This evening I’ll be starting a series of Dharma talks based on a course called Awakening Joy, designed by James Baraz, one of my teachers at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California.
The course includes some exercises from the book How We Choose to Be Happy by Rick Foster y Greg Hicks.
The French writer André Gide, wrote that “Happiness is more rare, more difficult and more beautiful than sadness. As soon as you realize this, you [must] embrace the search for happiness as a moral obligation.”
In modern times, there is increasing consciousness about the importance of developing a capacity for happiness, especially during difficult times.
Positive psychologists and neurologists are discovering that the human mind is more flexible than we used to believe. Even in older people, focusing on healthy thoughts can create new neural pathways.
Daniel Goleman, the author of Destructive Emotions, and Martin Seligman who wrote Authentic Happiness, discuss how the brain’s structure reflects long-term benefits of meditating.
The limbic system, which regulates relaxation and controls the autonomic nervous system, heart rate, and blood pressure, affects our emotional reactions. Since meditation practice has a calming effect on the limbic system, dedicated meditators are not so distracted by upsetting thoughts and emotions.
In 2009, a research team at the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging in UCLA’s School of Medicine reported:
” … meditation practice has been shown not only to benefit…cognitive functions but also to alter brain activity…meditators showed significantly larger volumes of the right hippocampus [in the temporal lobe]…implicated in emotional regulation and response control….[which] might account for meditators’ singular abilities…to cultivate positive emotions, retain emotional stability, and engage in mindful behavior.”
Maybe it seems unrealistic to pursue happiness in an era when there are so many wars, unjust governments, and economic inequities.
In dark times though, it’s important to remember that we need positive motivation to be able to face aggressive impulses inside and around us.
In his essay, The Optimism of Uncertainty, the historian Howard Zinn writes, “Human history has not only cruelty but also compassion, sacrifice, courage and goodness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will affect our lives. If we see only the worst, our capacity to act is destroyed. If we remember the times and the places where people have acted magnificently, we will have enough energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”
In Taoism, it is said that life has 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows.
If we focus only on the sorrows, we are not seeing the entire picture.
When we can open ourselves to the beauty and goodness around us, we have a larger container to deal with suffering.
The 20th century Indian spiritual teacher and writer, J i d d u K r i s h n a m u r t i ( 1 8 9 5 – 1 9 8 6 ) expressed this holistic view as he responded to the question, “Who are you?” in a poem titled “I Am All.” I’ll read you some excerpts:
I a m t h e b l u e f i r m a m e n t a n d t h e b l a c k c l o u d ,
I a m t h e w a t e r f a l l a n d t h e s o u n d t h e r e o f ,
I a m t h e g r a v e n i m a g e a n d t h e s t o n e b y t h e w a y s i d e ,
I a m t h e r o s e a n d t h e f a l l i n g p e t a l s t h e r e o f ,
I a m t h e f l o w e r o f t h e f i e l d a n d t h e s a c r e d l o t u s ,
I a m t h e s a n c t i f i e d w a t e r s a n d t h e s t i l l p o o l ,
I a m t h e t r e e t h a t t o w e r e t h a m o n g t h e m o u n t a i n s
A n d t h e b l a d e o f g r a s s i n t h e p e a c e f u l l a n e ,
I a m t h e t e n d e r s p r i n g l e a f a n d t h e e v e r g r e e n f o l i a g e .
I a m t h e b a r b a r i a n a n d t h e s a g e ,
I a m t h e i m p i o u s a n d t h e p i o u s ,
I a m t h e u n g o d l y a n d t h e g o d l y ,
I a m t h e h a r l o t a n d t h e v i r g i n ,
[I a m t h e l i b e r a t e d a n d t h e m a n o f t i m e ,
I a m t h e t h e i n d e s t r u c t i b l e a n d t h e d e s t r u c t i b l e ,
I a m t h e r e n u n c i a t i o n a n d t h e p r o u d p o s s e s s o r .
I a m a l l—f e w k n o w m e . ]
I a m n e i t h e r T h i s n o r T h a t ,
I a m n e i t h e r d e t a c h e d n o r a t t a c h e d ,
I a m n e i t h e r h e a v e n n o r h e l l …,
I a m n e i t h e r p h i l o s o p h i e s n o r c r e e d s ,
I a m n e i t h e r t h e G u r u n o r t h e d i s c i p l e .
