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Just one guy's highlights from 'Happiness: a guide to developing life's most important skill'

I have just finished reading what I think will end up becoming a life changing book for me. It is Matthieu Ricard’s “Happiness: A guide to developing life’s most important skill”. Its a book that makes many fundamental Buddhist teachings understandable and available to the Western psyche, written by a long time French Buddhist monk. As I was reading it, I aggressively book darted all the parts that spoke most strongly to me. At the end this made me wonder what it would be like to just read all these key parts sequentially - so I just did it. The outcome of that exercise can be found below (from here on out everything is quoted directly from the book, citation at the bottom).

Having just read this book, I am amazed at how coherent this ‘summary’ feels although it isn’t a summary at all. There are jumps, but somehow a single thread still seems to hold all the thoughts together. I think possibly a great way to bring back the highlights of a book long after you’ve read it. I hope you will agree this concept is up for repetition!

  1. Are atoms “things” or mere “observable phenomena”? Does the notion of a “first came” to the universe stand up to analysis? Is there a solid reality behind the veil of appearances? Is the universe made of “interdependent events” or of “autonomous entities”? We found striking philosophical similarities between the Copenhagen school’s interpretation of quantum physics and Buddhist analysis of reality.

  2. Anyone who enjoys inner peace is no more broken by failure than he is inflated by success. He is able to fully live his experiences in the context of a vast and profound serenity, since he understands that experiences are ephemeral and that it is useless to cling to them. There will be no “hard fall” when things turn bad and he is confronted with adversity. He does not sink into depression, since his happiness rests on a sold foundation.

  3. We take for permanent that which is ephemeral and for happiness that which is but a source of suffering: the desire for wealth, for power, for fame, and for nagging pleasures.

  4. We all strive consciously or unconsciously, competently or clumsily, passionately or calmly, adventurously or routinely, to be happier and suffer less. Yet we so often confuse genuine happiness with merely seeking enjoyable emotions.

  5. (on meditation) As you persevere, your concentration will become more clear and stable. If you feel sleepy, assume a straighter posture and lift your gaze slightly upward to revive you awareness. Conversely, if your mind becomes agitated, relax your posture, direct your gaze slightly downward, and let any inner tension dissolve.

  6. Being born with a handicap, falling ill, losing a loved one, or being caught up in war or in a natural disaster are all beyond our control. Unhappiness is altogether different, being the way in which we experience our suffering. Unhappiness may indeed be associated with physical or moral pain inflicted by exterior conditions, but it is not essentially linked to it.

  7. As for a real end, in which something becomes nothing, it is really impossible. As it happens, wherever life exists in the universe, so does suffering: disease, old age, death, separation from loved ones, forced coexistence with our oppressors, denial of basic necessities, confrontations with what we fear, and so on. Despite all that, this vision does not lead Buddhism to the view held by certain Western philosophers for whom suffering is inevitable and happiness out of reach.

  8. Over 2,500 years ago, seven weeks after attaining enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha gave his first teaching in the Deep Park outside Varanasi. There he taught the Four Noble Truths. The first is the truth of suffering - not only the kind of suffering that is obvious to the eye, but also the kind, as we have seen, that exists in subtler forms. The second is the truth of the causes of suffering - ignorance that engenders craving, malice, pride, and many other thoughts that poison our lives and those of others. Since these mental poisons can be eliminated, an end to suffering - the third truth - is therefore possible. The fourth truth is the path that turns that potential into reality. The path is the process of using all available means to eliminate the fundamental causes of suffering. In brief we must: “Recognise suffering, Eliminate its source, End it, By practicing the path.”

  9. (On meditation) When you inhale, visualise your heart as a bright, luminous sphere. Imagine that you are taking upon yourself, in the form of a gray cloud, the disease, confusions and mental toxins of these people, which disappears into the white light of your heart without leaving any trace. This will transform both your own suffering and that of others. There is no sense that you are being burdened by them. When you are taking upon yourself and dissolving their sufferings, feel a great happiness, without attachment or clinging.

  10. Looking inward, we freeze the flow of consciousness when we conceive of an “I” enthroned between a past that no longer exists and a future that does not exist yet. We take it for granted that we see things as they are an rarely question that opinion. We spontaneously assign intrinsic qualities to things and people thinking “this is beautiful, that is ugly,” without realising that our mind superimposes these attributes upon what we perceive. We divide the entire world between “desirable” and “undesirable”, we ascribe permanence to ephemera and see independent entities in what is actually a network of ceaselessly changing relations. We tend to isolate particular aspects of events, situations, and people, and to focus entirely upon these particularities. This is how we end up laying others as “enemies”, “good,” “evil,” et cetera, and clinging strongly to those attributions.

  11. For Buddhism, paradoxically, genuine self-confidence is the natural quality of egolessness. To dispel the illusion of the ego is to free oneself from a fundamental vulnerability. The fact is, the sense of security derived from that illusion is eminently fragile. Genuine confidence comes from an awareness of a basic quality of our mind and our potential for transformation and flourishing, what Buddhism calls buddha nature, which is present in all of us. Such recognition imparts peaceful strength that cannot be threatened by external circumstances or inner fears, a freedom that transcends self-absorption and anxiety.

  12. Buddhism therefore concludes that the self is just a name we give to a continuum, just as we name a river the Ganges or the Mississippi. Such a continuum certainly exists, but only as a convention based upon the interdependence of the consciousness, the body, and the environment. It is entirely without autonomous existence.

  13. 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 allow it to form within us is an exacerbated sense of self-importance. Anything that does not respond to the self’s demands becomes a disturbance, a threat or an insult. That past is painful, we are unable to enjoy the present, and we tremble before the projection of our future anguish.

  14. One of the best ways to achieve that state is to meditate on feelings that transcend our mental afflictions. If, for instance, we gradually let our mind be invaded by a feeling of love and compassion for all beings, the warmth of such a thought will very likely melt the ice of our frustrations, while its gentleness will cool the fire of our desires. We will have succeeded in raising ourselves above our personal pain to the point where it becomes almost imperceptible.

  15. Systematically blaming others and holding them responsible for our suffering is the surest way to lead to an unhappy life. It is by transforming our minds that we transform our world.

  16. There are no “emotion centers” in the brain. The neuronal circuits that support emotions are completely intertwined with those that support cognition. This anatomical arrangement is consistent with the Buddhist view that these processes cannot be separated: emotions appear in a context of action and thought, and almost never in isolation from the other aspects of our experience. It should be noted that this runs counter to Freudian theory, which holds that powerful feelings of anger or jealousy, for instance, can arise without any particular cognitive or conceptional content.

  17. For authors who consider when an emotional episode is dysfunctional, two issues predominate. In the first case, an episode is considered to be dysfunctional or disruptive when the subject expresses an appropriate emotion with disproportionate intensity. If a child does something foolish, his parents’ anger can have educational value; fury or hatred are completely disproportionate. Likewise, as Andrew Solomon writes, “grief is depression in proportion to circumstance; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance.” In the second case, the emotional episode is harmful when the subject expresses an emotion that is inappropriate to a given situation. If a little child thumbs her nose at you, it’s better to laugh it off than to be sad or angry. As Aristotle pointed out, anyone can get angry. That’s easy. But to get angry “on the right grounds and against the right persons and also in the right manner and at the right moment and for the right length of time” - that’s not easy.

  18. Behavioural studies have also shown that those who are best able to balance their emotions (by controlling them without repressing them) also demonstrate the greatest selflessness in the face of suffering of others. Most hyper emotive people are more concerned with their own distress at the sight of suffering than with the ways in which they might help relieve that suffering.

  19. But the most fundamental aspect of consciousness, the pure faculty of knowing - what has been called the “luminous” quality of the mind - contains no hatred or desire at its core. A mirror, for instance, will reflect both angry faces and smiling ones. The very quality of the mirror allows countless images to arise, yet none of them belongs to the mirror.

  20. In the same way, by habituating your mind to altruistic love, you gradually eliminate hatred, because the two states of mind can alternate but cannot coexist. So the more we cultures loving-kindness, the less space there will be for hatred in our mental landscape. It is therefore important to begin by learning the antidotes that correspond to each negative emotion, and then to cultivate them. These antidotes are to the psyche what antibodies are to the body.

  21. True love and hatred cannot coexist, because the former wish is for the other’s happiness, and the latter for his unhappiness. Attachment, desire and possessiveness often accompany love but are not love. They can coexist with hatred because it is not their opposite. There definitely are mental states that are completely incompatible: pride and humility, envy and joy, generosity and avarice, calm and agitation. No ambivalence between these pairs is possible.

  22. (on meditation) Bring to mind a situation in which you felt very angry and try to relive this experience. When anger arises, focus your attention on the anger itself instead of on its object. Don’t unite with the anger but look at it as a separate phenomenon. As you keep on just observing the anger, it will gradually evaporate under your gaze.

  23. As natural as it is, desire degenerates into a mental toxin as soon as it becomes craving, an obsession, or an unmitigated attachment. Such desire is all the more frustrating and alienating is that it is out of sync with reality. When we are obsessed by a thing or a person, we misconstrue them as being one hundred percent desirable, and possessing or enjoying them becomes an absolute necessity. Not only is greed a source of distress, but the “possession” of what we desire can, in any case, only be precarious, momentary and constantly threatened. It is also illusory, in the sense that we ultimately have very little controller over what we think we possess.

  24. This is how one dictionary defines passion: “Powerful, exclusive, and obsessive love. Violent affectivity that hampers the judgement.” It is fuelled by exaggeration and illusion, and insists that things be other than the way they are.

  25. It must be said that the idea of love without attachment is relatively foreign to the Western sensibility. Not being attached means not that we love the person less, but that we are not primarily focused on self-love through the love we claim to have for the other. Altruistic love is the joy of sharing life with those around us - our friends, our lovers and companions, our wife or husband - and of contributing to their happiness. We love them for who they are and not through the distorting lens of self-centredness. We are concerned for the other’s happiness, and instead of wanting to possess him, we feel responsible for his well-being. Instead of anxiously awaiting some gratification from him, we can receive his reciprocal love joyfully.

