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.

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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.

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.

A New Way to Learn

For me, mindfulness isn’t just a way to stay calm. I was still a young man when it became the most important thing in my life, even though no one else had the faintest idea what I was doing. Nothing was harder for me than living in the moment, and yet there was nothing I wanted more.

The first time I really ‘experienced’ the present moment I couldn’t believe it. It was so simple! I thought I’d ‘got’ it—but then I forgot. That's when I saw where the real practice is—walking through each day with your eyes wide open, balanced between focusing and letting go. If you don’t use your newfound skill, you lose it.

Caroline and I have set up Mindfulness Support for two reasons: First of all, we want you to understand the full potential of this practice and how different it is from ordinary meditation. After all, it does much more than manage stress. As mindfulness enters your life, you're increasingly able to identify and let go of the reactive patterns that keep hurting you.

Secondly—most importantly—we want to help you actually do it, day by day, week by week. No matter how much you understand, it only works when you practice.

Our dream is for you to sit down every day for at least a few minutes to check in with yourself. Join us on Facebook. You’ll meet other people who care like you. There’ll be posts and comments, and you can ask questions at any time; I’ll answer within 48 hours.

For those of you ready to build a regular practice, we offer Zoom meetings three times a week, at 12-noon ET. There’s a whole free month for you to see or yourself if you like it or not. After that, you’ll be hooked, and mindfulness will be something you won’t want to live without any more. And why should you?

Both Caroline and I have had difficult lives, but with the help of people like you we’ve been inspired to take every obstacle as an opportunity to learn and grow. We want to help you do the same. No one really ‘learns’ mindfulness from someone else. We know that. Only experience can teach you—and we also know the indispensable value of a support system that works, along with an experienced teacher and a clear way forward.

Cracking Open the Closed Mind

It’s been a bad year, out of control. As if Covid-19 wasn’t enough, we’re faced with extreme denial—a rotten stew of conspiracy theories and lazy thinking.

People on opposite political sides are mostly in the business of getting their biases confirmed. On both left and right, most see what they want to see and avoid what they don’t. They act as if one side’s always right and the other’s always wrong. It’s childish and absurd. It’s also corrosive. The periodic switching of governments between left and right has been the engine of political debate since the first parliament in 1215, but now respectful exchange has turned to cynicism—a social cancer. In the States of America, and in other countries too, large portions of each side believes the other is evil. This is leading nowhere good.

What can we do? Tell people they’re in denial and they’ll just deny it! Which brings us to the question of the day—how to talk to the other side?
I learned from my debate teacher Geshe Rabten that the best way to win an argument isn’t to challenge your adversary’s ideas. Rather, you question them, drawing out each argument and exposing every weaknesses until they contradict themselves. Hurling your truths at them just hardens their position.

You get into the other person’s head with empathy. It doesn’t mean you agree with them, only that you listen without letting your own beliefs get in the way. It’s exactly the same open mind you need to do science—no prejudice, no expectations. It doesn’t come naturally. You have to pry the mind open, especially when it comes to ideas you personally identify with.

Confirmation bias is a natural human instinct that we rely on every day. The more it operates unconsciously, the more ingrained it becomes. On the other hand, mindfulness over time brings it to the surface. It loses its power, and objectivity becomes an option. It’s not easy to see your own biases. It takes a sort of awakening.

For example, speaking recently to a lady who supported Donald Trump, I asked, “Do you think he’s a decent man?” She was visibly stressed by the question, and went to great lengths to avoid saying ‘no.’ However she couldn’t bring herself to say, ‘yes.’ Her confidence was shaken; a chink of daylight got it. I don’t need her to agree with me. I just want her to doubt herself, and I want the doubt to sink in. Why bombard her with ideas she already hates?

Two promising vaccines were announced this week and it looks like there’ll be an endgame to Covid-19. Deniers, however, will always be with us. You can’t just shoot a vaccine into their brains. They have to see their own biases and confront them with honesty and humility. Most people will never do this, but there are always some, as the Buddha put it, with little dust on their eyes.

That would be you. So go out there and create some mindful, empathic chinks. Make them doubt themselves. Go on, I know you can do it.

Getting Along with Covid-19

“THANK GOD WE GET ALONG!”

