gratitude

The power of gratitude (day 62)

100 Days of LovingkindnessRobert A. Emmons, Ph.D., is the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude. He’s a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, the founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology, and the author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, and so he’s written a lot about the benefits of gratitude.

Gratitude is, of course, an important aspect of joyful appreciation, or mudita, which is the practice that we’re exploring at the moment as part of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness. So here are a few ways that Dr. Emmons has shown gratitude can enhance our lives.

  • Gratitude enhances positive emotions. Emmons points out, as I have elsewhere, that we quickly habituate to pleasant circumstances, and that our positive emotions tend to wear off quickly. We’re wired as novelty seekers, and while we may celebrate some new development in our lives — a nice spell of weather, returning to health after an illness — the enjoyment quickly wears off, and we’re left with the existential “meh” that is so familiar to many of us. In fact we generally start seeking things to be discontented with. But when we consciously practice gratitude, we appreciate life’s benefits and are less likely to take them for granted. We find that we celebrate the many ways that goodness is woven into the fabric of life, and we feel more joyful and engaged.
  • “Gratitude blocks toxic, negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret — emotions that can destroy our happiness,” Emmons says, using language almost identical to Buddhist teachers of the last 2,500 years. He points to research suggesting that gratitude reduces the frequency and duration of periods of depression, and that people who are more grateful are less prone to envy and resentment. And this is exactly what we’d expect; resentment and envy are the direct emotional opposites of joyful appreciation. If you’re experiencing appreciation and gratitude, it’s impossible to feel envious or resentful at the same time.
  • Gratitude protects against stress. People who tend to be grateful bounce back more quickly from adverse circumstances, loss, suffering, and injury. They’re more emotionally resilient. Their ability to seek the good prevents them from focusing too much on the negative in situations. Someone who’s of a grateful disposition who suffers a disability is more likely to focus on the things they can do rather than to dwell on the things they can no longer do.
  • Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth. When we lack gratitude, we’re more likely to think that the world is against us and that nothing is going right in our lives. Therefore we think that we’re not worth much. Gratitude makes those kinds of cognitive distortions less likely. When we’re grateful we value what we have rather than focusing on what we don’t have. We may feel grateful just for being, for having air to breathe. We recognize that even when some things are not going the way we want them to, the vast majority of circumstances are conspiring to support us. When we look at ourselves, we appreciate our own qualities, and see someone who is basically loved and supported by the universe.

I’d add to Dr. Emmons’ thoughts by pointing out that gratitude is a powerful reinforcer of social connections. People love to be appreciated and rejoiced in. When we expression our gratitude and appreciation of others, we cement powerful bonds, and feel connected. Those social connections are not only of practical benefit — people who like us are more likely to help us, but those people are more likely to be there for us emotionally. And feeling that we’re a part of a rich social network, which is more likely if we’re grateful to others, helps us to feel less alone with our problems. Studies have shown that feelings of isolation are actually as damaging for our health as cigarette smoking, so feeling connected to others provides valuable benefits to our physical and mental health.

Traditionally there are eleven benefits for the one who practices gratitude: “Happily he sleeps; happily he awakes; he does not see bad dreams; he is dear to humans; he is dear to non-humans; deities protect him; fire, poison, sword and stick come not near him; he concentrates his mind quickly; the colour of his face is pleasingly bright; at the time of death he is not bewildered; if he attains not the sublime state, he is reborn in the world of Brahma.”

I can’t vouch for your having a good rebirth in the next life as a result of practicing gratitude, but I do know that it will help you be healthier and happier in this life.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Flooding the body with gratitude (Day 58)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

The other day I suggested the practice of noticing our everyday blessings — things like having electricity, running water, shelter, a relatively law-abiding culture — and saying “thank you” for these things. I stressed the importance of actually articulating these words in our minds (although saying them out loud could be even more effective) in order to overcome the mind’s negativity bias, where we tend to pay attention to that which we think is going wrong and take for granted and ignore that which is going right.

Today I want to turn that inward, by reiterating a favorite practice of mine, which is of giving thanks to our bodies for the service they give us.

We have an odd relationship with our bodies. On the one hand we identify with them strongly. We tend to despair when they become sick, suffer agonies over how others perceive our appearance, take it personally when they show signs of aging, and sometimes spend large amounts of time and money trying to beautify them in order to look our best. On the other hand we neglect them, fill them full of unhealthy foods, and use them in ways that cause them long-term damage. Often, in fact, people resent their bodies, and get angry with them when they experience pain or illness.

