What Makes a Happy Life

Mindfulness alone is not enough.

Illustration by Frazer Hudson

Mindfulness is not enough to live a level-headed existence right in the middle of the storm that is contemporary life. Mindfulness is not enough to find your way through the cyclone of your days. It’s not enough to help you make the tough choices. And here’s the real kicker: it was never meant to be enough.

When the Buddha taught mindfulness, he always taught it as part of a whole. He never said, “Pay attention to your breath and you will be free of suffering.” More like, “Pay attention to your breath as a way of steadying the mind, and then look at your life.”

Look at your life. Closely. Notice your mind states. Notice your heart states. And, also, if you want to be happy, make sure you’re really taking care of things. Like goodness, and sweetness, and love, and compassion. In fact, the Buddha said, goodness, not mindfulness, is the foundation for a happy life.

From How Not to Be a Hot Mess: A Survival Guide for Modern Life, by Craig Hase and Devon Hase © 2020. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications. Craig Hase and Devon Hase are the cofounders of SATI Mindfulness, an educational and mentoring program for meditation and mindfulness in North America and Europe.

Taking Up the Call

We often search for a sense of intrinsic identity. But when we search for a singular, permanent, or independent self, we might find that who we are resists absolute definition. For instance, if we are parents, we are only parents in relationship to our children—in relationship to our parents we are children; when standing in line at the grocery store we are customers; at the dentist we are patients. Yet again we find that things find meaning, function, and characteristics only in dependence upon their respective contexts.

in brief spring 2020
Illustration by Frazer Hudson

This practice of “looking and not finding” an independent, self-defining “I” is often misconstrued as an attempt to diminish the suffering of a particular identity group, or as an unconscious strategy used to “spiritually bypass” something we don’t want to face, in the name of “transcendence.” But in searching for an autonomous, self-defining identity, we are not undermining the power of relationship and all the joy and suffering that comes along with it. Au contraire. We are taking up the responsibility of knowing ourselves as part of this intricate and sensitive system in which everything we do matters, while reminding ourselves that we are not limited to the labels we assign ourselves.

From “Everything Leans: The Creativity of Dependent Arising” by Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel, from A Wild Love for the World: Joanna Macy and the Work of Our Time, edited by Stephanie Kaza © 2020. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications. Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel is the author of two books on Buddhist teachings and practice, The Power of an Open Question and The Logic of Faith. She has studied and practiced Buddhism for over 30 years under the guidance of her teacher and husband, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. 

The Day-long Hour

We should make every moment of life worthwhile. Just eating and sleeping, living without purpose, and dying in that state make us “human-manure-producing machines,” according to Zen Master Kodo Sawaki. Even dogs and cats can lead such a life. But it is just too miserable, and it is inexcusable to waste a precious life that way. We can find out if someone is alive by seeing whether he is breathing, but here I refer to a higher level of living.

in brief spring 2020
Illustration by Frazer Hudson

Those who try wholeheartedly to do what human beings should do through allotted tasks go on living eternally, even after the body dies. (There are various kinds of “allotted tasks.” Seeking wealth, fame, or love is not an allotted task in the Buddhist sense.) As for people who are physically strong and rejoice in their youth, but are self-indulgent and waste time, their body is worth no more than bleached bones lying in a field. Some people live each day as if it had the value of a hundred years. Others may live a hundred years miserably, with as little to show for it as if they had lived only a single day. Some, by discarding what is unnecessary, ennoble themselves; while others, living in degradation, abase themselves. Among so many possibilities, we should try to live at least one day in a manner that gladdens the hearts of the buddhas.

Illness is good; failure is good; let wind and waves be as they are. Growing spirit­ually and becoming more radiant with each passing day, I would like to live every hour as if it were a day. 

From Zen Seeds: 60 Essential Buddhist Teachings on Effort, Gratitude, and Happiness by Shundo Aoyama © 2019. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications. Shundo Aoyama, one of the foremost Soto Zen teachers in Japan, serves as advisor to Sojiji Temple near Yokohama city and as chief priest of the Aichi Semmon Niso-do, the certified training temple for female Soto Zen priests, in Nagoya.