If you want to have a good time, ask a Buddhist
Buddhism argues that happiness comes from how deeply or mindfully you’re absorbed in an experience
What with positive emotions being, shall we say, thin on the ground these days – in public life, anyway – I was pleased to encounter this wise insight into how to generate more of them, courtesy of the German-born Buddhist nun Ayya Khema: “We may believe that it’s the quality of the sunset that gives us such pleasure, but in fact it is the quality of our own immersion in the sunset that brings the delight.” That seems like a technical distinction and, to be fair, Buddhist teachers do love making technical distinctions. But this isn’t one. It’s a crucial point about human happiness that might make us all more cheerful if we grasped it.
To begin with the basics: most of us, most of the time, act as if it’s external circumstances that make us happy. That’s plainly true in the case of the deluded materialist who thinks earning millions will bring lasting joy. But it’s no less true of the discerning soul who seeks happiness in family, or nature, or improving the world: they’re all still external circumstances. Buddhism, a more radical creed than it’s often given credit for, rejects that, arguing that happiness comes not from what you’re experiencing, but from how deeply or mindfully you’re absorbed in that experience. It’s definitely easier to get absorbed in a “nice” experience like a sunset than, say, battling with a supermarket self-checkout machine. But ultimately it’s the quality of your experiencing that counts. That’s why, in the states of extreme concentration known as “jhanas”, Buddhist meditators can reach heights of rapture by focusing on something as boring as the breath.
Having misunderstood the source of positive emotions, we naturally then bungle how we respond to them: we try to get more of the external thing we believe is causing our happiness, or fear we’re going to lose it – both of which are recipes for misery. As the meditation teacher Allen Weiss wrote in the Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar: “What we don’t do, but should do, is to put our attention directly on the subjective feeling of the emotion that has arisen.” Focus on the feeling, not the sunset. It’s a curious truth that when you gently pay attention to negative emotions, they tend to dissipate – but positive ones expand.
And just to be clear: this isn’t positive thinking, which entails convincing yourself your external circumstances are, or soon will be, better than they are, or “deciding” you’re going to feel happy. Instead, it means paying attention to positive emotions that already exist. And in virtually any life, however beleaguered, they do exist. Maybe it’s the tiny whisper of pleasure at stepping into the shower, sipping a cup of tea, or feeling the breeze on your skin. See if you can focus on the emotion – the pleasure, not the shower or the tea – for at least 20 seconds, Weiss advises. You should find it grows.
I anticipate the usual objection: if everyone grew permanently blissed-out about showers and tea, would nothing get done? Would people stop fighting injustice? The answer, to paraphrase the author Robert Wright, is: maybe! But look around. We’re a long way from needing to worry about that yet.
You can hear hundreds of talks on meditation by Ayya Khema and other teachers – from the easy-to-grasp to the ultra-technical – at the Dharmaseed.org website and app.