The source of happiness and problems

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A talk given at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin on July 6, 2007.

  • Our minds are ruled by self-grasping ignorance and the self-centered thought
  • We create and star in our own dramas based on the self-centered thought
  • Low self-esteem, guilt, blame, anger all come from the focus on self: I, me, my and mine
  • Developing compassion creates happiness
  • Wishing all sentient beings to be free of suffering and its causes

Emotional Health: The source of happiness and problems (download)

Questions and answers

  • Steps to subdue the craving mind
  • Turn away from the feeling of discontentment in daily life
  • How media creates a sense of “us” and “them”
  • Separating negative desires and positive aspirations
  • Cultivating internal happiness without enhancing self-centeredness
  • Dealing with self-pity

Emotional Health: Q&A (download)

SAFE 1A Week 2: Source of Happiness and Problems

Part 2: Transforming the judgmental mind

From the Buddha’s viewpoint, we are emotionally sick. We might as well be blunt, start everything off with [being] blunt, in the sense that our minds are overwhelmed by what we call three poisonous attitudes: ignorance, clinging attachment, and animosity. As long as those three rule our minds, we don’t have perfect emotional health. It’s very hard to have perfect emotional health, it’s going to take a while to get there, but I think as much as we can practice the path and get going in that way it will definitely be beneficial.

I was thinking, what’s the name of the book, the DRC? The one that all the therapists have? DSM. There are how many different categories in there? A lot, and they’re coming up with more each year, right? The Buddha started out with 84,000 and left it at that. But those 84,000 can be condensed into three. It makes it easier to stick with three. And actually, those three, if you want to condense them further, you can get down to two.

These two are the big troublemakers. One is called self-grasping ignorance, and the other one is called self-centered thought. These two are kind of like, dare I say it, the George Bush and Dick Cheney of our emotional illness. And if you’ve ever wanted to impeach the president, what we want to impeach is our own self-centered attitude and self-grasping ignorance because these are the two that really cause all the warfare, all the internal turmoil and all the discord that we have with other sentient beings. 

Self-grasping ignorance is a mind that misconceives how things exist. It projects or imputes a way of existence onto people and onto phenomena that they don’t have, and it makes everything seem very solid as if it has its own essence, it’s own me-ness. In the sense of our own self, which is one of the big factors of the self-grasping, there’s the sense of a big I. Do you have that? When you wake up in the morning, who do you think about? Who do you think about all day? When we don’t get what we want, what’s the feeling of I? Is it a small kind of cooperative I or is it a big heavy duty screaming, yelling, temper-tantrum throwing “don’t ignore me” kind of I? It’s a pretty solid big one, isn’t it? This sense of I that we have, that really operates so many aspects of our lives, is something that we need to bring into question, and to see if the I, I mean the I of the person, not this one, but the I of the person, if it really exists in the way it that appears to.

That’s a whole topic. Do we exist in the way that we appear to? I won’t get into that so much right now, but the other one, the vice-president, the self-centered attitude, is the mind that says, okay, there’s this big strong solid inherently independently existent me and it just happens to be the center of the world. And that’s kind of the way we live our lives, right? Don’t we live our lives as if we are the center of the universe? I mean, when we wake up in the morning, we think about ourselves all day long. We think about ourselves at night, we dream about ourselves. Everything is based on me, isn’t it? And we assess and evaluate everything in relationship to me.

We think that we are perceiving things objectively. We have this feeling like there’s this external objective world and external people out there and that we’re just kind of coming along, perceiving them as they are from their side. But in actual fact, that’s not the way it is. We’re filtering everything.  And we are especially filtering everything through this perspective of me, I, my, and mine. How everything relates to the center of the universe: me.

One of the big problems we have is that the rest of the universe doesn’t realize that we’re the center of it. We really should get everything we want, don’t you think? Don’t you think we are entitled to get everything we want? Our basic slogan is “I want what I want when I want it.” 

We feel as though we are completely entitled to that and the universe owes it to us because we’re so wonderful and the universe should be very happy to have us in it, especially at its center. We go through life expecting everything to go according to our conceptions and our preconceptions, so whatever our plans are, we think that’s the way things should happen. Whatever our ideas are, that’s the best idea that everyone should think. Whatever we want is exactly what we should get, whatever we don’t want should be eliminated immediately. We go through life expecting this and the unfortunate thing is, like I said, the rest of the universe just doesn’t realize we are the center of it, so we don’t always get what we want when we want it, and sometimes we get what we don’t want when we don’t want it. And then that makes us very upset.

