The happiness of a concentrated mind

It is said that ignorance is one of the three roots of our unhappiness. Ignorance takes many forms. Simply not knowing the joy of a concentrated mind–a mind at ease with itself–is one form of ignorance that causes us to continually search outside ourselves for “something”: something to make us happy, something to make us whole, something to peak our interest, or something that will finally let us ‘get ahead’ of the struggles of life.

During this journey of self discovery I’ve been on I distinctly recall a time when I started to notice this kind of “looking”. I would seek often, if not continuously, for that something. I would seek for it in my mind, thinking “what can I do to finally become successful?”. I would look in the windows of the passing cars for a smile or pretty face, to get a little hit of pleasure. Seeking for satisfaction in the external world of things can cause us to eat things that make us feel bad (after the fleeting taste of sweetness has faded); drink things that make us feel tired and dull (though they temporarily allow us to change the flavor of consciousness and lay down our responsibilities); and buy things we don’t need and cannot afford, just to gratify our grasping mind and feed our habits of desire for desire’s sake alone.

The key to seeing this clearly, to illuminate the patterns and remove the ignorance is to see that it isn’t the objects we are after, as we’ve mistakenly assumed–it’s the pleasant feeling tone that arises dependent upon contact with the object in the mind. If we miss this feeling tone as it arises–or more precisely, if we conflate the feeling tone and the object itself, we will generate an attachment to the object and expect it to provide in us the satisfaction we seek, although it is woefully unable to do so. If we miss this link in the chain, we end up deluded and unable to escape the never-ending cycle of seeking satisfaction in the very things that cause us to overlook our innate happiness.

Once we are lucky enough to have practiced sitting still, breathing in and out, bringing our awareness to the present moment, developing kindness with whatever arises–once we are able to establish some concentration, we discover another whole category of happiness. We discover the happiness of the concentrated mind. We discover the joy of mindfulness and equanimity. Once we start to see that all of the seeking of objects, the chasing of things, the looking in windows, the need for approval and appreciation– all of it is just busy-ness that keeps us from our own innate stillness. It keeps us from being in the present moment–from our very lives as they unfold. Seeking happiness outside keeps us from finding happiness right where we are. Becoming established in this new way of being and seeing the ‘unworldly pleasant feelings’ that come from practice is like turning a corner. This is the current edge of my practice.

3 thoughts on “The happiness of a concentrated mind

  1. Nice post! For those of us who want it all, though… who want to enjoy the innately pleasurable feeling of pure awareness/being in the present moment AND want the success, sense pleasures, and all the other goodies… what then?

    The search for “success” is one that hits home for me personally, because although I am apparently not very good at “finding” success, it is primarily what gets me up in the morning and keeps me from killing myself on a day to day basis. In light of the apparent fact that there is no intrinsic “purpose” to life, why keep on living? I figure I do it because if life resembles anything to me, it seems like a kind of game. How do you win? Ah…there’s the interesting part… YOU decide how you win. But you don’t decide with your mind, intellectually, you decide with your heart … with your gut… with whatever internal compass you’ve got… that thing that triggers alarm bells when you’re headed in the wrong direction, and incentivizes you in alluring, subtle ways to keep you energized and excited about each next step in the journey… a journey whose object is, in the end, the actual journey itself, but one for which the natural human quality of WONDER is the driving catalyst.

    This is why we LOVE stories — books, and movies, and the good kind of television (watch the first five episodes of Breaking Bad and you’ll know what I’m talking about)… stories model for us and remind us that life is an adventure, and being fully engaged in that adventure means activating human passions and fueling the search for that ineffable thing that we’re all looking for…our life 2.0. Or 3.0. Or whatever version you’re striving for. Perhaps that next higher, more advanced version IS a version where the daily meditation feature has been added, if it hasn’t been added already. Or maybe your meditation practice reaches a new level that completely changes “the game”. That’s the exciting part. But for me, it’s very important not to set up a dichotomy between “being present”/ meditation / mindfulness on one side, and the never-ending search for the next big piece of the puzzle, the path to success, or even a well-deserved hit of sense pleasure.

