‘I have always believed the very purpose of our lives is happiness’ – His Holiness The Dalai Lama (1)
‘Happiness is not an achievement, it is your nature’ – Osho (2)
‘In a state of let-go true happiness happens’ – Osho (3)
What made me happy recently? Laughing and talking for hours with family and friends over good food. Watching the winter sun come up in a radiantly lit pink sky. Teaching a yoga class and seeing the glowing, relaxed faces smiling back at me at the end. There are many examples we could all think of – occasions, fragments of our days which conspire to make our lives happier, more fulfilled, enjoyable.
Of course, these are fleeting moments – short lived events which come and go. And, as life gets busier, we often ‘miss the moment’, inadvertently neglecting that basic emotional need to be uplifted. Maybe we’re on autopilot – in Facebook, Tweet, WhatsApp mode, not taking time to smile and say hello to our neighbours, or to feel the fresh air on our faces. This head down approach can leave us feeling flat, joyless even.
Equally, we can get hooked and find ourselves chasing rainbows, constantly searching for something new, more pleasurable. Like the marathon runner who turns to triathlons for a bigger challenge/high or forever trying out different restaurants and cuisines to satisfy our tastebuds. When we consistently ride happy highs and lows, we get less pay off, leaving us to feel deflated.
The upshot is even if we do have enjoyable experiences, reach our goals and generally get what we want – happiness can seem ever more elusive.
The psychology of what makes us happy is as complex and unique as a fingerprint; genes, upbringing, conditioning and brain chemistry all come into how we view the world. We can be logical about pinning down what we think makes us happy, spending our time enjoying sensual pleasures, making sure we tick the right boxes – even so, there’s a nagging feeling something is missing.
It’s only when we begin to question the idea of ‘happy’ as a commodity that we can contemplate a state of happiness which is natural and not dependent on the external (the basis of Eastern philosophies). That this deeper, innate state of joy or enlightenment – which Buddhists call Nirvana, yogis call Ananda – is our true nature.
Truly enlightened beings exude happiness and calm via their bodies and actions – think of the Dalai Lama’s infectious joyfulness. This can feel a long way off in our world of work and family life, yet we can all connect with our own authentic happiness simply by stopping – even momentarily – and going inside. It seems too good to be true, but with conscious, regular practice, you will feel it.
To sit still and meditate is tricky since the human mind is constantly churning. That’s precisely why spiritual practices have developed over thousands of years to help tame the mind. For example, the renowned yogic sage Patanjali offers a systematic route towards stillness in his oft quoted Yoga Sutras (a hefty tome of beautiful, meaningful aphorisms written in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit). One of the first steps is ‘pratyahara’ or withdrawal of the senses – so relevant now since we’re subject to sensory overload every day.
We experience the world through our sensory organs – eyes (sight), ears (sound), mouth (taste), skin (touch), nose (smell) and Patanjali’s point is clear: if we temporarily switch them off, we cut down the stimulation to the mind, immediately feeling a profound sense of calm. It’s thought that 80/90% of external stimulation is visual (especially relevant now when we can watch a film on our smart phones), so just sitting with our eyes closed is a great place to start. When every minute of our days seem spoken for ‘not doing’ is extra hard, but worth it, as Deepak Chopra states in his book The Ultimate Happiness Prescription:
‘At first it will be difficult – overwhelming emotionally, physical sensations (tightness, discomfort), sighing, drowsiness. But when we are in balance we can feel bubbling up of joy, lightness effervescence.’ That bubbling up is us experiencing our true selves, our default sense of joy. Nothing to do with the external, it is always there. Once you begin to really feel this, you will start to enjoy stillness more, and this sense of joy begins to infiltrate your being, your life.
Another part of the meditative journey is becoming aware of the connection between mind, body and emotions. Chopra again, ‘Every experience has a physical component. If you’re hungry, the mind and stomach are hungry together. If you have an incredible spiritual experience, your heart and liver cells share it’. The opposite is also true. When we are not listening to our bodies, we’re not mindful of how we feel, and we slip into making unhealthy choices – the food we eat, life decisions, how we react. When we are stressed, we are out of synch, and the instinct is to want to escape, whether that’s via alcohol, recreational drugs, sugar.
Being the bridge between our inner and outer world, our body is a tangible way to re-connect through awareness via relatively easy daily practices we might miss or override in more strenuous efforts to stay fit. Hatha yoga, a style or school of yoga which began centuries ago, was borne out of the realisation that the body is a physical route to accessing inner peace and maintaining balance. Many of the postures and breath techniques we practice in classes today come from this school.
Perhaps the most familiar (and favourite!) is relaxation in Savasana (Corpse Pose): lie flat on your back, spine aligned, arms by your sides, palms facing the ceiling, heels hip width apart, toes falling out to the sides. Use a cushion or folded blanket to support lower back and neck if necessary. Close your eyes and allow your weight to drop into the floor. Notice how you feel physically, mentally, emotionally without judgement. Watch your body as it breathes in and out through the nose, belly rising in the inhale, falling on the exhale. Systematically scan your body from toes to the crown of your head, identify areas of tension and actively let go of it on an exhale. Allow the tension to melt into the floor, the earth beneath you. At the end, check in again and notice the changes physically, mentally, emotionally.
Using this as a regular practice not only relaxes your body but increases awareness, making us more in tune with what’s going in order to acknowledge emotions and nurture ourselves. This in itself isn’t going to make us happy, rather it creates the conditions for us to experience happiness. Dr Andrew Weil puts it like this: ‘If you give yourself what’s necessary to support health in body, mind and spirit, emotional balance will arise within you on its own.’
That we need to find balance is certainly true when it comes to happiness. Yes, there are the external fixes which we can enjoy, and the eternal bliss from unconditional happiness from inside. But we also need an understanding of the idea that opposites exist: light and shade; yin and yang; joy and pain. That our moods vary is perfectly normal, and the ability to sit and connect or meditate helps us come back to neutral – with a touch of realism notes Dr Weil: ‘You should not get stuck emotionally, but rather remain resilient enough to consistently come back to a sort of affective emotional sea level, a place characterised by serenity, calm and a sense of contentment. Happiness – defined as a feeling of bliss or joy – can be easily, frequently accessed from this state. But the uniquely American idea that you can, or should, spend your whole life in a purely positive emotional state is unrealistic, and can ultimately be destructive.’
*Joy The Happiness That Comes From Within by Osho: the ‘spiritually incorrect’ mystic in full flight – these are his widely encompassing talks on finding inner happiness.
* All You Ever wanted to Know About Happiness, Life and Living by His Holiness The Dalai Lama: thoughts from His Holiness on the power of meditation to explanation of religion.
* The Ultimate Happiness Prescription by Deepak Chopra: make profound shifts in bite sized chunks with this succinct self-help style 7 step process.
* Spontaneous Happiness by Dr Andrew Weil: practical meets mystical, the twinkly health guru shares his route to living life in emotional balance.
* The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt: eminent US Psychology Professor brings together the latest in research with Eastern perspective in a thought provoking read.
 p148 All You Ever wanted to Know About Happiness, Life and Living by His Holiness The Dalai Lama
 p57 Joy:The Happiness That Comes From Within by Osho
 p22 Joy: The Happiness That Comes From Within by Osho