How does happiness happen?
Happiness and How it Happens, by “The Happy Buddha” Suryacitta Malcolm Smith
At first glance, the most obvious thing about this excellent little book on mindfulness and meditation is just how beautifully produced it is. It’s a pleasure just to pick it up and browse through it. Somehow, the care the publishers have taken with the book’s appearance both reflects its theme and adds to its impact.
So, how, according to Suryacitta, does happiness ‘happen’? He gets straight to the point – “Happiness is our natural state. It happens when we stop making ourselves unhappy by believing in the stories the thinking mind throws up”.
It’s all very well to say this, one might think, but anyone who’s tried to make miserable thoughts ‘just stop’ will know that it’s not easy at all – it can seem quite impossible.
Fortunately, many Buddhist traditions have been exploring this for millennia, and what Suryacitta presents here epitomises some of the most pithy and direct methods that these traditions offer. “Being in the present moment is the secret to a life of unconditional happiness and freedom. But how do we do it? The key is simply to notice, without judgment or criticism, what takes you away from the present and then return to the felt experience of the present.”
That just about sums it up. I like the way that Suryacitta keeps emphasising that while this is simple, it’s not necessarily easy. This goes against our conditioning – it feels like simple things should be easy. Cultural norms tell us that happiness lies in having desirable objects, desirable relationships. Simplicity sounds a bit … boring. Yet we long for it “People complain about their lives being stressful, hectic, over-complicated and with little or no room for the simple things that they want to enjoy”. Changing our external conditions is really just more of the same. Simplicity, and hence happiness, is right here ‘within’. What’s needed is a change of orientation – to look for happiness where it’s actually to be found.
Suryacitta offers very practical ways into the practice of mindfulness together with a very simple ‘just sitting’ kind of meditation where we “simply … notice the bodily sensations and thoughts that take us away from an open and direct experience of the moment”. He spices the book with helpful quotes from other authors, anecdotes and a good deal of warm-spirited humour, which is very much part of his style (see his Happy Buddha website).
Over recent years there have been an increasing number of books published around mindfulness and meditation as ways of overcoming stress, depression and chronic physical and mental pain. It’s great to see this development and it’s certainly good to see these ancient Buddhist practices being used for what they were always intended – the alleviation of suffering.
But in one vital respect, this one differs from most that I’ve come across. Suryacitta doesn’t hold back from presenting ways into the deepest and most profoundly transformative perspectives that Buddhism has to offer: the illusory nature of the view of a separate ‘self’, the nature of awareness, and the meaning and possibility of waking up (awakening, ‘enlightenment’). I suspect that a lot of the books based on fairly recent applications of Buddhist method combined with western science and psychology, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, avoid these areas to the extent that their authors are concerned to present mindfulness and meditation in a secular / scientific context. This is understandable and I certainly have no problem with it, but it seems to me that practising without bringing in these further perspectives can only take you so far.
‘Happiness and How it Happens’ shares common ground with the ‘mindfulness based’ approaches in showing readers how to set up a meditation and mindfulness practice, to work effectively with fear and other ‘negative’ emotions as well as how to engage positive emotions such as compassion. But as you work through it, you also discover what it means to truly accept whatever experiences arise (negative as well as positive) – which is the same as ‘letting-go’, and to realise the importance of learning to trust awareness as the main key to leaving behind, for good, what makes us less than happy.
As Suryacitta point out, we can “give up the idea of trying to change ourselves. We can let go of trying to rid ourselves of aspects that we don’t like, and of trying to add anything on to ourselves. This is just aversion and attachment in more subtle forms.” What’s wrong with trying to change ourselves? In the ultimate sense, it’s because we’re trying to change something that doesn’t really exist: ‘my self’. “The root of our suffering … is a sense of self separate from all the other selves out there … We build an identity out of this sense of self …. In doing so, we lose contact with our true nature.” Trying to change ourselves is like trying to make a prison cell a more comfortable place to live. “Never mind tinkering with the place”, he writes “it’s about escaping the prison altogether.”
A great thing about the book is that, by the time you’ve worked through the earlier chapters, this radical and apparently counter-intuitive perspective comes across as obvious. It is, in fact, the very core of Buddhist insight and practice. The methods Suryacitta offers for investigating one’s immediate experience open up a real possibility of getting a direct glimpse of our true nature – and discovering for ourselves that this is how happiness, in fact, happens.