Buddhists often wonder if happiness is too trivial a thing to worry about. While it is true that the ultimate realization of Buddhist practice is far more profound, when I think of my teachers, I always see them smiling. Anything we endeavor to do, especially spiritual transformation, needs to be built on a solid foundation of a basic sanity: a healthy self-image based on a deep sense of contentment. With such a basis, we can be sure we will make progress along the path.
So here are 5 things we can do which will increase our joy and bring more sanity into our hectic lives.
1. Relax chasing after situations and things
Even though we all know better, yet if you are really honest with yourself, aren’t you a little too preoccupied with creating favorable circumstance and acquiring nice things? So what’s the problem?
a) We aren’t very good at predicting what will make us happy.
We have all had the experience of imagining how great something will be if we can ever finagle it, then when we do, it isn’t everything we hoped. Well there is a fair amount of science which indicates we often get it wrong when we try to imagine what will make us happy and we don’t learn from it because we don’t remember our bad predictions.
b) We don’t really know how to enjoy ourselves
Think about a time you had a perfect day. Did you maybe, just for a moment or two, find yourself thinking: “Too bad every day can’t be like this?” At my workshops and retreats, I always ask people if they catch themselves doing this and so far it’s 100%. As soon as we get to that seemingly too rare place where everything is just about perfect, we start to realize it too will pass and a little teeny bit of discontent creeps into our otherwise flawless day.
c) Good circumstances become the basis of future discontentment
As you read this article, you probably will find a comfortable position in your chair or couch. No matter how perfectly comfortable you are, after a few minutes, you will shift your position. As soon as you found that comfy seat, your future discomfort was baked-in. This demonstrates how when we find comfort in situations, we’ve already created our future discomfort.
So, the key is to resolve not to expect situations and things to bring us contentment, because at best it will be very temporary. Instead, we need to look elsewhere.
2. Become more present moment focused
To quote the Buddha: “Don’t think about the past, nor start thinking about the future, but leave the mind in the present moment.”
Research has shown that we are distracted, lost in wandering thoughts, about half the time. Not only that, the degree to which we are present moment focused is directly correlated with how happy we are likely to be.
Meditation is an amazing attention training program; we use an object, such as our breath or a candle, and place our attention on it. When we notice we’ve become distracted, we bring our attention back to the object. It is really that simple. In this way, we become more and more familiar with just being present, not habitually following every thought and emotion with another one. We train our attention to rest where we place it.
3. Attitude of Gratitude
The biggest stealer of contentment is the habit of constantly evaluating everything. It’s almost like our mind has a little CNN style ticker tape at the bottom of our screen. It’s constantly telling us what we like and what we don’t like, even about the most trivial stuff. Of course, there are things we need to evaluate, but mostly it’s just an incessant habit.
My teacher, Kyabjé Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, was fond of pointing this out: “The very basis of our discontentment (and therefore samsara) is the constant evaluation of the quality of our experience.”
This habit keeps us from simply being present, but wait, it gets worse! We far too often end up comparing our life to an idealized version of what our life should be. These thoughts are usually so self-denigrating that they overwhelm us — even when we try to be present moment focused. The comparison habit is the world’s biggest stealer of contentment.
What can you do? Whenever you notice the habit of comparing arising, you can replace it by focusing on appreciation. Establish an attitude of gratitude by appreciating what you have, even if it is something that seems small. But again and again and again, put your mental energy into appreciation rather than self-denigrating comparison.
For example, on my recent book tour, I found the perfect sweater in a department store, it was even on sale! I just love that sweater. I am so grateful that I have it, that I could afford it, and that my purchase of the sweater helped the livelihood of the sales clerk, the person who sewed it, and the one that sheared the goat and so on. So take at least one moment every day and find something in your life to appreciate.
4. Take Meditation Mini Breaks
So the good news is that we all meditate, right? But, it’s a real challenge to take that present moment awareness with us after we leave the cushion. The whole point of meditation practice is to become so used to being present that we can carry present moment awareness into any activity. So, we need to keep reminding ourselves to be present moment focused throughout the day. The best way to do this is to take meditation mini-breaks.
A mini-break can be as short as a minute or even a single breath. If you work in an office, as soon as you get back to your desk, instead of immediately diving into an email or a hot project that needs attention, just take a few moments to breathe. Bring your attention to your breathing just the way you do in meditation practice. Or perhaps you’re at the café to meet a friend for lunch but they are a few minutes late. Instead of pulling out the phone, take a moment to think of something you’re grateful for. Get the idea?
5. Do Something Nice for Somebody Else
Think about a time during the last few weeks where you helped someone in need. When you recall that moment, don’t you get a little bit of a warm feeling inside?
The greatest gift we can give to someone else, especially in these crazy always full-on, interconnected world, is our attention. And when we do, who wins? Perhaps we helped someone, perhaps they appreciated it, but for sure we enjoy the feeling. All the evaluating of experience that Kyabjé Tulku Urgyen was talking about is weakened the moment we consider the needs of others. So go out today and do something nice for somebody else. They might feel better and you certainly will.