by Visu Teoh
So many books have been written about happiness. So many speakers have talked about it. So many principles, ways and means, tips and strategies have been proffered.
I am a keen student of happiness and over the years I have come back to simple basic principles to be happy. We have to find out for ourselves what these principles are and focus on them. For example, mine are as follows:
We have to focus on keeping the mind in a good state. Thus we have to be more aware of our state of mind. It’s like having a weather vane to monitor the direction of the wind. So here we have a ‘mind vane’ to monitor the state of mind. When the mind is going well, is happy, cheerful, steady, calm, and peaceful, that’s good, we have just to look on and let it continue to go happily that way. There is no need for any intervention.
However, if the mind is not in a good state, is unhappy, depressed, angry, grouchy, fearful, worried, anxious, tense, agitated, etc., then our mind-vane or mind-barometer immediately notices the unhappiness, heaviness, agitation, worry, anxiety, grief, hurt, anger, or whatever form of negativity or suffering is present in the mind.
So here the mental factor or quality of mindfulness is like the mind-vane or internal barometer. It enables us to notice what’s going on in the mind, especially if something is amiss. Mindfulness or awareness itself can help us to reduce the strength of the negative feeling. For example, just by being mindful of the anger or sadness in our mind can sometimes weaken or reduce that anger or sadness. This is because the awareness acts a bit like a brake or damper, for if we are not aware of the anger or sadness, chances are the anger will escalate or the sadness may persist and deepen.
Then, having become aware of the unhappy or negative state of mind, we can start to help ourself to loosen up, to let go of that negative or suffering state, to brighten or cheer oneself up, to move on, etc. How do we do that? Here again it depends very much on our attitude, how we look at things, and how determined we are to let go of the negative, painful, or unwholesome mental state.
We have to talk ourself in getting out of that state. We have to advise or counsel ourself. We have to be a friend to ourself. We can also investigate to see and understand the causes of our unhappiness or anger or whatever, and see how we can come to terms with it (with the situation or with somebody) and be at peace. Even if we can’t immediately snap out of an angry, worried, uneasy, or unhappy state and become cheerful and bubbly, we can at least try to bring in a certain modicum of calmness and equanimity.
We have to learn to come to terms with the situation, with things as they are, and to accept it. This does not mean though that we cannot do something pro-active to help improve or change a situation. But whether we can do something pro-active or remain passive, we still have to understand our choice of response and be at peace with it, meaning that we have to, in all circumstances, institute equanimity which is a calm and even frame of mind.
Then gradually from a state of calm and equanimity, and with further prodding and encouragement from ourself, i.e., from our own inner wisdom or wise mind, we may eventually (sooner or later) uplift our mind and feel much better again. Sometimes we have to be patient, we have to ride the tide, the negative state does not fall away so easily or so soon, we may have to sit it out…but with mindfulness and wise reflection we can contain it and eventually succeed in uplifting our mind. Sometimes this upliftment comes very fast and we find ourself bouncing quickly back from some negativity which we have just fallen into. We find ourselves in a good state of mind again.
How can we reflect in such a way as to uplift our mind? There are so many ways to go about it. For example, we remind ourself of impermanence – no matter how bad we feel, this, too, will pass. Everything passes and we’ll feel better again. Such is life – we feel good, we feel bad, we feel better, we feel worse and then we feel better again and it goes on like this, in cycles, all the time. But with practice and training we find that more and more of the time we are keeping our mind in a good state – peaceful, calm, steady, cheerful, happy – and when we fall into a negative state we find that we are able to spot it and get out of it sooner than later. We are able to bounce back from unhappiness, anger, worry, etc, and re-instate our former calm, peace and cheerfulness which become more and more our natural base state of mind.
An important attitude: We have to accept that life is not a bed of roses, that it is not always plain sailing. We have to accept that suffering will rear its familiar and unwelcome head now and then. We have to accept the suffering that we may have to face in life. And we see how we can deal with it wisely and stoically. As a saying goes, suffering is inevitable but being miserable is optional. Some suffering can be avoided and we avoid them. Some suffering can be alleviated and we respond accordingly to contain and alleviate it. A lot depends on our attitude and wisdom.
It is good to bear in mind that much of our suffering comes from our attachments, expectations, and an inability to let go and move on. When we can see this, see where we are stuck, and can let go and move on, we’ll suffer less and we’ll live much more lightly and happily.
So it is important to keep a constant watch over the mind, to check our state of mind now and then, to be mindful of the thoughts, moods, feelings, emotions, perceptions, commentary, etc, that go on in our mind. We do this so as to understand our mind and learn how to manage it better. A well-managed mind is conducive to happiness, is the key to happiness. We also try to understand others’ minds so we can relate to them better, more skilfully, so we can have better, more harmonious and meaningful relationships, and hopefully, we can also be a positive influence on others and help bring out the best in them, just as we are trying to bring out the best in ourselves.
