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Joy on demand: Notes

Main takeaways:
Be happy. Wish for others to be happy. Smile. Meditate. The world is a beautiful place.

Notes

Bicep curls for the mind

In my long struggle with misery, quite by accident, I discovered the mental equivalent of physical exercise. I found that one can deliberately effect life-changing mental changes with simple training exercises – if you will, bicep curls for the mind. And in doing so, improve every single aspect of our lives. The mental equivalent of physical exercise is meditation.

The lucky sperm club

I was born into a family that was poor but caring. In my entire life, I always had enough to eat (and I know my mom sometimes went hungry to ensure that). I always had shelter. I never suffered a single day of war nor a single day of homelessness. Despite being born in what was then a poor, developing country, my country had always given me clean water on tap, free vaccinations, and free education. Billionaire Warren Buffet famously referred to those who grow up in prosperity as “members of the lucky sperm club,” and given the circumstances of my birth and growing up, I too consider myself a member of that club. There are many millions of people who are born into circumstances in which they do not even have access to books, much less to education or clean water. If you are reading this book, it is likely that you are blessed with at least the same luck as I.

Willingness

The willingness to bear witness to our own pain and failure. To be willing an able to clearly see this self – this wretched useless self – to see all his pain, to see all his failings, his desperate clinging on to all things pleasant and his frenzied aversion to all things unpleasant, to see all the suffering involved in having this human form manifest in him, to be willing and able to bear witness to all of that with composure and kindness – that is an immense source of confidence.

Internal science

When (he) was becoming accomplished as a meditation teacher, he developed a conviction, which I totally agree with, that if meditation (which he calls “the internal science and technology of the east”) were to successfully mate with the science and technology of the west, it will change the world dramatically, for the better.

Prepare for opportunities

A way I prepare for opportunities is by constantly prioritizing my personal growth, sometimes with spectacular results. In early 2000, when I was looking for a job, it was the height of the dot-com boom, and anybody with a pulse and a software engineering degree could get a job in Silicon Valley. Being an award-winning software engineer with straight A’s from a top university, I could have any job I wanted. I decided to join a small, unprofitable startup with a silly name called Google. Why? Because I decided I never want to be the smartest person in the room. If I am the smartest person in the room, I won’t learn anything. Hence, to maximize my personal growth, I chose to work in a company where people seemed to be much smarter than I, and it was Google. And, boy, did that decision work out.

In life, opportunity knocks fairly often, but if you are unprepared for it or unwilling to jump at it, then it will pass you by.

Familiarization

Familiarization is a key aspect of meditation. It’s so important that the Tibetan word for meditation literally means “to become familiar”. The more the mind is in contact with any mental quality (such as calm or joy), the more familiar it becomes with it, and the more familiar the mind becomes with that mental quality the more quickly and easily it gets it.

Meditation is not about not thinking

One of the biggest misconceptions about meditation is that it involves “emptying your mind of all thoughts.” This one misconception is more responsible for turning people away from meditation than any other that I know of. Many beginners mistakenly think that they are supposed to have no thoughts during meditation, and then when they find thought after thought cascading endlessly and uncontrollably in the mind like a raging waterfall, they decide that meditation is impossible and they give up.
No, meditation is not about suppressing thoughts. Instead, it is about allowing the mind to settle on its own terms, in its own time, which includes allowing thoughts to arise as and when they want to. It is true that over time, with practice, as the mind becomes more deeply settled, the stream of thoughts slows down and eventually goes from being a raging waterfall to being like a fast-flowing river, then more like a slow-flowing stream, and finally, the mind is like a placid lake.

One way to rest the mind is to use an image. Imagine a butterfly resting gently on a flower moving slowly in the breeze. In the same way, the mind rests gently on the breath. Another way is to use this mantra, “There is nowhere to go and nothing to do for this one moment, except to rest.”

To feel regretful, you need to be in the past, and to worry, you need to be in the future. Hence, when you are fully in the present, you are temporarily free from regret and worry.

Notice joy

The training is simple. It is simply to notice joy. Whenever there is any joy arising in our field of experience, even if it is merely a subtle hint of joy, simply notice that there is joy, that is all. That is the entire practice.

Noticing joy is like noticing blue cars on the road. When you’re in traffic, blue cars pass you by all the time and, usually, you don’t notice them at all. But if you play a game of noticing blue cars, you’ll find that they are everywhere. There is joy to be found in many moments of our lives, though it may be subtle and fleeting. For example, with that pleasant feeling of warm water on the skin as we get into the shower, joy arises immediately, but we seldom notice it and it fades away in seconds. The practice is simply to notice when joy is there.

Given this insight, we can effectively invite joy just by smiling a genuine smile. Smile as if you are really happy. When you do this, you may create changes in the autonomic nervous system relating to happiness, and from these changes, you may experience joy. This works for me almost every time. It doesn’t need to be a full smile – a half smile works as well.

Whenever there is any experience of joy, notice it. That is all.