    While I hope I don’t waste too much of my time hoping for strangers in passing cars to smile at me, when they do it makes me happy. As for chasing things… personally, I think I’ll always be a chaser. There’s always something exciting out there that I haven’t experienced (I’m going to “chase” some waves this weekend… 20 years in Southern California and I haven’t learned to surf yet???), but I don’t think this is “busy-ness that keeps (me) from (my) own innate stillness”. Sure, at first, I’m sure I won’t be still at all. I’ll be worried about drowning, getting knocked in the head with my surfboard, and of course there’s my ever-present shark anxiety…. but I am fundamentally “chasing” the experience because I hope it will give me something I don’t already have. I haven’t had “the adventure of surfing”, and I certainly haven’t gained “the skill of surfing”, and both of those are exciting to me.

    But what’s the point? I mean, surfing isn’t going to bring me lasting happiness. It’s just the chase for another something “out there” instead of sitting still and finding transcendent happiness in my own Buddha nature, right? Maybe I should just stay home and meditate?

    • Nice post? Nice comment!!

      Your point about not setting up a dichotomy between mindfulness on one hand and seeking sense pleasures (and success, etc.) on the other is very well taken. The point of mindfulness is being aware in the moment; being aware of what is actually arising for you–your patterns, your tendencies, your motivations, your sensations, thoughts and feelings. It is about making the unconscious conscious, which allows you to then choose what you do with it. If one is aware that one is “chasing”, and chooses to do so, then there’s no need to abandon that pursuit.

      Mindfulness would only have you keep track of how it plays out. Is there attachment to the success or failure of the pursuit? What happens when expectations are not met? Does that attachment turn to suffering? Are we free to seek or not to seek–or are we blindly driven by unconscious forces? Is the pursuit more like a game, where there is a winner or a high score to be attained, or more like a work of art that is-what-it-is? Does the search for the next thing keep us from being mindful in the present–by enforcing our habits of living in the concept of past and future or bringing more restlessness and anxiety to the mind?

      The Buddha was very clear that we each need to do this experiment for ourselves. We need to see clearly what brings happiness or suffering. If we pay attention to what we are doing, we will see for ourselves. Not that we can’t learn from others, but learning is different from insight.

      It was philosophy and curiosity (and the enticing descriptions of satori and liberation by Dass and Watts) that got me interested in sitting. It was the interesting experiences on the cushion during retreats that kept me “seeking” over the years. Now it is the joy that comes from sitting, and the joy that comes from being present in daily life that has me really hooked. When I notice that I’m acting unconsciously, out of old habits of craving and clinging– I notice the effect it has on my state of mind. I’m just now starting to appreciate the joy that comes from stillness and presence. It feels like a pleasant gift that comes right out of the fabric of an otherwise mundane experience. Walking down the street is enough. Hearing the city sounds is enough. Does this mean that I’ll no longer choose to go mountain biking or stop riding my motorcycle? No. I’d LOVE to go surfing with you this weekend! Fun experiences bring pleasant feeling tones and joy… and those should be appreciated. There is, however, another whole source of happiness that isn’t dependent on external conditions and it’s much more reliable and in the long run it leads to awakening.

      So go surfing this weekend, but find 15 minutes in the morning to sit still and settle the mind. You CAN have both. They aren’t mutually exclusive (and I’ll read my post again and your comment and see what I can learn from each).

      Thanks again for reading–and especially commenting : )

  2. I did re-read your comment. My initial reply focused too much on your “I’ll always be a chaser” paragraph. You have said much much more than that — and I agree with the vast majority of it. I could write pages on any part of it.

    “You decide how you win…with your heart…with your gut” is a great realization. It speaks to the unscripted nature of our reality.

    “…a journey whose object is, in the end, the actual journey itself, but one for which the natural human quality of WONDER is the driving catalyst.” This also expresses an appreciation for life that acknowledges the mystery, and honors the story of our lives.

    But this phrase, “…maybe your meditation practice reaches a new level that completely changes ‘the game’.” is what I’m talking about. The study and practice of the dharma over the years has given me a perspective change along the lines of what Ram Dass meant when he said that the turning point came for him when he stopped trying to get “high” and started trying to get “free”. The buddha gives us meditation instructions to try, but he also gives us a few things to contemplate. Impermanence being a big one. Longer term thinking is another (the whole past-lives, wheel of samsara, cycles of birth-and-death stuff). Contemplating that over time, I’ve come to see that appreciating the journey isn’t limited to the time between this single birth and death–and further, that doing so puts in jeopardy our opportunity in this lifetime to break out of the cycle we are stuck in. I can appreciate that you’ve come to your own conclusion and that writing your life story, with as many interesting pages and chapters as possible is, in itself, the goal. It’s not my job to convince you otherwise… but I’m certainly glad our characters have met so that we can share in each other’s stories and kick the philosophy can around like this!

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