The happiness of the three worlds disappears in a moment,
Like a dewdrop on a blade of grass.
The highest level of freedom is one that never changes.
Aim for this—this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

The pursuit of happiness for its own sake is a fool’s errand. As a goal it is frivolous and unrealistic—frivolous because happiness is a transient state dependent on many conditions, and unrealistic because life is unpredictable and pain may arise at any time.

The happiness you feel when you get something you have always wanted typically lasts no longer than three days. Bliss states in meditation are similar, whether they arise as physical or emotional bliss or the bliss of infinite space, infinite consciousness, or infinite nothingness. These states soon dissipate once you reengage the messiness of life. A dewdrop on a blade of grass, indeed!

The quest for happiness is a continuation of the traditional view of spiritual practice—a way to transcend the vicissitudes of the human condition. Valhalla, paradise, heaven, nirvana all hold out a promise of eternity, bliss, purity, or union with an ultimate reality. These four spiritual longings are all escapist reactions to the challenges everyone encounters in life.

Related: What Is True Happiness?

Take a moment and think about what you are seeking in your practice. Is it a kind of transcendence, if not in God, then in a god-surrogate such as timeless awareness, pure bliss, or infinite light?

Are you looking for an awareness so deep and powerful that your frustration and difficulties with life vanish in the presence of your understanding and wisdom? Are you not looking for a ticket out of the messiness of life?

If you think of freedom as a state, you are in effect looking for a kind of heaven. Instead, think of freedom as a way of experiencing life itself—a continuous flow in which you meet what arises in your experience, open to it, do what needs to be done to the best of your ability and then receive the result. And you do this over and over again. A freedom that never changes then becomes the constant exercise of everything you know and understand. It is the way you engage life. It is not something that sets you apart from life. How else is it possible for people who practice in prison or other highly restricted environments to say that they find freedom even within their confinement?

Life is tough, but when you see and accept what is actually happening, even if it is very difficult or painful, mind and body relax. There is an exquisite quality that comes from just experiencing what arises, completely, with no separation between awareness and experience.

Some call it joy, but it is not a giddy or excited joy. It is deep and quiet, a joy that in some sense is always there, waiting for you, but usually touched only when some challenge, pain, or tragedy leaves you with no other option but to open and accept what is happening in your life.

Others call it truth, but this is a loaded and misleading word, carrying with it the notion of something that exists apart from experience itself. Truth as a concept sets up an opposition with what is held to be not true, and such duality necessarily leads to hierarchical authority, institutional thinking, and violence.

In this freedom you are free from the projections of thought and feeling, and you are awake and present in your life. Reactions may still arise, but they come and go on their own, like snowflakes alighting on a hot stone, like mist in the morning sun, or like a thief in an empty house.

artwork by Minako Iwamura: Wheels go around and ‘round and ‘round, 2009, oil on paper.
Wheels go around and ‘round and ‘round, 2009, oil on paper.

What is freedom? It is nothing more, and nothing less, than life lived awake.

All suffering comes from wanting your own happiness.
Complete awakening arises from the intention to help others.
Therefore, exchange completely your happiness
For the suffering of others—this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Forget about being happy. Put it right out of your mind.

When you say to yourself, “I want to be happy,” you are telling yourself that you are not happy, and you start looking for something that will make you feel happy. You go to a movie, go shopping, hang out with friends, buy a new jacket, computer, or jewelry, read a good book or explore a new hobby, all in the effort to feel happy. The harder you try to be happy, the more you reinforce that belief that you are not happy. You can try to ignore it, but the belief is still there.

Even in close relationships, spending time with a friend, even while helping others or doing other good works, if your attention is on what you are feeling, on what you are getting out of it, then you see these relationships as transactions. Because your focus is on how you are feeling, consciously or unconsciously you are putting yourself first and others second.

This approach disconnects you from life, from the totality of your world. Inevitably, you end up feeling shortchanged in your relationships with your family, with your friends, and in your work. Those imbalances ripple out and affect everyone around you and beyond. The transactional mindset of self-interest is the problem of the modern world.

If you were to let go of the pursuit of happiness, what would you do? To put it a bit more dramatically, suppose you were told that no matter what you did, you would never be happy. Never. What would you do with your life?

You might pay more attention to others. You might accept them just as they are, rather than looking for ways to get them to conform to your idea of how they should be. You might start relating to life itself, rather than looking to what you get out of it. You might be more willing to engage with what life brings you, with all its ups and downs, rather than always wanting it to be other than it is.

artwork by Minako Iwamura: Grass, 2009, oil on paper.
Grass, 2009, oil on paper.

