Cultivating Happiness

On Saturday, October 29, Christine Allen from First Parish led a day-long meditation retreat titled “Cultivating Happiness.” She gave the following talk during the retreat. For those unable attend the retreat, this will give you a taste of what the retreat was about.

I titled this retreat, Cultivating Happiness and dealing with the difficult states that get in the way and I want to talk some to orient us to what this means. At the simplest level, meditation is about training the mind so that we can be free of suffering, or be happy. These are two sides of the same coin but you can think about it in whichever way is more helpful to you.

The Buddha taught that our lack of happiness and contentment is because of craving. Craving for sense pleasures mostly. And this means wanting things to be different than how they are in the present. We want something that we don’t currently have, or want to make sure that we can keep what we want or love, or we want to get rid of something that is here and prevent it from coming back.

When we think about the question of “what is between me and happiness?” We tend to find a couple of things and they are really also two sides of the same coin. One of them is this chronic sense that something’s missing. A sense of there’s supposed to be something more in life. There’s supposed to be something else. And we can’t quite relax into how it is in the present because there’s this sense of, sometimes traditionally called in Buddhism, “if-only mind.” We can ask ourselves what is our if only right now. For instance, for many people, if only is, “If only my body was healthier or didn’t have pain, or if only I had this partner, or if only I could live in this better place” Or if only I could lose this weight or have this financial security, or if only my past had been different” It’s really helpful to become mindful of if-only mind. So that’s the something’s missing side of the equation.

And then there’s the something’s wrong side, which is the other way the block to happiness comes up. And this is where negativity bias comes in, which I will talk a little more about– it’s that evolutionary tendency to fixate on trouble, on what seems to be a problem. And it’s a habit of assuming there is a problem or that there will be a problem. So it expresses as worry or anxiety or as chronically figuring out things. When we’re in the something’s wrong mode, there’s very little room for the light and space of happiness.

What we know from neuroscience is that the human mind has evolved to have what’s called a negativity bias…the genes that survived and got passed down are the ones that worried and were on alert for dangers. The people sitting around smelling the flowers, probably, unfortunately didn’t pass along their genes as often. But in our current culture where dangers are much less black and white than in the hunter gatherer times, our minds are often on overdrive in terms of sensing danger and therefore being stressed and focused on the negative.

The mind focuses on possible threats in 3 areas: areas of safety, resources (meaning do I have enough of everything I need), and being connected to our community. In hunter-gatherer times for example, if we got kicked out of our small community for doing something wrong, our chances of survival were very small. So the mind is wired to worry about this. But today, this function of the mind doesn’t know who is in our community and a threat to our safety if we fall out with them. Is it the hundreds, or for some people the thousands, of people we know on Facebook? Is it everyone in our neighborhood? If someone doesn’t press the like button on something we post on social media or react positively to something we write in an email, it triggers the same sense of threat and possible death as if we were kicked out of our village way back when. So some of our brain function and our current society are in a serious sort of a mismatch in terms of creating happiness. And you have likely all experienced this where your mind seemed obsessively stuck on whether you did something wrong and someone is upset with you.

So we can feel at times that we are stuck in these negative mind states and have trouble shifting out. Many of you will remember Rick Hansen, the neuropsychologist and meditation teacher, saying that the mind is like Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive. And this comes from the evolutionary wiring of the brain to remember where the dangers are more strongly than the pleasant things. Because of this tendency of the mind we don’t so often notice the positive, pleasant, joyful moments that arise throughout our days and we can end up being stuck in these negative states of mind that can feel like an endless spiral.

Rick writes “Even when you feel relaxed and happy and connected, your brain keeps scanning for potential dangers, disappointments, and interpersonal issues. Consequently, in the back of your mind, there’s usually a subtle but noticeable sense of unease, dissatisfaction, and separation to motivate this vigilance.” “Then when the least little thing goes wrong or could be trouble, the brain zooms in on it with a kind of tunnel vision that downplays everything else.” “Feeling stressed, worried, irritated, or hurt today makes you more vulnerable to feeling stressed, worried, etc, tomorrow which makes you really vulnerable the day after that. Negativity leads to more negativity in a very vicious circle.”

And this is because the things we keep focusing on build these deep groves or pathways in the brain–the neurons end up being wired to go in that direction—and they become our default way of operating. So we have to rewire the brain to create new groves—ones that go in the direction of happiness instead of in the direction of negativity, worry, etc. The Buddha said it this way: what we frequently think and ponder upon becomes the inclination of the mind.

And the positive news is that we know from 2600 years of buddhist meditation practice that it is possible to train the mind to let go of thoughts and habits that lead to suffering, and cultivate those that lead to happiness

More recently there has been a lot of neuroscience and psychology research on happiness that has confirmed what buddhist practitioners have known for all these centuries. There have been thousands of published studies that have confirmed that the mind can be trained, that the neurons are changeable, and that there are meditation practices that have been demonstrated to have significant results.

