spiritual practice & happiness

Letting happiness happen

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The one emotion that we most commonly repress is joy.

We don’t intend to do this. Instead, it happens through inattention. Few if any of us would sense joy arising and make a conscious decision to destroy it or push it out of awareness. Few of us would refuse happiness if it were to appear. And still we repress joy all the time.

One of the principles of meditation is that it allows joy to flourish. The process of meditating is that you start paying attention to some immediate sensory experience, such as the breathing. Then, after a while, you realize you’ve stopped doing that, and have instead been caught up in some train of thought. And so you bring your attention back to the breathing again. You do this over and over again.

What happens is that you get happier, and the reason for this is that you’ve stopped repressing your joy. Most of the distracted thoughts we have create suffering for us, because in those distracted trains of thought we create dissatisfaction, worry, or self-doubt. All of these kinds of thinking hinder our happiness and make us suffer. Let go of them, and calmness, peace, and joy naturally arise.

All we have to do is stop repressing our joy, and happiness happens.

Both the repression of joy and letting happiness happen take place in our daily activities as well. These aren’t just things that take place on the meditation cushion. All day long we’re slipping into distraction and diminishing our happiness. Daily life is not just an ideal opportunity to let happiness happen — it’s where most of our practice must inevitably take place.

We often think that it’s the things we do day-to-day, or that happen to us, that make us happy or unhappy. However it’s not so much the things we do that condition our mental states, but how we respond to them. We might be mildly anxious about leaving the house a little bit late. Every day. Or there’s the person at work we find annoying. Every day. There’s the gossip that we tend to join in with. Every day. There’s the routine task that we resent. Every day. It’s those kinds of habitual responses to the world around us that condition our mind and emotions. Moment by moment, they mount up.

It may seem like these mental acts are small things, but when it comes to happiness there are no small things. Every response we make to the events in our lives either represses us or unleashes happiness. The sum total of our wellbeing depends on how these repeated and seemingly insignificant acts mount up.

Happiness is not created. It’s allowed. Its there, in potential, all the time. It’s just that in our unawareness we are constantly doing things that make it impossible for us to be happy. Inattention destroys our happiness. Attentiveness allows happiness to happen.

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Moving past self-criticism

We co-create our lives based on the self-talk and self-imposed beliefs that have conditioned us from our childhood. We become what we believe to be true, and journey thru life making decisions that are fueled by conversations we have with ourselves. Words we speak to ourselves are often untrue, and rob us of the beautiful life that would be ours if only we could move past our rigid convictions and allow in the truth that would free us to an amazing life: a life that is speaking to us …

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The nourishment of mindfulness

Bryan Eaton, Newburyport News: About three decades ago I spent a year as a Buddhist monk in Thailand. It was a very austere life, dedicated to meditation and simplicity. One of the trainings I practiced was to only take one meal a day before noon from the food collected going on alms round early in the morning. I would arrange my monk’s robes, walk alone across rice fields to a nearby village, where humble folk would place various little bits of foods such as rice and vegetables in my monk’s bowl. I would silently …

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Mindfulness: living in the moment

Sandy SB, Vajra Blue: A few years ago I went through a difficult period with stress and depression. At this time my partner commissioned this brush painting for me. It shows a bamboo leaf falling, twisting in the air, full of life, while at the same time it is suspended in a single moment. A moment in which anything is possible, a moment that is full of possibility and in which nothing can be taken for granted.

It serves as a reminder that nothing lasts, that everything is transient, and that I …

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Mindfulness for lawyers: expectations vs. reality

Jeena Cho, Above the Law: I teach a lot of workshops on incorporating mindfulness into everyday life, both in and out of law practice. Often, the lawyers in the room have very idealistic expectations about what meditation will do for them and how their minds will behave during meditation.

The lawyers expect to “ace” meditation on the first try. They think during meditation, their mind will be completely free of thoughts and they’ll experience instant-stress-free-state on demand. This would be akin to having a model-like body after going to the gym once. Meditation practice, much like law practice …

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Is mindfulness another task on your to-do list?

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Kathy Walsh, Huffington Post: Is mindfulness just another thing on your to-do list? Or is it woven into your day, like a beautiful golden thread through your tapestry. Are you rushing through your mindful activity? Or are you doing it with joy? Does it come from your heart and soul or your mind?

Today, I have to

1) Do Laundry

2) Buy Groceries

3) Drive Carpool to Practice

4) Call Babysitter

5) Be Positive

6) Write in a Gratitude Journal

7) Meditate

Is mindfulness just another thing on your to-do list? Or is it woven into your day, like a beautiful golden thread through your tapestry. Are you rushing through your mindful activity? Or are you doing it with joy? Does it come from your heart and soul or your mind?

I began mindful parenting 28 years ago when I was pregnant with my first daughter. I meditated to dolphin music, wrote my thoughts and feelings in a journal, and sent positive, loving thoughts to the…

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Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Click here to find out about the many benefits of being a sponsor.

