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Awareness and happiness with mindfulness

Breng focus in je leven. Aandacht en geluk horen bij elkaar. Waarachtig geluk heeft te maken met aandacht.

My previous blog’s theme was about “immature happiness” (What is happiness? Mindfulness and happiness (1)). In this new blog I will discuss what I mean by ” mature happiness”. True happiness has to do with attention. Mindfulness and attention form the basis for mature happiness.

Busy, busy busy, no time for awareness and happiness

In practice it is not easy to live and work with attention. A demanding job, children, household and social life often swallow up your time. As a result, we experience stress and restlessness. At an early age we are taught that happiness is something you have to ‘achieve’.

The reward is usually external: a good grade at school, money, a great career, a beautiful house. We make a lot of demands on ourselves and especially on our happiness. That’s why we don’t dwell on what’s there. We don’t pay attention to how we feel and to what is really important to us. Because we are in such a hurry, happiness eludes us.

Awareness and happiness: self-denial in a strict monastery

From an early age I was interested in the training of awareness. In addition to my work as a lawyer, I was also a mindfulness-trainer and intensive practitioner of Zen.

For years I have felt the desire to live in a monastery for a while and to experience what it is like to fully focus on the development of awareness and mindfulness. Well, desire. There you have it again. I fell for it again……

After 25 years as a lawyer, I decided to take a one-year sabbatical at the end of 2014. I ended up in a strict orthodox Buddhist monastery in Australia. One year eventually became two years. The monastery was located in the middle of a large forest. There was no electricity, no TV, no air conditioning and no heating. In the winter it was freezing cold, in the summer it was swelteringly hot. And we only got one meal a day, at ten o’clock in the morning. No social media. We were only allowed to do our e-mails for one hour once a week. Five hours of meditation training a day, the other hours were working hours. Often hard work, by the way.

What I learned about awareness and happiness in the monastery

This may seem like masochistic stuff. And yet it was not. The ascetic training brought me a lot. It was a profound training in attention and mindfulness. The road to outward happiness was cut off. So I couldn’t help but face myself.

And that can be confronting. Many left the monastery after a short time. I myself constantly fantasized about running away, but I didn’t do it. I felt I could learn something of value here.

The funny thing was that the abbot of our monastery never told us not to have desires when we complained again about cold, heat, too little food, boredom. The abbot encouraged us to feel and acknowledge all our desires. To experience them directly. With a down-to-earth attitude. Like ‘interesting, I have a longing for a good restaurant: where in my body do I feel this longing? What thoughts go through me?’ And then to return to your meditation in peace and quiet. Again and again.

Not a vague exercise in which you drift away with your ideas and desires. But an inquisitive, observant attitude that is firmly grounded in the reality of the here and now.

Breng focus in je leven. Aandacht en geluk horen bij elkaar. Waarachtig geluk heeft te maken met aandacht.
Bring focus into your life. Awareness and happiness belong together. True happiness has to do with awareness. (Photo Pexels)

Awareness as the basis for happiness

The ascetic regime and the exercises in the monastery have brought me a lot. I learned to deal with my desires in a different way. For example, I was often overwhelmed by fear: ‘how am I going to earn my money when I come back from this monastery’? This was a desire for money, for security. I also often longed for a good dinner, shopping, going out to dinner with friends. And especially a good glass of wine. But in this monastery that was not possible. The nearest neighbor (a farmer) was four hours walking and unfortunately alcohol was strictly forbidden.

So I learned to investigate my desires and to pay attention to them. Where do I feel them in my body? Are they big, small, hot or cold? Do they have a color? Is it pleasurable to feel this desire? Unpleasant? Or neutral? If I examined more closely what seemed unpleasant turned out not to be so unpleasant at all. And thoughts, feelings and desires were not as static as I thought. They changed all the time and always disappeared quite quickly. If I did not feed them with all kinds of thoughts about which restaurant I would like to eat in and what I would like to order.

I also realized that desires are not personal things. Every human being has desires. It is an energy with a tremendous power that lives in every human being. I learned in the monastery to see my desires as just impersonal energy flowing through me. I can pay attention to them, but I do not always have to get carried away.

More happiness with less

This created the space and freedom to choose my own answer. With the result that I could experience more power and focus. And I started to see more details in my life in the monastery. It was as if the smells, colors and sounds became clearer. I realized that I did not really need that much at all to be satisfied and happy. My fantasies about how I would run away from the monastery slowly but surely diminished.

The abbot repeatedly emphasized the importance of awareness as a basis for cultivating satisfaction and gratitude. According to him, awareness and satisfaction lead to focus and effective functioning. Thus, awareness leads to happiness.

Dit alles betekent niet dat je geen verlangens mag hebben.
This does not mean that you are not allowed to have desires. (Photo Gareth Davies/ Pexels)

Not too many desires

This does not mean that you are not allowed to have desires. One of my teachers always said” have a few desires, but not too many”. Why? If you don’t have too many desires, you keep time to pay attention to what is already there. And to pay attention to the satisfaction you can experience when a desire is fulfilled. This gives you the strength and vision to take your place at the helm of your life, hoist your sails, and determine your destination. Social media and the thousands of commercials won’t bring you off course anymore. No matter how loud they scream.

Having a few desires (not too many) means that you let yourself be determined by what really matters to you. It has to do with living according to your values. This leads to personal leadership.

Matured happiness

In my previous blog I talked about immature happiness: the pursuit of more and more external happiness. For me, mature happiness means: having peace and awareness for the moment as it is. Even though there may be difficult and painful things. For me, mature happiness is mainly about paying attention to the details of life.

Matured happiness also has to do with awareness and gratitude for the things that are good in your life and work. Gratitude for the everyday things we normally don’t even see anymore because we are so busy going somewhere. Mature happiness has more to do with ‘being’ and less with ‘searching’ and ‘doing’.

Happiness leads to better performance

For those of you who find all that talk about happiness vague: it has been scientifically proven that happy people perform better at work. So it’s a matter of setting your priorities with care and exploring how you can positively influence your awareness, happiness and performance.

Train your brain for more awareness and happiness!

By the way, attention and mature happiness are closely related to the functioning of your brain. These are skills that need to be developed. The well-known scientist in neurology Rick Hanson has written a wonderful book (“hardwiring happines“) about how you can experience authentic and mature happiness by training your brain to be thankful, to enjoy the everyday moments more and to remain consciously anchored in the here and now.

This leaves you with more energy to pay attention and experience happiness. And that, in turn, is the key to better performance at work.

Bedenk drie dingen waar je dankbaar voor bent.
Think of three things you are thankful for. (photo Marcus Wöckel/ Pexels)

Exercise: how do I train awareness and happiness?

You might think: ‘Sounds fun, but how do I do it’? It’s easier and closer than you think. Here is a simple exercise that only takes a few minutest.

According to Rick Hanson, a few minutes of practice is enough to make new neural connections in your brain. Connections that provide more attention and happiness. And don’t forget: daily repetition makes art!

  • Sit on a chair or lie down in your bed before bedtime.
  • Focus your attention on your breath for 3 long breaths. Feel your belly expand when you exhale and contract when you inhale.
  • If your attention strays from the breath, bring it back.
  • Remember three things you are grateful for. For example: you have a roof over your head, you have eaten today, you have drunk a nice Latte, had a good conversation with your child, husband (wife) or colleague.
  • Feel the gratitude in your body. Let the gratitude sink into your body. Stay with the feeling of gratitude for about ten seconds. You are training your brain!