Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness - Introduction
Soon after Mindfulness in Plain English was published, several of my friends and students asked me to write a book about the Buddha’s path to happiness in the same straightforward style. This book is my response.
Mindfulness in Plain English was a meditation manual, a guide for students in the practice of mindfulness meditation. Yet mindfulness is only part of the Buddha’s teachings. Mindfulness can much improve our lives, but the Buddha offered more. He gave us a complete guide to happiness, which he summed up in eight steps. Even a little effort to incorporate these eight steps into your life will yield happiness. Strong effort will transform you and bring you the happiest and most exalted states achievable.
The eight steps of the Buddha’s path are easy enough to memorize, but their meaning is deep and requires an understanding of many related topics of the Buddha’s teachings. Even those familiar with the Eightfold Path may not see how central it is to the whole teaching or how it fits their experience. As in Mindfulness in Plain English, I have tried to present this teaching plainly, so that anybody can practice the eight steps in their daily life.
I recommend that you do not read this book as you would a novel or the newspaper. Rather, while reading, continually ask yourself, “Am I happy?” and investigate what you find. The Buddha invited the people he taught to come and see. He invited all of us to look at ourselves, to come home, to come close to our own bodies and minds and examine them. Don’t get lost in beliefs and suppositions about the world, he told us; try to find out what is really going on.
We are good at accumulating information, gathering data. Perhaps you have picked up this book to gather more information. If you have been reading popular Buddhist books, stop and ask yourself what you hope to get from this one. Do you just want to impress people with how well you know Buddhism? Do you hope to gain happiness through intellectual knowledge of the teachings? Knowledge alone will not help you find happiness.
If you read what follows with the willingness to put the Buddha’s path to happiness into practice—to actually try out his advice, rather than just get an intellectual impression—then the profound simplicity of the Buddha’s message will become clear. Gradually, the full truth of all things will be revealed to you. And gradually you will discover the lasting happiness that full knowledge of the truth can give you.
If you get upset by things that you read in Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness, then investigate why. Look within. Ask yourself what is currently happening in your mind. If something you read makes you miserable, ask yourself why. Sometimes we feel uncomfortable when someone points out how unskillful we are. You may have a lot of bad habits and other obstacles that keep you from greater happiness. Do you want to learn about them and make some changes?
So often we get upset by some tiny little thing and then blame it on someone—a friend, secretary, boss, neighbor, child, sibling, parent, the government. Or we get disappointed when we don’t get what we want or lose something we value. We carry within our minds certain “psychic irritants”—sources of suffering—that are triggered by events or our thoughts. Then we suffer, and we try to stop the pain by changing the world. There’s an old story about a man who wanted to cover the whole earth with leather so he could walk more comfortably. He would have found it much easier to make a pair of sandals. Similarly, instead of trying to control the world to make yourself happy, work to reduce your psychic irritants.
But you must actually train yourself, not just read or think about it. Even meditating won’t get you far if you do not practice the entire path—especially its key aspects of developing right understanding, making strong, discerning effort, and practicing continuous mindfulness. Some of you sit on your meditation cushion for hours with your minds filled with anger, fantasy, or worry. Then you say, “I can’t meditate, I can’t concentrate.” You carry the world on your shoulders as you meditate, and you don’t want to put it down.
I heard that a student of mine was walking down the street while reading a copy of Mindfulness in Plain English. He wasn’t being mindful of where he was, and he was hit by a car! The Buddha’s invitation to come and see asks you to personalize what you read here. Put the Buddha’s eight steps into practice, even while you are reading. Don’t let your misery blindside you.
Even if you read this book a hundred times, it won’t help you unless you put what’s written here into practice. But this book surely will help you if you practice sincerely, investigate your unhappiness fearlessly, and commit yourself to doing whatever it takes to reach lasting happiness.
The Buddha's Discovery
Rapid technological advances. Increased wealth. Stress. Stable lives and careers come under the pressure of accelerating change. The twenty-first century? No, the sixth century B.C.—a time of destructive warfare, economic dislocation, and widespread disruption of established patterns of life, just like today. In conditions similar to ours, the Buddha discovered a path to lasting happiness. His discovery—a step-by-step method of mental training to achieve contentment—is as relevant today as ever.
Putting the Buddha’s discovery into practice is no quick fix. It can take years. The most important qualification at the beginning is a strong desire to change your life by adopting new habits and learning to see the world anew.
Each step along the Buddha’s path to happiness requires practicing mindfulness until it becomes part of your daily life. Mindfulness is a way of training yourself to become aware of things as they really are. With mindfulness as your watchword, you progress through the eight steps laid down by the Buddha more than twenty-five hundred years ago—a gentle, gradual training in how to end dissatisfaction.
Who should undertake this training? Anyone who is tired of being unhappy. “My life is good as it is,” you may think; “I’m happy enough.” There are moments of contentment in any life, moments of pleasure and joy. But what about the other side, the part that you’d rather not think about when things are going well? Tragedy, grief, disappointment, physical pain, melancholy, loneliness, resentment, the nagging feeling that there could be something better. These happen too, don’t they? Our fragile happiness depends on things happening a certain way. But there is something else: a happiness not dependent on conditions. The Buddha taught the way to find this perfect happiness.
If you are willing to do whatever it takes to find your way out of suffering—and it means confronting the roots of resistance and craving right here, right now—you can reach complete success. Even if you are a casual reader, you can benefit from these teachings, so long as you are willing to use those that make sense to you. If you know something to be true, don’t ignore it. Act on it!
That may sound easy, but nothing is more difficult. When you admit to yourself, “I must make this change to be more happy”—not because the Buddha said so, but because your heart recognizes a deep truth—you must devote all your energy to making the change. You need strong determination to overcome harmful habits.
But the payoff is happiness—not just for today but for always.
Let’s get started. We’ll begin by looking at what happiness is, why it’s so elusive, and how to start journeying on the Buddha’s path toward it.
What Happiness Is and What It Isn’t
The desire to be happy is age-old, yet happiness has always eluded us. What does it mean to be happy? We often seek an experience of sensual pleasure, such as eating something tasty or watching a fun movie, for the happiness it will bring us. But is there a happiness beyond the fleeting enjoyment of a pleasurable experience?
Some people try to string together as many enjoyable experiences as they can and call that a happy life. Others sense the limits of sensual indulgence and seek a more lasting happiness with material comforts, family life, and security. Yet these sources of happiness also have limitations. Throughout the world many people live with the pain of hunger; their basic needs for clothing and shelter go unmet; they endure the constant threat of violence. Understandably, these people believe that increased material comfort will bring them lasting happiness. In the United States the unequal distribution of wealth leaves many in poverty, but the starvation and deprivation commonly found in much of the world is rare. The standard of living of most U.S. citizens is luxurious. So people elsewhere assume that Americans must be among the happiest on earth.
But if they were to come to the United States, what would they see? They would notice that Americans are constantly busy—rushing to appointments, talking on cell phones, shopping for groceries or for clothes, working long hours in an office or in a factory. Why all this frantic activity?
The answer is simple. Although Americans seem to have everything, they are still unhappy. And they are puzzled by this. How can they have close, loving families, good jobs, fine homes, enough money, richly varied lives—and still not feel happy? Unhappiness, they believe, results from the lack of such things. Possessions, social approval, the love of friends and family, and a wealth of pleasurable experiences ought to make people happy. Why, then, do Americans, like people everywhere, so often experience misery instead?
It seems that the very things that we think should make people happy are in fact sources of misery. Why? They do not last. Relationships end, investments fail, people lose their jobs, kids grow up and move away, and the sense of well-being gained from costly possessions and pleasurable experiences is fleeting at best. Change is all around us, threatening the very things we think we need to be happy.
It’s a paradox that the more we have, the greater our possibility for unhappiness.
People today are ever more sophisticated in their needs, it’s true, but no matter how many expensive and beautiful things they collect, they want more. Modern culture reinforces this wanting. What you really need to be happy, as every TV ad and billboard proclaims, is this shiny new car, this superfast computer, this gorgeous vacation in Hawaii. And it seems to work, briefly. People confuse the buzz of excitement gained from a new possession or a pleasurable experience with happiness. But all too soon they’re itching again. The suntan fades, the new car gets a scratch, and they’re longing for another shopping spree. This incessant scrambling to the mall keeps them from discovering the source of true happiness.
The Sources of Happiness
The Buddha once described several categories of happiness, placing them in order from the most fleeting to the most profound.
The Lesser Happiness of Clinging
The Buddha lumped together almost everything that most of us call happiness in the lowest category. He called it the “happiness of sensual pleasures.” We could also call it the “happiness of favorable conditions” or the “happiness of clinging.” It includes all the fleeting worldly happiness derived from sense indulgence, physical pleasure, and material satisfaction: the happiness of possessing wealth, nice clothes, a new car, or a pleasing home; the enjoyment that comes from seeing beautiful things, listening to good music, eating good food, and enjoying pleasant conversations; the satisfaction of being skilled in painting, playing the piano, and the like; and the happiness that comes from sharing a warm family life.
Let us look more closely at this happiness of sensual pleasures. Its lowest form is the wholehearted indulgence in pleasure from any of the five physical senses. At its worst, overindulgence can lead to debauchery, depravity, and addiction. It’s easy to see that indulging the senses is not happiness, because the pleasure disappears almost immediately and may even leave people feeling wretched or remorseful.
The Buddha once explained that as one matures spiritually, one comes to understand that there is more to life than pleasure through the five senses. He used the metaphor of a tender little baby tied down by thin strings in five places: both wrists, both ankles, and the throat. Just as these five strings—the five sense pleasures—can hold down a baby but not a mature adult, who easily breaks free, so a discerning person breaks free from the idea that indulging the five senses makes life meaningful and happy. (M 80)
Worldly happiness, however, goes beyond sense indulgence. It includes the joys of reading, watching a good movie, and other forms of mental stimulation or entertainment. It also includes the wholesome joys of this world such as helping people, maintaining a stable family and raising children, and earning an honest living.
