Yesterday I ran into a cool guy at the Colorado Mills Outlet Mall – he was smiling so broadly as he served his customers that I couldn’t help saying to him when it was my turn, “You’re in a really great mood!” And he replied, “Yes, I’m always happy. It’s a choice, you know. I have also spent a lot of time in the past not being happy.” And then apropos nothing, except, who knows, maybe apprehension about this Tuesday’s election (or perhaps that’s just me), “Being black in this country is not always easy. But I have made a choice.” I told him I was a meditator, and he was of course all over that; and then he asked me if I had made the mala on my wrist myself (I hadn’t, I never make anything, but I liked that he knew the word.)
Encounters like this are more and more frequent with the passing years – this has just reminded me that an immigration official at Atlanta airport, upon noticing the mala on my wrist, recently reached below the fingerprint machine to pull out his well-thumbed copy of Eight Steps to Happiness. This is all a far cry from the start of my interest in meditation (1981), when people looked at me funny if I even mentioned the word, let alone that I was into Buddhism — “You, ermm, what?!”
I think this growing awareness is a very good thing because the world could do with more people making the conscious effort to be happy, for lord knows there are enough unhappy people about, as my teacher Venerable Geshe-la once put it. And if the cover story of this week’s Time magazine, “Anxiety, depression, and the American adolescent” is anything to go by, unhappiness would appear to be on the rise in our modern society, and society needs help.
(I also hope that article will raise attention that will help stem the tide for young people. For it’s important that possible medical diagnoses of clinical anxiety and depression are considered by all concerned and treated where necessary by qualified authorities.)
I think the choice to be happy is one of the main choices we have to make in order to succeed in life – probably even more important than the choice of President (though please go vote in any case!) Luckily Buddha gave loads of practical advice that anyone can follow on how we can make that choice and stick to it. It’s not just for our own sakes either — if we are happy, we are in a far stronger position to make others happy. That guy in Aeropostale was helping make people’s day.
Getting over ourselves
As Buddha pointed out again and again, the best way to become happier is to get over ourselves and cherish others instead. But this can give rise to some trepidation; namely, if I care more and more about others, and take responsibility for them, won’t I just end up more stressed out than I am already?! It’s already bad enough worrying non-stop about the kids and the aged parents and the people at work and the refugees and the shelter animals — how can I add limitless living beings to the mix and not go mad? And when will I ever get another moment off? There’ll always be something to worry about, something that I have to do.
The other day I told the story of Patti Joshua in South Africa, who brought Buddha’s teachings to over 11,000 children in the rural areas of KwaZulu Natal; and I quoted her friend as saying, “There was always space in her heart for one more.” But she never worried. She had such a huge heart that there was plenty of room in it for everyone, with space left over. By increasing our compassion we can widen our own heart space, and with wisdom we can deepen it.
Spread too thin?
With compassion to liberate all living beings, we understand that everybody hurts sometimes, and we want to take the suffering away from all of them, until we feel responsible for everyone — possessing the superior intention of a Bodhisattva. But we need to learn to do this without being overwhelmed or anxious.
Worry and existential tiredness, however, do not come from the concern we have for others but from a tightness born of ignorance about our true nature, and attachment to externals, to appearances. So to go wide, I think, without spreading ourselves thin, we have to go deep.
As Buddha pointed out, our mind is like a vast clear boundless ocean, with limitless potential. All his teachings are relating to that potential, which we all share – the spiritual path is about accessing more and more of that inner peace, love, wisdom, compassion, faith, and utter happiness, where we end up with not a care in the world even as we work for the welfare of all.
Take time out
There are many ways to go about this, to go deeper so we can go wider. Simply taking some time out each day to meditate and experience the restorative nature of our own peaceful minds, even through a simple breathing meditation for example, is invaluable. And I bet we can all find ten or fifteen minutes for this if we really want to. For me, absorbing in meditation each day has always been the happiest and sanest part of my life, setting me up for the rest of the day. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:
Unless we make some time every day to meditate, we will find it very difficult to maintain peaceful and positive minds in our daily life, and our spiritual practice as a whole will suffer. Since the real purpose of meditation is to increase our capacity to help others, taking time each day to meditate is not selfish.
You know what happens if you never get off the couch to exercise, the results are not pretty. In a similar way, we need to tune daily into our Buddha nature and faith in our own potential — ideally in our own enlightenment — or we are almost bound to get swept up in superficials and feel overly busy and out of our depth.
