“If you can learn how to ride a bike you can learn how to be happy,” says 67-year-old Buddhist monk and Happiest Man In The World, Matthieu Ricard.
As a child, poet Andre Breton, film-maker Louis Buñuel and composer Igor Stravinsky were regular guests to Ricard’s philosopher parents’ Parisian home. However, observing that the genius of his parents’ friends didn’t seem to make them any happier he set off for the Himalayas (abandoning his work as a molecular biologist at the Pasteur Institute) and transformed his life via meditation.
At the last count he’d clocked up more than 10,000 hours. Highly complex MRI scans by cognitive scientists at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience in Wisconsin have shown extraordinarily high levels of upbeat activity (-0.45 on a range where -0.3 is described as “beatific”) and almost invisible levels of negative emotions. “I don’t see everything as rosy,” he says, “but the ups and downs of life don’t unsettle me in the usual way.”
Here are his life lessons.
Anyone can be the happiest person in the world if they look for happiness in the right place. The problem is that we tend not to.
Happiness is not the pursuit of an endless succession of experiences. That’s a recipe for exhaustion more than happiness. Happiness is a way of being. The challenge is to let that way of being overtake all other emotional states.
Unlike pleasure, which exhausts itself as you experience it, happiness is a skill and cultivated. We all have the potential for it. You have to examine what contributes to a flourishing in your life. In Buddhism we say the root cause of unhappiness is ignorance.
Being happy is about raising your “baseline”. It’s not about seeking sudden fireworks or euphoric experiences. The first step to take is to realise that you want to improve – that the world is not a mail order catalogue for our fantasies and desires and that we have a relatively limited control over those transient, illusory conditions.
To be truly happy we have to get rid of mental toxins such as hatred, obsession, arrogance, envy, greed and pride. The whole point of mind training or meditation is to get rid of those and to cultivate positive qualities such as altruism.
You might argue that a bad temper or a bit of negativity can define a person’s character so it’s not necessarily bad. That’s as maybe – we all have a different mix of light and shadows – but should we just give in to that view and think that it’s optimal? You don’t say, “it’s human nature to get ill and die so why go to see a doctor” do you?
The way the mind interprets the world is a crucial element in determining the quality of every instant that goes by yet we pay so little attention to our inner condition. We must learn to recognise that there are mental states or emotions that are conducive to flourishing and some that are destructive. I call it antidote training.
Usually when we have a flash of anger there follows a sort of refractory period where we can’t even begin to acknowledge the positive aspects of the person with whom we’re angry. They are just 100 per cent despicable and our whole mental landscape is full of that. A direct antidote approach is to treat it like heat and cold. This means that the more you bring benevolent or altruistic thoughts at that instant to the mind, the less space there is for the opposite. This is antidote training.
By keeping aware of the anger it cannot sustain itself, it stops being fuelled and slowly dies out. If you become skilled in that, then with awareness you can simply let those afflictive emotions dissolve without keeping them in like a time bomb, or exploding them each time. It’s about realising that you not anger any more than you are the flu.
Of course I get irritated. But I usually start laughing quite quickly at the irritation, because it’s so silly.
Everyone would be helped by meditating for half-an-hour a day. Meditation is a very vague term and there’s a lot of cliché – like emptying your mind and relaxing and all that stuff. But it’s really a means to cultivate or be familiar with a better understanding of the way the mind works. Studies have shown that meditation combined with cognitive therapy can help people who suffer from severe depression and reduce the risk of relapse by up to 40 per cent.
To be completely free you can’t at the same time have a responsible concern for people who depend on you. How can I be happy when I’ve been celibate for 30 years? If I have a family I will cause a lot of suffering so it’s not feasible. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have wonderful friendships and relationships with half of humanity. One aspect may not be there but many others are.
Life is not all about sitting on my balcony and looking at the Himalayas. You may say it’s easy for me, that I live up a mountain and don’t get set upon by hoodies on the way home every night. But it’s not easy. I took 70 flights from 15 July to 6 November. I’ve not had one day off.
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