A student recently asked me to share my thoughts on “happiness independent of conditions.” This phrase is widely used in meditation circles, but many people have only a vague intellectual sense of what it means, or worse, a belief that it’s an unattainable goal.
Rather than deepen the intellectual hole, here’s a bit of pragmatic, direct experience…
The way things seem to be going, as I become more mindful, a wider and wider range of sense experiences (the sounds, sights and sensations that make up each moment) become ok. Acceptable. Peaceful. Safe. Sometimes even quite wondrous and beautiful. I still want to improve my life in various ways, but I am willing to be with sense experience as it is, more deeply, and more consistently. In other words, there’s less resistance to the way things are, and therefore, as the Buddhists put it, less suffering.
The side effect of this is that happiness tends to arise. A lot. The narrative is something like, wow, what a relief to not be suffering in this moment! What a profound difference from a moment ago, or the last time this situation presented itself, when I was suffering about it!
One tangible example: I was at a TV premier party on Tuesday night. Surrounded by a lot of ego. More to prove than your typical crowd. Add in an open bar and there was also, I’d guess, less mindfulness than average. Painful thoughts were arising—some people are more important than others, this is a place for competition and showing off, I’m not worthy, etc. But when those thoughts arose, rather than letting them define me, I just observed them. Mental images. Internal talk. And waves of emotional sensation: awkwardness, self-consciousness, sadness. Maybe not even emotions I could recognize by name. Just feeling. In separating the sensory pieces in this way, and meeting each one with a “YES!”, they just flowed through, one after another. The realness of the thoughts dissolved. Unpleasant feelings washed through my body in a way that felt, at times, blissful. I was clear, peaceful, relieved, happy. It was remarkable how much suffering I was avoiding. And outwardly, you might have thought I was just another party-goer, albeit with a little twinkle in my eye.
This is happiness independent of conditions. As practice evolves over the years, we notice this state more clearly, and it spontaneously arises more often, in a wider and wider variety of circumstances.* We gain more freedom to step into this state. We rely on it as a resource. It makes life feel safe. It brings a deep compassion for how much suffering people are often trapped in. And it brings a deep humility, maybe even a sense of humor, about the moments when we find ourselves back in that old place.
The path isn’t linear. It certainly hasn’t been for me. But I’m a westerner, and based on my website statistics, you probably are too. Westerners like to measure progress. We like to think we’re going somewhere. To that end: how do you know if you’re moving along in the way I’m describing? Ask yourself these questions:
- Has your meditative experience improved your daily life? (We’re talking on the scale of months and years.)
- Do you experience more ease?
- Is there more kindness? Self-compassion? Happiness?
- Is it easier to go after the things you want and avoid the things you don’t?
- Is there a growing self-knowledge, and understanding of the human condition?
- Is there a strengthening moral compass?
- Most importantly, are you getting what you want to be getting out of meditation?
A holistic view of human happiness encompasses a lot of variables, and many different arcs of development. Cool thing is that mindfulness is at least a component—a supporting feature—in just about every one of those arcs.
Two final thoughts (as if I haven’t gone on long enough):
- Getting to the point where you have a pretty magical-seeming ability to step out of the ordinary suffering of daily human life is not at all an unreasonable goal. I know there’s that book floating around called “10% Happier”. I would say the author is shooting way too low. How about 200% Happier? 300%? This is not some far out mystical notion that we can never hope to achieve. It’s tangible, applicable, and well worth the effort (IMHO).
- By no means does this imply that sadness, awkwardness, anger, fear, etc. will no longer arise. Same deal with physical pain. And confusion. All that stuff—it’s here to stay. What we are talking about is a change in the relationship with all that, which turns out to be 90% of the issue. My teacher Shinzen likes equations. SUFFERING = PAIN x RESISTANCE. We can’t change pain. At least, not always. We can change resistance.
*you might be surprised how challenging this is even in simple moments like sitting in traffic or standing alone on a dance floor.
Thank you for posting this clear and insightful piece.
What I have been struggling with, ever since I started to follow spiritual teachings, is that the concept ‘happiness independent of conditions’ seems so extreme. My mind immediately answers back with a scenario, let’s say you’ve been drugged so that your dopamine and serotonin levels are massively reduced, you’re unable to focus your mind, you are disorientated and in a state of deep mental anguish, what’s more, you are being physically tortured, burned, someone is pushing pins into your eyeballs…..sorry for the awful picture but you get what I’m saying….
If the phrase is true then it is possible to remain happy under these conditions tra la la la la, sensations coming and going, staying curious and present with it all. How is this possible if the mind’s ability to focus is compromised by drugs, complete confusion and extreme pain?
I haven’t come across anyone asking this which seems to me to be the vital next question, nor a teacher who goes into answering it. Of course there is the example of Jesus on the cross, but he at least knew death was on its way, and I don’t think he was happy, his faith wavered, he just accepted his current unhappiness as a necessary unfolding of the way of things.
My interpretation is that, as you have been practicing, we can learn to observe our emotions and thoughts and untangle the limiting beliefs and irrational fears in which they are rooted and become calmer and happier in more and more situations, of which probably none were ever in any way dangerous in the first place. This is cognitive behavioural therapy and can completely transform one’s life, I’ve done it! But to go as far as saying ‘happiness independent of conditions’, that’s too far in my opinion. We can say ‘happiness increasingly less dependent on certain conditions’, or something like that. In fact, one of the conditions for happiness in spirituality seems to be that we remain as awareness (or don’t identif solely with the bodymind)……that’s a condition!
Best wishes to you