When you feel like you’re “not enough”

Girls hands holding ripe blueberriesOne slice of the pie of life feels relaxed and contented. And then there is that other slice, in which we feel driven and stressed. Trying to get pleasures, avoid pains, pile up accomplishments and recognitions, be loved by more people. Lose more weight, try to fill the hole in the heart. Slake the thirst, satisfy the hunger. Strive, strain, press.

This other slice is the conventional strategy for happiness. We pursue it for four reasons.

  1. The brain evolved through its reptilian, mammalian, and primate/human stages to meet three needs: avoid harms, approach rewards, and attach to others. In terms of these three needs, animals that were nervous, driven, and clinging were more likely to survive and pass on their genes – which are woven into our DNA today. Try to feel not one bit uneasy, discontented, or disconnected for more than a few seconds, let alone a few minutes.
  2. You’re bombarded by thousands of messages each day that tell you to want more stuff. Even if you turn off the TV, worth in our culture is based greatly on accomplishments, wealth, and appearance; you have to keep improving, and the bar keeps rising.
  3. Past experiences, especially young ones, leave traces that are negatively biased due to the Velcro-for-pain but Teflon-for-pleasure default setting of the brain. So there’s a background sense of anxiety, resentment, loss, hurt, or inadequacy, guilt, or shame that makes us over-react today.
  4. To have any particular perception, emotion, memory, or desire, the brain must impose order on chaos, signals on noise. In a mouthful of a term, this is “cognitive essentializing.” The brain must turn verbs – dynamic streams of neural activity – into nouns: momentarily stable sights, sounds, tastes, touches, smells, and thoughts. Naturally, we try to hold onto the ones we like. But since neural processing continually changes, all experiences are fleeting. They slip through your fingers as you reach for them, an unreliable basis for deep and lasting happiness. Yet so close, so tantalizing . . . and so we keep reaching.

For these reasons, deep down there is a sense of disturbance, not-enoughness, unease. Feeling threatened and unsafe, disappointed and thwarted, insufficiently valued and loved. Driven to get ahead, to fix oneself, to capture an experience before it evaporates. So we crave and cling, suffer and harm. As if life were a cup – with a hole in the bottom – that we keep trying to fill. A strategy that is both fruitless and stressful.

All the world’s wisdom traditions point out this truth: that the conventional strategy for happiness is both doomed and actually makes us unhappier. The theistic traditions (e.g., Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity) describe this truth as the inherently unsatisfying nature of a life that is separated from an underlying Divine reality. The agnostic traditions (e.g., Buddhism) describe it as the inherent suffering in grasping or aversion toward innately ephemeral experiences.

Call this the truth of futility. Recognizing it has been both uncomfortable and enormously helpful for me, since you gradually realize that it is pointless to “crave” – to stress and strain over fleeting experiences. But there is another truth, also taught in the wisdom traditions, though perhaps not as forthrightly. This is the truth that there is always already an underlying fullness.

When this truth sinks in emotionally, into your belly and bones, you feel already peaceful, happy, and loved. There is no need for craving, broadly defined, no need to engage an unhappy strategy for happiness. And you have more to offer others now that your cup is truly full.


Recognize the lies built into the conventional strategy for happiness to wake up from their spells. Mother Nature whispers: You should feel threatened, frustrated, lonely. Culture and commerce say: You need more clothes, thinner thighs, better beer; consume more and be like the pretty people on TV. The residues of past experiences, especially young ones, mutter in the background: You’re not that smart, attractive, worthy; you need to do more and be more; if you just have X, you’ll get the life you want. The essentializing nature of cognition implies: Crave more, cling more, it will work the next time, really.

As you see through these lies, recognize the truth of fullness. In terms of your core needs to avoid harms, approach rewards, and attach to others, observe: that you are basically alright right now; that this moment of experience has an almost overwhelming abundance of stimulation, and you probably live better than the kings and queens of old; and that you are always intimately connected with all life, and almost certainly loved. Regarding our consumerist and status-seeking culture, consider what really matters to you – for example, if you were told you had one year to live – and notice that you already have most if not all of what matters most. In terms of the messages from previous experiences, look inside to see the facts of your own natural goodness, talents, and spirit. And about the impermanent nature of experience, notice what happens when you let go of this moment: another one emerges, the vanishing Now is endlessly renewed.

