Sometimes, when nothing seems to be going right, we seem to be surrounded — inside and outside — by a pervasive greyness. It hangs over everything like morning mist. It won’t go away and seems to be part of us, because when we are unhappy we have the unfortunate habit of hanging on to those very things that are disturbing us, believing that they are all powerful. Then, from one moment to the next they are gone, often inexplicably and without being pushed. Perhaps the sun came out; perhaps someone we loved dropped in; or perhaps we laughed. Then the heart opens.
Unhappiness that is not a medical conditions is not permanent. It is no more a part of us than rain is a permanent part of the sky. Unhappiness and rain just drift by and are gone. They are visitors, unless you are under investigation by the Inland Revenue, or live in the Lake District, in which case the problem is more serious.
Many of the old cures were about making the sick well, moving you from here to there. You are unhappy? Take three of these pills and you will be happy again, or go and change your job, or go and live in the sunshine in California, or maybe buy a dog, or get married… But all these are simply ways of changing the scenery without dealing with the real problem. These methods nearly all complicate the matter in some way, or paint over it, or suppress it — at least for the time being. They distort reality, and whatever happiness and an open heart are about, they are not about a distorted versions of reality.
Life in the West is full or problems and traumas, and we move from one to the next like a blind person finding the way along a rope bridge. We can, it is true, refuse to see the ‘bad’ things, or simply live on the surface of life, but that merely produces another kind of unhappiness with the voice of our lost psyche calling us from a long way away, with not only the problem shelved but our humanity and the richness and colour of our lives as well.
We do not have to blind the heart to reality, however frightening, nor do we have to drug it into acceptability. Bertrand Russell said that if we look at the worst that could happen in a miserable situation, we almost invariably find it is not nearly as bad as we supposed.
We can begin by turning to all those things — moments, objects, situations and times — that bring some joy to us. Watch for them day by day, and if you don’t find them there, look for them in diaries, memories and scenes that made you happy or made you laugh, even awful jokes, and practise smiling at least once a day and register the feelings and associations it brings with it. Enter into laughter with as much happiness and enthusiasm as you can muster. Watch for the sad feeling that so many of us have that says: ‘I’m not entitled to be happy!’ and tell it gently that you are; it’s your birthright. But like a garden, it needs looking after.
Do the things that open your heart. Go walking in the countryside and see everything coming to life after the winter; buy a bowl of flowers and watch them blossoming, or go into the city if you prefer that. Begin to keep a diary and write in it all the things you have enjoyed. And, as Marion Milner did and probably still does, put in the things that gave you joy and made the moment special.
Rediscover in this way the mystery and wonder of things, and the special way that things touch you. Make a book of hours, and dip into it to refresh yourself when you need to. Note anything and everything that lifts you and brings a little happiness. Even more essentially, invest in the happiness of others — your happiness and theirs are deeply involved. Action motivated by kindness and a refusal to back down under a flood of negative emotions — yours or someone else’s — is a wonderful preparation of a seedbed in which happiness can flourish and the heart can open, when April has pierced the heart’s draught to the root.
It is no good trying to suppress our grimmer emotions — most the time we can’t and the suppression is in any case part of the grimness — but we can replace them with positive emotions. And this is the beginning of the flexibility by which we begin to let go and the heart beings to open.
We must introduce a completely new factor that confounds the old: generosity that is for generosity’s sake. Mean spiritedness that lives in a cramped, shuttered world, simply cannot compete with the vast, sunlit uplands of compassion, loving kindness, sympathetic joy, and equanimity (upekkha), the final unifying force.
The practice of generosity supplants meanness. The practice of kindness supplants anger. The practice of compassion supplants envy and dislike. This does not happen immediately, but slowly and steadily like the effect of spring rain and summer warmth on the growth of plants.
Whenever you get the chance, do small things for people. I don’t mean pester them for a job and do things they don’t want and don’t need. The world is already too full of do-gooders, and that is the highway to severe unpopularity. I mean, when someone clearly wants help and needs it, then at least offer. This in itself puts you in a good frame of mind and begins to build the kinds of relationships round you that will shore you up in turn when you fall on hard times. I do not mean letting people exploit you; that is mutually destructive. Exploitation is ego-driven and does as much to close the heart as generosity does to open it. I am talking about a slow and fairly gentle displacement of the ego from centre stage to the wings, and the development of a fresh and fluid response to ever changing situations. The more we live in this generous and unbound awareness, the more the heart can function freely.
The ego constructs scenario after scenario, each of which has one overwhelming protagonist: Me! and which holds us by its ‘poisonal magnetism’, as my wise grandmother used to call it. Unfettered, the ego wants to control everyone and everything; and it tries to banish everything not under that control, or edit it and even the memory of it out of the scenario. Look how the powerful fear humour. Humour is destructive to the ego’s wide pretensions and shows them to be ridiculous. It also has the power to break through the grey impasto of gloom that so often clouds our minds.
Don’t distain jokes whatever you do, and don’t let the gloom merchants get at you. These are people who simply pour on the gloom until they have reduced you to a state of black helplessness. You can easily recognise them because if you refuse their ministrations, they accuse you of being heartless. By all means be sympathetic, but keep your energy for those you can help. Even the Buddha said that there were people who just could not be helped. The cousin who kept trying to poison him was perhaps one of those examples.
Pick targets you can manage. By all means stretch yourself, but not vainly. Don’t attempt to move mountains unless it really is your heart’s desire. To attempt too much can be destructive to the confidence and momentum you need to build up.
Cultivate a constant awareness of the heart and what it adds to your life. It never rests. Try to be open to it, and it will be open to you. It is not that the heart is closed to us, but that we are closed to the heart. The ego doesn’t like its simple and ungoverned nature, and as with all the things the ego doesn’t like, it suppresses our awareness of it. The heart is an infinitely permeable membrane, which is life and living.
To each fumbling step forward, the heart adds a little grace which makes it just that bit easier. If there is a promised land, it is where the heart is, and whether we know it or not, we are all on this same homeward journey.
More articles by John here.
First published in the August 1996 Buddhism Now