How to Cultivate Genuine Happiness

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.

External Focus
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.

Internal Focus
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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The Four Thoughts That Turn The Mind


In my continued quest to give my spiritual practice more traction, my partner recently suggested I check out Alan Wallace. So, I listened to an old retreat of his on The Seven Point Mind Training and was pleased. Then, looking for more “fresh” Buddhist teachings to listen to, I stumbled onto Khentrul Rinpoche’s teaching on the same topic and found that I was beginning to get some traction.

The original teaching of mind training (Lojong) is attributed to Atisha and gives simple instructions on how to train everyday, all day, and in all circumstances. Since I have quite a lot of obscurations that block me from much tangible progress in formal mediation, a practice I can do at all times is quite attractive to me.

I would like to feel good and be happy all the time. Perhaps you share this desire? Indeed it is such a fundamental desire that it is a goal of Buddhist practice.

How do we achieve genuine happiness? If that is what we are interested in it makes sense to explore if what we are doing is working. We can then move on to consider what might work better. The Seven Point Mind Training is all about creating true happiness for ourselves and the beings around us.

The teaching starts with the advice to “First, train in the preliminaries.” The preliminaries referred to here are the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind:

  1. Cultivating an appreciation for how rare and valuable human life is.
  2. Realizing that everything born or created, dies or ends, and the time of that end is uncertain.
  3. Considering the results of our actions. When we “die”, what follows us?
  4. Recognizing the futility of trying to get lasting happiness using ordinary means.

The train of thought is basically this. There is no guarantee that when we die (which could happen at any time point#2) we will be so fortunate as to be human again. Why is it so valuable to be human? Well, it is one of the best life forms for achieving lasting genuine happiness (point#1). Animal don’t even think to consider eternal happiness, it is beyond their moment to moment survival awareness. Other forms of beings are surrounded by so much pleasure they also don’t consider the need to cultivate a mind were genuine happiness blossoms.

So why would we want to cultivate genuine happiness? The study of how life works (point #4) should motivate us. Our pursuit of happiness in regular life is much like a plate spinning act. We put so much energy into creating happiness for ourselves, but every relationship, project, circumstance, etc ends and we have to start again. While we get part of our life happy, the plate is spinning well, and then move to get the next part happy, the next plate spinning well, the first plate begins to slow and fall. When looked at this way, the cultivation of genuine happiness (aka enlightenment) is so much easier than the futile effort we put into achieving happiness in the normal way by looking to external objects.

People that are “happy” with the human condition, usually haven’t spent enough time contemplating just how dissatisfactory it is. Or they don’t really appreciate the idea of impermanence. They may be having a nice life right now, but it will end. And when it ends it will either go up or down and the direction can be quite unpredictable.

In the Buddha’s day, great practitioners would achieve fabulous mental concentration. They could spend days and weeks in the bliss of Shamata. However, this type of practice, while seemingly “enlightened” would result in a rebirth in the form or formless realm. From there, all the virtue they ever did would be used to fuel the continual bliss they experienced. Then they would be reborn in a hell realm. Since they were not enlightened, and their positive mental seeds were used up while they basked in bliss, they only mental potentials they had left were negative and all they could do was fall.

Contemplation of the preliminaries is not some step to be skipped over. If one is desiring to be free and help others to be free, this is an essential step in creating enough motivation for practice. If done correctly, the preliminaries propel one right to enlightenment.

Check to see where you are.

  1. Do you take this life for granted? Do you think you have time to dabble in everything? Do you appreciate the leisure and fortune you have? Do you want to take full advantage of your life as a human?
  2. Are you aware that you could die at anytime? So many things can end a fragile human life. Are you prepared for that moment of death? What important things do you put off doing thinking you can do them later? What if later never comes?
  3. Are you aware that the predominant thoughts you have during this life will propel you into the next life? What does anger, worry, fear, lust, hate, and envy create? What mental afflictions occupy your mind and what happens if that uncertain moment of death comes when you are under one’s influence?
  4. What have you put energy into that turned out to be unimportant five, ten or twenty years later? What would really create lasting happiness that would follow you when you die?

Purification Practice

I have recently been searching for a spiritual practice that will give me more traction. Over the past few years my faith has wavered as another level of “stuff” is arising to be cleared. Unfortunately, this “stuff” is slippery and I can’t quite get a handle on it, leaving me feeling discouraged and unsure what to do.

In response to this situation, I have gone back to the basics of Buddhist practice: purification practice. These are tried and true traditional practices that people I respect say work in clearing obstacles and preparing one for more advanced practice. I started in March by committing to 100,000 mandala offerings. I estimated this would take me about 600 hours to complete. I decided to do half the offerings traditionally and the other half in the form or mandala art to give away. (See picture of mandala art to the right.) At the rate I’m going, it will take about 4 years to complete.

More recently I started 50,000 prostrations. I have wanted to do these many years ago when I learned that Je Tsongkapa undertook over a million of them during his long retreat. When he started his retreat he had to rely on oracles and people with psychic ability to answer his questions, but by the end of the retreat he was able to be in direct contact with Manjushri and had visions to each of the enlightened beings he had dedicated 100,000 prostrations to. Unfortunately, when I tried to do prostrations years ago, it was a great strain on my body and pulled at my back. However, I am now pleased that I have enough physical healing to allow me to do them without any strain. Anyway, I am making good progress and expect to complete my prostrations in 2039 or sooner.

The one thing I’ve noticed is that days of good solid practice are followed by days of inertia. I think what happens is that stuff comes up and then I require rest as it clears. Once it clears, I am energized again and practice more. I know that Chi Gung will clear things faster for me, but even that sometimes can be a struggle to get to.

In September, I underwent a shamanistic plant ceremony that really awoke me to how stuck I was. After the ceremony, I reached out to a variety of healers to get additional support in clearing blockages and unifying aspects of self. I found that the additional help seemed to keep things moving. I noticed differences in my ability to breath more deeply and have more connection to my body in general from the extra work.

I think one of the more difficult aspects of my journey is having the sense of where I am. I know I am lower capacity, but still am not sure about how to proceed given that knowledge. I look forward to a future where I can help others progress to enlightenment with specific advice that matches their level of ability. Ahhh, the benefits of siddhis and the enlightened mind.