Very Simple Happiness System

Let’s say I turn on the news and see that some politician (could be here or in another country even) has done something, said something or implemented something that I disagree with, and I get really annoyed. I start turning it over and over in my head, and I end up suffering quite a lot for hours, maybe even days on end.

How do I get back to happiness as soon as possible? There is a very simple system that works for a huge range of difficulties, problems, and painful emotions:

First of all, I recognise, and accept, that there is suffering in me. ‘There is suffering’ (not ‘I am suffering’, which is unnecessarily personal). That’s the first step. It could also be voiced as ‘there is anger,’ ‘there is pain,’ ‘there is frustration,’ etc…

The second step is to investigage this sufferening within me, to see exactly what led to it. There is always a cause for this suffering, or a path to this suffering.

In this case I can see that I have a strong emotion of aversion towards the news I’ve read and how I perceive its consequences. I could also say that I have a strong attachment towards things being the way I think they should be, instead of how the politicians want to do things. So I have aversion and/or attachment (in reality, these are two sides of the same coin).

We also have the fact that I’ve turned this over and over in my head, my compulsive-thinker side, which has compounded the original suffering over and over into something much bigger.

So, now I have the root of the suffering, the path to this suffering, identified.

The third step is to take a deep breath and smile, knowing that I’ve got a handle on this now, and knowing that this suffering will end, as I know how to walk out of it, how to follow the path out of it, in step four….

Step four, the path out.

When I realise that this suffering comes about from both aversion to the actions of others, and attachment to my opinions about how the world should be, I can simply decide to let go. My desire for things to be different is causing me pain, so let go. Letting go is incredibly powerful. Why cling on to a hot coal if it’s continually burning your hand? Let go. On the other side of letting go is complete peace. It’s not always easy, it takes a lot of practice, but it’s always possible.

I also discovered that part of my suffering was due to my brain obsessing over the original cause of my suffering for days on end. So I can resolve to step up my mindfulness or meditation practice so that I can be quicker in future to spot my mind in obsession mode, and bring it back to a calm state or more useful things.

Now, reason tells me two more important things. That to worry about things that I can’t control at all (like what politicians or other countries do) is pointless. So letting go and moving on makes even more sense. In the next elections I can do something with my vote if that’s applicable, but in the meantime, what other people (politicians or otherwise!), other countries, or even mother nature does, is completely beyond my control.

Finally, for a huge, peace-inducing bonus, I can remember that everything is impermanent. Firstly, my suffering. When it is intense, in the first stage of any difficulty, I can smile compassionately to it, embrace it, and know that it will appear, rise, then fall and disappear, like everything in the universe. Like a wave. All suffering disappears eventually, and this is a huge comfort. And whatever condition has caused the suffering, whether in me, or external to me in the outside world, is impermanent too, and will pass sooner or later as well.

In this respect, remembering the phrase ‘This too shall pass’ in moments of suffering, can be a rapid sanity-saver, especially when combined with a healthy dose of self-compassion and letting go.

And so the suffering has gone and wellbeing returns. Looking around I see my lovely family, the beautiful winter trees, good books, the joy of doing interesting work, and my wellbeing builds upon itself. If I pay attention to these things, soon I can be very happy again.

Let’s look at another example. Over the summer I was enjoying quite a lot of bar terrace social drinks with friends. Occasionally, I would have one glass of wine more than necessary, and later feel the consequences. Sometimes it would be several glasses of wine more than is good for me (after a couple of wines in great company, who cares what is good for you or not! It’s all marvellous!) and I would get a terrible hangover that might take up some or even all of the next day. I’m not even talking about heavy, heavy drinking, my tolerance was terrible, and just a few drinks had a terrible effect on me.

But still, this kept happening. I got carried away and my self-imposed ‘rules’ about how much I’d let myself drink on any occasion would go out of the window after, well, after wine number one. As a result, I’d suffer, my family would suffer, and despite all my attempts to be very careful and moderate, the joys of summer kept over-whelming my good intentions, and another lost, hungover afternoon/morning/day would follow.

So, I had this pretty well identified. There is suffering (hangovers). There is a path to this suffering, a cause: my inability to get on with alcohol anymore. The realisation that I can end this suffering by changing the conditions that cause it. The path out of this suffering – in this case, with the help of a 30 day giving-up-drinking-experiment I found on the internet, and a good book, I gave up drinking. I removed the cause that was nourishing this particular suffering. And it turns out that three months down the line, this has not been a great loss, but a tremendous gain in well-being, clarity, health, and cash! It’s much easier to enjoy all the beautiful, loving and enjoyable things again. But that’s just me, don’t worry, this is not a subtle Tee Total rant!

