Category Archives: happiness

How does happiness happen?

smiling buddhaMy granddaughters are seven and five years old. Their definition of happiness is getting what they want when they want it. If things go their way then it’s the ‘best day ever’ and if they are denied anything, then it’s the ‘worst day ever’.

There are plenty of adults who concur with this definition of happiness. They see it as some externally regulated occurrence over which they have little or no control. Their emotional lives wobble about like a yo yo being yanked on a string. This is not happiness! It’s helplessness. No amount of ice cream, stuffed animals, compliments or cute shoes can create true happiness. Which is not to say we can’t enjoy these things, but we delude ourselves if we think they will make us happy.

As part of the maturation process, most people recognize that if they want food, shelter, clothes, transportation, etc. — the basic necessities of modern life — then they will have to work for them. Maybe that motive of achieving happiness through attaining these things is helpful in its way. These things can provide some sense of security, contentment and maybe achievement. But sustainable happiness? Not so much. It still may feel random and elusive. So they may begin to blame themselves. They feel that there is something inherently wrong with them if they can’t appreciate all they have, especially if on that list, besides stuff, they also have close relationships they value, most of the time. They may feel guilty for not feeling sufficiently grateful for all they have, making them feel even more discontented.

Watching my granddaughters go through their emotional gyrations reminds me of myself as a little girl. I too knew the soaring heights of, say, Christmas morning seeing a pile of presents under the tree. Then within a matter of minutes I knew the lows of sitting amidst the litter of ribbons and torn wrapping paper, realizing it was all over.

‘Is that all?’ I would ask. Go ahead and call me a spoiled brat, but I had a hunger no amount of presents could fill. And we all do.

‘Is that all? Is this what life is? Seeking happiness through the acquisition of stuff?’ If you were a person who was made permanently happy by stuff, you would not be reading this. So let’s be honest and acknowledge together that it is not for lack of stuff that we suffer.

You may be familiar with the Buddhist word dukkha. Dukkha is suffering that is caused by greed, aversion and delusion. Dukkha is such a great word because when it comes to us English speakers, it already contains the quality of, excuse me, shittyness in its syllables: doo-doo, cah-cah. We just double-down on the word dukkha. There is an instant understanding of how dukkha feels. We’ve all had times we could easily describe as shitty. And there’s a relief in being able to acknowledge that.

Let’s look a little closer at greed, aversion and delusion:

  • Greed is a hunger that can never be sated, not just for stuff but for experiences, for novelty, for approval, for accolades and so much more. It is a bottomless wish list.
  • Aversion is an endless hit list, all the things that annoy and threaten us in one way or another, activating fear, anger and hatred.
  • Delusion is a listlessness, living in a fog, being tossed about on ocean waves, not knowing how to surf, always gulping for air.

You can see how much suffering, how much dukkha, is caused by these ways of relating to the life. But there is another word, sukha, that is the happiness that grows from our own cultivation of mindfulness rather than waiting for someone else to hand us happiness on a platter. It offers a sense of freedom from constantly craving more.

So how do we cultivate true happiness, sukha?
Wherever we are right now we pause, release whatever tension is present, come into all the senses, cultivate spaciousness to hold all the thoughts and emotions that may be entangled in tight knots. And we give ourselves some infinite lovingkindness: May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be happy. Then (and only then) we extend our well-wishing out into the community of all beings: May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be happy.

Sure, we still may feel some extra energetic zing when our ducks are all lined up in a row or we receive a nice surprise or we feel relief that some bullet has been dodged, and we might have a little happy dance or celebrate any way we choose. But at a deeper level we recognize that there is a kind of happiness that exists without the need for perfectly aligned ducks and that every moment is a cause for celebration. It is unconditional happiness or joy that is expansive enough to hold even our disgruntlement, disappointment, grief, anger and every other emotion, because it rises out of the wisdom to see every emotion as a fleeting condition, like a cloud passing through an otherwise infinitely blue sky. Even when conditions are such that there’s no blue sky to be seen at all, just gray storms and even thunder everywhere we look, we know that there is a blue sky that holds it all, even the most difficult emotions. Our happiness is not dependent on every day being sunny, every flower being in perfect bloom or our bodies being pain free and flawless. Things can be going to hell in a handbasket, as the saying goes, and yet somehow we find joy in the moment.

It isn’t like living in a bubble of immunity to pain. Pain happens. Loss happens. Bad news can still make the heart feel like it is breaking. Tears still fall. Fear in all its guises still arises at times. But it is visible. We see it just as it is. It is not an enemy to confront or hide from. It is not the boss of our experience. It is not who we are. It is just what is passing through our experience in this moment.

Think of a parent caring for a crying baby. The parent holds the baby, cuddles the baby, soothes the baby with soft words, coos and sings until the baby settles down. The parent is supportive witness to the experience, acknowledging that it is okay. We can be in relationship with our own emotions in the same way. We hold them with compassion and kindness. We are not making light of the experience. We are simply holding the space for the experience within the greater understanding of the nature of impermanence. This too shall pass.

As with all I teach, this exploration is for myself as well. If you have been following along on this blog, you may remember that my brother is dealing with a life-threatening illness. He is certainly being challenged, and all of us who love him are also challenged, to adjust to the new normal, and find a way to accept the unacceptable. And we all will, one way or another. Whether we do it by railing against the nature of impermanence, against illness and old age and death, or whether we find a more open and friendly way to be with it, whatever the ‘it’ of the moment is, that’s a journey for each of us to make in our own way. We can each only do what we can do. The more difficult the journey, the more grateful I am for my meditation practice. It doesn’t help me to escape anything. It helps me to stay fully present, to recognize the preciousness of each moment, to let go of everything but that awareness and gently hold the moment like the precious jewel it is — even seeing someone I love in a hospital bed hooked up to drips and machines. Touching his arm, hearing his voice even as he complains, I can hold the moment like a jewel, for this moment — each and every moment — is rarer than the most valuable stone ever mined. It cannot be duplicated or relived. There is only this moment. Just as it is. And living at that level of aliveness, being that present, is sukha, happiness.

What a gift to be alive, fully alive! Even as things fall apart, understanding that it is the nature of things to fall apart, and to come together, again and again and again.

We don’t need to put our lives on hold for happiness. And we don’t need to put happiness on hold while we live our lives. Seeing that true happiness is fully possible in every moment, we wake up to notice greed, aversion and delusion as they arise and pass through our experience. We don’t make enemies of them. Just by seeing them for what they are and holding them with compassion, we attain increasing clarity, until each moment is illuminated like the radiant precious jewel it truly is. With wise intention and wise effort, we cultivate happiness within ourselves and let it ripple out to all beings.

Holding Your Life in an Open Embrace

This was a speech with visual aids. I will try to get permission to use the photos I shared in person, but until I do, imagine:

(A black & white photo of a little girl holding on tight to her three dolls, with a distrustful scowl on her face.)

Here’s a photo of a little girl with her dolls. What a lucky little girl to have three dolls! She should be happy. But when I look at her, I don’t see happiness, I see fear. Maybe she’s afraid someone will take her dolls away. Look how tight she’s holding them. She is planning on defending them.

Of course, holding them this tight she can’t really enjoy her dolls, can she? Enjoying her dolls would be holding them in front of her, looking in their faces, talking to them, singing to them, feeding them, dressing them…maybe having a tea party and inviting other children over with their dolls to play.

But she can’t do any of that because she has to hold on tight to these dolls for fear of losing them.

We can all recognize ourselves in this little girl. We all cling to something, afraid of losing it. Whether it’s our possessions, our money, our relationships, our career, our beliefs, the way we see ourselves, the way we see the world – we hold on tight because we don’t know who we would be without them, and we are afraid to find out.

But just as this girl can’t play with her dolls when she holds them so tightly, we can’t really enjoy our lives and all the wonderful things in it when we hold them in such a tight grip.

What happens when we hold on so tight in a relationship for example? When we clamp down on the one we love, begging them to spend more time with us, pay more attention to us, tell us they love us. What happens? Usually we suffocate the love we hold so dear, we strangle it, we squish it. It turns to nothing in our hands.

So this tendency to grasp and cling to what we care about isn’t really a very effective strategy. At best we can’t enjoy it, and at worst we might actually cause it to disappear.

(A black and white photo of another little girl.)

Now here’s another little girl. She’s not happy either. She’s got her pouty face on and her arms folded. But instead of holding on to something she loves, she’s focused on something that hasn’t measured up to her standards, her expectations, her desires. Maybe her mother said she couldn’t have ice cream before dinner, and she’s determined to be miserable about it for a good long while. Or maybe she’s just arrived at a party. Maybe she’s been fantasizing about this party ever since she got the invitation three weeks ago. She imagined the entertainment, the cake, the friends who would be there, how much fun she would have. And here she is and something is not right. It may be the most fun party in the world, but she is stuck on the one thing that’s lacking, the one way in which it doesn’t measure up. So she can’t enjoy herself.

I’m sure we can all recognize ourselves in this little girl too. We’ve all had experiences that didn’t measure up to our expectations. We’ve all at times let that disappointment ruin the whole experience. We’ve all had trouble enjoying this moment because we’re still caught up in what happened last week, last month, last year, and we’re letting it color our whole experience.

