Achieving durable happiness as a way of being is a skill. It requires sustained effort in training the mind and developing a set of human qualities, such as inner peace, mindfulness, and altruistic love. By happiness I mean here a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. This is not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being. Happiness is also a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it. Anyone who enjoys inner peace is no more broken by failure than he is inflated by success. He is able to fully live his experiences in the context of a vast and profound serenity, since he understands that experiences are ephemeral and that it is useless to cling to them. As influential as external conditions may be, suffering, like well-being, is essentially an interior state.
The search for happiness is not about looking at life through rose-colored glasses or blinding oneself to the pain and imperfections of the world. Nor is happiness a state of exaltation to be perpetuated at all costs; it is the purging of mental toxins, such as hatred and obsession, that literally poison the mind. It is also about learning how to put things in perspective and reduce the gap between appearances and reality. To that end we must acquire a better knowledge of how the mind works and a more accurate insight into the nature of things, for in its deepest sense, suffering is intimately linked to a misapprehension of the nature of reality.
Ignorance, in the Buddhist lexicon, is an inability to recognize the true nature of things and of the law of cause and effect that governs happiness and suffering. How do we dispel this basic ignorance? The only way is through honesty and sincere introspection. There are two ways we can undertake this: analysis and contemplation. Analysis consists of a candid and systematic evaluation of every aspect of our own suffering and of the suffering we inflict on others. It involves understanding which thoughts, words, and actions inevitably lead to pain and which contribute to well-being. Of course, such an approach requires that we first come to see that something is not quite right with our way of being and acting. We then need to feel a burning desire to change. The contemplative approach consists of rising above the whirlpool of our thoughts for a moment and looking calmly within, as if at an interior landscape, to find the embodiment of our deepest aspirations. For some this may be a life lived intensely at every moment, sampling the many delicacies of pleasure. For others it may be the attainment of goals: a family, social success, leisure, or, more modestly, a life without undue suffering. But these formulations are incomplete. If we go even deeper into ourselves, we may come to find that our primary aspiration, that which underlies all the others, is for some satisfaction powerful enough to nourish our love of life. This is the wish: "May every moment of my life and of the lives of others be one of wisdom, flourishing, and inner peace!"
The fact is that without inner peace and wisdom, we have nothing we need to be happy. Living on a pendulum between hope and doubt, excitement and boredom, desire and weariness, it's easy to fritter away our lives, bit by bit, without even noticing, running all over the place and getting nowhere. Happiness is a state of inner fulfillment, not the gratification of inexhaustible desires for outward things. In brief, the goal of life is a deep state of well-being and wisdom at all moments, accompanied by love for every being. True happiness arises from the essential goodness that wholeheartedly desires everyone to find meaning in their lives. It is a love that is always available, without showiness or self-interest. The immutable simplicity of a good heart. We look for happiness outside ourselves when it is basically an inner state of being. If it were an exterior condition, it would be forever beyond our reach. Our desires are boundless and our control over the world is limited, temporary, and, more often than not, illusory.
It may be true that "expressing ourselves," giving free rein to our "natural" impulses, gives us momentary relief from our inner tensions, but we remain trapped in the endless circle of our usual habits. Such a lax attitude doesn't solve any serious problems, since in being ordinarily oneself, one remains ordinary. As the French philosopher Alain has written, "You don't need to be a sorcerer to cast a spell over yourself by saying ‘This is how I am. I can do nothing about it.'" We are very much like birds that have lived too long in a cage to which we return even when we get the chance to fly away. We have grown so accustomed to our faults that we can barely imagine what life would be like without them. The prospect of change makes us dizzy.
The most common error is to confuse pleasure for happiness. Authentic happiness is not linked to an activity; it is a state of being, a profound emotional balance struck by a subtle understanding of how the mind functions.
The difference between joy and happiness is more subtle. Genuine happiness radiates outward spontaneously as joy. Inner joy is not necessarily manifested exuberantly, but as a luminous appreciation of the present moment, which can extend itself into the next moment, creating a continuum that one might call joie de vivre.
By gradually acquiring through introspective experience a better understanding of how thoughts are born, we learn how to fend off mental toxins. Once we have found a little bit of inner peace, it is much easier to lead a flourishing emotional and professional life. Similarly, as we free ourselves of all insecurities and inner fears (which are often connected to excessive self-centeredness), we have less to dread and are naturally more open to others and better armed to face the vagaries of existence.
Selfishness, or rather the feeling that one is the center of the world -- hence "self-centeredness" -- is the source of most of our disruptive thoughts. From obsessive desire to hatred, not to mention jealousy, it attracts pain the way a magnet attracts iron filings.
An "insecurely avoidant" person will rather keep others at bay than risk further suffering. Such a person will avoid becoming too intimate with others, either in a fearful way or by silencing all emotions in his mind and retreating within the cocoon of self-absorption. He has high self-esteem, but his self-esteem is defensive and brittle; he isn't very open to emotions and memories, and is often bored, distracted, "compulsively self-reliant," and not very caring.
While suffering is never desirable, that does not mean that we can't make use of it, when it is inevitable, to progress humanly and spiritually. Suffering can provide an extraordinary lesson capable of making us aware of the superficiality of many of our daily concerns, of our own fragility, and, above all, of what really counts deep down within us.
EXERCISE: Using mental imagery
When a powerful feeling of desire, envy, pride, aggression, or greed plagues your mind, try to imagine situations that are sources of peace. Transport yourself mentally to the shores of a placid lake or to a high mountaintop overlooking a broad vista. Imagine yourself sitting serenely, your mind as vast and clear as a cloudless sky, as calm as a windless ocean. Experience this calmness. Watch your inner tempests subside and let this feeling of peace grow anew in your mind. Understand that even if your wounds are deep, they do not touch the essential nature of your mind, the fundamental luminosity of pure consciousness.
THE VEILS OF THE EGO
Mental confusion is a veil that prevents us from seeing reality clearly and clouds our understanding of the true nature of things. Practically speaking, it is also the inability to identify the behavior that would allow us to find happiness and avoid suffering. When we look outward, we solidify the world by projecting onto it attributes that are in no way inherent to it. Looking inward, we freeze the flow of consciousness when we conceive of an "I" enthroned between a past that no longer exists and a future that does not yet exist. We take it for granted that we see things as they are and rarely question that opinion. We spontaneously assign intrinsic qualities to things and people, thinking "this is beautiful, that is ugly," without realizing that our mind superimposes these attributes upon what we perceive. We divide the entire world between "desirable" and "undesirable," we ascribe permanence to ephemera and see independent entities in what is actually a network of ceaselessly changing relations. We tend to isolate particular aspects of events, situations, and people, and to focus entirely upon these particularities. This is how we end up labeling others as "enemies," "good," "evil," et cetera, and clinging strongly to those attributions.
Genuine fearlessness arises with the confidence that we will be able to gather the inner resources necessary to deal with any situation that comes our way. This is altogether different from withdrawing into self-absorption, a fearful reaction that perpetuates deep feelings of insecurity.
For Buddhism, paradoxically, genuine self-confidence is the natural quality of egolessness. To dispel the illusion of the ego is to free oneself from a fundamental vulnerability. The fact is, the sense of security derived from that illusion is eminently fragile. Genuine confidence comes from an awareness of a basic quality of our mind and of our potential for transformation and flourishing, what Buddhism calls buddha nature, which is present in all of us. Such recognition imparts peaceful strength that cannot be threatened by external circumstances or inner fears, a freedom that transcends self-absorption and anxiety.
The idea that a powerful ego is necessary to succeed in life undoubtedly stems from the confusion between attachment to our own image and the resolve to achieve our deepest aspirations. The fact is, the less influenced we are by the sense of our self's importance, the easier it is to acquire lasting inner strength. The reason for this is simple: self-importance is a target open to all sorts of mental projectiles -- jealousy, fear, greed, repulsion -- that perpetually destabilize it.
It is the deep sense of self lying at the heart of our being that we have to examine honestly. When we explore the body, the speech, and the mind, we come to see that this self is nothing but a word, a label, a convention, a designation. The problem is, this label thinks it's the real deal. To unmask the ego's deception, we have to pursue our inquiry to the very end. When you suspect the presence of a thief in your house, you have to inspect every room, every corner, every potential hiding place, just to make sure there's really no one there. Only then can you rest easy. We need introspective investigation to find out what's hiding behind the illusion of the self that we think defines our being.
The self is merely an idea. It emerges when we combine the "I," the experience of the present moment, with the "person," the continuity of our existence. As David Galin explains, we actually have an innate tendency to simplify complex groupings by making "entities" of them and then to conclude that these entities are enduring. It is easier to function in the world by taking for granted that most of our environment remains unchanging minute by minute and by treating most things as if they were more or less constant. I would lose all notion of what "my body" is were I to perceive it as a whirlwind of atoms that is never the same for even a millionth of a second. But how quickly I forget that my ordinary perception of my body and of all phenomena is just an approximation and that in fact everything is changing at every moment.