Abiding in fullness doesn’t mean you sit on your thumbs. It’s normal and fine to wish for more pleasure and less pain, to aspire and create, to lean into life with passion and purpose, to pursue justice and peace. But we don’t have to want for more, fight with more, drive for more, clutch at more. While the truth of futility is that it is hopeless to crave, the truth of fullness is that it’s unnecessary.

Finding this fullness, let it sink in. For survival purposes, the brain is good at learning from the bad, but bad at learning from the good. So help it by enriching an experience through making it last a 10-20 seconds or longer, fill your body and mind, and become more intense. Also absorb it by intending and sensing that it is sinking into you as you sink into it. Do this half a dozen times a day, maybe half a minute at a time. It’s less than five minutes a day. But you’ll be gradually weaving a profound sense of being already fundamentally peaceful, happy, loved, and loving into the fabric of your brain and your life.

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Do all you can, with what you have, in the time you have, in the place where you are.

One of the strangest and most meaningful experiences of my life occurred when I going through Rolfing (ten brilliant sessions of deep-tissue bodywork) in my early 20’s. The fifth session works on the stomach area, and I was anticipating (= dreading) the release of buried sadness. Instead, there was a dam burst of love, which poured out of me during the session and afterward. I realized it was love, not sadness, that I had bottled up in childhood – and what I now needed to give and express.

We can hold back our contributions to the world, including love, just as much as we can muzzle or repress sorrow or anger. But contribution needs to flow; it stagnates and gets stinky if it doesn’t. Thwarted contribution is the source of much unhappiness. For example, the wound of loneliness and heartache is about not having others to give to as much as not having others to get from. And one of the major issues with adolescence in technological cultures is that there are few opportunities for teenagers to make a real difference, to matter and feel a sense of earned worth.

Now, “contribution” covers a lot of ground. It includes big things like raising a child, inventing the paperclip, or composing a symphony. But mainly it’s a matter of many little things. You give or receive hundreds of small offerings each day, such as doing the dishes, treating customers with respect, picking up a gum wrapper, encouraging a friend, having good intentions, or staying open to feedback. You contribute with thought, word, and deed, and both by what you do and by what you restrain yourself from doing.

In addition to the offerings you already make, you may sense other things inside that want to be offered. Can you open to these and let them flow? It does not matter how large or small they are. As Nkosi Johnson – a South African boy born with HIV who became a national voice for children with AIDS before dying at about age 12 – once said:

Do all you can, with what you have, in the time you have, in the place where you are.

How can we learn to give?

Appreciate some of the things you already contribute through thought, word, and deed. Let yourself feel good about this.

Moving through your day, try considering your contributions as offerings – particularly the little things that are easy to overlook, such as the laundry, courteous driving, or saying thanks. When you relate to everyday actions as offerings, you feel an intimacy with the world, more kindness, perhaps even something sacred.

Also try on a sense of being unattached to the results of your offerings. Sure, it’s OK to hope for the best. But if you get fixed on some outcome, it’s a set up for pressure and disappointment. I got a good lesson about this from my friend David, who was becoming a priest in an urban zen center and preparing for his first public talk. I asked David if it bothered him to work hard to present something precious to people who might not value it. He looked at me like he could not understand my question. Then he made a gesture with both hands as if he were setting something at my feet, saying: “My part is to give the talk as best I can. Whatever they pick up is up to them. I hope it’s helpful, but that’s out of my hands.”

It’s alright to make offerings from enlightened self-interest. When you give, you receive. Which helps you keep giving. To be benevolent to others, you must be benevolent to yourself.

Also listen to your heart for additional offerings calling to be expressed. Maybe it’s the offering of never speaking out of anger, or really starting that novel, or determining to give love each day. It could even be an offering to your future self – the being above all others you have the greatest power over, and thus the highest duty to – such as regular exercise or taking steps toward a better job.

