This is a second talk in a series based on a course called Awakening Joy developed by the meditation teacher James Baraz.
A couple of weeks ago we discussed some of the benefits of inclining the mind towards contentment.
In his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman says that in comparison with optimists, “Pessimists are eight times more inclined towards depression when there are difficult events; they underachieve in school, sports and work; their health is worse; they survive for fewer years, and they have more difficult interpersonal relationships. Teaching 10-year-old children to think and act in an optimistic manner cuts by half their tendency to become depressed when they enter adolescence.”
A German researcher named Sonja Lyubomirsky found that “an unhappy person dedicates twice as much time to unpleasant memories as a content person, who tends to seek out and depend upon information that affirms a positive viewpoint.”
But, no matter how optimistic we are, it can be a challenge to maintain a positive outlook when we are bombarded with news of wars, natural disasters and financial woes.
Thuyet sent me this relevant quotation from Thich Nhat Hanh:
“Our happiness depends largely on the happiness and suffering of others. How can we be happy when our children suffer? How can we be happy when our coworkers encounter difficulties? Nobody is an independent self, and we are intimately dependent on other people and sentient beings.”
Thich Nhat Hanh recommends a daily practice that he calls Bring Joy To Others In The Morning, Alleviate Their Pain In The Evening. He says, “We help others in accordance with our ability. Sometimes we don’t need to do much, except be fully present for our loved ones or just breathe calmly. These acts in themselves are already miraculous gifts.”
In our culture, we tend to try too hard and to overdo activities. In my own experience, I’d rather forgo a material present and receive caring attention from a friend who listens to me deeply. I’ve learned that sending loving-kindness or Metta to others not only benefits them but also fills my own heart with contentment.
Our practice is to show up as fully as possible for whomever crosses our path.
Sometimes it’s just not possible to feel happy. When we are feeling lonely or unfulfilled; when a friend is very ill; or when a beloved person has just died, it’s important to grieve fully and not deny the reality of our authentic emotions.
But grief is not continuous; it comes in waves, and sometimes we can notice moments when there is no sadness. Even after a significant loss, we can enjoy moments of connection with close friends.
The capacity for joy is already within us, but it may be hidden or dormant.
We can practice noting consciously whenever we feel gratitude, happiness, tranquility or compassion.
When we pay attention to our physical sensations and our thoughts during moments of wellbeing or appreciation for life’s blessings, we become familiar with the components of healthy happiness.
Our level of happiness depends on how we nourish our spirit, and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with sensual pleasure.
You might eat a pint of ice cream without nourishing your spirit—and the result might be indigestion in your belly.
A woman who was 103 years old told James Baraz that her secret for such a long and contented life was to sing every day.
The spirit is nourished by healthy activities and experiences such as exercising the body and engaging in or appreciating any of the creative arts.
Take a moment to think of what might be your own “secret” for long-term contentment….
If we have no time to nourish our spirit, we are too busy.
With enough time and mindfulness, we don’t lose ourselves in thoughts that can create confusion, fear or longing in the mind.
Careful attention helps us to interrupt negative thought patterns.
Sometimes when we’re thinking in desperate circles and the body is contracted, it helps to exhale with a deep sigh.
Meditation provides us with space to empty out the overloaded contents of the mind and to reconnect with inner peace.
If we feel overwhelmed by stress or suffering, we can pause and remember a time when we felt a natural state of wellbeing.
In any moment, we have an opportunity to evoke a state of well-being by remembering a positive feeling and by sensing bodily sensations associated with the memory.
The brain responds to images in almost the same way that it responds to actual experiences.
The more we generate positive feelings, the more easily we can access them. Each time the mind registers a positive feeling, a neural pathway is created in the brain that leads towards a happier state of mind.
Patricia Ellsberg suggests the following guided meditation to evoke contentment:
Bring attention to your heart.
Each time that your mind wanders, return your attention to the sensations in your heart.
Imagine that your breath is flowing softly through your heart.
Inhale into your heart, and exhale from your heart…
Remember a moment when you had a positive emotion, when you felt happy. You can recall a feeling of appreciation or love, the face of a dear friend, the details of a favorite place—or whatever gives you a sense of wellbeing.
If you can’t feel anything, it doesn’t matter.
Just try to connect with a sincere attitude of appreciation or gratitude.
How do you feel in your body… and in your emotions?
Let your heart fill with a sensation of wellbeing.
With each inhalation, fill your body and consciousness with wellbeing.
With each exhalation, send feelings of appreciation to others around you, until you feel “breathed” in a circle of peace and happiness.
Now you can let go of the specific memory or image that gave you a sensation of comfort and happiness.
Make an effort to sustain the sensations of wellbeing.
You may anchor these feelings with a gesture (such as placing your hand on your heart), a key word, or an image that symbolizes this positive experience…
Gradually you may return to this room, here and now.
After you open your eyes, can you sustain the feelings of wellbeing?….
When we use mindful attention, there is an expansion in our normal vision and we can notice what is good or interesting in our surroundings.
A week ago, Mark and I took a friend from Mexico on his first trip to the Texas Hill Country to see the Bluebonnets, and, at first we couldn’t find any of the legendary blue flowers. I was feeling frustrated until I realized that beautiful red and pink Indian Paint Brushes were covering some of the fields. I stopped having a set agenda and began to enjoy the natural beauty around me. At that moment, we noticed a turtle attempting to cross the highway, and we stopped to escort him across the road, so he wouldn’t be squished by oncoming traffic. Shortly afterwards, we were rewarded by bright expanses of Bluebonnets. Sometimes we miss what’s in front of our eyes because we’re so focused on what we want to see.
It’s helpful to incorporate meditative moments in each day.
It doesn’t have to be a formal practice, but it could be as simple as drinking a cup of tea with full attention.
Notice how the mind tends to jump forward and backward, and try not to judge yourself for losing contact with the present moment.
Instead appreciate those moments in which you are conscious of what is unfolding.
A crucial step in the process of awakening joy is to have a clear intention to do so.
Our intentions have to do with a vision about how we want to create our life.
If we are clear about our goal to open up to happiness, we feel motivated to manifest that vision.
With patience, steady practice and a positive attitude, we can transform our lives.
There’s a “HeartMath” meditation that you can do whenever you feel blocked or when you wish to change your energy in a positive direction:
Visualize a moment when you were happy.
Feel any physical sensations associated with the pleasant memory.
Practice three times with the visualization and any associated physical sensations to anchor them in your consciousness.
Are there any comments or questions about tonight’s Dharma talk?