Q & A
I was asked the question the other by a friend of mine on facebook:
“I’d really love to hear your thoughts on whether you think personal freedom is linked to forming happy thoughts. Also, whether you think people shun negative or unhappy thoughts due perhaps the stigma a broader society associates with it.”
Well, I’ll do my best to answer this based on what I have learnt, largely from Buddhist teachings and personal reflection on them in the context of my own experience. Ultimately, from the Buddhist perspective, personal freedom goes beyond thought altogether and seeing that there is more to mind that just thoughts and emotions. If you think of a happy memory where you feel completely spacious and relaxed, like if you have walked up a mountain and, exhausted, reach the summit – ah! – or you look up and, unexpectedly, see the most amazing sunset, you’re not thinking at all. I think personal freedom is, ultimately, recognising and abiding in that state free of conceptual elaboration. Thoughts are not us. Freedom comes when we cease identifying with them. This is a challenge and why we need to learn methods to train our minds so as to experience and then abide in this recognition. I would suggest ‘the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’ by Sogyal Rinpoche as an excellent reference for getting a better understanding of the appearances and the essence of mind or nature of mind.
In regards to negative thoughts, if we realise that we are not our thoughts and that the mind can and does think of ‘anything under the sun’, as Rinpoche would say, we cease judging ourselves for any thought that does arise. We’re not bad if we have a bad thought nor are we good if we have a good thought – they are just thoughts. Rinpoche would go on to say, ‘where is a thought?’ You can’t see it or touch it and no one else sees, hears or is aware of our thoughts so what power do they really have? It is only when we grasp onto them that we give them power. It’s only when we believe their story or judge ourselves or others based on their content that they can cause harm. If we ‘just leave the thought in the thought’ as one great master said, then there is no problem.
The tendency to identify with our thoughts and emotions is so prevalent in the world that it is hard to believe that there could be any other way. Collectively, we determine what is acceptable and what is not and we shun those who don’t fit in with our collective beliefs. This is not to say that certain behaviours aren’t harmful and that these harmful behaviours aren’t initiated by harmful thoughts. However, we don’t have to act on all of our thoughts. Rinpoche uses the example of if we’re standing on top of a large building and we have the thought to jump. We could jump but we don’t. That thought rises and then dissolves again without any subsequent action. If we just let thought rise and pass without judgement, acting on them, grasping on them and following them up with another thought then there is no harm.
An example of where ‘happy thoughts’ are useful is when we generate compassion for others (and for ourselves for that matter). Until such a time that we can ‘transcend’ thought, as I spoke of above, we can indeed use thought to generate positive states such as compassion and love, which are actually the cause for own happiness and the happiness of others. However, these types of thoughts are not associated with the self-centralising Little Me aspect of mind. However, again, ultimate freedom goes beyond the level of thought altogether but positive thinking is indeed part of the path of getting to that point.
In Buddhism we talk about training our mind in the four immeasurables: immeasurable love, immeasurable compassion, immeasurable joy and immeasurable equanimity. Immeasurable joy, to take one of these as an example, is defined as wishing that others never be separated from happiness and the causes of happiness. How does this bring us personal happiness and joy? If we think only of our own happiness, then this may be quite limited, as the causes for our own happiness might only ripen now and then but if we can rejoice in the happiness of others then, not only are we a joy to be around, but we can enjoy the happiness of many, many others and share in their joy. This means we turn their joy into our joy, thereby multiplying the opportunity to experience joy enormously!
When we think about happiness though, it is really important to develop the wisdom which discerns between what is actually good for us and those around us and what is not.
This is probably just the tip of the iceberg of course and one could go further but I hope you find it useful none-the-less!