Help yourself sustain this practice by feeling good about your contributions, regarding actions as offerings, staying focused on a key new offering, and holding self-criticism at bay. As Leonard Cohen sings:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in

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The art of finding abundance in frugal times

In the metta sutta, the discourse on loving kindness, the Buddha teaches us how to be “skilled in goodness and know the path of peace”.

These attributes can be practiced in a number of ways including kind speech, humility and also through being frugal.

We are living at a time when prices keep going up and our income, if we are fortunate enough to have one, is not keeping up.

So, how can we live abundantly while living frugally?

Here is a list of suggestions.

1. Attitude is Everything

The way we think about things creates our reality. When we think we don’t have enough, we come from a place of scarcity. When we think we have what we need, we come from a place of abundance. We can choose which place we come from by choosing to think positively.

We may not have the latest technological toys, the biggest house, the fastest car or designer clothes, but we have abundance when we appreciate our five-year old laptop, our comfortable living space, our reliable Subaru and skill to do your own home repairs.

2. Take a Realistic Look at Our Financial Situation

If we don’t already have a budget, now is the time to create one. List what comes in and what goes out. Take a look at what is spent on wants rather than needs. Make that list of wants shorter.

3. Become Aware of What is Really Important

Think about what is really important to you. Perhaps you are saving for a college education for yourself or your children. Perhaps you are saving for a home or a car. Find ways to put money into the bank for these items that are meaningful. Each time we bring our coffee and lunch to work, we are giving up a little now to gain a lot later.

4. Meditate on What Material Things Mean to You

Take some time to sit quietly and think about what you spend money on and what those objects mean to you. Do you have high mortgage or car payments to finance because a pricey home or new car makes you feel a certain way? Do you buy rounds of drinks for your friends because you try to keep up with them even though they make more money than you do? No number of material things can increase our self-esteem — that can only be increased by intrinsic qualities like kindness.

5. Learn About Ways to Nourish Yourself Without Spending a Lot of Money

They say “the best things in life are not things”. Rather than spending money on things, spend time in natural surroundings, take a walk, and get together with friends and cook at home rather than going out to a restaurant. Read to your children or take them hiking, listen to music or create art together.

Being frugal may mean that we are giving up some material things, but it can also mean we find abundance in other ways such as spending quality time with friends and family members and finding out what is most meaningful in our lives.  One of the most meaningful Buddhist scriptures I have read is the metta sutta:

The Buddha’s Words on Lovingkindness

This is what should be done
By those who are skilled in goodness,
And who know the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways,
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: in gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born—
May all beings be at ease!
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world,
Spreading upward to the skies,
And downward to the depths;
Outward and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down,
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.

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How to be rich and happy (whatever that means)

Tim Brownson

Writing a book entitled How To Be Rich and Happy means rather unsurprisingly I regularly get asked by interviewers, “What is rich and happy?” and I always respond by saying, “I have absolutely no idea”.

As you can imagine, that is seldom the answer the person is looking for, or indeed expecting, and it usually leads to a furrowing of the brow and a quizzical look before the follow up question of “Well how can you write a book on it then?” comes my way.

Philosophers have been debating the meaning of happiness almost since the dawn of time and we still don’t have a definition that everybody agrees upon. Modern day advancements in the field of positive psychology led by Martin Seligman have certainly helped determine what happiness isn’t, but not necessarily what it is.

For example, we know pleasure isn’t happiness. In fact, counterintuitively the denial of pleasure can often lead to an increase in levels of happiness. If you quit something that brings you immediate pleasure, such as drinking or smoking, there is a high probability (once you get over the cranky stage), that will lead to enhanced levels of happiness.

We also know that money has almost zero correlation to happiness once you remove somebody from abject poverty. Billionaires, statistically speaking, are no happier than millionaires, and millionaires no happier than whatever you call people earning six-figure salaries.

We can take that a stage further when you consider that seven-figure lotto winners, are on the whole, no happier 6 months after their win than somebody that has been paralyzed in a road traffic accident.

That is an amazing statistic uncovered by Harvard Professor, Daniel Gilbert, in his book “Stumbling On Happiness”, and one that demonstrates perfectly why defining happiness is so difficult. The incredible ability of Human Beings to overcome adversity and find happiness in all sorts of unusual situations makes it nebulous at best. Especially when you consider that the reverse applies and many people seem skilled at snatching misery from the jaws of happiness.

On the plus side of the equation, we do know having a sense of purpose in our lives (especially at work) can lead to feeling more satisfied, content and thus happy. Doing work that you know makes a positive difference in peoples lives is often a short-cut to feeling better about yourself, and your life.

Further, we recognize that people with a strong religious faith tend on the whole to be happier with life, as do married people and those that do volunteer work. Although you could undoubtedly find very religious married people that do volunteer work and yet are deeply unhappy.

We talk in How To Be Rich and Happy about ‘the formula’ to a rich and happy life, but this is no A+B=C formula. It’s more dynamic than that and will be different for every person on the planet.

For example, I have no idea what your core values are as everyones are different. I do know from my own experience and that of hundreds of clients though, that if you don’t know what they are (and very few people genuinely do by the way) you are massively reducing your likelihood of achieving long-term happiness.

Living in alignment with your core values may not necessarily guarantee happiness, but it hugely stacks the deck in your favor and being out of alignment will certainly lead to, at best, a life of frustration and discontent.

Of course you may slip into alignment by chance, in the same way you may win the lottery, but as a Life Coach it’s not really a plan I‘d advise a client of mine to adopt. You are far better working out what your values are and then doing whatever you can to meet those values than simply hoping things will turn out for the best.

For example if ‘freedom’ is your most important value, think twice about taking that office bound job irrespective of how much money they are paying. All the money in the world will not bridge that gap.

Shortly before the book came out I had a meeting with my co-author, John Strelecky. We were talking about the launch and I said to John, “I do feel a tad uncomfortable writing a book about being rich and happy, when I live very much hand to mouth”.

I’m grateful to John for dragging me back to (my) reality by saying something like, “Tim you work when you like, you play golf when you like, you walk your dogs when they like and you love what you do for a living. Which part of that isn’t rich and happy?”

When I say I have no idea what being Rich and Happy is, I mean I have no idea what it is for you.

It is no mistake that the tagline to the book is “Whatever you want, whenever you want” because that is what rich and happy is all about, even if the whatever and whenever is not defined.

Of course there will always be occasions when it isn’t possible to do exactly what you want. Few people enjoy a root canal or filing taxes. But if you can utilize the principle of doing what you really, really, want for 80% of your time and you are true to your core values, then my guess is you will feel rich and happy irrespective of the amount of money in your bank account.

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Dazzling treasures of the heart

RatnasambhavaKarunachitta introduces us to Ratnasambhava, the Buddha of abundance, and issues a challenge: Dare we discover the extent of our inner riches?

When I was a child I kept going back to certain fairy stories. There was King Midas’s quest for riches. He was so delighted at the beauty of trees and flowers when his touch transformed them into gold but horrified when those he loved became solid gold statues.

Then there was Aladdin with the lamp that could grant all wishes. I used to wonder what I would wish for, especially when in some stories people were granted three wishes but could only think of stupid things that changed nothing.

I had a glimpse of understanding that you needed to have a certain wisdom and selflessness for a wish to have a positive effect.

As I write this the January sales are on. Outside my window people are flocking to buy items at half price, or two for the price of one. This consumerism is contagious. I find myself thinking: “If only I had… if only I won £10,000 … if only things were different.”

 What makes one feel poor is alienation from humanity. Ratnasambhava transforms the pride that separates us from one another  

The quest for riches has now come to mean something different to me. Many years after I first mused on those fairy stories, I was sitting in meditation when I was suddenly dazzled by a shining yellow Buddha figure standing with a horse. One arm was placed lovingly around the horse’s neck, the other held out the jeweled bridle to me. He was waiting patiently for me and I could see that I was expected to mount the horse and ride off with him. But I was afraid. Blinded by the light, I could not see who it was. Yet such boldness suddenly came over me that when he asked: “Are you coming with me?” I found myself replying, “Yes!”

That night my mind was so full of yellow light that I couldn’t sleep. I had the feeling I’d said yes to something far beyond what I was even remotely capable of imagining. Who was he? After discussing my experience with a friend, I came to recognize this figure as the archetypal Buddha Ratnasambhava from the traditional Buddhist “Mandala of the Five Jinas.” Each Jina or Buddha becomes a gateway to Enlightenment. Ratnasambhava is the southern gateway. He comes from the Glorious Southern Realm, where:

Currents of pure fragrance fill the great rivers
Beautiful diamonds form their banks.
Rings of jewelled dust are spread on the ground;
The various ornaments are all rare and fine.
Jewel stairways arrayed in rows,
beautifully adorned.
Balustrades surrounding, all extremely fine,
Flower decorations with stores of pearls
And various garlands draped all around.
(The Flower Ornament Sutra)

Ratnasambhava’s body is yellow in color — sunflower yellow, dandelion yellow, canary yellow, lemon yellow, luscious cadmium yellow hue, the color of sunlight. Wearing sparkling jewelled robes with a seven-stranded jeweled necklace, and illuminated by sunlight, he is beautiful to behold. He sits on a golden-yellow lotus throne upheld by four energetic horses with flowing manes and tails.

He symbolizes richness and generosity. In his left palm he holds a wish-fulfilling jewel, and his right hand is outstretched in the gesture of supreme generosity. His name means Jewel-Born One. The color yellow represents the earth element and the earth brings forth the wealth and richness of harvest crops, forests and flowers, as well as those “harvests” beneath the earth of gold, silver, rubies, emeralds and crystals. Shantideva evokes this in The Bodhicaryavatara: “As many flowers and fruits and species of healing as exist in the world, and as many jewels exist, and waters clear and refreshing.”

  Ratnasambhava is associated with midday, when the sun is at its brightest. Midday has the brightest light and the deepest shadows.  

As a practitioner of yoga, being in touch with the earth means being centered in my body, and fully experiencing physical sensations. This encourages me to relax, appreciate and enjoy my body, and to be wholly aware of body, feelings and thoughts. I come to know myself more deeply and this inspires confidence and fearlessness. It also means becoming more aware of my physical environment — especially by spending time in nature. This kind of appreciation brings a joyful, playful element to life, and a feeling of potency.

The four golden horses that hold up Ratnasambhava’s throne gallop across the wide expanse of sky with free, wild energy. But they have come together to support the lotus throne. This represents to me the focus, purpose and integration of meditation.

The horse symbolizes the transformation of the energies of the mind. This is the gift of focused vitality. As the Tibetan poet Milarepa sang:

The horse of the mind, moving like the wind, doth prance about.
What lasso must be used to catch this horse
And to what post it be tied when caught?
What food is it to be given when hungry?
And what drink is it to be given when thirsty?
In what enclosure is it to be kept when cold?
To catch the horse, use, as the lasso, Singleness of Purpose.
It must be tied, when caught, to the Post of Meditation:
It must be fed, when hungry, with the Guru’s Teachings;
It must be given to drink, when thirsty.
of the Stream of Consciousness;
It must be kept, when cold, in the enclosure of the voidness.

“The horse of the mind” can also be transformed through receptivity to the interconnectedness of all things, and this brings a sense of abundance. What makes one feel poor is alienation from humanity. Ratnasambhava transforms the pride that separates us from one another, and makes us judge others and ourselves in an unhelpful way. I find myself asking whether others are “better” or “worse” than me. And there is a preoccupation with the great ME the at center of my universe. Ratnasambhava connects me with others. Self-centredness is converted into love, and ultimately into compassion for all that lives.

  Ratnasambhava is associated with midday, when the sun is at its brightest. So Ratnasambhava symbolizes both the heights and the depths of experience, and understands the importance of both. Midday has the brightest light and the deepest shadows.  

This manifests spontaneously as generosity. Ratnasambhava’s great generosity is based on egolessness, the basis of his solidarity with all beings. He is said to possess the Wisdom of Equality, and this is symbolized by Mamaki, who is Ratnasambhava’s consort. Her name means “she who makes everything her own.” Mamaki looks on all things as identical with herself, because she knows the inner unity of Shunyata or emptiness which lies at the heart of all beings.

