What about happiness?
From the beginning of time, human existence has continuously striven for one thing: Happiness. From different interests, jobs, technologies, philosophies, and religions – from the invention of the smallest piece of candy to the newest spaceship. The underlying motivation is the pursuit of one specific goal: Happiness.
Yet, most of us are not aware that happiness is determined more by one’s state of mind than by external events – living in moment-to-moment happiness or simply losing sight of the pursuit in the daily rat race of a fast-paced western life.
I have lived and worked in Amsterdam for about 5 years. I have never been unhappy and although I’m originally from Germany, Amsterdam is my home and possibly my favorite city in the world. Yet, I could not shake the feeling of being restricted. Restricted by obligations & expectations, social, career, financial etc… and at the same time drawn out by knowing that there is so much more out there: cultures, lifestyles, food, nature, people, beliefs.
In my very own pursuit of… what exactly I do not know, I find myself at Kopan Monastery joining the 11-day program on ‘Tibetan Buddhism and the Power of the Mind’.
The course: Tibetan Buddhism & the power of the mind
Nepal. Just outside of Kathmandu, up on a hill and far away from the buzz of our cities, the noise of our streets, and the speed of our lives. Life at Kopan Monastery is not dictated by the minutes, but by the rhythm of the cosmos and while speed often is a key indicator for life in the Western world, these shelters have turned slowness into a virtue. There are no clocks, no alarm calls. Rather, the days are guided by the setting and the rising of the sun, the prayer bells, and the serving of the soup.
Together with 100 like-minded people of different backgrounds, colors and walks of life and surrounded by monks of all different ages, some as young as 5 years old, I spent 11 days at the monastery. The first 8 days of the course doing daily guided meditations & learning about the essentials of Buddhism, compassion, kindness, and the power of the mind. Joining daily teachings by the monks about anger, affection, ignorance, and faith. Sitting in discussion groups talking about karma, ethics, attachment, pleasures, and enlightenment, followed by long walks in the monastery gardens and communal (vegetarian) breakfast, lunch & dinner.
Afterward, entering a silent retreat state for the last 2 days. No talking. No eye-contact. Just noble silence. Being entirely alone with yourself, your thoughts, and your meditations, completely disconnected from the outside world. A welcoming space to think and slowly digest new findings. An all throughout confronting, but healing experience.
Buddhism has its religious aspects, no doubt, but it also has philosophical, psychological, scientific, logical, and many other characteristics. And the most beautiful set of beliefs acting as a substrate for all actions:
A belief in the fundamental gentleness and goodness of all human beings, a belief in the value of compassion, a belief in a policy of kindness, and a sense of commonality among all living creatures.
Buddhism believes in the inward tendency towards the altruistic behavior of humanity, while often a pessimistic view as being violent, competitive & selfish prevails in our society. Yet in recent years, the tide appears to be turning on these views, coming closer to the Buddhist view of an underlying nature as gentle and compassionate. Try walking into a room of strangers with this thought in mind – that the basic nature of people is compassionate rather than aggressive – and I promise, you will be leaving with a full heart at the end of the night. Go through life with this thought and your relationship to the world around you changes. Compassion instead of hostility and selfishness helps you to relax, trust, live at ease. And ultimately, be happier.
Like our teacher, Swedish nun Karin Valham, said: “The whole world can change for you if you change your mind.”
So, what now?
What if we stopped celebrating being busy?
What if time & money wouldn’t be (that) important?
What if we would listen more to others, instead of waiting to jump in the next gap to share what we think, know or feel ourselves?
What if instead, we create more space to breathe & think, and turned towards happiness as a valid goal?
The biggest question for some might be, how can this be implemented into a fast-paced western life? Everyone’s life is different, yet this could be a start: The Art of Happiness by the Dalia Lama & Dr. Howard Cutler. Explaining Buddhist teachings from a western perspective, combined with psychological insights & views as well as practical examples.
I, on my part, can’t express how I feel in simple words, the thoughts I had in those 11 days, the plans I made. I don’t think I have ever used the phrase to be inspired. But here, I truly was.
At the same time, I did not forget that the ‘worldly’ life is beautiful, full of wonderful things to experience, to see, to taste, to smell, to touch. I want and need ‘pleasures’ in my life, but am determined to change and live by some of the aspects & methods I have learned. Practices that can be directly applied to our lives, which simply make us – and with that the people around us – happier, stronger, perhaps less afraid.
Striving for real happiness and seeing this as a valid goal. Mine and others’. Others’ and mine.
This can be something for everyone. The seekers, the curious, and the skeptical.
Read more about Kopan Monastery and all courses on their website.
5 ways travel affects your mind and soul
10 life-changing books that will alter your worldview
Linger longer: let’s talk slow travel