Happy Can Mean So Many Things

If you follow this blog, you’ll know I’m an avid fan of Speaking of Faith, a radio broadcast/podcast on MPR.  Topics range from Buddhism to Christianity to quantum physics.  It’s so intriguing.  [Update on 1.5.11: Speaking of Faith‘s name has been changed to Being.]

Yesterday, I trekked up to Minneapolis to pick up my sister Worthy from the airport (one of Dan’s birthday surprises!), and on my way, I listened to “The Happiest Man in the World,” Krista Tippett’s interview with Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and author who lives at Schechen Monastery in Nepal.  His books include The Quantum and the Lotus and The Monk and the Philosopher.

Several comments stood out to me.  We oftentimes think of “happy” as a pleasurable state, one of enjoyment or giddiness, but are we saying then that we can only be happy when we feel such things.  What about feeling strong?  Feeling compassionate?  Being altruistic?

Here’s a snippet of Tippett’s and Ricard’s conversation.  Rather than put the whole thing in italics (too difficult to read), I’m putting quotation marks at the beginning and end, and setting it off by spacing, so you’ll know when I start talking again.]

*    *    *

“Ricard: So, I think we should clearly see what are the inner conditions that foster a general sense of flourishing, of fulfillment, that the quality of every instant of your life has a certain quality that you appreciate fully. So, you see, it’s very different from people — or sometimes imagining that constant happiness will be a kind of euphoria or endless succession of pleasant experiences.

Tippett: Right.

Ricard: But that’s more like a recipe for exhaustion than happiness.

Tippett: Right.

Ricard: And also, if you look at the parameters, it’s very different. Pleasure depends very much on circumstances, what triggers it. Then it’s a sensation anyway. So, sensation change from pleasurable to neutral and to unpleasurable. I mean, even the most pleasurable thing, you eat something very delicious. Once is delicious, two, three times, OK. And then 10 times, you get nauseous. You are very cold and shivering. You can, you know, have a bonfire, such a delight. But then after a few minutes, you start, OK, then you move back. It’s too hot. Most beautiful music, you hear five times, 24 hours is a nightmare.

Tippett: Yeah.

Ricard: And also, it’s something that basically doesn’t radiate to others, you can experience pleasure at the cost of other’s suffering. So it’s very vulnerable to the change of other circumstances. It doesn’t help you to face the other circumstances better. Now, if we think of happiness as a way of being, a way of being that give you the resources to deal with the ups and downs of life, that pervades all the emotional state, including sadness.

Tippett: Right

Ricard: If we think of sadness as incompatible with pleasure, but it’s compatible with what? With altruism, with inner strength, with inner freedom, with sense of direction and meaning in life? Those aren’t sad things. But if you don’t fall in despair, still you maintain that wholeness and that sense of purpose and meaning.

Tippett: And so does happiness also the way you describe it as something that can encompass sadness and grief?

Ricard: Every mental state except those who are just opposite which is like despair, hatred, precisely the mental factors that will destroy inner peace, inner strength, inner freedom. If you are under the grip of hatred, you are not free. You are the slave of your own thoughts. So that’s not freedom, therefore, this is opposite to genuine flourishing in happiness.

Tippett: So I imagine that people ask you how do I become happy? What do you say? How do you respond to that?

Ricard: Well, clearly by first saying yes, outward circumstances are important, I should do whatever I can. But I should certainly see that at the root of all that, there are inner circumstances, inner conditions. What are they? Well, just look at you. So if I say, OK, come, we’ll spend a weekend cultivating jealousy, now who is going to go for that?

We all know that even though that’s part of human nature, but we are not interested in cultivating more jealousy, neither for hatred, neither for arrogance. So those will be much better off if they were not — didn’t have such a grip on our mind. So there are ways to counteract those, to dissolve those.

I mean, you cannot, in the same moment of thought, wish to do something good to someone or harm that person. So those are mutually incompatible like hot and cold water. So the more you will bring benevolence in your mind, at every of those moments there’s no space for hatred. It’s just very simple, but we don’t do that. We do exercise every morning 20 minutes to be fit. We don’t sit for 20 minutes to cultivate compassion. If we want to do so, our mind will change, our brain will change. What we are will change. So those are skills. They need to be, first, identified, then cultivated. What is good to learn chess, well, you have to practice and all that. In the same way, we all have thoughts of altruistic love. Who didn’t have that? But the common goal, we don’t cultivate that.

Tippett: Right.

Ricard: Do you learn to piano by playing 20 seconds every two weeks? It doesn’t work. So why, by what kind of mystery some of the most important quality of human beings will be optimal just because you wish so, doesn’t make any sense.

I have a friend who is 63 years old. He used to be a runner when he was young. He gave up running. Now, a few years ago, he started again. He said, “When I started again, I could not run more than five minutes without panting for breath.” Now, last week, he ran the Montreal Marathon at 63. He had the potential, but it was useless until he actualize it. So same potential we have for mind training. But if we don’t do anything, it’s not going to happen because we wish so.

Tippett: What you’re talking about is a life discipline and it has to …

Ricard: Well, I mean, my — you know, I was struck by that that we need to put that in action in a way. Action doesn’t mean like frantically running around all day long, which I have been doing a bit too much, but — being exemplifying that in our life. So that’s what led me — my only regret some years ago was not to have hands down trying to serve others. So when I have the possibility of doing that, I jumped into that and I’m absolutely grateful and delighted that I can. Now we have — we treat 100,000 patients in the Himalayas, India, Tibet, and Nepal. We have 15 kids in the school that we build. It’s not huge compared to some other big organization, but at least we did our best. So my motto in a way will be to transform yourself to better serve others.

*    *    *

I’ll be the first to admit, he’s right.  I spend more time working out or writing or eating or sleeping than I do practicing compassion.  Isn’t that sad?

The other astounding observation Ricard made was an example he gave about halfway through.  Now you know, and I know, we’re all interconnected.  I mean, we know it, but we really don’t know it.  If we did, we’d be treating each other very differently.

Ricard explains how even in astrophysics, particles which split off from the bigger mass are still part of the bigger mass.  He stresses the interdependence of this and relates it to the idea of a rainbow.

“Anything beautiful, ugly, I don’t know, red, blue, any characteristic comes to relation. Relation could define an object, like take a rainbow in the sky. Well, it looks very beautiful, very, very vivid and clear. You would think that that rainbow as something existing on its own.

“Now, behind you, you mask the rays of sun and there is not a speck of existence of that rainbow that remains. It’s all gone because you remove something, an element of set of relation that crystallize that rainbow somehow as a phenomena. The idea is the same for every single phenomena, nothing exists on its own. And that’s as profound repercussions in Buddhism, not only as a philosophical idea but also the way we grasp to the world. If you grasp to something that’s being mind, therefore, that object exists on its own.”

Listening to him speak, I think of all the times I take credit for something spectacular that’s happened to me (at least that’s what comes to mind), and how really, nothing that happens to me is really because of little old me.  Yes, I can be hard-working, diligent, responsible, but ultimately, I am reliant on others for so many things, and my success or happiness is their success or happiness (although I am reluctant to think of it on those terms).

These are the things I’m thinking about today.

A couple more gems I’ve found along the way.  These might brighten your day.

Whether you practice yoga or not, you might find the practice of restorative yoga with kids enlightening.  Heather over at Shivaya Naturals includes pictures of her own children in their three favorite poses–used before bed and to calm them down.  Dan and I are trying to give Liliana an awareness of her body–of her sudden bouts of happiness, anger, frustration, wildness– demonstrating ways to listen to what she’s feeling, then saying the emotion out loud, then working on relaxing her body.  A tough order for most adults, wouldn’t you say?  So, we’re starting young.  I liked these ideas.  I’m thinking you could even introduce them into an elementary classroom as “quiet” or “brain-resting” exercises.

And just for something fun–using a commonplace item–look at these toilet paper sculptures by Yuken Teruya.  Aren’t they wonderful?  [Photos courtesy of Design*Sponge]

Happy Day to you all!  Now I can say this, since we’ve discovered that happiness encompasses so many emotions.  You may be feeling a little down today, but you’ve been given all the tools you need to weather those pesky ups and downs.  Even though it might not feel that way.

[Post image: Matthieu Ricard]

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