Confessing To Happiness: The Skill of Opening to the Joys of the Spiritual Path
A reflection on practice by Brian Lesage
One day King Pasenadi went to visit the Buddha in the Sakyan town of Medalumpa. He expressed to the Buddha his delight in seeing the practitioners “smiling and cheerful, sincerely joyful, plainly delighting, their faculties fresh, living at ease, [and] unruffled…”MN89
With all of the talk about suffering in Buddhism, we can often forget the joy, ease, and contentment that provide the foundation and expression of this spiritual path. The Buddha continually encourages us to savor the joy and contentment that arise from such things as ethical conduct, generosity, appreciative joy, and concentration. Even the practice of renunciation is taught from this perspective of joy and happiness. For example, in the Dhammapada the Buddha says:
If by renouncing a lesser happiness
one may realize a greater happiness,
let the wise one renounce the lesser,
having regard for the greater.
And yet I have noticed within the unfolding of my own practice and that of students I have worked with over the years, that it is difficult to open to and truly savor the joys and wholesome pleasures of life. The poet Alison Luterman puts it well in one of her poems, which begins, “I am scared to confess to happiness…” We have difficulty truly opening to happiness and contentment. We are challenged to confess to it. Sometimes this is because of the habitual tendency of our physiology to be in a continual threat response that manifests in a feeling of being on-guard. When we begin to relax into and savor a pleasant experience, the system can feel threatened since it requires us to let down our guard.
This is the reason why it is a training to open to joy and contentment in a skillful way. It is a training to deeply “confess to happiness.” In other words, we are training our physiology to have the capacity to be with happiness and contentment rather than to keep up our guard and react by grasping or pushing away the experience.
This requires a few skills. One is noticing when we engage in something that carries the seeds of our joy and happiness. I remember when I first started teaching, I co-led a retreat with a fellow Dharma teacher. At the end of the retreat, he turned to me and said, “Brian, we did a really good thing.” When I acknowledged his statement in passing but did not truly take it in, he sternly looked at me and said, “We did a really good thing and it’s important to really take that in.” I realized that I had been missing this precious opportunity to savor the deep joy and contentment that arises from sharing the Dharma. From this experience, I began to understand that there were many wholesome acts I was engaging in that carried the seeds of my joy and contentment, and all I needed to do was to notice and begin to savor them.
Another skill involves distinguishing between the reactivity of grasping and aversion, and the simple and direct experience of savoring that which is pleasant. I realize that before having a regular meditation practice, I didn’t know the difference. I remember one vivid experience on a month-long concentration retreat that helped clarify this distinction for me. I was walking in the midst of the beauty of a forest just after a rainstorm. My heart and mind were so stable and receptive and the beauty so pleasant, that my heart opened in a new way. However, after experiencing this for a short while, I could feel my body begin to grasp onto the experience and not want it to go away. Simply noticing grasping as the beauty arose was enough to allow savoring it to re-emerge. The process can be more complex, but nonetheless, the essential skill is mindfulness of knowing the difference between grasping and savoring.
This ability to “confess to our happiness” is an essential foundation for the unfolding of this path. It develops our capacity to be with wholesome pleasure in a way that leads toward the freedom and wisdom that benefits all beings.
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