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.
If “What about me?” is the thought that rules our day, says Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, then we are setting ourselves up for a life of fearfulness and struggle. Real happiness comes from putting others first.
When we wake up in the morning, so often our first thought is some variation of “What about me?” If this thought drives our lives, fear and self-absorption rule us. We are so fixated on our own happiness that our mind begins to shrink, and with it, the possibility of happiness. Our days are full of difficulty because other people are inevitably getting in the way of our plan.
In meditation practice, we begin to notice how we go around and around, continually wanting happiness. Even though we’re intelligent and have made our world technologically sophisticated, most of us are still caught in a cycle. This is the meaning of samsara, the wheel of cyclic existence. We have all kinds of expectations and make all kinds of plans, but we are always setting ourselves up for disappointment.
What would real happiness be? It would be egolessness, the lack of struggle, and a fundamental joy and sense of celebration, not only in our own happiness but also in the happiness of others. When we meditate, we discover this bigger mind. The Buddha taught that fundamentally, our nature is stainless, basically good. Within that goodness is wisdom, compassion, and the ability to care for others. When we experience the truth of that goodness, we feel content, and from that perspective, we automatically notice what is happening with other people. Just like us, they want happiness. Like us, they do not want to suffer.
The crowning jewel of the heart and mind is the ability to extend love and compassion to others. The essence of love is that we want them to experience happiness. The essence of compassion is that we wish for them not to suffer. If we contemplate this attitude—called nyingje in Tibetan, meaning “noble mind and heart”—we will have success in our daily situation. Extending ourselves to others increases our life-force energy, and love and care begin to bind our family, our business, and our life. Considering others is the basis of any spiritual and worldly success, if we define success as having a fulfilled, meaningful, and permanently happy mind. If we help others, we will all find the happiness we want.
We begin to access this potential through meditation, where we get familiar with our inherent strength. We become familiar with love and compassion, resting in a mind that is opening up. The emotional aspect of compassion is a sign of weakness in the ego—some openness has taken place.
At the beginning, sitting within the mind of compassion and love may feel overwhelming. We’ve been doing “What about me?” practice for so long that opening up is scary. We’ve been focusing so hard on ourselves that when we begin to turn it around and think of others, we experience an unfamiliar sense of longing or wanting. But if we start with someone close to us, someone who doesn’t present any threat, we find that it feels natural to hope for that person’s well-being. We can generate those feelings of love, care, gentleness, and kindness.
In the absolute sense, it’s easy to think, “I would like everyone to have the root of happiness, enlightenment.” Then, on a relative level, there is the wish for others to have mundane happiness, to enjoy their lives and feel fulfilled. It is important to include this level of detail in the practice. If we are visualizing someone we don’t like so much, wishing them enjoyment, we may feel jealousy, agitation, and other emotions. The point of the practice is not especially to bring up negativity. However, our negativity may deepen our understanding of samsara and habitual patterns, which will help us feel what others are going through. Everyone suffers in the same way for the same basic reasons. At a certain point we begin to recognize the fundamental condition of the human realm, but not with a sense of one-upmanship, as in, “I see you doing it, too.”
Genuine compassion does not demean others. There’s an element of letting go. Specifically, wishing happiness for people we don’t like can make them easier to deal with. If we have a list of ten people we are angry with, as we work our way through the list, we will find it becoming easier to forgive. Because we’ve practiced, we can let go. Suddenly, we feel a sense of height, which comes from having created a platform of loving-kindness. We begin to see the transparent quality of our grudges and opinions.
Working with our mind continuously has a positive influence on our environment. Waiting in a bus terminal or an airport, we can think, “May all these people be happy. May none of them suffer.” If we can look at people from that point of view, rather than letting our mind chatter away with thoughts like “Get out of my way,” or “What a strange haircut,” we can make our whole day into practice. No matter how much time we’re putting in on the cushion, we will always be practicing.
Contemplative practice is not based on belief, but on intrinsic confidence and understanding. The Tibetan word for confidence is ziji. A person with ziji has dignity, the radiant power of a mind that has relaxed into its own inherent strength. With such a mind we are content, because we trust ourselves. We’re satisfied. Especially in this modern culture, we often feel we don’t have enough; we need more to be complete. But if we haven’t learned what is enough, then even when we have enough, we will not know it. The mind of ziji knows that we have plenty.
In Tibet, we say that the pleasure of a king and a beggar are the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor—the determining factor of success and happiness is contentment. Working with our mind through meditation, and then taking that mindfulness and compassion into the world, doesn’t mean we’re always going to get the perfect parking spot, or that everything will be on sale wherever we go. There are always going to be hassles. But if we start each day with meditation, then we are prepared to face the hassles. We will no longer take suffering as an insult—“Why me?” We will know that we can either crumble beneath unfortunate events, or we can use our powerful mind to rise above them.
If our mind and heart are fully present in whatever we are doing, our lives have meaning. There’s a sense of fulfillment. But if, at the end of the day, we lack a sense of internal satisfaction, life feels empty. At those times when we feel that there is no meaning, what has really happened is that our growth and curiosity have stopped. We’ve forgotten about love and compassion. Learning to balance the worldly with the spiritual has nothing to do with vocation and everything to do with intention.
Can we feel comfortable in our own mind and heart? Every morning, we need to contemplate what we’re going to do in our life today and how we will grow by benefiting those around us. We need to give ourselves the opportunity to foster a sense of love and care. Compassion and love are not simply a feeble response to hard times. If we have compassion and love for everyone—all beings—beyond the notion of friend and enemy, all our wishes will be fulfilled. With this kind of confidence, the basis of true happiness is ours.