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.
Avoid speech that is deceptive, exclusive, or just plain mean. We want our communication to be beneficial rather than harmful.
Being aware of our “right livelihood” means being intentional about how we earn our living. We need to drop anything that gets in the way of an ethical life that causes no suffering—either to us, or to others.
Where we work, and how we work there deserves thought and mindfulness if we are to affect the world in positive ways.
Be mindful of where you put your effort—make sure it goes into these 8 stops along the path, into developing mindfulness of each one so that you can intentionally steer your life toward the positive.
Most people go through their days automatically, allowing themselves to float on a wave of habits that take them through life. We get lost in thoughts of the past or the future, and rarely do we truly engage with the present. But “right mindfulness” involves training oneself to be present, to live in the moment, accepting the world, and engaging it, as it is. In this way, we can apply our “right effort”.
Every step of the Eightfold Path affects every other, and this is, perhaps, the one which affects all of them the most.
“Right concentration,” which can also be called meditation, means focusing the mind on one object, to the exclusion of all else, as opposed to mindfulness, which is being open to whatever arises.
This step involves the use of “right effort,” “right intention,” and “right mindfulness,”—you must first be able to have let go of things like hatred, negativity, and anger in order to truly concentrate your attention in a way that is useful.
This helps us to focus on the positive, rather than allowing our thoughts to slip into harmful negative patterns.
As we can see, the field of positive psychology isn’t as new as we think—the Buddha was contemplating its foundations centuries ago! And now that modern psychology is backing up his words, it’s a better time than ever to learn more about his teachings, regardless of faith or nationality. After all, we all deserve to find happiness, and intentionality is the best way to achieve that.
“Finding the Blue Sky” elegantly explores the path to positivity through deliberate action, effectively helping readers to find the clear skies of happiness that lie just on the other side of the clouds. Beyond simply relating information, Emet takes advantage of the power of words, telling stories and inviting readers to practice what they’ve learned.
So take the time to read his work, and learn the depth and breadth of the art of intentionality. Choose happiness—right here, and right now.