And then the anger comes, doesn’t it? The attachment is this mind, “I want what I want when I want it,” and when we get certain things that make us feel good, we get attached to them and then when we don’t get what we want or when we get what we want and it’s not as good as it was supposed to be—you know that one—or we get what we want and then we separate from it without our choice, then again, we get very hostile and angry and upset inside.

We focus everything just on I as we go through the day and then wonder why we have so many problems. We all wonder: why do I have so many problems, I’m just a sweet little innocent person, full of good will, walking down the road and then all these nasty horrible things happen to me that I don’t deserve? And then we throw a pity party. We do two things when we don’t have what we want. One is we throw a pity party, and the other one is that we get mad. How many of you are pity partiers? Oh come on, there’s more than seven of us. How many of us are pity partiers? How many of us get angry? How many do both? Okay? So we can really get into it.

Any problem we have—you know our problem: remember, we are the center of the universe—then our problem becomes the most serious problem in the entire universe happening that day. I mean, forget the war in Iraq, forget racial and gender discrimination, forget what’s happening in Darfur—my colleague didn’t say hello this morning. That is the most serious thing. Or, you know, my husband forgot to buy the peanut butter, and he always forgets to buy the peanut butter. He knows I like peanut butter and I think there is something passive aggressive going on, all related to the peanut butter, you know. Right?

We get quite involved in whatever our own story is. When we were in English class, we probably felt bereft of ideas when it came to a creative writing assignment, but actually if we look in our lives, we are creative writing all the time. We are very excellent creative writers. We write melodramas. And who’s the star of our melodrama? Coincidentally, that’s us. All day long we are writing melodramas based on the main character, me.

When I was a little kid, my parents used to call me Sarah Bernhardt. It took me the longest time to figure out who Sarah Bernhardt was. For those of you who don’t know, she was a film star, I think in the silent movies, was it? But very dramatic. So even though I didn’t feel like I was very dramatic, I guess I came off that way to people around me. I mean I just felt like I was being honest. It took me years to actually realize that, yes, I do tend to be a bit dramatic, but it’s all this self-centered mind that makes the big drama out of our own life and what’s happening to us.

We will take any small incident, it doesn’t have to be something big at all, something very small like the peanut butter, and we will write a whole melodrama based on the peanut butter. Those of you who’ve been married have probably witnessed similar things, have you, just small little things, and then all of a sudden, no peanut butter and dear, I asked you to buy the peanut butter, why didn’t you? You know, you’re always forgetting the things that I ask you to do, and this has been going on for the last 15 years since we’ve been married, and every time I talk to you about it, you have some excuse and I’m getting really fed up because I think, like I said before, some sort of passive aggressive thing is going on here, and you know, I’m not going to let myself be a victim of your passive aggressive stuff that’s permeating this relationship and I’m totally fed up and I want a divorce. And it all began with the peanut butter.

This is what our mind of creative writing does. [We collect] ammunition when we are doing our creative writing story, especially in relationships with people over time. You know all the little things that happen that you don’t comment on at the time but you put them in your file called “Ammunition for the next time we have a fight,” and that file never gets deleted. It only gets added to and you can always find it. It’s not one of those files where you go: What did I call it? You have to use the search function and have your little puppy on your computer find it. No, our “Ammunition to use for the next fight” is on our desk top with the big red button saying Push Me, and we do.

We just stockpile everything, all of our little grudges, all of the little things that we don’t like. And then when we have one major incident, we have it, don’t we? We pull out that file, and it’s not just the peanut butter, it’s also the jelly, and it’s the bread, and it’s the way you walk, and it’s the way you say good morning, and it’s the way you take out the trash and everything. This—the melodrama we make in our life—is coming about because of the self-grasping ignorance, thinking that there’s a big solid me, and the self-centered thought that thinks that me is the center of the universe. 

Now the self-centered thought, it works in interesting ways. In one way, it makes us kind of arrogant and gives us the feeling that we’re better or more important than we are. We want more attention ourselves, and it’s the self centered I that makes us always [want to] look good in front of other people.

