By MARIA WINKLER
For four consecutive Friday evenings, eight members of FCM gathered virtually and shared reflections and personal insights inspired by our reading and study of the book, Happiness, by Matthieu Ricard, instead of pursuing the worldly idea of fun on a Friday night.
We were learning, studying and reflecting on life’s most important skill – learning how to be happy -- in the class “Cultivating Happiness in a Difficult and Changing World.”
It was the second time that I had worked with this book. This time I had volunteered to facilitate a discussion group, and that small step from participant to facilitator made a difference in how carefully I read the book and let the written word sink into my awareness.
Ricard’s approach is broad. He refers to many Western philosophers, such as Aristotle, Seneca, St. Augustine, Wittgenstein and others, and weaves in their knowledge and wisdom to support Buddhist insights and spiritual path.
Ricard posits that we all strive consciously or unconsciously to be happier – and that some do it competently, some clumsily. And I have to admit that I have been quite clumsy in my approach to happiness for decades.
For many years I thought and acted with the ingrained belief that if I just worked harder, applied better standards and set stricter boundaries in my work and private life and defended these boundaries vigorously, I would be happier. Now I realize I do not need to have the strictest of standards to be happy.
What I actually need is to change this notion “this is my territory – this is your territory!” When I approach family life, work and life in general with openness and a sense of interconnectedness and interdependence, I am kinder, less harsh in my expression and less demanding of myself and others. In other words, I am much happier.
Aristotle called happiness the ONLY goal! And St. Augustine posits that “the desire to be happy inspires every thought, every word, and every act so naturally that we are totally unaware of it.” This was such an “Aha” moment for me that I have this sentence underlined in red as well as highlighted in yellow. Imagine, EVERY act you do, EVERY word you say, EVERY thought you think is motivated by the desire to be happy! When I was wishing that someone would “drop dead,” all I was trying to do was to be happy?? How misguided!
“Dropping dead” thoughts made me feel jittery, made me feel lonely and prone to saying harsh words, and they did NOT make me happy! How could I have been so unaware of the effect of my mind states on my ability to be happy? It seems I needed to come to FCM, this “University of the Mind,” and listen to lectures, take courses, attend retreats and practice sessions and learn about the proven path to happiness!
Ricard gave us an exercise to look at how little one’s happiness is derived from outer circumstances and how much from one’s state of mind. I say harsh words and expect to be happy? I have judgmental thoughts, desiring or aversive thoughts and still believe they have no bearing on my inner harmony and fulfillment? Up until this reading and reflection, I really didn’t connect the dots.
Now that I have connected the dots between inner harmony and happiness and my thoughts, words and actions, I am slowing my life down. If I am going too fast, I miss the opportunity to recognize and be mindful of my desiring, craving or averting mind state. To let go of wanting or to let go of expecting a particular behavior or outcome is key for me.
Recognizing these expectations early in the mental game is most important. Often, I fail at early detection of the need for letting go. However, I catch myself more and more when angry or unwholesome thoughts arise. Then I close my eyes and pause to access inner calm. Or I look directly at the disturbing thought and something of its power is undermined and it dissipates. Now, l when I sit in meditation and practice to be centered and equanimous, more often than not, I feel grateful and happy.
Yes, it is true, we can cultivate happiness because happiness is essentially an interior state of being.
Maria Winkler is a retired mathematics educator and a yoga/wellness instructor and a member of FCM since 2012. She practices with the Naples Sangha.