Category Archives: joy

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.

The Awakening Factors

The regular practice of meditation develops a refined quality of attention to the micro-events of the present moment experienced through the senses. Attuned to the moment, we might notice different types of very pleasant mental qualities that arise and fall away. These are called the Awakening Factors. Mindfulness is the first of the Awakening Factors, the one that makes it possible to experience the others. Anchored in physical sensation — the rise and fall of the breath, sound, sight, smell, texture, etc. — without getting caught up in inner commentary about them, we are mindful. In this state we are aware of all that is present in this moment, and only this moment. Once we are mindful, other Factors arise. We might be more aware of one than another, but in general they seem to arise in the following order: Investigation of the dhammas arises out of mindfulness, because as we closely attend the sensory experience, we develop a wholesome curiosity that leads to insights into the nature of experience and natural phenomena. Energy for this investigation arises. This is not the restlessness we talked about when discussing the Hindrances, but an attunement to the energy of the natural world, a sense of purpose and wholesome effort, that feels quite wonderful and leads to… Joy, not the singular pleasure from a specific condition or outcome, but a non-specific quality of rejoicing in being alive in this moment, sensing a connection with all being, which allows for the arising of… Tranquility.  Being so fully in the moment, sensing our connection, there is nothing to fear, so we are able to be calm and at peace, which leads to a great ability for… Concentration, the ability to stay with a single-pointed focus, fully supported by all the factors, resulting in… Equanimity, a way of being in the world in any given moment, aware of all that arises and falls away, and able to hold it all with spacious awareness and a quality of understanding the nature of things. Equanimity allows us to hold both difficult situations and happy events in the same open embrace at the same time. Having said there is an order can be interesting and may be useful, but it could also be confusing and disruptive. In practice, simply focus on your intention to be mindful. Anchor your awareness in physical sensation, preferably finding one that is dependable, like the breath, that you can stay with. At the same time, set the intention to be compassionate with yourself and whatever causes and conditions arise — people making noises, situations not being ‘perfect’, your own judgments about your practice or the behavior of others. If we practice in a dedicated way, the Awakening Factors reveal themselves. If we try to achieve them, if we say ‘Feel joy, damn it!’ then obviously we will feel anything but joy. We toss ourselves into one or more of the mental qualities of the Hindrances: doubt, worry, restlessness, anger, desire, sloth and torpor. When we find ourselves in one of these states, we simply reset our intention to be mindful, anchored in physical sensation, and the intention to be compassionate with ourselves. You might notice that some of these Awakening Factors are antidotes to Hindrances we studied earlier. For example, Energy is the opposite of Sloth & Torpor. Tranquility is the antidote to Restlessness & Worry. So if you notice your mind state in one of the Hindrances, it helps to remember that there are more wholesome states accessible through mindfulness. Mindfulness is the prescription to bring us out of unwholesome mind states and into these wholesome ones. We learn about these states so that we recognize them when they arise. Resting in them, we have a tangible confirmation that we are doing our mindfulness practice in a way that reaps benefits. Not feeling the reaping so much? Not to worry. If you are giving yourself time to be quiet and focus your awareness on the rising and falling of the breath, releasing tension that arises, letting go of harsh inner commentary, that is all that is necessary. Let it be enough. Notice when your thoughts get caught up in the ‘not-enoughness’, the longing for joy or inner peace, the doubting you’ll ever achieve such lofty mind states. These are the Hindrances at work, creating a tangle of misery that doesn’t serve you. When you see them, rejoice in noticing them. That is mindfulness at work! Continue to be mindful, anchored in physical sensation. Do this with compassionate wise effort. If these Awakening Factors seem like a pipe dream, you are looking at the fantasy you have in your mind of what it would be to be awakened. This is not the search for a mythical unicorn. It is a practical, methodical means of coming into the present moment, the only moment that exists, the only moment we have to enjoy. The past and the present are thoughts in our heads — memories, regrets, nostalgia, fantasy, planning and fear. Don’t worry about awakening. Just sense in to this moment with compassion for all the ways your mind wants to distract itself. Focus on the senses — the breath rising and falling, for example. That is mindfulness. When you start noticing that there is no edge to the breath and see how the air is out there and in here until there doesn’t seem to be a dividing line, that is a form of investigating the dhammas. With it comes a sense of aliveness that is open yet purposeful. This is energy. When you sense that quality of edgelessness, of no separate self, from following the breath, joy arises. When you sense the boundless nature of this moment, fear falls away and there is an ease that creates tranquility, a quality of peace. In this open peaceful state, there is nothing to distract you from your concentration. You see with a remarkable clarity. And in this state, whatever events or conditions arise, you can hold them in an open and easeful way. This is equanimity. Daydreaming about when these states will be yours is a total waste of this precious moment right now revealing itself to you. If you feel tangled in a web of stories that can’t take you anywhere but away, again and again, from this very moment that offers everything, including the power to awaken you to joyous life, set the intention to be present, anchored in physical sensation. Set the paired intention to be compassionate with yourself when you realize that you haven’t been present. In the moment you realize you haven’t been present, you are present! Cause for celebration.