In some of the psychology research, a common denominator that has been found of those who consider themselves happy is that there’s a choosing happiness. An active choosing to be happy. Henri Nouwen, who’s a Catholic mystic and writer says, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.” And that’s because of the evolutionary pressure to not do that and those deep groves that we’ve built based on habit. And as I’m sure we all already know, it’s not like choosing means we just decide to be happy and then it happens. Otherwise we wouldn’t need to be here talking about how to train for happiness right? Choosing means choosing to make some effort to go in that direction. To actually train for happiness. As opposed to how in our culture we seem to be training for the opposite of happiness. Of course, this isn’t a conscious choosing but that’s the result of the incessant busyness, stress, consumerism, the disconnection and negativity of a lot of the social media, etc. None of these things are in a formula for creating happiness. Hence, the rampant anxiety, depression and violence.

So how do we actually practice to train the mind or change these groves in the brain? There are several important ways. And a primary practice is mindfulness. Which is a spacious, open noticing of what’s happening in the present moment–moment by moment. And noticing without resistance, without judgment.

There is a massive difference between recognizing with spaciousness, friendliness and acceptance that the mind is having anxiety thoughts, versus being lost and identified with the content of those thoughts. Mingyur Rinpoche is an amazing well know Tibetan meditation teacher who describes often how as a young person he had almost debilitating panic disorder. He describes his long struggles with this until he finally, as he called it “made friends with his panic”. In other words, he used mindfulness to see the panic without resistance, with some spaciousness, not being zoomed in on it. And then, it disappeared. He says, “I made friends with my panic and then my friend disappeared”.

With mindfulness when we start recognizing these negative patterns in the mind, this sense that something’s missing or something’s wrong, when we start bringing the light of mindfulness to it, the identification with it starts dissolving. We have a sense of separation from the negative pattern so we are not identified with it. Just like with Mingyur Rinpoche and his panic. The sense of “something bad is happening to me” or “something’s missing in my life” starts softening and more space opens up. So one major approach to awakening to happiness is mindfulness.

The other major approach is intentionally shifting our attention. Shifting our attention in ways that gladden and brighten the mind. If we practice thinking in a different way, turning our attention to what brings some happiness, then that becomes our habit. Again, as the buddha said, whatever we frequently think and ponder upon becomes the inclination of the mind.

So lovingkindness meditation is one way that we intentionally train in shifting our attention toward happiness. It’s a meditation that the Buddha taught to alleviate fear and all other sorts of negative mind states.

Gratitude is another important practice in shifting our attention from focusing on what’s wrong or missing to what’s good, it helps us to cultivate contentment which is the opposite of the mind’s evolutionary tendency to worry about not having enough resources. In psychology research gratitude practice has been shown to have some of the biggest positive effects on the happiness level in the mind.

In order to develop mindfulness or learn to shift our attention, we all need training in how to manage our attention. Because our attention doesn’t do what we want it to do. Have you noticed? We can tell our minds to focus only on positive happy thoughts today but does it actually do that? Probably not. We tell it to focus on something simple like the breath and the next thing we know we’ve spent the last 10 minutes replaying the tv show we watched last night, or crafting the perfect email to that person who annoyed us. And we’re like, how the heck did that happen!? When we don’t have stable attention and haven’t developed our mindfulness, we are at the mercy of the thoughts and other experiences that arise throughout the day. So we need to train in stabilizing our attention by repeatedly bringing the attention back to something simple like the breath or the body or thoughts of lovingkindness or gratitude. It’s like the way we would train our muscles by lifting weights. Lots of reps in bringing the attention back again and again. Without judgment, without thinking, “I’m such a terrible meditator…” Because everyone has this problem of the attention not staying where we put it, because of the evolutionary tendencies and because we haven’t been taught to do this. Imagine if this was taught in elementary school.

These repeated reps of bringing the attention back again and again works because it teaches the mind the peace that is there when the mind lets go of constantly identifying with and reacting to every thought and emotion.

As our attention stabilizes our mindfulness becomes more expansive and clear and it allows us to see clearly what is happening and then be able to choose how to respond instead of just reacting. As Jack Kornfield wrote: “to become mindful—which Zen master Suzuki Roshi also called “beginner’s mind”—is to see the world afresh without being lost in our reactions and judgments, and in seeing it afresh with clarity, we begin to be able to respond to the world rather than react to it. He says: I like to translate mindfulness as loving awareness—an awareness that knows what’s present, and also brings a quality of compassion and lovingkindness to that.”

The expansiveness of mindfulness that he’s pointing to allows us to connect to a larger sense of being. We’re no longer so caught in our small narrow sense of self which is where so much of the suffering resides.

And it’s important to recognize that it’s an expansiveness that includes it all: we’re not trying to get rid of something. Instead we become larger. We become more integrated and able to hold it all—the joy and the sorrows–the 10,000 joys and the 10,0000 sorrows as it’s called in Buddhism.

So today we’ll work with both practices that calm the mind and incline it to happiness, and practices that help us to work with the sorrows and the negative states.

Copyright (c) 2022 Christine Allen