Attending to the joy of pleasant daily experiences

Whenever you engage in an activity that involves a pleasant experience, take at least one moment to attend fully to the joy that pleasantness invokes. Some examples:

  • At each meal, attend fully to the enjoyment of at least the first bite
  • When seeing a loved one, take one moment to appreciate that he or she is there, and attend fully to that joy
  • When holding hands with a loved one, take one moment to attend fully to the joy of that contact

Keeping a gratitude journal, finding new things to be grateful for, and recalling a joyful experience every day are all great ideas. However, taking one moment to fully attend to every joyful experience has the advantage of taking no time and no effort. You can do it many times a day, in real time, with zero delay in gratification.

Some examples:

  • That promotion I got is so precious – I know because I worked years for it
  • Owning my car and my house are both precious, and I know because I saved up for years for my house and my car
  • Having a child who loves me is so precious – I know many people who do not
  • Having good health is so precious
  • Having a good livelihood is so precious
  • Living in a peaceful country is so precious
  • Having access to clean water and food is so precious
  • Being able to see the blue sky and green grass is so precious

Everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy

Louis C. K.

Awareness of mortality

Someday, I will die. Every single person I love will die, some of them before I do. Even if science and technology can extend the human lifespan to some extent, eventually, I will die, and everybody I love will die. Being aware of mortality changes everything. At the very least, it puts things into proper perspective, it gives us clarity into what is really important versus what is not so important, and it therefore changes how we prioritize things in our lives.

Just note gone

There is a simple practice that can greatly enhance your ability to notice the absence of pain, though it isn’t only concerned with pain. “Just note gone” is a powerful way of practicing with any phenomenon, whereby we train the mind to notice that something previously experienced is no more. For example, at the end of a breath, notice that the breath is over. Gone. As a sound fades away, notice when it is over. Gone. At the end of a thought, notice that the thought is over. Gone. At the end of an experience of emotion – joy, anger, sadness, or anything else – notice it is over. Gone.

This practice changes the way we perceive phenomena: It brings balance to our perception of sensory and mental events. Every sensory and mental event has three parts: arising, presence, and ceasing. Most of us are aware of the first two, but we are seldom aware of ceasing. In other words, our experience of sensory and mental events is unbalanced – we often see the coming but seldom the going. By noticing gone, you restore perceptual balance, thus moving toward seeing things as they really are.

Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation

Wishing for random people to be happy

During working hours or school hours, randomly identify two people who walk past you or who are standing around you. Secretly wish for this person to be happy. Just think to yourself, “I wish for this person to be happy, and I wish for that person to be happy.” This is the entire practice. Don’t do anything; don’t say anything, just think.

Uplifting and settling the mind with altruistic joy

Setup
Sit in any posture that allows you to be alert and relaxed at the same time, whatever that means to you. You may keep your eyes open or closed.

Uplift the mind (2-5 minutes)
Take a few minutes to bring to mind one or more people to whom you have brought joy or benefit out of purely altruistic intent. Reflect on the deed(s). Take delight in your good intentions and deeds.

Settle the mind (5-10 minutes)
Settle the mind either with anchoring, resting, or being. You may anchor your attention to any sensory object such as the breath, or you may rest the mind on the breath like a butterfly resting gently on a flower, or you may simply sit without agenda. Allow the mind to settle on its own.

Closing (1-2 minutes)
Close by noticing if there is any joy present in the mind, and if so, attending to it for one or two minutes.

In addition to the formal practice, I also recommend the informal practice of taking a moment to rejoice in inner goodness and altruistic deeds whenever you see them.

Whenever you make a donation of time or labor, or do something out of altruistic intention, take a moment to think, “I am doing this out of altruistic intention. Having this intention makes me so happy.”

Whenever you meet or bring to mind an admirable, inspiring person, take a moment to think, “There exist this wonderful person in this world. I’m so happy.”

Whenever you see somebody performing an altruistic or heroic act, take a moment to think, “More good is being done in this world, I’m so happy.”

Just because you’re in pain doesn’t mean you can’t be joyful

Rigoberta was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her life’s work in promoting human rights. When I met her, I found her to be exactly what you’d expect of a steriotypical Nobel Peace Prize winner: she was wise, kind, and joyful. She is friendly to everyone and treats everyone with kindness. She gives people a huge smile and warm hugs. She is bursting with joy. Right beneath the surface, however, there is a huge reservoir of pain. Her father was burned alive. Her mother was raped and tortured before she died. Her brother was murdered. She lost her youngest son. She watched many thousands of people oppressed, tortured, and murdered. When I realized the amount of pain she was holding, I wanted to cry. One of the signs of true greatness is the ability to hold a large amount of pain, not just with courage and equanimity, but also with kindness, compassion, and joy. Rigoberta showed me what greatness looks like. I was moved.

She showed me that when pain is overwhelming, joy does not dissolve away the pain. Instead, it becomes a skillful container for the pain, limiting its damage and allowing the healing process to work. It is a little like putting a cast around your leg when you have a serious fracture. It prevents further damage and allows the leg to heal over time. Rigoberta demonstrated to me, by her own example, how one can hold immense pain, gently, with joy.

