You’re bright, curious, and driven. Maybe competitive, certainly inspired by a good challenge, and possibly interested in contributing something to make the world a better place. Maybe you’ve even thought about what it will take for you to reach 80 or 100 and be able to say: This is what I set out to do, and I’ve done it. There have been ups and downs, but I’ve pretty much stayed on track.

You may think: To go from here to there—becoming a successful and satisfied person with a big chunk of life behind me—I’ll need to get this, achieve that, go there. If you’re a romantic, your success will depend on relationships; if you’re family-oriented, it’ll be family; if you’re a materialist, you’ll need to acquire certain things; if you’re an adventurer, adventures; if you’re an intellectual, knowledge. The list goes on. You may well have eminently worthy and admirable goals—especially if contributing to the welfare of others is part of what makes you tick.

But if our fulfillment and happiness depend on obtaining or doing something, will we be unhappy or frustrated if we don’t obtain it or do it? Is our happiness dependent on something that is ultimately beyond our personal reach? Does it depend on other people, other events? If those things, people, events, states or relationships that we depend on for our fulfillment change, what happens? They will change, they do change. Sometimes for the better—but not always. Then what?

It is useful to take a closer look at what actually makes us happy. What do we mean by happy? Where do peace and fulfillment come from? What about dissatisfaction, pain and anguish? How do we define these experiences? And who—or what—is this potentially fulfilled person—this “me”?

Around 2,600 years ago the Buddha, aware that we all share the desire to be happy and to avoid pain, asked himself these exact same questions. And 2,600 years ago the Buddha came up with answers that are still—according to Buddhists, anyway—the most intelligent, pertinent response to human needs in terms of philosophy and practice.

The Buddha was born to a royal family in what is now southwestern Nepal. A holy fortune-teller told the Buddha’s father, the king, that the boy would grow up to be either a great ruler or a great renunciant and spiritual guide. Naturally his father liked the first version better, and he did everything in his power to make sure Prince Siddhartha Gautama was happy. We can imagine the palace, the gardens and fountains, the peacocks, banquets, dancing girls, silks and brocades, musicians and jasmine, and all the rest of it. The king made sure his son never saw anything unpleasant, troubling, or jarring. And we can presume that the handsome, gifted prince believed he was leading a meaningful, satisfying life. He was happily married, had a fine son, and his wish was everyone’s command.

But then, the story goes, he went beyond the perimeters of his idyllic life and for the first time witnessed the shocking truths of aging, illness, and death. And suddenly a yearning for peace and meaning that were not contingent on commodities like health, youth, and wealth arose and was stronger than everything else. So he left in pursuit of something like unalterable happiness, and he tried to find it through the extreme ascetic practices that were the going thing back then. After six years of astonishing self-abnegation, he came to the realization that the two extremes of earthly pleasures and self-mortification weren’t going to take him where he meant to go. So he had some lovely rice pudding, sat on a grass mat under a pipal tree in what is now Bodh Gaya, and vowed he wouldn’t quit until he found the absolute happiness he was looking for. “Let only skin, sinew, and bone remain,” he said, “let the flesh and blood dry in my body, but I will not give up this seat without attaining complete awakening.” After a long and very eventful night, he became Buddha, the Awakened One.

From left to right: Railroad Landscape #56, © Jeff Brouws, courtesy Robert Mann Gallery; Railroad Landscape #21, © Jeff Brouws, courtesy Robert Mann Gallery; Railroad Landscape #52, © Jeff Brouws, courtesy Robert Mann Gallery
From top to bottom: Railroad Landscape #56, © Jeff Brouws, courtesy Robert Mann Gallery; Railroad Landscape #21, © Jeff Brouws, courtesy Robert Mann Gallery; Railroad Landscape #52, © Jeff Brouws, courtesy Robert Mann Gallery

Seven weeks later, he gave his first teaching. It laid out the whole story, from our misguided pursuit of happiness to the possibility of awakening and peace, in four points: the Four Noble Truths. His first truth, the Truth of Suffering, states that suffering is a given in any form of existence that is dependent on causes and conditions. It defines suffering as all levels of discomfort, ranging from blatant pain to the subtle discomfort of change and the far subtler existential suffering that goes along with being alive.

The second truth is the Origin of Suffering, and here the Buddha explains that the origin of suffering is not some god who has it in for us, or some arbitrary finger of fate, but our own ignorance and its karmic by-products. Revolutionary! We’ll come back to this one.

The third truth is the Truth of Cessation, or the truth of peace: the unequivocal peace that is realized when our veils, confusion, and selfishness have ceased, have been removed, and our natural goodness and wisdom have fully blossomed. Pure happiness.

And finally the fourth truth, the Truth of the Path, maps out the practice that leads us to the Truth of Cessation. That route is essentially right view, right action (learning how to be truly helpful), and right spiritual practice, as traditionally expressed by the condensed guide to a wholesome lifestyle called the Eightfold Noble Path.

The origin of suffering is ignorance. The word in Sanskrit is avidya—not knowing, not being aware of our fundamental nature or essence as being buddha, awake, and of the nature of conditioned manifestation, including us, as being interconnected and devoid of any sort of solid, independent self; impermanent and subject to change, whether we like it or not; and composite, meaning that pain will be part of our experience, since everything that exists as an aggregate necessarily falls apart sooner or later. Even the Buddha, who went on to give teachings on different subjects in different places over a span of nearly 50 years, left his body behind at age 81.

Ignorance means that we don’t have all of the elements we need to make informed choices about life. We’re all looking for comfort, or meaning, but we make clumsy choices that lead to painful results (eating too much chocolate is a personal case in point). Because of ignorance, we are unaware of the ultimate, fundamental interconnectedness of existence, and our universe is perceived not as the ever-changing lace of illusion it is but as a solid, somewhat static confrontation between self/me and other/everything else.

We divide our world into me/you, friend/enemy, desirable/undesirable, fulfilling/frustrating, and so on. It’s a natural process, but a very arbitrary, utterly subjective one. Somehow we’re able to ignore this last fact. We’re in dualistic division mode, and we act on that; all sorts of emotions come into play, and we act on them. We reinforce the tendencies—Buddhists might say, we create or compound karma—that make the illusion thicker, stickier, more solid. And the further we are from truth, the more elusive happiness becomes.

A great 20th-century teacher from Tibet, the 3rd Jamgon Kongtrul, gave a talk at State University of New York at Albany in 1985. “Most of the time our relationship to the world around us accords not with its basic nature but with our incomplete perceptions of it,” he said. “We do not experience our own basic nature; instead we experience only what we see. The result is tremendous conflict in our lives. No matter how hard we try to work things out, there is always disorder and dissatisfaction, always something missing. No matter how much we seem to have accomplished, there is still more to achieve. This dissatisfaction continues and its scale increases, because what we are fundamentally and how we perceive are not the same.”

Jamgon Kongtrul refers to our basic nature: according to many teachings attributed to the Buddha, our basic, ultimate, objective nature is impossible to define in words, but it includes that potential for awakening that he presented in the third noble truth, Cessation. It has been described as luminous awareness, emptiness, basic goodness, and buddhanature. Basic nature has absolutely nothing to do with being a Buddhist; all beings share this innate spark of perfection. What Buddhism tries to do is give us the means to recognize, kindle, and experience this potential, no matter who we are.

On a relative level, as beings subject to confusion or ignorance in varying degrees, we are interdependent, impermanent, and subject to the suffering we seek to avoid. The underlying motor of our experience is karma. Essentially, karma refers to the fact that actions and thoughts have results; nothing exists without a cause. This is both bad news and good news.