What’s Up with all the Buddha’s Lists?

All matter and all experience is conditioned, dependent on something else having happened or existed. Try to think of any object and imagine it existing in isolation. What is it made of? Where did the things it was made of come from? Who made it? Who transported it? Who packaged it? Who sold it? A tree relies on the sun, rain and soil. All the elements rely on one another. All affect one another. This is the nature of dependent co-arising. Our thoughts are conditioned as well, dependent on sensory experience, memory, and events in the past, the present or what we fear or hope might happen in the future. They arise and fall away just as physical matter arises and falls away, in a non-linear complex web of interwoven events. This is important to notice when we look at the dhammas, these lists that constitute The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness. Why so many lists? The hindrances, aggregates, sense spheres, etc. do not present themselves in list form when we experience them for ourselves, do they? No. We experience ‘worry’ as worry, not as an item on a list of the Five Hindrances. Each component of any of these Buddhist lists is also part of the web of dependent co-arising. Lists are not the way we experience life, but they do have their uses, don’t they? We organize information in this way to assure ourselves that we have addressed everything we need to remember. The many, MANY lists in the Buddha’s teachings, were memorized and handed down from generation to generation of monks in a purely oral tradition for the first 500 years after the Buddha’s death. We can see they did a good job of clear transmission, because even now, 2500 years later, we are still empowered to investigate and discover for ourselves the truth of the teachings. If the transmission had broken down, subverted by some leader’s thirst for power, turned into dead dogma, the teachings could not be verified in the experience of each meditator who dedicates him or herself to meditative practice. We don’t have to be Buddhists to have this experience. There is no one path that can claim the only way to wisdom or enlightenment. I came to the Buddha’s teachings after having already experienced for myself the power of meditation to heal and sense the unity of all being. So when I arrived at Spirit Rock Meditation Center back in the mid-1990’s, it was like coming home. My first teacher at Spirit Rock, Sylvia Boorstein, read my book, Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living, and called it ‘jargon-free dharma.’ You might wonder why, if I had already literally ‘written the book’ or at least a book, I set aside teaching and writing about what I had discovered in order to study and practice Buddhism for the next fifteen years. Simply this: I love the elegant structure of the way the Buddha’s teachings are organized. This structure offers the best possible chance for someone to awaken. And so I learn it. And so, once again, I share it. That said, I have to add that the compilation of all these lists seems a bit crazy-making. There are lists of Buddhist lists they can be helpful to give an overview of all the teachings. But it’s important for us all to remember that we are not asked to memorize the lists or to take them in all at once, even if it were possible to do so. As we go through the dhammas, we go at our own pace, taking in what we are able to understand, what we are able to see is true from our own experience, and we let the rest wait, rising like dough for us to knead at another time when we are ready. All this to say we are about to look at another list! It’s the last list before we look at the Four Noble Truths, which of course is a list of four and contains a list within it of the Eightfold Path.


The Seven Awakening Factors
For those of you who were on our recent retreat, just think of some of the mental qualities that you may have experienced during your meditative sitting, walking and simply being in nature. We practiced and experienced Mindfulness. That’s the first and foremost of the Awakening Factors, without which the others are unable to arise. In class, students responded quite naturally with several of the Awakening Factors on their own. This is the nature of the dharma. For those who are practicing meditation on a regular basis, the dharma reveals itself. Several students spoke of the quality of peacefulness, which is the same as the factor called Tranquility. They talked about a sense of opening, another way to describe Equanimity, the ability to create spaciousness to hold whatever arises with ease and balance. I reminded the students of some of the comments they made at the end of the retreat. One had spoken of experiencing a quality of aliveness. This is the Awakening Factor of Energy. Another student had spoken of noticing how three roses were in different states of bloom, and that one had been nibbled on and she was so glad there was enough to share. This is an example of the Awakening Factor called Investigation of the Dhammas. I remember noticing a student sitting by the waterfall, eyes closed, deep in Concentration on the sense of sound, and with a smile filling her whole face, in a state of pure Joy. So we come to this ‘list’ not as something foreign, but something wonderfully familiar. Everything in boldface is an awakening factor. Next week we will explore how these Awakening Factors work together to bring balance and, well, awakening! But for now it’s enough to know that all these lists may look daunting or boring from the outside, but when we begin to explore them, we are really coming home to the experience of our own practice.

Eightfold Path: Right Effort

Right Effort brings joy and ease. If after meditation we feel neither joy nor ease, then we have not exerted Right Effort. This is true in any other activity in our lives as well.

Effort is expending physical or mental energy. We can feel energy in our bodies, so we can feel when we are straining or when we are resisting making an effort. We can feel when we are trying too hard, over doing it or when our efforts are half-hearted at best.

Each of us has a wide range of energies within us, depending on multiple physical, emotional and environmental factors. But most of us have a set point somewhere in the mid range, a default position. It’s easy to know where our own set point on this range by checking in with our natural inclinations. If we generally can’t sit still and want to go for a run or are restless for a mental challenge, our energetic set point is on the high side. If we’d rather snuggy down with a book and a cup of tea — not just after an active period, but as the main event of our day — then our set point is on the low end.

