Happiness is possible without simply consuming all the time
In the second part of his interview, Thich Nhat Hanh explains why you don’t need to be a Buddhist monk to give up an addiction to a high-consumption lifestyle
Most of us in the West are still attached to a high-consumption lifestyle. We like to buy new and exciting things. Is there a strong enough alternative lifestyle out there that can convince us to leave this high-consumption one behind?
What we need is transformation of our consciousness, our idea of happiness, our lifestyle. Not only are those of us in the West attached to a high-consumption lifestyle, in Asian countries people are very much doing the same. We like to buy new and exciting things. We are seeking for happiness, but there is suffering inside of us. There is a big vacuum inside of us. That is why we are looking to fill up that vacuum inside. That is our situation. We don’t feel at peace with ourselves. We have a big vacuum inside and we don’t know how to fill it up with better things, so we look to consumption. We think that if we can buy new and exciting things we can then forget the vacuum inside. That does not seem to have an effect. We are buying more and more, but we do not feel the kind of fulfilment we need. We need love, we need peace, but we don’t know how to recreate peace, so we are looking for other things to cover up the suffering and the vacuum inside of us.
Of course there must be some sort of lifestyle that can help us create love and joy and we don’t have to go to the market to buy things. Unless you know how to create that kind of life you continue to go and buy things. Unless you know how to create that kind of life then you will continue to go and buy these things.
Suppose you know how to enjoy walking meditation. With some training you know how to bring your mind back to your body so that your mind and your body are together. When your mind are together you are truly there and you can recognise that the rain is wonderful, the trees are beautiful, the air is still somehow fresh. You enjoy breathing in and breathing out and you can touch the wonders of life in the present moment. When we are mindful of our body and what is going on around us we are in a situation to touch the miracle of life that is going on around us. This present moment is full of wonders. If you don’t know how to these wonders you do not know how to appreciate life – to appreciate what is there. Instead you run after something that you think will make you happy.
Suppose we learn about The Five Mindfulness Trainings. The five mindfulness trainings are a kind of lifestyle born from a vision called “interbeing”: everything is connected to everything else. Your happiness and the happiness of other species “interare”. If you are healthy and happy then other forms of life can profit from you. If you are sick and suffer then other species will have to suffer with you. That insight of interbeing will help you to see that you are linked to everything else. To protect yourself you have to protect nature and every other species. That insight of interbeing will help you to remove discrimination, fear and anger and make you feel better in yourself.
The Five Mindfulness Trainings help us to protect life. The First Mindfulness Training is about “Protecting Life”: your life and the life of other species.
Your life and the lives of other species are interrelated. When you protect the life of other species, you protect your own life. In order to protect ourselves we have to protect others and that is the practice of the First Mindfulness Training. When you breathe in mindfully you can see that Mother Earth is in you and you are in Mother Earth. That kind of insight helps you to remove your fear of dying and helps you to see that in order to protect yourself you have to protect Mother Earth. Protecting Mother Earth is protecting other species is protecting oneself, that is very clear.
Even if you are the youngest of the species on the Earth you can play the role of an elder brother or sister and try to look out for the wellbeing of other species. This is a very beautiful thing to do and what Mother Earth expects you to do as a species on earth, as Homo sapiens. Protecting life is a joy and that is an act, a kind of lifestyle that comes from the insight of interbeing. You are doing it for yourself because life is one; it can’t be chopped into several pieces. To live in such a way to help you to protect life can bring you a lot of joy because that is love itself. When you have love in yourself you don’t have to run and buy things because love is fulfilling and makes you peaceful and happy.
The Second Mindfulness Training is “True Happiness”. If we realise that happiness cannot be found from only making money and buying things we should know how to generate and produce True Happiness. When we realise happiness is not possible with only making money and buying things we should know how to generate and create true happiness.
First Mindfulness Training: True Happiness
Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others and I will share my time, energy and resources with those in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separated from my own happiness and suffering, that happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion, and that wealth and power can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not external conditions and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I have more than enough conditions to live happily. I am committed to establishing a livelihood that can help reduce the suffering of lively beings on Earth and help reverse global warming.
True happiness is possible and we should stop running after fame, power, wealth and sensual pleasures. We should recognise the wonders of life that are available in the present moment. We should be able to help ourselves and other people suffer less. That is something very concrete we can do and belongs to the lifestyle we are looking for. The Third Mindfulness Training is about love, “True Love”. We have to learn how to generate the energy of loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness: this is the art of loving.
If you are so busy, if you only think of consuming how do you have the time in order to love? We learn one thing from the Third Mindfulness training: that sexual desire and love, they are two different things because love can only build, rebuild and heal. You have to learn how to love ourselves, you have to learn how to care of our body, to release the tension and pain in our body. There are very concrete ways to do it. You know how to practise touching the earth by walking meditation, by lying down, allowing nature to heal you. You know how to release the tension in your body, to release the pain in your body, not to work too hard. All these things we can do, but if you are so busy making money in order to buy things do you have the time to do so? There are those of us who know how to organise our life in such a way to have time to love, to care for ourselves and take care of others around us.
