The Happiness Illusion

What gets you out of bed in the morning? Is it the thought of money, connection, status…or just caffeine? Whatever motivates you, it's some sort of hope, big or small.

Everything we hope for comes down to a longing for happiness, but happiness lies at one end of a spectrum. If we didn’t know sadness, how would we recognize happiness? Life constantly cycles through these and other ranges of emotion: security and anxiety, contentment and frustration, patience and anger. The reason we recognize any of these states is because they change into their opposite and then back again—over and over. That’s life.

It’s remarkable how much we resist this obvious truth. As a monk living in a community I always felt pressure to represent the monkhood in a positive light. I tried to always be happy and smiling. Sometimes it was genuine, but sometimes it was fake. It took me a while to realize this. In the process I understood that my chief concern was denial, not unhappiness.

The truth is that life can capsize at any time without warning. We find ways to stay upright, but it's a constant struggle. We wish for an end to the struggle, but it’s unrealistic. The day we can lean back in peace with dissatisfaction, unhappiness and sorrow behind us once and for all is pure fiction.

Buddha said we were all deluded. It's not hard to make the case. We read today's awful news and feel that we've lost some sort of pristine happiness, but when we look back honestly we see that it was never like that in the first place. Then we feel that the inevitable happiness we expect in our future is anything but inevitable. Looking for happiness in the rosy past or in the hopeful future only sets us up for disappointment. Everything that actually exists is now.

This inconvenient truth becomes more evident during dark periods such as the world’s going through today. The growing interest in mindfulness is no accident. It reminds us that the past is a memory and the future is speculation. Past and future are thoughts about reality but not reality. Focus on the present moment and you feel immediate physiological and emotional changes. Your breath deepens, your blood pressure stabilizes, your mood changes. It’s all documented but you don’t need to research it. Just do it and see for yourself.

These benefits are temporary of course—like everything—but they’re real. Spending a little time each day in the present moment reminds us of life’s ups and downs and gradually replaces the illusions of happiness with an understanding that it's fleeting. You shed expectations and emotional baggage. You become less judgmental of yourself and others. You get better at navigating life. You find balance.

Expectations: Finding Balance and Letting Go

The problem with subliminal expectations is not so much that they’re expectations as that they’re subliminal.

Subliminal expectations creep effortlessly into our relationships, our goals and our outlook on life. Because they’re subliminal we trust them without question—and when they don’t come true we feel disappointed—even ripped-off.

Suckers for convenient beliefs, we assume that relationships are supposed to be easy, or that negative emotions are simply a bad habit we should be able to shake off at will. By highlighting the things we most want to believe, expectations blind us to unpleasant realities, making us inflexible.

They strain relationships, block personal growth and promote a sense of of failure.

And then, when our expectations prove false, we draw false conclusions and punish all the wrong people—including ourselves.

But we’re not helpless. The problem with subliminal expectations is not so much that they’re expectations as that they’re subliminal. By bringing your conscious attention to the fore you notice them, you learn to see through them, you distrust them, and eventually you let them go.

However, all that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes practice:

  1. Remind yourself daily that ups and downs are inevitable and that expecting life to look after you guarantees disappointment.
  2. Cultivate self-compassion along with self-awareness: A mindful, caring lifestyle helps you detach from expectations and can see your mental patterns in real time. Stay focused as they arise. In time, you’ll see how they impact your feelings and your decisions.
  3. Question your expectations. Are they valid? Are they based on reality or do they reflect social pressures and self-limiting beliefs?
  4. Remember: you’re not alone. Everybody’s subject to unrealistic expectations, every day. Being conscious of them enables you to learn and grow from life’s setbacks.
  5. Be deliberate in all you do. The techniques and reflections we practice in Mindfulness Live will help you stay grounded.

Letting go of expectations creates space for acceptance, growth, and genuine connection. Nevertheless, it will feel unfamiliar, perhaps uncomfortable. That’s because you can’t discard expectations without embracing uncertainty. Recalling, “I don’t know,” is the key to a curious, open mind.


It Begins with Silence: INTRO

To train the mind you need a basic appreciation of how it works. Books and explanations offer some direction, but in the end you really have to look for yourself. Both the questions and the answers that really matter lie within your mind, so the substance of this book consists more of clues, encouragements and challenges than of explanations.

Mindful reflection is a lifestyle. If you’re looking for a convenient technique to escape your problems and be transported to a stress-free peace of mind, you won’t find it here. In fact, you won’t find it anywhere. Despite our weakness for convenient solutions, we all know deep down that personal stress is inseparable from the way we live and deal with ourselves and others. Facing up to this fact of life demands a depth of integrity that can be intimidating, but that’s also deeply rewarding. The alternative, avoidance, pretends to be an easy way out but actually resorts to subconscious trickery – a taxing and fruitless denial of our true feelings.

What you will find here is a depiction of consciousness in transformation. The way of mindful reflection is not to simply replace ‘wrong’ thoughts with ‘right’ ones, but to gradually refine your thinking until you’re able to let go of compulsive explanations altogether, and face reality head-on. By directing your attention inward, you identify conceptual knots, find breathing room and begin to change. What happens is neither magical nor superconscious – but it is intuitive and paradoxical. For example, as you learn to quieten the thoughts, your power to reason and conceptualise grows sharper; as you detach yourself from expectations of life, its joys are enhanced.

The Buddha didn’t advocate mindful reflection just for the high-minded pleasures of living in the here and now. This common misunderstanding both trivializes and undermines its full potential. Used as a tool and applied with energy and patience, mindful reflection can bring to your attention the endless shifting of all you know and the consciousness with which you know it. The stressed mind leaves its shaky trail in the imbalance provoked by life’s persistent uncertainty. Our gut reactions to this uncertainty set up the defensive illusions through which we try to secure ourselves, but which only keep us running round in circles. This repeated observation alone, without any additional rationalisation, is a profound enabler of long-term change. However, the Buddha didn’t stop there. All that he taught points this change toward awakening to the full potential of consciousness – a permanent letting-go.

I wrote this book for the same reason I teach. To share the gift I received from my teachers, to refine my own understanding and to address a matter of fundamental importance to us all – human happiness. I wish for you the reader, and for all my students, the same fulfilment I’ve found, and more. To purchase It Begins with Silence on Kindle, or as an old-fashioned book, click here.

The True Meaning of Mindfulness

Concerns of a Former Buddhist Monk

A psychotherapist commented to me the other day that, “Mindfulness has little or nothing to do with introspection. It’s about learning to be in the ‘here and now,’ living in the present moment.”

Such simplistic notions of mindfulness upset me, especially coming from a healthcare professional. The fact is, simplifying life isn’t simple—it takes lots of clear thinking. Watching the breath may distract us from our anxieties for a while, but to truly get past them we have to drill down. There’s no magic.

The present moment is not some sort of thought-free zone of undefiled experience. There’s crap in the here and now. And then there’s the sheer volume. You feel cold and shudder; you hear a leaf blower and react angrily; you remember your doctor’s appointment and just have to go over the details; you find yourself preoccupied by a long-forgotten argument. Meanwhile, moods fluctuate and, as every meditator discovers, there’s an endless stream of apparently random thoughts that aren’t actually random at all.

And that’s just one moment! We can’t attend to it all. The choice of where to place our attention is either made consciously, or it happens unconsciously. This is the crux. When mindfulness is absent, automaticity steps in and we’re drawn to the same old patterns of denial, escape, numbness, self-deprecation and fear of rocking the boat. 

In time, regular mindfulness practice lays bare the roots of automaticity. THAT'S ITS POWER—to directly and consciously undermine the whispering, self-limiting beliefs that are so harmful—especially, “I’m not good enough,” and “I don’t deserve better.” Without conscious attention, patterns of shame and guilt, as well as plain anxiety, effortlessly take over. Turning around and facing them is a big deal, the best thing we can do for ourselves.

Health professionals should never take this for granted. Indeed, they shouldn’t even talk about mindfulness until they’ve established a practice of their own and gained real clarity into their own mental patterns.

What we do in Mindfulness Live

Peer-pressure, shame, embarrassment, fear of judgment—these are some of the reactive mental patterns that trigger our behavior. In Mindfulness Live we talk about reactivity all the time, focusing on one pattern per week. There are the negatives, like guilt, anger, denial and fear, as well as the positives, such as increased attention, empathy, discernment and insight. The list is as long as human behavior is complicated, but by taking them one at a time they slowly become manageable. The first goal is to see that all these negative feelings are natural products of the human mind—no reason for shame or guilt—and that with regular practice we start to change our response.

No need for shame or guilt

Last week’s topic was wishful thinking. For an example I recalled my very first expectations of meditation—that it would cure all my ills. All I had to do was, “Watch the breath.”

I did. For years. It felt good while I was doing it, but I always ended up back in the same old world with the same old baggage. Where’s the freedom in that? It didn't stop me wishing, and it didn't get me anywhere either.