The Buddha mentioned a few of these more satisfying forms of happiness. One is the happy, secure feeling you get from possessing wealth earned through honest, hard work. You enjoy your wealth with a clear conscience and no fear of abuse or revenge. Better than this is the satisfaction of both enjoying the wealth that you earned honestly and also sharing it with others. Another especially gratifying form of happiness comes from reflecting that one is completely free of any kind of debt to anyone. (A II (Fours) VII.2)
Most of us, even the most discerning, view these things as the essence of a good life. Why did the Buddha consider them part of the lowest form of happiness? Because they depend on conditions being right. Though less fleeting than the transient pleasures of sensual indulgence, and less potentially destructive to long-term happiness, they are unstable. The more we trust them, seek them, and try to hang on to them, the more we suffer. Our efforts will create painful mental agitation and ultimately prove futile; conditions inevitably will change. No matter what we do, our hearts will break. There are better, more stable sources of happiness.
Higher Sources of Happiness
One of them is the “happiness of renunciation,” the spiritual happiness that comes from seeking something beyond worldly pleasures. The classic example is the joy that comes from dropping all worldly concerns and seeking solitude in peaceful surroundings to pursue spiritual development. The happiness that comes from prayer, religious rituals, and religious inspiration is also part of this category.
Generosity is a powerful form of renunciation. Generously sharing what we have, and many other acts of renunciation, make us feel happy. There is a sense of pleasure and relief every time we let go. It stands to reason that if we can let go completely of grasping at anything in the world, then this great relinquishment will bring even more happiness than occasional acts of renunciation.
Higher than relinquishment of material things is the “happiness of letting go of psychic irritants.” This kind of happiness arises naturally when we work with the mind to quickly let go of anger, desire, attachment, jealousy, pride, confusion, and other mental irritations every time they occur. Nipping them in the bud allows the mind to become unobstructed, joyful, bright, and clear. Yet there is no guarantee that the negativities will stay away and stop irritating the mind.
Even better is the refined pleasure and happiness of the various states of deep concentration. No sorrow can arise in these states. Powerful and transcendent as these states of concentration can be, however, they have one big drawback: the meditator must emerge from them eventually. Being impermanent, even states of profound concentration must come to an end.
The Highest Source of Happiness
The highest happiness is the bliss of attaining stages of enlightenment. With each stage, our load in life is lightened, and we feel greater happiness and freedom. The final stage of enlightenment, permanent freedom from all negative states of mind, brings uninterrupted, sublime happiness. The Buddha recommended that we learn to let go of our attachments to the lower forms of happiness and focus all of our efforts upon finding the very highest form of happiness, enlightenment.
But he also urged people to maximize their happiness at whatever level they can. For those of us who cannot see beyond the happiness based on the sense pleasures, he offered sage advice for avoiding worldly troubles and for finding optimal worldly happiness, for example, by cultivating qualities leading to material success or a satisfying family life. For those with the higher ambition to be reborn in blissful realms, he explained just how to accomplish that goal. For those interested in reaching the highest goal of full enlightenment, he taught how to achieve it. But whichever kind of happiness we are seeking, we make use of the steps of the Eightfold Path.
The Trap of Unhappiness
The Buddha knew that the relentless search for happiness in pleasurable worldly conditions traps us in an endless cycle of cause and effect, attraction and aversion. Each thought and word and deed is a cause that leads to an effect, which in turn becomes a cause. Pointing out how the cycle of unhappiness works, the Buddha said:
Because of feeling, there is craving; as a result of craving, there is pursuit; with pursuit, there is gain; in dependence upon gain, there is decision-making; with decision-making, there are desire and lust, which lead to attachment; attachment creates possessiveness, which leads to stinginess; in dependence upon stinginess, there is safeguarding; and because of safeguarding, various evil, unwholesome phenomena [arise]—conflicts, quarrels, insulting speech, and falsehoods. (D 15)
We each experience versions of this cycle every day. Say you’re shopping in the grocery store. You see a delicious-looking pie with red filling and fluffy white topping. It’s the last pie left. Though only a moment before, your mind was quiet and content, this sight, which the Buddha calls “contact between sense organ and sense object,” causes a pleasant feeling and pleasant thoughts to arise.
Craving arises from the pleasant feeling. “Mmmm…strawberry,” you say to yourself, “with real whipped cream topping.” Your mind pursues and expands upon these pleasant thoughts. How delicious strawberry pie is! How good it smells! How wonderful whipped cream feels on the lips and tongue! A decision follows: “I want to have some of that pie.” Now comes attachment: “That pie is mine.” Maybe you notice some aversion as your mind hesitates for a moment while it considers the negative effects of the pie on your waistline or your pocketbook.
