Q. How can individuals in a secular society use spiritual practice -- regardless of specific religion -- in increasing the level of their personal happiness?
MR. Spirituality does not necessarily imply religious belief. Spirituality is about transforming one’s mind and one’s perception of the world. Mind training is indeed at the root of genuine happiness. Most of the time we place our hopes and fears outside ourselves. Yet, our control of the outer world is limited, temporary and often illusory. Although the outer conditions influence considerably our well-being it is the mind that translates them in happiness or misery. As the Dalai Lama said, “If one moves into of a luxurious flat at the 100th floor of a brand new high-rise building, while feeling terribly unwell within, all what one will look for is a window from which to jump.” What are the inner conditions for well-being? We are ready to spend years to be educated and train in various skills, we make strenuous efforts to stay fit and healthy. But why are we so hesitant to look within and investigate the mechanisms of happiness and suffering? We can transform the way our mind translates good or bad circumstances into well-being or torment. This is what spirituality is about and one should not underestimate mind’s ability to change.
Q. Is personal happiness possible without an effort toward “the greater good”?
MR. No. “Selfish happiness” does not exist. We may rejoice in an unhealthy way after defeating a competitor in a wicked way, or get some temporary satisfaction by achieving some kind of comfort at the cost of other’s suffering, or simply while ignoring others, but experience shows that this does not contribute to a lasting sense of genuine happiness. Our happiness is intimately connected to that of others. It is also well known, both from the psychologists and by the spiritual persons as well that altruism and lovingkindness are fundamental components of true happiness. This does not mean that one should not “love oneself”. To genuinely love oneself means to seek a genuine sense of fulfillment and get rid as much as we can of our mental poisons - hatred, obsessions, jealousy, arrogance etc.. From there it is easy to recognize that, just as we do, all living beings seek happiness - whether consciously or not, skillfully or not - and want to avoid suffering. Such recognition naturally leads to being concerned about others’ well-being.
Q. What position do loss, disappointment, impermanence -- even grief -- take in the mandala of happiness “given” that a happy life requires a wise relationship to suffering?
MR. Loss and impermanence are outer conditions. These are natural phenomena and one must understand it clearly. Disappointment, sadness, grief and despair are inner conditions, ways of experiencing change. It is natural for instance to feel deep sadness when losing someone very dear to us. But this is no reason this should destroy our taste for life, a sense of meaning and direction in our lives, and even a deeper sense of happiness. If one is entirely focused on feeling of self-importance and selfcherishing, one may easily lose courage and feel despaired. Our own thoughts arise as our worst enemies. If one has developed genuine happiness, our love for dear one does not have to turn into despair when we lose them. If a dear person who has died loved us very much too, she would not wish that we spend the rest of our life in utter despair. If she loves us, she would like us to continue to live a meaning and joyful life. Suffering can be a great teaching and help us as a catalyst on the path of transformation, but it is never desirable in itself.
Also, for an egocentric person, any suffering is a cause of discouragement and depression. An altruistic person, at the opposite, is much better equipped to deal with his or her own suffering. In addition to that, when an altruistic person see others’ suffering, instead of causing despair, it will immediately boost her courage and determination to do something to alleviate that suffering. Changing joys and sorrows are like the surface of the ocean, sometimes beautiful and quiet, sometimes shaken by waves and storms. Genuine, lasting happiness is like the depth of the ocean.
Q. Finally, if you were to single out the most important ingredient of a happy life -- in your spontaneous opinion as someone who straddles such disparate worlds -- what might it be?
MR. A good heart that expresses itself as loving kindness, inner freedom and inner peace.