Ilya Vasilenko
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A Monk's Guide to Happiness. Gelong Thubten

The author defines happiness as a combination of completeness (not wishing anything you don't have), being anchored to the present (having a full focus on the current moment) and freedom (not dredging about the past, not anticipating the future and not wishing the current moment were different). The path to that is the meditation: (1) focus on your breath, on a sound or on an object (2) whenever your mind drifts away, notice that (3) do not get pissed off - just gently bring the focus back. He advices to practice it constantly to be in peace also in the moments when you don't medidate.

Gelong Thubten is a Buddhist monk, meditation teacher and author from the UK. Read more on his homepage.

In order to strive for happiness, you need a definition.

The author defines happiness as a combination of:
  • Sense of fullness - Don't feel we are lacking anything in our experience of the present moment. Don't wish anything we don't already have. (Example: If I only would have this new device, a better job, a better appartment, then I would be happy.)
  • Feeling anchored to the present moment - Full focus on the moment we're experiencing.
  • Sense of freedom - Don't dredge the past, don't anticipate the future, don't wish the present were different.

How does the unhappiness evolve?

It starts from desiring something and searching for happiness outside of ourselves resulting into feeling of incompleteness resulting into being unhappy.
  • Desire: When we want something, it's usually something that we lack but think we should have. (E.g. we think we deserve a promotion and once we get it, we would be happy. If we do not receive a promotion, we feel incomplete because we think we would be happy if we would get a promotion.) But a happiness resulting from receiving what we were desiring doesn't last long - we start quickly looking for the next thing we want.
  • Wrong assumption: The underlying assumption that the happiness comes from outside of ourselves (material objects, experiences, achievements) is wrong. Our happiness seems to be tided to these things, while our unhappiness seems to be the result of not having them. It puts our happiness at the mercy of outside forces, which are often beyond our control.

Modern society supports unhappiness

Advertisements and social media tell us to buy a product or to go and get an experience to become more beautiful, respected or efficient - which implies that we are not beautiful, respected and efficient enough. Social media delivers a constant never ending stream of fresh content. It overstimulates the brain. Junk brain food pumps our bodies full of sugar and caffeine. We become accustom to the sensory overload and the more easily we get bored and distracted, the easier we crave for more stimulation.

What's wrong with external sources of happiness?

They don't last forever (e.g. a sunset, a romantic moment) - when they end, you look for the next one. If we try to control them, we often fail (e.g. prevening our partner from leaving us). Even when we get what we want, we keep scanning the world for the next something just out of reach - like a guy at a party who constantly looks for another person to talk to. He always thinks about his next conversation, never completely engaged or satisfied with the one he's having.

What's wrong with pushing feelings, emotions, thoughts away?

We try to get rid of people, places, situations, thoughts, emotions we would rather not experience. E.g. headache - besides the physical suffering that might be unavoidable, there is also a mental resistance that you feel toward your pain ("I don't want this! Go away!"). If you stop pushing against a headache (or any other problem you are experiencing), you will still have the headache, but no more discomfort from resisting it. Instead, you feel a sense of neutrality which gives a sense of peace.
Stop pushing away. Stop grasping. Just let it be.

The path to let it be.

If you want to train your body's muscles, you work out. To strengthen your mind's capabilities you need a mental training. Common misconception about the meditation is that it is a method of stress release. Meditation is rather a method to develop the ability to be happy when we are not meditating. Meditation is practicing the skills of neutrally observing our thoughts, emotions, sensations and experiences.
1. Focus your mind on an anchor. 2. Notice it's drifted. 3. Gently bring it back to your anchor. 4. Repeat.
  1. Focus our minds on an anchor in the present moment (beginners - breath, body, a visual object or a sound around us). Be fully and non-judgmentally focused on whatever we're experiencing in the present moment.
  2. When the mind wanders away, simply notice that you have drifted. Do NOT resist the the fact of wandering, don't try to grasp the anchor - 'Oh, no, I've messed up! I lost focus!'. The key is to realize that the mental wandering isn't a failure - if our mind would not drift away, we would not have a chance to practice!
  3. After having noticed the drift, gently bring our attention back to our anchor.
Practicing mindful moments during the day: Pick two or three ordinary actions that you usually do mindlessly (brushing teeth, eathing lunch, climing the stairs, sitting in a chair, talking a walk, stuck in traffic, waiting at the doctor's office). Then, practice the three phases of meditation while you perform them every day. E.g. by brushing, focus on the taste of the toothpaste, sound of the brush scrubbing against the teeth. Incorporate this behaviour into other simple activities during the day.
Do NOT close your eyes or play meditation music when meditating - the objective is to be mindful when we are not meditating, when we are in a normal environment.

General rule for handling mistakes

If you would not make mistakes (like drifting your focus away from the anchor), then you would not have a chance to practice. So, it is not a fail, it is an opportunity for practice!

Ilya's remarks and references

  • Overall concept of Zen: Sense of mindfullness of the current moment.
  • Overall concept of Stoicismus: Distinguish between what you can and cannot control. Focus only on things you can control.
  • Regarding social media: Stomach is cleverer than the brain - it vomits from bad food.
  • Other books: 'The Miracle of Mindfulness' Thích Nhất Hạnh (now in his 90s, he is a renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Zen master, co-founder of Plum Village Monastery and author of more than 100 books).

Summary by Ilya Vasilenko.

Ilya Vasilenko