Right now I’m lying down because my back’s sore. I strained my back a little over a week ago, and after a couple of days of apparently having returned to health it suddenly “goes” again. The truth is, I don’t take good enough care of it. I don’t exercise or stretch enough, and I’m not careful enough in how I use my body. I just take it for granted. I know I should exercise and stretch, but time always seems to be short, and there’s always much to do.

Having a sore back, though, gives me a good excuse to practice what I’m about to explain to you, which is the cultivation of gratitude toward the body. It’s similar to the practice of noticing everyday blessings that I mentioned above, since our bodies are likewise taken for granted. And in fact I often do this practice of gratitude toward the body as an extension of that practice, flowing seamlessly from one to the other.

So the practice is simple. It’s a body scan practice, where we become aware of the body, part by part, and notice the sensations arising there. The addition is that we say “Thank you” to each part of the body as we become aware of it. By saying “Thank you” we develop gratitude for that part of the body.

So we notice the feet, and say “Thank you.” It’s important to articulate the words clearly in your mind. We can allow into awareness the fact that we are, in fact, fortunate to have feet. Not everyone does. And your feet are probably functional, and capable of getting you around. Again, not everyone has this. And if your feet are damaged or in pain, recollect that your feet are doing their best. They’re trying to heal themselves. They do their best to function for you. Even if your feet are in pain, they still try to work for you and benefit you.

I think of this as like having a friend who shows up to help you even through they’re feeling below par. That’s a sign of a true friend. It’s the kind of thing only the best of friends would do. Regarding any damaged or painful part of the body like this — like a good friend who tries to help you even though they are in pain — helps me to feel extra gratitude, and to let go of resentment. My gratitude becomes a form of love and appreciation. As I experience these emotions I feel the body soften. It’s as if the body likes being loved (surprise, surprise!).

So I do this for other parts of the body: not just the feet, but the ankles, the lower legs, the knees, the thighs … all the way up to the crown of the head and even the hair. Notice any sensations that are arising as you focus on each part of the body in turn. Say “Thank you.” And allow yourself to feel that you are blessed by even having that body part. And feel extra gratitude if the part of the body you’re focusing on is struggling with pain or illness even as it tries to help you.

I notice the body’s functions: the heart beating, like a faithful old friend; the lungs pumping away, day and night. I notice the senses. How fortunate I am to have functioning eyes, ears, a sense of taste, smell, touch, balance! I notice the act of being aware — may ability to think, reflect, remember. Even the ability to pay attention in the way I am doing at that moment.

My experience of doing this practice is delightful. Gratitude is joy. It also feels like a deeply healing practice, as I let go of any resentment toward the body. Flooded with gratitude, my body itself becomes grateful, seemingly relieved to be appreciated.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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The conscious evolution of appreciation (Day 53)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

The neuropsychologist (and Wildmind contributor) Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is very good at pointing out that our brains have a negativity bias. Our brains, as he puts it, are like velcro for painful experiences and teflon for pleasant experiences. And this bias has arisen because of our evolutionary history: hominins and early humans who ignored potential threats didn’t live to have or raise offspring, and so we’re descended from rather “twitchy” forebears who were good at thinking about things that might go wrong.

But now that, for most of us reading this article, our basic needs are largely covered, and so we find ourselves in the situation not of struggling to live, but of trying to live happily and meaningfully. And our inherited negativity bias — in the forms of anxiety, criticism, pessimism, envy, etc. — doesn’t generally help us to live well. We find ourselves the richest and safest people who have ever lived, and finding life to be unpleasant much of the time. As the comedian Louis C.K. put it, “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.”

“…a guy on an airplane was pissed off because the plane’s internet wasn’t working – how quickly the world owes him something he didn’t even know existed 10 seconds earlier….”

We’re flying around the world in metal tubes, six miles above the ground, entertaining ourselves with electronic devices that seemed like science fiction when I was a child, and we’re not very happy.

Well, we can still evolve, although in saying those words I’m not referring to our genes but to our minds. Sangharakshita points out that biological evolution has brought us to the point were we can start wondering about the point, and that from here on it’s up to us.

If you view our mental states as a population, you can see mindfulness and wisdom as a selection pressure. When we start to see that anxiety, criticism, pessimism, envy, etc. impoverish our lives, there’s an incentive for us to drop those habits. It’s just like a selection pressure in biology acting to weed out certain maladaptive genes. We can consciously encourage the development of more skillful states of mind — that is, states that lead to the emotional and spiritual enrichment of our lives.

One practice I encourage is to rejoice in what’s going right in our lives, and to say “Thank you.” At this point some people will be thinking “There’s nothing going right in my life.” We’ve all had thoughts like that. But those thoughts are never true.

Are you alive? If so, say, “Thank you.”

(Say the words “Thank you” in your mind at least, clearly articulated and consciously generated.)

Do you have air to breathe? It took countless billions of beings to manufacture the atmosphere that sustains you. Say, “Thank you.”

A few thousand years ago, your chances of dying violently were about one in three. You’re currently living in one of the safest periods in our species’ history. Say, “Thank you.”

The chances are that you’re living in a relatively democratic country. Say, “Thank you.”

You’re probably inside a building, sheltered from the elements. Say, “Thank you.”

You’re reading this online, so you have internet service. Say, “Thank you.”

And electricity. Say, “Thank you.”

Probably clean water as well. Say, “Thank you.”

The building you’re in is probably covered by all kinds of building codes designed to keep you safe. Countless thousands of people have labored to make this a safe world for you to live in. Say, “Thank you.”

Outside, there are roads and bridges. Say, “Thank you.”

(When I’m driving and I’m a bit bored or frustrated I remind myself that there is actually a road to drive on and suddenly driving changes from being stressful to being a miracle.

Almost all of us have access to grocery stores containing a bewildering variety of foods. Say, “Thank you.”

This isn’t to deny that there are things wrong with the world, or that things couldn’t be better. But often we’ll focus on the negative (there’s a pothole at the end of my street) rather than the positive (I live on a paved street). And it’s not to deny that life is genuinely hard for many people. But count your blessings.

So this is a practice I encourage. Focus more on what’s going right, and less on what’s less than ideal. Consciously say “Thank you.” Even if this seems a little weird or artificial, it can have an amazing effect on our lives. This is an excellent way to get into mudita, or joyous appreciation.

Everything’s amazing. And if you keep reminding yourself of that, you won’t be unhappy.

Click here to see all the posts from our 100 Days of Lovingkindness.

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Make gratitude a practice, really

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., PsychCentral: When we think of what we’re thankful for we often think of the light in our lives. Who and what represents the light in your life?

The poet Hafiz writes in his poem “It Felt Love”:

How did the rose
Ever open its heart
And give to this world
All its beauty?
It felt the encouragement of light
Against its being,
Otherwise,
We all remain
Too frightened

This is so true. It becomes easier to open up and reveal our own gifts to this world when we feel positive loving encouragement within…

Read the original article »

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Gratitude, creativity, and the “boys in the basement”

Glass lamp in a black backgroundLast night I sat without a timer, or rather using a stick of incense to time my sit. Recently I bought some rather lovely Shoyeido Nokiba (Moss Garden) incense, which has long sticks that burn for 50 minutes. It’s a nice alternative to using my iPad as a timer. Sometimes it’s nice not to have electronics between me and my little altar.

The Boys in the Basement offered up some interesting experiences. The “Boys in the Basement” is a term I borrowed from the novelist Stephen King. He uses it to refer to the creative powers of the mind. I write quite a lot, and the term resonated with me very strongly. Writing barely happens at all on a conscious level. Stories write themselves. Or the Boys in the Basement do the writing. I — the conscious I — just witness the words appearing, witness the small twist in the gut that comes when something in the writing doesn’t feel right, witness alternative phrasings appear. “I” don’t really do anything. writing is an excellent teaching on non-self. Actually everything is, but we rarely pay attention to the lessons, because they threaten to upend the way we see ourselves.

And it’s just the same with meditation. The less there’s a sense of “me” meditating, and the more there’s this sense of “me” witnessing the meditation unfold, the better things tend to go. The surprising thing is that there are unconscious parts of the brain that are better at meditating that “I” am.

The boys in the basement often surprise me. Last night they decided that gratitude was going to arise for every experience that appeared, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Observing the breathing: gratitude. Noticing a pain in the back: gratitude. Getting distracted: gratitude.

This may make no sense to you. It probably wouldn’t have made any sense to me until the Boys decided that this was how it was going to go down. Why should I feel gratitude for feeling pain? Some people are paralyzed and can’t feel pain, for one thing. For another, this body turns up and does things even when it’s suffering. What kind of a friend is it who shows up and helps you out even when they’re in pain? And one interesting thing was that pain received with gratitude ceased to be experienced as pain at all. It wasn’t even unpleasant — quite the contrary. Pain turned into bliss.

