Happiness: A Guide to Developing
Life's Most Important Skill
by Matthieu Ricard
When our thoughts become our worst
When we are unhappy, we can’t help
thinking that certain images are armed with claws and stingers
to torture us with.
Stricken by the loss of a loved one, distraught over a
break-up, laid low by failure, devastated by the suffering
of others, or consumed by negative thoughts, we sometimes
get the feeling that life as a whole is spinning apart.
It can get so that there seems to be no safe way out at
all. Sadness settles like a pall over the mind. “Just
one person has left us, and the world is emptied of people,”
lamented Lamartine. Unable to imagine an end to our pain,
we withdraw into ourselves and dread every coming moment.
“When I tried to think clearly about this, I felt
that my mind was emmured, that it could not expand in any
direction. I knew that the sun was rising and setting, but
little of its light reached me,” writes Andrew Solomon.
As harrowing as the situation may be – the death of
a close friend, for instance – there are countless
ways to experience the ordeal. Happiness is bound up with
distress when we lack adequate inner resources to sustain
certain basic elements of sukha: the joy of being alive,
the conviction that we still have the ability to flourish,
an understanding of the ephemeral nature of all things.
It isn’t necessarily the great external upheavals
that distress us most. It has often been observed that depression
and suicide rates decline considerably in times of war.
Natural disasters, too, sometimes bring out the best in
humankind in terms of courage, solidarity and the will to
live. Altruism and mutual assistance contribute greatly
to reducing the post-traumatic stress associated with tragedies.
Most of the time, it is not outward events, but our own
mind and negative emotions that make us unable to maintain
our inner peace and drag us down.
The conflictive emotions tie knots in our chest that obstinately
refuse to be unraveled. In vain we try to fight them or
reduce them to silence. We’ve only just gotten out
from under them, we imagine, when they erupt again with
renewed vigor. Such emotional distress is notably resistant
to soothing and every attempt to be rid of it seems doomed
to failure. During such conflicts, our world shatters into
a multitude of contradictions that generate adversity, oppression
and anguish. What went wrong?
Thoughts can be our best friends and our worst enemies.
When they make us feel that the entire world is against
us, every perception, every encounter and the world’s
very existence become sources of torment. It is our thoughts
themselves that “rise up as enemies.” They stampede
through our mind by the droves, each one creating its own
little phantasmagoria in a turmoil of ever-increasing confusion.
Nothing is right outside, because nothing is right inside.
When we get a close look at the tenor of our everyday
thoughts, we realize the extent to which they color the
inner film that we project onto the world. The worrier fears
the least journey – if he needs to take a plane, he
thinks it will crash; if he has to drive, he’ll have
an accident; if he’s seeing the doctor, he worries
that he has cancer. For a jealous man, his lover’s
most innocuous travels are suspect, the least smile directed
elsewhere is a source of anguish, and the least absence
raises a host of senseless doubts raging through his mind.
For these two subjects, as for the hot-tempered, the miser,
the obsessive, thoughts swell into daily tempests that cast
a pall over life by destroying their own joie de vivre and
that of the people around them.
Yet this knot in our chest was tied not by our unfaithful
husband, our object of desire, our dishonest colleague or
our unjust accuser, but by our own mind. It is the result
of mental constructs that, as they accumulate and solidify,
give the illusion of being external and real. What provides
the raw material for that knot and allows it to form within
us is the exacerbated sense of self-importance. Anything
that does not respond to the self’s demands becomes
a disturbance, a threat or an insult. The past is painful,
we are unable to enjoy the present, and we tremble before
the projection of our future anguish. According to Andrew
Solomon, “In depression, all that is happening in
the present is the anticipation of pain in the future, and
the present qua present no longer exists at all.”
The inability to manage our thoughts proves to be the principal
cause of suffering. Learning to tone down the ceaseless
racket of disturbing thoughts is a decisive stage on the
road to inner peace. As Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche explains:
“These trains of thought and states of mind are
constantly changing, like the shapes of clouds in the
wind, but we attach great importance to them. An old man
watching children at play knows very well that their games
are of little consequence. He feels neither elated nor
upset at what happens in their game, while the children
take it all very seriously. We are just exactly them.”
We must acknowledge that, so long as we have not actualized
sukha, our happiness is at the mercy of the storm. We can
respond to heartbreaks by trying to forget them, distracting
ourselves, moving away, going on a trip, and so on, but
these are merely plaster casts on a wooden leg. As Boileau
“In vain he flees his troubles on a horse –
They share the saddle and see him on his course.”
First things first
How do we go about making peace with our own emotions?
First of all, we have to take a long, slow look at the raw
power of inner suffering. Instead of avoiding it or burying
it away in some dark corner of our mind, let us make it
the object of our meditation, but without ruminating the
events that caused the pain or poring over every freeze-frame
from the movie of our life. Why is it unnecessary at this
stage to dwell on the distant causes of our suffering? The
Buddha offered the following image: Will a man who has just
been struck in the chest by an arrow ask himself: “What
wood is the arrow made of? What kind of bird do the feathers
come from? What craftsman made it? Was he a good man or
a scoundrel? How many children does he have?” He certainly
won’t. His first concern will be to tear the arrow
from his chest.
When a painful emotion strikes us full on, the most urgent
thing is to look at it head on and to identify the immediate
thoughts that triggered and are fanning it. Then, by simply
by fixing our inner gaze on the emotion itself, we can gradually
dissolve it like snow in sunshine. Furthermore, once the
strength of the emotion has been sapped, the causes that
triggered it will seem less tragic and we will have won
ourselves the chance to break free from the vicious circle
of negative thoughts.
Contemplating the nature of the mind
How can we prevent the perpetual re-emergence of disturbing
thoughts? If we resign ourselves to being the perpetual
victims of our thoughts, we are like dogs who run after
every stick thrown for them. Closely identifying with every
thought, we follow it and reinforce it with boundless emotional
So, we need to take a closer look at mind itself. The first
things we notice are the currents of thought that are continuously
flowing without our even being aware of them. Like it or
not, countless thoughts born of our sensations, our memories
and our imagination are forever streaming through our minds.
But there is a quality of mind that is always present no
matter what kind of thoughts we entertain. That quality
is the primary consciousness underlying all thought. It
is what remains in the rare moment when the mind is at rest,
almost motionless, even as it retains its ability to know.
That faculty, that simple “open presence,” is
what we may call “pure consciousness” because
it can exist in the absence of mental constructs.
In pursuing the mind’s observation of itself even
further, we will find ourselves experiencing this “pure
consciousness” and the thoughts that emerge from it.
It does exist. But what else can we say besides that? Is
it possible, in studying these thoughts, to assign them
any inherent characteristics? Do they have a particular
localization? No. A color? A shape? Neither. All we find
is the quality of “knowing,” but no intrinsic
features of their own. In “pure consciousness”
we experience the mind as “empty of inherent existence.”
This notion of emptiness of thought is undoubtedly very
foreign to Western psychology. What purpose does it serve?
First of all, when a powerful emotion or thought arises
– anger, for instance – what normally occurs?
We are very easily overwhelmed by this thought, which is
amplified and multiplied into numerous new thoughts that
disturb and blind us, and prompt us to utter words and commit
acts, sometimes violent ones, which make others suffer and
soon become a source of regret. Instead of unleashing that
cataclysm, we can examine the angry thought itself and come
to see that it has been nothing but “smoke and mirrors”
from the start.
When we understand that thoughts emerge from pure consciousness
and are then reabsorbed in it, just as waves emerge from
the ocean and dissolve into it again, we have taken a great
stride towards inner peace. From that moment, our thoughts
have lost a great deal of their power to disturb us. To
familiarize ourselves with this method, when a thought arises,
let us try to see where it came from; when it disappears,
let us ask ourselves where it went. In that brief moment
when our mind is not encumbered by discursive thoughts,
let us contemplate its nature. In that instant when past
thoughts have fallen silent and future ones have yet to
emerge, we can perceive a pure and luminous consciousness
unadulterated by our conceptual constructs. Proceeding by
direct experience, we gradually come to understand what
Buddhism means by the “nature of mind.”
It is not easy to experience “pure consciousness,”
but it is possible. My dearly missed friend Francisco Varela,
a leading researcher in the cognitive sciences and practitioner
of Buddhist meditation, confided in me, when we spoke at
length a few weeks before his death of generalized cancer,
that he had managed to spend practically all his time in
that “pure awareness.” The physical pain seemed
very distant to him and was no hindrance to his inner peace.
Moreover, he needed only the weakest doses of painkillers.
His wife Amy told me later that he maintained that contemplative
serenity until his very last breath.
Look at what is behind the curtain of discursive thoughts.
Try to find a waking presence there, free of mental fabrications,
transparent, luminous, untroubled by thoughts of the past,
the present and the future. Try to linger in the present
moment, free of concepts. Watch the nature of the gap between
thoughts, which is free from mental constructs. Gradually
extend the interval between the disappearance of one thought
and the emergence of the next.
Remain in a state of simplicity that is free of mental constructs,
yet perfectly aware; beyond effort, yet alert and mindful.
As you thus observe the wellspring of thoughts, it is possible
to break their endless proliferation. You are no longer
the dog running after every stick, but the lion that won’t
play the game; instead of chasing after the stick, the lion
turns on the thrower.