The examples are endless. An argument with a spouse, a problem with work, money, the weather, the outside world, our own emotions…. the four steps seem applicable every time.

  1. Identify and accept that suffering is present.
  2. Identify the causes of the suffering, what leads to it or nourishes it, internal and external.
  3. Know that it will end and we will feel OK again.
  4. Follow the path out of the suffering. Embrace it, know that it is impermanent, make a change so the root causes are no longer there, let go, come back to peace… Find and follow the path back to wellbeing.

Of course, as you may have spotted, this is the practical application of the Buddhist Four Noble Truths, but it strikes me from recent application that this four step approach is incredibly simple, practical, and rewarding. It really works. Every step is crucial. Identifying suffering, identifying the causes in us, knowing that wellbeing is possible, finding and following the path/making the changes to return to that wellbeing. A very simple happiness system.

It’s fascinating too, especially the second part, where we see the causes of our own suffering – so often our own attachments, aversions, opinions, desires, pride, ignorance, obsessions – the more we identify how they cause our suffering, the quicker we nail them, let go, and move on next time!

And once we know all this, and see that it works, we can come to the conclusion that suffering, although inevitable, is so often optional – its duration, at least. We can cling to it and roll around in it, or follow this very simple happiness system back to feeling good again. And from there we can get back to really enjoying all the wonderful things in the world again.

Worth smiling at (What doesn’t hurt?)

Lying in bed recently with a sore throat, I remembered some good advice I’d heard on the podcast I mentioned in the last post. What doesn’t hurt?

My throat was sore, but I noticed that my toes felt completely normal. So did my feet come to think of it, and oh, my legs too! In fact, it turned out that 99% of my body felt positively great! I felt quite happy after that. And the sore throat would go sooner or later anyway (impermanence!)

Of course this extrapolates to everything in life. ‘What’s not wrong at the moment?’ is a great question. There are always endless things that are beautiful, wonderful, and worth smiling at.

Gladdening the mind

I’ve been listening to a new podcast from Plum Village, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreat center in France, where I spent many summer weeks with my family over a period of about 8 years from 2008 until 2016.

The podcast is called The Way Out Is In (you can find it in Apple Podcasts, Spotify etc), and it is hosted by a journalist named Jo Confino, and Phap Huu, a young monk who spent many, many years as one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s personal attendants.

One particular episode, number 14, has had a transformative effect on me, an interview with Sister Jina, who has been a Zen Buddhist nun for over 30 years, and expresses the absolute core of how to live a peaceful, joyful, simple, happy life through extremely simple practices.

I was particularly drawn to the following ideas:

The nutriments we consume make a huge difference to our happiness and peace. This means not only being mindful of what we eat and drink, but what we read, listen to, watch, the conversations we have, and strikingly, what we think about.

If I’m turning around troublesome thoughts in my head all day, I will be troubled. If I am thinking loving, compassionate or creative thoughts, I will be happier. How do we have any say over this? By learning to watch and understand our minds at work, and when the mind is stuck on negative, difficult, recursive themes, steer it back to clearer waters. This takes practice: meditation, and small periods of mindfulness or awareness throughout the day, help develop this skill enormously – in this I am an endless beginner.

Gladdening the mind. This is related to the point above. How do we gladden the mind? Gratitude works very well. In our house we have a round of gratitude before one of the main meals each day, each person says thank you for two or three things they are grateful or thankful about.

Another is to remember and note (mentally, or on paper) something wonderful, or a beautiful moment, from each day. Early this morning I saw sparkling frost gently falling in the headlights of the car as I waited for my son to put his coat on. After dropping him off, I stood in the road looking at a crescent moon, and realised somewhere far away the sun was rising over this planet and lighting that slither of vast planetary body. Wonderful, calm moments.

Uniting body and mind. Arriving in our body, being home in our body, is very calming. But most of the time, our brain is in one place, or all over the place, and our body is a forgotten vessel for getting us around, or keeping the head still while we are lost in thought or staring at a screen. Really feeling our presence in our body, our posture, or following the presence of our breathing within our body as a whole, brings mind and body back together and the effect is very calming.

I’ve been reading about this for years, but only recently have actually started practicing it (as the books kept telling me to do!), and it’s very, very nice. I do this in pre-breakfast meditation, and I’m prompted throughout the day by an hourly beep on my watch, and a 15 minute timer on the computer (a chrome browser extension). I stop, come back to my body, relax my body – it’s a calm place to be.