Suddenly you realize that someone else has stopped at the display and is admiring this pie. Your pie! Seized with stinginess, you snatch it up and hurry to the checkout while the other shopper glares. In the unlikely event that the other shopper were to follow you into the parking lot and try to take your pie, imagine what unwholesome actions might take place—insults probably, maybe a shoving match. But even if there is no direct confrontation, your actions have caused another person to develop negative thoughts and to see you as a greedy person. Your contented state of mind has also been destroyed.
Once craving arises in the mind, selfish and stingy behavior is usually inevitable. In our drive for any kind of small pleasure—a piece of strawberry pie—we may act rudely and risk making an enemy. When the craving is for something major, such as someone’s valuables or an adulterous sexual contact, the stakes are much higher, and serious violence and endless suffering may result.
If we can reverse this cycle, starting from our negative behavior and moving backward step by step to its emotional and mental causes, we may be able to eliminate our unhappiness at its source. It only makes sense that when our craving and grasping is wiped out—completely eradicated—happiness is assured. We may have no idea how to accomplish such a feat, but when we recognize what we have to do, we have started our journey.
The Gradual Training
Now you see why we say that true happiness comes only from eliminating craving. Even if we think that attaining the highest happiness is unrealistic, we will still benefit from reducing craving. The more we let go of craving, the greater our sense of happiness. But how do we reduce craving? The idea of lessening craving—much less eradicating it—may seem daunting. If you think that making the effort to force craving out of existence by sheer willpower will end in frustration, you are correct. The Buddha came up with a better way: the gradual training of the Eightfold Path.
The Buddha’s path of gradual development impacts every aspect of your life. The process begins at any point, at any time. You start wherever you are and move forward, step by step. Each new wholesome change in behavior or understanding builds upon the last.
Among the crowds of people who heard the Buddha teach, some had such receptive minds that they achieved lasting happiness after hearing his step-by-step instructions in a single discourse. A few were so ready that upon hearing only the highest teaching—the Four Noble Truths— their minds were completely freed. But most of the Buddha’s disciples had to work their way through the teachings, mastering each step before moving on to the next. Some disciples took years to work through obstacles in their understanding before they could move on to the next level of inquiry.
Most of us must do a lot of personal work to disentangle ourselves from years of destructive and self-defeating attitudes and behavior. We must work slowly along the Buddha’s path of gradual training with much patience and encouragement. Not everybody gets full understanding overnight. We all bring differences from our past experiences and the intensity of our dedication to spiritual growth.
The Buddha was a profoundly skillful teacher. He knew that we need some basic clarity before we can absorb the higher teachings. His Eightfold Path to happiness consists of three stages that build upon each other: morality, concentration, and wisdom.
The first stage, morality, consists of adopting a core set of values and living our lives according to them. The Buddha knew that thinking, speaking, and acting in ethical ways are preliminary steps to take before progressing to higher spiritual development. But of course we must have at least some wisdom to discern what is ethical. Thus he began his teaching by helping us to cultivate a basic level of Skillful Understanding (step one) and Skillful Thinking (step two). These mental skills help us distinguish between moral and immoral thoughts and actions, between wholesome behaviors and those which hurt us and those around us.
As we develop the right mind-set, we can begin to put our evolving understanding to work by practicing Skillful Speech (step three), Skillful Action (step four), and Skillful Livelihood (step five). These practical steps of good moral conduct help make our minds receptive, free from hindrances, elated, and confident. As the distractions that come from destructive behavior begin to fade away, concentration can arise.
Concentration has three steps. The first is Skillful Effort (step six), which brings mental focus to every other step of the path. Such effort is especially necessary if many unwholesome thoughts spring into awareness when one sits down to meditate. Next is Skillful Mindfulness (step seven). To have mindfulness there must be some wholesome concentration at every moment, so that the mind can keep in touch with changing objects. Skillful Concentration (step eight) allows us to focus the mind on one object or idea without interruption. Because it is a positive state of mind, free from anger or greed, concentration gives us the mental intensity we need to see deeply into the truth of our situation.
With morality as the foundation, concentration arises. Out of concentration, the third stage of the Buddha’s path—wisdom—develops. This brings us back to the first two steps of the path: Skillful Understanding and Skillful Thinking. We begin to experience “aha!” insights into our behavior. We see how we create our own unhappiness. We see how our thoughts, words, and deeds have hurt ourselves and others. We see right through our lies and face our life as it truly is. Wisdom is the bright light that shows us the way out of the tangle of our unhappiness.
Though I have presented the Buddha’s path as a series of sequential stages, it actually works more like a spiral. Morality, concentration, and wisdom reinforce and deepen each other. Each of the eight steps on the path deepens and reinforces the others. As you begin to practice the path as a whole, each step unfolds, and each wholesome action or insight gives impetus to the next. Along the way, everything about you changes, especially your tendency to blame others for your unhappiness. With each turn of the spiral, you accept more responsibility for your intentional thoughts, words, and deeds.
For instance, as you apply your increasing wisdom to understanding moral conduct, you see the value of ethical thought and behavior more profoundly and are led to make even more sweeping changes in the way you act. Similarly, as you see more clearly which mental states are helpful and which you should abandon, you apply effort more skillfully, with the result that your concentration deepens and your wisdom grows.