It’s bad news if we choose to remain in “head-in-the-sand” mode, because our tendency will be to relate to happiness and pleasure or frustration and dissatisfaction as having external causes and external solutions. We deal with them by focusing on a prize or a culprit and reacting according to our confused patterns: we turn on the charm, or scheme, or run away, or fight. But as Jamgon Kongtrul explained, “what is fundamentally true is that the experience of pain or pleasure is not so much what is happening externally as it is what is happening internally: the experience of pain or pleasure is mainly a state of mind. Whether we experience the world as enlightened or confused depends on our state of mind.”

And that’s the good news.

It’s good news because there is always the potential for being truly aware of what’s going on and using that to deepen our understanding. There’s always the potential for opening our eyes and being buddha: awake. Furthermore, interdependence means that good actions bring positive, happy results for us and for others; and impermanence means that painful situations can change for the better and that we can perceive them differently and use them more wisely.

The Tibetan word for Buddhist, nangpa, means “insider,” as in “those whose focus is directed inside: on the mind, its workings and development.” The Buddha taught that true happiness, or fulfillment, is independent of outer causes and conditions. So for Buddhists, the pursuit of happiness involves training in looking inward. Once we know who we really are, from the inside out, we’re less likely to believe in the viability of our patterns and addictions. We realize that if we’ve been in cahoots with dissatisfaction and confusion, it’s because we haven’t discovered our own birthright.

An oft-given analogy is that of the starving person who is unaware of the larder in the cellar. I always imagine an emaciated fellow in rags, too defeated or unimaginative to think to pick at the dirt floor of the filthy hovel he’s wasting away in. Too discouraged to find the big iron ring just under the surface of the dirt that would lift weightlessly away if pulled, revealing an illuminated cellar filled with cool spring water, gorgeous fruit, lots of good French cheese, fine crusty bread, and so on.

If we’re inspired to dust off the big iron ring and give it a pull, if we’re interested in working toward replacing our confusion with clarity and peace of mind, in discovering our birthright, Buddhism gives us tools. One of the main tools, which guides us in observing and working with the mind, is meditation.

Meditating isn’t about nuking the thoughts and emotions that arise in our mindstream; it isn’t about floating around in a bliss bubble; and it isn’t about shaving our head, changing our name to Wangmo and living in a cave. So what is it about? Remember that the Buddhist take on existence includes both the absolute and relative levels. When we meditate, we relate to both. We relate to absolute wisdom and relative confusion, and we do it without judgment or politics. The basic meditation called shamatha, or “calm abiding,” is a neutral process of acknowledging and letting go. It’s the Switzerland of practices. We’re willing to cut through our attachment to thought—but we are not trying to stop the process of thinking, because thoughts are not the problem. Our hopes and fears, attachment and rejection, the tension they create and veils they reinforce are the problem.

Meditation takes many different forms; there are endless variants, and each variant focuses on revealing one or another of those treasures in the larder. Shamatha is the practice that introduces us to the mind’s capacity to be trained and to develop composure. And though composure is not the final goal, stability is the basis for all other practices, some of which can be quite dynamic and demanding. If the mind is constantly scurrying around like a ferret on caffeine, how can we train it?

If we look at where the mind is going as it dashes and darts here and there, we see that our thoughts are concerned with the past—things we wish had happened differently, situations we enjoyed and want to recreate, events that are dead and gone—and the future, which doesn’t exist, and never unfolds the way we write the stories anyway. When we meditate, we relate to that unsettling, ineffable commodity: the present. We train in letting go of thoughts and feelings as they arise, and settle back into the present: that gap between two concepts—past and future—that don’t actually exist. We’re simply being, here and now. Because just being is so unfamiliar to us, we develop our practice through any one of many methods for calming the mind, like following the breath. We just sit down, settle our mind on the breath, acknowledge what’s arising, drop it and go back to our breathing. If we’re aware of tension, we soften and let it go. If we’re aware of agitation or drowsiness, we make use of diligence and apply a remedy.

Pay attention. Stay open. Note discomfort and go back to your breathing. Use your curiosity. Be patient. You’re doing something vital: you’re pulling the iron ring. You’re moving in the direction of unconditional fulfillment and freedom. You’re pursuing happiness the only way that truly makes sense: from the inside out.