Often I am asked if Zen practice increases happiness and my answer is a resounding “yes”. Research suggests that about 50% of our happiness is due to genetics and life circumstances. The rest is up to us. We either create happiness or we don’t through our habits and our outlook on life.
But please don’t get too goal oriented about creating happiness, since happiness can only happen now. We could even say that sustained happiness is nothing more or less than a series of “nows.”
The founder of Soto Zen, Eihei Dogen, suggests that happiness arises naturally when we are intimate with each moment rather than using this moment to try to acquire happiness in the future. He refers to this as practice-enlightenment, rather than doing practice IN ORDER to get enlightened at some time in the future.
But what about suffering, which is an inevitable part of our lives? During my last bout of Lyme’s disease I spent about four weeks housebound, most of the time lying on my back. Whenever fear came in about whether I would ever get healthy again, I simply breathed into that fear, felt the sensations surrounding it and experienced happiness right there under the covers. It’s simpler than it seems.
Here are eight tips to happiness through practice-enlightenment:
1. Stop fretting over things that are beyond your control. It’s beyond my control that I have chronic Lyme’s disease. As long as I follow certain dietary restrictions, which I have not done too well, it is generally in remission. When the Chinese Zen master, Ma Tsu, was so ill he could not attend activities in the monastery, his assistant went to his room and asked him if he was ok. His reply was “The sun-faced Buddha, the moon-faced Buddha” referring to Buddhist mythology in which the Sun-faced Buddha lives for one thousand eight hundred years. And the Moon-faced Buddha lives only one day and one night. Which Buddha do you think is happier?
2. Practice bare awareness of emotions. Emotion can leave you and those around you damaged and unhappy. But it’s possible to open to each emotion and let it pass through with absolutely no judgment, as I practiced doing while I was lying in my bed.
3. Live a life of sila/morality in accord with the core teaching that we are undivided from each other and all of life. When we act counter to this, we create feelings of regret, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness. Since we are undivided from each other, any activity that harms others also harms ourselves, and vice versa. Find your own moral compass and do your best to keep it pointed in a direction that supports this truth.
4. Engage in some physical activity daily. Research shows that keeping the body moving for as little as ten minutes a day releases GABA, a neurotransmitter that both soother and limits impulsivity. Since the time of the earliest Zen monasteries, teachers have built manual labor into the daily routine of practitioners. In non-monastic settings the kind of exercise we do is irrelevant: stretching, biking, yoga, tai chi are all good. If we don’t take care of our dharma container, happiness will be forever elusive.
5. Make your surroundings reflect your interconnectedness with the world. Create and live in spaces that are both appealing and calming. Keep your space uncluttered and adorn it with anything that evokes this: a picture of your family, a plant, or something else that helps you feel connected and contented.
6. Replace your fixed mindset with a flexible one that is oriented toward growth. Often things happen to us that appear to be more than we can handle. We feel hopeless and overwhelmed and just want to shut down. Sometimes when I get a fixed mindset how my age limits me as I approach my 75th birthday. I think about my friend, Molly. At 85 she organized and completed a campaign to raise several million dollars to support the non-profit I was directing. In ensuing years it seemed like her energy knew no bounds. I took her out to lunch on her 98th birthday and she invited me to her 100th birthday party while we were eating, adding with a twinkle in her eye, “if you are still alive.” (She died peacefully two or three weeks later)
Research has been done on people who have flexible/growth mindsets. These people seem to be happier because they are better at handling difficulties. They outperform those with a fixed mindset because they embrace challenges, treating them as opportunities to learn something new. This was certainly the case for Molly.
7. Be generous to both yourself and others. My experience in supporting Zen students over many years suggests that two things are equally important to make this work: First, don’t leave yourself out. It’s hard to be generous to others in a natural, affectionate way if you are not generous to yourself. And secondly, don’t turn “be generous to others” into a mandate that you need to do to or else. Part of developing a flexible or growth mindset is letting go of rigid mandates and the self-judgment that often accompanies them. Generosity to others is the most natural outgrowth of a feeling of interconnectedness.
8. Remind yourself that this activity, whatever it is, is the best chance you have for intimacy and happiness. The mind has a tendency either to magnify past pleasure or pain or create a future of peace and harmony or scary demons. But only in the present can we experience real joy. As the Dhammapada says, “If you speak or act with a heartmind that is calm and clear, happiness follows you, like a shadow that never leaves.”
When I am asked to describe in a little more detail what the happiness of practice-enlightenment is like, I refer to the definition of “flow” in western psychology: an engaged state of focus in which we are completely engrossed in an activity, which may include losing awareness of the passage of time and other external distractions.
If you want to experience this for yourself, a meditation practice is essential. And if you want to experience it outside meditation, begin working on things that you already love doing until you find what gets you flowing. Pick those that resonate and deeply enjoy and move gradually beyond these until this becomes your natural way of being. And good luck!
Recently, I have been talking about how simplifying our lives can help us discover and live from what T. S. Eliot calls, “the still point of the turning world.” Regardless of how fast things are moving and how dizzy we feel, we can always follow Thoreau’s advice: “Simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail- simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run.”
Those of us who are committed to a spiritual practice have to continually think about what things, activities, and people help us return to these roots where we discover this still point, so we can step back from those activities that cause our mind to become dizzier and dizzier.
Can we step back without isolating, without acting against our core value of being open, generous, and embracing folks who are in pain? That’s a skill that I think can only be developed over time.
I am not suggesting we make a religion out of simplicity- that can be a little dangerous. At times Thoreau seems judgmental and a little misanthropic, treating money and ownership as if they were innately bad.
Instead, I am talking about disengaging from those things or activities that do not support our commitment to living from this still point. I have talked in the past about having to disengage from my own father during my early years of my Zen practice to protect myself from his negative vibes about the life choices I was making. Later, when I felt steadier in my practice and life and he had a chance to cool off about the poor decisions he was convinced I had made, I was able to engage with him again.
If we divest ourselves of those things, activities, and relationships that don’t support our spiritual quest, we may experience a deep loneliness, a loneliness that I experienced in my early years of Zen practice. And it can be disappointing to discover that the feeling of loneliness can be heightened through a sitting practice.
For me, at first there was a honeymoon period in both my sitting practice and my feelings about my teacher. But after a while there was just the bare wall and me, day after day, week after week… and my teacher’s words didn’t seem so compelling any more. He seemed to have no interest in the enlightenment experience I pined away for, referring to it as “giving candy to a baby.”
My sense of loneliness only increased when in 1966 our little Zen center purchased and made plans to open the first Zen monastery in the U.S. at Tassajara Springs south of San Francisco. After this happened, it seemed like I couldn’t get much of my teacher’s attention and I felt jealous of all the interlopers who were flowing in.
I was lonely enough that I might have abandoned my practice, but instead I increased the amount and rigor of my meditation. One evening after completing my evening sitting I happened to notice the following poem by Basho:
On this road
walks no one
this autumn eve
At that moment Tim’s so called loneliness died, and Tim did too. There was a feeling of being embraced by all of life.
It reminds me of the historical Buddha’s statement, “Only I, alone and sacred.” Some Christian mystics refer to this as being alone with God, but Meister Eckhart’s, “In the godhead there is no trace of God,” is closer to my own experience. But even to call it “my own experience” doesn’t feel quite right, because it’s only when there is no sense of “my” that there is a freedom to enjoy each aspect of the turning world, no matter how crazily out of control it seems to be.
As I share this with you, I do it with a little hesitancy. My own teachers didn’t talk much about these experiences, but sometimes a little candy is what we all need to sustain our commitment to tasting the sweetness continually emanating from this still point.
The 18th century Zen adept Ryokan has some wonderful poetic expressions, which have inspired practitioners over the years. One of these is “just naturally find joy in the ever-changing flow.” To find this joy, it’s important to become adept at two types of meditation. The first type is focused meditation (the last step on the Eightfold Path), where we limit our field of awareness, using our breath, a word, or phrase that we repeat over and over, or something similar to this. The second type is bare awareness meditation (the 7th step on the Eightfold Path) in which we broaden our field of attention to include any and all sensations and feelings we are experiencing in this moment without judgment or commentary.
Focused meditation is necessary so we can cut through our obsessive monkey mind activity and tap into the quietness of the space between our thoughts. Many years ago when I was sitting in a long retreat with Suzuki Roshi, he made the following comment as we were sitting facing the wall with a fast flowing creek just outside the meditation hall. “It only takes one rock to disturb the natural flow of the creek. All you need to do in your zazen is remove that one rock.”
As we become proficient in our focused meditation, we learn to dislodge one rock and then another one, whether it is an obsession, worry, fantasy, or something else.
As Ryokan points out in another poem, we can overdo our focused meditation, however, trying too hard to achieve some quiet state:
“The water of the valley stream never shouts at the tainted world, ‘purify yourself.’”
In bare awareness meditation, instead of trying to remove the rock, we can quite naturally open our ears and hearts to the singing of the water as it moves around the rocks without trying to altar the flow at all. I spent my first couple of years as a meditator sitting in at rush hour in a building by a very busy street in San Francisco. For the first several months I struggled to block out the sounds of the cars rushing by. One morning this struggling faded away and I found myself enjoying the noises. I learned that if I welcomed the river of noise, I could enjoy floating on it and naturally let go of my thoughts and concerns.
Once we have learned to practice with bare awareness of our senses, we may be ready to open our screen of awareness to whatever thoughts and feeling are circling through our minds as we meditate without judging or analyzing them.
Focused meditation and bare awareness meditation can complement each other. Early in my career as a meditator I experimented with doing the two different forms. I found that bare awareness worked in some contexts, but any time I was obsessing about something, I needed to do focused meditation to calm myself down before attempting bare awareness. I still find that is the case.
These days I support many of my students in doing one particular kind of focused meditation: loving kindness toward themselves. Each of us has to learn to love ourselves if we are going to be there for others in the deepest sense. And, of course, in the deepest sense, self is other and other is self.
Sometimes when practitioners have extreme difficulty sending loving vibes to themselves, I encourage them to think of someone they have real affection for and invite them to sit close to them in their imagination as they are meditating. Then I encourage them to invite them to sit in their laps, continuing to send their loved one affectionate vibes. Once they have done that for a while they are often ready to show affection for themselves, and if they keep doing this practice daily they may find themselves dropping into a space of deep and powerful inner quietness. The inner critic/tyrant leaves the scene and other mental baggage falls away as well. Here’s a final poem from Ryokan, illustrating what happens when our meditation practice develops this depth:
Like the little stream
making its way thru the mossy crevices,
I too, quietly turn clear and transparent.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher