I have referred often to the meditation when it was revealed to me what I need to be happy, but I have not written on that subject in detail (although there is a Dear Buddha comment concerning that). This posts fills that void.
In our culture, happiness is usually defined by what one has acquired, how one fits the model of a happy person presented in countless ads, TV sitcoms, and movies. As Buddhists, we learn, however, that instead happiness must come from within, not from external sources. One can have everything in the world a person could want … family, fame, wealth … and still be desperately unhappy. Indeed, that is often the case.
Once when meditating, it was revealed what I needed to be happy, what it means to be happy from within: to offer myself and others joy, to be in the company of loved ones and friends, to respect my mind, to respect my body, to be in touch with nature, and to live within my means.
1. Offer myself joy: As I related in my post, “Offer Myself Joy!” this seemingly un-Buddhist thought is actually at the core of the Buddha dharma. When the Buddha started turning the wheel of the dharma and taught the Four Noble Truths, it was about how to end our suffering. Everything we are taught, while it may redound to other’s benefit, is necessary to end our suffering. This is not ego-centrism. But it is thinking about and caring for oneself. Indeed, if we do not care for ourselves, if we do not love ourselves, we cannot truly offer joy to anyone else.
So how do I offer myself joy? By taking joy in every passing moment, regardless what else is going on; yes, you can manifest joy even in the darkest of moments by focusing on the things that nourish you, whether it's a relationship, nature, music, whatever. By being in touch with the positive energy in my heart. By releasing all desire that my life be different in any way from the way it is right now at this moment. By being aware of all I am grateful for. By having compassion for myself and loving myself unconditionally.
2. Offer others joy: Throughout the day, we have an opportunity to make a difference in other people’s lives, even if just in a small way, and thus make a difference in our own lives. Within our family, rather than the constant bickering that is so often the norm in family life, offering others joy brings joy to ourselves. In our work, interacting with others in a way that offers them joy brings joy to ourselves. In our daily activities, whether it’s going grocery shopping or anything else, we have the opportunity again to either offer joy or be an anonymous cipher. This is the Five Precepts in action.
The basic principle joining all these actions is that you treat others with respect; that is what most of us long for. Don’t fall into the trap of offering someone advice unless asked, something you think they need, because most likely the person doesn’t want advice. See my post, “Letting Others Go Their Way.”
One caveat: if you are dealing with someone who is evil, a dark force, this advice to offer joy does not apply. If you offer someone like that joy or loving-kindness, they will gain power over you. Keep your distance. See my post, "Evil - How Should a Buddhist Respond?"
3. Be in the company of loved ones and friends: Being in a nurturing environment is one of our Four Basic Needs (see my book, The Self in No Self). It’s an elemental need not just for humans, but indeed for most animals. Regardless of what is happening in the larger world, being able to feel safe and to laugh and love within ones personal circle is critically important.
But what happens when your loved ones and friends have died? What happens if you are sent to prison and are separated from them for years? The answer is that even if your are physically apart, your loved ones and friends can be very alive in your heart and in your mind. One can talk to your loved ones or write them a letter, whether dead or alive. Our memory is so often the source of pain; make it a source of joy by keeping these relationships alive within you.
4. Respect my body: To have respect for oneself is to have respect for all aspects of oneself, including one’s body. Staying physically fit is being respectful of one’s body, as well as taking care of one’s health. This is not to be confused with the current cultural obsession with physical fitness. That is a craving which stems often if not mostly from a lack of equanimity, from a need to be admired and acknowledged; it stems from insecurity. That is an example of a Right desire being turned into an unskillful desire and a craving if the origination of the desire is not equanimity.
5. Respect my mind: The motto of the United Negro College Fund is, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Our brain, our ability to think and analyze, is what differentiates humans from their animal ancestors. To have respect for oneself is to use it, to stay mentally fit. But it’s not just keeping our mind engaged that’s important, it’s what it’s engaged in. To engage my mind in something that’s not in keeping with the Five Precepts would not meet this need and indeed would add to my samsara. One has but to read the papers every day to see examples of people whose minds are very engaged, but who are engaged in efforts that are harmful to their fellow man and thus unwittingly increase their samsara.