  26. Envy and jealousy derive from the fundamental inability to rejoice in someone else’s happiness or success. The jealous man rehearses the injury in his mind, rubbing salt in the wound over and over again. There is no change of happiness whatsoever at that moment.

  27. What good is freedom if it benefits only oneself? In order to better help others, we must begin by changing ourselves.

  28. According to Ed Diener, “It appears that the way people perceive the world is much more important to happiness than objective circumstances.”

  29. As they [expert meditators] begin meditating on compassion, an extraordinary increase of left prefrontal activity was registered. Compassion, the very act of feeling concern for other people well-being, appears to be one of the positive emotion, like joy and enthusiasm (associated with the left prefrontal lobe). This corroborates the research of psychologists showing that the most altruistic members of a population are also those who enjoy the highest sense of satisfaction in life.

  30. Although none of the meditator’s facial muscles had quivered when he was in the open presence, his physiological parameters (pulse, perspiration, blood pressure) had risen in the way usually associated with the startle reflex. This tells us that the body reacted, registering all the effects of the detonation, but that the bang had no emotion impact on the mind.

  31. We can feel a certain pleasure in attaining our ends to the detriment of others, but such satisfaction is short-lived and superficial; it masks a sense of disquiet that cannot be suppressed for long. Once the excitement has waned, we are forced to acknowledge the presence of a certain discomfort. Benevolence would appear to be far closer to our “true nature” than malice. Living in harmony with that nature sustains the joy of life, while reject it leads to chronic dissatisfaction.

  32. How can we know whether a so-called altruist isn’t acting merely to experience the sense of pride earned by performing a kindness? We must determine whether she would have been just as happy for someone else to do it. For a true altruist, its the result that counts, not the personal satisfaction of having helped.

  33. It is interesting to note that according to several studies, people who are best at controlling their emotions behave more selflessly that those who are very emotive. In the face of other people’s suffering, the latter are in fact more concerned with managing their own emotions, dominated by fear, anxiety, and distress, than with the suffering of others. Here agin inner freedom, which releases us from the shackles of conflictive emotions, is won only be minimising obsessive self-absorption.

  34. How many times during the day do we feel pain because our pride is hurt? Pride, the exacerbation of self-importance, consists of being infatuated with the few qualities we possess and, often, of imagining ourselves to posses those we lack. It hinders all personal progress, because in order to learn we must first believe that we do not know.

  35. As Alain has written: “How marvellous human society would be if everyone added his own wood to the first instead of crying over the ashes!”

  36. Boredom is the fate of those who rely entirely on distraction, for whom life is one big entertainment and who languish the minute the show stops. Boredom is the affliction of those for whom time has no value.

  37. (on flow as a state of mind) Relaxation in the from of inner calm, flow in the from of a clear and open presence of mind, alert but without tension. Perfect lucidity is one of the principal features that distinguishes this state of mind from ordinary flow. Such pure awareness does not require the subject to observe himself; here, too, there is a quasi-total disappearance of the notion of “self”.

  38. In the Buddhist approach to ethics, as the Dalai Lama explains, “a meaningful ethical system divorced of an individual experience of suffering and happiness is hard to imagine.” The goal of Buddhist ethics is to free all being, including oneself, from momentary and long-term suffering and to develop the ability to help others to do so. In order to accomplish this, we must equitably balance our own aspiration for well-being with that of others.

  39. Thus the very core of ethics is our state of mind, not the from out actions take. if we relied solely on a deed’s outward manifestation it would be possible for instance to distinguish, for instance, between a white lie and malicious one. If a killer asks you where the person he’s chasing is hiding, that is obviously not the moment to tell the truth. When a mother roughly shoves her child across the street to prevent her from being hit by a car, the act is violent only in appearance, she has saved the child’s life. Conversely, if someone approaches you with a big smile and showers you in compliments only to rip you off, his conduct is nonviolent in appearance, but his intentions are actually malevolent.

  40. Evil is not a demonic power external to ourselves, and good is not an absolute principle independent of us. Everything occurs in our minds. Love and compassions are reflections of the true nature of all living beings - what we have called basic goodness. Evil is a deviation from this basic goodness which can be remedied.

  41. The key point of spiritual practice is to gain control over our mind. It is said: “The goal of asceticism is to achieve mastery of the mind. Without that, what good is asceticism?” “Asceticism” means “exercise,” in this case the training of the mind.

  42. Like any apprenticeship, the practice of the spiritual path has several stages. We must first be taught and then assimilate the teaching. A child is not born with innate knowledge. We must then take care to ensure that the knowledge does not become like a beautiful book that is rarely opened. Deep consideration must be given to its meaning. The Buddha told his followers: “Do not accept my teachings out of mere respect for me. Examine them and put them to the test as the goldsmith examines gold by cutting, heating and hammering.”

All quotes, directly taken from: Ricard, Matthieu. Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. New York: Atlantic, 2006. Print.