Supports for Practice
As you get started on the Buddha’s path, you will naturally wish to modify your lifestyle and attitudes to support your practice. Here are a few changes that many have found useful in advancing along the path; they will help you overcome obstacles in the work you undertake as you read the following chapters. Do not be dismayed; some of these suggestions present great challenges that you may work with for quite a long time.
Simplify Your Life
A good place to begin is by honestly assessing your habitual daily activities. Look also at how you spend your time. Make a habit of asking yourself, “Is this task or behavior really necessary or is it just a way to be busy?” If you can reduce or eliminate some activities, you will achieve greater peace and quiet, which is essential to advancing in the training.
Right now you may have many responsibilities to your family or others who depend upon you. This is good, but be careful not to sacrifice opportunities to calm your mind and develop insight. Helping others is important, but as the Buddha stated clearly, tending to your own development is a priority.
Cultivate the inclination to spend time each day in solitude and silence, rather than always being in the company of others. If all your time is spent with other people, it’s easy to get caught up in unnecessary activities and conversations. That makes it harder to maintain a contemplative practice. No matter where you live, if you wish to deepen your understanding and wisdom, from time to time get away from your commitments and spend time alone.
Of course, outer quiet is not always enough. Even in a quiet and solitary place, we sometimes find ourselves besieged by anger, jealousy, fear, tension, anxiety, greed, and confusion. We’ve also experienced times when our minds are completely quiet and peaceful despite all the commotion around us.
The Buddha explained this paradox. If we have little attachment and craving, he said, we can live in solitude in the midst of a crowd. We can let go of our sense of possession and ownership. Our loved ones, our possessions, our jobs, our obligations and ties, our views and opinions— all these we cling to. As we reduce our grasping, we move closer to inner freedom, the essence of solitude. Real solitude is in the mind. A person whose mind is free of the bonds of possessiveness and attachment, said the Buddha, is “one living alone.” And someone whose mind is crowded with greed, hatred, and delusion is “one who lives with a companion”— even in physical solitude. The best support for our practice, then, is a well-disciplined mind.
Some people may find that traditional rituals help them calm the mind and remind them of what is really important. You and your family can chant together, light incense or a candle, or offer flowers to a Buddha image every day. These simple, beautiful practices will not bring enlightenment, but they can be useful tools to prepare the mind for a daily mindfulness practice.
A well-disciplined life can also be a source of happiness. Take a good look at your physical surroundings. If your bedroom is strewn with dirty laundry, if your desk is a jumble of books, papers, computer disks, and old magazines, and if last week’s dishes are still in the sink, how will you be able to organize your mind? Practice develops from the outside in. Clean up your house first and then move inside to sweep away the dust of attachment, hatred, and ignorance.
Practice also benefits from a healthy body. Yoga and other forms of physical exercise contribute to our mental health. At least take a long walk each day. Walking is both good exercise and an opportunity to practice mindfulness in solitude and silence.
A healthy and moderate diet also supports spiritual practice. Eating a good breakfast, a reasonably substantial lunch, and a light supper will make you feel comfortable the next morning. There is an old saying, “Eat your breakfast like a king, share your lunch with your friend, and give your dinner to your enemy.” (I would add, however, that you should not do something that could hurt your enemy!) Junk food, alcohol, coffee, and other stimulants make it more difficult to concentrate. Eat to live, don’t live to eat. Try not to make eating a mindless habit. Some practitioners engage in an occasional fast, which quickly demonstrates that much of what we think of as hunger is really just habit.
Finally, discipline yourself to meditate every day. A session of meditation in the morning as soon as you get up and in the evening before you go to bed will help you progress. If you find that you are unable to maintain a regular practice, ask yourself why. Perhaps you doubt the importance of meditation, or fear that it will not help you solve your problems. Examine your doubts and fears carefully. Read the life stories of the Buddha and others who have used meditation to achieve permanent happiness. Remember that you alone can change your life for the better and that meditation has proven effective for countless others. Then apply a bit of self-control, especially at the beginning, to maintain the discipline of regular, daily meditation.
The cultivation of goodness—generosity, patience, faith, and other virtues—is the beginning of spiritual awakening.
Generosity is taught in every religious tradition, but it is a natural state of mind that all living beings possess inherently. Even animals share their food. When you are generous, you feel happy, and you delight in remembering the recipient’s joy.
Also practice patience. Being patient does not mean giving someone free rein to abuse you. It means biding your time and expressing yourself effectively at the right time, at the right place, with the right words and the right attitude. If you impatiently blurt out something, you may regret what you say and cause pain.
Patience also means trying to understand others as best you can. Misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and suspicion cause pain and dissatisfaction. Remember that others have as many problems as you— maybe more. Some very good people are sometimes in a bad place and may say or do things unmindfully. If you remain patient in spite of provocation, you can avoid getting upset, and your understanding of the human situation will deepen.