Before we can let go of old patterns, we have to catch ourselves in the act of hanging on to them. That’s the real purpose of mindfulness. It’s not pretty, and the instinctive human response is to turn away. “I didn’t do it!” Denial works well in the short term, but as a long-term strategy it’s disastrous. Seeing the consequences of denial takes consistent but gentle attention, and recognizing them without shame or embarrassment raises them from the subconscious to full consciousness, finally giving us a say in them. The great obstacle is defensiveness. The payoff is the freedom of not taking things personally.

Think about what that would mean for you. It’s a real life-changer.

When you’re the only meditator in your household, keeping up motivation can be really tough. TO stop our perpetual engagement in the world of people we have to STOP, and that goes against all social norms. We need support in our dissent, and it’s heartwarming.

We laugh a lot, cry a little and wonder where we belong in this great universe. Not that we expect an answer. Those big questions are different. They leave us on the knife-edge of the sublime—being without needing to understand—witnessing the flux of life. What matters is to celebrate what we have, and to do it as consciously as possible. where you'll keep up your practice, guaranteed!

My Father Tamed Lions, but he Couldn’t Tame Me

Perhaps it was because Dad was a lion tamer that I ended up funny. Yes, a lion tamer—and no, I don’t mean comic. This was all in his past by the time I was born, and since he was an absent father—there but not there, like so many men of that generation—I got to know him through his memories, or at least what I imagined were his memories. These I formed myself, from a pile of old photos that he stubbornly refused to talk about. He was ashamed of something.

He’d run away from his native Calabria in the 1930s to join his cousin Blacaman, who was touring South America with lions and alligators as the, “Hindu Animal Hypnotist.” When he fell out with Blacaman and ran off with his girlfriend Koringa to Paris, he managed her before moving on to an acrobatic dancer called Gwenda. Koringa was exotic and French. Gwenda was respectable and English. Dad admired England. Handily avoiding Mussolini’s call to arms, he ended up interned on the Isle of Man. They married and she became like him, an enemy alien. That ended their performing days.

These are the people who raised me. At least, they tried.

“Dad, where was this picture taken, and who's that girl with you?” No answer. Just a grimace. He'd get mad when I pleaded, and I'd get mad right back at his silence. A child needs the stories of the parents, preferably from their own lips. Mum told me everything, but she was no male role-model. He controlled us at home and I vowed never to be like him. But of course I never really knew him, so it was a difficult vow to keep.

The only person he spoke to—in absolute privacy—was his priest. He’d maligned Holy Mother Church for years and had more regrets. He clung to his newfound English and Catholic respectability like a talisman, but the life that I witnessed never inspired me quite like those old photos.

They empowered me to live passionately and uncompromisingly—just as, I supposed, he'd done when he was young and interesting. So when at the age of twenty-two I got to choose between a life as a social scientist and the opportunity to go native with a pride of learned Tibetans, it was a no-brainer.

I didn’t see my decision as an escape but it was. Just as Dad got away from the priests and mafia of his childhood Calabria, but he never escaped his unresolved past. I didn’t want to end up like that.

I knew he’d thrown everything to the wind, and I did too. He joined the circus. I became a Buddhist monk. He tamed lions and alligators. I tamed my mind (or tried to). He abandoned Catholicism temporarily. I gave it up for good. “You’re just like I was,” he’d say. Everyone would nod sagely and turn away.

I turned away too, of course—but not only from them. Eight years later I abandoned Buddhism and found myself on the margins of two cultures. I didn’t even aspire to fit in anywhere. I wasn’t happy and didn’t expect to be. Did he feel that way too, despite his success as a respectable restaurateur, husband and father?

Monastic life had given me more respect for my mind than I’d ever had before. I studied history, computer science, typography, design, book production, psychology, neurology. I wrote a memoir and other books. I fed my brain and developed my skills as assiduously as I avoided my heart.

I called many people ‘friend,’ but never got from them what I needed. I only realised it when I made a new friend, someone who recognized my passion for mindfulness and encouraged me to teach it. I’d trained for eight years. Why didn’t I use it?

That’s when everything changed. I became happy. She helped me put on workshops. I loved public speaking and wrote books. I’m often thanked for my teaching and praised for my intelligence, but there’s still a voice in my head that says I'm not enough. It no longer does the damage now that it once did. When it shows up I see it, counter it and refuse to follow.

This is the process of self-acceptance. My work has shown me how hard it is for others too. We’re all susceptible to shame and the defensive, defeatist voices in our head—but that’s no reason to give up or to even attempt escape. I married that friend, though the belonging part is still elusive.

What did I learn from Dad? Escape is not only impossible—it makes everything worse. My work fulfills me because it requires me to be ruthlessly honest. Teaching, writing and communicating this sort of deep meaning and emotional intelligence fills my life in many ways.

End of story: I avoided being like him, more or less. I’m happy to share my stories. I hide nothing. I catch my reactivity better than ever, and face those voices without any desire to escape. I connect the dots. Perhaps he did that with his parish priest. I’d like to think so.

________________________________________________________________________ where you keep up your practice guaranteed!

Mindfulness & Civility

I was trained as a Buddhist monk, so to me mindfulness means more than stress reduction. Already, thousands of #MBSR practitioners have found that it also delivers resilience and a deeper sense of purpose.

Even more rarely discussed is its role in ethical life. Sadly, the words 'ethical' and 'moral' have become quaint, old-fashioned and apparently irrelevant. You can now choose your preferred reality, and whether it's really real or not matters little. Instead of evidence, we rely today on consensus. As long as enough people agree with me, I’m not wrong, and damn you if you say I am. This lazy old attitude is no longer a subconscious bad habit. It’s now a mainstream choice. People refer to their beliefs as a 'right,’ meaning that personal preferences trump rational decision-making.

When people have every right to be wrong, to stick to their opinion and to disparage anyone who disagrees, it’s no surprise to see where we’re at—familiar, secure, old-fashioned, civility all falling apart.

There IS a difference between right and wrong, between helping and harming, and between hating and collaborating, but the more we call for renewed dialog, the more discouraged we become that no one listens. Comparing notes is becoming a rarity as people dig into their point of view and close their eyes to alternatives.

I don’t wish fear on anyone, but we should be afraid.

We know that mindfulness opens your mind. It can also open society. Good leadership is rare today, but that’s no excuse. It’s up to each of us.

The Buddhism Experiment

Buddhism began a new experiment in the 1970s. After being prodded and explored by a few eccentric Victorians, there was now talk for the first time of ‘Western Buddhism.’ It wasn’t clear how it would turn out, but it felt immanent. What’s grown since then isn’t western so much as modern—not a product of any one culture. Religious Buddhism still exists in various ethnicities, but those who come to Buddhism for its mindfulness teachings are usually looking for a rational, objective and secular approach.

Hundreds of Buddhist centers were established all over North America, Australasia and Europe in the last half century. Wanting to become a teacher, I joined an exclusive group in Switzerland under the Tibetan monk Geshe Rabten, a refugee from Chinese atrocities and a debate advisor to the Dalai Lama. A dozen of us crammed into a tiny four-room house in the tiny four-house hamlet of Schwendi, and got to work on our Tibetan—the only language of instruction.

It was all very old-fashioned. We were given texts to memorize, then we learned to debate them. This was presented as the most authentic way to train, and that’s all that was expected of us. For Geshe Rabten it was a straightforward, tried and tested curriculum. However something weighed on us: how to present this to a modern audience. We tried talking to Geshe about it, but he didn’t understand the biases of a modern, scientific education, or the challenge we faced.

What we realized, and what we knew our Tibetan teachers wouldn’t like, was that in addition to becoming teachers and translators, we were becoming interpreters of Buddhism. This entails separating culture from dharma. Buddhist authorities—including our Tibetan lamas—insist that ‘being a Buddhist’ requires all sorts of beliefs—including reincarnation and karmic law. These aren’t easy for modern minds—nor even necessary, say secular Buddhists like Stephen Batchelor.

Stephen was one of us in Schwendi. Alan Wallace was another. Both had intensely scholastic minds, but they couldn’t have been more different. While Alan’s Buddhism is entirely traditional, right down to the practice of guru-devotion, Stephen’s approach is evidence-based and skeptical. His book Buddhism without Beliefs is the most influential modern book about Buddhism—clear, simple and existential. Alan also takes pains to integrate faith-based Buddhism with modern scientific values, though his books are more sophisticated and intellectual.

Year by year, the religious approach seems increasingly cumbersome to me—especially since mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) and other clinical adaptations of Buddhism have done such a marvelous job of delivering practical tools. Nevertheless, the Buddha is a powerful metaphor for the mindful life, and I continue to explore his life and times with great fascination. When you take a historical, scientific approach, the Buddha turns out to be surprisingly three-dimensional, quirky and human—quite different from the mythical ‘Perfect One.’”

I've spent my adult life studying, practicing and teaching Buddhism. The philosophy can get a little complicated at time, but the practice is straightforward. The difficulty all people face is how to integrate it into their daily lives. I’ve found that nothing stimulates regular mindfulness practice more than stories of other meditators—and the Buddhist literature is filled with great archetypal stories that anyone can relate to.

I teach a 30-minute mindfulness class three times a week—rain or shine—and will begin a ten-week course in the New Year entitled: Buddha: Man or Myth—decoding the origin of mindfulness.

How Chronic Illness Helped My Relationship Grow

When people hear that my wife has multiple sclerosis (MS) and can’t walk, they cringe painfully. Sure it’s not good news—but they assume it’s a nightmare disaster of a situation with no upside, and that we can’t possibly have a life. They’re so wrong.

I always knew what to expect. Caroline warned me repeatedly, “Go! Save yourself.” She was being practical, but I didn’t care. Here was an empathic, intelligent woman who listened to my story and took the time to understand. The depression I’d been in for months fell away. I hardly spoke in those days, but she had me talking volubly and confessionally about my past, my present and my dreams. I was shocked by how many I still had, and she loved them. We were on the same wavelength! For the first time in years, I could breathe with another human being.

As our relationship progressed so did the MS. Its unpredictability is part of the pain. With very little neural feedback from her fingertips, Caroline can hardly button a blouse or put in ear-rings. Picking up a pill from a plate is an exercise in frustration, and getting it to her mouth is a game of chance. Everything is laborious. Falling over is a constant threat. It takes a full minute for her to open the fridge, reach for something and get it safely onto the counter behind her. So when she baked a beautiful Bundt cake for my birthday last week, you can imagine what that meant to me.

Being anxious to help, I sometimes make things worse. I see her struggling, take over, and leave her feeling helpless. Or she tells me to bug off. She feels perfectly healthy, apart from the things she can't do. Then I’m the one to agonize and feel helpless. An inner voice insists that I must fix the unfixable, and accepts no excuses. We don’t let any of these feeling fester. Everything’s up for discussion, making it that much easier to let things go.

Not everybody has MS, but everybody has something. Even if you’re in perfect health, you won’t stay that way forever. As for the emotional struggles of life, you can’t face them alone and come out unscathed. I tried. Even with eight ears of monastic training and the finest self-help tools, I got lost and didn’t even realize it until that unflinching conversation with Caroline. It goes on.

People say that as long as you’ve got your health you’ve got everything. Not many stop to think how that makes people like Caroline feel. I hate hearing it not just because it’s thoughtless—it’s also ridiculous. If you want a philosophy that helps you grow through life, you can’t just focus on the upside. The key is to face the struggle without losing balance. That’s what Caroline and I have been working on since the day we met. That’s what gives our lives meaning and that’s why her clients love her as much as I do.

Fake News About Mindfulness

Mindfulness is often thought of as a spiritual practice. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The practice of mindfulness begins in the body. Step One is to attend to your sensations—in other words, the electrical signals sent to your brainstem, as well as its relays back to the eye, ear, nose, tongue or skin. To see this without triggering a cascade of feelings and thoughts is very unusual, and you have to make a conscious effort to let go of thoughts—especially expectations.

Step Two is to attend to that cascade. Every experience—each in-breath and out-breath—feels like something. It’s fleeting. We rarely take time to notice feelings—usually only once they’ve ballooned out of control. However, it’s the other, micro-feelings, from one moment to the next, that trigger our most continuous, most unconscious reactivity.

Step Three is to attend to your mentality, and this takes poise. Thoughts, ideas and habitual patterns operate virtually at the speed of light; it’s hard to get even a glimpse of them. However, all that’s connected interactively to the brainstem. It correlates certain thoughts to particular feeling states. Your goal is to witness your reactions by being less defensive.

Step Four is attending to your whole world. That means the things around you, including the stuff you own, but mostly the world of society and the incredible variety of relationships that make up sentient life. Much of that life doesn’t simply happen out there. It’s rooted in interaction with you. First you identify the stimuli that trigger troublesome feelings, then you note your thoughts, let them go and return to the present. It's a repetitive practice, rather like strengthening a muscle. Similarly, without practice it loses its strength.

Mindful practice happens within these four tangible grounds. It’s something to get spirited about—at least, I think so—but it’s not spiritual, and neither is the present moment. The supernatural and the metaphysical do not lie in tangible space. Moments other than the present—the past and future—might be spiritual, but they're not here.

Let me stress that mindfulness is an ethical practice—something rooted in society and our relationships with others. The purpose is to understand and refine this embodied, socialized life on Earth so that we can live to the full and die in peace.