The Metta (lovingkindness) practice is a great practice. It is a very effective way of promoting goodwill, kindness and friendliness in our mind and heart towards others and, of course, also towards ourselves. By repeating the metta mantra or phrases every now and then we are, in fact, filling our mind with a wholesome thought, keeping it in a good state, so that negative states cannot come in; they have no chance or opportunity to intrude. So keeping the metta phrases going automatically in our mind for as much of the time as possible throughout the day and night is a very clever and skilful strategy to keep the mind in a wholesome and healthy state. So please remember to keep going the metta way, keep repeating those phrases, keep wishing well for others and ourselves.
May all beings be happy. May so and so be happy. May I be happy. May all beings be safe…peaceful…healthy….take care of themselves happily.
Then there are the other three brahma-viharas (sublime abidings) of compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity. Each has its own special quality and positive effect on the mind, and their practice will greatly help to keep the mind in a wholesome state.
The contribution, support and importance of mindfulness itself cannot be emphasized enough. We are mindful of the body and sensations, movements, getting up, sitting down, stretching out a hand to open a door, bending down to pick up something, stirring a cup of coffee, etc. Being attentive to the body helps to bring us back to the present moment and cut down on stray and extraneous thoughts which have no benefit to the mind. However, thoughts of goodwill (metta), wise reflection on life, and necessary planning and thinking are fine. In other words, wholesome and necessary thoughts are okay but not unwholesome and negative ones.
So we are going between mindfulness of body and mind, metta, and wholesome thoughts. And, of course, all this will lead to wholesome speech and deeds. They are a natural consequence of our practice to shape and mould the mind.
Wise reflection: Reflecting on life, on how suffering arises and how it can be averted; how happiness arises and how a happy mind can be aroused and maintained. Reflection on the Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha. Acceptance of the truth of suffering and trying to make the most out of our life, make a beautiful garland out of it. Reflecting that there is no self apart from the five aggregates (of body/material form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness). Understanding the nature of the five aggregates and trying to make wholesome aggregates out of them. And remembering the Buddha’s advice not to regard these aggregates as a fixed permanent self but see them as something conditioned and impermanent, something conditioned by craving and ignorance, and see how we can gradually weaken this craving and ignorance, attain perfect peace and contentment, and make an end of suffering.
Living a value-oriented life (rather than a material-oriented one) is extremely important because we feel happy when we are living according to our values of lovingkindness, compassion, understanding, generosity, honesty, integrity, patience, tolerance, perseverance, etc. We measure our self- worth by these values and not by how well we are doing materially, how much money we have in the bank, what our social status in life is, etc.
Although we are not perfect we are happy that we are focusing on these values and measuring our self-worth by them. In other words, we don't have to feel bad if we think we are not perfect enough. Sometimes we tend to be too hard on ourselves. The important thing is that we are trying and there are times when we are very good even if we can't be all that good all the time. We are a work-in-progress. We are still under training. And though we may not be perfect there are parts of us which are excellent. We are actually pretty good.
Doing positive affirmations is also very helpful. We compose positive phrases and repeat them to ourselves. By repetition we remind ourselves to cultivate the positive and happiness-producing attitudes and weaken the negative and suffering-causing ones.
Living in the present moment helps. Sometimes we refuse to think too much or at all. Just take it one moment at a time or one day at a time and have faith and trust that if we continue to live by our cherished core values and principles, somehow things will turn out fine, for we are, no matter what, always learning, growing, developing and becoming wiser and happier persons.
Finding time to meditate daily or regularly is important. It helps to pacify, calm, refresh, strengthen, and uplift one's mind.
Smile! Practise smiling. Smile a lot. Make it a habit to greet others with a smile. Smile to yourself, too, when you are alone. If you can give a smile to others why can’t you give one to yourself? Smiling causes the brain to release endorphins – a feel-good chemical. It is a simple and effective way of lightening up yourself, making yourself feel better. It is also a statement of your intention and determination to keep your mind in a pleasant and cheerful state, to not let it be cowed or discouraged by the adversities you encounter in life.
To recap – focus on understanding the mind, shaping, moulding, and liberating it from suffering-causing attitudes and instituting happiness-producing ones. Make a list of all the skilful and positive attitudes you can adopt and keep strengthening these attitudes.
Living is an art. It is very interesting and challenging – how to manage the mind and keep it happy and peaceful. The important thing is to keep trying and not to give up. At times when we are not feeling so good, it’s okay, it’s understandable that we can’t be so upbeat all the time; accept that too, and see how we can gently and skilfully nudge ourselves back into a good frame of mind.
Actually as we practise more and more, we find that ours is a happy life. We create lots of happiness in our life because of all the positive and wise attitudes we bring to it. Even sufferings are turned into blessings - they become like manure which gives bloom to the beautiful and fragrant roses of our life.
"We should measure
our success and self-worth by the wisdom we have, by the core values we live by, by what we are inside, by our true heart of love and compassion, by the good that we do, by our accomplishments in life, and not by our material possessions, name, fame, and status. As long as we are trying our best, we should not think poorly of ourselves but think well of ourselves."