The introduction to Joseph Emet’s book, “Finding the Blue Sky,” begins with a single quote from the Dali Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan people and master of the art of joy.
“I believe happiness can be achieved through training the mind.”
Notice what this quote does not say. It does not tell us that happiness can be achieved through material gain. It doesn’t say that happiness comes from people or relationships or power. Happiness comes from training the mind. It comes from within.
Contemporary psychology backs up this claim. Today, we know that every thought we have, every decision we make, and every action we take rewires our brains. Over time, those neuronal changes become deeply engrained—they become habits.
Everything we do causes the brain to create stronger connections that relate to our chosen behavior or thoughts, while weakening connections in other areas. So whatever you do and think and feel affects the physical structure of your brain, literally rebuilding it—negative thoughts build a negative brain.
What’s more, feeling consistently sad, frightened, or stressed affects our performance, slowing down brain coordination, making it difficult to think through complex problems. Negative feelings can affect mood, decrease the sharpness of memory, and create impulsiveness. In this way, negative thoughts lead to negative actions, and those actions add up to create a decidedly dim destiny.
But it doesn’t have to be so!
Through a technique called mindfulness, we can reshape the terrain of our minds. Emet, a trained Dharma teacher, writes that mindfulness can “help us change in beneficial ways, for mindfulness is the peculiar ability to observe oneself objectively—this is the necessary prelude to change.”
And indeed, it is. Our lives are made up of hundreds, if not thousands of small, daily choices that begin within our thoughts, radiating outward into the world of action. There are myriad ways to take control of these choices.
One of the best methods is over 2,500 years old—Buddhism.
Joseph Emet shows us the transformative power that lies at the intersection between the contemporary techniques of positive psychology and the ancient wisdom of Buddhism.
Positive psychology, according to the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, “is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.”
Rather than correcting diseases of the mind, positive psychology focuses on achieving a happy life—the focus, here, is on personal growth rather than the pathology of mental illness.
Buddhism, at the most basic level, teaches us how we make ourselves, and others, unhappy, and shows us how to stop. As a system of thought, it is one of the most effective routes to the benefits of positive psychology.
The Buddhist concept of the Eightfold Path underlies much of Emet’s work, and with a basic understanding of its precepts, you’ll have a much better idea of how elements of Buddhism can help you to live an intentionally happy life.
Let’s take a brief look at these eight ideas.
To have the “right view” is to see the world as it really is, and to leave our delusions behind. This means knowing what is going on both inside and outside of ourselves, liberating us from the preconceived notions which cause us suffering.
This can be achieved through meditation and mindfulness—simply taking the time to quietly observe your own thoughts without passing judgment. Take note of how those thoughts correspond to reality. If they don’t match, they don’t need to be kept.
After divesting ourselves of our preconceived notions, we must make the decision to pursue this course of action by correcting our intentions. If our intentions arise from a places like anger, hatred, resentment, or greed, they should be reexamined.
Our intentions should be driven by the desire to help others, and to unify and spread happiness. Being aware of our aims helps us to consciously set new intentions that allow us to progress along the eightfold path.
Just like it sounds, “right action” involves turning our good intentions into actions.
Be mindful of how you behave, of how your actions affect the world around you. This isn’t about developing a list of things that you shouldn’t do—it’s about doing things that do not cause suffering.
Communication affects the communicator just as much as the recipient, and so focusing on “right speech” is incredibly important.