Curiously enough and given we’re so obsessed with it, happiness hasn’t been the easiest of mental states to define. Which is why Matthieu Ricard (author of Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill ) quotes the French philosopher Henri Bergson who tellingly said, “All the great thinkers of humanity have left happiness in the vague, so that each of them could define their own terms.” Ricard says it’s due to such fuzziness that so many of us look for joy in all the wrong places.
One of the main problems is we tend to equate happiness with pleasure. Wrong says Ricard who explains that “pleasure is contingent upon time, upon its object, upon the place. It is something that changes by nature.” In other words, even your favourite piece of music would wear very thin if you had to listen to it for 24 hours straight.
Happiness, on the other hand, is according to Buddhism, “a deep sense of serenity, fulfilment, a state that actually pervades and underlies all emotional states, and all the joys and sorrows that can come one’s way,” says Ricard.
The mistake many of us make in our quest for contentment is we look to externals: romantic love, material wealth, a prestigious job, attractive looks. If we could just nail all of these we’d be happy. Ricard says, “That very sentence already reveals the doom of destruction of happiness: to have everything. If we miss something it collapses.”
It also doesn’t help that we overestimate our control of the outer world which is “limited, temporary and often illusory,” says Ricard whose advice is “we look instead at inner conditions. Aren’t they stronger? Isn’t it the mind that translates the outer condition into happiness and suffering?”
Certainly, there are plenty of examples of people in extremely difficult circumstances who nevertheless manage to project poise, equanimity and confidence. This isn’t to say that outer conditions don’t matter. It’s wonderful to have access to quality food, education, information, to be able to travel and to live in a beautiful environment. “But those are just auxiliary, help conditions. The experience that translates everything is within the mind,” says Ricard.
The question then becomes what conditions are conducive to as well as undermine our happiness? It’s not complicated. We know from experience that when we give in to our anger, jealousy, pride or greed, we feel lousy and so do the people around us. We also know that when we’re exuding love, warmth and generosity, everyone benefits.
But do we know that we can change our negative emotions, traits and moods or are we simply resigned to living with them because we think they’re an inevitable part of being human? Ricard says that if we investigate the nature of mind or consciousness through practices such as meditation, we’ll discover its primary quality is awareness and that because of this “there is a possibility for change because all emotions are fleeting. That is the ground for mind training.”
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