The Buddha defined these two ways of being – this grasping and clinging and this aversion as the primary causes of suffering. He acknowledged that there is unavoidable pain in this life, but that most of the suffering we experience is optional, actually caused by these two tendencies.

But it’s not our fault that we’re like this. Like all animals we are programmed to go after what is pleasurable and avoid what is unpleasant. This is the basis of our survival instinct. We are attracted to bright colors and nature made the brightest color vegetables the most nutritious. We are attracted to the mates that will best help us procreate for the survival of the species. We are programmed to avoid the big sharp-toothed roaring bear who might maul us to death.

Our human brain is a little different however. With our highly developed cortex, we can dwell in the past, remembering in incredible detail all that has happened to us. And we can imagine infinite futures, so we can spend a good portion of our time in a state of planning and daydreaming. Now this is an amazing skill to have! Without it we would not have literature, history, inventions, technology, ever evolving architecture, design and the arts.

But we’ve been given this gift without a user manual, without a warning notice that spending too much time in the past or the future instead of staying in the present moment is hazardous to our health and our happiness.

But the brain is still evolving, still developing, and part of this development is tuning in to awareness, consciousness, rediscovering our ability to be in the present moment.

The primary purpose of meditation is to create this ability to be present, to come into balance, to open ourselves to what is arising in this moment and be able to savor it without grasping and clinging.

(A full color photo of a little girl holding a frog in her cup hands in such a way that she can see the frog in front of her. She has a look of curiosity and a smile on her face.)

In this final picture is a little girl who is living in the moment. You’ll notice that this photo, unlike the other two, is in full color. That’s because she is in the present, the only place that is real. The past and future are just thoughts.

She is holding a frog in her hand and she is holding it in open cupped palms, what I call and open embrace. She is able to fully enjoy the frog. She knows that the frog could jump out of her palm at any moment, but she knows that she will still be okay. The frog is not the source of her happiness. Her ability to be with whatever arises is the source of her happiness.

So this is what I hope for all of us: That we take responsibility for our own happiness, by learning how to be present with our experience, how to hold life in an open compassionate embrace.

Sukha – Being Present for Happiness

We have been revisiting the Buddha’s First Noble Truth: that there is suffering in life. In the Pali language this suffering is called dukkha, and we delved deep into the doo-doo of dukkha in previous posts. But there is not just dukkha in life. And particularly for me at this moment of time it would be disingenuous to focus exclusively on suffering, when I am so grateful for this moment where everyone in my circle of family and friends is in better shape than in past months, where crises have passed and in some cases new exciting ventures are being launched, and life is suddenly more light-hearted and fun. My thoughts are filled with playful creative ideas instead of deep problem solving ruminations. Staying present with my experience, I acknowledge this temporal state of affairs. I know that conditions will shift and change, but while I am experiencing this, let me fully acknowledge it!

So as part of that acknowledgment, today we will talk not about dukkha but about sukha. Literally sukha means having a good axle-hole. While at first glance that seems to have a lot to do with this doo-doo dukkha, in fact it means that the axle of the vehicle of your life is round and even, so the wheels that carry you turn smoothly, making the course of your life less bumpy, more pleasant. So sukha is this pleasantness when things run smoothly, and noticing and taking pleasure in this smoothness.

So we’re talking about happiness. When we get to the Eightfold Path we will talk in more detail about how we can skillfully create conditions that produce happiness in our lives and in the lives of others. But as I understand it, sukha is not the conditions of happiness but our experience of enjoying it, just as dukkha is not pain but our tendency to compound it into suffering.

In our last discussion, we talked about this difference between pain and suffering. Pain happens, arising out of life itself. Through mindfulness we can reduce our risk of getting into a painful situation, but pain is an inherent part of being born, living and dying in this earthly realm. Trying to escape it just creates more suffering.

There are also moments of time when conditions are such that we are pain-free and life seems good. Maybe the weather is beautiful, our health is good, we’re doing what we want to do and those we love are in a good place. All the makings for happiness! But because we have the ability, sometimes even the tendency, to take a happy situation and look on the dark side or look all around the edges, we may miss the experience itself. Sukha is the ability to truly appreciate the goodness of life in the moment.

Now, if we take this happy condition and are unable to appreciate it because we fear it is fleeting, or we are afraid our appreciation will cause it to disintegrate, or we get into wondering why life can’t always be like this, or how we could make it be like this all the time, or any of a hundred inner conversations of that nature, then we are back in dukkha!