Every time you are in touch with the suffering and you understand the suffering in yourself and in the other person you allow the energy of compassion to arise in you. In fact, every time we get in touch with the suffering in us we are aware that suffering is there. Every time we look deeply into the nature of suffering and we see the cause of suffering then compassion will be born in us as a kind of energy, whether that suffering is in us or in the other person. So getting in touch with suffering and allowing the energy of compassion to arise is something that we can do, provided we are not so busy making money and buying things. The energy of compassion can heal us, heal the other person and heal the Earth. Learning how to generate joy and happiness by touching the wonders of life and generating the energy of compassion by getting in touching and understanding suffering are the sorts of things we can do that belong to the kind of lifestyle that can heal ourselves and heal the Earth. The Third Mindfulness training is about true love and can be practised as a group of people – a community of practice.
The Fourth Mindfulness Training, “Loving Speech and Deep Listening”, is about how to restore communication—between father and son, father and daughter, mother and son, mother and daughter, partner and partner, brothers and brothers, brothers and sisters and so on. If we cannot communicate we suffer. Very often we cannot communicate with our own self. You don’t like yourself, you hate yourself, you don’t know how to listen to yourself, you don’t know how to help yourself. So the practice of loving speech and deep listening should also be a practice directed to ourselves. We have to learn how to listen to ourselves, to listen to the deepest desire in ourselves, to listen to the suffering in ourselves in order to understand. When we have understood our suffering, our deepest aspiration, we will be able to listen and understand the suffering and aspiration of the other person. This is something we can do – this is the object of the Fourth Mindfulness Training.
We are deeply divided as a society. We are trying to kill each other and the killing is taking place anywhere at any time day and night. We have a lot of anger, fear, discrimination and despair and that is because there is not enough communication between members of our species. We are not only killing other species we are killing ourselves as a species and that is why technology is not enough. We have to learn how to listen, how to speak lovingly.
Reading the Fourth Mindfulness Training we can see that it takes time to train ourselves in order to be able to listen and speak in this way. Yet anyone of us is able to do this. In just a four-day retreat at one of our practice centres people report their success. Miracles always happen on these retreats: relationships, communication can be restored. So that is part of the lifestyle you are looking for. It is there—a noble style of living. You do not need to be a Buddhist to adopt that kind of lifestyle.
The Fifth Mindfulness Training is about “Nourishment and Healing.” All of us need nourishment and healing. Most of us are sick and we don’t know how to go back to nature and get the healing. We don’t know how to generate the energy of compassion and joy in order to heal ourselves. We rely only on medicines, antibiotics, surgery.
Reading the Fifth Mindfulness Training we can see mindful consumption is the way out. All of the Five Mindfulness Trainings are part of the answer to the question about our attachment to a high consumption lifestyle.
This is the key practice: consumption. We cannot get out of this difficult despairing situation unless we make a resolution in the way we consume. I will be aware of what I eat and consume through my senses and what intentions and mental state I cultivate in my consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, use or cohort drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing healing and nourishing elements in and around me and not letting sorrow drag me back into the past, nor letting anxieties, fear or cravings pull me out of the moment. I am determined not to cover up with loneliness, anxiety or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate into being and consume in a way to preserve peace and joy and in my body and consciousness and of family, society and the Earth. My mindful consumption is the way out.
Can we strive for financial and spiritual contentment, or are they mutually exclusive?
Can you be both rich and spiritual? Do you need to be rich, do you need to make money? We [monastics] need money, but not to consume things. We need it to organise teaching trips, to hire a bus, to build a meditation hall. When we go to a city we need some money in order to buy the tickets for our monastic brothers and sisters, because we know that transformation in a retreat would require [having] enough teachers and monastic practitioners.
But we seek financial support not for buying new and exciting things, but to have more places for practitioners to stay during the retreat, and to bring more monastics to retreats, to build a meditation hall and [monastic living] quarters. But that has always come if our spiritual practice brings fruit, and then there will be friends who will help us on the financial side. It is very clear that spiritual practice can bring a lot of happiness, love and fulfilment and you don’t need a lot of money to be happy, so this is no longer a problem. If there is some financial help, then more people will benefit from the practice. If we are limited by financial conditions then the number of practitioners will not increase, but we do not sacrifice our spiritual life for financial realisation.
Thich Nhat Hanh Vietnamese buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist returns to the UK in 2012. For details see www.mindfulnessretreats.org.uk
This article appeared in The Ecologist, on March 22, 2012. Read on The Ecologist’s website.