It’s useful to know our natural set point in order to recognize when effort will be needed. For the high set point, effort will be needed to sit still. Sitting meditation may be a challenge, either physically because the body wants to move, or mentally because the mind is racing.

For those with a low set point, effort will be required to take on physical or mental challenges. This is no reason to beat ourselves up, calling ourselves lazy. But it’s also no reason to limit ourselves to a sedentary life. We just accept that more effort will be required of us for active challenges.

If we have a high set point, we may cut ourselves off from activities that require us to sit for periods of time or ask us to pay attention. Our restlessness seems to preclude this kind of passive participation, and we may mourn that loss or we may prefer to judge those activities as worthless. But we don’t have to limit ourselves this way. We just need to develop patience as we learn a different kind of effort than the kind that challenges our muscles or our brain.

Most of us know from personal experience that when undertaking a new exercise regimen, we can sabotage ourselves if we do too much on the first day. We may injure ourselves or have such an unhappy experience we can’t bear to repeat it. We learn that if we begin small and add on incrementally, with dedication and patience we will achieve our desired results.

This is also true with meditation. If you are not a meditator and would like to start, begin with a few minutes of sitting in silence following your breath. Then gradually build up to 30 or 40 minutes. To expect yourself to be able to sit for 40 minutes the first time out may set you up for thinking meditation is not for you.

We also know from experience that if we don’t feel like getting off the couch and out on the walking path, when we do we feel better. And this is also true for meditation. The effort is simply setting the intention and getting ourselves to start.

As well as sensing into our bodies to see if we are exerting Right Effort, we also want to notice our thoughts – the stories we tell ourselves that support over-exertion or giving up: “I don’t want to stop until I’m done, no matter how I feel, because I’m not a quitter.” “I have to prove how good I am to myself and or others.” “People won’t like me unless I’m perfect.” “Why should I bother? It won’t make any difference,” “If I can just accomplish this one thing everything will be perfect in my life.”

Whatever our stories are, it is worthwhile to really listen to them, follow them back to their source, see if there is someone else’s voice in there – a parent, teacher, childhood friend perhaps? By exploring with great compassion the roots, intentions and fears expressed by these stories, we can begin to unravel the tight knotted tangle of thoughts that trip us up and cause us to be unskillful in our efforting.

The spacious presence that we develop through the practice of meditation is key to Right Effort. In the practice of meditation itself, there is a certain amount of effort required: The effort to honor our intentions to bring ourselves continually back to the present moment and to be kind. The effort to stay relaxed but alert, without fidgeting or falling asleep. Every time we meditate we are practicing Right Effort. We notice when our efforting becomes tense or strained. We can see how unskillful this kind of effort is, how it takes us out of the moment, is potentially harmful and counter-productive.

If we don’t feel joyful or at ease after meditation or other activities, then it is this aspect of the Eightfold Path that we might want to ponder. Like all the aspects of the Eightfold Path, Right Effort is a guidepost to show us where we may be causing ourselves and others suffering, and to cast a light on our path toward freedom from suffering.

Right Effort is finding the Middle Way, as the Buddha did. As a child and young man, no effort was required of him. He was coddled by his wealthy family. So, not surprisingly, when the opportunity arose, he was drawn to the opposite extreme and followed the ascetics for whom deprivation was a spiritual practice. To attain enlightenment he was told he must exert great effort, denying every desire of his body and mind. He was exceptionally gifted at doing so, but it didn’t fulfill what he was seeking. Finally, he rejected both extremes, indulgence and asceticism. He found the Middle Way to be the clearest path the end suffering.

So when we feel ourselves straining, putting our well being at risk, this is not Right Effort. When we feel ourselves slipping into oblivion, this is not Right Effort. Right Effort is fully conscious, fully alert, yet relaxed and buoyant.

Think of a violin or other stringed instrument. If the violin strings are pulled too tight what happens? If they are too loose what happens? The violin can only make beautiful music when its strings are neither too tight nor too loose. And so it is true with us as well. With spacious awareness we can tune ourselves to Right Effort.

Right Effort comes from a deeper connected place within us. Quieting down and settling in, we find this calm connection and from there anything we do will feel almost effortless because it will rise up from within us in a natural font. Does the tidal water make an effort to rise? No, it is a natural arising out of its nature and surrounding conditions.

This may seem all well and good if we are in touch with our deep connection. But what if we are not aware of it? How do we get aware of it in order to experience this effortless Right Effort?

In this case Right Effort is simply getting ourselves to our cushion to sit. Once there, our effort is to follow our breath and notice and then let go of any ambition for achievement, fear of failure, anticipation of results, reflection on past experiences or judgment about ourselves, our teachers, our fellow meditators, our parents, our culture, a higher power, or any other object of blame for our current state of suffering.

By using the least amount of effort possible to bring ourselves back to the breath, to awareness of this present moment, we don’t waste our energy with tension, regrets or recriminations. We simply accept our humanity and celebrate this awakening to this moment, and then this one. Again and again.