How can we cultivate genuine happiness? Let’s explore this together. First we can consider two general approaches to having happiness that doesn’t end. One focuses on the external and the other, the internal.
Looking for objects and situation outside of ourselves is a common approach. We can find a good way to make money, a comfortable place to live, good food, perhaps a nice car, and pleasing clothes. Will these bring us genuine happiness? Happiness that lasts? If these things bring happiness, it tends to be fleeting. That good paying job was fabulous, but now we think we need more money or we don’t like a co-worker. The car gets old and we have to take it to the shop often. Our clothes wear out or we don’t like the style anymore. The pursuit of genuine happiness based on outside objects just doesn’t work, because of impermanence. We just can’t get the good things to stay.
Perhaps we may argue that we’ve learned not to look for material things to make us happy. We know the car, job, home and food won’t bring us lasting happiness. Instead we are focused on meaningful relationships and contributing to the well-being of others. But here too we find when we focus outward on friendship and love relationships that they too change and the happiness does not last. Perhaps we fall out of love, find out are friend was not who we wanted them to be, or we are separated from our love partner by death. Our meaningful projects to help people are rejected by people or after a while they simply lose steam. Once a “joyful life’s purpose” becomes another thing to do. Here again we are confronted with the impermanence of not just objects, but situations as well.
Many of us, at this point, “realize” that genuine happiness is not possible. The best we can do is to keep our spirits up and “make lemonade out of the lemons that life gives us”. So we use many strategies to keep our spirits up. When we get down we try to cheer ourselves up with walks in nature, buying ourselves something special, or treating ourselves to comfort food. However, the hopelessness not finding lasting happiness can also lead us to trying to escape overusing food, drugs, alcohol, shopping, etc.
Where does happiness and unhappiness come from? After exploring the role of external objects we can eliminate them as a source of happiness and unhappiness. In fact, despite our tendency to blame external things for our state of mind they are completely innocent.
Consider someone startling you while you are driving by pulling right in front of you. You have an unpleasant emotion arise and perhaps you think the person inconsiderate. Now, imagine that you recognize your pregnant friend in the car and realize she is in labor with her partner at the wheel hurriedly driving her to the hospital. Is the emotion that arises different? This is a clue to where we can find genuine happiness.
Happiness is created by the mind! This is very good news because the mind is easy to change with diligent effort. In fact, the example above gives us one method of taming the mind. We simply need to replace the story we tell ourselves that makes us unhappy or angry with a story that opens our hearts and gives us a pleasant feeling.
I do this with traffic all the time. When someone isn’t driving as I want them to, I consider that something serious is distracting them (death of friend, financial worries, illness, etc.) and I remember that I am sometimes distracted and I respond with kindness. Sometimes, I still have that initial reaction, but my mind is quickly pacified as a substitute what I prefer to think at such times.
It may seem that taming the mind completely is unrealistic, but people have done it, so I know it is possible. I also know that it is worth the effort, since the alternative is continuing to be fascinated and disappointed by the illusion that genuine happiness exists out there somewhere and if we keep searching…. Further, even the little bit of taming of my mind I have accomplished, has already shown me that the path to a completely tame mind is imbued with peace and happiness. This is why in Buddhism, taming the mind is also referred to as developing a good heart.
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