Realising the present moment is the only moment we have. When we live with this realisation as an indisputable reality, a lot changes. First of all, nearly everything we worry about is never happening right now this instant. “Right now”, is usually full of reasons to be happy. Secondly, we can reconsider how to use each moment. Lost in recursive thought by the fire the other day, I remembered this – this is the only moment I have – and went to sit on the sofa to chat with my son, realising, if this is the only moment I have, I’d rather interact kindly with him than be lost in mostly useless thought.

Creative Regeneration

First snow, Sierra de Madrid

After a period of creative stagnation, and with a big desire to get ourselves going again, my wife and I came up with a Creative Regeneration Plan, which looks like this:

1. Travel to new places – 10km away or 500 km away, there is nothing like exploring somewhere new.

2. Talk to nice people/More social life – Interesting conversations with other people breathe life into existence.

3. Read, watch and listen to great artist creations – All great creativity inspires great creativity.

4. Create!
– Drawing
– Writing
– Blogging
– Photography
– And so on! Just create and share some of it!

5. Sport and exercise – Creativity is attracted to movement!

6. Get out to the cafes, libraries, park, wherever to work – Working in the living room is OK for a bit, but seeing life beyond the four walls of the home is transformative!

7. Less family drama, and drama in general – Drama… “she said this, he did that, isn’t such and such a situation terrible, did you hear about…” how we love to jump around in that mud! But it’s mostly a big squiggly mess of useless energy-sapping nonsense and life is much clearer, neater, and more expansive without too much of it!

8. Get out and about!

That’s the plan. Items from this list need to be put into action every day!

Eddie and Stevie and Photography

I was saying to my wife, the other day, you know, Eddie Vedder, the guy who did the song we like, Society, from that great film we saw again recently, Into the Wild – he’s got this nice Ukelele songs album too, and it got me thinking, that Eddie Vedder makes songs, puts them out into the world, and it makes people happy. And I’m sure it makes him really happy to keep writing songs too.

We’d been having a Stevie Wonder moment – one of us had been in a bad mood that morning, had come across Stevie Wonder singing Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind with complete joy and abandon, and it had bought an instant smile to our faces.

We phoned my Stevie Wonder-loving sister and said, hey, we’re listening to SW and smiling, and remembering a great time we had in your flat in London once listening to him and dancing, can you recommend a Stevie album for us? Yes! She said, you have to listen to Songs in the Key of Life – and listen to ‘As’, it’s fantastic!

So we did (we were in the car) and we smiled more and got home in an incredibly good mood. And had that chat about Eddie V, and Stevie, and how that’s what they do – they make songs, put them out into the world. They are happy, the listeners are smiling – it’s all good!

I’ve been missing putting stuff out into the world. I’ve been missing blogging. I love blogging, love podcasting, I’m not Eddie or Stevie, but these things make me happy, and make other people happy sometimes too. So here’s a blog post! And some photos! Blogs are wonderful, still are despite all that ‘blogging is dead’ crap we went through years ago. (I’m waiting for social media is dead! – won’t be long! Oh wait, there are over 10 million results for “Social media is dead” on Google. Good – About time!)

I’ve been getting back into photography too. I started when I was about 8, with some kind of plastic film camera that make the most basic ‘click’ when you pressed the shutter and I absolutely loved. My dad taught me photography, and now my son is learning from me, and that’s wonderful. Now instead of my dad and I sitting in the bathroom-converted-into-darkroom swishing trays of developer, stop and fixer around, bathed in deep red light, my son and I wifi photos from the super-duper Lumix camera or the phone onto the iPad and edit them there. The photos in this post are from a recent photo walk in the Madrid Sierra, and the summer in the Pyrenees. All of these were in fact taken on Apple’s ‘cheap’ 2nd gen iPhone SE. It’s an incredible camera (and the very best camera in the world is the one that’s always with you – There’s all this debate about what camera Henri Cartier Bresson would use these days instead of his trusty Leica – I’m betting he’d use an iPhone).

So, there you go, a blog post. I got up this morning unable to do a thing for our wonderful Notes in Spanish (where we make people happy making ourselves happy making podcasts and making a living to boot). ‘Get out on your bike’, said my wife. Out on my bike I thought, ‘If I can’t do work work today, do an Eddie or a Stevie. Just go home and write anything on the Notes from Ben blog!’ And here it is.

P.S. A friend said to me recently, “[keep sharing nice stuff in the world and] you’ll have skipped midlife crisis without notice”. I said, I’ll take that! I’ve had a mid-20’s crisis, mid-30’s crisis, early-40’s crisis – I’m done with them!

Time to smile: