Subject Four: Nourishing Ourselves with Joy and Happiness - Breathe, you are alive! by Thich Nhat Hanh  

Offered by Cole Mannella on December 10, 2020

Those who practice meditation can learn how to nourish themselves with the joy and happiness of meditative concentration in order to achieve real maturity and help the world. Life in this world is both painful and miraculous. The violet bamboo, the yellow chrysanthemum, the white clouds, and the full moon are all wondrous expressions of the Dharmakaya, the body of the Dharma. Our own body even though it is impermanent, without an independent self, and subject to suffering, is also infinitely wondrous. The joy of beginning to meditate is like leaving the busy city and going off to the countryside to sit under a tree. We feel ourselves filling with peace and joy. What a relief!

Joy is a positive psychological and physiological state. Joy helps our blood circulate throughout our body, which makes us feel more alive. When we feel joyful, concentration is easy. When we are concentrated, we see more clearly and have a deeper understanding of things. At the end of each day, you can sit cross-legged on a cushion or sit in a chair and begin to practice conscious breathing. If you can set aside the stresses and difficulties of your day and enter your meditation, you will feel great joy. This is the initial sensation of the peace and joy of meditation. In each session of sitting meditation you can touch joy, truly nourishing your body and mind.

Happiness is more than joy. Happiness is easiest when our body and mind are at ease, freed of excessive worries and preoccupations. According to the Buddha, joy is less pure than happiness because there is excitement in it. When we feel too excited, our mind is not at peace. If we are too excited about something happening in the future how can we enjoy what is happening in the present moment? In the West, joy is often equated with excitement. According to the Buddha, joy is not the same as happiness. In the beginning, we need joy. But as we develop our happiness, the excitement that is present in joy disappears. The Buddha was not criticizing joy. We need joy very much, but we also need to go further than joy.

In the river of our feelings are many unpleasant ones. We want more than anything for them to change. The Buddha understood this. That is why he proposed we nourish ourselves with joy and happiness. They are the medicine we need to strengthen us before we try to cure the deepest, most fundamental causes of our suffering.

To succeed in the practice, we must “experience” joy and happiness. It is not enough to repeat the words “joy” and “happiness” to ourselves. Whatever we are doing, we can ask ourselves “what are the conditions that we have for happiness?” The more we practice searching for these conditions, the easier identifying them becomes. Practicing right mindfulness allows us to stay in touch with the conditions that can bring us joy and happiness. According to the Lotus Sutra, we are the heirs to many priceless jewels, but we wander around as if we were destitute. We could say that there is nothing special in this present moment, or we could choose instead to acknowledge the fact that to be alive is truly miraculous. When we are deeply aware of being alive in this present moment, we see how wonderful it is!

The Buddha taught us to examine our pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings. Neutral feelings are those which are neither pleasant nor unpleasant. When we have a toothache for example, we have an unpleasant feeling. Yet when we do not have a toothache, we do not enjoy our non-toothache. We think having a non-toothache is a neutral feeling. Having a toothache helps us to realize that not having a toothache is a very pleasant feeling.

Through the practice of meditation we learn to transform so-called neutral feelings into pleasant ones that are healthy and long lasting. Meditation helps us to see what is painful and what is miraculous. It is not necessary to look for happiness outside of ourselves. We only need to be aware of the existence of happiness, and we can have it right away. Nourished by the happiness of meditation, we become tolerant, at ease and compassionate with ourselves and with others, and our happiness is felt by everyone. With peace in ourselves, we can share peace with others. By nourishing ourselves in this way, we will come to have enough strength and equanimity to face the many hardships in life with patience and perseverance.

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