It is no understatement to say that anatman—the Buddha’s teaching of no-self or no-soul—is a tricky one to grasp. It is often the case that only people with deep and well established meditation practices get a glimpse of this teaching from an experiential standpoint. And until that happens, the philosophical and psychological dimensions seem like a quagmire of contradictions, and certainly run counter to “common” sense. But, common sense itself is based in the ignorance that causes suffering, so it too should be subject to scrutiny. (That, however, is another post)

 

So let me start off by saying that the Buddha did not teach that there was no-self, or no-soul in an absolute sense. The Sanskrit word, an-atman had a very precise meaning in the ancient Hindu religion. Atman means soul, and the Hindus taught that the soul was eternal, ever existing, never born, never dying, etc. And it passed from life to life to life in an endless cycle (samsara). In fact, as a side note, it was the point of many Hindu religious traditions (Hinduism is a word that covers hundreds of different religions) to find a way for atman to escape the endless cycle of birth and death. So the an- prefix means no. so anatman means no-soul, or no-self. BUT, since atman was eternal, what the Buddha was arguing was that there was no ETERNAL self or soul.

 

Everything in Buddhism is based in experience. So the first way to understand what the Buddha meant was that we have no experience of an eternal self or soul.  We do, in fact, have an experience of a self—I have a self, you have a self, everyone does. But that self and the experience itself is always in flux, always changing. This is due to two other Buddhist teachings that are in fact fundamental laws of the universe.

 

First, everything is impermanent. Everything changes. Everything has a birth, ages and dies. This is easy to see in nature, the change of seasons, the fact that living beings are born, age and die. Astrophysicists show us the same thing in stars and galaxies. So change is everywhere. Some change happens relatively quickly (day to night), some much more slowly (a star being born aging and dying over billions of years) But it is deeper. According to Buddhist teaching each moment of experience, the present moment, is composed of something like 54,000 distinct points that are constantly changing (I don’t know about you, but my meditation practice is no where near deep enough to detect this). So each moment is roiling with change. Thus, by rights, our soul or self is also in a constant state of change.

 

So, here is an experiment: are you, the person who is reading this obtuse response, the same person as when you were 5? I’ll be the answer was no. You are a different person now, with different experiences, desires, responsibilities, etc. So, your self/soul has changed. But, and here’s the rub in a nutshell, you can say, “Well, Daniel, when I was 5 I loved to play soccer.” So just after admitting that you had changed, you have connected your experience from the past to today in your mind. There is an “I” who then loved soccer and who now is remembering it and saying, in effect, that “I” was the one then and “I” am the one now.

 

Zen teachers and philosophers like Alan Watts would put it very simply. The “I” who is now and the “I” that was then is just a fiction. The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that the “I” was just a function of the mind used to organize experience so that we could connect one moment of experience to the next. But this is the thing. IT DOES NOT EXIST. The “I” is just a trick of the mind. Watts said it like this, the “I” is a fiction of the mind, but it is a useful fiction until we take it as real, then it is the source of suffering.

 

The second Buddhist truth is that everything is conditioned, everything is made of parts. And with the soul or self there are five: form (body), feeling tone (the immediate experience of positive, negative, and neutral in any experience—I have a post called “Muddy Water” that talks about feeling tones), perception (interpretation or judgment of experience), mental formations (emotions, thoughts, memory) and consciousness. These five conditions come together in any experience to form what we call a self or soul. But, like everything else, each of these streams is constantly changing as well, so therefore does our self/soul.

 

Let’s take body or form. Obviously as we get older our bodies change and so our sense of self changes. I may not be able to do things I used to. As a man I have no obvious experience, but women feel the change on a regular basis through menstruation, pregnancy, etc. The same is true of the rest. It is an interesting implication of the whole thing to consider the mental formations dimension.

 

So, say by now you are loving this post and thinking I am a really helpful person for posting this blog entry, so your mind is filled with positive emotions, etc. But then you get a text from someone you don’t care for and your experience goes from positive to negative. Your self/soul has just changed (keep in mind that you may not notice the change because of the I, the ego, that believes it is the constant, but again that is the idea of yourself, and not the experience of yourself.) It is hard to fathom intellectually, but easy to grasp experientially: I am a different self when I am angry as when I am happy simply because my experience is different. It is only the I/ego that connects the two that I take to be real and unchanging. But then, in that case, as we all seem to do, I am taking a mental function to be an ontological reality. It is like taking a remote to be the source of the tv. Just as a remote turns on the tv, so does the ego or “I” organize and unify my ongoing experiences. But I am not the ego function anymore than the remote is the source of the tv.

The question of spiritual freedom really hinges on the ability of the mind to escape its self-imposed limitations. Because our sprit comprises our ground, our basic (Buddha) nature, it is easily eclipsed by the operations of the mind in its encounters and endeavors with the material world. The main characteristics of the spirit: love, happiness, joy, compassion are experienced by most of us at one point or another, but are rarely ever able to shine. This is because these characteristics of the spirit arise within the confines of the mental-material interaction. And because we remain ignorant as to the true source of these characteristics—which are really the things we desire most in our lives—we begin to identify them with the mental-material interactions.

So, I find happiness arising when I eat pizza, or when I play video games. But because I remain ignorant of the source of these feelings I associate the feeling with the activity. Notice the language shift: Because of the ignorance at play I say “Eating pizza makes me happy”; “Playing video games makes me happy”. So rather than saying happiness arises when I do such and such, I am now placing the source of happiness in the thing I do. It is as if happy dust was in the pizza or on the video game console and transferred to me when I began enjoying it.

And this can go on and on until we believe that the whole world contains either things that make me happy, things that I hate, or things that I remain indifferent to (the Vedanas—see my post “Muddy Waters”) I therefore become dependent on the things of the world for my happiness, and since things don’t actually contain the happiness I desire, and because they change incessantly, when something ceases to make me feel happy (I have eaten too much pizza, or played video games for too long) I am off to find the next thing that does, and the chase is on. This, by the way, is what Buddhism calls suffering. The incessant search for happiness that always fails, because we fail to see the true source of that which we seek.

The spirit is also held in bondage because of deep-rooted beliefs that we have about who we are and what the world is. Often conveyed to us at an early age, these beliefs center on who we are and what kind of world we live in. If, for example we have been led to believe that we are worthless, that happiness and goodness are things we do not deserve, then the spirit is locked away inside these false beliefs. Likewise, if we are led to believe that the world is an evil place, and that people are out only for themselves and that we must keep our guards up lest we get taken advantage of, then our spirits that seek to be and express love are locked away. These beliefs need to be dismantled just as assuredly as the others, or the spirit will remain forever entombed behind these gloaming lies.

So, spiritual freedom, which is opening to the source of happiness, joy, love and compassion, can only be found by dismantling the way our mind apprehends the world. The Buddha said that the mind is the basis for all experience, and if we allow our minds to be ignorant, corrupted by the inessential we will be doomed to suffer. But he also said that if we train our minds to be mindful, aware of the source and the good, then happiness will follow us like our own shadow. The way to spiritual freedom follows this exact path. All we need to do is get out of our own way, deprogram a whole way of seeing the world that society has encoded within us, and shine like we were intended to.

Sound easy? Well, it is very easy if you understand that to do this requires practice. Retraining the mind to be open so the spirit can be free requires dedication, practice, and perseverance. But, it can be done, and results come fast and easy. In my next post I will give a sense of the practices required to free the spirit and reclaim the natural joy, love and compassion that is your birthright.

I love the old zen saying that the best way to clear muddy water is to leave it alone and the mud will settle. But I have been musing on what exactly it is that stirs up the mud in the first place. Or, put otherwise, if our original nature is pure and good (Buddha Nature) then how does it get all caught in the muck and the mire of our day to day living?

The Buddha said that there were three ways: Desire (greed), Hatred (aversion), and Delusion (ignorance).These three “poisons” have their roots at the deepest levels of our psychological makeup, and ultimately are rooted in the Vedanas, or “feeling tones”. I understand this psychological analysis in the following way:

The Buddha said that if we pay very close attention to our thoughts and feelings, our mental states in general, then we see at the root of every thought is what we can term a feeling tone. There are three of them: positive, negative, and neutral. But in Buddhist thought, these three conditions are based on much more primary states which are deeper, and much more subtle.

Basically, with every sense object, with every thing we see, hear, taste, touch, smell and think (in Buddhism thought is a sense object, and the mind is considered to be a sense organ) our minds attach a natural, organic, “feeling tone.” That is to say, with every perception we attach a “label”: positive (which leads to desire), negative (which leads to aversion) or neutral (which leads to ignorance). A feeling tone, thus, is a kind of “color” that the mind attaches to its object of perception and occurs before thought. As a result, the thoughts and emotions that arise in response to the object of perception are biased in the direction of the feeling tone.

Let’s take a basic example. Let’s say I see someone eating an ice cream cone. My perception of the event is accompanied by the positive feeling tone. As a result, my eyes linger just a bit longer, and the thoughts that begin to emerge in my mind as a response to the perception quickly spin into desire. I want ice cream. What can I do to get myself an ice cream cone? Ice cream sounds good. Maybe I should get a whole pint, or quart, or half gallon. Desire, the inevitable result of the positive feeling tone, is thus the root from which the tree of my thoughts and feelings grow. For as I am thinking about how tasty the ice cream will be I also reminisce about the times I got ice cream as a child, how much fun it was to be with my family, or friends when we would get ice cream, etc. Ice cream, for a time, fills my whole mind, and the fact that it is based in desire indicates that the original sense contact between eye and object was colored by the positive feeling tone.

Or, perhaps we could give an even more basic example, one that is more crude, but nevertheless instructive. Each one of us is naturally attracted sexually toward other human beings. We normally call people that we are attracted to “beautiful.” So, lets say you are walking through the mall at a particularly busy time, and you are making your way through the crowds. Normally you do not notice what people look like, they are just people and they are all around you, but go largely unnoticed (this by the way is neutrality, or ignorance, but more on that soon).

All of a sudden you pass someone who catches your eye as beautiful. Now, instead of passing by him/her as you would the rest of the crowd, your eyes linger, and your head may even swivel as this person passes you by, you are so enamored. Now, while this process may pass in the blink of an eye, the perception of beauty and the lingering of your eyes have happened before a single thought or emotion has arisen in your mind. It is only after the contact and the immediate arising of desire that your mind erupts into thought, and the exclamations of beauty and desire begin flooding your mind.

The point of the example is simply to show that feeling tones, here the positive feeling tone, which sparks desire, is co-arising with each perception and thought. Indeed, the feeling tone is the root, as I said, of every thought and emotion, and hence, of any action that we have and take. In this way, we are pretty much biased about everything since there is no perception that is unaffected by this chain beginning with the positive feeling tone and ending in desire. Everything you find pleasing, from sights to smells, from touch to taste, from hearing to thoughts is the result of the positive feeling tone, and the immediate desire that arises from it.

The reason we are traveling this path  is to show that this is the way that desire gets caught up in our very perception of the world, for the subtle arising of a thought based in desire will inevitably and immediately lead to thoughts and feelings building upon thoughts and feelings until the world literally becomes for you according to the desire you have cultivated in your constructed thoughts. This is because of a subtle result that the perception of the world coupled with a feeling tone produces.

Let’s take a beautiful person again. As I have said, the sight of a beautiful person is accompanied by the positive feeling tone. This process occurs before we have a single thought. So when the thoughts arise, the “fact” has already been established that so and so is beautiful and is pleasing to look at.  That is to say, we take the sense perception and the feeling tone together as the object we see. In this way he/she is beautiful, they are pleasing to look at as if this were an established and objective fact that we observe in the world. We mistake our perceptions and the accompanying feeling tones as objective facts that we discover in the world, rather than what they truly are: our mental events. We thus confuse these mental events for reality, over and over again.

What I mean here is simply that any given person is going to believe that certain things in their world are good and pleasing and right in their very makeup. Take patriotism. The belief that “America is the Greatest Nation on Earth” is an obvious example. While I am not making a claim for or against that belief, we can learn two things from it: it is built upon the desire, emotions and thoughts of patriotism and the like, and those thoughts and feelings are opinions at best. For one can easily point out that America lags behind the rest of the world in many areas: education, healthcare, poverty, etc. The fact that giving such statistics will not only fall on deaf ears (that is, it won’t change a person’s beliefs), but may actually result in violence (I get a punch in the nose) only further shows that this example is correct. The thoughts and emotions based on the positive feeling tone, and the corresponding desire (here the desire would be attached to certain patriotic thoughts and beliefs) lead to entrenched beliefs that literally define the reality of those involved.

So, the positive feeling tone leads to the way we understand the world from a positive perspective. Perception sparks a feeling tone that leads to thoughts and emotions, spinning and spinning into habitual patterns of understanding. Our thoughts create our world, the Buddha argued. But, if this were the only feeling tone, things would be rosy, the world filled with nothing but positive beliefs. Sadly, we have other factors of our mental conditioning, and the next one up is aversion. Aversion is the “I don’t like” of our experience. And if the positive feeling tone leads to desire results in the grasping of the object of desire (i.e. the eyes lingering on a beautiful person), then aversion is the outcome of a negative feeling tone, and the pushing away of things we don’t like.

Again, we can give a couple of examples. Consider this. We are friends and I have, graciously, I think, invited you over for a traditional Scottish dinner. You accept, and eager to try new cuisine, show up at my door promptly on time and ravenous. After having some appetizers, I bring out the main course: freshly prepared Haggis.  Never having dissected anything large in your college biology class, not to mention arriving at my door under the expectation of eating something that looks like a nicely prepared meal, you are unprepared for a large plate of sheep intestines. The visual perception of guts lying before you is accompanied by a pretty foul smell. Your mind quickly overwhelmed by the sights and smells pushes away. It may push away so violently that it triggers a physical response and you vomit, or it may be that you make up a quick excuse that your grandma has just passed away, or something. The perceptions of sight and smell, colored by the negative feeling tone cascade into a strong aversion for the situation at hand, and you seek a way out by any means.

But here we can see what I mentioned earlier: While you become grossed out by the sights, smells and, yes, by the idea (thought) of eating sheep intestines, I, on the other hand am looking forward to what I consider to be comfort food.  So, for you, the negative feeling tone leads to aversion and you want nothing to do with the meal, and may seek escape. For me, on the other hand, there is the positive feeling tone that leads to the desire for a satisfying meal of Haggis. Thus, we have the truth I stated before: the feeling tones are subjective; conditioned by society, culture, a person’s individual makeup, psychology, etc. They are also mistaken for reality and thus Haggis to you is disgusting, and for me it is tasty. You and I have differing models of reality on this issue that we both take to be true, objective statements about the world.

Another example points deeper into our psychology: Sigmund Freud was once treating a patient who had a very strange neurosis. A neurosis is anything that is considered irrational behavior, that is, behavior that doesn’t have a rational explanation. The neurosis that this particular woman displayed was to cry uncontrollably whenever she entered an ice cream shop. Now, this seems to be true neurosis, for a rational appraisal of the situation would be that the sights and smells of an ice cream shop produce joyful responses, or at least indifferent ones. Yet here it did not. Freud was determined to find an explanation, so he applied his new method, talk therapy—psychoanalysis—to see if he could discover the roots of this particular neurosis. He succeeded.

Freud discovered through this procedure, that this woman had been repeatedly molested by her uncle when she was a girl, and afterwards he would take her to get ice cream. In order to survive the trauma, the woman’s mind buried—repressed—the memory deep in her unconscious. But the repressed memory resurfaced in the form of this neurosis—crying in ice cream shops—but because it was a repressed memory she did not know why she was doing that. She could not consciously connect the behavior to the root trauma lest the trauma overtake her again.

From the perspective of Buddhist philosophy we see that there was a residue of negativity and aversion left over so that when the woman walked into the shop, the feeling tone was overwhelmingly negative and sparked the powerful reactions in her, and this is true even if she did not know why it was occurring. As we have said, the feeling tone that leads to such negativity, such aversion, occurs before thought, and hence, before the ability to rationally account for behavior. It simply triggered a nameless but immediate aversion to the place she was in. Add to that the repressed trauma this woman suffered and you have the results that Freud discovered. But the negative feeling tone and the resulting aversion is not limited to such deep traumas. Many of us may feel something like this if we go someplace or encounter someone who just immediately sparks a negative reaction, that feeling in the gut.

We can also use the example, again, of seeing a beautiful person. Here, imagine you are walking in that mall, but instead of a beautiful person, you see an enemy, or someone you dislike. While your gaze lingered on the beautiful person, here your eyes are averted pretty quickly. That is, instead of your gaze being drawn in by beauty, your gaze is pushed away by dislike. And then, as in the previous example, your mind becomes filled with all kinds of thoughts and feelings that are unpleasant as you are reminded by the sight of that person, why you dislike them, and what a rotten so and so they are, and so forth.

Aversion works in the opposite way of desire in terms of the thoughts and emotions that arise: repulsion rather than attraction, negative distasteful thoughts and feelings, rather than positive, desirous ones. Nevertheless, we can create our worlds just as surely through aversion as we can through desire. For the thoughts spin, the emotions are strengthened, and pretty soon the world appears to us in the negative fashion of our habitual thoughts and emotions, sparked by negative feeling tones that we take to be real states in the world.

Just like with desire, so too with aversion, someone’s cherished beliefs become true beyond a question. We see this, unfortunately, in our country with many people and the religion of Islam. This kind of entrenched belief, bigotry, really, leads people to believe that Islam is a violent religion, and that all Muslims are terrorists hell bent on destroying America. But just like the example of patriotism, no matter how many statistics were provided to show that the overwhelming majority of Muslims (i.e. billions of people) are decent, peaceful, God-fearing people, those who hold such negative stereotypes will more often as not simply ignore that fact and hold on to whatever shred of hatred their minds have created out of the minority of Muslims who indeed hate America, etc.  The negative feeling tone sparking aversion and ending in hatred is the sad creation of such people’s minds.

In between positive and negative feeling tones lies neutrality, which spins into what Buddhism calls ignorance. Here the term ignorance does not mean anything derogatory. It points to the fact that we live most of our lives unaware of everything that is happening to us, and around us. One example is to simply ask how many trees did you pass on your way to work this morning? Can you answer that question? Judging that your answer is probably going to be no, we can ask why? And the answer is simple. You don’t pay any attention to the trees on your way to work. Therefore, the perceptions that arise on your way to work are colored by the feeling tone of neutrality. You are unaware of much of the surroundings on your commute. All you likely notice is the exigencies of driving. The cars immediately around you, the stop lights, the streets you need to navigate to get where you are going. Everything else, as they say, is just a blur. You have neither positive feeling tones, nor any negative ones unless something happens. And then it is usually negative: a car cuts you off, etc.

Once again, we return to the crowded mall. Here, with regards to the other people milling about, your experience is likely colored by neutrality insofar as they are simply people you are passing. Again, that may change if you spot a friend (positive) or an enemy (negative), or you may get bumped into (negative), but on the whole, your trip through the mall is dominated by ignorance insofar as you blindly pass people to get to where you are going.  In this regard we have to be wary of neutrality or ignorance also because it bogs down the practice of acceptance with a kind of “I don’t care” attitude, since any given encounter with unchangeability is always an opportunity for insight, wisdom and growth, which we will certainly miss if we are stuck in ignorance of what is exactly going on.

Ignorance is also a major factor in how we understand our minds, and reality as such. As I have been saying, we tend to miss what is really real because we have mistaken the way our minds attach feeling tones to the sense perceptions we have. Experiences of seeing a beautiful person or wanting ice cream, or being a patriot and believing we live in the greatest country on earth are all subjective experiences through and through—and this is true even if we can find others, millions of others, perhaps, who share the same view.

So, any given supermodel, actor or actress may have many, many people believe they are beautiful. But that does not indicate any kind of hard and fast objective reality, but rather that the way feeling tones interact with sense perceptions in the mind operates in a similar fashion across humanity. That is, we are all wired similarly in the way we perceive objects that become desirous. The old adage that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is proof positive that what we are talking about is a subjective affair through and through. The same can be said of beliefs like the claim that America is the greatest country on earth, or that ice cream is tasty and the like. Subjective experience taken to be objective reality is the mental condition we face, and ignorance is the sad reality that we make the mistake each and every time.

It is in this way that the mud is churned and the pure brilliance of our Buddha Natures are obscured, and we, thus, remain in ignorance of what and who we truly are.

Here is a beautiful story.

In Northern Thailand there was a statue of the Buddha. In artistic terms, it was nothing special; not very well adorned, plain, and made of clay. But it was a holy object, and it stood for over 500 years with generations of monks carefully tending it. Then, in the early 20th century, this statue was moved to make way for a new temple. Underestimating the weight of the statue, the crane brought in to lift it dropped it, and some of the clay was chipped away. The monks hurriedly covered the statue to protect it from the elements. Late that night, a monk who believed the statue was divine entered under the tarp with a flashlight and began inspecting the damage. When he shone his light into a crack in the clay, he exclaimed in loud surprise. For what he saw reflecting back at him was the deep yellow glint of gold. Under the clay exterior was the true statue: a beautiful image of the Buddha crafted entirely of gold. The monks soon deduced that long ago that the gold Buddha had been covered over to protect it from raiding marauders and invaders. As time passed, the succeeding generations of monks had forgotten what lay under the plain character of their statue until a “mistake” broke off some of what was there thus revealing its true nature.

This story is a perfect metaphor for who we are and why we often do not realize it. We are born perfect, whole and divine. But something happens along the way and we come to believe that we are imperfect, and must strive to become what we already are. We come to believe that we must become good, become pure, become worthy.  We are simultaneously like the Golden Buddha of Thailand, and the monks who tended it. Being born perfect and complete, our spiritual essence lacking nothing for it is the same essence as God’s. But, time passes; we grow up, and learn to be who our society expects us to be. We shape our psychological realities according to what hurts and what feels good, opening toward the good and closing off the hurts.

Each time, each moment our perfection and innate goodness gets covered over like the clay over the golden statue.  And as time passes, like the monks who tended lovingly to the statue, we forget our original being, our spiritual essence and we seek to maintain and beautify the external conditions of our existence. We begin to live as if the clay exterior was our true self, and we therefore long for salvation from the condition we have unwittingly created.

I like how the Zen teacher Karen Maezen Miller puts it, “You are a Buddha. But in the same way you will forget the circumstances of your birth, you will forget the truth of your being. And by forgetting what you are, you will suffer in the painful, fruitless search to become something else, striving against your own perfection to feel whole and secure. By your attachment to desires, you will squander the chance of infinite lifetimes: the chance to be born in human form. Luckily, the chance to be reborn—to wake up—arises every moment.” Indeed all of our efforts to achieve what we desire are, in fact, “striving against our own perfection.” This perfection is with us in every moment of our entire lives. This is what Buddhism calls “Buddha nature,” our inherent perfect goodness and capacity to be awake in a world of sleep.

         Nevertheless, inch-by-inch, layer-by-layer our perfect and divine self is covered over by masks, personae, and psychological defense mechanisms of all shapes and sizes, and we come to believe that what we seek is outside of ourselves. Those of us who are heirs to the Western and largely Christian religious and intellectual traditions have another, deep, layer blocking us from reality: this is the idea of original sin. Invented by St. Augustine in the 5th Century, this teaching basically forces us to see ourselves from a perspective directly opposite that of our true nature. For instead of saying that we are pure, divine, created in the image of God, original sin says that we are born defective. We are born in negativity and are, as a result, separate from the divine reality that created everything. It is thus a person’s task to beg God for forgiveness, and to try to live a life of faith and morality in the hope that God will save us from an eternity in hell. But the truth is, the hell that we seek to avoid in this model of reality is something we live in everyday when we are separated from our essence. 

Buddha nature is found wherever we are, for it is us. We can not lose it; we can not give it away. But we can forget about it, and live life as if it were not there. Yet, I have found that there is always a longing, a yearning for what we know not. Some traditions call for the need for salvation so that we can be reunited with it again. But if we are indeed born with it; if it is indeed our innermost being, then the task is not to be saved, but to uncover. We are, in a way, spiritual archaeologists. It is like waiting for the clouds to pass revealing the sun once again. Or, as Alan Watts put it, muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone. That, I think, is our first clue.

Everybody, I think, desires happiness above all other things. Yet, if this basic emotion or state of being is so central, the question arises as to why it is so hard to find? And if it is found, why is it so hard to sustain?

I find the answer to this question in the stories and examples of Tibetan Buddhist monks. Many of these gentle souls were imprisoned by the occupying Chinese forces simply for being religious. Unjustly imprisoned, and many serving upwards of 20 years, when these monks were finally released they invariably thanked their guards, the prison warden and other officials for their time served. Indeed, almost to a man, these monks walked out after years of hard labor, injustice, and inhumane conditions in a blissful, serene state. When asked about how they could be happy in such a miserable state of affairs, these monks invariably pointed to the mind’s ability to create and sustain happiness anywhere. Through loving kindness practice and gratitude, even the smallest things became objects of beauty and enjoyment. In short, these monks lived happy and free within the bounds of a harsh imprisonment, and a reality that would make most of us lose our minds in abject despair.

The lesson is this: happiness is an inside job. Too often in our society we are taught that we need to find people, and fill our lives with things in order to be happy. We spend our lives searching for “the one” in the firm belief that that “one” will lead to a life of bliss all the while chasing the latest desire for material possession. Unable to be fulfilled many find themselves addicted to all sorts of vices and substances.

Strangely, to me, a pop culture example seems appropriate: I am always a little perplexed by Taylor Swift songs. She seems so caught up in blaming whoever the ex-du-jour is for having the temerity of not being the “one”. Her songs lead one to believe that she is with man after man in the hope of securing the “one”, and then when she does not find it in her relationship with so-and-so she becomes bitter, resentful, and accusatory because some poor sap does not measure up to her ideal. Moving on, her next hit song details the same thing with a different guy. She doesn’t understand that her “one” does not exist outside of her own natural capacity to be happy and fulfilled.

In sum, we expect things outside of us to provide what we possess all along. It is like looking for our heart in a department store, we will never find it, and we will be so distracted by all the shiny baubles we find there that we will forget what we were looking for to begin with.

Rumi has a beautiful line that goes something like this: “I looked for you (God) in a mosque, but you weren’t there. I then tried a church, but you weren’t there, so I went to a temple and you were not there either. But then, I looked in my heart, and you were there all along.” We will never find happiness outside of us. At best it is a fleeting feeling when we do; a mere whisper of a trace that something greater exists. And the search begins.

Indeed, we will never find it at all unless we cultivate the capacity to look within, and then develop the natural radiant happiness that is inside–a happiness that is available to us no matter our external conditions.