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Discovering Radical Happiness

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A Tibetan Buddhist master, Phakchok Rinpoche, and a veteran Silicon Valley engineer-entrepreneur and Buddhist meditation teacher, Erric Solomon, make a great combination in their book, Radically Happy: A User’s Guide to the Mind (Shambhala Publications 2018), sharing with humor, simplicity, and deep understanding, their knowledge and experiences in the path to finding a genuine and sustainable happiness.

Buddhistdoor Global talks with Erric Solomon about the basic ingredients in the book.

Image from radicallyhappy.org

Buddhistdoor Global: At the beginning of the book we read: “happiness begins with unhappiness.” Can you explain this a bit more in detail?

Erric Solomon: In order to understand why our happiness strategies don’t really work out, it’s important to take a look at why we experience unhappiness. Normally we look for happiness in situations and getting the right stuff. But this inevitably leads to unhappiness.

First there is a huge body of science that seems to show that we aren’t very good at predicting what will make us happy. For example, several years ago, I had some friends who finally got to move into the neighborhood they had been dreaming about. They saved for years, and finally found a flat in a good building at a price they could afford. They were so excited and couldn’t wait to start their new life. It was only after they moved in that they discovered that the neighbor down the hall liked to have parties until 3.00 a.m. Of course, they still liked the new flat, but it was never as good as they imagined.

Second is that as soon as we achieve comfortable circumstances, we have already planted seeds for future dissatisfaction. For example, let’s say you love going to the beach. But inevitably after a few hours you find that you are tired of the sun or your friends are starting to become boring or you just want to do something else. The beach that was the source of joy for much of the day becomes the source of discomfort, especially if your companions aren’t ready to leave!

The third problem is perhaps the most important, we don’t actually know how to enjoy ourselves. Isn’t it true that everybody has had the following experience in the midst of a really perfect day, all of a sudden, we might lean back, with a sigh, and exclaim: “Too bad everyday can’t be like this?” I have been teaching about happiness for quite a few years and have yet to find even a single person who hasn’t had this experience. Even though things are great, still we have a slight sense of dissatisfaction.

BDG: Radically Happy gives many crucial ingredients that human beings should cultivate towards our wellbeing. What would the foundation be for you? Which is the most basic thing we should never forget to cultivate?

ES: Actually, we don’t need to cultivate anything. Cultivating means we are once again looking for happiness in situations and things. The basis of happiness, what we call “basic happiness” in our book is to simply get used to being fully present in this very moment, just as it is.

There was an important experiment some years ago, which found, after collecting more than half a million data points, that we are most likely to feel content when we are present moment focused. Yet more than 50% of the time we are lost in daydreams, habitually thinking about thoughts.

It’s not that thinking is bad or unhealthy, but habitual thinking, does seem to be the basis for a lot of discontentment. Of course, there are problems that need solving and we need to think about them. But if we honestly observe our mind, we discover that most of the time, we think out of habit rather than because there is something important to think about. By learning to be fully present in the midst of whatever thoughts or emotions arise in our mind, without getting involved in them, we can find greater contentment. Then we can choose to think about the things that are really important and necessary to think about, in fact we will be able to think more purposefully and clearly when we don’t always succumb to the distraction of habitual thinking.

BDG: The Buddha’s teachings were truly radical in his time, 2,500 years ago. How do you see them nowadays?

ES: Everybody still has a mind, just like they did 2,500 years ago. And this mind, that we are all blessed with, can be an enormous source of joy or sorrow. Yet so much of the time we act as if our happiness depends on having the right stuff or creating the best circumstances, and that usually leads to disappointment. It’s the same problem now as it was 2,500 years ago.

Radical means root, and also has a sense of doing something that is counterintuitive. To be well within ourselves, we need to find the root of wellbeing, and get to know it. That root is the basis of the mind. It’s the mind that is happy or sad, jealous or joyful, angry or loving.

In the book we speak about the difference between a lion and a dog. This is a metaphor that is a constant theme of our book. When you throw stones at a dog, it chases the stone. This is how we are with our thoughts and emotions. We chase every thought and emotion and play with, think about it, get into it. On the other hand, if you throw stones at a lion, he doesn’t care about the stones at all, he turns to look at where the stones come from.

We spend our whole life preoccupied with our stones—our thoughts and emotions. We never even look at the source of the thoughts and emotions, the mind itself, the awareness that knows the thoughts and emotions. So learning how to first not habitually chase our stones, and then to learn to look at the stone thrower, awareness, that is just as radical an activity today as it was 2,500 years ago.

BDG: You had the great fortune to meet many wonderful Buddhist teachers, and it seems Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche left a strong imprint in your life. Can you say a bit about some of your memories with him?

ES: Kyabjé Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche spent more than two decades in retreat before he left Tibet for Nepal. He was really unlike anyone else I ever met, incredibly wise, selflessly kind, and incredibly skillful as a teacher. He was renowned for giving the “pointing out instruction” also known as the “introduction to the nature of mind,” the most important teaching you could receive in this human life. It was as if he simply described his own mind and skillfully invited you to see that it was also the essence of your mind.

Even though his mere presence was so extraordinary, he was down to earth, humble, and spoke very simply, yet with deep profundity. One of the most important things I heard him say was that the, “basis of our discontentment is the constant evaluation of the quality of our experience.” That simple phrase changed my life.

We are constantly evaluating everything that is happening, dividing all experience—no matter how trivial—into good and bad. And then we start to think about it, and then think about that in an almost endless torrent of thoughts. While it’s true that some things need our attention and require us to think them through, mostly we just do this on autopilot, because it is our habit. And this habit causes us a lot of misery.

Photo courtesy of Shambhala Publications

BDG: You have been travelling with Phakchok Rimpoche around the US this year giving talks and conducting workshops on the book. How has the experience been? It seems the book has had a great impact in USA.

ES: In October of 2018, our book was released in the USA, and Rinpoche and I toured around the country giving teachings based on our book. It was a lot of fun. It was also very gratifying to see how many people lives were touched by our talks.

The book seems to have outperformed the expectations of our publisher, and the biggest bookstore chain in the USA, Barnes & Noble, featured the book for the holiday season. That was so wonderfully unexpected.

BDG: Now you are presenting the book in Europe?

ES: In 2019 it was released in German, Dutch and Spanish. Early this year it will be released in Thailand.

At the end of our US book tour, Phakchok Rinpoche encouraged me to travel and teach more often about Radically Happy. He said, “Please, don’t be too lazy!” So, this fall I have been touring around Europe. People are already asking me to return next year, so I will try my best to accommodate their requests.

BDG: You were a Silicon Valley technology entrepreneur. Today lots of people live addicted to mobile phones, computers, and video games. It seems the desire to be online all the time and the effects of this way of relating to technology are psychologically damaging a lot of people. What is your advice for being “technologically wise?” Especially so for kids and youngsters. What do you think could be crucial to be taught at schools to students for their wellbeing?

ES: There has always been a certain subset of the population that is prone to addictive behavior. Whether it is drugs, food, alcohol, gambling, pornography, or technology, the symptoms and causes are largely the same. In fact, there is a growing body of research that shows that many of the changes in the brain of a person suffering from addiction are the same no matter what the object of the addiction is, including technology. So, I don’t really think that it is that helpful to look at addiction in a technology specific way.

That having been said, it is a serious concern that big technology companies are funding massive amounts of research to better understand how to hook us and manipulate us. We can say that the easy availability of an incredible, dazzling array of entertainment options does present unique challenges. Sometimes it seems like we have forgotten how to just sit alone with our thoughts and deeply relax. Even so, the issue is addictive behaviors in a certain segment of the population rather than technology per se.

In a certain way, we are all addicted. We are addicted to chasing our thoughts and emotions, it’s just an unexamined habit. So the way to deal with this is what we were speaking about earlier: learn how to become more like a lion vs. a dog.

When we become aware of how our mind functions, what the pitfalls are, and how to relax the habit of taking even our most trivial thoughts and emotions so seriously, then we can save ourselves from our own tendencies toward addictive behavior.

As an example, most of us have a constant fear of boredom. That’s why we turn to our mobile phones nearly every chance we get. We want to be entertained, to avoid the pain of boredom. But what is boredom? It’s just the thought, “I am bored.” And when we get that thought, and it persists for a little while we start to think, “This is unbearable.”

This happens to people quite frequently when they begin to meditate. People often tell me things like, “I tried to meditate, but it was so boring.” But boredom is just a thought, words in our head. Why do words in our head have so much power? If I took an iron rod and started to beat you with it, and you said, “Stop hitting me, it’s unbearable!” I would believe you. Being struck repeatedly by an iron rod is unbearable. But words in your head, simply should not be unbearable. Instead we could become curious about why a few words in our head are so painful. When we have this sort of attitude, then meditation becomes really interesting.

By learning how to not chase thoughts and emotions simply out of habit, we will be much more likely to overcome our tendancies to get addicted to things.

When we notice we are starting to behave obsessively, we can remember our breath. Just take a little mini-break to feel your breath going in and going out. When you go to the café and your friend is late, instead of pulling out your smart phone and checking Instagram, try placing your attention on your breath for a few minutes. Of course, if you are already really badly addicted to something, you may need to first work with a therapist, a twelve step program, or a doctor.

For children, it is never too early to speak to them about how the mind functions. How to not always chase thoughts and emotions. Teach them how to take a mindful time out. There are now many good books and programs aimed at helping children become more mindful. We need to take care of our mind, just like we need to take care of our body. By exercising the mind, through meditation, we build the attention muscle of the mind. And it becomes easier and easier to place our mind where we want, and easier to not succumb to all the normal busyness and distraction of modern life.

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Radically Happy

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