Just because you’re in pain doesn’t mean you cannot be joyful

Peace prize nominee Dawn Engle

Seeing everything for the miracle it is

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh poetically says, “The real miracle is not to walk on either water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child – our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”
Or, as Louis C. K. put it, less poetically but more humorously when he talked about people complaining on airplanes, “Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you noncontributing zero? You got to fly! It’s amazing! Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going “Oh my god! Wow! You’re flying! You’re sitting in a chair, in the sky!”

A sailboat in the ocean

It is a parable of a person pushing a sailboat to the ocean. Before arriving at the ocean, the sailboat is pushed with much effort, but once it reaches the ocean, the sailboat is pushed with much effort, but once it reaches the ocean, pushing is useless. On the water, the sailboat is effortlessly propelled by the wind. The distance it travels on the ocean in one day is farther than it could be forced over land in a hundred years.

This analogy carries two important lessons. The first is that effortlessness often needs to be preceded by deliberate effort. If we never push the sailboat to the ocean, if instead we foolishly sit in the sailboat while it is on land hoping for it to be “propelled without effort by the wind,” we get nowhere. In meditation, effortlessness must be established on the foundation of attentional stability; otherwise it is really just mind wandering and a waste of your time. The second lesson is that while the effortful stage is important, its main role is to enable effortlessness. A meditator who does not understand this is like a sailor who keeps pushing the sailboat when it is already in the water, or worse, like the guy who pushes his sailboat all the way to the destination over land rather than pushing it to the water with the intent of sailing to the destination. He is wasting valuable time and effort. I’d rather be sailing.

It takes a very long time to be a overnight success

The non-self

As a fellow adventurer, I can share with you a description of the tiny bit of territory I have personally explored on this subject of non-self. It is nowhere near what the masters have described, but since my exploration is much closer to our day-to-day worldly experience, it may be helpful to you. In my exploration, I learned that there are at least two flavors of non-self, one weaker and one stronger. The weaker flavor is the experience that there is only the observer, and the observer has no identity. This flavor is actually quite easy to describe and fairly straightforward for someone with strong samatha and vipassana practice to arrive at. When we sleep, we sometimes dream. In our dreams, we are sometimes an entirely different person from the person in real life. In other words, in those dreams, we have an entirely different identity as the person who is awake. During the process of falling asleep and getting into that dream, the mind abandons one identity and takes on another. My experience of the first flavor of nonself took that path. Once, as I was in deep meditation, the mind became subtle enough to enter that dreamlike state while being vividly aware, and it arrived at the state after the mind abandons one identity but before the mind takes up another. In that state there was only the observer, and the observer had no identity whatsoever. There was no “Meng,” that “Meng” completely disappeared. There was only the observer. I was able to stay in that state for roughly thirty minutes, and that experience was life changing. In my life, some large percentage of my suffering arises from issues involving my identity (“How dare they treat me like this? Who do they take me for?” “Why am I not lovable?” “Why does he treat me like I am incompetent?”) When the observer has no identity, the observer gains experential realization that identity is entirely mind-made. Identity has no substance whatsoever – it is nothing but a mere creation of mind.

Having experienced that realization, when one gets back to real life, identity-related problems such as being treated like I’m useless or unimportant still sting, but the mind also knows that there is zero substance to that identity anyway, so the suffering is meaningfully reduced.

Strive hard to let go

In striving toward mastery in samantha, vipassana, and brahmavihara – calm-abiding, insight, and sublime states – what are we trying to achieve? Well, we are not trying to achieve anything at all. It is very important to understand that ultimately, meditation is not about getting anything – meditation is entirely about letting go. In fact, I can summerize my entire twenty-plus years of meditation practice in just two words: letting go. The entirety of my practice is learning to let go. For example, early on, I learned to let go of my addiction to constant sensory and mental stimulation. A bit later on, I learned to let go of restlessness and distraction during sitting meditation. Much later on, I learned to let go of some amount of greed, hatred, anxiety, and destructive ego. And at the current stage of my practice, I’m learning to let go of clinging, aversion, ill will, my dependence on sensory pleasure in general, and my need to fluff up my identity and ego. The entire process is nothing but letting go.

At every stage of letting go, I was rewarded with a new source of wholesome joy. For example, when I let go of the need to constantly be stimulated by some sensory pleasure, I experienced the joy of ease. I developed the ability to be joyful simply by sitting down and relaxing. When I let go of some meaningful amount of anger and resentment, I experienced the joy of goodwill. When I let go of my compulsion to not feel the unpleasant feelings relating to my failure, I experienced the joy of confidence. In every single case, what I experienced was the joy of freedom, for example, the joy of freedom from boredom, freedom from want, freedom from anxiety, freedom from my own ego, and freedom from resentment. I am, and always have been, enslaved by two tyrannical masters: my clinging to sensory and ego pleasures, and my aversion to all things unpleasant to senses and ego. I am the slave of Clinging Monster and Aversion Monster. With every bit more of letting go, I gain a little bit more freedom from this enslavement. In freedom, there is great joy.

Personal review

The book carries a lot of insights. It is written humorously and is easy to read. Gave me inspiration and tools for how to find more joy in life.

Rating 1-10 where 7 is not an option: 8/10