Happiness is now
Like most people, I like to be happy. And like most people, I look for moments of happiness in my day. But what if looking for happiness is what leads us away from it. What if happiness only exists right here, right now, and only if we bring our full attention to the here and now. This is the meaning of mindfulness. Being mindful is being aware of ourselves and all things here in this moment of time.
I practice Zen, which is to say that I meditate and practice mindfulness—as often as I as mindful. As with other schools coming directly from Buddhism, these practices are meant to teach us how to reduce our suffering and increase our happiness. The practice of meditation and mindfulness is about learning to be here, focused in this moment, rather than your mind being in the past or the future. Marshall Goldsmith, an executive coach who practices Zen, has a simple philosophy: be happy now. His point is this: happiness is not somewhere in the future or in the past. It is here in this moment.
Honestly, it takes practice to be in the moment. At first you will need to bring yourself back to the present moment, over and over again. After a while, like anything else, you begin to change how you live and exist in the world. Being present becomes more the norm. Being in the moment will not guarantee our happiness, but it is a good start. If you are here in this moment, but thinking about something that you want, are you happy? Probably not. If you keep needing something else to be happy, you will never reach a state of happiness, because there is always something else you need. If you can bring yourself to what is called ordinary mind, where you can appreciate what is there right in front of you, and where you can find great appreciation for those ordinary things that permeate every moment of our lives, like a cup of coffee in the morning, the rose bush you walk by on your way to getting into your car, the friend you run into at the coffee shop, and so on, then you can find happiness everywhere, moment to moment.
What keeps us from being happy now? For one, as Marshall points out, our world is very much driven by the prevailing commercial art form that pummels us daily with the message that we cannot possibly be happy until we spend money for something we don't have. When we have that we can become happy. See Marshall's "Life is Good". In this view of life, happiness exists in the future and can only be found after we gain something. The very premise is flawed, since it repeats and never ends. If we subscribe to this view, we cannot find happiness here and now in the present moment, which, ironically, is the only actual moment of existence.
Another reason happiness escapes us is that we become conditioned. We develop a habit mind, as they say in Zen, with scripts and automated responses that keep us from being fully present in the moment, from living each moment fully engaged. It is easier to be on autopilot. It is easier to let a past script brush our teeth based on the last hundred times we did that, or drive to work based on past experiences of making that left turn and getting onto that onramp. And when we do these things, we are often preoccupied with thoughts of past experiences and desires in the future.
In those seemingly innocent and quietly private decisions to do so, a terrible thing happens. We are not present in that moment of life. Sadly, to not be present is to not live the moment. We give away the very time of life and our privilege to be there in each moment, fully conscious and present. The truth is that each moment of life is different. Each spring is different from any other spring. Each cup of coffee is different from any other we've had in the past, and the entire moment around that cup of coffee is different.
Being present in the moment is a central practice of Zen, through meditation and mindfulness. We live so much of life with our minds in the past or future and not in the present moment, even though it is the only moment of life happening. If we are not here now, where are we? It is sad to me to think that many people spend their entire lives never taking the time to "sit" in silence and allow for inner reflection. I find similar aspects of peace and quiet in nature, but it is different than sitting in meditation or practicing mindfulness. Funny thing is that you quickly find that even in a quiet environment, your mind can be cranking out a whole lot of stuff. Yet, in the stillness, your awareness of self and no self, and your relationship to others and the world, grows.
When we can be in the present moment, there is less "noise". We can focus on just what is here right now, in the moment. All else fades away into the background. It is a powerful method for self development and leadership. Leaders in organizations live and breathe in a busy world. So how do we help them to find greater clarity? One way is to help them learn how to quite the noise. Mindfulness—one method of doing this—has made its way into the mainstream of the corporate world. My concern is that it is seen as a tool that can be learned at a conference and then plugged in and everything will be better. It simply doesn't work that way.
In Zen, we view each moment of life as an opportunity for practice. To practice is to live consciously, aware of each moment and our presence. To practice is to be a compassionate human being, seeking to help others. We are not perfect and so practice is lifelong. It is a way of life. This is the fundamental practice that influences everything else we do and aspire to be.
The more we look beyond for answers, the less we find them. The more we look within, the more we realize the vast depths of insight available, if we simply take the time. Meditation is a practice of looking inside, a relatively simple practice. The more we sit with ourselves in a quiet place and listen to our heart and mind, the more we notice our feelings and thoughts, and the more we come back to our true nature.