6. Be in touch with nature - As I explained in my first blog post years ago, “If This Is Practical Buddhism, Why the Pastoral Setting?” in nature we see reflected the essential truths of the Buddha dharma ... that all things are impermanent and changeable, that all things rise and fall, and the oneness of all things. It is in nature that we can find elemental beauty, which is a profound source of peace and joy. This is not restricted to what culturally is considered a beautiful day. It can be grey and rainy, but there still is beauty to behold if one’s senses are open to it.
This doesn’t mean that one must live in nature or surrounded by nature. Indeed, many who do are not in touch with nature. It means connecting with nature. It could be a simple garden oasis in an urban backyard or it could be a nearby nature preserve. It could even be a patch of sky that you see through a prison cell window. Or it could be your memory of nature when it is totally removed from you.
7. Live within my means and thus be financially secure: For most people, being financially secure means capitulating to our culture’s craving for always more money and more things. What I’m talking about here ... living within one’s means ... is a decidedly counter-cultural, almost subversive, perspective. One of the Four Basic Needs is security, and certainly a key aspect of that is financial security.
But here I’m not talking about how much money one has, I’m talking about one’s attitude towards money and how one lives one’s life. There are many poor people around the world whose lives are far happier and content than many in our culture with great wealth because they do not crave what they don’t have; they have not yet been infected with the virus of Western capitalism and consumerism. (Granted, the numbers of such people are growing smaller with each year as our culture spreads into further and further corners of the world.)
“OK,” the reader may say, “but what if one doesn’t have any friends or loved ones, what if one has a physical disability, what if one is retarded, etc.” Regardless of one’s state, one can pursue these goals with acceptance and equanimity.
For example, if one truly has no friends or loved ones, one always has oneself; one is never alone. Being in the company of yourself should be a wonderful, nurturing activity. Also, if you feel that you have no loved ones, undertake to unseal the wellspring of loving kindness within you, as suggested by Sogyal Rinpoche is his The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. You will uncover that you have been loved once by someone.
If we are physically disabled, we can treat ourselves with respect and keep that part of our body that is not disabled physically fit. Likewise if we are mentally challenged, there is much we can do that maximizes the use of our mind; the relatively recent transformation in the lives of people with Downs Syndrome is a perfect case in point.
ALL ELSE IS EGO. Any desire for more than these goals is ego. All the things that we are used to thinking we need in order to be happy are ego; they are a function of our culture, of our learned experience. These desires to not come from our heart.
Moreover, I am aware that even though I have spent most of my professional life trying with honest intent in some way to make this world a better place and help relieve the suffering of others, all of my efforts have been tainted by my ego-mind, by my thinking mind. Everything I have done, regardless of its good intent and its often good results, has been driven equally strongly by my craving to be accepted, to be admired, to be loved. And so regardless of the venue in which I worked, my desires were unskillful desires because of their at least partially unskillful origination in a lack of equanimity.
This statement neither denigrates what I have done nor myself. It is just an honest aware statement that my samsara was a major factor in what I did and therefore I was not at peace or happy, regardless what I accomplished. When I first wrote this my ego-mind said, “Aha, see, if it wasn’t for my influence you wouldn’t have done these good things.” But I know that that is not the case. If I had been able to ignore my ego-mind, to observe without the intervention of thought, I am quite sure that I would still have undertaken these tasks because they were the Right thing to do.
And so it is with all things. It is the attitude of us towards ourselves, which usually reflects the attitude others have had towards us which we have absorbed and internalized, that keeps us down. Regardless of our status in life, we must free ourselves of that learned experience in order to be free, at peace and happy. It is only when we observe how our ego-mind works in all things and causes us suffering that we see the door that open us to finding a different way of pursuing life ... one that will bring us peace, contentment, and happiness.
So meditate and find the answer for yourself to the question: what do you need to do to find peace, contentment, and happiness. Even if you cannot totally be free of your thinking mind, your ego, be aware of its impact as much as you can and try and listen to your true Buddha nature.
NOTE: There is another practice that is a valuable and perhaps necessary complement to the goals I’ve stated in this post … The Heart’s Embrace (see my post of that title). Because a key element of finding happiness is offering myself joy, and a key component of that is releasing all desire that my life be different in any way from the way it is right now at this moment. To be able to do that, it is very helpful to know as a result of practicing The Heart’s Embrace that you will be ok, safe, regardless what life throws your way because you have returned home and will always return home to your true Buddha nature. When you can truly say, que sera sera, then you have the freedom to be fully present in the moment. This practice also helps being ok with living within one’s means.