Note: In 2018, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche became the subject of a number of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct and stepped back from the community he led, Shambhala. While Lion's Roar does not endorse him as a Buddhist teacher, we understand that some may want to access his past teachings in light of recent events, and so we are continuing to make this article from our archive of past issues available for those who wish to do so.
Most of us think of cheerfulness as something that shows up in our life for random reasons—a nice day or a birthday party. But genuine cheerfulness, says Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, is even better than that.
I recently asked a Tibetan lama friend, “Who seems happier—the nomads in Tibet or the people you have met in America?” He told me that since America is famous for its wealth and technology, in the beginning he was sure that he would find happier, more cheerful people here. But after the initial phase of simple awe for what the West has accomplished, he began to see people as people, and he had no doubt that the simple nomads of Tibet are happier and more cheerful.
Tibetans do, as a people, seem very cheerful. Is their cheer due to living in a rural culture, or do they owe it to practicing the Buddhist teachings of meditation? In either case, I think their cheerfulness has something to do with simplicity. Simplicity allows us to experience our mind in a raw and naked state. In my own experience, one of the most welcome and important aspects of practicing and studying the Buddhist teachings is that we begin to trust our mind and discover the inherent goodness in it. The result is feeling cheerful.
Most of us think of cheerfulness as a mood that shows up in our life for random reasons—a nice day, a birthday party or the simple pleasure of being with friends. Even though we don’t always experience it as the river running throughout our life, we appreciate cheerfulness and enjoy it when it happens.
Certainly our culture encourages us to put on a cheerful face. It may feel like we are forcing it, which nobody likes. We smear ourselves with cheerfulness and hope that nobody—including ourselves—notices that we aren’t happy. Then we crave more. For example, we eat until our stomach hurts, or become so attached to our friend that the relationship falls apart. Because it isn’t genuine, this kind of cheerfulness is difficult to maintain, as if we’re covering up a deep wound.
On the other hand, sometimes we abstain from cheerfulness. We think that this will save us from feeling tricked or foolish when our cheerfulness comes to its inevitable end. We’re convinced that it’s better to be on the defense: life will always raise its painful, ugly head. When someone tells us to cheer up and we don’t want to cheer up, it just makes us feel angrier.
Under such conditions, and because our moods change constantly, we might not understand that cheerfulness is in fact an inherent quality of mind. Within the meditative tradition, cheerfulness is considered to be the natural, harmonious and wholesome expression of our truest self. In Tibetan it is known as dekyi—blissful, happy energy. Somebody who is cheerful in an unforced way seems to have an air of possibility, a light and fresh approach. This kind of cheerfulness helps the mind to move forward, beyond the distortion and torment of emotions.
Cheerfulness comes naturally with meditation. It is a quality of space created within the mind. When there’s space in the mind, the mind relaxes, and we feel a simple sense of delight. We experience the possibility of living a life in which we aren’t continuously bombarded by emotions, discursiveness and concepts about the nature of things.
Lack of genuine cheerfulness is a result of claustrophobia in our mind and heart. There is simply too much going on; we feel overwhelmed and speedy. We were somehow under the impression that life was meant to be happy, and now we’re getting the short end of the stick. The harder we try to contort reality into our fantasy of happiness, the less happy we are, and the more chaotic our mind seems.
On the path of meditation we take into account the harshness of life, and perpetually temper that with cheerfulness—not out of ignorance, but out of wisdom. Contemplating the truth of pain and suffering does not lead to depression. Rather, it helps us appreciate what we have, which is buddhanature. All of us are naturally buddha, “awake.” Knowing that we are all naturally awake brings delight.
In dark times like these when we feel even more burdened and insecure, we should be contemplating our true nature more than ever. It can cheer us up on any day. Despite all the ups and downs of our life, we are fundamentally awake individuals who have a natural ability to become compassionate and wise. Our nature is to be cheerful. This cheerfulness is deeper than temporary conditions. The day does not have to be sunny for us to be cheerful.
We can depend on random experiences to remind us of these truths, or we can go about it in a systematic way by engaging in a daily meditation practice. When we practice meditation, we are encouraging this natural state of cheerfulness. We don’t have to regard meditating as a somber activity; we can think of it as sitting there and being cheerful. We are using a technique to build clarity, strength and flexibility of mind. In training our mind in pliability and power, we’re learning to relax, to loosen up, so that we can change our attitude on a dime. Strength of mind and pliancy are the causes and result of cheerfulness.
When we rise from our meditation seat, we can continue the practice of cheerfulness as we bring it forth into our day. When we’re about to sink into a depression or indulge in discursiveness, we can entertain the notion that cheerfulness is an endless possibility, one that gives us the option of moving forward in any situation, instead of being oppressed by it.
“Always maintain only a joyful mind” is a famous slogan by a great Buddhist practitioner named Atisha, who developed many slogans for mind training. Even back in the eleventh century, being cheerful was a meditative path. This path and this training need to be rooted in reality. The reality is that underneath all the flickers of desire and all the dreams we use to fool ourselves into seeking temporary forms of happiness, our mind is clear and cheerful.
It’s not that we always need to be cheerful, for there are times when cheerfulness in relationship to what’s happening isn’t appropriate. Obviously if somebody is hurt or sick, we would be insensitive to respond with cheerfulness.
Nor does cheerfulness require us to be constant cheerleaders. We can delight in just sitting there doing nothing. Going for a walk or eating a piece of fruit can be fulfilling experiences. We do not need to prove our cheerfulness again and again; it arises simply and naturally. We’re happy to be alive. Having more money or more food is never going to replace that basic sense of delight.
In Tibet they say, “The joy of a king is no greater than the joy of a beggar.” It isn’t what we possess—it’s what we enjoy. This means the experience of genuine cheerfulness cannot be bought or sold. What makes it genuinely cheerful is that we are free from fixation and attachment. We are free of having to depend on something else to make us happy. We can bask freely in the natural radiance of our mind. This is the equanimity of true cheerfulness—nothing more, nothing less.