You know how when you meet new people, we always have a very sweet loving personality, don’t we? We’re so nice. Oh, please let me help you, let me do something for you. We are so nice, then after the relationship is formed, then our character comes out. But we put on this very nice show at the beginning, and tell other people about ourselves, and how wonderful we are, and how talented we are, and all the things we’ve done in our life, every place we’ve traveled, all the careers that we’ve had, all of our successes that we’ve had, you know we really schmaltz up our life, build it up, and make ourselves look really good in front of other people, don’t we?

It’s like when you go for a job interview. Who tells the truth on a job application? We always make it sound like we can do everything on a job application. Of course, after they hire us, they find out we can’t do most of the things we said, but we always make ourselves look very very good.

So, the self-centered thought on the one hand inflates the I to make it look better than it is, but our self-centered thought also inflates the I to make it look worse than it is. Because the self-centered one wants to be the most important one, so if we can’t be the best, well then we will just settle for being the worst. But we would rather be more than anybody else. So, the self-centered one on the worst side comes about when we are in our pity party time, and we would play the music for our pity party. I’m so awful, nobody loves me, I do everything wrong! And we get really into being very down on ourselves. And I mean really into being very down on ourselves, and this is a huge problem in our culture.

You know this low self-esteem stuff, criticism, guilt. Anybody here? Come on. We all do. So it’s in there. And we get really wound up with how terrible we are, nobody loves us, everything we do is wrong, and we make everything go wrong in our lives and no wonder we’re having this pity party because we’re to blame for everything and we get completely into it. It’s called depression and we’re very good at it.

But who’s the star of the show? When we are feeling guilty and low self-esteem and depressed, who’s the star? Who’s the central figure? It’s me, isn’t it? It’s always me. If I’m not going to be the best, I’m going to be the worst. You know, somehow I am special. I am worse than everybody else. It’s a big difficulty we have.

It’s very unrealistic isn’t it? Because when we’re in our low-self-esteem, feeling-guilt phase, we have this sense that we are so important that we can make everything go wrong. You had a fight with somebody that you care about, and you go, it’s all my fault. Well, first it’s all their fault, but after you get tired of being angry at them, then it’s all my fault. That’s not really very balanced is it? Saying, I’m so important I can make everything go wrong. Is that true? Are we that important that we can make everything go wrong?  I don’t think so.

Whenever there’s something happening between people, there are always various causes and conditions going on. We shouldn’t just put it all on ourselves. Nor should we put it all on the other person. But see how we want to be special in every aspect of our lives. This wish to be special. To appear somehow. Doing our creative writing stories. And since it’s easier to do the creative writing about things that don’t go the way we want, then we do a lot of that.

In previous generations, I don’t think our ancestors had so much time to feel sorry for themselves because they were just trying to stay alive. They were trying to get some food and get some clothing and build a house and stay healthy and they were just trying to stay alive. But now we take a lot of that for granted, and so we have the leisure time to be more self-centered and to feel more self-pity. Then we wonder why we’re so unhappy.

Then you find people saying things like, well, I’m very self-critical and have low self-esteem and so I have to change my attitude about myself and be kinder to myself. I’m going to be kind to myself and go out and buy myself a present. I’ve heard people say that.

You hear people [complain] who have taken care of families. I was giving a talk once and one woman came up to me afterwards and said, you know, I was taking care of my family for 20 years, sacrificing myself for my family, and I’m totally fed up, and now I’m going to take care of myself. I’m going to to go out and have a good time. That’s the way she said it. I couldn’t actually share with her my perspective at that moment. But you know, when we talk like that have we really been sacrificing ourselves for somebody else? Or have we been doing something that looks kind with the expectation of getting something in return? And then is the way to be kind to ourselves to go out and buy something at the store that we don’t need that consumes more of the world’s resources and that puts us in greater credit card debt? Is that being kind to yourself? Filling your closets with more stuff? I don’t think so. 

I think we are very confused by what it means to be kind to ourselves. And we’re very confused about what it means to not be self-centered. Because, when we sometimes begin to see the faults of the self-centeredness, then we think, okay, the way to not be self-centered is to never think about myself, not take care of myself at all and completely take care of everybody else. So then we become Miss Fixit or Mr. Fixit and we’re reveling in everybody else’s business trying to fix them. Now we’re being kind and magnanimous and not self-centered and so now we’re going to fix everybody else’s problems, which means that they should do things our way, because we know what’s best for them, right? Then we feel that we’re only totally giving to people if we’re suffering.

I’m not quite sure where we got that idea. You might have some. Somehow we feel that we’re not being entirely compassionate unless we’re miserable in the process of it. So that’s the way we get into this very strange peculiar way of taking care of others, which is actually meddling in their affairs and trying to push our agenda on them.

What Buddhism says about this is that what we are trying to do is to have love and compassion for all sentient beings so all sentient beings include us. It doesn’t mean everyone minus one. Sometimes for us in Buddhist practice it’s difficult because we grew up in this background where we think if we pay any attention to ourselves that it’s self-centered and bad, and to be compassionate that we have to suffer. But no, that’s not what the Buddha says. We are taking care of all sentient beings, which includes ourselves. But we have to know how to take care of ourselves in a wise way. 

The way we’ve been taking care of ourselves until now hasn’t actually been the wise way. It’s been the self-centered way, but it hasn’t been wise because it’s actually brought us a whole lot of problems. Because the more self-centered we are, the more sensitive we become to any small thing in our environment, and so the more bent out of shape we get when such small things happen. That kind of self attention is not very helpful at all, that’s not taking care of ourselves. Taking care of ourselves means wanting ourselves to be happy.

Now this is the tricky question. What does happiness mean? Our usual way of thinking is happiness means that I get what I want when I want it. But we’ve already been through that and we’ve realized that having that attitude just makes us more unhappy. Because we very seldom get what we want when we want it and even if we do, it isn’t as good as it was supposed to be.

We have to examine in another way. What really does it mean to be happy? And I think this is something we need to spend some time on, because we have a lot of societal conditioning about what happiness means.

What does it mean to be happy? It means to be successful. What does successful mean? What did our parents teach us is the definition of successful? It’s probably one of the standard templates with different variations; a good career, relationship, your 2.1 children or whatever we’re supposed to have now.  Certain kind of house, a certain kind of car, a certain kind of job, certain kind of friends, certain kind of reputation. Certain kind of savings for your old age, certain kind of hobbies and things like that: that’s what we were conditioned to believe is happiness. Most of us have not questioned that.

I think it’s important to stop and think what really is happiness. Look around at the people who we think have the things that should make them successful, or the things that should make them happy, and see if those people in fact are happy. We all have people we are jealous of, don’t we? People that we think, if I were only like them, if only I had their situation, then I would really be happy. But if you really stop and think about those people that you’re jealous of, are they happy? Do you know anybody who is everlastingly happy? With their car in their garage and their family and their possessions and their reputation. We don’t, do we? So somehow this should be an indicator to us that the conditioning that we received when we were young about what happiness is and what success is, is just that, it’s conditioning. It’s not the truth. And what we need to do is look deeper inside of ourselves and ask, what does it really mean to be happy?

Because most of our definition of happiness stems from having certain external situations. But as soon as our happiness depends on external things, that is a big set up for unhappiness, isn’t it? Because we can’t control the world and our external environment. We keep trying to, we try to. We try to get everybody around us we like. We try and get rid of everybody that we don’t like, we try and get all the possessions we think we are going to be happy, we try to get rid of all the ones, the material things that make us unhappy. Do we ever succeed in making our environment and the people in it exactly what we want? No. We have never succeeded.

Thinking that happiness comes from certain external situations is really setting ourselves up for disappointment because we can’t make the world be what we want it to be, even though we’ve been trying to since we were born.

What the Buddha said is check up inside and see how much your happiness comes from what’s going on in your own mind. We’ve all had the experience of being in a very nice external situation and being very miserable. Ever had that? There you are at the beach with Prince or Princess Charming and everything’s perfect and you’re unhappy. We’ve all had it. So you know that doesn’t work. 

How much does what’s going on in our own mind play a role in how happy we are? This is a very good thing to keep looking at and keep questioning. We can see that the more self-centered we are, the less happy we are. So the more that we are sitting here [saying], “I’m the gift to the universe and the universe should appreciate me, and I’m entitled to have everything”: that thought is what makes us miserable. Not getting the things we want isn’t really what makes us miserable. It’s the craving to have those things that’s the setup for misery. The craving to have those things comes from inside. Once we have the craving, that’s it. Even if we get it, it’s not going to be good enough. We want something new after a while.

Real peace in the mind comes when we can start to subdue that craving. When we can start to relinquish that self-centered thought. That’s when real contentment comes in the mind.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says that if you want to be selfish, be wisely selfish and take care of others. He puts forth compassion as a way to find internal happiness. We always thought: “Compassion for other sentient beings as a way to make myself happy? I’m going to be miserable if I’m compassionate. I’m going to be so involved in others’ suffering, it’s going to tear my heart out. I’m going to be depressed and I’m going to try and fix their problems and they’re not going to listen to me, and I’m going to be miserable if I’m compassionate.”

I remember this was kind of my thought when I first heard His Holiness say that. Because His Holiness was my teacher, I thought I’d better not make too quick of a judgment. You know, I’d better think a little bit about what he said, because he might know what he’s talking about and I figured out in the end he did. He always does. And it involves really learning what compassion means. 

Compassion in the Buddhist sense means simply wanting sentient beings, ourselves included, to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. Suffering doesn’t just mean the “ouch” kind of suffering that everybody can identify as suffering. Suffering from a Buddhist perspective also includes getting what we want, but because getting what we want is not going to be a lasting situation, and we are eventually going to be separated from it, and that happiness is going to decrease, that is also a form of suffering.

From a Buddhist perspective, just having a body like this that gets old and sick and dies is a form of suffering. So when we think of sentient beings being freed of suffering and its causes, there’s a very big scope to it.

It doesn’t mean that we become Pollyanna and we are trying to fix the world’s problems. Because that kind of compassion is, like I was saying before, that “I’m going to fix your life” kind of compassion, which really isn’t compassion, it’s more “I want to control you and I know what you should do, better than you know what you should do.” That really isn’t helping. This kind of compassion is really looking in the long term and seeing that the causes of all of our suffering comes from within. The cause of all of this suffering comes from the self-grasping ignorance, it comes from the self-centered thought. If we want sentient beings, ourselves and others, to be free of suffering and to have happiness, then the primary thing is to be free of these two.

Then the question comes, Well, how do we free ourselves from the self-centered thought? How do we free ourselves from the self-grasping ignorance? This is one of the reasons why we practice the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha was able to give a road map on how to accomplish all of this: by listening to the teachings, reflecting on them, meditating on them, practicing them. We switch our focus to really taking care of everybody, not just ourselves, and taking care of everybody in the long term, knowing that we are not going to be able to fix all the world’s problems right now or even next month, or next year. But really looking at the long term. If we have this long-term perspective, it gives us a lot of courage to make our minds very, very strong.

What brings so much discouragement when we are trying to be of benefit to others is we want them to change very quickly, don’t we? You have a sibling who has a substance abuse problem, you know exactly what they need to do to fix up their life, and you tell them that. Do they do it? No. Then we get angry, we get upset, we feel unappreciated because we are looking for some short-term solution and we are trying to force our way on another person, without realizing that we need to be very, very skillful in how we help others and think in the long term and to not get discouraged when other people don’t follow our sagest advice. And to even begin to think that maybe our sagest advice is not the right thing, and maybe what it’s really about is getting to teach the other person how to find their own internal wisdom.

So we begin to look at what does it mean to have compassion? What does it mean to benefit others? Others change slowly. We know we change slowly. So we’re going to hang in there and be compassionate for a long period of time and not have expectations for quick changes and not get discouraged when we see other people doing things [that are] the very opposite of what they need to be doing and [are] self-sabotaging.

I think for me the one thing that really helps in this whole process is that we have this bodhicitta motivation, the aspiration to become fully enlightened for the benefit of sentient beings, and we know it is going to take a really long time to become fully enlightened. We know it’s going to take a while because we are slow to change and we know other beings are slow to change. But the thing that gives us confidence is that we know that we are doing something really meaningful and useful with our lives. So however long it takes, our time is not going to be wasted, even if it takes a few months.