We are generally afraid to tackle the world without reference points and are seized with vertigo whenever masks and epithets come down. If I am no longer a musician, a writer, sophisticated, handsome, or strong, what am I? And yet flouting all labels is the best guarantee of freedom and the most flexible, lighthearted, and joyful way of moving through the world. Refusing to be deceived by the ego in no way prevents us from nurturing a firm resolve to achieve the goals we've set for ourselves and at every instant to relish the richness of our relations with the world and with others. The effect, in fact, is quite the contrary.
Our attachment to the ego is fundamentally linked to the suffering we feel and the suffering we inflict on others. Renouncing our fixation on our own intimate image and stripping the ego of all its importance is tantamount to winning incredible inner freedom. It allows us to approach every person and every situation with natural ease, benevolence, fortitude, and serenity. With no expectation of gain and no fear of loss, we are free to give and to receive. We no longer have the need to think, speak, or act in an affected and selfish way.
How do we go about making peace with our own emotions? First, we have to focus our mind on the raw power of inner suffering. Instead of avoiding it or burying it away in some dark corner of our mind, we should make it the object of our meditation, without ruminating over the events that caused the pain or reviewing every freeze-frame from the movie of our life. When a painful emotion strikes us, the most urgent thing is to look at it head-on and to identify the immediate thoughts that triggered and are fanning it. Then by fixing our inner gaze on the emotion itself, we can gradually dissolve it like snow in sunshine. Furthermore, once the strength of the emotion has been sapped, the causes that triggered it will seem less tragic and we will have won ourselves the chance to break free from the vicious circle of negative thoughts.
EXERCISE: Resting in awareness
Look at what is behind the curtain of discursive thoughts. Try to find a waking presence there, free of mental fabrications, transparent, luminous, untroubled by thoughts of the past, the present, or the future. Try to rest in the present moment, free of concepts. Watch the nature of the gap between thoughts, which is free from mental constructs. Gradually extend the interval between the disappearance of one thought and the emergence of the next. Remain in a state of simplicity that is free of mental constructs, yet perfectly aware; beyond effort, yet alert and mindful. As you thus observe the wellspring of thoughts, it is possible to break their endless proliferation.
EXERCISE: When you feel overwhelmed by emotions
Imagine a stormy sea with breakers as big as houses. Each wave is more monstrous than the last. They are about to engulf your boat, your very life hangs on those few extra yards in the rushing wall of water. Then imagine observing the same scene from a high-flying plane. From that perspective, the waves seem to form a delicate blue-and-white mosaic, barely trembling on the surface of the water. From that height in the silence of space, your eye sees these almost motionless patterns, and your mind immerses itself in clear and luminous sky. The waves of anger or obsession seem real enough, but remind yourself that they are merely fabrications of your mind; that they will rise and also again disappear. Why stay on the boat of mental anxiety? Make your mind as vast as the sky and you will find that the waves of afflictive emotions have lost all the strength you had attributed to them.
It is tempting to systematically pass the blame on to the world and other people. When we feel anxious, depressed, cranky, envious, or emotionally exhausted, we're quick to pass the buck to the outside world; tensions with colleagues at work, arguments with our spouse -- anything, even the color of the sky, can be a source of upset. This reflex is far more than a mere psychological evasion. It reflects the mistaken perception that causes us to attribute inherent qualities to external objects when in fact those qualities are dependent on our own minds. Systematically blaming others and holding them responsible for our suffering is the surest way to lead an unhappy life. It is by transforming our minds that we can transform our world.
It is easier to work with the disturbing effects of a strong emotion when we are in the midst of experiencing it, rather than when it lies dormant in the shadow of our unconscious. At the precise moment of the experience, we will have an invaluable opportunity to investigate the process of mental suffering.
Rather than distinguishing between emotions and thoughts, Buddhism is more concerned with understanding which types of mental activity are conducive to one's own and others' well-being, and which are harmful, especially in the long run. This is actually quite consistent with what cognitive science tells us about the brain and emotion. Every region in the brain that has been identified with some aspect of emotion has also been identified with aspects of cognition. There are no "emotion centers" in the brain. The neuronal circuits that support emotions are completely intertwined with those that support cognition. This anatomical arrangement is consistent with the Buddhist view that these processes cannot be separated: emotions appear in a context of action and thought, and almost never in isolation from the other aspects of our experience. It should be noted that this runs counter to Freudian theory, which holds that powerful feelings of anger or jealousy, for instance, can arise without any particular cognitive or conceptual content.
We can never truly bring past events back to life. They survive only through the impact they have on our present experience. What really matters is the nature of our living experience, whether it is optimal or afflictive. If we become expert at freeing ourselves of all afflictive mental states as they take form, the actual content of the past events that might have triggered them becomes quite irrelevant. Furthermore, being able to repeatedly free oneself of such afflictive thoughts as they occur gradually erodes their very tendency to form again, until they stop appearing altogether. Just as our emotions, moods, and tendencies have been shaped by the accumulation of countless instantaneous thoughts, they can be transformed through time by dealing in a mindful way with such thoughts. "Take care of the minutes, for the hours will take care of themselves," Lord Chesterfield once told his son. This is the best path to gradual change.
The essential thing, therefore, is to identify the types of mental activity that lead to well-being and those that lead to suffering, even when the latter afford us brief instances of pleasure. This investigation calls for a subtle assessment of the nature of the emotions. For instance our delight in making a clever but malicious remark is considered to be negative. Conversely, our frustration or even sadness at being unable to ease the suffering we witness in no way hinders the quest for sukha, since it leads us to selflessly cultivate our capacity to help and inspires our determination to put it into action. Whatever the case may be, the best means of analysis is introspection and self-observation.
EXERCISE: Calming the mind and looking within
Sit in a comfortable position. Your body remains in an erect but not tense posture with eyes gently open. For five minutes, breathe calmly, noticing the in-and-out flow of your breath. Experience the gradual calming of chaotic thoughts. When thoughts arise, neither attempt to block them nor let them multiply. Simply continue to watch your breath. Next, instead of paying attention to outer sights, sounds, and events, turn your "gaze" inward and "look" at the mind itself. "Looking" here means observing your awareness itself, not the content of your thoughts. Let the mind gently come to rest, as a tired traveler finds a pleasant meadow in which to sit for a while. Then, with a deep feeling of appreciation, think of the value of human existence and of its extraordinary potential for flourishing. Be aware, too, that this precious life will not last forever and that it is essential to make the best possible use of it. Sincerely examine what counts most in life for you. What do you need to accomplish or discard in order to achieve authentic well-being and live a meaningful existence? When the factors that contribute to true happiness have become clear to you, imagine that they begin to bloom in your mind. Resolve to nurture them day after day. End your meditation by letting thoughts of pure kindness embrace all living beings.
You might think that ignorance and negative emotions are inherent to the flow of consciousness, and that trying to rid yourself of them is like fighting against a part of yourself. But the most fundamental aspect of consciousness, the pure faculty of knowing -- what has been called the "luminous" quality of the mind -- contains no hatred or desire at its core. The luminous quality of the mind is what allows the arising of thoughts and underlies all of them. Yet none of these thoughts belongs intrinsically to the fundamental nature of the mind. The experience of introspection shows, on the contrary, that the negative emotions are transitory mental events that can be obliterated by their opposites, the positive emotions, acting as antidotes.
MEDITATION AS FAMILIARIZATION
The Tibetan word gom, which is usually translated as "meditation," more precisely denotes "familiarization," while the Sanskrit word bhavana, also translated as "meditation," means "cultivation." Indeed, meditation is not about sitting quietly in the shade of a tree and relaxing in a moment of respite from the daily grind; it is about familiarizing yourself with a new vision of things, a new way to manage your thoughts, of perceiving people and experiencing the world. Buddhism teaches various ways of making this "familiarization" work. The three principal ways are antidotes, liberation, and utilization. The first consists of applying a specific antidote to each negative emotion. The second allows us to unravel, or "liberate," the emotion by looking straight at it and letting it dissolve as it arises. The third uses the raw power of emotion as a catalyst for inner change. The choice of one method over another will depend on the moment, the circumstances, and the capacities of the person using them. All share a common aspect and the same goal: to help us stop being victims of conflicting emotions.
The Use of Antidotes
One fundamental point emphasized by Buddhism is that two diametrically opposed mental processes cannot form simultaneously. We may fluctuate rapidly between love and hatred, but we cannot feel in the same instant of consciousness the desire to hurt someone and to do him good. It is important to begin by learning the antidotes that correspond to each negative emotion, and then to cultivate them.
Since altruistic love acts as a direct antidote to hatred, the more we develop it, the more the desire to harm will wither and finally disappear. It is not a question of suppressing hatred but of turning the mind to something diametrically opposed to it: love and compassion. Following a traditional Buddhist practice, you begin by recognizing your own aspiration to happiness, then extend that aspiration to those you love, and ultimately to all people -- friends, strangers, and enemies. Little by little, altruism and benevolence will saturate your mind until it becomes second nature. In this way, training yourself in altruistic thought can offer lasting protection against chronic animosity and aggression.
