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Happiness: A Guide to Developing
Life's Most Important Skill

by Matthieu Ricard

Chapter 7

When our thoughts become our worst enemies

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 put it:

“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 entanglements.

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.


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