I am excited about a fairly new development in the science of psychology which I think can revolutionise the way we think about mental health. Unlike traditional psychological models where the focus is on eliminating neurosis or abnormalities in a person, positive psychology takes a new approach and works on promoting the positive attributes in a person to encourage the flourishing of the whole human being. It comes under a broader category of the science of happiness.
Basically it’s working on your strengths rather than trying to eliminate your weaknesses. Focusing on what you want rather than on what you don’t want. There is very good logic to this. Just because you eliminate your weaknesses does not mean you will be happy, but if you actively cultivate what researchers have found to make people happy you will find the happiness and well being you are looking for.
When I first came across positive psychology the similarities to the Buddhist path I’d been training in struck me. In fact Buddha summed up his teachings on how to live a good life and overcome suffering by saying:
“Cultivate virtue, eliminate negativity and purify the mind.”
I want to focus on the first piece of advice which is to cultivate virtue, that’s exactly what positive psychologist are now recommending. Further similarities can be found in what Buddha described as virtues and what modern psychologists are now saying. Qualities like open mindedness, social connection, patience, mindfulness and loving kindness are all on the positive psychology list of what makes people happy and flourish and are also virtues Buddha recommended to cultivate too.
Buddha defined virtue as actions motivated by positive states of mind that cause happiness for yourself and others. Non virtue is then actions motivated by negative states of mind that cause suffering to yourself and others. He also advised to know well what causes happiness and know well what causes suffering and choose the path that leads to happiness. Seems simple enough.
Of course it’s not that simple. Why? Because of our ingrained habits that do not lead to happiness that are entrenched in our behaviour. This stems from a fundamental assumption about where we believe happiness comes from. We are conditioned to believe happiness comes from external events and possessions but in reality happiness comes from positive or healthy states of mind and not from having or consuming things.
A new mindfulness based therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy first works on accepting the present moment through mindfulness training, even accepting the inner ‘demons’ without trying to get rid of them and then putting your full attention on manifesting your values in the present moment.
A key to understand meditation is found in the Tibetan word for meditation which is ‘gompa’ which translates as something like ‘to familiarise’. Meditation then is a conscious effort to familiarise yourself with virtuous states of mind; positive mental states that promote happiness and undermine negative states of mind.
So meditation is gaining familiarity with positive states of mind like mindfulness, loving kindness, contentment and patience. The more you sit down and cultivate these intentionally the happier you will be in your daily life. A great meditation master Sogyal Rinpoche said meditation is simply practising contentment. Being comfortable in your own skin. Not trying to change anything but finding the simple joy of just being alive.
Really you can meditate on anything even negative things. Worrying is meditating on what you don’t want and this can consume people’s lives and become debilitating. Meditation often shows very quickly what we do place our attention on. When you sit down to meditate you become very conscious of all the junk that goes through our minds that occupies our attention. Our attention plays big part in how we experience reality. What we choose to place our attention on is exactly what we experience in the present moment; most of the time this is an unconscious choice due to past associations.
Meditation is learning the skill of controlling our attention so we can place it on things that will reduce mental suffering and bring happiness to ourselves and to others.
Being able to wilfully control your attention can help us choose happiness over mental suffering. Even scientific researchers have found that happiness comes from how we perceive things rather than the actual things themselves. ( Ted Talk about where happiness comes from) We tend to over estimate the happiness of possessions and material success and also over estimate the suffering from not having those things. Within the Buddhist tradition this over estimation of the happiness and suffering found in things is called attachment and aversion and Buddha said that these misconceptions are the main source of suffering in our lives.
The truth is: it is how we think about something that brings happiness or suffering not the actual thing itself. This is hard to accept, but when you do see the truth in that statement you begin to realise how important meditation is especially in gaining control over what you place your attention on.
You can literally transform suffering into happiness through training your mind to perceive things differently. When I fully learnt the truth of this I realised that nothing could really harm me not even negative karma because I could always see things differently and synthesis happiness and well being regardless of circumstances. This enables confidence in yourself and reduces fear and anxiety about events and circumstances.
Every time you refocus your attention consciously you are developing a stronger mind.
The highest type of meditation is actually not to place your mind on anything but let it be free, unimpeded and without reference points. Which is a type of refocusing from being caught up in thoughts to being free from their opinions. This Zen experience is very ordinary, just an ongoing transparent simplicity. It is sometimes called meditating on your true nature or in Zen terms gaining familiarity with ‘no mind’ or no self.
Gaining familiarity with your true nature is diving into a world of no words, it’s simply an authentic directness with the present moment. Even with this advanced type of meditation you are familiarising with the nature of clarity and presence which is beyond ordinary descriptions. It is actually a completely natural state where you don’t need to change anything or add anything to; it is simply this moment as it is.
Rather than this type of non verbal clarity being independent and isolated from your life it actually helps to see clearly and honestly what brings happiness to yourself and others and what holds you back. Clearly seeing reality and acting accordingly is the Way of Meditation.
Therefore, today we have the opportunity to merge the ancient inner technologies of meditation with the new sciences of happiness. We can learn exactly what mental states make us happy and what mental states make us suffer and by learning to stabilise our attention through meditation we can become happier and enable our lives to flourish.