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!
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher