Happiness 101

October 2008

A few years ago, during one of Lama Norlha Rinpoche’s visits to New Hampshire, he gave a public talk at the Unitarian Church in Portsmouth on the topic of how to be happy. The gist of his advice was this: in all our relationships, especially with those closest to us, always focus on the person’s good qualities and their kindness, and never think about their flaws and misdeeds.

As usual, the Buddha’s solution to our problem is very simple. The difficulty is in overcoming our habitual patterns, or internal resistance, in order to apply it or even remember it in the heat of the moment.

I have written about how prone I am to notice the flaws in things, to wish for something to be different, no matter how good my situation is. That seems to be my default setting, and from years of observation, I suspect it is the case with many of us humans, at least those of us with enough resources that we aren’t filled with joy just to have a roof over our head or enough to eat. Just as a cat is programmed to pounce on the slightest movement, we seem to be programmed to notice the slightest flaw or discomfort, and often to focus on that instead of the bigger, happier picture. A classic example is what the real estate industry terms “buyer’s remorse,” that feeling of dread that comes over us as soon as we finally close on the coveted house and begin to notice its every defect.

In retreat, Rinpoche urges us to appreciate our rare, if sometimes challenging, opportunity, rather than give in to the ever-present demons of worry, doubt, and discontent. “Mind is empty,” he said one day. “This means you can change your thoughts.”

He repeated that advice just this week, in the context of reminding us how many methods we now have for dealing with emotional ups and downs. If our meditation is being derailed by an intrusive train of thought, especially one that brings up anger, sadness or some other disturbing emotion, there are various meditational methods we can apply—but we can also just: Hop on a different train! Change the channel! Think about something else! Most helpful, of course, is to turn our mind to a Dharma topic such as remembering impermanence or reviewing the reasons patience is more beneficial than anger—but any positive alternative thought will do the job.

Of course, altering one’s overall thought picture is not an easy task, and Rinpoche was not addressing such situations as clinical depression, which make it harder and may require outside help. But maybe we could just start to work on our everyday garden-variety thoughts, the small ones, when we are just feeling out of sorts with our life or our loved ones. When they leave a mess for us to clean up, or interrupt us for the sixth time, or forget something important, maybe we could google our brain for their lovable qualities and all the times they have shown us that they care.

The very definition of samsara, according to the Buddha (in Noble Truth Number One), is that it is suffering, ranging from minor dissatisfaction up to terrible tragedy. Even at its best, it’s just never completely, 100% right at any given moment—or if it is, that moment is over in a flash. Rinpoche has also said, “The Buddha taught that samsara is nothing but suffering. So why are you surprised when you suffer?”

The trick, then, to a happy mind is first to understand that something will always be at least a little wrong, and then to persistently reset the dial from “notice what’s wrong” to “notice what’s right.” Meditation is very helpful with this process, because it gives us direct access to the dial, first by cluing us in to what our mind is actually doing at any given moment, and then by providing alternative settings along with the means to apply them

We’ll have to use manual reset for awhile, until our habits begin to change, but if we practice enough—eventually our default setting could be buyer’s delight.

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