Every one of us is going through life trying to answer the same question: what will make me happy?
And looking around me, it seems to be a question that a lot of people struggle with.
We hope to find satisfaction in work, but it’s making us feel stressed, anxious and exhausted.
We hope to find it in love, but our partners frequently frustrate and irritate us, or fall short.
We seek instant gratification in chocolate, coffee, Instagram and Amazon deliveries, but it doesn’t last.
Most people’s answer to the question, ‘How are you?’, is either ‘Busy’ or ‘Not too bad.’ People never tell me, ‘I’m feeling really happy thanks. How about you?’ It would sound weird if they did!
I just spent a week on retreat with a meditation master. The wisest and most insightful human I’ve ever met. He’s a Buddhist rockstar. Like Prince or Madonna, he only has one name: Burgs.
It was a week of silence, with no writing, reading or screens. We did a lot of meditating, resting, going for walks, and a bit of Chi Kung, and Burgs taught us about consciousness, the nature of the mind, and ethics.
He said that what needs to happen for happiness to arise, is simply to become deeply absorbed in something – anything! But what gets in the way of happiness is the mind adding a layer of negativity over the purity of direct experience.
In meditation, we feel one or two breaths, and then in creeps an anxious or angry thought, some aversion to what we are feeling, or a judgement about doing it wrong or not as well as the next person.
This brings with it a feeling of discomfort or disturbance in the body, and before we know what’s happened, we are lost in the quagmire of a negative mental state.
After feeling really tired for the first few days, sleeping through all the breaks and taking hour-long siestas, I started to be able to concentrate more on my body.
Thoughts kept drifting in about emails I’d forgotten to reply to, regrets, dreams… but I kept prompting myself to refocus on my body.
Thanks to the supportive conditions, my mind gradually grew quieter and less distracted, until I was able to experience the beautiful serenity of just feeling the moment without adding any thoughts to it.
On previous retreats, I had sabotaged this peaceful experience for myself by deciding it wasn’t enough: it wasn’t blissful, but there weren’t any fireworks of anger, fear or pain either. I wanted to feel something stronger. Other people were asking the teacher about all kinds of powerful sensations. Why wasn’t I feeling that?
But this time, I was much more able to enjoy the peace of not much happening. The soft, subtle sensations of the body and the calm of the mind. I’d learned to be more accepting of my experience – whatever it was.
There was a particular moment I remember, while sitting by the fire, when I was able to really appreciate how content I felt. No pain in the body. No thoughts, just a feeling of being alive, the comfort of the chair, and the hypnotic beauty of the flames.
By the end of the retreat, I was meditating with a content feeling and gradually started to feel more of the pleasure I had been searching for for so long. My chest started to come alive with a subtle, warm, expansive feeling, and I had a glimpse of what starts to happen when you are able to let go of the constant desire for the moment to be different in some way. It was quite a revelation.
The other advice Burgs gave us about finding happiness was to orientate our life towards virtue, rather than fulfilling our desires.
His view is that instead of accumulating big experiences, wealth, success and material things, and trying to get others to notice and appreciate us, we should practise just accepting what is given to us, taking what we need and giving the rest away. We should aim to be kind, generous and honest; not intoxicate ourselves to the extent that we harm ourselves or others; and not harm other people, including through misconduct.
He said that practising ethics was actually more important than meditating, and that he wishes there had been an ethical revolution rather than a mindful one.
I suppose it’s an extension of the same thing – when you know you can feel whole and content just sitting cross-legged with your eyes closed, why would you devote so much energy to external pleasure-seeking?
And when you realise that the harm you do to others creates tension in your body and agitation in your mind, why would you continue?
There is an urgency to more people realising this, because the planet cannot sustain the ways in which we are currently trying to make ourselves happy.
It’s actually not about sacrifice, it’s about having more of what we really want: contentment, community, deep relationships, health, connection to nature, and a meaningful and fulfilling life.
You can find happiness here, now. Just let go of the desire for anything to be different!