Happiness Is An Inside Job
The pursuit of happiness is often seen as the driving force behind most of our actions throughout history. It is commonly thought that human capacities have increased over time, which has allowed us to alleviate misery and fulfill our aspirations. It therefore follows that we must be happier today than our medieval ancestors, and they must have been happier that Stone Age hunter-gatherers.
The American Declaration of Independence asserts that we all are created equal and that we are endowed by our Creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our country is aligned and organized around the principle that if we act according to the sacred principals of the constitution, we will be able to live safely and prosper, thus leading to greater happiness for all.
Bu what is happiness? Philosophers, priests, and poets have brooded over the nature of happiness for millennia. Many have concluded that social. ethical and spiritual factors play as large (if not larger) a role in determining our happiness as material conditions and wealth.
In recent times, psychologist and biologist have taking up the challenge of trying to scientifically determine what makes people happy. They have looked at everything from money, family, genetics, meaningful employment and virtue, and tried to correlate these factors with a subjective sense of well-being.
Happiness from a scientific viewpoint is defined as something one feels inside, a sense of either immediate pleasure or long-term contentment with the way they “feel” life is going. While external factors can affect how we feel, it is really our internal sense of pleasure and pain that defines how happy we are. By giving people questionnaires and tallying the results psychologist and biologist hope to characterize the relative amount of happiness that can me attributed to various objective factors.
Buddhism takes a different approach to happiness. For 2,600 Buddhist practitioners have studied the causes of happiness, which is why there is growing interest among the scientific community in both their philosophy and meditation practices. While Buddhism shares the basic insight of the biological approach to happiness, namely that happiness results from processes occurring in our bodies and not from events in the outside world, it reaches very different conclusions about what engenders true happiness.
The general message is, ff you want to be happy, do not dwell in the past, do not worry about the future, focus on living fully in the present. Doing so obviously takes a lot of practice, but as Jack Kornfield writes, “When we understand that freedom of the heart is a possibility for us, we can awaken to our own happiness wherever we are.”
Or as Thich Nhat Hanh says, “There is no way to happiness - happiness is the way.”
Life Is A Circle – Music Is Life
Life is not a journey, it’s more like music, it moves in circles. When you journey, you are trying to get somewhere. In music, one doesn’t make the end of a song, the point of the song. The whole point of playing music is to play music. Like dancing, the whole point to dancing is to dance, not to get to some point in the room.
We move in circles and come back again to the beginning. We do it again and again and we are somehow transformed by the process. It is the process that matters, not the destination.
In our culture we are very focused on getting to the end of things – getting to the end of high school, then college, then working to meet the quota we need to get a raise, then buying a house (if we’re lucky), then retiring and on and on to the next end and the next, until it’s all over.
It is a part of our conditioning to think of life as journey - a pilgrimage which had a serious purpose at the end and the thing is to get to that end.
But really, is that true? Or is life a musical thing? One in which we are supposed to sing and dance the whole way along while the music is being played. And in the process, truly discovering what it means to be human.
CIRCLE OF LIFE from the album ShadowLight
Inclining Toward Gratitude
“Everyday, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it.” ~ Dalai Lama
I am a big believer in having a gratitude practice. This can be a simple as taking a moment each day to reflect on one or two things we are grateful for or as involved as keeping a gratitude journal. What we are grateful for doesn’t have to be a big thing. It could be for the sun shining through our window or the fact that we don’t have a toothache. It could be for the opportunity to practice the music we love or to sit with a dear friend when they’re not feeling well.
I find the best part about practicing gratitude is that it helps me feel connected to the mystery of life. In our everyday concerns, it is so easy to take life for granted. When I remember to be grateful, even for a few minutes, I sense this kind of reconnecting. It feels as if there is a larger reality in which my personal story is unfolding – not everything is about me and that’s OK. It is quite liberating. It beats complaining that’s for sure.
It’s amazing that we don’t make more of an effort to cultivate gratitude. It is really the easiest thing we can do to help boost happiness. Taking time to be grateful for a child’s smile, the kindness of others, our health, our practice, etc., helps us appreciate each moment and the interdependent nature of life. It can soften our hearts when we’ve become too guarded and builds our capacity for forgiveness. Amazing how such a simple practice can be so life changing.
So why not do it more often? Perhaps it is because we’ve inherited a brain that reacts more intensely to negative stimuli than to positive ones. Our natural tendency is to be on guard, to want to protect ourselves. Fortunately, studies have shown we can overcome this negative bias, but it takes effort. Practicing gratitude is a wonderful way to re-tune our brains to the positive and open our hearts.
By the way, I don’t mean to suggest that we should be in denial of life's difficulties. We live in troubling times. A heart of gratitude, however, enables us to live more fully into life in good times and bad. It is the antidote to feelings of scarcity, fear and loss. It allows us to meet life's difficulties with an open heart. The understanding we gain from practicing gratitude frees us from being lost or identified with either the negative or the positive aspects of life. Instead it helps us simply meet life in each moment as it rises.
With so much fear and sadness in the world, it is healthy to let our hearts delight in the blessings of life. I would like to end by offering you the following reflections. These come from former chief editor of Esquire magazine and full-time meditation teacher Phillip Moffitt. Enjoy!
- What are you grateful for? Make a list. Include “basics” you would not like to live without, like a warm shower or your morning coffee.
- Pause to appreciate that in this moment you have a sense of well-being. Notice the effect of this. Does this gratitude lead you anywhere?
- Take a few minutes at the end of each day to mentally note the many people who have invisibly served you by providing medicine, shelter, safety, food, education, and so forth.
Forrest Hill is a singer-songwriter living in the bay area of California. He has just finished his third album called River of Stars that is set to be released in May 2019. He has been practicing meditation since 2004 and is a founding member of Napa Valley Insight Meditation. He is graduate of the Community Dharma Leaders Program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center has a PhD from MIT in Biological Oceanography. He believes meditation can foster greater awareness, wisdom and kindness in our daily lives, and teach us how to respond more compassionately to the world around us.