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The surprising benefits of compassion meditation

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Stacey Colino, USNews: In recent years, mindfulness meditation has garnered loads of attention for its beneficial effects on the body and mind. Now, there’s a new star on the block: compassion meditation, a less well-known but increasingly popular contemplative practice that aims to strengthen feelings of compassion and empathy toward different people (both those you care about and those who are difficult).

“It’s deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophy, which has taught us a lot about how people are connected and what is the purpose of our existence,” explains Stefan G. Hofmann, a professor of psychology in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University. “Compassion is the fundamental idea at the root of Buddhist philosophy – if life is suffering and we can’t avoid it, we need to embrace it and be compassionate toward the suffering of others. It brings us closer to others.”

See also:

More than just a feel-good practice, compassion meditation leads to improved mood, more altruistic behavior, less anger, reduced stress and decreased maladaptive mind wandering, according to recent research. A 2013 study at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle found that practicing loving-kindness meditation (a form of compassion meditation) for 12 weeks reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as well as anger and depression among veterans with PTSD. A 2005 study from Duke University Medical Center found that practicing loving-kindness meditation for eight weeks reduced pain and psychological distress among patients with chronic low back pain. And a 2015 study from Brazil found that practicing yoga along with compassion meditation three times a week for eight weeks improved quality of life, vitality, attention and self-compassion among family caregivers of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. …

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Wildmind is a Community-Supported Meditation Initiative. Click here to find out about the many benefits of being a sponsor.

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Increase happiness and sense of well-being through meditation

Jeena Cho, Forbes: Scientists used to believe that people had a set happiness index. Some people were born with a disposition towards happiness while others were more prone to embracing misery. Time’s article, reported that “neither very good events nor very bad events seem to change people’s happiness much in the long term.” Studies indicate that most people “revert back to some kind of baseline happiness level within a couple years of even the most devastating events, like the death of a spouse or loss of limbs.” However, recent studies show that with practice …

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This difficult thing of being human

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It’s always good to remember that life isn’t easy.

I don’t mean to say that life is always hard in the sense of it always being painful. Clearly there are times when we’re happy, when things are going well, when we feel that our life is headed in the right direction and that even greater fulfillment is just ahead of us, etc.

What I mean is that even when we have times in our life that are good, that doesn’t last. In fact, often the things we’re so excited and happy about later turn out to be things that also cause us suffering.

For example, you start a brand new relationship and you’re in love and it’s exciting and fulfilling. And then you find yourself butting heads with your partner, and you hurt each others’ feelings. Maybe you even split up. Does that sound familiar?

For example, the new job that you’re thrilled about turns out to contain stresses you hadn’t imagined. Has that ever happened?

For example, the house you’re so pleased to have bought inevitably ends up requiring maintenance. Or perhaps the house value plummets. Or perhaps your circumstances change and you find it a struggle to meet the mortgage. Maybe you’ve been lucky, or maybe you’ve been there.

Happiness has a way of evaporating. Unhappiness has a way of sneaking up on us and sucker-punching us in the gut.

On a deep level, none of really understand happiness and unhappiness. If we truly understood the dynamics of these things, we’d be happy all the time and would never be miserable. We’d be enlightened. But pre-enlightenment, we’re all stumbling in the dark, and sometimes colliding painfully with life as we do so.

This being human is not easy. We’re doing a difficult thing in living a human life.

It’s good to accept all this, because life is so much harder when we think it should be easy. When we think life should be straightforward, and that we think we have it all sorted out, then unhappiness becomes a sign that we’ve “failed.” And that makes being in pain even more painful.

We haven’t failed when we’re unhappy; we’re just being human. We’re simply experiencing the tender truth of what it is to live a human life.

So when you’re unhappy, don’t beat yourself up about it. Don’t fight it. Accept that this is how things are right now. Often when you do that, you’ll very quickly—sometimes instantly—start to feel better. By accepting our suffering, we start to move through it.

And as you look around you, realize that everyone else is doing this difficult thing of being human too. They’re all struggling. We’re all struggling. We all want happiness and find happiness elusive. We all want to avoid suffering and yet keep stumbling into it, over and over.

Many of the things that bother you about other people are their attempts to deal with this difficult existential situation, in which we desire happiness, and don’t experience as much of it as we want, and desire to be free from suffering, and yet keep becoming trapped in it. Their moods, their clinging, their anger—all of these are the results of human beings struggling to find happiness, and having trouble doing so.

If we can recognize that this human life is not easy—if we can empathize with that very basic existential fact—then perhaps we can be just a little kinder to ourselves and others. And that would help make this human life just a little easier to navigate.

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Dodging sticks and chasing carrots

photo-1442782844694-d3cb0de38fd4Scientists believe that your brain has a built-in “negativity bias.” In other words, as we evolved over millions of years, dodging sticks and chasing carrots, it was a lot more important to notice, react to, and remember sticks than it was for carrots.

That’s because – in the tough environments in which our ancestors lived – if they missed out on a carrot, they usually had a shot at another one later on. But if they failed to avoid a stick – a predator, a natural hazard, or aggression from others of their species – WHAM, no more chances to pass on their genes.

The negativity bias shows up in lots of ways. For example, studies have found that:

  • In a relationship, it typically takes five good interactions to make up for a single bad one
  • People will work much harder to avoid losing $100 than they will work to gain the same amount of money
  • Painful experiences are much more memorable than pleasurable ones

In your own mind, what do you usually think about at the end of the day? The fifty things that went right, or the one that went wrong? Like the guy who cut you off in traffic, what you wish you had said differently to a co-worker, or the one thing on your To Do list that didn’t get done . . .

In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. That shades “implicit memory” – your underlying expectations, beliefs, action strategies, and mood – in an increasingly negative direction.

And that’s just not fair, since probably most of the facts in your life are positive or neutral. Every day, lots of good things happen, such as a lovely sunset, someone is nice to you, you finish a batch of emails, or you learn something new. And lots of other good things are ongoing aspects of your world (e.g., your children are healthy, life is peaceful in your corner of the planet) or yourself (e.g., personal qualities like determination, sincerity, fairness, kindness).

Besides the sheer injustice of it, acquiring a big pile of negative experiences in implicit memory banks naturally makes a person more anxious, irritable, and blue. Plus it makes it harder to be patient and giving toward others.

In evolution, Mother Nature only cares about passing on genes – by any means necessary. She doesn’t care if we happen to suffer along the way – from subtle worries to intense feelings of sorrow, worthlessness, or anger – or create suffering for others.

The result: a brain that is tilted against lasting contentment and fulfillment.

But you don’t have to accept this bias! By tilting toward the good – “good” in the practical sense of that which brings more happiness to oneself and more helpfulness to others – you merely level the playing field.

You’ll still see the tough parts of life. In fact, you’ll become more able to change them or bear them if you tilt toward the good, since that will help put challenges in perspective, lift your energy and spirits, highlight useful resources, and fill up your own cup so you have more to offer to others.

And now, tilted toward absorbing the good, instead of positive experiences washing through you like water through a sieve, they’ll collect in implicit memory deep down in your brain. In the famous saying, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The more you get your neurons firing about positive facts, the more they’ll be wiring up positive neural structures.

Taking in the good is a brain-science savvy and psychologically skillful way to improve how you feel, get things done, and treat others. It is among the top five personal growth methods I know. In addition to being good for adults, it’s great for children, helping them to become more resilient, confident, and happy.

Here’s how to take in the good – in three simple steps.

1. Look for good facts, and turn them into good experiences.

Good facts include positive events – like the taste of good coffee or getting an unexpected compliment – and positive aspects of the world and yourself. When you notice something good, let yourself feel good about it.

Try to do this at least a half dozen times a day. There are lots of opportunities to notice good events, and you can always recognize good things about the world and yourself. Each time takes just 30 seconds or so. It’s private; no one needs to know you are taking in the good. You can do it on the fly in daily life, or at special times of reflection, like just before falling asleep (when the brain is especially receptive to new learning).

Notice any reluctance to feeling good. Such as thinking that you don’t deserve to, or that it’s selfish, vain, or even shameful to feel pleasure. Or that if you feel good, you will lower your guard and let bad things happen.

Barriers to feeling good are common and understandable – but they get in the way of you taking in the resources you need to feel better, have more strength, and have more inside to give to others. So acknowledge them to yourself, and then turn your attention back to the good news. Keep opening up to it, breathing and relaxing, letting the good facts affect you.

It’s like sitting down to a meal: don’t just look at it—taste it!

2. Really enjoy the experience.

Most of the time, a good experience is pretty mild, and that’s fine. But try to stay with it for 20 or 30 seconds in a row – instead of getting distracted by something else.

As you can, sense that it is filling your body, becoming a rich experience. As Marc Lewis and other researchers have shown, the longer that something is held in awareness and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons that fire and thus wire together, and the stronger the trace in memory.

You are not craving or clinging to positive experiences, since that would ultimately lead to tension and disappointment. Actually, you are doing the opposite: by taking them in and filling yourself up with them, you will increasingly feel less fragile or needy inside, and less dependent on external supplies; your happiness and love will become more unconditional, based on an inner fullness rather than on whether the momentary facts in your life happen to be good ones.

3. Intend and sense that the good experience is sinking into you.

People do this in different ways. Some feel it in their body like a warm glow spreading through their chest like the warmth of a cup of hot cocoa on a cold wintry day. Others visualize things like a golden syrup sinking down inside, bringing good feelings and soothing old places of hurt, filling in old holes of loss or yearning; a child might imagine a jewel going into a treasure chest in her heart. And some might simply know conceptually, that while this good experience is held in awareness, its neurons are firing busily away, and gradually wiring together.

Any single time you do this will make only a little difference. But over time those little differences will add up, gradually weaving positive experiences into the fabric of your brain and your self.

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