I looked at the older, bald, robed man across from me and thought, whatever he’s on, I want some.
I was interviewing Matthieu Ricard, the renowned Buddhist monk who normally lives in a monastery in Nepal but was in Australia as a keynote speaker at the Happiness and Its Causes Conference. It was eight in the evening and the 71-year-old was on his fourth and final day of a whirlwind tour. Starting in 2004, neuroscientists performed a series of seminal brain scans on Ricard and the popular media started calling him the happiest man on earth. As we prepared for the interview and did the final lighting tweaks and sound checks, I could see why. Despite his jet-lag, 16-hour work day, and an imminent 6:00am international flight, Ricard looked happy. His body was relaxed and his clear blue eyes twinkled with alertness and interest. In fact, Ricard was sending out… no, radiating, joy. I couldn’t help but compare this effervesce and zest for life with my own strung-out, sleep-deprived self.
My initial thoughts were that it’s easy for a single man who meditates on nothing but love and compassion in a hut in the Himalayan mountains for three months every year to walk around looking and feeling good. He doesn’t have to deal with the pressure of a mortgage, or deadlines, or traffic, or rude colleagues, or child-induced involuntary sleep deprivation. But as our interview progressed it was soon apparent that this celibate monk was far from being disconnected from the real world. In addition to his international travel schedule, the former molecular geneticist now runs a charity with 200 humanitarian projects underway, is a best-selling and prolific author, has been invited to present at the World Economic Forum in Davos nine times, and his stunning photographic work has appeared in numerous books and magazines. He’s even just launched an app. None of which is achieved by kicking-back and checking-out.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my interview with Ricard would prove to be life changing. As the weeks passed I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about Ricard that made him so contented. Was it the clear-mountain air? Was it his vegan diet? Was he born that way? Or, could it possibly be the fact that in his devotion to Buddhism, he’s also a committed meditator?
My pondering eventually led to my new film project – My Year of Living Mindfully – in which I’ve enlisted the help of a team of scientists to poke, prod, and monitor what happens to me over the course of a year as I too pledge myself to daily meditation. My goal is to find out once and for all if (as the headlines proclaim) the simple act of learning to focus my attention could possibly lead to greater health and happiness.
I recently passed the half-way mark of my semi-scientific experiment. I’ve now meditated daily for 187 days in a row. While I don’t yet know the scientific results (I’m deliberately staying blind until the end of the year), I can say there’s one big lesson I’ve learned so far…Meditation hasn’t made me happier. (Yet.)
I know this will be controversial to some meditation devotees, or to anyone who’s read any title of any best selling meditation book (The Art of Happiness, Real Happiness, The Book of Joy… just to name a few) Even Dan Harris – a fellow critical-thinking journalist, who’s app I’m using throughout my year, who turned to meditation after a mental health break down, and who kindly gave me an interview for my new film – talks about how meditation makes him “10% happier.”
But despite the promises of celebrities, and gurus, and even scientists about meditation leading to greater happiness, that hasn’t been the been the case for me.
What is changing though, is that I’m becoming more comfortable with my unhappiness. That is to say, I’m learning how to be comfortable with the things in my life that aren’t all sunshine and roses. For example, on occasion I suffer from autoimmune disease flare ups which cause painful arthritis throughout my body. I’m learning how to be with that pain without becoming emotionally reactive and catastrophising that my health is in tatters and that all I’ve learned in the last few years is bunk. As I wrote in my piece How To Deal With Difficult Emotions, I’m also learning to turn towards my difficult thoughts and feelings instead of doing everything I can to avoid them. When family squabbles arise or old emotional wounds are opened, I’m learning how to anchor myself in the storm and not get so tossed around.
All this is to say, rather than making me happier, my daily meditation practice is teaching me how to be comfortable with the discomfort that is part and parcel with being human. The word I use to describe this is discomfortable – comfortable in my discomfort. With this greater acceptance and less resistance to the difficulties in my life, a sense of ease has crept over me. Most notably, my stress-induced insomnia and nail biting habits have disappeared.
I realise that all this could be seen as two side of the same coin – that you could say that in becoming at-ease with my dis-ease, I’m also becoming happier. I also realise that as far as the self-help industry goes, it’s easier to sell the promise of peace, love and happiness than “Learning to be Comfortable with the Inescapable Suffering of Life.” But in my view, there’s an important distinction between becoming happier and learning to be unhappy.
I was raised in a culture that reveres triumph over adversity, flawlessness, the promise of miracles, and happy endings. In this Disney-fied version of life, Cinderella doesn’t end up scrubbing floors to earn her living, her beauty wins the heart of a rich guy and she ends up in a palace. Snow White doesn’t get a life-long chronic illness from eating the poison apple, instead there’s a one-time panacea in the form of a kiss from a good-looking stranger. This diet of happily-ever-afters has meant that when difficult things have happened in my life, I’ve railed against them and felt that they’re wrong, or unfair, or “not meant to be.” In fact, I’ve invested 37 years employing unconscious, often elaborate strategies to avoid uncomfortable emotions and pain.
Put another way, until now, I’ve never known how to suffer. How to sit with physical or emotional pain and know that things will probably be ok. I was never taught how to be in a blue-mood and not force myself to perk up or reach for a temporary mind-numbing distraction. I was never shown how to deal with uncertainty, disappointment, loss, and (shock, horror)... failure. But through my mindfulness training I’m learning to be ok with all this and to notice the ever-changing nature of all that is both bad and good in my life.
All this can be summed up by a phrase often used by mindfulness teachers: “Life sucks. Everything changes. Don’t take it personally.” In a recent conversation I had with my teacher, Timothea Goddard, she rightly pointed out that life doesn’t always suck and that good things do, and often do, happen too. She amends the expression to say; “Life sucks (and sings). Everything changes. Don’t take it personally.”
Looking back on my encounter with Matthieu Ricard, the “happiest man alive,” at the end of his arduous working day, I think perhaps his joyful radiation wasn’t so much coming from the fact that he’s found everlasting happiness, but rather that he’s found peace with suffering. It occurs to me that rather than being known as the “happiest man in the world” he could instead be known as “the most discomfortable man in the world” but it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it does it?