a glass of alcohol or open the refrigerator to take something to eat or drink in order to help them forget their suffering, their difficulties, their loneliness, or their weariness with life. This is something peculiar to our modem society.

Happiness is not something that we have to look for and find somewhere else. Returning to the present moment, we are in touch with the wonders of life inside and around us. With the help of our mindful breathing and mindful steps, we can produce happiness straightaway. When we have mindfulness, concentration, and insight we become very rich people who are able to produce much happiness for ourselves and others; we don’t need to run after anything anymore.

Thay’s words ring true for me. When I was sixteen I started smoking cigarettes. They were inexpensive then, and I could easily buy them from vending machines. Partly I smoked because I was a bit of a rebel and wanted to assert my independence from the authorities in my life. However, I believe I did it mainly because I wanted to be grown-up, cool, and interesting to young women. I started by smoking a few cigarettes now and then. By the time I was eighteen or nineteen, I was smoking a pack a day.

When I was twenty-two I began telling myself I should stop. More information was available about smoking and cancer, and I had tired of sore throats, the smell of cigarette butts, and ashes burning holes in my clothes. So I quit. Two days later took a cigarette to reward myself for having stopped smoking. By the next week I was again smoking almost a pack a day. So it went for the next two years. I stopped smoking a hundred times, and each time started again. I had the intention, but I just could not do it. The nicotine withdrawal symptoms would make me miserable and relieving the symptoms with a cigarette was just too tempting.

What finally assisted me was an American Cancer Society radio ad. People in the ad talked about how they had stopped for days, weeks, or years, and then one cigarette started them smoking again. The repeated message was, “The only way to stop smoking is to stop smoking.” The ad helped me recognize that for me the next cigarette was not simply a cigarette, but the beginning of a new cycle of smoking and all that would entail. I threw away my cigarettes  and never smoked again.

Now, many decades later, I can see clearly how my smoking started because of my suffering. I was an insecure and unhappy child and teenager. The notion that true happiness arises when “we are in touch with the wonders of life inside and around us” was foreign to me. My idea of happiness was focused on how I was seen by others and what I would receive from them.

I began smoking as an attempt to transcend my perceived inadequacies. But then the chemical dependency generated a different suffering. Short-term relief from the withdrawal symptoms kept winning out over long-term health, until the American Cancer Society gave me a koan, that slogan that immediately expanded my understanding of the causes and consequences of my nicotine addiction. It was essentially a spiritual teaching, very much like Thay’s “There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.”

The Mindfulness Survival Kit begins with Thay explaining that mindfulness practice can similarly expand our understanding of our everyday actions:

Mindfulness is the awareness of what is going on in us and around us in the present moment. It requires stopping, looking deeply, and recognizing both the uniqueness of the moment and its connection to everything that has gone on before and will go on in the future. Mindfulness can help us survive and thrive, both as individuals and as human beings on this Earth together. Mindfulness is a continual practice—a path that helps us to transform our suffering and that brings happiness to ourselves and to others.

This Thursday evening, after our meditation, we will recite together the Five Mindfulness Trainings and focus on the Fifth Training, Nourishment and Healing. We will begin our Dharma sharing with these questions:

  • What do you think Thay means when he says “Consumption Is Not True Happiness”?
  • Are there times (or have there been times) when you consume to cover up your suffering?
  • What lessons have you learned about consumption, suffering, and happiness?

You are invited to join us.

The text of the Fifth Mindfulness Trainings is below.

Warm wishes and many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

The Fifth Mindfulness Training, Nourishment and Healing

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming.

I will practice looking deeply into how I take in edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to use alcohol, drugs, gambling, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will make every effort to consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and our Earth.