Recently, I spent 10 days studying Buddhist meditation with nuns from the Tibetan tradition in a monastery just outside Kathmandu. Yes, I was also confused about the fact there are nuns in a monastery but it is the 21st Century after all. These wonderful women taught me many things, not just through their words but their way and above all their endless patience and effort to extend themselves for the benefit of others. Here I’ve distilled it down into just 10 main points, but I could write many, many more.
1) The desire for happiness is a universal truth
Few things in life are certain. From the day we are born, the only securities we have are 1) the knowledge that one day we will die and 2) a false sense of security. From a Buddhist point of view, another certainty is that during this short time on earth we all want to be happy (perhaps bar a few sociopaths). Even people acting in ways that seem contradictory to this (like me when I eat my third piece of chocolate cake) are doing so because part of them really does believe it will make them happy. Given that human beings since time immemorial have wanted to find the holy grail of happiness, why does it remain so elusive?
2) Avoiding our pain doesn’t make it go away
Buddhists sometimes get a bad rep for being all about the suffering. It’s hard to see this whilst looking at the Dalai Lama’s ever-smiling face, but the Buddha’s first teaching was that life is suffering and death is always a staple topic of discussion. To cut suffering off at its root, you really have to go in there get your hands dirty. The endless ways in which we distract and numb ourselves won’t cut it. Western psychology agrees with this sentiment; psychiatrist Scott Peck describes mental wellness as “dedication to reality at all costs”. Increasingly, evidence shows that emotional suppression leads to long term health problems including asthma, reduced immunity, chronic pain and increased risk of certain cancers (1). The truth hurts, but denial hurts even more.
3) Real happiness comes from within
I know, it’s cliched. I’ve heard it 100 times before and yet I still can’t get my actions to align with this truth. Let’s take dinner time at the monastery; halfway through the day, the delicious scent of homemade potato chips wafts through the hallway. All afternoon I’m so distracted by salivating over the idea of potato chips. Eventually, dinner arrives and I eagerly help myself to a whopping serving, way more than anyone who has been sitting around all day should ever need to eat. But I am not satisfied. No, I want more potato chips. Fearing they might run out, I watch the line of people behind the potato chip bowl with anxious fervour whilst wolfing down the large pile on my plate. By the time the queue eventually dies down, I feel so full and sick that I don’t even want to look at another potato chip. After dreaming all day long about how they will bring me happiness, my dysfunctional relationship with potato chips has, in fact, led to suffering. The hungry hippo never learns.
4) Happiness is in the details
What if, instead of craving more potato chips, I decided to be content with what I already had? What if instead of paying attention to the people happily queuing for their fill I decided to place my full and unadulterated awareness on that salty, crisp shell, that warm soft centre? This non-judgemental awareness is mindfulness, and the more we cultivate it the happier and calmer we tend to be. Buddhism doesn’t teach us not have things, it doesn’t even teach us not to want things; it teaches us how to change our relationship to things so we don’t base our happiness on their fragile, fleeting existence. Paradoxically, this frees you up to enjoy them even more. Or, as summarised more poetically by Blake:
“He who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in eternity’s sunrise”
5) Mindfulness is not enough
Mindfulness has attracted a lot of attention in the West, and for good reason. The mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programme developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn has been shown to be effective in reducing just about every kind of physiological and psychological symptom out there (see here for a good summary of the research). However, mindfulness by itself is not enough. You could, for example, be plotting to murder someone with excellent mindfulness. Non-judgemental awareness excels in helping you calm and understand your mind, but to actually create change you need to introduce discernment. To find happiness, you need to actively cultivate positive states of mind.
6) Happiness requires effort
You mean, not only do I have to deal with my pain but I also have to work for my happiness?! Sadly, yes. Happiness requires effort and discipline. Monks don’t wake up at 3.30am for nothing. However, the good news is that you’re not trying to achieve some distant and elusive state; happiness is your fundamental nature. The effort required is simply to wipe the mirror clean so you can see yourself more clearly. Or to use another analogy, to dive beneath the surface waves into the deep calm. Again, to use the words of those who said it much more poetically before me:
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it” – Rumi.
7) The more we separate ourselves, the less happy we are
Can you write about happiness without also writing about love? Buddhism defines love simply as the wish for someone to be happy. Buddhism also teaches that this ‘someone’ doesn’t exist in exactly the way we think they do. I’m not going to go into full details on this because I’ll be honest, I don’t fully understand it. This ‘wisdom realising emptiness’ as its called is a lifetime’s work (or multiple lifetimes, if you’re into that kind of thing). My inadequate summary is this; we are not fixed, we are constantly changing phenomenon profoundly dependent on one another and the world around us. As I touched on in my previous blog about the ego, the more we grasp at a fixed sense of ‘this is mine’ or ‘this is who I am’ the more we perpetuate our own suffering. In Buddhism, cherishing others is the yellow brick road to bliss.
8) You are responsible for your own happiness
Another sentiment that’s easy to proclaim and so difficult to practice. It’s easy to flit between the extremes of crippling self-blame and shunning all responsibility for our problems onto the past, societal conditioning, our parents, ‘the system’ – the list goes on. It’s taken me a long time to be in the place of ‘what’s happened to me is not my fault, but I am responsible for my own behaviour and my own healing’. You can’t control what happens but you can control your reaction, or as William Dunkenfield put it:
“It’s not what they call you, but what you respond to.”
Buddhism takes this one step further, stating that every good action you do now plants the seeds for your future happiness. Sadly, no one else can do this work for you. You are the sovereign of your own wellbeing. Scary and empowering in equal measure eh?
9) The happiness of accomplished meditators is infectious
During the course, we had the privilege to meet with a monk called Charok Lama. He’s said to be a reincarnation of a very accomplished Tibetan master, and whether you believe in that kind of thing of not it’s pretty hard to deny that this 23-year-old is something special. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what was different about him, but if I had to use one word it would be easy. There was an embracing sense of ease in his demeanour that was so unlike other people his age, so unlike anyone I’ve seen giving a talk to 100+ people in their second language. It was rather spectacular. Whatever he’s got, I could do with a bit more of it.
10) Don’t take my (or anyone else’s) word for it – investigate for yourself!
Perhaps my favourite teaching of Buddhism, and one of the reasons it has taken off in the West, is that none of this is dogma; blind faith is actively discouraged. There is a definite culture of ‘take the best and leave the rest’. No one is forcing you to shave your head or believe that you might be reborn as a hungry ghost. Throughout the course we were encouraged to take the teachings and ask ourselves – does this make sense to me? Does this help me lead a happier, healthier life?
My experience has been that increasingly, over time, it does.
1) Goleman, D. (2003). Healing emotions: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Mindfulness, Emotions and Health.