Sukha, the ability to enjoy ourselves in a way that is beneficial or harmless, is something we can cultivate within ourselves through concentration, insight and awareness practice. We have been spending a few weeks really paying attention to how we create dukkha in our lives, compounding any pain we find by dragging in the past and future, and we will bring more attention to that in the coming weeks. But this week, and from here on out, I ask you to also notice what is pleasurable in your life.

We talked last week about embodiment. Sensing in to our bodies is a big part of our focus in meditation practice. Sometimes we focus on the strongest sensation. But when the strongest sensation becomes overwhelming, it is skillful to find another sensation in our body to focus on, one that is neutral or pleasurable.

Because of the way our brains work and the requirements for survival in our history, we have a tendency to focus more on pain and the potential for future pain. So cultivating an ability to focus on what is pleasurable can be skillful, bringing us closer to the truth of the whole of our current situation. We don’t focus on what is pleasurable in our experience in order to escape or mask pain. We are not trying to run away from the pain, but to remind ourselves to open our embrace to hold all experience, not just the most difficult. We are bringing balance into the moment, acknowledging all of what is.

What we notice when we focus on any sensation for a long time is that it changes. What we labeled ‘pain’ may become a symphony of changing sensations. This is also true for pleasure. The most pleasurable sensation in the world may become intolerable if prolonged. It is valuable noticing to see the truth in this, to understand the impermanence of pain and pleasure. We can even take comfort in the truth of impermanence. ‘This too shall pass.’ And it serves as a reminder of how important it is to stay present with our experience so that we won’t miss the moments of our lives in pursuit of other moments, which, if we continue in this trend, we won’t be present for either.

Happiness sometimes scares us. We tell ourselves it won’t last. Of course it won’t. So what? This is life. This is the deal. Why should we ignore what is right in front of us, bouncing with delight, in favor of pondering the universal problems that abound in the world? Of course we use skillful means, compassion and wisdom to alleviate suffering wherever we find it, but it is not required of us to oppress ourselves constantly with the plagues that are ever present in the world. There has never been a perfect world and there never will be. We do a disservice to this gift of life if we are always in a state of finding it lacking. It is, once again, a matter of finding balance.

So, notice happiness. That’s your homework. Notice when it arises, when the conditions of happiness are there, and then notice what you do with them in your thoughts and emotions. I’m not asking you to “Look on the bright side” or to “Put on a happy face.” I’m asking you to bring awareness to what is pleasant, and then really notice your relationship to that pleasant condition. Make note of any phrases that come up, things you tell yourself, like, “I don’t deserve this.” Or “This is silly. I’m a serious person. To focus on happiness is frivolous in a world where there is so much suffering.” Or “If I pay happiness too much attention, it will disappear.”

Noticing our relationship with whatever arises is a part of the practice, whether it’s how we relate to pain or how we relate to happiness, how we create dukkha and how we cultivate sukha in our lives.

To deepen our investigation, I once again offer up embodiment, an anchoring into our senses. This is letting go of seeing consciousness as a little know-it-all pilot inside our heads operating the controls of this big vehicle of our body, navigating through the mine fields of the outer world.

Embodiment encourages us to take a more realistic view, once based in the facts. We are made of the exact same stuff as the earth and all the beings on it, the same stuff as the universe and beyond. We are stardust. Believing ourselves to be separate may have its uses, but it is just a construct, not meant to be taken as truth.

The truth is we are not just interconnected; we are one and the same body of being as all that is. Consciousness therefore is not a little navigational device, but a shift of awareness into a broader and deeper understanding. Expansive beyond imagining. Infinite, in fact!

When I spent a year on a personal retreat meditating most of the day, healing from the exhaustion of believing myself to be separate, what came quite naturally to me was sensing into my light nature. This sounds odd, I know. But I have sense learned that working with light is an accepted Tibetan Buddhist practice, and though I haven’t studied it and am not a Tibetan Buddhist, my own experience taught me that working with light energy is a universal part of awakening to the reality of consciousness.

When I think of sukha, the ability to truly experience happiness, I think of being fully aware of that light energy that permeates all life. At this time of year when we have just had the Summer Solstice, I am especially aware of light, as I take walks in the cool of the evening when it is still light at eight o’clock.

As we explore sukha for ourselves during the week, if it feels comfortable for you, let the practice include the exploration of light nature. Breathe in light; let it dissolve the imagined boundaries of your being. Let light shine through every pore and dissolve the capsule of skin you once believed to be the edge of your being. Radiate light out; allow your light body to grow as large as it wants. Radiate loving-kindness; wrap the earth in your light body awareness. Feel empowered by this radiance to hold the world and yourself in a loving open embrace of light. Ah sukha!