Sustainable happiness comes from within

February 14, 2016

When I want to be happy, I know the easiest path is to look outside oneself. To find transient joy in the theatre or in art; to experience one’s spirits being lifted even momentarily by an exquisite piece of Chopin, or the view across the Swiss Alps.

But sustainable happiness is more difficult to achieve; for this, you have to look within, and to meditate to achieve a state of equanimity. This is what the German Theravada monk Nyanaponika Mahathera described as “a perfect unshakeable balance”. It is that moment of calm, which we would all like to be able to access at will, whenever we need to – whether our distress is caused by some tragic event, or just a passing frustration like being late for an appointment.

In their book Buddha’s Brain, which explores the links between neuroscience and meditation and mindfulness, Rick Hanson and Dr Richard Mendius describe equanimity as being warmly engaged by the world but not troubled by it. They quote Hawaii-based Buddhist teacher Kamala Masters, who says experiencing equanimity is like taking a boat down the river Ganges at dawn. On one side, the early morning sun lights up the ancient temples beautifully; on the other, one can see funeral pyres smoking away, as mourners wail for their loved ones.

With beauty to one side, and death on the other, you can hope for a heart which is both open enough to include both, and a head which is calm enough for acceptance.

It is not easy to reach this level of experience and indeed excellence in meditation. I know from experience that I can mediate almost anywhere now – switching off my busy mind on an aeroplane or in a crowd, if I need to. But it has taken many hours of practice to achieve this.

Hanson and Mendius suggest it becomes easier to achieve such benefits as our knowledge of the brain’s chemistry increases. When we learn more about how different sections of the brain operate, we might be able to see how the mind fights against mental efforts to quieten it.

For example, they say, to achieve equanimity we need to learn to break the link between feelings and cravings; not to reduce activity in the brain, but to choose not to respond to it.

It helps then if we learn that this type of see-saw activity occurs in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) – a part of the brain associated with rational cognitive functions, such as reward anticipation, decision-making, empathy, impulse control and emotion. We can almost visualise our neurotransmitters sending urgent messages backwards and forwards trying to dominate our conscious minds.

Somewhere in there we can also now imagine a space of calm in the centre of the tangled wires of emotions and impulses. This is the place where you can find equanimity and sustainable joy, a place where you avoid making rash decisions, observe the pull of emotions, desires and fears, and begin to experience an inner stillness. One might dare to call that happiness.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation