Dear Still Water Friends,
I wonder whether most of us talked about being happy, or not being happy, from the time we were small children. I know I did. My childhood happinesses (and unhappinesses) had to do with the pleasures of the senses. Activities like riding my bicycle and eating cookies made me happy. My happiness was also linked to those around me. I was happy when I was seen and liked, honored and cherished, and unhappy when I was not. As I grew older, achievements and recognition became important. I was happy when I got good grades and received Cub Scout and Boy Scout badges. These transformed over time to degrees, awards, and work recognition.
When the pursuit of pleasures (and the avoidance of pain) shapes a life, as they did mine, our emotions are often on a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. In my memory of my early years the downs seemed to predominate, though I now know there were many other people who had deeper and longer-lasting lows. (In writing this announcement I remembered for the first time in decades a Cub Scout friend, who I thought was happier than I was, who shot and killed himself after his father belittled him.)
Are there ways to get off the emotional roller coaster, or at least to raise the threshold, so the lows come less often and are not so low? A core teaching of Thay (the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh) is that the practice of mindfulness can brings us to a deeper, truer happiness:
Our practice is the practice of mindfulness—mindfulness of breathing, walking, eating, dishwashing, and cooking—always dwelling in the here and the now and not allowing ourselves to be pulled away by worries, projects for the future, or regrets about the past.
The practice of mindfulness (Smrti in Sanskrit) leads to concentration (Samadhi), which in turn leads to insight (prajña). The insight we gain from mindfulness meditation can liberate us from fear, anxiety, and anger, allowing us to be truly happy. We can practice mindfulness using something as simple as a flower. When I hold a flower in my hand, I’m aware of it. My in-breath and out-breath help me maintain my awareness. Rather than becoming overwhelmed by other thoughts, I sustain my enjoyment of the flower’s beauty. Concentration itself becomes a source of joy.
If we want to fully enjoy life’s gifts, we must practice mindfulness at every turn, whether we’re brushing our teeth, cooking our breakfast, or driving to work. Every step and every breath can be an opportunity for joy and happiness. Life is full of suffering. If we don’t have enough happiness on reserve, we have no means to take care of our despair. Enjoy your practice with a relaxed and gentle attitude, with an open mind and a receptive heart. Practice for understanding and not for the form or appearance. With mindfulness, we can preserve an inner joy, so that we can better handle the challenges in our lives. We can create a foundation of freedom, peace, and love within ourselves. (From Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices)
The essence of Thay’s approach to happiness is for me contained in a Plum Village song that lightens me whenever I hear it:
We are moving
On a journey to nowhere
Taking it easy
Taking it slow
No more worries
No need to hurry
Nothing to carry
Let it all go.
This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, our Dharma sharing will focus on the notions of happiness we grew up with and the lessons we have learned as adults. Have the mindfulness practices and present moment awareness enabled us to nourish a deeper happiness, less dependent on causes and conditions? Do we aspire to be “on a journey to nowhere”?
You are invited to join us.
An excerpt from Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard is below.
A recording of On a Journey to Nowhere is available on YouTube.
Happiness, Flourishing, and Mind Training
By Matthieu Ricard from Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill
Happiness can’t be limited to a few pleasant sensations, to some intense pleasure, to an eruption of joy or a fleeting sense of serenity, to a cheery day or a magic moment that sneaks up on us in the labyrinth of our existence. Such diverse facets are not enough in themselves to build an accurate image of the profound and lasting fulfillment that characterizes true happiness.
By happiness I mean here a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. This is not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being. Happiness is also a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.
Changing the way we see the world does not imply naive optimism or some artificial euphoria designed to counterbalance adversity. So long as we are slaves to the dissatisfaction and frustration that arise from the confusion that rules our minds, it will be just as futile to tell ourselves “I’m happy! I’m happy!” over and over again as it would be to repaint a wall in ruins. The search for happiness is not about looking at life through rose-colored glasses or blinding oneself to the pain and imperfections of the world. Nor is happiness a state of exultation to be perpetuated at all costs; it is the purging of mental toxins, such as hatred and obsession, that literally poison the mind. It is also about learning how to put things in perspective and reduce the gap between appearances and reality. To that end we must acquire a better knowledge of how the mind works and a more accurate insight into the nature of things, for in its deepest sense, suffering is intimately linked to a misapprehension of the nature of reality. …
What do we mean by reality? In Buddhism the word connotes the true nature of things, unmodified by the mental constructs we superimpose upon them. Such concepts open up a gap between our perception and reality, and create a never-ending conflict with the world. … We take for permanent that which is ephemeral and for happiness that which is but a source of suffering: the desire for wealth, for power, for fame, and for nagging pleasures.
By knowledge we mean not the mastery of masses of information and learning but an understanding of the true nature of things. Out of habit, we perceive the exterior world as a series of distinct, autonomous entities to which we attribute characteristics that we believe belong inherently to them. Our day-to-day experience tells us that things are “good” or “bad.” The “I” that perceives them seems to us to be equally concrete and real. This error, which Buddhism calls ignorance, gives rise to powerful reflexes of attachment and aversion that generally lead to suffering.