© Jeremy D. Nickel 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
March 20, 2011
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We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
- The Declaration of Independence
Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn't arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I'm going to be happy in it.
- Groucho Marx
Being happy is something you have to learn. I often surprise myself by saying "Wow, this is it. I guess I'm happy. I got a home I love. A career that I love. I'm even feeling more and more at peace with myself." If there's something else to happiness, let me know. I'm ambitious for that, too.
- Harrison Ford
My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet I'm happy. I can't figure it out. What am I doing right?
- Charles Schulz
People say that money is not the key to happiness, but I always figured if you have enough money, you can have a key made.
- Joan Rivers
I could quite easily devote an entire sermon to quotes about happiness. It is a subject that everyone at one time or another has had an opinion about, and it is one of those rare goals that is shared by just about every living being. We want to be happy. But we don't know how. This disconnect between desire and ability is a part of the core of the human experience though out history.
But we don't live in just any time and place in human history, we live in America in the 21st century, so when it comes to happiness, you should not be surprised to learn that yes, there is an app for that.
"The Happy App" for the iPad and iPhone, is a set of mood-enhancement tools that include light therapy, color therapy and a "Help Yourself Happiness Guide" to help you decide which are right for you, all for the price of a one-time $1.99 download.
Besides our friend Joan Rivers and the makers of the happiness app, I think most people would say that happiness cannot be bought, in app form or any other. But of course this app is just the latest in a never-ending stream of devices and methods available in the marketplace to help fill in our happiness gaps. So we might say we know that money can't buy happiness, but it sure doesn't seem like it has stopped many of us from trying!
The book I read in preparation for this sermon, as supplied by this year's highest bidder for my sermon topic for sale at Mission Peak's annual Black and White Auction, is called The Art of Happiness and is the result of a series of conversations between an American psychiatrist and the Dalai Lama. It has one clear premise: that happiness is not an accident, and also not a one-time commodity that can be bought, sold or traded, but rather that the mind can be trained to bring it about more often.
As usual, there are no short cuts; even happiness takes work. What can be bought, sold and traded is pleasure, and the Dalai Lama makes clear from the outset that most of us confuse these two concepts: desiring happiness, but chasing pleasure.
Pleasure is, of course, easy to come by, and not necessarily a negative in the right context. Pleasure is simply a negative when it is pursued to the exclusion of what creates true happiness. We all know pleasure: it is as simple as finding a group of friends, a good bottle of wine, and conversation. Pleasure is the short-term activities that make us feel good while they are happening, but leave us missing them when they are done and gone.
I think it is also important to make clear from the outset that the Dalai Lama's definition of happiness may be a bit different then yours and mine. This should not be too big of a surprise, as we are talking about a man who has been training his entire life to be a spiritual leader. He has never had a romantic relationship, a sip of alcohol, and I am guessing he has rarely taken a real vacation. This is not a guy you are going to see sunning on the beach in Waikiki.
When you and I think of happiness, we usually think of fun. When the Dalai Lama speaks of happiness, he is speaking of a well-trained mind that is so calm that it does not experience suffering. It is really more of a complete lack of anxiety that is his goal, which is definitely a worthy goal, just not necessarily completely synonymous with the common western definition of happiness.
In his words:
"When I say 'training the mind,' in this context I'm not referring to 'mind' merely as one's cognitive ability or intellect. Rather, I'm using the term in the sense of the Tibetan word Sem, which has a broader meaning, closer to 'psyche' or 'spirit'; it includes intellect and feeling, heart and mind.
"By bringing about a certain inner discipline, we can undergo a transformation of our attitude, our entire outlook and approach to living. When we speak of this inner discipline, it can of course involve many things, many methods. But, generally speaking, one begins by identifying those factors which lead to suffering. Having done this, one then sets about gradually eliminating those factors which lead to suffering and cultivate those which lead to happiness. That is the way."
For the Dalai Lama, at least, it's just that simple. As I thought about this process of rooting out those factors which lead to suffering, and cultivating those which lead to happiness, I was reminded of an interesting story I heard from another UU Minister recently.
