In this inspiring and nuanced podcast, Buddhist teacher Tara Brach explores how we can free ourselves from relying on external conditions to be happy. We spend the majority of our days striving to create conditions which we think will make us happy, a state Brach calls if-only mind (if only I had that job/relationship/body, etc. then I could be happy).
This strategy rarely works, however. Not only are the conditions often out of our control, but we’ve all had the experience of getting what we thought we wanted, only to realize it doesn’t make us so happy after all. Rather than question the approach, however, we tend to just shift the object of our desire, convinced that the next thing is what will really make us happy.
Worse still, Brach points out that our relentless pursuit actually moves us away from happiness:
While we’re pursuing if-only mind…we’re not in the one place where we can actually touch into true happiness, we’re not right here in the present moment.
Contrary to some misconceptions, Buddhism does not hold that there’s something inherently wrong with desires or enjoying happiness arising from sensory pleasures, pamoja in Pali. The problem, Brach explains, comes only when we cling to pleasurable circumstances as a prerequisite to our wellbeing. But if we can hold it lightly (kissing joy as it flies by, to paraphrase William Blake), pamoja can be the gateway into ‘happiness for no reason’, or sukha.
The basis for unconditioned happiness is learning to accept, and eventually love, life just as it is, no matter what arises. As Brach says,
How many moments are discounted as not real life? In any moment, you can make that U-turn to just choosing presence.
Brach teaches that the second part of the path towards unconditioned happiness is intentionally paying attention to “ways that gladden the heart”: cultivating qualities such as gratitude, service and loving kindness.
The work of psychologists including Martin Seligman and Rick Hanson has shown that we can train ourselves out of negative thought patterns and become happier as a result. Hanson explains that our brains are hard-wired with a negativity bias in order to keep us safe: bad experiences sink in to our brains, whereas positive experiences make less of an impact. To help anchor the good ones, Hanson teaches a method of training positive neuroplasticity he calls HEAL:
- HAVE a good experience (here’s where small joys can act as a portal to something deeper).
- ENRICH the experience by paying full attention to it while it’s happening and tuning into how it feels in the body.
- ABSORB the experience—taking 10 to 20 seconds to savor positive moments allows them to sink into your neural structure.
- LINK positive and negative material (optional): if you can stay strong with the positive feeling while thinking about a negative experience, it can soothe and gradually replace the negative memory.
Both choosing the U-turn back to presence when we catch a negative thought loop and programming positive mind-states require coming back to over and over again. But, like any skill, it becomes easier with practice, and what could be more worthwhile than learning to better enjoy our—ultimately finite—moments? As Hanson quotes a Tibetan saying,
If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.