100 day meditation challenge, day 70Right from the start of the meditation I found I went straight into powerful pīti (pleasant feelings of energy in the body), deep joy, and an almost complete absence of thought.

I’d like to invite this gratitude practice into my life throughout the day. I was trying it last night. My son was sick, and I could hear coughing coming from his room. Gratitude. (Why gratitude? Imagine if I couldn’t hear him coughing. Not everyone has hearing. Imagine if it didn’t bother me. Not everyone has empathy.)

I’d like to invite this gratitude practice into my life throughout the day, but it’s not something “I” can make happen. The invitation can be sent out, but it’s up the Boys in the Basement whether they’ll respond to the call.

But I’m sending out the invitation now (although that’s not really me either) and even though I didn’t get much sleep last night I’m grateful to be here, grateful to be conscious, grateful to be a channel for the Boys in the Basement.

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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.

How?

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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On thanks-giving

It’s Thanksgiving in the US, and so I thought it would be a good idea to highlight some of the articles we’ve published about gratitude: the science and spirituality of gratitude, how to cultivate it, and how cultivating it can benefit you. But before we do, I’d like to thank the many kind people who have contributed their talents to Wildmind’s website over the years, as well as all the readers (1.5 million of you this year!) who are what it’s really all about.

Rick Hanson PhD

Nov 05, 2012

Waking up to the positive

Waking up is like the sun rising. At first it’s mostly dark, as glimmers of consciousness begin to light the shadows. Emerging into full wakefulness, the fogs and veils dissolve and the whole plain of your mind comes into view. It’s quiet: a restedness in the body, sleepy still, not yet much internal verbal chatter. There’s an intimacy with yourself, abiding as the core of your be-ing.

During these first few minutes, your mind and brain are very receptive to influence. If, hypothetically, a loud alarm suddenly began clanging, you’d probably feel rattled for hours; on the other hand, if someone you love suddenly began telling you how much he …

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Tara Brach

Sep 21, 2012

Beyond the “defended self”

During the years right after college, I was the director of a yoga studio at the ashram where I was living near Boston. One day, at a time when we were behind in promoting our major event of the year, which featured a number of well-known teachers, the head of our local community arrived late to our weekly staff meeting, visibly upset. I asked him what was wrong.

In a barely controlled voice, he thrust in front of me a flyer I’d created for the event. “Just take a look at this.” Immediately, I saw the typo in bold print—it was the wrong date. My heart sank: …

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Bodhipaksa

Feb 19, 2012

10 things science (and Buddhism) says will make you happy

I’m a science geek as well as a Buddhist geek, and recently when I was leading a retreat on how to bring more joy into our lives I found myself making a lot of references to an article published in Yes magazine, which touched on ten things that have been shown by science to make us happier. It seemed natural to draw upon the article because so much of the research that was described resonated with Buddhist teachings.

So I thought it would be interesting to take the main points of the article and flesh them out with a little Buddhism.

1. Be generous
“Make altruism and giving part of

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Bodhipaksa

Jan 14, 2012

Five ways to increase your joy

Joy (sukha in Pali) should be our natural state of being. Unfortunately, though, we’ve been brought up in a society that emphasizes wanting things and having things as the primary path to happiness. Wanting things actually destroys joy, while having things brings only a short-term burst of pleasure that fades quickly.

In fact, thinking that joy depends on things outside of ourselves is a trap. It makes it harder for us to experience real happiness. True happiness comes from our attitude toward things, not from things themselves.

Despite its seeming elusiveness, it’s possible for us to spend much of our time in a state of joy, and here are …

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Rick Hanson PhD

Nov 28, 2011

A living web of gratitude

What do you feel when someone thanks you for something? For a comment in a meeting, a task done at home, an extra step taken, an encouraging word.

You probably feel seen, appreciated, that you matter to the other person. Maybe a little startled, maybe wondering if you really deserve it, but also glad. Personally, this is how it is for me.

Turning it around, when you say “thank you” to someone, it’s a small moment with big ripples: a confirmation of a deep and wonderful truth, that we all depend on each other, that we are all joined – across dinner tables and across the world – in …

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Bodhipaksa

Nov 21, 2011

How to feel gratitude

Our minds have an inherent tendency toward finding fault. In psychology, this is called negativity bias. As psychologist and regular Wildmind contributor Rick Hanson, PhD, has pointed out, this results from our evolutionary heritage:

Imagine being a hominid in Africa a million years ago, living in a small band. To pass on your genes, you’ve got to find food, have sex, and cooperate with others to help the band’s children (particularly yours) to have children of their own: these are big carrots in the Serengeti. Additionally, you’ve got to hide from predators, steer clear of Alpha males and females looking for trouble, and not let other hunter-gatherer …

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Bodhipaksa

Aug 20, 2011

The power of appreciation

It’s all too easy to focus on what’s wrong in our lives, and to overlook what’s positive. It seems almost that we’re pre-programmed to respond strongly to the things that threaten us, while things that are of benefit end up being taken for granted. There are certainly people who are continually acknowledging the positive, but they’re comparatively rare, and I’m not one of them!

And yet one thing that’s been demonstrated in studies is that appreciation makes us happy. There’s a well-known article in Yes Magazine, from a few years back, that discusses this. Two pieces of advice they give from the science of happiness are:

Savor Everyday Moments
Pause now and then …

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Vajradevi

May 31, 2011

“Beyond Happiness” by Ezra Bayda

Ezra Bayda is a Zen teacher and former student of Charlotte Joko Beck. He has written four other books, including At Home in the Muddy Water: a Guide to Finding Peace within Everyday Chaos. With his wife, Elizabeth Hamilton, he runs the San Diego Zen Centre, which, as their web-site says, is not affiliated with any particular religious denomination. This is a book that doesn’t talk much about Buddhism and has only a handful of references to the Buddha and his teachings. So is it “secular Buddhism,” with a watered down yet more widely palatable message promising that happiness is easily within our grasp, or something more?

Title: Beyond Happiness
Author: Ezra …

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Saddhamala

Feb 05, 2011

Is there a link between gratitude and happiness?

Thank You text on green blackboard with copy spaceResearch suggests that people who feel gratitude benefit in the following ways:

1. happier
2. less depressed
3. less stressed
4. more satisfied with their lives and social relationships
5. aware of their purpose in life
6. self confident
7. positive
8. able to cope with the difficulties in positive ways
9. more likely to seek support from other people, and
10. able to learn and grow from their experiences.

It has been said that gratitude is strongly linked with mental health. Several times in my life I have kept a gratitude journal, in which I have …

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Waking up to the positive

Waking up is like the sun rising. At first it’s mostly dark, as glimmers of consciousness begin to light the shadows. Emerging into full wakefulness, the fogs and veils dissolve and the whole plain of your mind comes into view. It’s quiet: a restedness in the body, sleepy still, not yet much internal verbal chatter. There’s an intimacy with yourself, abiding as the core of your be-ing.

During these first few minutes, your mind and brain are very receptive to influence. If, hypothetically, a loud alarm suddenly began clanging, you’d probably feel rattled for hours; on the other hand, if someone you love suddenly began telling you how much he or she cared about you, you’d probably feel good for hours.

So, at this delicate and lovely time in the morning, why not influence your mind and brain yourself?

There is a traditional saying that the mind takes its shape from whatever it rests upon. For better or worse. Instead of resting it upon planning, worrying, or stressing about your day, how about taking a little time to receive and embrace something more positive? Which would set up your whole day for the better – especially if you are prone, as many are, to anxiety or the blues in the morning.

Then as your day unfolds, from time to time, you could return to the feelings and intentions you established when you first awoke – to replenish yourself in a quick pit stop on the road of life.

How?

This practice is really natural and simple: on first waking, rest your mind upon one or more things that are good for you.

For example, you could relax into your body, feeling the truth that you are actually alright right now. Or you could open to gratitude. Or bring to mind someone you care about – perhaps sleeping beside you – and soften into love.

You could be aware of a deep purpose, or aspiration, or guiding light. Give yourself over to this calling, letting it carry you along. This is a personally important practice for me. Another one I do is to find refuge in things that support me. For example, classic refuges are a teacher, a body of teachings, or the community of the taught; people also take refuge in mindfulness, the power of reason, practice, inner light, the fact of connection, or their sense of something Divine. Take a moment to get a feeling for each refuge and let it sink in.

Or consider our three fundamental needs, loosely linked to the three-stage evolution (to simplify: reptile, mammal, primate/human) of the brain: avoid harms, approach rewards, and attach to others. When we experience that these needs are met, the brain naturally defaults to its home base, its Responsive mode, in which the body refuels and repairs itself, and the mind dwells in a basic sense of peace, happiness, and love (in terms of our needs to avoid, approach, and attach).

Since “neurons that fire together, wire together,” time spent in the Responsive mode gradually strengthens its neural substrates – like deepening the keel of a boat so you can sail through life without its winds knocking you over. And what better time when the mind/brain is like a sponge, during the first minutes after waking? So I’ll often try to find a sense of peace (relaxed, safe, not at war with anything or anyone), happiness (there is enough, fortunate, contented), and love (feeling cared about, compassionate, and kind) – and once found, let these sink in.

