We were in Thailand, attending a ten-day silent meditation retreat in the middle of a coconut grove. Every day Ajahn Maha Dharma Tan, a Thai monk, would come to teach, and each day he would ask us the same question: “Are you happier today than you were yesterday?”
As he said this, a wide smile would fill his face because he knew that we were confronting numerous obstacles to happiness, and not just the ones in our own minds. As beautiful as the coconut grove was, we were living with mosquitoes, centipedes and snakes, sleeping on wooden pallets, and had no food after midday. How were we expected to find happiness amidst such extremes?
Yet despite his humorous tone, the monk’s question was a genuine one. We were on a meditation retreat. If we weren’t beginning to feel happier as a result, then we were missing the point of being there.
Every day for ten days, he asked us: “Are you happier today than you were yesterday?”
This simple question exposed how easily negative habits and self-obsession could dominate our way of thinking. It showed us how hard it was to trust happiness, even that we could forget what happiness meant. How easy it was to blame physical discomfort for our lack of happiness!
He was asking us to accept and even go beyond our present conditions. When ‘what is’ is resisted then more suffering is created. There is a constant, underlying dissatisfaction, otherwise known as the ‘If only…’ syndrome: if only this, that or the other happened, then I could be happy / if only so-and-so would change his or her behavior then I could be happy / if only I had more money or had a good lover, then I could be happy. The list is endless. You can fill in the blanks for yourself.
Accepting what is, as it is, doesn’t mean that we become like a doormat and get walked over by all and sundry. Rather, it means recognizing that what happened even just a second ago can never be changed. It is letting the past be where it is so it doesn’t take over the future.
But Dharma Tan wasn’t just asking us if we were happier. He was teaching us that the very purpose is to find the inner peace that is our deepest joy. He was saying that there is enough pain and suffering in the world already, that the very nature of life includes change, unfulfilled desires, and a longing for things to be different than how they are, all of which brings discontent and dissatisfaction.
Our monk was constantly emphasizing that through meditation we could find a deeper contentment, one that is independent of anything or anyone but arises naturally within.
From this place of inner cheerfulness, kindness arises. Within us all there is a reservoir of basic goodness but we may lose touch with this natural expression of caring and friendship. It’s as if we get caught in quicksand, drawn or pulled into situations that cause discomfort.
“Meditation is calming the reptilian brain,” says theologian Matthew Fox in The Unexpected Power of Mindfulness & Meditation. “We have three brains in us: one is a reptilian brain, which is about 420 million years old; our mammal brain is half that old; and our most recent one is the intellectual creative brain. We have to calm the reptilian brain so that the mammal brain, which is here to bring kindness, kinship and bonding, can function. I mean, reptiles do not make good lovers; that is not their thing. Meditation allows us to treat the reptilian brain well: ‘Nice crocodile, nice crocodile.’ When we calm the crocodile, then the mammal brain can assert itself.”
In meditation we meet ourselves as we are, neuroses and all, and as the experience deepens so too does our awareness. As the heart opens we bring acceptance to our fallibilities and humanness. In this way, meditation lifts us out of the quicksand, out of misunderstanding and suffering. Through it we find freedom from reactive and self-serving behavior. It is the most compassionate gift we can give to ourselves.
Extracted from our new book: The Unexpected Power of Mindfulness & Meditation