She delights in and appreciates everyone and everything. I see her as a dazzling yellow, bejeweled dakini. When I feel impoverished, I call her up and her dance brings back the feeling of inner abundance. If you call on Mamaki you may need sunglasses! Working from strength is like bringing jewels into the sunlight where everyone can see them. You have to be fearless to be generous. Auguste Renoir wrote of Algeria: “The magic of the sun transmutes the palm trees into gold, the water seems full of diamonds and men become kings of the East.”

The Wisdom of Equality is the great leveler. Possessing it, one has a kindly and impartial heart, one sees all people with equanimity. This wisdom is based on the insight that all phenomena are equal, because they are all empty. As the Heart Sutra says, “Form is only emptiness, emptiness only form.” All things and all thoughts are in a process of continual arising and passing away. Seeing this leads us to compassion. Shantideva in his compassion says:

May I be an imperishable treasure for needy beings.
May I stand in their presence
in order to do what is beneficial in every way …
I would be for all creatures a magic jewel,
an inexhaustible jar, a powerful spell,
a universal remedy, a wishing tree,
and a cow of plenty.

This attitude is what Ratnasambhava, with his wish-fulfilling jewel, represents. Am I wise enough to use my wishes generously? Dare I take Ratnasambhava’s challenge to dig down to the treasure trove of the mind — however small it seems to be? Dare I mount wild horses and gallop into the sky?

Ratnasambhava overflows with love. To take up his challenge I have to believe in who I am and feel the sun of the glorious southern realm shining openly in my heart. Sunny Ratnasambhava is able to give continually because he is rich and abundant in spiritual wealth. But if I gaze long enough into his wish-fulfilling jewel, then I, too, can feel more abundant. I must learn to let go of expectations and leap into the unknown.

Ratnasambhava is associated with midday, when the sun is at its brightest. So Ratnasambhava symbolizes both the heights and the depths of experience, and understands the importance of both. Midday has the brightest light and the deepest shadows. It means living from the heights of inspiration, while also being earthed. Ratnasambhava is rich enough to embrace it all.

He is the Buddha of beauty and aesthetic appreciation and the protector of those engaged in the Arts. Out of our spiritual practice surprising images and unknown colors can arise. According to Jung, “Color is the mother of the subconscious.”

Colors are enhanced in bright sunlight until they dazzle you in the midday sun. The more I engage my emotions in my painting and respond to color, the more I can enter this abundant realm. Ratnasambhava helps me to contact and sustain my spiritual vision and to bring it out into the sunlight where I can share it with everyone. Accepting his gifts enriches the world

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True wealth…

Gold lily

Although the Buddha encouraged his householder disciples to create wealth, he also repeatedly pointed out the relative worth of outer and inner riches. This short teaching outlines seven sources of inner abundance.

Then Ugga, the king’s chief minister, approached the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, he said to the Blessed One: “It’s amazing, lord, & awesome, how prosperous Migara Rohaneyya is, how great his treasures, how great his resources!”

[Then the Buddha said:] “But what is his property, Ugga? What are his great treasures and great resources?”

“One hundred thousand pieces of gold, lord, to say nothing of his silver.”

“That is treasure, Ugga. I don’t say that it’s not. And that treasure is open to fire, floods, kings, thieves, and hateful heirs. But these seven treasures are not open to fire, flood, kings, thieves, or hateful heirs. Which seven? The treasure of conviction, the treasure of virtue, the treasure of conscience, the treasure of concern, the treasure of listening, the treasure of generosity, the treasure of discernment. These, Ugga, are the seven treasures that are not open to fire, flood, kings, thieves, or hateful heirs.

The treasure of faith (saddha),
the treasure of virtue (sila),
the treasure of conscience and concern (hirī & ottappa).
The treasure of listening (suta), generosity (cāga),
and wisdom (paññā) as the seventh treasure.
Whoever, man or woman, has these treasures,
has great treasure in the world
that no human or divine being can excel.
So faith and ethical conduct, confidence (pasāda) and insight into the Dhamma
should be cultivated by the wise,
remembering the Buddhas’ instruction.

The Ugga Sutta, from the Anguttara Nikaya of the Pali canon.

