We’ve all asked the question, “what is happiness?”
Is it a feeling? Having stable circumstances in life? Or is it something that’s deeply personal and can’t be defined?
Well, according to Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh, it’s simply a way of being.
Thich Nhat Hanh on what true happiness is
“Many people think excitement is happiness…. But when you are excited you are not peaceful. True happiness is based on peace.”
Thich Nhat Hanh says that acceptance is an important part of being peaceful. Yet, in western society, too many people try to change themselves for other people.
However, this is futile to our own inner peace and happiness:
“To be beautiful means to be yourself.You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself.
“When you are born a lotus flower, be a beautiful lotus flower, don’t try to be a magnolia flower.
“If you crave acceptance and recognition and try to change yourself to fit what other people want you to be, you will suffer all your life. True happiness and true power lie in understanding yourself, accepting yourself, having confidence in yourself.”
Thich Nhat Hanh says that to achieve acceptance, we need to start embracing the present moment and the beautiful miracles that exist around us:
“When we are mindful, deeply in touch with the present moment, our understanding of what is going on deepens, and we begin to be filled with acceptance, joy, peace and love…
“Around us, life bursts with miracles–a glass of water, a ray of sunshine, a leaf, a caterpillar, a flower, laughter, raindrops.
“If you live in awareness, it is easy to see miracles everywhere. Each human being is a multiplicity of miracles.
“Eyes that see thousands of colors, shapes, and forms; ears that hear a bee flying or a thunderclap; a brain that ponders a speck of dust as easily as the entire cosmos; a heart that beats in rhythm with the heartbeat of all beings.
“When we are tired and feel discouraged by life’s daily struggles, we may not notice these miracles, but they are always there.”
Thich Nhat Hanh goes onto say that this doesn’t mean we never think about the past or plan for the future, but that we do so in a productive way:
“To dwell in the here and now does not mean you never think about the past or responsibly plan for the future.
The idea is simply not to allow yourself to get lost in regrets about the past or worries about the future.
If you are firmly grounded in the present moment, the past can be an object of inquiry, the object of your mindfulness and concentration. You can attain many insights by looking into the past. But you are still grounded in the present moment.”
The importance of embracing your suffering
Another important point that Thich Nhat Hanh talks about is the importance of not shying away from your suffering.
In the book No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, he mentions that the main point of mindfulness is to first “recognize the suffering and then to take care of the suffering”.
You’re not meant to fight or suppress a feeling. That will only make it worse.
Instead, Thich Nhat Hanh says that you need to embrace the feeling and take care of it like a Mother would her child.
“The function of mindfulness is, first, to recognize the suffering and then to take care of the suffering.
The work of mindfulness is first to recognize the suffering and second to embrace it. A mother taking care of a crying baby naturally will take the child into her arms without suppressing, judging it, or ignoring the crying.
Mindfulness is like that mother, recognizing and embracing suffering without judgement.
So the practice is not to fight or suppress the feeling, but rather to cradle it with a lot of tenderness.
When a mother embraces her child, that energy of tenderness begins to penetrate into the body of the child.
Even if the mother doesn’t understand at first why the child is suffering and she needs some time to find out what the difficulty is, just her act of taking the child into her arms with tenderness can already bring relief.
If we can recognize and cradle the suffering while we breathe mindfully, there is relief already.”
If you’ve grown up in the west, it’s obvious that this is different from what we’re usually taught.
Most of us are taught to shy away from negative emotions and instead “always think positive”.
But there’s a problem with that.
The negative emotion doesn’t disappear when you ignore it. It remains buried in the back of the mind, which can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms like stress and anger.
In other words, negative emotions eventually bite you back even harder if you ignore them.
Thich Nhat Hanh has a better way to deal with our emotions
In the book, No Death, No Fear, Thich Nhat Hanh has a better idea of how to view our emotions, and as you’ll find out, it will help us see that these emotions aren’t as scary as thought they were.
“When we are angry, what do we usually do? We shout, scream, and try to blame someone else for our problems. But looking at anger with the eyes of impermanence, we can stop and breathe.
Angry at each other in the ultimate dimension, we close our eyes and look deeply. We try to see three hundred years into the future. What will you be like? What will I be like? Where will you be? Where will I be?
We need only to breathe in and out, look at our future and at the other person’s future.
Looking at the future, we see that the other person is very precious to us. When we know we can lose them at any moment, we are no longer angry.
We want to embrace her or him and say: “How wonderful, you are still alive. I am so happy. How could I be angry with you? Both of us have to die someday, and while we are still alive and together it is foolish to be angry at each other.”
The reason we are foolish enough to make ourselves suffer and make the other person suffer is that we forget that we and the other person are impermanent.
Someday when we die we will lose all our possessions, our power, our family, everything.
Our freedom, peace, and joy in the present moment is the most important thing we have.”
Everything is changing. It’s the one thing that remains true.
So if we can adopt the idea that when we’re expericning negative emotions, it won’t last forever, that might be greatly beneficial to our mental wellness.
And on the other side, we can’t rely on possessions or status to make us happy because they don’t last forever, either.
You can’t have happiness without suffering
In the end, according to Thich Nhat Hanh, happiness and suffering are like two opposite ends of a pole, and you can’t have one without the other:
“NO MUD, NO LOTUS. Both suffering and happiness are of an organic nature, which means they are both transitory; they are always changing.
The flower, when it wilts, becomes the compost. The compost can help grow a flower again.
Happiness is also organic and impermanent by nature. It can become suffering and suffering can become happiness again.”
Read more Thich Nhat Hanh and Eastern Philosophy Wisdom:
Putting yourself first
What’s your number one goal at the moment?
Is it to buy that car you’ve been saving up for?
To finally start that side-hustle that’ll hopefully help you quit your 9-5 one day?
Or to take the leap and finally ask your partner to move in?
Whatever your goals are, there’s a hidden trap in how you set them.
The trap is this:
You’ll only experience genuine life satisfaction when your goals are aligned with your values.
Because when values and goals are aligned, you enjoy the journey much more. And this makes achieving your goals much more likely.
If you find it hard to articulate your deeper life values, I suggest downloading the free values exercise by career coach Jeanette Brown.
It takes only a couple of minutes and will reveal a number of powerful insights about your underlying values.
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