I’m not sure how many times I’ve said that to Caroline since we went into lockdown—but a lot. There’s just the two of us here. We work, play, eat and sleep together 24/7. I’m not just being polite—I really am grateful for the way we live together. Not that we never disagree or fight. That would be weird. We’ve both lived through toxic relationships and divorce. In fact, we became friends talking about them, figuring out how we got ourselves so stuck.

Of course we’re grateful now. For so many people, the extra hours at home with people they’re supposed to love aren’t relaxing at all. They add to the Covid-19 stress. For us, they're an opportunity to learn more about each other but sadly, people are not spending money on professional help when they need it the most.

Caroline works with women in difficult relationships, and they're under additional stress right now. However, if social isolation is bringing things to a head, that makes it a perfect time to explore options. Caroline’s always available to help you get back on track, or even build a better relationship.

What’s the secret? There isn’t one. Caroline and I built our love together brick by brick. We talk about it every day. It’s like building a house. No matter how sturdy it is, unexpected things happen. It always needs maintenance. Ignore those little imperfections and they grow large. Things get stressful. Once you start down this road, you become preoccupied with how bad the other person makes you feel.

Healthy relationships work the other way around: by looking at how you make the other person feel. This isn't a natural instinct. It takes effort, starting perhaps by reaching out to a coach. It signals that you’re ready for change.

You can keep on reacting the same old way, nurse the same old resentments and distract yourself from the emptiness of an unfulfilled relationship. Or, you can work on the issues and build it into something beautiful and strong.

Love never just happens. Every human has the essential skills to construct a solid foundation, but not everyone bothers. What sort of person would you rather be with?

You can reach Caroline at www.courey.com, 450-853-0616 or caroline.courey@gmail.com. Social distancing not required as meetings are conveniently done by video conference.

After George Floyd

Racial Harmony Painting by Sachin Jagtap
Racial Harmony Painting by Sachin Jagtap

I’m not a racist.

At least, I don’t believe in racism. I think it’s wrong.

However, even though I try not to be, I see that I am racist. Aren’t we all?

Our ancestors living in a cave must have looked with suspicion on dwellers of the next cave down. If not, it would be a common enemy that brought them together. They’d exaggerate every difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’—the same way tribes do today. The more ‘they’ look, sound and smell different, the easier it is to objectify them. Whether it’s Sapiens versus Neanderthal or black versus white, a tribal people’s instinct is to identify and look down upon others.

This is crude and animalistic. It’s natural too. It’s not that we’re born evil or innocent, but that we’re prone to biases, and keep picking up more. They’re a survival mechanism, and they’re barely conscious. Whether it’s about the food you hate, the race you prefer or the class you aspire to, biases are not chosen; they’re inherited. Children mostly like and dislike what their tribe tells them to.

I grew up in England’s West Country, in the 1960s. On our road was a house everyone sniggered at, because there lived, “the two queers.” I made my share of stupid, hurtful jokes. Then, at the bottom of Barton Street, across the railway tracks, you’d encounter all sorts of brown and black people. Everyone (i.e., everyone white) said they preferred to keep to themselves. In our innocent minds, the fact that they rarely came into town had nothing to do with us or how we made them feel. I cringe to remember.

It shocks me as much as you. I’m ashamed. “At least,” I tell myself, “I’m not like that now”—but is that enough? I think not. Have you (if you’re white) ever been with a person of color thinking, “OMG, this is a person of color. Act natural! What if they see me acting differently?”

This isn’t as nasty as believing in racism, but it’s still racism. Imagine how the other person feels. You don’t see them. Choosing to not believe in a perverse political philosophy isn’t enough. It takes committed, ongoing effort to free yourself from unconscious bias.

I’m a mindfulness teacher and biographer. Human beings fascinate and terrify me. While trying to understand, I’ve learned to never judge them by their beliefs; that doesn’t signify much. If you want to know what people are really like, watch how they treat others.

Announcing, “I’m not a racist,” is a denial of your animal instincts. You can rise above it, but if you’re not committed to actively looking for those subconscious triggers, your claim is just a smokescreen.

That active looking is mindfulness. When I notice a different skin color before I notice the actual person, I tell myself, “That’s racism.” There’s subconscious stuff going on in there, screaming for conscious attention—and that’s the way to real change. It’s a learning process. It takes time, and a bit more honesty than you might be comfortable with.

But now, after George Floyd, change is upon us. To make a difference you don’t have to join a political rally or write a confession. Just stop acting like racism’s got nothing to do with you.

George Floyd
May 2020