This is where the practice of taking and sending comes in. Take in what you do not want, and give away what you do want. Take in what is unpleasant, and give away what is pleasant. Take in pain, and give away joy.

It sounds a bit insane—emotional suicide, as one person put it. But it counteracts that deeply ingrained tendency to focus on yourself first and everyone else second. It uses the transactional attitude to destroy itself, because you give away everything that makes you feel happy and you take in everything that makes others unhappy.

In the traditional teachings, you coordinate taking and sending with the breath, taking in the pain and suffering of the world as you breathe in and sending your own joy and happiness to the world when you breathe out. Do this with every aspect of your life—the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. Extend it to everything you experience, internally and externally. When you see other people struggling, whatever the reason, imagine taking in their struggles and sending them your own experience of peace, happiness, and joy. It does not matter who they are—the rich, the poor, the ill, or the criminal. If they are struggling, take in their struggles and send them the joy, happiness, or well-being you do experience, have experienced, or hope to experience. If they are in pain, take in their pain. Send them your relief and ease. If they are causing pain, take in the emotional turmoil or the willful ignoring that leads them to inflict pain on others. Send them the love, compassion, and understanding that you have received or would like to receive.

Do not edit your experience of life. Whatever you encounter—a homeless person shivering on an icy concrete doorsill, a friend whose partner has just left him for someone else, a relative who struggles with chronic pain, news of famine, war, or the devastating effects of greed, corruption, or rigid beliefs—whatever the pain, take it in.

Do not be miserly. Give to others anything and everything that brings you joy. Are you successful in your work? Give away your success. Do you have money in the bank? Send the joy of financial well-being to others. Do you enjoy your intelligence, your ability to think clearly and solve problems? Give them away. Are you talented, musically, physically, or artistically? Give away your talent. Do you enjoy friends and companions? Give them away.

With every exchange, touch both the pain and deficiencies in the world and your own joy and abilities. Take the pain and send your joy.

Does this practice lead to happiness? Not at all; but it does help you to understand the suffering and the struggles of others. Whatever ups and downs and joys and pains they encounter, you can be present with them because you know life is not perfect and you do not expect it to be.

As my teacher once said, “If you could really take away the suffering of everyone in the world, taking all of it into you with a single breath, would you hesitate?”

Practice written expressly for Tricycle. Text excerpted from Reflections on Silver River: Tokme Zongpo’s Thirty-seven Practices of a Bodhisattva, translations and commentary by Ken McLeod. © 2013. Reprinted with permission of Unfettered Mind Media. 

Practice: Taking and Sending (Tonglen)

Begin your meditation session by resting attention in the experience of breathing. Let mind and body settle. Then open your awareness to everything around you, everything you see, hear, touch, smell or taste. Include everything you feel in your body, and all your emotions, thoughts, images. Then say to yourself, “This is like a dream,” and ask, “What experiences this?” Don’t try to answer the question. Just ask it and rest there for a few moments.

Then think about all the struggles you have had in your life, in your family, with illness, at school, at work, with failure and disappointment, grief and loss, and think of how everyone else in the world has the same struggles—easier for some, harder for others—and how they want to be free of them, just as you want to be free of yours.

Think also about everything that brings you joy, happiness, meaning and peace to your life—your health, your talents, skills and abilities, your successes, your family, friends, colleagues, your home or garden. Think how everyone, every being, wants the same kind of joy, confidence, peace and freedom. Rest for a few minutes there.

Now breathe out gently and imagine that you are giving to all beings everywhere everything that brings joy, happiness, meaning, peace, or well-being to your life. Imagine it all takes the form of light, a gentle white light, like the silver of moonlight. The light comes from your heart, goes out through your nostrils and carries all your joy and happiness to all beings everywhere.

As you breathe in, imagine taking in all the pain of the world—suffering, illness, depression, obsession, aggression, oppression, grief, injury, poverty, hatred, or madness, the pain of being harmed and the pain of causing harm—everything that leads people to struggle in their lives. Imagine it all coalesces into a thick, heavy, black smoke that comes into you, through your nostrils, and into your heart, where you feel it.

You do this for all beings, without prejudice, discrimination, bias or preference. This is equanimity.

Again, as you breathe out, send all your joy and happiness again and as you breathe in, take in all their pain and struggles. Do this over and over again. It’s important to do both with each breath, touching your happiness and sending it out, touching their struggles and taking them in.

You may encounter emotional resistance, either to giving away what you cherish or to taking in what you fear and loathe. No matter. Include your resistance in the practice and do it anyway.

As you grow accustomed to this exchange, and that may take a while, you come to rest in a different way, in a profound acceptance of the pain of the world and the struggles that comprise most people’s lives. In that acceptance, there is a quiet joy, a joy in the wonder of life itself.