I have traveled all over the world teaching people how to meditate. Whether I am talking to a large group or chatting with a few people in private, it seems that everyone wants to know the same thing: Where is lasting happiness to be found? True, not everyone phrases this question the same way—some people may not even know this is what they are asking—but when we reduce our many desires, hopes, and fears down to their essence, this is usually the answer we are seeking.
For those of us who follow a spiritual path, we may think we know the answer. Anyone who studies the Buddha’s teachings, for example, will be able to tell you that true happiness is found within. But if we really understand that our basic nature is already whole, pure, and complete, why do we continue to act as though our level of contentment depends on the size of our paycheck, the quality of our relationships, or on the number of pleasurable experiences we can surround ourselves with. In other words, why do we expect things that are ephemeral and changing by their very nature to provide us with something stable and secure?
The answer is quite simple: It’s a bad habit. We have believed this myth for so long, that it takes a while for any new understanding to filter down to the core of our being. What’s more, we often bring this same mindset—the expectation that temporary experiences can produce lasting happiness—into our meditation practice as well. We mistake fleeting experiences of peace and relaxation for the true relaxation of feeling at ease with whatever manifests in the present moment. We think that calming the mind means to get rid of thoughts and turbulent emotions, rather than to connect with the natural spaciousness of awareness itself, which doesn’t get any better when there are no thoughts or any worse when there are. And we chase after ephemeral experiences of bliss and clarity, all the while missing the profound simplicity of awareness that is with us all the time.
What I’m getting at here is that we need to be patient with ourselves, and with the process of loosening this deep-rooted conditioning. The good news is that everything we hear about meditation is actually true. Our essential nature really is completely pure, whole, and infinitely spacious. No matter how trapped we may feel by anxiety, depression, or guilt, there is always another option available to us, and one that doesn’t ask us to stop feeling what we already feel, or to stop being who and what we are. Quite the contrary, when we know where to look, and how to look, we can find peace of mind in the midst of raging emotions, profound insight in the midst of complete confusion, and the seeds of compassion in our darkest moments, even when we feel completely lost and alone.
This may sound too good to be true. In fact, I must admit that the first time I heard this, it did seem a little too easy, and too convenient. It took me a number of years, actually, before I stopped using meditation like a hammer, trying to beat all of my painful feelings and cruel thoughts out of existence. I can’t tell you how hard it was to be confronted continually with the tempest of my own anxiety while still holding onto the idea that difficult thoughts and emotions were keeping me from tasting true peace of mind.
It wasn’t until I gave up in desperation that I finally saw the truth of what my teachers had been telling me all along. What they taught me over and over again, waiting patiently for me to see in my own experience what they had learned themselves, was that love, compassion, and wisdom are manifesting all the time. It’s not that we are pure way down in the depths of our being, but somehow up on the surface everything is messed up. Rather, we are pure inside and out. Even our most dysfunctional habits are manifestations of this basic goodness.
There is only one problem: We don’t see this true nature in the present moment, and even less so the innate compassion and wisdom that arise from it. Even when we understand intellectually that we have buddhanature—the potential to awaken ourselves from the slumber of ignorance and suffering—we rarely acknowledge this innate purity in the present moment. We see it as a distant possibility, as something that we can experience sometime in the future, or maybe even in another lifetime.
Nevertheless, these enlightened qualities really are present, even right now in this very moment. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s take a moment to see if this rings true. Why are you sitting here reading this magazine? Why are you interested in meditation at all? I’ll bet that at least part of the reason is that you want to be happy. Who doesn’t? That wish to be happy is the essence of loving-kindness. Once we recognize this basic desire in ourselves, seeing how it manifests all the time in so many little ways, we can begin to extend it to others. Similarly, the flip side of wanting to be happy is the wish to be free from suffering. Once again, I’ll bet that in some way, the drive to be free from suffering is motivating you at this very moment. This simple wish is the essence of compassion. And finally, it must be said that even though we want to be happy and free from suffering, we often do things that bring us the opposite result. Reflect for a moment on what it feels like in those moments. When you are looking for lasting happiness somewhere it can never be found. In switching on the TV, for example, can’t you feel it in your gut that something isn’t quite right? Isn’t there a subtle nagging feeling that perhaps you are looking in the wrong place for happiness? Well, that is your buddhanature calling, your innate wisdom.
So you see, we don’t have to look outside the present moment to experience wisdom, compassion, and the boundless purity of our true nature. In fact, these things can’t be found anywhere but the present moment. We just need to pause to recognize what is always right in front of us. This is a crucial point, because meditation is not about changing who we are, or becoming better people, or even about getting rid of destructive habits. Meditation is about learning to recognize our basic goodness in the immediacy of the present moment, and then nurturing this recognition until it seeps into the very core of our being.
Originally published in the January 2012 Lion's Roar magazine and on LionsRoar.com. Reproduced with permission.