Excerpt from How to Meditate by Kathleen McDonald.
Everyone wants happiness yet few of us seem to find it. In our search for satisfaction we go from one relationship to another, one job to another, one country to another. We study art and medicine, train to be tennis players and typists; have babies, race cars, write books, and grow flowers. We spend our money on home entertainment systems, mobile phones, iPods, handheld computers, comfortable furniture, and vacations in the sun. Or we try to get back to nature, eat whole foods, practice yoga, and meditate. Just about everything we do is an attempt to find real happiness and avoid suffering.
There is nothing wrong with wanting happiness; there is nothing wrong with any of these attempts to find it. The problem is that we see things like relationships, possessions, and adventures as having some intrinsic ability to satisfy us, as being the cause of happiness. But they cannot be—simply because they do not last. Everything by nature constantly changes and eventually disappears: our body, our friends, all our belongings, the environment. Our dependence on impermanent things and our clinging to the rainbow-like happiness they bring cause only disappointment and grief, not satisfaction and contentment.
We do experience happiness with things outside ourselves, but it doesn’t truly satisfy us or free us from our problems. It is poor quality happiness, unreliable and short-lived. This does not mean that we should give up our friends and possessions in order to be happy. Rather, what we need to give up are our misconceptions about them and our unrealistic expectations of what they can do for us.
Not only do we see them as permanent and able to satisfy us; at the root of our problems is our fundamentally mistaken view of reality.We believe instinctively that people and things exist in and of themselves, from their own side; that they have an inherent nature, an inherent thing-ness. This means that we see things as having certain qualities abiding naturally within them; we think that they are, from their own side, good or bad, attractive or unattractive. These qualities seem to be out there, in the objects themselves, quite independent of our viewpoint and everything else. We think, for example, that chocolate is inherently delicious or that success is inherently satisfying. But surely, if they were, they would never fail to give pleasure or to satisfy, and everyone would experience them in the same way.
Our mistaken idea is deeply ingrained and habitual; it colors all our relationships and dealings with theworld.We probably rarely question whether the way we see things is the way they actually exist, but once we do it will be obvious that our picture of reality is exaggerated and one-sided; that the good and bad qualities we see in things are actually created and projected by our own mind.
According to Buddhism there is lasting, stable happiness, and everyone has the potential to experience it. The causes of happiness lie within our own mind, and methods for achieving it can be practiced by anyone, anywhere, in any lifestyle—living in the city, working an eight-hour job, raising a family, playing on weekends.
By practicing these methods—meditation—we can learn to be happy at any time, in any situation, even difficult and painful ones. Eventually we can free ourselves of problems like dissatisfaction, anger, and anxiety and, finally, by realizing the actual way that things exist, we will eliminate completely the very source of all disturbing states of mind so that they will never arise again.
What is the mind?
Mind, or consciousness, is at the heart of Buddhist theory and practice, and for the last 2500 years meditators have been investigating and using it as a means of transcending unsatisfactory existence and achieving perfect peace. It is said that all happiness, ordinary and sublime, is achieved by understanding and transforming our own minds.
The mind is a nonphysical kind of energy, and its function is to know, to experience. It is awareness itself. It is clear in nature and reflects everything that it experiences, just as a still lake reflects the surrounding mountains and forests.
Mind changes from moment to moment. It is a beginningless continuum, like an ever-flowing stream: the previous mind-moment gave rise to this mind-moment, which gives rise to the next mind-moment, and so on. It is the general name given to the totality of our conscious and unconscious experiences: each of us is the center of a world of thoughts, perceptions, feelings, memories, and dreams—all of these are mind.
Mind is not a physical thing that has thoughts and feelings; it is those very experiences. Being nonphysical, it is different from the body, although mind and body are interconnected and interdependent. Mind—consciousness—is carried through our body by subtle physical energies, which also control our movement and vital functions. This relationship explains why, for example, physical sickness and discomfort can affect our state of mind and why, in turn, mental attitudes can both give rise to and heal physical problems.
Mind can be compared to an ocean, and momentary mental events such as happiness, irritation, fantasies, and boredom to the waves that rise and fall on its surface. Just as the waves can subside to reveal the stillness of the ocean’s depths, so too is it possible to calm the turbulence of our mind to reveal its natural pristine clarity.
The ability to do this lies within the mind itself, and the key to the mind is meditation.