Skip to content

Happiness Boot Camp

September 21, 2012

Tous les jours à tous points de vue je vais de mieux en mieux.
(Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.) — Émile Coué

 I remember when it was popular among the self-help New Age crowd around New York to recite affirmations. Affirmations are “positive auto-suggestions,” messages sent by the conscious mind to the unconscious mind that undo negative messages held in the unconscious. It’s a little like hypnotizing your self. A popular affirmation was “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” I had a very hard time sending myself that message because I didn’t believe it was true. I hated the idea of deceiving myself, of being a fool or a dupe. I imagined standing in front of the mirror, reciting, “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better,” and the man in the mirror saying back to me, “Not only are you not getting any better, you’re also a lying sack of shit.” I didn’t take on the practice of affirmations because I felt that I’d rather know the truth and be unhappy then be deluded and happy.

I refused to practice affirmations, but without really being aware of it, I practiced negative auto-suggestions instead. I developed a persistent bad attitude; a snarky voice that repeated, “Every day in every way, things are probably going to suck.” I didn’t think that I was practicing auto-suggestions, though; I thought I was observing the truth. I had proof of this, too: whenever I approached a situation thinking, “This is probably going to turn out badly,” the situation usually did, in fact, turn out badly. It took years of meditation for me to realize what the clever reader has already figured out: things turned out badly because I was helping them to turn out badly.

Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.
(Where observation is concerned, fortune favors only the prepared mind) – Louis Pasteur

We get better at the things we practice.  We get better at noticing the things we practice noticing. I had trained my mind to notice whatever was not quite satisfactory; whatever could have been better; and especially whatever someone else had that might be better than what I had. I got really good at noticing what was irritating and unsatisfactory in my world, and as a result, I got to live in an irritating, unsatisfactory world. I thought that I was very smart since I was so good at predicting how things would work out. But I wasn’t happier as a result of this awesome prognostic prowess. In fact, I was making myself more and more miserable.  So really, how smart is that?

If you want to be happy, you should think about happiness, speak about happiness, and write about happiness. – The Bad Lama

To paraphrase the Bad Lama, if you want to be happy, don’t practice noticing dissatisfaction; practice noticing happiness instead. This does not mean that you should suppress or deny painful feelings. If you try to achieve happiness by suppressing painful feelings, eventually those feelings will erupt into your experience.  If your happiness depends on the absence of painful feelings, then painful feelings will destroy your happiness. Instead, see if you can open yourself up to a happiness that is big enough to include all feelings, especially painful feelings. When you open yourself up in this way, then happiness can manifest in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Trungpa Rinpoche talks about this kind of openness in The Heart of the Buddha:

A traditional analogy is that of the hunter.  The hunter does not have to think of a stag or a mountain goat or a bear or any specific animal; he is looking for that. When he walks and hears some sound, or senses some subtle possibility, he does not think of what animal he is going to find; just a feeling of that comes up.  Anybody in any kind of complete involvement — on the level of the hunter, the lover, or the meditator – has the kind of openness that brings about sudden flashes. It is an almost magical sensation of that-ness without a name, without a concept, without idea.)

A hunter

Many of us have a very small idea of happiness. We imagine that happiness is experienced as a certain set of feelings, and that it’s dependent on certain specific objects. Following Trungpa Rinpoche’s analogy, that would be like the hunter deciding that he will only have a successful hunt if he finds a specific animal at a specific place and a specific time. That hunter would often return from the hunt empty-handed. When we define happiness this narrowly, we are likely to experience not-happiness. We create the conditions for dissatisfaction. The happiness that the Bad Lama directs us toward is vast – it can encompass anything! You might think of it as contentment, or deep joy or an equanimity that warmly welcomes all experiences.

When the Bad Lama asks us to think about happiness and speak about it and write about it, he’s suggesting that our activities can be oriented toward opening up to this joy.  We don’t just hope to be happy; we get involved in the process.  We prepare the ground so that we can notice all of the flashes of vast happiness, in whatever form they take. We could notice it in our sadness, in our anger, in our boredom.

Another hunter

I don’t want to continue making myself unhappy.  I’d rather turn my mind toward happiness, so I’m willing to practice the Bad Lama’s happiness training.  This is fundamental Buddhist mind training:  to decide that you’d like to be happy, and to decide to change your behavior in order to experience happiness. There are many, many kinds of mind trainings in the Buddhist tradition, but this is the basis of all of them. This is Happiness Boot Camp: continually re-upping on the decision to open up to vast happiness. All of the other kinds of Buddhist mind trainings — contemplations and visualizations and analytic meditations — are just elaborations on this basic training. (So why do we need all of those various trainings? There are myriad trainings that lead us toward happiness because we have developed myriad strategies for creating dissatisfaction!)

Be a hunter for happiness! Join the happiness safari. Maybe, if you’re lucky, some giant ferocious happiness will roar out of the jungle and consume you entirely.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 26, 2012 8:10 pm

    I hear you brother. I’ve noticed a big transformation in my practice when I decided to embrace that moment of return to the object of meditation, the moment we label “thinking”. I used to experience disappointment, a small feeling of failure… now I celebrate that moment. Mind likes that much better! Off the cushion, these moments of being present now resonate with more joy. Seems I was being aggressive… no joy in that right?

    • September 26, 2012 9:08 pm

      Indeed. It’s so easy to be aggressive when you know what’s “right.” Wars start that way.

  2. jade permalink
    November 8, 2012 5:20 pm

    Tons of French today, n’est-ce pas?! I definitely share your feelings towards affirmations, not because they feel self-deluding, but because things like “I’m getting better and better” don’t sit well with my worldview (i.e., “better” has several questionable implications and suggests binary opposition that I try to stay away from). I really like your reference to “that-ness.” It makes a lot of sense to me. I feel like putting tons of labels on our desires limits our scope and limits the potential. I still find a focus on happiness to be a bit confusing. I mean, I feel like there is this duality. I tend to look at my life with the goal of ending suffering. Therefore, my goal is NOT happiness. It’s just to end suffering. I suppose in the state of binary opposites, ending suffering may imply happiness, but to me, that isn’t necessarily the case. I personally don’t feel inclined to attain happiness. I guess this is shaped by my experience. I’m not quite sure why exactly I’m so opposed to the idea of attaining happiness. I definitely have more exploring to do.


  1. Happiness Boot Camp | Learning To Participate
  2. Happiness Boot Camp « Learning To Participate

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: