Cultivating the Habit of Happiness

Dharma teacher and author Joseph Emet offers an insightful, practical guide to replacing negative thought processes with positive ones to foster happiness.

Are you in the habit of being happy? For many of us, happiness seems contingent on external factors—other people’s actions, difficult experiences we’ve lived through, the weather, traffic…. But what if you could “learn” happiness and cultivate it as a lifelong habit?

Joseph Emet, a Dharma teacher (a Buddhist teacher) who trained with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh and is the author of Buddha’s Book of Sleep, Buddha’s Book of Stress Reduction, and Buddha’s Book of Meditation, offers a guide to cultivating happiness through mindfulness in his new book Finding the Blue Sky (TarcherPerigee, 2016; $16).

Emet uses each chapter to share insight into the Buddhist approach to happiness and related mindfulness techniques that guide readers to “reprogram the unconscious” by replacing negative thought patterns and habits with positive habits in daily life. The book is clear and practical, providing illuminating examples and personal stories to describe each habit and its benefit, followed by a “Time for Practice” section that allows readers to engage in the mindfulness practice just described.

Emet’s book is ideal for anyone interested in empowering themselves with the insight that mindfulness can bring and clearing space for happiness and joy.

—Diana Price

Excerpt from Finding the Blue Sky

In Chapter 8, “Growth through Meditation,” Emet describes how the habit of meditation can help us create space in our lives for self-knowledge and cultivate happiness. In the following excerpt, the author describes the difference between rumination and meditation and the benefit of the insights we can gain through the practice of meditation.

Meditate, Do Not Ruminate

Meditation is like grazing; rumination is like burping what was previously chewed and swallowed. Indeed, with grazing animals it is exactly that. To continue the metaphor, in meditation there is choice. The grazing animal chooses what it puts into its mouth—maybe some sweet clover or delicious-smelling mint. In rumination the animal just chews over what comes up, thorns and all.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s verse “Waking Up This Morning” is an example of a morning meditation:

Waking up this morning, I see the blue sky,
I join my hands in thankfulness for the many wonders of life.

In contrast, a period of morning rumination may go as follows:

Waking up this morning, I think of yesterday’s missed opportunities
And consider everything that may go wrong today.

Rumination brings stress. Meditation brings relief, for it enlarges perspective and context.

An inexperienced meditator is easily caught in rumination, especially if she is prone to anxiety or sadness. Going through a crisis such as a breakup or a loss does not help either. But even in the absence of extra challenges, concentrating on the breath for longer than a few minutes is not easy at the beginning. Guided meditations are helpful—as, every few minutes, hopefully just when the beginner’s concentration is waning, there is a reminder that moves the meditation forward. After several guided meditations, silent meditation becomes easier as you remember some of the instructions you heard in previous sessions and can use these to guide yourself.

Here are a few other differences between rumination and meditation:

  • Rumination keeps us in the box—the box we know as our “self.”
  • Meditation moves us out of the box toward open vistas.
  • Rumination reinforces our mental habits, as we keep going round and round the same ground.
  • Meditation frees us from entrenched habits.
  • No concentration is needed for rumination. It happens automatically.
  • Concentration is needed for meditation—we need to stay on track.
  • No guidance is needed for rumination.

Recognize the times when you slip into rumination mode, and come back to your breath and to the here and now. It is normal to occasionally slip into short periods of rumination at the beginning. Come back to observing your breath as soon as you recognize what is happening. With time you will catch yourself sooner, and time spent ruminating will diminish. Another way to short-circuit rumination is writing.

Write and Move On

If you have a lot on your mind, alternate periods of silent sitting with writing. It is possible to mentally repeat the sentence He is so mean many times when ruminating, but you are not likely to write down a whole page of it when journaling. Writing helps move you through obstinate thoughts. When ruminating we start from zero each time. When writing we usually go from where we stopped the last time. If you are writing, the thought He is so mean will probably be expressed differently the next time it shows up—perhaps with a different nuance, perhaps with an extra insight. And when you turn a page, you really turn a page.

As you write, your fleeting thoughts will turn into moments of self-knowledge or plans of action. Your notebook can become an intimate friend, sometimes more intimate than any “real” friend. You may find that you confide things to it that you have not revealed to anyone. Thoughts are like bubbles on a flowing river—they float away without leaving a trace. Thoughts that are written down do leave a trace. Just articulating a half-conscious question makes it easier to go toward finding the answer.

Thich Nhat Hanh sometimes recommends writing therapeutic letters that you may never send. Those letters may be to your father, your lover, or your boss. Henry David Thoreau’s journal was his constant companion and the source of that intimate flavor we so appreciate in his writing.

My own practice is to write after a period of meditation. A period of meditation often gets my creative juices flowing.

Meditate to Gain Self-Knowledge

“Knowing others is wisdom, knowing oneself is enlightenment,” says the Tao Te Ching. Knowing oneself includes being aware of our patterns of behavior, our habits, and our tendencies. These do not always make us—or those around us—happy.

Usually, our focus is outward: we are responding to work demands, navigating traffic, or making earth-shaking decisions in the kitchen. Periods of meditation turn our focus inward so that we are left alone with ourselves. This voluntary aloneness is different from social aloneness that might be involuntary or mixed with feelings of boredom. Even if you are meditating with a group, you are still alone with yourself because you are not interacting with others socially.

Our daily life provides fodder for meditation periods. There are many “aha!” moments in meditation. Insights germinate underground during the day or night, and burst into our awareness during meditation periods. Meditation is a way of honoring this process by making time and space for it. It may look like you are doing nothing while sitting in meditation, but do not be misled by appearances: it also looks like nothing is happening for quite a while after you seed your garden in the spring.

Joseph Emet trained with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village in France and was made a Dharma teacher in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition. He has a doctorate in music from Boston University and is the author of Buddha’s Book of Sleep (winner of the 2013 COVR Award for Book of the Year), Buddha’s Book of Stress Reduction, and Buddha’s Book of Meditation. The founder of the Mindfulness Meditation Centre in Montréal, Emet lives in Pointe-Claire, Canada. 

Excerpted from Finding the Blue Sky by Joseph Emet with the permission of TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2016 by Joseph Emet.