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Caring for the Mind: Insights from Buddhist Psychology

8 tips from a Buddhist psychotherapist.

Key points

  • Cultivate the habit of paying deeper attention to what’s happening internally.
  • Try holding your experiences, and all the feelings they stir, with a receptive kindness.
  • Widen the definition of happiness.

For most of us, the recipe for happiness involves some variation of the following formula: When X happens, then I’ll be happy.

As luck would have it, X is a magnanimous variable. It can be anything – from the sun breaking through the clouds, to a toothache subsiding, to a promotion. At first glance, it’s a winning formula, offering infinite paths to happiness. Yet, experience suggests otherwise. We can be luxuriating in the most ideal proverbial weather, with the most fabulous version of X, and still be sad, angry, afraid, dissatisfied, or jealous.

Why is happiness so elusive, despite the world being a treasure cove of Xs?

In part, it may have something to do with our conviction of the conditional nature of happiness. Our formulas have seemingly made us consign our well-being to external variables whose whims we don’t have much say about. Circumstances change. With them, so does our internal weather.

According to Buddhist psychology, to nurture a well-being that is not as fickle we might be wiser to team up with something that’s more “ultimate” – the mind.

“How we’re feeling is ultimately about how the mind is responding to what’s happening,” says Buddhist psychotherapist Pilar Jennings. This doesn’t render external circumstances irrelevant – especially when people are dealing with intense challenges. Yet, as Jennings explains, lasting happiness rarely springs from perfect conditions that we have to seek the world over. In fact, it might just be closer than we realize.

Here are eight tips from Dr. Jennings and Buddhist teachings on how to care for the mind to cultivate well-being.

1. Notice the inner landscape.

As a therapist, I can’t overemphasize the importance of self-awareness. Cultivate the habit of paying deeper attention to what’s happening internally. This can be in the form of mindfulness or some inner reflection. Notice: Are you living in a way that feels ethical? How are you treating others? Is there something you long for that always seems out of reach? In Buddhist teachings, this “noticing” is a central part of the roadmap to end suffering. It can also contribute to increased personal happiness. Through reflecting, we can situate ourselves as a person who, just like everybody else, has needs, has overcome difficulties, and wishes to feel safe and loved. This awareness of self in relation to others restores a feeling of connection. In turn, softening the sense of isolation can become a gateway towards well-being.

2. Hold your experience with kindness.

Source: Rosy/Pixabay

Try holding your experiences, all the feelings they stir, with a receptive kindness. Often, when the feelings are outside of conscious awareness, we get gripped by them. Or if we feel stuck with certain feelings, we might try to deny them altogether. Reflection can help our feelings become more tolerable. We start to notice how they come and go, even the ones that wield the most power. In a way, holding our experiences without trying to change or control them is similar to how a loving parent might be with a child who is distressed. The parent brings compassion and curiosity to help the child feel like what they’re going through is tolerable. That reflection and curiosity can generate a natural compassion. Compassion feels good. If there’s self-compassion, there’s usually a softening. Moreover, with a little spaciousness created through this compassion, our feelings can become portals into insight.

3. Use self-compassion – especially when it’s too much to hold by yourself.

If someone has been too on their own when holding really complicated experiences, they’ll often build up defenses against self-reflection. Their protective parts will say: Don’t go near the suffering. Don’t open Pandora’s box – you’ll feel terrible about yourself. Sometimes, there’s an unconscious fear of confirming that the person is unlovable or problematic. None of us can hold the fullness of what we go through alone. Self-compassion can lessen the risk of getting flooded by shame or self-attack. We could also picture a benevolent other – real or imagined – someone who’s present with us, who truly cares, and who is holding all of it with us without judgment, so we’re not alone.

4. Widen the definition of happiness.

Happiness is a multidimensional part of the human experience. It can be understood as a terrain that includes a sense of appreciation, delight, peace, and contentment. When the mind is relatively settled, we’re more likely to notice small things that fill us with gratitude. The ability to savor the good, no matter how benign, can usher in a reliable sense of contentment, even when things are not perfect. When there’s genuine appreciation present, the mind can also fully enjoy the good experiences when they happen, for example, a delicious meal or a kind text from a friend. In Buddhist psychology, this ability to amplify a fuller awareness of all the moments of care, decency, and attentiveness, is a game-changer toward becoming a basically happier person.

5. See our interdependence.

From a Buddhist perspective, part of what helps us feel well is seeing things in accordance with reality. This means getting to the truth of our interdependence. We don’t exist in isolation the way we often feel we do. Especially for people in highly individualistic cultures, there's a risk of feeling fundamentally isolated. But in reality, we are completely embedded relationally. Our interactions affect our brain chemistry. Our bodies respond to the environment. The more we understand this, often, the less we suffer. We no longer feel so radically on our own, striving to figure things out. And, we’re on board with reality.

6. Find support and inspiration in others.

Whether online or in person, through books or podcasts, we need others who offer us inspiration and encouragement. Having a community that provides support and reassurance can be invaluable. In the same way, the body needs nourishing food, the mind can only feel well when it’s getting care, support, and nourishment. Most of us are consuming too much information that is over-stimulating and distressing. We could try to counterbalance frightening or enraging news reports with information that is inspiring and hopeful. Our minds are just as responsive to what we’re exposed to as our bodies.

7. Care for your gifts.

According to Buddhist teachings, there is basic goodness, compassion and beauty baked into the mind. It’s a matter of appealing to that skillfully, patiently, and unraveling it in ourselves and the world around us. Remember your incredible inner gifts of intelligence, insight, and the ability to love.

Most people have a distorted and negative sense of who they are. For this reason, we are often on a constant search for some treasure out there. But this unrelenting marathon, while totally understandable, generates anxiety and stress. As a therapist, I’ve noticed that when people begin to challenge the distorted negative narratives of who they are and start to restore connection with the truth of their own decency and basic goodness, no matter how camouflaged over time, contentment becomes genuinely accessible. It does take some work and determination to keep shifting the focus from what’s happening externally to what’s happening internally. But the work pays off.

8. Hold the fuller truth.

The beating heart of well-being comes from holding the full truth of reality and our own nature. Selective attention towards the negative can be distorting, making us miss parts of our experience and ourselves. For example, in every crisis, amidst suffering, there will always be those who show up with courage, care and compassion. We all have this capacity – it just needs to be nurtured and reclaimed. While it’s critically important to acknowledge, and not minimize or deny suffering, we can also work to recognize – perhaps for the first time – just how endowed we are with all the needed ingredients for a reliable well-being, and yes, even happiness.

Many thanks to Pilar Jennings for her time and insights. Dr. Jennings is a psychoanalyst with a focus on the clinical applications of Buddhist meditation and a faculty member of the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science.

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