I’ve recently noticed how easily I fall into negative thinking, holding on to negative thoughts and letting go of positive ones. We all have this tendency—we seem to have evolved to remember the negative more strongly than the positive. In the past, this might have given an advantage to those who, for example, could remember which berries were poisonous and which were not. But the world has changed faster than our neurobiology, and many of us— myself included—are stuck in patterns of thinking that bring more suffering than benefit.
As I listened to a Dharma talk the other day, I felt very happy as the teaching provided helpful tools for refining my daily practice. Then something was said, and I fell into a horrible mood. I can’t even remember what it was, but I found it really upsetting and it changed my thinking completely. Let me mention that as a practice, listening to a teaching in order to agree or disagree with it is a clear path to suffering, but I couldn’t help myself. I was not feeling steady enough to let go, and I suffered even more. Eventually I noticed that I’d been doing the same thing with those around me—latching on to the one thing that I didn’t like and forgetting about the many acts of kindness and supportive conditions that surrounded me. I went on to complain about it and felt even more miserable. Fortunately, feeling so low finally jolted me into remembering (mindfulness) that I had to dig more deeply into my practice to find a solution. Once I looked within, it became clear that it was my thinking that was the problem and not the teachings or the people around me.
It is so easy to let the small joys and delights that surround us go by unnoticed, especially when we’re busy, tired, or otherwise challenged. But we can also train the mind to shift its focus to what is refreshing and uplifting, a practice I call “Celebrate the Small.” If I hear a piece of good news, I repeat it to someone else. I introduce this with, “Can I share some joy with you?” It has the double effect of bringing me into joyful connection with another person and letting the “good news” make a deeper impression in the mind, thus counterbalancing the “bad news” that usually surrounds us. No matter what is happening in the world, there is always something positive to take note of. If there’s no one to tell it to, I simply repeat it to myself a few times to make a deeper impression on my mind. It’s very simple. It just requires remembering, or mindfulness.
I also “Celebrate the Small” by focusing on the physical sensations of happiness. I take a few deep breaths and observe the sensations in my body, perhaps noticing the lightness of my mind, the tingling in my chest, or the ease of my breathing. If I stay with just the mental experience of an emotion, it’s easy to let a moment of happiness slip away without really experiencing it. Paying attention to both the source and sensations of happiness deepens the experience again.
The most fundamental practice to amplify positive experiences is simply to take the time for them. If the sunset has turned the sky into a symphony of color, then stopping to enjoy it can become a very deep practice. The same goes for noticing a wildflower growing up through the sidewalk or savoring the aroma of a favorite meal. Taking the time to notice the simple miracles that surround us is essential for a happy life. To celebrate in this sense is to simply notice with a joyful heart. The smaller the source of happiness, the easier it is to be happy.
Celebrating the Small, or “gladdening the mind” as the Buddha taught in the Anapanasati Sutta, is not a means of ignoring suffering. Pretending to be happy is very different from experiencing true happiness, ease, and peace. A calm and peaceful heart actually makes us better able to bring care and healing to the suffering within and around us. When we’re miserable, we shut down and perpetuate the habits of suffering. Cultivating happiness is also a powerful antidote to the despair that so many of us touch when we face the reality of the suffering and exploitation of so many of our fellow humans, other species, and the very earth herself. It builds up the resilience we need to truly live our lives.
Life presents ample opportunities to suffer. The good news is that we can also train ourselves to awaken to the ample opportunities life offers to delight in it and rejoice. Being present with things as they are, rather than stuck in wishing things to be as they were or could be, is the basis of this practice to Celebrate the Small, and the very essence of mindfulness.