These early moments are precious, open with possibility, graced by stillness, sacred. They are a gift. May we receive them.

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Beyond the “defended self”

During the years right after college, I was the director of a yoga studio at the ashram where I was living near Boston. One day, at a time when we were behind in promoting our major event of the year, which featured a number of well-known teachers, the head of our local community arrived late to our weekly staff meeting, visibly upset. I asked him what was wrong.

In a barely controlled voice, he thrust in front of me a flyer I’d created for the event. “Just take a look at this.” Immediately, I saw the typo in bold print—it was the wrong date. My heart sank: we’d just printed three thousand of them; I’d screwed up big time.

Although my mind scrambled to solve the problem, the weight of failure sat like a big stone in my chest. At the end of our meeting I began an apology: “This was my responsibility,” I said in a low monotone, “and I’m really sorry for messing up . . .” Then as I felt the others’ eyes on me, I felt a flash of anger and the words tumbled out: “But, you know, this has been a huge amount of work and I’ve been totally on my own.” I could feel my eyes burning, but I blinked back the tears. “It would have been nice if someone had been available to proofread . . . maybe this kind of thing wouldn’t have happened.”

For the rest of the week I was trapped in self-disgust. Hour after hour my mind replayed every recent incident that highlighted my flaws: I’d lied to get out of a social obligation, exaggerated the size of my yoga classes to another teacher, gossiped to feel more like an insider. Instead of generosity and selfless service, my focus was on my own spiritual progress. Once again I found myself facing what I most disliked about myself: insecurity and self-centeredness. I felt disconnected from everyone around me, stuck inside a self I didn’t want to be.

Because my self-doubts seemed so “unspiritual,” I didn’t talk about them with anyone. At work I was all business. I withdrew from the casual banter and playfulness at group meals, and when I did try to be sociable, I felt like an imposter. Several weeks later, the women in our ashram decided to form a sensitivity group where we could talk about personal challenges. I wondered whether this might be an opportunity for me to get more real.

At our opening meeting, as the other women talked about their stress at work, about children and health problems, I felt my anxiety build. Finally, when there was a pause in the conversation, my confession came pouring out. “I know I do a lot of yoga and teach a lot of classes, that it looks like I’m a helpful, caring person … That may be true in some ways, but it’s also a front. What I’m covering up, what I don’t want anyone to see, is how self-centered I am, how selfish and judgmental.” After pausing and glancing around at the solemn faces, I took the real plunge. “This is hard to say, but … I don’t trust that I’m a good person, and that makes it hard to really feel close with anyone.”

Directly after the meeting, I retreated quickly to my room, curled up in fetal position on my futon and cried. By naming my experience out loud, I had stripped away a layer of the small self’s protection. Feeling raw and exposed, I started mentally berating myself for having said anything. I told myself I should get up right that moment and do some yoga. Instead, I began trying to figure out what really had gone wrong, what was making me feel so bad about myself.

Suddenly I realized that this inner processing was yet more of the same. I was still trying to control things by figuring them out, by trying more practice, by trying to manage how others might see me. Recognizing these false refuges stopped me in my tracks—I didn’t want to stay stuck. An inner voice asked, “What would happen if, in this moment, I didn’t try to do anything, to make anything different?” I immediately felt the visceral grip of fear and then a familiar sinking hole of shame—the very feelings I had been trying to avoid for as long as I could remember. Then the same inner voice whispered very quietly, a familiar refrain: “Just let it be.”

I stretched out on my back, took a few full breaths, and felt the weight of my body supported by the futon. Again and again my mind tried to escape into reviewing what I’d said hours earlier, or rehearsing what else I could say to explain myself. Again and again the intention to “let it be” brought me back to the fear and shame I was experiencing. Sometime during the night, lying there alone in the darkness, these emotions gave way to grief. I was struck by how much of my life—my aliveness and loving—was lost when I was caught in feelings of unworthiness. I let myself open to that fully too, sobbing deeply, until the grief gradually subsided.

I got up, sat on my cushion in front of my small meditation altar, and continued to pay attention. My mind quieted naturally and I became increasingly aware of my own inner experience—a silent presence suffused with tenderness. This presence was a space of being that included everything—waves of sadness, the feeling of my drying tears, the sounds of crickets, the humid summer night.

In this open space thoughts again bubbled up —the memory of being defensive at the staff meeting and my subsequent attempts to offer a real apology; then a flash forward to me teaching the yoga class I’d scheduled for the following morning, trying to project a positive, confident energy. This time, as these scenes came into view, I felt like I was witnessing a character in a play. The character was continually trying to protect herself, but in the process, she was disconnecting more and more from herself, from authenticity, from the potential sustenance of feeling connected to others. And in each scene, I saw her perpetually “doing” in order to feel better about herself, “doing” in order to avoid pain, “doing” in order to avoid failure.

As I sat there watching this play, I had, for the first time, a compelling sense that this character wasn’t really “me.” Her feelings and reactions were certainly familiar, but they were just ripples on the surface of what I really was. In the same way, everything happening at that moment—the thoughts, the sensations of sitting cross-legged, the tenderness, the tiredness—were part of my being but could not define me. My heart opened. How sad to have been living in such a confined world; how sad to have felt so driven and so alone!

That night by my altar, an old sense of self was falling away. Who was I, then? In those moments I sensed that the truth of what I was couldn’t be contained in any idea or image of self. Rather, it was the space of presence itself—the silence, the wakeful openness—that felt like home. A feeling of gratitude and reverence filled me that has never entirely left.

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10 things science (and Buddhism) says will make you happy

happy buddha

I’m a science geek as well as a Buddhist geek, and recently when I was leading a retreat on how to bring more joy into our lives I found myself making a lot of references to an article published in Yes magazine, which touched on ten things that have been shown by science to make us happier. It seemed natural to draw upon the article because so much of the research that was described resonated with Buddhist teachings.

[By the way, since this article was first published it’s been viewed more than 340,000 times!]

So I thought it would be interesting to take the main points of the article and flesh them out with a little Buddhism.

1. Be generous

“Make altruism and giving part of your life, and be purposeful about it,” Yes magazine says. “Researcher Elizabeth Dunn found that those who spend money on others reported much greater happiness than those who spend it on themselves.”

And in fact Buddhism has always emphasized the practice of dana, or giving. Giving hasn’t been seen purely as the exchange of material possessions, however; giving in Buddhist terms includes non-tangibles such as education, confidence, and wisdom.

And which are the three factors of the donor? There is the case where the donor, before giving, is glad; while giving, his/her mind is bright & clear; and after giving is gratified. (Anguttara Nikaya)

2. Savor everyday moments

“Study participants who took time to savor ordinary events that they normally hurried through, or to think back on pleasant moments from their day, showed significant increases in happiness and reductions in depression.”

This of course is an example of another fundamental Buddhist practice — mindfulness. When we’re mindful we stay in the present moment, and really pay attention to our experience. Walking meditation, and even eating, can be ways of savoring everyday moments. In being present, we dwell in the present without obsessing about the past or future, and this brings radiant happiness:

They sorrow not for what is past,
They have no longing for the future,
The present is sufficient for them:
Hence it is they appear so radiant.
(Samyutta Nikaya)

3. Avoid comparisons

“While keeping up with the Joneses is part of American culture, comparing ourselves with others can be damaging to happiness and self-esteem. Instead of comparing ourselves to others, focusing on our own personal achievement leads to greater satisfaction.”

Buddhists are advised to avoid “conceit.” Now in the west we think of conceit as a sense of superiority, but in Buddhism conceit includes thinking you’re inferior to others, AND it includes thinking that you’re equal to others! What’s left? Just not thinking in terms of self and other at all. The ideal in Buddhism is a kind of “flow” state in which we un-selfconsciously respond to others without any conceptualization of there being a self or an other.

Though possessing many a virtue one should not compare oneself with others by deeming oneself better or equal or inferior. (Sutta Nipata 918)

4. Put money low on the list

“The more we seek satisfactions in material goods, the less we find them there,” [researcher Richard] Ryan says. “The satisfaction has a short half-life—it’s very fleeting.” People who put money high on their priority list are more at risk for depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Despite western preconceptions to the contrary, the Buddha wasn’t against people making money. In fact he encouraged it! Money’s useful to the extent that it supports our physical needs, allows us to make others happy, and — most importantly — to the extent that we use it to support genuine spiritual practice. In Buddhist terms we validate our wealth creation by giving our money away to support what’s really important in life, which is the pursuit of wellbeing, truth, and goodness. The idea that materialism can bring us genuine happiness is what Buddhism calls a “false refuge.”