If we are so busy changing externals that we have no time to change our mind, we are, according to Buddhism, being lazy and wasting time. It’s a bit like trying to chop down an old oak tree with a blunt axe for hours or days on end, not taking out the necessary few minutes to sharpen it.
Your happy seat
But if we enjoy some time out to relax into our hearts and experience the peace and clarity of our mind, observing in our own experience how all our thoughts arise from and fall into our root awareness, we will be able to let go of our busy, overwrought imaginings for we will no longer be grasping at them. If we make our deep ocean-like mind peaceful, wise, and loving, its emerging waves will be too. Otherwise, we can become so identified with the waves and froth on the surface of the ocean that we forget where they’re coming from and think that they are arising under their own power, out of our control. And the detail then feels overwhelming; we easily lose the plot. As Geshe-la says:
We have to manage our time and energy in such a way that we can be of maximum benefit to others, and to do this effectively we need time alone to recover our strength, collect our thoughts, and see things in perspective.
Who doesn’t love vacations!? Most people I know love the idea of being able to get away from their worries and enjoy space and freedom. Frankly, we could be doing this every day of our lives if we wanted to, sans the expense and jet lag. Tibetan meditators called their meditation seat “the happy seat” for good reason.
This ability to relax and go deep, to access our own inner peace in order to cope, has always been important. But in our complicated, fast, over-stimulated modern society, I would argue that it is now a crucial life skill that everyone needs to learn as soon as possible.
More in the next article. Meanwhile, I’d like to invite you to share any practical experience on how you cherish others without letting the responsibility worry you.
Want quicker results from your meditation? Start where you are.
So true Luna Problem is we believe mistakenly that we can solve all the problems of this life by changing the external conditions. Prime example being , we believe we can bring about World peace by altering the conditions causing conflict, wars , disputes etc ; but we never factor in all the variables and so end up at the same destination evertime . To change any thing external, we must first bring out change to our mind internally We created everything with our mind , so naturally to alter it , we use — our mind !!!
Very true. Everything is a reflection of our mind so until we change our mind nothing is actually going to improve.
Dearest Luna, a million thanks for all your great wisdom and dedication.
It is so wonderful when we can help a ‘total stranger’ with words of wisdom from DEAR Geshela, which remain in our hearts. Barbara G x
thank you Barbara, your comment means a lot to me 😍
It’s easy to get despondent and feel the world is moving away from a state of peace but you’re right to chart the trajectory of the positives. I learned to meditate when I was a teenager in the late 70s and my friends thought I was being drawn into a cult community! Now they ask me for advice on how to understand their issues from a Buddhist perspective. Some of them are the same individuals. It would be great to teach meditation in our schools.
It would be great to teach meditation early on, I agree. Kids have a lot of stuff stacked against them, especially with all the distractions/technology. They need the inner resources.
Interesting that this old article should pop up in my FB feed today, when I was just thinking this morning ‘why do I find it difficult to be a kind person, what happens when I consider giving up my time for others?’ And looking inside, I did indeed see that when I even think about giving up my time, I get tense and anxious in my stomach. And when I investigated why, I saw ‘I’m giving up MY time, and people will take advantage of me and expect more and more and I’ll have to stop doing what I want to do to please them’. This is behind it. So of course, it’s self cherishing, as it always is.
New Title ” The Happy Seat ”
Geshe la Says;
When we are enjoying internal peace and happiness our craving for external sources of pleasure naturally declines and it is easy to remain content.
Kelsang Phuntsog admits that is Mother Patti Joshua had a huge heart with much love and kindness so much so that those memories will be with him for ever.
I love inner peace…
What works for me, is to take my natural tendency, to worry about others, and use that, by transforming that into bodhiichita. take that energy and I have to push a bit but I transform it into thinking I must become a Buddha for their sake. Then I imagine blessing them that I am already a Buddha and I send blessings to them. takes the heaviness off it makes me feel empowered lightens my own heart up and create powerful merit. I came up with this mantra of my own, determination not desperation!
I really like this, thank you. Bodhisattvas do use their compassion for others to push them to attain enlightenment because they realize they cannot help them properly otherwise. And then bringing the result into the path gives vision, leading to “determination not desperation”!
Love the wide & deep analogy for why we need compassion *and* wisdom to take us to enlightenment. Now off to check that Time article since it seems applicable to this morning’s teaching. 🙂 Thanks as always Luna!
Thank you for your support, Dharma Baba 🙂
Reblogged this on Into the Crevasse and commented:
“As Buddha pointed out again and again, the best way to become happier is to get over ourselves and cherish others instead.”