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Jean Antoine Petit-Senn: “It’s not what we have that constitutes our abundance, but what we appreciate.”

Jean Antoine Petit-Senn

The words “abundance” and “spirituality” may not seem to go hand in hand but, Bodhipaksa argues, mindfulness, properly seen, is inherently enriching.

Once, on retreat, I was in a discussion group in which we were discussing the metaphors that encapsulated how we saw our spiritual practice. We all had very different ways of seeing what we were trying to do with our lives.

One person thought in terms of becoming a kinder person, shedding compassion like the sun sheds light; another in terms of really seeing how things are. One saw himself as a spiritual warrior; another as a tree taking root, aspiring to provide fruit and shade for other beings. I was impressed both at the variety of the personal myths expressed, and by the spirit of harmony with which they were shared. We all seemed to recognize that there was no “right” myth and that all these metaphors were valid and useful to the people that held them.

One moment that particularly struck me was where one man said that he saw his spiritual path in terms of richness, while another saw his spiritual life as a quest for simplicity. It struck me that although those aspirations — richness and simplicity — might seem to be contradictory, they were actually both expressions of the same underlying truth, perfectly exemplified in an aphorism often attributed to the Swiss poet, Jean Antoine Petit-Senn*:

It’s not what we have
That constitutes our abundance
But what we appreciate.

We can be surrounded by all the material goods in the world, but unless we’re able to appreciate them we effectively have nothing. We’re materially rich but emotionally poor. I know children like this, who have a plethora of toys and gizmos, all the latest computer equipment and games, but who are unable to pay attention to any of them, and who are perpetually bored.

We can be surrounded by all the material goods in the world, but unless we’re able to appreciate them we effectively have nothing.

Appreciation is one of the qualities of mindfulness that most resonates with me. When I’m at my most mindful I’m at my most appreciative; I notice the fine details of my experience, I really look at things, I really taste my food, I notice and enjoy the ordinary sensations that arise in the body as I walk, lift a cup to my lips, or brush my teeth.

It’s possible to conceive of mindfulness as a cool or even cold state, one in which we have a detached and uninvolved gaze. But that kind of mindfulness is purely cognitive — involving the mind — and lacks heart. It’s a form of mindfulness that’s alienated. True mindfulness involves the whole being — head and heart — and we don’t simply notice but appreciate. We notice the fine detail of our experiences, and we also notice ourselves — our feelings, our physical responses, our emotions, the effect that our experiences have on the mind, our thoughts.

Most of the time boredom has nothing to do with a lack of stimulation, but is a lack of ability to connect with ourselves.

Abundance lies in this richness of response. Poverty is when we encounter experiences in an alienated way. We have sensory contact with the world but we don’t have any depth of contact with ourselves, and so consequently our responses are flattened, deadened, and monochromatic. We’re bored and restless. Most of the time boredom has nothing to do with a lack of stimulation, but is a lack of ability to connect with ourselves.

To be appreciative through mindfulness doesn’t mean that everything is going to be rosy and sunny in your life. Suffering is inevitable. But even painful experiences are richer and more alive when we pay attention to and appreciate our pain.

Another poet, Ryōkan, who died six years before Petit-Senn was born, is said to have returned to the hut where he lived as a simple monk, only to disturb a thief who was ransacking his few possessions. In his haste to escape, the thief left behind Ryōkan’s meditation cushion. Ryōkan picked up the cushion and chased after the thief to give it to him. Afterward he sat in his hut, looking out of the window at the moon, thinking, “I wish I could have given him the moon as well.”

This was no idle thought. Ryōkan was famous for expressing simple appreciation and gratitude in his poetry. He could find joy in the simplest things — the sound of the wind, the dripping of water from his roof on a rainy day, children playing, the taste of a berry. Ryōkan knew that if the thief had been able to appreciate the moon as fully as he himself could, he would have had no need to steal.

Ryōkan, sitting in a bare hut looking at the moon, was materially destitute but had such spiritual abundance that he had riches to spare.

*2023 Update: Since I wrote this piece, 15 years ago, I’ve found no evidence that Petit-Senn is the actual source of these words. It’s possible that they’re an adaptation from another writer.

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