Try not to blame others for your pain or expect others to make you happy. Look within, discover why you are unhappy, and find a way to be content. Unhappy people tend to make others unhappy. But if you’re surrounded by unhappy people, you can maintain your peace of mind by keeping your mind as clear as possible—and your patience and understanding might cheer them up.
Finally, have faith in your potential for lasting happiness. This includes confidence in your religious teaching, in yourself, in your work, in your friends, and in the future. Faith or confidence leads to an optimistic attitude to life. You can increase your confidence through examining your own experience. You already have evidence of your many abilities. Have faith as well in those you have not yet manifested.
Find a Teacher and Explore the Teachings
A good meditation center and a meditation teacher who is sincerely willing to assist you are important aids. You don’t want a teacher who requires submission or promises magical powers. You are looking for someone who knows more than you, whose life is exemplary, and with whom you can develop a long-term relationship. The Buddha’s path may take several years—in some cases, several lifetimes. Choose your guide wisely.
The Buddha described the perfect teacher as “a good friend.” Such a person speaks gently, kindly, and earnestly, respects you, and is caring and compassionate. A good friend never asks you to do anything wrong, but always encourages you to do the right thing and helps whenever you need assistance. A good friend is learned and resourceful, ready to share knowledge with you without hesitation.
Observe a potential teacher carefully. Deeds are more important than words. Daily contact with someone who has followed the Buddha’s path for at least ten years is a good way to see for yourself whether the teachings work. Beware of teachers who charge high fees; they may be more interested in your money than your spiritual development.
Just as a master craftsman trains apprentices, not just in the techniques of the craft, but also in the personal characteristics needed to apply those skills, so, too, a good teacher both guides your practice and helps you make the lifestyle changes necessary to support it. If you are really seeking happiness, take the time and make the effort to apprentice yourself to such a master.
Next, follow the course of gradual training that the Buddha prescribed. The gradual training essentially involves learning how to quiet down and observe your thoughts and behavior and then to change them into something more conducive to meditation and awareness. It is a slow process, not to be hurried. One reason why so many people drop meditation is that they haven’t taken the time to lay the foundation for effective practice.
Finally, make time to read and discuss the Buddha’s teachings. Books are readily available, as are discussion groups and classes. You can even talk about the Buddha’s message online and via email lists. Reading about and discussing the Buddha’s teachings is never a waste of time.
While these requirements for progress might seem obvious, very few of us live quietly, eat moderately, exercise regularly, and live simply. Even fewer study with a qualified teacher, discuss the Buddha’s teachings regularly, and meditate daily. This emphasis on simplicity and moderation does not mean that you cannot start to follow the Buddha’s path right now, whatever your lifestyle. It simply tells you what you may need to do over a period of years—or even lifetimes—in order to advance toward the highest happiness.
Beginning a Practice of Mindfulness
The lifestyle changes mentioned in the previous section have one goal: to help you make mindfulness a part of your daily life. Mindfulness is a unique method of cultivating moment-by-moment awareness of the true nature of everything experienced through the body and mind. You may have heard it called “vipassana meditation.” It is a skill that you will develop and use throughout every stage of the Buddha’s path to happiness. Here are some suggestions for beginning a practice of mindfulness meditation.
A good time to start your practice of sitting meditation is early in the morning, before you begin your day’s activities. A quiet place is preferable, but as there are few noiseless places in the world, choose a place that is congenial for concentration and arrange a comfortable cushion there.
Next, choose a posture for your sitting practice. The best—but most difficult—posture is the full-lotus. Cross your legs and rest each foot on the upper part of the opposite thigh, the sole turned upward. Place your hands just below the level of the navel, with the bend of the wrists pressed against the thighs, bracing the upper part of the body. Your spinal column is straight like a stack of coins, each vertebra atop another. Your chin is up.
If you cannot sit in the full-lotus posture, try the half-lotus. Put your right foot over the left thigh (or the opposite), resting your knees on the floor. Then bend forward and tug the cushion behind. If touching the floor with your knees is difficult, then rest one thigh on the bend of the other foot.
You may also sit with the left or right lower leg in front of the other on the floor. Or, you may sit on a small bench, such as those provided in meditation halls. If all of these are difficult, you may sit on a chair.
After selecting one of these positions, straighten your back and make sure it is perpendicular so your chest can expand easily when you breathe. Your posture should be natural and supple, not stiff.
Settle into your posture carefully, because it’s important not to change your position until the end of the meditation period. Why is this important? Suppose you change your position because it is uncomfortable. After a while, the new position becomes uncomfortable, too. Then you want another, and soon it too becomes uncomfortable. So you go on shifting, moving, changing from one position to another for the whole time you are on the cushion rather than gaining a deeper level of concentration. Exercise self-control and stay in your original position.
Determine at the start how long you are going to meditate. If you have never meditated, begin with about twenty minutes. As you repeat your practice, you can gradually increase your sitting time. The length of your session depends on how much time you have available and how long you can sit without pain.
When you are seated, close your eyes; this will help you concentrate. The mind before meditation is like a cup of muddy water. If you hold the cup still, the mud settles and the water clears. Similarly, if you keep quiet, holding your body still and focusing your attention on your object of meditation, your mind will settle down and you will begin to experience the joy of meditation.
Dealing with Pain
Suppose you have followed the instructions on posture and are sitting in the most comfortable position. Soon you realize that your comfort has vanished. Now there’s pain, and you lose your original determination, your patience, and your enthusiasm for sitting in meditation.
It can be discouraging. But rest assured that the pain is mostly due to lack of practice. With practice, it diminishes, and you also find it easier to tolerate. So let pain become a signal to renew your determination to practice more.
If pain occurs due to a physical defect such as a dislocated disk or a past injury, then you should change your posture—perhaps moving to a bench or a chair. If, however, you are feeling pain in a normal, healthy part of the body, I suggest you try the following.
The most effective but most difficult way to deal with pain is to watch it. Be with the pain, merge with it. Experience it without thinking of it as my pain, my knee, my neck. Simply watch the pain closely and see what happens to it.
At first the pain may increase, which may cause fear. For example, your knee may begin to hurt so much that you fear you’ll lose your leg—it will get gangrene and have to be amputated—which leads you to wonder how you’ll get by with only one leg. Don’t worry. I have never seen anybody lose a leg to meditation! When that pain that you’re watching comes to its most excruciating point, if you wait patiently for, say, another five minutes, you will see this frightening, life-threatening pain begin to break up. The pain will change to a neutral sensation, and you will discover that even a painful feeling is impermanent.
You can use a similar technique with psychological pain, perhaps due to some guilt or traumatic memory. Don’t try to push the pain away. Welcome it. Stay with it, even if some awful scenario plays out in your mind. Without getting lost in the story line, keep watching that psychological pain and see it eventually break up, just like physical pain.
When the breakthrough happens and the pain disappears, you may feel great relief, a peaceful and relaxing calm. Of course, the body pain or the painful memory may arise again. But once you have broken through a particular physical or psychological pain, that particular pain will never recur with the same intensity. And the next time you sit, you’ll probably sit longer before the pain arises.
The second strategy for dealing with pain is to compare it with the pain you have experienced throughout your life. This present pain, although it seems so difficult now, is only a small portion of the pain you have experienced, and you have endured far worse. And don’t forget the subtle, background feeling of dissatisfaction that haunts you day and night. Compared to these other pains, this small pain in your leg is not so great. It’s worth bearing with it so that you can overcome the greater and more pervasive pains of life. This pain is like a splinter. Removing a splinter hurts a lot, yet you accept that hurt to avoid greater pain later on. In the same way, you can endure the pain of sitting meditation to save yourself from worse troubles in the future.
Another approach is to think of the pain that others are experiencing. Right now, many people are suffering physical and psychological pain due to sickness, exposure, hunger, separation from loved ones, and other serious problems. Remind yourself that compared to this misery, your pain is not so bad.
The fourth approach is to ignore the pain. You deliberately divert your attention to the breath. To help you stay with the breath, you may breathe quickly several times.
My final suggestion, only when all else fails, is to move—very mindfully. Slowly shift the muscles to see if the pain can be reduced with a minimum of change to your posture. If the pain is in your back, note that the back will begin to ache if you have slouched forward. If tension arises in the back, first make a mental survey of your posture, relax, and then gently straighten the back.
Pain in the ankles and knees needs a special approach, because you do not want to create damaging stress on the tendons. If you think the pain may come from a tendon, first try mindfully flexing and relaxing the muscles above and below that joint without changing or shifting your posture. If that does not bring relief, move the leg slowly just enough to alleviate stress on the tendon.
You may wonder what is to be gained from enduring pain. “I started this practice to get rid of my suffering. Why should I suffer more in sitting meditation?” Remember, this is the kind of suffering that can lead to the end of all suffering. When you mindfully observe pain as it arises and disappears and experience the blissful feelings that follow its disappearance, you gain confidence in your ability to withstand pain. More important, because your experience of pain is voluntary and focused, it is a good training ground. You break through your resistance to greater pain in life.
Have patience. Perhaps you have never assumed a meditation posture before, or have done so only occasionally. Perhaps you are accustomed to sitting on chairs and couches. Naturally you will feel some pain when you first sit on the floor in meditation. Have you ever climbed a mountain or ridden a horse? Remember how the body felt the first time you did it, or how sore it felt the next day? If you climb mountains or ride horses daily, however, you soon enjoy it pain-free. It’s the same with meditation: you just have to do it again and again, sitting in the same posture every day.
Focus Your Mind
A good way to settle the mind is to focus on the breath. The breath is readily available. You don’t have to work hard to find the breath, for it’s always flowing in and out through the nostrils. The breath is not involved in any emotion, any reasoning, any choice-making. Keeping your mind on it is a good way to cultivate a neutral state.
You should begin every sitting meditation session with thoughts of loving-friendliness. Sometimes people can directly tap into them and send them to all living beings. More often, you need a method to do so. Begin with yourself and then slowly expand your thoughts of loving-friendliness to include all living beings. I recommend reciting (mentally or aloud) the following passage:
May I be well, happy, and peaceful. May no harm come to me; may no difficulties come to me; may no problems come to me; may I always meet with success. May I also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome the inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.