She was talking about a relative of hers who lives in North Carolina and runs a small farm. I picture it in my mind tucked somewhere into the beautiful Smoky Mountains, growing incredible organic vegetables in the hot North Carolina sunshine. My mouth just starts watering at the thought of all those delicious, fresh, organic fruits and veggies. But of course, what is the great scourge of any crop farmer? Weeds.
And so like any farmer this guy has to spend a lot of time dealing with all the different kinds of weeds that grow around his crops and try to steal their water and choke them out for their sunspace. Any gardener - and I know we have more than a few here at Mission Peak - can relate to the constant need to be battling the weeds. But, this farmer, unlike you or I, has acres and acres of crops to deal with, so he has a special machine on the back of his tractor that he drags around. It has lots of little teeth that are spaced just right so they go around the good plants, but tear up the soil around them, not pulling up the weeds but rather exposing their roots to oxygen and sunlight, and thus killing them. This machine that kills weeds by disturbing the ground and exposing their roots is called a cultivator. In fact, she explained, most farmers use the words weeding and cultivating interchangeably.
What a fascinating piece of wisdom: weeding is cultivating. The whole metaphor is really just incredible. By exposing the roots of the weeds to the light, they die, making space for the good plants to flourish. And this is exactly how the Dalai Lama says that it is for our minds in regards to happiness.
By identifying the weeds in our minds - those thoughts, actions, feelings and emotions that cause suffering - we can expose them to the sunlight and they die, making more space for all those good things within us - like kindness, tolerance and forgiveness - to truly flourish.
A well-weeded mind is a calm mind, which is the ultimate goal of this practice: cultivating a mind that is calm. Suffering is merely the disturbance of a calm mind by all those weeds, and through this discipline we can ensure that our mind can not be suddenly pulled where we do not want it. The Dalai Lama actually concludes the book with a meditation that is very basic, the first step towards training your mind to achieve this calm state.
The objective of this meditation is to give you a direct experience of your mind. Most of us have only an abstract notion of the concept of our minds. We may think of our brains or of certain activities like thinking, but this meditation seeks to give you an actual direct experience of your own mind, that which underlies the thinking. It does this by teaching you to stop all of the "discursive thoughts" that is, the constant rambling thoughts of our minds, so you can enter a calm mind state. And the more you practice it the longer and longer you will be able to maintain that state.
So today, just as the Dalai Lama concludes many of his lectures, we will try to meditate on 'nonconceptuality.' After some breathing, you will attempt to maintain a mental state without conceptual thoughts. The main thing working against you will be your desire to follow the attention of your senses: a far-away sound, the way your back feels against the chair, the scent of coffee or perfume, the itch of your wool socks against your skin. When one of these thoughts appears to you, withdraw inwardly from it. Refuse to follow its call. Let it sit on the shelf of your mind, but don't give it any notice. This will take practice.
Eventually, with enough practice, you will attain a state of mindfulness, where you will not be affected by memories of the past, sensory input from the present, or feelings of anticipation for the future. The Dalai Lama describes this as your natural or neutral state, and admits that this is difficult initially. We wont get there today, and that is OK.
So with that description, please get settled as best you can in your chair and body. This will just be a very short first session of practice. To begin, do three rounds of breathing with your focus entirely on your breath as you breathe in and out. After inhaling and exhaling three times, then begin the meditation, simply retreating inward from all sensory inputs as they come. When you found you have followed one, don't give up, just retreat inward. I will break the silence with the bell - one sensory input you should not retreat from.
Welcome back. This was just a little taste, a small window of practice to give you a glimpse of what it takes to earn happiness not through a $1.99 download, but through a tried-and-true, Dalai-Lama-tested-and-approved process that brings true and lasting happiness. If you have found here even a glimmer of something that interests you, I welcome you to continue this simple practice at home, for even just a few minutes a day. Also, there is a one-time mindfulness meditation class being offered here at Mission Peak on Saturday, April 9 from 10 am to 3pm, another excellent opportunity for practice!
May we all continue to weed our minds so that they may lead us more often to happiness.
May it be so. Ashe.
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