Sunday, June 13, 2010

Happiness is the default state

Life is funny.  The biggest joke in life is that, after all that has been done in the pursuit of happiness, it turns out that sustainable happiness is achievable simply by bringing attention to one’s breath.

If you practice brining a firm and gentle attention to your breath, after a while, you may find yourself in a state where you are alert and relaxed at the same time.  If you practice often enough, you may even become able to bring your mind to that state on demand.

Imagine you have a pot of water full of sediments, and imagine that pot is constantly shaken and agitated.  The water appears cloudy.  Imagine that you stop agitating the pot and just let it rest on the floor.  The water will become calm and, after a while, all the sediments will settle and the water appears clear.  This is the classical analogy of that mind in the alert and relaxed state.  When we bring the mind to that state, we temporarily stop agitating the mind the same way we stop agitating the pot.  Eventually, the mind becomes calm and clear, the same way the water appears calm and clear.

There is an extremely important quality of mind in that state that is not captured by this analogy.  That quality is happiness.  When the mind is calm and clear at the same time, happiness spontaneously arises.  This mind becomes spontaneously and naturally joyful!

But why?  Even after I found myself able to access that mind on demand, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me.  Why should a calm and clear mind automatically be happy?  I put that question to my friend, Alan Wallace, one of the Western world’s top experts in the practice of relaxed concentration (a practice known as Shamatha).

Alan said the reason is very simple: happiness is the default state of mind.  So when our mind becomes calm and clear, it returns to its default, and that default is happiness.  That is it.  There is no magic, you are simply returning the mind to its natural state.

Alan, in his deep wisdom, said that to me in his usual calm, joyful and understated manner.  But to me, that statement represents a profound life-changing insight.  It implies that happiness is not something that you pursue, it is something you allow.  Happiness is just being.  That insight changed my life.

To paraphrase a famous Zen saying, you are already happy, you just have not yet realized it.  Such a funny insight.

(Also published at: )


  1. So the film should have been called "In allowance of happiness"?

    How often do you have to take note to 'regain proper breathing'. Does it become more automatic after time, or do you constantly throughout the day find yourself saying 'ah, watch your breathing, you're getting worked up'?

    Thank you.

  2. With enough practice, the ability to access the mind of calmness, clarity and happiness becomes habitual, which means it becomes the automatic experience at "rest state". That means when you're not doing anything in particular, the mind goes into that state of calm happiness.

    One implications is you will never be bored again for the rest of your life. Because everytime you're bored, you can simply bring that mind back to that calm happiness state and that mind is pleasant enough to never be boring. When this becomes a mental habit, boredom never lasts for more than a few seconds at a time.

  3. A more important implication of changing the "rest state" is it also changes the "baseline state". Happiness becomes the new baseline. Which means that even if nothing else in your life changes at all, you'll become happier because your day-to-day emotional variance is now relative to this higher baseline.

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  6. More practice for me then :) Acceptance of not being in control is my biggest nemesis!

    When I say control, I don't mean as much control as in if I'm late for something, more control as in my environment/health/letting things pass...

  7. Clear minded is not necessarily happy. 'Happy' is a thought, a reflection, a realization.

    Maybe some people feel happy on reflection of their clear mind -- but to generalize that the clear state is a happy state is just wishful thinking.

    It's phenomenologically impossible in an actual brain. Maybe you just mean 'peace', which you equate with 'good'.