An angry email lands in your inbox. You get passed over for a promotion at work. Or maybe you are just having one of those days where you miss the subway by half a minute, it’s raining, you don’t have an umbrella, and the weight of the world is falling squarely on your shoulders. In these moments, we could all benefit from a shortcut to joy.
There is a beautiful Buddhist text dating back to the 14th century known as the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. Bodhi can be translated from Sanskrit as “open” or “awake” while sattva can be translated as “being,” so it is an open-hearted being. A meditation master known as Ngulchu Thogme composed these verses so that we could live a full life with open hearts, in order to be helpful to those around us and show up more fully for our day-to-day life. He has a verse that offers us a specific equation for moving from focusing so intently on our suffering over to a point of view of true joy:
All suffering comes from yearning for your own happiness.
The perfect Buddhas are born from the intention to benefit others.
Therefore, to truly exchange your own happiness for the suffering of others
Is the practice of a Bodhisattva.
Let me start off by clarifying that Ngulchu Thogme wants you to be happy. He’s not against happiness. But he knows that when we strive heedlessly for happiness solely by yearning for a bunch of external things, be it a new job, a new relationship, or a new iProduct, we’re likely going to be disappointed. Why? Well, we Buddhists seem to believe that there’s this pesky thing called impermanence that gets in the way. Yet saying that Buddhists believe in impermanence is like saying that we believe that water is wet. Like water, impermanence is a real thing! You can see it for yourself when you look at the world around you!
Let’s look at the list above as an example. That new job that you yearn for? It might lead to more stress in your life, more hours in the office and away from other things you enjoy, and likely will end or become a new position down the road. That new relationship? It might be wonderful but at some point it will end in a break-up or one of you will die (sorry). That new iProduct? It will be outdated in six months—assuming you don’t drop and break it first. So, at the risk of starting out on a downer note, we can look to the things we fixate on as potential solutions for our happiness problem and realize that the happiness we get from them is fleeting at best. When we’re just focused on “me” and “what I want” we often fixate on short-term external solutions, as opposed to looking within for our happiness.
Most of us spend our lives like this though, lost in me-based thinking. “If only I got this job/this romantic partner/this gadget…then I would be happy!” Then, when we get that thing, we don’t really feel complete happiness so we move on to the next thing still seeking fulfillment. When we base our life merely on obtaining a lot of things from outside of ourselves we’re more likely to end up disappointed.
Okay, but there actually is something to be said for the age-old equation for getting over just focusing on short-term fixes and wallowing in your own suffering. When you get lost in a lot of me-based thinking, you can do one simple step to move toward joy: be helpful to others. Ngulchu Thogme says that all the great enlightened beings (the perfect Buddhas) got started with their own peace and happiness through this simple step. Instead of focusing solely on what they want, want, want, they focused on trying to benefit others. Then, out of this noble intention, they devoted themselves to relieving the suffering of everyone they met.
My teacher Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche may have put it best when he said, “If you want to be miserable, think of yourself. If you want to be happy, think of others.” That’s the whole equation. If you focus solely on “me, me, me” you will end up lost in your sense of suffering, not really available or aware to the world around you. But, when you notice you get lost there, you can try to move out of your head by being present and helpful to the beings around you. Here are a few simple ways to move out of the suffering in your head and toward the joy that comes from being of benefit to others:
- Smile at someone in the street and wish them a nice day
- Offer a homeless person some money or food
- Take a stressed-out co-worker or friend out for coffee, your treat
- Take your dog for a special outing to the park
- Volunteer for a project at work that other people are loathe to do
There are a million more ways to move from focusing only on your personal concerns and into a larger connection to the world and people around you. But the switch happens when you decide to open yourself up to focus on others, letting go of your concerns even for one minute. There is something surprisingly magical that happens when we follow Ngulchu Thogme’s advice and drop the focus on ourselves and instead open our hearts to whoever is right of us. So the next time you are feeling down, raise your gaze. You may see someone right ahead of you that you can be helpful to, and that might be the very fix you need to get your day back on track.