Cultivating happiness in the midst of difficulty (Part 1)

I would like to spend the next few weeks exploring how we can use our mindfulness practice to cultivate feelings of happiness and well-being in the midst of the ups and downs of our life.

I have noticed recently that I was carrying a heavy heart around, that the lockdown and the threat of the virus were getting at me… I was reminded by a naturopathic practitioner that in Chinese medicine the heart and the lungs meridians are closely connected and are impacted by the current situation. People are experiencing grief, which sits in the lungs, and this is draining the heart energy and our ability to feel positive emotions. In times like now, joy and gratitude practices are as important as relaxation practices to help us get through this crisis.

I believe that many of us are feeling this way. The news are fixated on what is wrong, how many cases, how many deaths…our negativity bias is exacerbated in times like today. We are already conditioned to look out for dangers as a result of evolution, and when something like a pandemic happens, we do it even more. We tense against what is around the corner.

Vietnamese buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn said “It’s not enough to suffer, we need to touch peace too.”

So today we will start exploring how our mindfulness practice can help us open our heart and mind so we can touch a profound happiness that is not dependent on the ups and downs of our life, what we call “happiness for no reason”.

Start with a personal reflection :

What is your habitual state? What do you perceive your own level of well-being or happiness to be? Do you experience well-being often? A feeling of ease, openness, feeling that “this moment is enough”

There are two types of happiness in Buddhist psychology: one is worldly happiness, linked to a cause, and the second one is happiness without a cause, a deeper more lasting form of happiness.

Examples of worldly happiness are happiness at eating a perfect strawberry, or after exercising, from working on a creative project, from connecting with a friend, spending time in nature etc…there are many things that brings us joy and happiness, and when we hold them lightly, they begin to prepare our body, heart and mind to a quality of receptivity and well-being that’s wholesome.

Taking in pleasure, savouring it and holding it lightly we start to create the atmosphere for happiness for no reason.

The difficulty is that we don’t always know how to hold things lightly, when we like them we tend to go after them, grasp onto them. It’s part of our evolutionary conditioning, we grasp after comfort and nourishment, especially if we have unmet needs from childhood, for food, love, self-esteem etc…So rather than enjoying the joys as they come, we contract, tighten around them, chasing after pleasures and holding on to them, scared of losing them.

We develop a chronic mind state of “something is missing” orif only mind”: if only I got more things done, I could relax then, or if only I could lose ten kilos, I would be happy then, or if only I had a better partner, I would be satisfied….

You can begin to feel it in your life, it’s not hard to find.

The American philosopher William James put it this way. He said, “It is as if we are in this endless fantasy always thinking we should be doing something else, always thinking we should be experiencing something more.”

But the “if only” mind is never satisfied…as soon as it gets what it wants, it starts wanting something else. As the famous philosophers of rock’n roll the Rolling Stones put it profoundly “I can’t get no satisfaction”.

Because everything changes, no circumstance, experience or object can give us lasting happiness.

Research shows that biologically we have a set point for happiness: when things go our way, we might get a spike in happiness, and within 5 months we return to our set point; when things go wrong, we might have a spike down and then within 5 months we return to our set point. Our moods don’t change much over time. Even when we get what we want it does not work.

And the problem is that while we are busy pursuing what we think we want in order to be happy, we are not present to the life that’s right here, in this moment. When we are wanting something more or pushing away, we are contracted and not able to inhabit the one place where well-being is possible, which is the present moment.

All human life is a succession of ups and downs, what Jack Kornfield calls the ten thousand joys and sorrows of life. If we attach our happiness to things going a certain way we will never get to relax and enjoy our life, because we cannot control everything that happens in life.

As the meditation Joseph Goldstein puts it, trying to hold on to anything in an everchanging reality (for example trying to hold on to our youth, to our health, to summertime, to our growing children etc…) is like holding tight to a rope you’re sliding down . All you get is rope burn. And the more you hold on the more you suffer.

So the question is how to transform our relationship to the ups and downs in our life so we can actually be here and enjoy our moments? How do we train our heart and mind to learn to live in a way that allows us to be truly happy with our life the way it is right now?

It does not mean that we stop aspiring to grow and change in positive ways, but we begin to find the joy inside us right where we are. It’s still okay to strive and do a good job, achieve things, work towards our goals, raise our family etc…but we do it without getting hooked, we can still be here and enjoy our moments.

Setting an intention

In Awakening Joy, meditation teacher James Baraz recommends with starting to set a clear intention: “when we consciously intend to be happy, actually saying that intention aloud or to ourselves, we set in motion a radical transformation. Profound changes begin to take place inside us, in our body and our mind. The momentum of positive change grows as we learn to choose actions and situations that align us with our intention.”

Neuroscience has shown that setting an intention primes our nervous system to be on the look-out for whatever will support what we intend to create for ourselves.

By setting an intention to be happy, we are inviting happiness into our life. And the more often we remind ourselves that we are intending to bring more feelings of joy and well-being into our life, the more we will be open to them when they arise. And the more likely we are to make choices that support our intention.

Come up with a phrase or some words to express your intention. Be creative and find what works for you. You may say something like “I intend to allow more joy into my life” or “I want to experience more happiness and well-being every day” or even “I am going to give joy a shot”, or it could be a wish like “May I be happy”.

Reflection: What’s it like to offer yourself that wish or to make that intention?

If you’d like you can close the eyes, or you can continue with your eyes open. For many people, there can be a sense of real unfamiliarity to set that as an intention or to make that wish. It can feel strange and awkward to set that intention or make that wish. But in a deep way it’s really beautiful, because that simple wish or intention reminds us that happiness is a possibility. The Buddha said, “I wouldn’t teach about happiness and freedom, if they were not possible.”

It does not mean that you are going to make joy and happiness HAPPEN but rather that you will ALLOW them to happen. It’s like planting seeds in your garden and tending and caring for them to help them grow, but you can’t will them to grow, you simply give them what they need in order to develop. That’s the same here, we are planting the seed of happiness and joy with our intention.

What gets in the way, the blocks to happiness

Usually what happens when we decide to be happy, after a few days, we might start doubting the whole process, thinking starts getting in the way.

When we bring in mindfulness, we can start to see clearly what gets in the way of our happiness, how we get hooked on certain thoughts and behaviours patterns.

Studies on thoughts have shown that our thought patterns are incessant and somewhat repetitive: apparently, we have 6000 thoughts a day and 95% of them we had the day before!

The other key feature of our thoughts is that they often make us miserable.

The thoughts that move through us create a real physical and emotional experience, a real inner atmosphere. You might like to ask yourself what kind of thoughts are regularly populating my mind, do they generate a sense of care, contentment, joy, connection or do they bring up a sense of fear, discontent and separation?

Evolution has conditioned us to be vigilant about threats, so we tend to have a lot of thoughts in the category of worry, anxiety about what is about to happen that perpetuate an atmosphere of fear and negativity. It’s called the negativity bias. This happens in normal times, and is be exacerbated in times like today, when we are facing the real threat of a pandemic.

Modern neuroscience has now shown that neurons that fire together wire together, in other words, whatever a person most frequently thinks of, that will become the inclination of their mind.

So our thinking perpetuates our emotional states. Whatever we practice goes stronger.

When we are learning new and healthier ways of being, we become more aware of all our old self-sabotaging patterns of thinking, negative inner voices of fear and doubt finding reasons why we can not be happy or joyful just now. We become aware of the “fearful” mind, “judging” mind, “if only” “wanting” mind.

When we become aware of these inner voices, we can understand better what gets in the way and the conditioning that we are dealing with. This is the power of our mindfulness practice: making conscious what was unconscious, so we are no longer dominated by it.

It can be tempting to fall back on the safety and comfort of our familiar habits. To change we are required to move out of our comfort zone, in order to reach a new level of well-being. That might feel weird and uneasy at first. It is like joining a gym and starting to work out, at first our muscles feel really sore, before we can gain a new level of fitness. That’s why it is important to remain connected with your intention, and to remain patient with yourself, letting go of any goals or schedule. That would create tightness and contraction. Instead you simply want to remain open and see how things unfold, in their own time.

It also helps to nourish your intention by spending time with supportive people who contribute to bring joy and well-being into your life, by choosing activities that reinforce your intention (for example doing something that you truly enjoy every day).

RAIN practice for the “if only” mind

In today’s practice we will use RAIN (recognise, allow, investigate and nurture) to start exploring our blocks to happiness. When we get hooked on getting things done, pursuing goals, worrying about what might happen, what is lurking around the corner, instead of being present, we can make the U turn. You can find a recording of this practice in the Podcasts section of this website.

Relaxing back into the life that’s here and opening to the joy that can be found in all the moments of our life is like a home coming, that allows us to access deep feelings of well-being.

Well-being is the deep contentment that arises from a relaxed, wakeful presence.



Awakening Joy, Chapter 1, by James Baraz

Tara Brach’s dharma talks on happiness, True happiness, realising well-being 15th April 2015; Happiness is possible: de-conditioning the negativity bias Part 1 31st May 2017

Jack Kornfield’s dharma talk on joy, audio- the return of joy

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