After reciting this passage, repeat it, replacing the words “I” and “me” with others, beginning with your parents: “May my parents be well, happy, and peaceful. May no harm come to them…” and so forth. Next recite this passage for your teachers: “May my teachers be well…” Then recite it for your relatives; then for your friends; then for “indifferent persons” (people toward whom you have neutral feelings); then for your adversaries; and finally for all living beings. This simple practice will make it easier to gain concentration in meditation and also help you to overcome any resentment that may arise as you sit.
Next take three deep breaths. As you breathe in and out, notice the expansion and contraction of the lower abdomen, the upper abdomen, and the chest. Breathe fully to expand these three areas of your body. After taking three deep breaths, breathe normally, letting your breath flow in and out freely, effortlessly, and gracefully, focusing your attention on the sensation of the breath on the rims of your nostrils. Most people notice the breath easily at the rims of the nostrils; however, some may prefer to focus on the sensation of the breath touching the upper lip, or in the nose, or in the sinus area, depending on their facial structure. Having chosen a place of focus, simply notice the feeling of breath going in and out.
When you focus your attention on the breath, you feel the beginning, middle, and end of each inhalation and each exhalation. You do not have to make any special effort to notice these three stages of breathing. When one inhalation is complete and before exhaling begins, there is a brief pause. Notice it, and notice the beginning of the exhalation. When the exhalation is complete, there is another brief pause before the next inhalation begins. Notice this brief pause, too. These two pauses occur so briefly that you may not be aware of them. But when you are mindful, you can notice them.
At the beginning, perhaps both the inhalation and the exhalation are long. Notice that, but without thinking or saying “long inhalation, long exhalation.” As you notice the feeling of long inhalations and exhalations, your body becomes relatively calm. Then perhaps your breath becomes short. Notice how the short breath feels, again without saying “short breath.” Then notice the entire breathing process from beginning to end. Now, perhaps, the breath becomes subtle. Mind and body become calmer than before. Notice this calm and peaceful feeling.
In spite of your efforts to keep focused on your breathing, your mind may wander away. You may find yourself remembering places you visited, people you met, friends you have not seen for a long time, a book you read long ago, the taste of food you ate yesterday. As soon as you notice that your mind is no longer on your breath, mindfully bring it back and anchor it there.
Some people make use of labeling, which is putting words to phenomena that come up in meditation. For example, the meditator may notice thoughts and then say mentally, “Thinking, thinking, thinking.” On hearing a sound, the meditator thinks, “Hearing, hearing, hearing.” I don’t recommend this technique. The occurrences you may want to label take place so quickly that you have no time to label them. Labeling takes time—time for the thought to arise or the sensation to occur, time to think of words to conceptualize what you are aware of. You cannot label something while it is happening. You can only label something after it has already past. It is sufficient to watch things as they happen and be aware of them.
Mindfulness teaches you direct awareness. It helps you to eliminate intermediaries such as concepts and words. Concepts and words arise after awareness to help you communicate ideas and feelings. In meditation, however, you’re not expressing anything to anybody. You’re just knowing that seeing should be limited to seeing, that hearing is hearing, touching is touching, knowing is knowing. That’s sufficient.
Practice One-Minute Mindfulness
When you get up from your sitting meditation, make a determination to meditate for one minute of every hour throughout the day. You may wonder what you can do in one minute—that’s hardly time to find your cushion. Don’t worry about finding a cushion. Stay where you are, sitting, standing, lying down—it doesn’t matter. Spend fifty-nine minutes of every hour doing whatever you do during the day. But for one minute of that hour, stop whatever you are doing and meditate. You might even set your wristwatch or computer to beep every hour as a reminder.
When you hear the beep, put whatever you have been doing out of your mind and close your eyes. Stay focused on your breathing. If you think you won’t know how long a minute is, breathe in and out fifteen times giving undivided attention to the breath. If you spend longer than a minute, don’t worry about it. You’re not losing anything.
When the minute is up, before opening your eyes resolve to meditate again for a minute at the end of the next hour. Look forward to that minute and build up enthusiasm for it. Also ask yourself, “When am I going to sit and meditate again?”
If you repeat this simple method, by the end of the day, you will have done ten or fifteen minutes of additional meditation. Moreover, by the end of the day, your wish to sit in meditation—strengthened by your thinking of it every hour—will help you find the motivation to sit for a while before bed.
End your day with half an hour of sitting meditation. When you go to bed, keep your mind on your breath as you fall asleep. If you wake up at night, bring your mind to the breath. When you wake up the next morning, your mind will still be on your breath, reminding you to begin your day with sitting meditation.
How to cite this document:
© Henepola Gunaratana, Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness (Wisdom Publications, 2001)
Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness by Bhante Gunaratana is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://www.wisdompubs.org/book/eight-mindful-steps-happiness.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.wisdompubs.org/terms-use.