It often shocks people when I tell them that they have to practise happiness to be happy. They find it odd because practice for most of us is something that we have to do when we do not possess a skill. People believe they understand happiness. We feel happy when something makes us laugh or tickles our fancy. An ice cream can make us happy, a salary raise or a similar achievement. But that is where most people confuse—they take excitement to be happiness.
Happiness is a trait you have to develop—one which we are naturally endowed with but constantly unlearn given the tensions of life, the modern day stressful living and occasionally adverse circumstances.
That is why modern philosophy tends to present life as a struggle. But if you renounce struggle in favour of embracing the conditions of your life, you experience a silent ease, a calm stillness, a pleasant feeling of balance.
If instead of confusing excitement and a rush of adrenaline as happiness, we focus on the balance, we experience when we are not pulled by emotions or pushed by desire. It is then we start discovering the meaning of happiness.
To adapt a temperament that celebrates happiness, to train yourself to experience genuine joy, you have to constantly practise it as a habit. Creating a new habit or practice, such as meditation or mindfulness, takes patience and discipline—it requires a commitment to change because we know that it will be worth it. Any kind of action that calls for discipline is difficult at the start—our minds are experts at resistance and creating many excuses such as why we shouldn’t bother to change. But never be frightened of change; to make a change is to be inspired. Don’t be frightened to learn, to improve—because if you feed your inspiration, you will, in turn, inspire others, and that is a great gift. When we are inspired we become so much more aware, we can be spontaneous and take bold and swift decisions.
In Sanskrit, the word for discipline
is shila, which means ‘cooling’. When you feel very hot in your mind or emotions, shila acts like a fan to cool you down and relax.
You know the feeling when you (or, in other words, ‘your mind’) are getting out of control, and you know that to help yourself you need discipline. For example, if you realise that you have got into the habit of eating too much and so you have been putting on weight; what was once a pleasure, no longer remains a source of happiness. A craving or even a source of negative emotions, like guilt, develops. This is when you need genuine discipline to break the habit and turn slim and healthy again. Often, when you first decide to make a change, it is very hard and not at all enjoyable. But if you can check on your intention and keep going by finding ways to motivate and inspire yourself, you will reach a point where the discipline becomes like shila—a freshness in the mind, a moment of true realisation, when you know you are doing something that is good for you. You really feel it in your heart as well as know it in your mind.
This is why taking care of the mind is so important. It’s impossible to effect a change—like eating more healthily—if we do not also address our running thoughts, explore them so we can discover our genuine inspiration for change.
It is hard to put things into practice, if we are not in the right frame of mind. So we remind ourselves of how great a gift life is to us. We ask: why do we make ourselves sick in the body and mind by eating so many things that are not good for us? We realise how fortunate we are to have the choice of what we can eat each day, and remember that we have the opportunity to eat foods that would nourish our bodies, to exercise and increase our strength and physical fitness. And when we combine a good attitude with a healthy action, the sum becomes even greater than the parts, each nourishing the other.
So happiness springs from a healthy attitude which needs to be developed and maintained constantly until it becomes our second nature. Or you could say, until we rediscover our true nature. We begin to understand that happiness is no longer contingent on external factors and that our own minds hold the key to uncovering what is inside.
Milarepa, the Tibetan poet and saint, said, “Do not entertain hopes for realisation, but practice all your life”. His indication was crystal clear. He asks us to focus on ourselves, and practice the discipline we want to develop. In the process, the discipline becomes attitude and attitude, becomes nature. So practice happiness and happy you will be!
The author is the spiritual head of the 1,000-year-old Drukpa Order based in the Himalayas