You remember when you come into Buddhism and you think you’re going to be a Buddha by next Tuesday. Remember that? And then you decided that maybe that was expecting too much, it might take a few months, and then after a few months went by, you figured it might be a few years, and after a few years went by you figured, well, maybe the end of this life, and then some more time went by, and you figured it’s going to take some more lives. And then you begin to remember that at the very beginning your teacher talked about countless great eons. That had slipped to the back of your mind. You begin to say, oh yes, three countless great eons. Okay, I’m signing up. Three countless great eons start after you enter the path of the accumulation, which you haven’t even entered yet. So the stopwatch hasn’t even started.

But it doesn’t matter because you know the direction you’re heading in is one of really long-lasting meaning and purpose. Whatever you have to do, however long it takes, whatever bumps you happen to hit in the road, it doesn’t matter because you’re going somewhere really good.

Then your mind says, Three countless great eons, that’s kind of, I can’t wrap my mind around it. Can I do something else? The self-centered mind says, Can I do something else? The question I always put back is well, what else are you going to do, Chodron? You’ve been cycling in cyclic existence since beginningless time. As they say, been there, done that, got the tee shirt. Everything. So what else am I going to do? Do it all over again and have another round of beginningless time? Who wants to do that again? If we’ve done everything in samsara an infinite number of times, forget it. It’s like watching an old movie, again and again and again. You begin to realize that there’s nothing else to do but to go for enlightenment, and then you relax.

Your countless great eons, even six, it’s okay, you know. It doesn’t matter because where I’m going is the only place to go, the only mental state to go for. Even if I just take baby steps towards it, I’m doing something meaningful with my life and when I die, I can die without regrets, knowing that my life had some purpose and meaning and some benefit. We can also see that the more we practice then the more, just by being who we are, we are able to benefit others.

Instead of being so intent on, I’m going to benefit you whether you want the benefit or not, we begin to realize that just by practicing ourselves and improving the quality of our own mind, that that already benefits so many living beings. I think it’s really one of the big things. So many people who are in helping professions—probably many of you are in helping professions, teaching, or healthcare, social work or therapy work, any kind of these things, so many helping professions—we always think to help sentient beings we have to learn a lot of skills. I need some techniques, give me some techniques, and some skills. So you go to university and you go to vocational school and you get skills, and that’s good, and we need skills.

I think in any helping profession, and just living a regular human life whether you’re in a helping profession or not, I think the best thing we ever bring to other people is who we are. If we have a lot of skills but our own minds are filled with self-centeredness and clinging attachment and jealousy and spite and envy and all that stuff, we might have a lot of skills but how are we ever going to use them to benefit others when our own mind is so berserky. Whereas if we practice the Buddha’s teaching and slowly subdue our minds, then even if you have small skills, those skills can really be useful to others because the way you are giving them becomes important to the other people.

They’ve done so many research things about how patients recover quickly when the doctors actually talk to them and care about them versus when they don’t. And you find it often in any kind of work: who you are as a person makes such a big difference.

We’ve all met other people, and what has it been that’s attracted us to them? Has it been their skills and their degrees, or has it been who they’ve been as a person and their way of showing us an alternative for how to be in the world. Are you getting what I’m saying? And the more we practice, then we can use whatever other talents, techniques and skills we have, but it all comes out in a very kind of natural way without being so forced and so contrived and we begin to see that we can actually benefit others in a very organic way.

I also see that we don’t need to keep tabs of whom we’ve benefited, and we just are who we are and live our lives in a virtuous way with a compassionate heart and people benefit and we don’t care whether we get thanked or not. Because the mind’s really peaceful then, isn’t it? Whenever we are helping with the expectation to get something, our mind’s not peaceful. But when we’re just satisfied, when we take delight in the giving and aren’t so hung up on the results, when we’re content creating the causes for joy and aren’t so focused on getting the result, then the mind becomes very peaceful with how other things turn out in the moment and not so hooked into what’s happening in the moment in a really confused way, because we have this long-term goal.

Are you getting what I mean? It’s funny because in one way having this long-term goal enables us to be in the moment in a lot better way, whereas when we’re trying to eke out every little bit of happiness we can from the moment, we actually don’t experience much at all. 

Those are just some thoughts about emotional health and causes and how to undo some of our emotional imbalance and create some good causes. 

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