Happiness has been a perennial topic with waves of interest that have come and gone. Ezra Bayda is author of Being Zen and his newest release Beyond Happiness which gives us some insight into what leads to a truly content life. He tells us that true happiness is really available to all of us and there are practical ways to get there. Ezra teaches at the Zen Center in San Diego, Ca.
Elisha: Ok Ezra, I’m going get directly to the point. What is the key to true contentment in life?
Ezra: There is no one “key” to living a genuinely happy life, but the deepest happiness of equanimity grows with our ability to stay with present moment reality and flowers as we water the roots of the generosity of the heart, including our inherent capacity for gratitude, loving-kindness and forgiveness – all of which need to be cultivated. This is the overview; the “how to” is what my book, Beyond Happiness, is all about.
Elisha: What blocks us from happiness?
Ezra: There are many things that block happiness. We are often blocked by being caught in our thoughts and beliefs – beliefs like “Life is too hard.” How could we ever experience the equanimity of being at home with ourselves if caught in the busyness of the thinking mind?
We also get caught in the judgmental mind, with beliefs like “I’m not worthy.” Until we can free ourselves from beliefs like these we will never experience the lightness of heart that is part of genuine happiness. We are also blocked from genuine happiness by our deeply conditioned emotional reactions, such as anger, anxiety and confusion; as well as by our deeply rooted patterns of behavior, such as trying harder so we can measure up, or seeking approval so we can cover over our anxiety. But as much as anything, what blocks happiness is a belief in the basic myth about happiness: that we deserve to be happy, as if it’s our birthright; that we will be happy if we get what we want; that we can’t be happy if we’re in discomfort.
Elisha: In your book you quote the Buddha saying, “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.” Can you say more about the intersection of gratitude, happiness and mental health?
Ezra: Gratitude is one of the essential aspects of being truly happy, because if we’re not grateful for what we have, we will always want life to be different from what it is—a demand that will surely guarantee our unhappiness. Interestingly, gratitude arises naturally when we’re truly happy; yet it also needs to be cultivated. The problem is, we can’t just wish to be grateful and expect it to happen. That is why gratitude is an actual practice, and why I included two specific and very effective gratitude practices in Beyond Happiness.
Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone who was struggling in life right now, what wisdom could you impart to them?
Ezra: Of course my response would depend entirely on who the person was and also on the nature of the struggle. It would also depend on whether or not the person had an understanding of spiritual practice. The first question I would ask is: Can you see this difficulty as your path? I would emphasize the need to understand that our difficulties, although uncomfortable, are also our opportunity to work with exactly what keeps us stuck.
For example, if someone were caught in anxiety, to be able to welcome the anxiety as their opportunity to become free would give them a much bigger and healthier perspective. I would also ask the person what thoughts they were believing. Seeing though our believed thoughts is key, because our thoughts often dictate how we feel and act. And I would also encourage the person to try to bring attention to whatever their physical experience was in the present moment. Staying physically present is crucial in working with our difficulties. It allows the seeming solidity of our distressing experiences to become more and more porous, and as a consequence we can begin to see daylight again. However, staying physically present, especially when we’re in distress, can be difficult. That is why there are many techniques to facilitate the process. As dark as the tunnel may seem, it’s good to know that it’s possible to find a way out.
Thank you Ezra!
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.