O f r i e n d , I c o n t a i n a l l .
I a m c l e a r a s t h e m o u n t a i n s t r e a m ,
S i m p l e a s t h e n e w s p r i n g l e a f .
H a p p y a r e t h e y
T h a t m e e t w i t h m e .
We know that the First Noble Truth of Buddhism says that suffering is inevitable in human life.
And the Buddha also taught that it is possible for us to find true happiness.
Known as “The Happy One,” the Buddha’s goal was to teach the highest form of happiness, liberation from all craving and attachment.
He listed happiness as one of the seven factors of enlightenment—and suffering is not among those factors.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk, says, “Suffering is not enough. When we awaken and can see all the good inside us and in others, we are motivated to care for ourselves, for other people, and for the planet.
James Baraz points out that cultivating our own goodness and happiness helps us express love and to waken it in those we encounter.
When Mark and I had the good fortune to meet the Dalia Lama, we were struck by the way that his presence transmits joy to everyone he meets. Even the stern bodyguards who were assigned to protect him ended up smiling at his irrepressible friendliness. It’s no accident that his book The Art of Happiness begins with this phrase: “The goal of life is happiness.”
Happiness comes in many different flavors.
While some happy people radiate with energetic brilliance, others convey a quiet contentment. Happiness may be reflected in a sense of wellbeing or in an intimate connection with life.
Everyone has their own way of expressing joy according to their unique temperament.
Consider what is your authentic style of expressing happiness.
Maybe the word “happiness” is not the ideal word for you. You might resonate more with another word: “pleasure,” “contentment,” “inner peace,” “wellbeing,” “expansion,” “openness,” or “positive energy,” etc.
It doesn’t work to try to force ourselves to feel happier.
And nobody feels happy all the time.
The goal is not to ignore or to repress true suffering nor to escape into fantasies about how circumstances might be improved.
Just as we practice in Vipassana meditation, we can note how we’re feeling during daily activities, without trying to change our experience.
Contentment stems from accepting reality just as it is.
The Buddha taught that whatever we think frequently becomes the inclination of the mind. He recommended practicing generosity and kindness to counteract hatred and to cultivate an open heart and a peaceful mind, which are ingredients for happiness.
A central idea in this series of talks is this: In spite of our suffering, we can consciously “incline the mind” towards happiness.
We do that by paying attention to our own innate goodness and to the kindness of others.
Last week, when I was volunteering at Houston Hospice, the goodness in my own heart was touched by witnessing the essential kindness of people attending to a young woman who was dying of cancer. Her mother, whom I’ll call “Esperanza,” had immigrated from Mexico and spoke only Spanish, which the nurses didn’t understand. Esperanza’s attempts to administer to her daughter were interfering with the nursing protocol, and there was tension in the room. When I greeted her in her native tongue, the worried mother looked relieved, reached out to hold my hand, and expressed grief and impotence about her daughter’s worsening condition. As the primary caregiver in her own home for over two years, Esperanza had been hoping for a cure, and now she felt displaced and ignored by the nurses at hospice. Beneath her tearful words, I sensed how deeply this mother loved her child, whom I’ll call “Silvia.” As I listened to reminiscences about Silvia’s life, I praised Esperanza for giving her such loving attention and mentioned that the hospice nurses were doing their best to provide comfort for her child. We spoke about how Esperanza’s strong religious faith could sustain her during this difficult time. Finally, she said, “It’s time to give her back to God. Only God controls the time of death.” For the first time, she was able to accept that her daughter was ready to die. Although Silvia appeared to be in a coma, I sensed that she could hear her mother giving permission for her to let go into death. A few days later, I translated for the nurses Esperanza’s wishes to clothe Silvia in a white dress and to invite a Catholic priest to bless her. The nurses were happy to comply, and Esperanza recognized that she could work with them as a team. Once they could understand one another, everyone attending Silvia saw that they were all acting with kindness and accepting the sad situation. Not long after Esperanza and I hugged goodbye, the volunteer director notified me that Silvia had died peacefully.
By inclining the mind towards happiness, we can focus on cultivating peace and harmony in even the most difficult circumstances.
To identify what brings you happiness, create a Nurturing List.
For 4 minutes list whatever nurtures your happiness.
Then check anything on the list that you do regularly in your life.
Finally draw a circle around whatever you could realistically include in your daily life this week.
Are there any comments or question about the theme of awakening joy?