It is equally impossible for greed or desire to coexist with inner freedom. Desire can fully develop only when it is allowed to run rampant to the point where it monopolizes the mind. The trap here is the fact that desire, and its ally pleasure, are not ugly like hatred. They are even extremely seductive. But the silken threads of desire, which seem so light at first, soon tighten, and the soft garment they had woven becomes a straitjacket. The more you struggle, the tighter it becomes. In the worst cases, desire can drive us continuously to seek satisfaction at any cost; the more satisfaction seems to elude us, the more it obsesses us. On the other hand, when we contemplate its disturbing aspects and turn our minds toward developing inner calm, the obsession of desire can begin to melt like snow in the sun.
As for anger, it can be neutralized by patience. This does not require us to remain passive, but to steer clear of being overwhelmed by destructive emotions.
Freeing The Emotions
What would happen if, instead of counteracting a disturbing emotion with its opposite -- anger with patience, for instance -- we were simply to contemplate the nature of the emotion itself? The experience of anger is like having a high fever. It is a temporary condition, and you do not need to identify with it. It is at the very moment of anger's emergence that we must recognize its empty nature. That understanding will strip thoughts of their power to build into a stream of obsession and oppression. They cross the mind without leaving a trace, like the trackless flight of a bird through the sky.
This technique can be used for all mental afflictions; it helps us to build a bridge between the exercise of meditation and our daily concerns. Once we get used to looking at thoughts the moment they appear and then allowing them to dissipate before they overwhelm the mind, it is much easier to maintain control over the mind and to manage the conflictive emotions in our active lives. To spur our vigilance and hard work, we should try to recall the bitter suffering that destructive emotions have caused us.
Using The Emotions as Catalysts
When we look closely at our emotions, we find that, like musical notes, they are made up of numerous elements, or harmonics. Anger rouses us to action and often allows us to overcome obstacles. It also contains aspects of clarity, focus, and effectiveness that are not harmful in and of themselves. Desire has an element of bliss that is distinct from attachment; pride, an element of self-confidence that can be firm without lapsing into arrogance; envy, a drive to act that cannot be confused with the unhealthy dissatisfaction it entails. As difficult as it is to separate these various aspects, it is possible to recognize and use the positive facets of a thought generally considered to be negative. In effect, what gives an emotion its noxious quality is the way we identify with and cling to it. This triggers a chain reaction during which the initial spark of clarity and focus becomes anger and hostility. The skills we gain from meditation experience help us to intervene before the reaction is initiated.
Emotions are not inherently disturbing, though they seem so the moment we identify with and hold on to them. The pure consciousness of which we have spoken, and which is the source of all mental events, is neither good nor bad in and of itself. Thoughts become disturbing only once the process of "fixation" is set in motion, when we attach ourselves to the qualities we attribute to the object of the emotion and to the self that is feeling it. Once we learn to avoid that fixation, we do not need to bring in antidotes from the outside; the emotions themselves act as catalysts for freeing ourselves of their baneful influence. This happens because our point of view changes. When we fall into the sea, it is the water itself that buoys us and allows us to swim to shore. But we still need to know how to swim -- that is, to have enough skill to exploit the emotions to good effect without drowning in their negative aspects. This kind of practice requires great command of the language of the emotions.
We must never forget, however, that the source of disturbing emotions is attachment to the self. If we want to be free of inner suffering once and for all, it is not enough to rid ourselves of the emotions themselves; we must eliminate our attachment to the ego. Is that possible? It is, because as we've seen, the ego exists merely as mental imputation. A concept can be dispelled, but only by the wisdom that perceives that the ego is devoid of intrinsic existence.
EXERCISE: Freeing Emotions
Directly Bring to mind a situation in which you felt very angry and try to relive this experience. When anger arises, focus your attention on the anger itself instead of on its object. Don't unite with the anger but look at it as a separate phenomenon. As you keep on just observing the anger, it will gradually evaporate under your gaze. It may keep on surging in your mind and you may feel unable to pacify it. It remains so vivid because your mind is drawn helplessly and repeatedly back toward the object of your resentment. The object becomes like a target, and each time you return to it, a mental spark is triggered and the emotion gets rekindled. You feel as if it has invaded your mind and that you are caught in a vicious circle. Instead of turning your attention to the "target," simply stare attentively at the emotion itself. You will see that it cannot sustain itself and soon runs out of steam. Using the experience you gain during meditation sessions, try to apply this process of liberation in your daily life. With time, your anger will grow ever more transparent and your irritability will wane. Practice in the same way with obsessive desire, envy, and other painful emotions.
