Happy New Year Everyone!
Quick note: For any of you who may be seeing this blog for the first time, I occasionally write a reminder that it does not express the official views of the New Kadampa Tradition and never has. The articles share only my own experiences and understandings as a trainee. I am happy if this blog inspires you to seek out a Kadampa teacher and New Kadampa Tradition Center, if you are interested, or if it simply helps you a bit with your own spiritual path, whatever that may be 😍😇😊
I’m not actually up a mountain at the moment – just a big hill (in Highgate, London) – but someone just shared a BBC article called: “Is the secret to happiness at the top of this mountain?”, which piqued my interest because I like mountains. Although mildly disappointed to see it refers only to a course that happens to take place on a mountain, I still want to share some of its findings.
“Humans have always wondered about how to improve their happiness, but for a long time thought they had no control over it. The root stem of happiness is “happenstance” – chance, luck or fortune.”
I think a lot of more ancient humans probably did know they had control over their happiness, in so far as they knew it depended on the mind – arguably more than a lot of us humans in the materialistic modern era, on the whole, who seem to be always on the lookout for it outside our mind.
“Research shows that while genetics plays a large part, accounting for half our happiness, what we do each day accounts for 40%, with just 10% down to our life circumstances. We have the potential to acquire happiness even when we were not born happy.”
Just a cursory look at my own family makes me want to quibble about these numbers, particularly on the subject of genes; but I think it’s fair to say that what we do each day (especially if “do” includes “think”) is of primary importance in how happy we feel, regardless of our circumstances. Buddhism 101 says (and bears repeating): When our mind is peaceful, we are actually happy, even when things are really challenging. When our mind is not peaceful because delusions are holding sway, we are not happy, whoever and wherever we are.
“Love makes me happy”
She got up at 4am this morning to get to her first client at 6am – Frederica lives in Enfield; her clients could live anywhere in London. Before she leaves the house she shares with her mother, she also does the chores because her mother cannot. “What time do you finish tonight?” I asked her at 5:30pm; and she told me she still had two more patients and several bus journeys. “I will finish by 8:30pm, and then I will go home.” Home by 9:30pm; and then she’ll do the same thing again tomorrow. Six and sometimes seven days a week. Currently, any spare half hours in the day she spends sitting in our exciting kitchen because it is a tad closer than home to her other patients.
Like all the carers I have met, despite the low hourly pay from her agency Frederica receives no pay for travel time and has to pay for her transport. During a day of strikes, like today, it’ll take her twice as long and she will have to wait even longer in the frigid cold for buses. She slipped on the ice yesterday. (Strikes also meant no District Nurse for my mother today — how much these strikes are showing our dependence on others’ kindness!)
But Frederica says she doesn’t mind, and she seems genuinely happy. “I love my work. If I don’t show up to one of my patients, they might be all alone all day. No one will feed them and no one will change them. They will have no one to talk to. I will do anything to get to them. I don’t mind how long it takes.”
Sixteen-year-old Philari is her first client of the day. Bedbound from severe autism, she can sit up and hear, but she can neither walk nor talk. Frederica has to be there by 6am to change her, give her a bed bath, feed her, and dress her for the day. “It is very sad.”
Clearly she’s not doing this for the money. We both agreed there are far more important things in life than the pursuit of money – yet although we both subscribe to this point of view I have not had it put to the test month after month like she has. She handles that grueling schedule, constant sleep deprivation, and tiny amount of free time each week with a genuine willingness to be kind to my mom, my dad, me, the other carers, and most likely everyone else she meets. The first thing she exclaimed when she met me two days ago was “Oh, you are so beautiful!” as if she really meant it. Nothing to do with how I look — affectionate love makes people appear beautiful.
Today, just now, I asked her the secret of happiness and this is her exact reply, she didn’t even have to think about it:
“Helping people when they are in need. Seeing my family happy. Love. Love makes me happy.”
A friend and I bumped into her at the bus stop later, and she told us that when she was younger she saw so many people in need and she said she felt she had to do something to help them – that is what made her become an NHS carer. And, again, “Love makes me happy.”
On her way out now at 5.45pm the following day, she has just been telling me that today is her lucky day as she only has one more client and will have time to sleep. I told her that I was writing this article with her in it, and she laughed delightedly and said, “I am very lucky!”
Psychology and the good life
Back to the original article and where it came from:
“At the beginning of last year, [Professor Santos) designed a new course called Psychology and the Good Life. It was aimed at teaching students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life in twice-weekly lectures. She expected about 40 students to sign up. In fact, a quarter of Yale’s undergraduates enrolled, making it the most popular course ever in Yale’s 300-year history.
She says the fact that even students at one of the top universities in the world weren’t happy shocked everyone. … But it’s not just students that aren’t happy.”
And this course includes the following 10 tips, on which I will give a brief Buddhist take. (Has to be brief as I must leave this café soon to decorate what may well be my mother’s last Christmas tree. She won’t notice the tree very much, but we will.)
Top 10 tips for happiness
This is not an exhaustive list, but try it and see — doing these 10 things does make a difference to our happiness levels.
- Being grateful for what you have improves how we feel.
Gratitude is known as a “happiness superpower”. Buddha explained many reasons to feel grateful on a life-altering scale, including our cosmically precious human life and the kindness of others – I’ve written quite a lot about it on this blog. Right now, I am grateful for my mother in ways that are hard to describe. Without her I would not be writing this, decorating a tree, or doing much of anything at all. When I arrived a few days ago, her maternal love gave her the strength to look directly at me, muster a big smile, and say, “Hello darling! How lovely!” First time in weeks, apparently. Then she looked away again — and that, with a few touching exceptions, has been it. Many years ago in Guyana, when I was 8, she was finally diagnosed with the 10-year-old egg-sized but benign brain tumor that has eventually led to all this – and in a darkened room, in the midst of her delirium garbling endless nonsense words, just before she was medivacked back to the UK, she saw me creep in and there was a moment of utter lucidity: “Oh darling! Come here!”
- Feeling our lives have a purpose has been linked to a healthier, longer life.
I remember my mother’s father saying this – how you have to have something to live for and then you live. He died at 100 because he was run over by a car on one of his long daily walks that would take place anywhere between driving, shopping, cooking for my grandmother, reading, gardening, chatting, praying, and playing the piano – otherwise we all felt he was going to live forever. I think it’s fair to say that we have no shortage of purpose in our lives if we choose to focus on it – is it not what we focus on that makes our life meaningful or meaningless? Take Frederica, for example.
- Make more time for social connection even if it’s with a stranger. Social interaction with people, even strangers, makes you feel happier.
Frederica again! Plus umpteen observations and studies. Such as, there is a lot more loneliness around these days, not least thanks to COVID, when a lot of us got a bit too used to staying home all day in our pajamas. Many self-diagnosed introverts are reporting how hard it is to get out socializing again, making eye contact let alone conversation; and that this is bringing on low level depression.
I have been very lazy in this atrocious weather (sometimes with the excuse of rail strikes or not wanting to catch COVID), splashing out on taxis and Ubers. But rather than just stare moodily out the window or at my phone I have had some great conversations that have left me feeling very engaged. I am going to share one as it’s sort of relevant and I’m still in a chatty mood.
So, London is freezing right now, and wet, and it is one of those desperately gray days that England is very good at. No one feels like going outside. And my taxi driver from Nigeria taking me to a friend’s house told me about his first Christmas here. He had been noticing all the Christmas lights going up for weeks and was so looking forward to the street party on Christmas day, like back at home. When the day came, he looked excitedly out the window at 10am, but – “Where is everybody? It’s so quiet here!” He called his one roommate, away with his fiancée, who told him the terrible news: “Everyone is at home with their families — they will be inside all day.” Whereupon he felt very lonely and cried. I’m happy to report that he’s much happier now because he has family and friends here — but although he will spend this Christmas indoors with them, and years have passed, he said nothing can replace that community of strangers. If London was warmer, we were wondering, maybe things would be different.
- Do nice things for others, even small things like making someone a coffee will improve your happiness.
Funnily enough, I just made Sister Pat her once-yearly cup of coffee – she allowed herself one because it is her birthday today. Even the slightest nod to our interdependence brings us into alignment with reality, and we become happier.
5. Count your blessings — think about what you are grateful for.
Through the sleeting rain, on his eighth hour straight of driving, my Uber driver from Somalia on the drive home was telling me how grateful he was to be able to work and bring his children up in London – albeit very concerned about his brothers and their families back home. As you know, there is a civil war there and people are starving; it’s an incredibly terrible situation. Yet Omar still counts his blessings. After making uproarious jokes about Mr. Trump’s comments about Somalia and other “s***hole countries”, and telling Black people in America that they may as well vote for him because they’re already losers and therefore have nothing to lose, he gave me a succinct geopolitical analysis of his own country, which I will take this opportunity to share with you:
“Somalia has three problems. First of all, Africans don’t like us because we don’t look African, our features are more Asian. Secondly, Asians and Arabs don’t like us because we’re Black, not red or white. And thirdly, the West don’t like us because Somalia is 100% Muslim. This means no one wants to help us. No … make that four problems. We also don’t like each other.”
I think his attitude is that you gotta laugh or you’ll cry. This guy was actually hysterical — we laughed almost all the way home.
“Meanwhile, Ethiopia wants some of our beach because we have the longest beach in Africa apart from South Africa. There are only 20 million of us with this long beach, and there are over 100 million Ethiopians and they’ve got no beach at all.”
To get serious for a moment, I asked Omar if he thought there was any hope for solving these problems. He is not sure, unless Somalians either all move into five separate districts, or they change their thoughts.
- Get enough sleep
True, if we can, sleep is good. Especially if we do the yoga of sleep – including just counting our blessings or going for refuge as we fall asleep.
Having said that, I don’t think any of my mother’s carers gets enough sleep. I feel pretty indolent when I’m staying here compared with any one of them.