There is no satisfying sensual desires, even with the rain of gold coins. (Dhammapada 186)

Knowing the bliss of debtlessness,
& recollecting the bliss of having,
enjoying the bliss of wealth, the mortal
then sees clearly with discernment.
Seeing clearly — the wise one —
he knows both sides:
that these are not worth one sixteenth-sixteenth
of the bliss of blamelessness.
(Anguttara Nikaya)

5. Have meaningful goals

According to Harvard’s resident happiness professor, Tal Ben-Shahar, “Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning.”

The Buddha’s last words were “strive diligently.” The whole point of being a Buddhist is in order to attain spiritual awakening — which means to maximize our compassion and mindfulness. What could be more meaningful than that?

He gains enthusiasm for the goal, gains enthusiasm for the Dhamma, gains gladness connected with the Dhamma. (Majjhima Nikaya)

6. Take initiative at work

“How happy you are at work depends in part on how much initiative you take. Researcher Amy Wrzesniewski says that when we express creativity, help others, suggest improvements, or do additional tasks on the job, we make our work more rewarding and feel more in control.”

The Buddhist teaching on work is called the practice of Right Livelihood. And the Buddha saw work as being a way to show initiative and intelligence:

By whatsoever activity a clansman make his living … he is deft and tireless; gifted with an inquiring turn of mind in to ways and means, he is able to arrange and carry out his job. (Anguttara Nikaya)

Heedful at administering
or working at one’s occupation,
… [these are factors] leading to welfare & happiness.
(Anguttara Nikaya)

7. Make friends, treasure family

“We don’t just need relationships, we need close ones,” says Yes magazine.

To the Buddha, spiritual friendship was “the whole of the spiritual life.” And even though people tend to think about monks and nuns leaving home, for those who embraced the household life, close and loving relationships with others was highly recommended. “Generosity, kind words, beneficial help, and consistency in the face of events” are the things that hold a family together, according to the Buddha.

Let him associate with friends who are noble, energetic, and pure in life, let him be cordial and refined in conduct. Thus, full of joy, he will make an end of suffering. (Dhammapada 376)

Support for one’s parents,
assistance to one’s wife and children,
consistency in one’s work:
This is the highest protection [from suffering].
(Mangala Sutta)

8. Look on the bright side

“Happy people … see possibilities, opportunities, and success. When they think of the future, they are optimistic, and when they review the past, they tend to savor the high points,” say [researchers Ed] Diener and [Robert] Biswas-Diener.

Buddhism doesn’t encourage us to have a false sense of positivity, but neither are these researchers. They’re suggesting that we find the good in any situation we find ourselves in. Buddhism encourages positivity through practices such as affectionate and helpful speech, where we consciously look for the good in ourselves and others.

The strongest expression of this is where we’re told to maintain compassionate thoughts even toward those who are sadistically cruel toward us:

Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That’s how you should train yourselves. (Majjhima Nikaya)

9. Say thank you like you mean it

“People who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis are healthier, more optimistic, and more likely to make progress toward achieving personal goals, according to author Robert Emmons.”

The Buddha said that gratitude, among other qualities, was the “highest protection,” meaning that it protects us against unhappiness. And:

A person of integrity is grateful and thankful. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people. (Anguttara Nikaya)

To one ever eager to revere and serve the elders, these four blessing accrue: long life and beauty, happiness and power. (Dhammapada 109)

Gratitude in Buddhism helps us to align our being with the good (kusala) so that we’re more likely to live in a way that leads to happiness and wellbeing.

10. Get out and exercise

“A Duke University study shows that exercise may be just as effective as drugs in treating depression, without all the side effects and expense.”

And the Buddha said — well, I don’t think he said much about exercise! In a culture like the Buddha’s where most people worked manually, and where walking was the main form of transportation, there wasn’t much need to emphasize exercise as a thing in itself. It’s only in sedentary cultures like ours that people have to make a special trip to the gym to exercise — although they usually park as close to the entrance as possible to minimize the amount of exercise they have to do in order to get to the exercise machines! But walking meditation was, and is, a key practice in Buddhism, even though it’s sometimes done very slowly. However the Buddhist scriptures commonly mention that such-and-such a person was “walking and wandering up and down beside the river for exercise,” suggesting that monks, with their own form of semi-sedentary lifestyle, needed to set aside special time to get their bodies moving.

Monks, there are these five benefits of walking up & down. What five?

One is fit for long journeys; one is fit for striving; one has little disease; that which is eaten, drunk, chewed, tasted, goes through proper digestion; the composure attained by walking up & down is long-lasting.

These, monks, are the five benefits of walking up & down. (Anguttara Nikaya)

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