Generally, once mental images linked to a desire begin to build up in the mind, one either satisfies the desire or suppresses it. The former action represents a surrender of self-control, the second initiates a conflict. The inner conflict created by suppression is always a source of distress. On the other hand, the option of indulging a desire is like saying: "Why make everything so complicated? Let's satisfy the desire and have done with it." The problem is, you're never done with it: satiation is merely a respite. The mental imagery that desire is continuously creating very quickly reemerges. The more frequently we assuage our desires, the more these images multiply, intrude, and constrain us. The more salt water we drink, the thirstier we become. The repeated reinforcement of mental images leads to addiction and dependency, mental and physical. Once we reach that stage, the experience of desire is felt more like servitude than pleasure. We have lost our freedom.
Hatred is clearly corrosive, whatever the intensity and circumstances behind it. Once hatred has overwhelmed us, we are no longer masters of ourselves and are incapable of thinking in terms of love and compassion. And yet hatred always begins with a simple thought. This is the precise moment to jump in with one of the techniques for dispelling negative emotions.
EXERCISE: Meditate on love and compassion
Meditating is a method of learning to experience things in a new way. Bring realistically to mind the suffering of someone who is dear to you. You will soon feel a deep wish and resolve to ease her suffering and remove its cause. Let this feeling of compassion fill your mind and remain in it for a while. Then extend that same feeling to all beings, realizing that they all aspire to be free from suffering. Combine this boundless compassion with a sense of readiness to do whatever is necessary to remedy their sufferings. Dwell as long as you can in that feeling of all-embracing experience of compassion. If while contemplating on the countless sufferings of living beings you feel powerless and lose courage, shift your attention to those who enjoy some form of happiness and have admirable human qualities. Fully rejoice in these and cultivate enthusiastic joy. This will act as an antidote to depression and envy. Another method is to shift your meditation to impartiality. Extend your feelings of love and compassion to all beings equally -- dear ones, strangers, and enemies. Remember that no matter how they might threaten you, they all strive to achieve happiness and avoid suffering. You can also focus on selfless love, the fervent wish that all beings may find happiness and the causes of happiness. Let loving-kindness permeate your mind and rest in this all-encompassing feeling of altruistic love. At the end of your meditation, ponder awhile the interdependence of all things. Understand that just as a bird needs two wings to fly, you need to develop both wisdom and compassion. Before engaging in your daily activities, dedicate to all sentient beings all the good you have accrued from your meditation.
Inner freedom is above all freedom from the dictatorship of "me" and "mine," of the ego that clashes with whatever it dislikes and seeks desperately to appropriate whatever it covets. So being free comes down to breaking the bonds of afflictions that dominate and cloud the mind. It means taking life into one's own hand, instead of abandoning it to tendencies created by habit and mental confusion. If a sailor looses the tiller and lets the sails flap in the wind and the boat drift wherever the currents take it, it is not called freedom -- it is called drifting. Freedom here means taking the helm and sailing toward the chosen destination. In daily life this freedom allows us to be open and patient with others while remaining committed to the direction we have chosen to take in life. Indeed it is essential to have a sense of direction.
Renunciation is not about depriving ourselves of that which brings us joy and happiness -- that would be absurd; it is about abandoning what causes us inexhaustible and relentless distress. It is about having the courage to rid ourselves of dependency on the root causes of suffering. To do this, we first have to identify and recognize these causes and then become mindful of them in our daily life. If we do not take the time to do this, we can easily fool ourselves by overlooking the relevant causes.
Inner freedom allows us to savor the lucid simplicity of the present moment, free from the past and emancipated from the future. Freeing ourselves from the intrusion of memories of the past does not mean that we are unable to draw useful lessons from our experience. Freeing ourselves from fear of the future does not make us incapable of approaching it clearly, but saves us from getting bogged down by pointless fretting. Such freedom has aspects of clearheadedness, and joy that allow us to accept things peacefully without sinking into passivity or weakness. It also allows us to use all life's circumstances, favorable and adverse, as catalysts for personal change, and to avoid becoming arrogant when they are favorable and depressed when they are not.
"Our life is frittered away by detail. . . . Simplify, simplify," wrote the American moralist Henry David Thoreau. Renunciation involves simplifying our acts, our speech, and our thoughts to rid ourselves of the superfluous. Simplifying our activities doesn't mean sinking into laziness; on the contrary, it means acquiring a growing freedom and counteracting the most subtle aspect of inertia -- the impulse that, even when we know what really counts in life, prompts us instead to pursue a thousand trivial activities, one after the other, like ripples in the water. To simplify our speech is to curtail the stream of pointless talk that continuously flows from our mouths. It is, above all, to abstain from directing hurtful remarks at others. Having a simple mind is not the same as being simpleminded. On the contrary, simplicity of mind is reflected in clarity of thought. Like clear water that lets us see all the way to the lake bottom, simplicity reveals the nature of the mind behind the veil of restless thought.
According to K. Magnus and his colleagues, happiness goes hand in hand with the capacity to assert oneself with extroversion and empathy -- happy people are generally open to the world. They believe that an individual can exert control over herself and her life, while unhappy people tend to believe themselves to be destiny's playthings. It would seem that the more an individual is capable of controlling her environment, the happier she is. It is interesting to note that in everyday life, extroverts experience more positive events than introverts, and neurotics have more negative experiences than stable people. A person may be on a "streak" of bad luck or feel herself to be a magnet for problems, but it is important to keep in mind that it is ultimately our own disposition -- extroverted or neurotic, optimistic or pessimistic, self-centered or altruistic -- that impels us into the same situation again and again. An open-minded person is more skilled at battling through difficult circumstances, whereas someone who is ill at ease feels increased anxiety that is usually reflected in affective and familial issues and social failure. A spiritual dimension, whether religious or not, helps us to set goals in life and promotes human values, charity, generosity, and openness -- all factors that bring us closer to happiness than to misery. It helps us to spurn the cynical idea that there is no direction to follow, that life is nothing but a self-centered struggle under the battle cry "Every man for himself."
What does altruism have to do with happiness? A series of studies conducted on hundreds of students found an undeniable correlation between altruism and happiness, determining that those who believe themselves to be happiest are also the most altruistic. When we are happy, the feeling of self-importance is diminished and we are more open to others. It has been shown, for instance, that people who have experienced a happy event in the past hour are more inclined than others to come to the assistance of strangers. We can feel a certain pleasure in attaining our ends to the detriment of others, but such satisfaction is short-lived and superficial; it masks a sense of disquiet that cannot be suppressed for long. Once the excitement has waned, we are forced to acknowledge the presence of a certain discomfort. Benevolence would appear to be far closer to our "true nature" than malice. Living in harmony with that nature sustains the joy of life, while rejecting it leads to chronic dissatisfaction.
The relationship between having a good heart and happiness is growing ever clearer. They engender and reinforce each other and both reflect oneness with our inner nature. Joy and satisfaction are closely tied to love and affection. As for misery, it goes hand in hand with selfishness and hostility. Generating and expressing kindness quickly dispels suffering and replaces it with lasting fulfillment. In turn, the gradual actualization of genuine happiness allows kindness to develop as the natural reflection of inner joy.
In what way is humility an ingredient of happiness? The arrogant and the narcissistic fuel themselves on illusions that come into continuous conflict with reality. The inevitable disillusionment that follows can generate self-hatred (when we realize that we cannot live up to our own expectations) and a feeling of inner emptiness. Humility avoids such unnecessary distress. Unlike affectation, which needs to be recognized in order to survive, humility naturally abides in inner freedom. The humble person has nothing to lose and nothing to gain. If she is praised, she feels that it is humility, and not herself, that is being praised. If she is criticized, she feels that bringing her faults to light is a great favor. "Few people are wise enough to prefer useful criticism to treacherous praise," wrote La Rochefoucauld, echoing the Tibetan sages who are pleased to recall that "the best teaching is that which unmasks our hidden faults." Free of hope and fear alike, the humble person remains lighthearted.
If we observe the way in which people perceive the events of their lives, appreciate the quality of the lived moment, and create their future by overcoming obstacles with an open and creative attitude, we find that the optimists have an undeniable advantage over the pessimists.
EXERCISE: Experiment with experiencing the same situation through the eyes of optimism and pessimism.
Take, for example, an airplane voyage: Imagine that you are on a long airplane trip en route to a strange city to begin a new job. Suddenly the airplane encounters turbulence. You can see the plane's wings tilting up and down and you visualize the ensuing disaster. Once the turbulence settles down, you realize your seat is too small. You can't find a comfortable position, and your mind is filled with complaints about the state of airplane travel. You are annoyed that the air hostess is taking forever to bring your drink. When you think ahead to your new job, you feel certain that the people you will meet won't like or appreciate you. They will ignore your expertise, keep you away from the most interesting projects, and might even cheat you. You are sure that this trip will be a catastrophe. Why did you ever think you could handle it? You are filled with dread. Experience the gloomy state of mind such thoughts create. Then experiment with another way to experience the same situation: When the plane encounters turbulence, you know that it is part of the journey and vividly feel that every instant that passes by is precious. As the turbulence calms down, you feel grateful and hope that you can use the rest of your life constructively. Although your seat is not particularly comfortable, you find positions that relieve the stiffness of your back and legs. You appreciate how cheerful and helpful the air hostess is even though she is so busy and has to stand up throughout most of the flight. You are excited by the adventures that await you. You imagine that the people there will be interesting and productive and that you will be given many new opportunities. You are convinced that your activities will flourish and that you have the inner resources to overcome any obstacles that may arise. Experience this buoyant state of mind that is tuned to the positive. Appreciate the difference between these two states of mind and understand how they came about simply through the workings of your mind although the outer situation remained the same.
GOLDEN TIME, LEADEN TIME, WASTED TIME
It is essential to the quest for happiness that we be aware that time is our most precious commodity. This does not mean we should get rid of what is meaningful in life but rather of that which causes us to waste our life. Far from making us despair, a lucid awareness of the nature of things inspires us to live each passing day to the full. Unless we examine our lives, we will take it for granted that we have no choice and that it's easier just to do one thing right after the other, as we've always done and always will do. But if we do not abandon futile entertainments and sterile activities, they certainly will not abandon us; they will, in fact, take up more and more space in our lives.
At the practical level, if we wish to experience our relationship to time more harmoniously, we must cultivate a certain number of qualities. Mindfulness allows us to remain alert to the passage of time and prevents us from being unaware as it flows. The proper motivation is what colors time and gives it value. Diligence allows us to put it to good use. Inner freedom prevents it from being monopolized by disturbing emotions. Every day, every hour, every second, is like an arrow flying toward its target. The right time to start is now.
The wise man enjoys a very special kind of freedom: prepared for death, he appreciates every moment of life's bounty. He lives each day as if it were his only one. That day naturally becomes the most precious of his existence. When he looks at the sunset, he wonders: "Will I see the sun rise again tomorrow morning?" He knows that he has no time to lose, that time is precious, and that it is foolish to waste it in idleness. When death finally comes for him, he dies tranquilly, without sadness or regret, without attachment to what he is leaving behind.
EXERCISE: Appreciate the Value of Time, Savor the Present Moment
Turn your mind inward and appreciate the richness of every single moment that passes by. Instead of being an endless succession of feelings, images, and scattered thoughts, time becomes pure awareness, like a luminous stream of melted gold. When past thoughts have ceased, and future thoughts have not yet arisen, in the interval is there not a perception of nowness, a pristine, clear, awake, and bare freshness? Remain in it for a while, without grasping at anything, like a small child looking at a vast landscape.
Ethics built on abstract concepts has little usefulness. As the neuroscientist and philosopher Francisco Varela has written, a truly virtuous person "does not act out of ethics, but embodies it like any expert embodies his know-how. The wise man is ethical, or more explicitly, his actions arise from inclinations that his disposition produces in response to specific situations." For this one needs mindfulness, wisdom, and a basic altruistic disposition that is deeply embedded in the mind, yet needs to be cultivated throughout life. This is not about applying rules and principles, but concerns awareness and the development of a compassionate nature. One aspect of compassion is a spontaneous readiness to act for the benefit of others. Altruistic deeds will then naturally flow from such compassion. It is not a question of defining Good or Evil absolutely, but of remaining alert to the happiness and suffering we cause by our deeds, our words, and our thoughts.
THEORY VS PRACTICE
Mere intellectual understanding is not enough. It is not by leaving the doctor's prescription by the bedside or learning it by heart that we are cured. We must integrate what we have learned so that our understanding becomes intimately bound up with our mind's flow. Then it ceases to be theory and becomes self-transformation. Indeed, as we've seen, that is the meaning of the word meditation: familiarization with a new way of being. We can familiarize ourselves with all sorts of positive qualities in this way -- kindness, patience, tolerance -- and continue to develop them through meditation. Throughout this exercise, practiced at first in brief but regular sessions, we seek within ourselves a particular quality that we then allow to permeate our entire being until it becomes second nature. We can also meditate to acquire inner calm by stabilizing the mind through concentration on an object: a flower, a feeling, an idea, a representation of the Buddha. The mind is unstable at first, but we learn to tame it, just as we would return a butterfly to the flower of concentration every time it flutters away. The goal is not to turn our mind into a dutiful but bored student, but to make it flexible, stable, strong, lucid, vigilant -- in short, to make it a better tool for inner transformation instead of abandoning it to its fate as a spoiled child resistant to all learning. Finally, we can meditate in a nonconceptual way on the very nature of the mind by looking directly at consciousness itself as an open presence, a pure awareness that always lies behind the screen of thoughts, or by contemplating the very nature of the thoughts that cross our mind.