My parents’ cleaner, Harriet from the Philippines, was working an overnight shift last night as a care aide in the hospital – getting here just after her shift at 9am to make some extra money. She had to rush off to pick up her 7-year old, get in a two-hour nap, switch the childcare with her husband (a chef at Wagamama), and go back to the hospital. Yet she is also gentle, friendly, and open – if she is exhausted, she is not dwelling on it. She too says she is so grateful for her life. She used to be work at my parents over a decade ago – this was before my mom got so sick, and Harriet seems genuinely sad at her decline, offering poignant memories about her such as her constant thoughtfulness and love of nature. I will ask Harriet the secret to her happiness next time she is here.
Honestly, perhaps I digress, but who are these women coming in and out of my parents’ home for well over a year now — Saint Patricia, Diana, Frederica, Harriet, Bless, and a steady stream of district nurses, medequip operators, etc.?? My mother is outliving everyone at the moment. In the 18 months she has already been on hospice care, several close friends’ parents have passed away, having gotten ill long after her. I hope this protracted deathbed is purifying everything. Meantime, these Tara emanations say something to inspire me almost every single day.
I have just been speaking with Bless, who was using her own free time to wash my mother’s hair properly (as opposed to the quick NHS permitted sponge with a warm flannel, no shampoo allowed.) She was explaining she’d have to arrive a bit later tomorrow — why? because she has to go for her 3-monthly MRI for her brain. In her twenties, she had a stroke a couple of years ago when she lost the use of the right size of her body and needed carers herself. “Were you worried?” “A little at first but then, no, I told the doctors that I knew they had to say what they had to say, but that I had more faith in the man upstairs.” She has made a complete recovery and “The doctors were very surprised.” She has no doubt about the healing power of faith. Further conversation reveals that this experience has also given her a good deal of empathy for her patients — she will tell her co-workers “not to rush in and rush out” because she knows what it is like to be completely dependent on others for care. “The love and the connection are very important.” And my mother has her visiting three times a day!
It occurred to me that every time someone says her name, she gets a blessing. She told me that it’s traditional for the father to give the name, but that she got her name from her aunt. During the time of the coup with Jerry Rawlings (when my own family were living in Ghana and I couldn’t travel back to college for several months), her aunt’s business suffered badly. But then her sister (Bless’s mother) got pregnant and this aunt noticed that whenever she went to the market to buy something for the baby, her business picked up. She said, “Whether this child is a boy or a girl, their name must be ‘Bless’.” Her aunt became one of the richest women in Ghana.
Just now Gen Samten asked me to pray for his beautiful mother, Jenny Clare Patel, who passed away peacefully last night. I am also requesting prayers for the lovely Gail Goodman, another close friend’s mother who is fading. And for my childhood friend, Sandra Sookraj, one of the kindest people you could meet, who is very ill in hospital. And for a friend’s brother in his thirties who was found dead today. And for everyone all over the world. An Australian friend just texted me:
“When I was younger I spent a lot of time with my grandfather and I used to complain to him that he always talked about sick and dying people — this funeral, that visit to hospital, etc. He sat me down and said, “This is what your life will look like one day. There is no stopping it.” And he hoped it happened later rather than sooner, but it will come.”
I remember when my mother first became seriously ill, several years ago, Venerable Geshe-la told me, “This is normal.” This gave me relief, to be honest. Understanding that samsara has always been like this can help us to accept that and develop the peaceful mind of renunciation — the solution-focused wish for actual, permanent freedom and happiness for ourselves and everyone we love.
- Stay in the moment – when our mind wanders we are less happy.
Also true. Buddha gave some incredibly helpful advice on how to live in the moment. Also, yesterday something a bit sad happened that I didn’t particularly like due to my attachment – I was beginning to dwell on it, thinking of past and future examples of why this was a Terrible Thing. But then I remembered my friend Gen Lekma’s advice to “not rewind or fast forward”. That bounced me back into the present moment, hanging out with my folks and astounding carer friends, making a Christmas tree for my mom, and I am happy again.
- Meditate – people who meditate tend to be happier.
- Stop criticizing yourself — it makes you feel worse and you will achieve less.
Funnily enough, Buddha had a lot to say about this too – check out these articles if you could do with some advice on the subject. Self-criticism is the delusion of hatred directed inwards so no wonder it doesn’t work. It is far more liberating to learn to identify with the spacious blissful clear sky of our limitless Buddha nature than the depressing low grey clouds of a London winter.
- Don’t keep chasing more money — after you reach $75,000, studies show earning more won’t make you any happier.
Coming back to the subject of money, even rich people are not happy according to that article: “Some of the people in the room earn hundreds of thousands of pounds each year, but still want to feel happier.” A friend of mine who started quite poor in life but is now very wealthy put that figure at $40,000 – after that amount, he said the extra zeros started making no difference to his happiness levels; and he prefers to give a lot of his money away. Mind you, $40,000 is still a fortune for most people in this world. Buddha said we are human beings and, as such, we need four basic bodily conditions: food, clothes, medicine, and shelter. Beyond that, plenty of people in all spiritual traditions and/or with love in their hearts have shown the example of being happy.
Happy New Year!
That’s it from me. I hope these tips help us all have a very happy New Year, “full of love and harmony, as that is what it’s all about”, which was Patricia’s birthday wish just now upon blowing out the candles of her 71st birthday cake (picture above).