Our world is running on stress and overwhelm. Many, many people are deeply unhappy nearly all the time, living in patterns that only perpetuate that unhappiness. If we do not change how we operate as a species, we are all going to burn ourselves out.
A big part of the problem is our tendency to live in the future. While our ability to plan and dream is one of the hallmarks of human genius, it is also one of our greatest challenges. Thinking about the future, and the past, takes us away from the present moment. If we spend all of our time caught up in visions of the future and memories of the past, we never actually experience life. For life only exists in the current moment. Everything else is a construct of the mind.
We also have a convoluted idea of the nature of happiness. We believe is something we can achieve. That it is something outside of ourselves that we can get if we work hard enough or buy the right things. Happiness cannot be purchased, though it can be experienced through cultivating presence.
Even though being in the present is our natural state, it can be elusive for modern humans to find that state of presence. We are so conditioned to letting our mulling minds run the show that we miss out on what is really going on inside and around us. This inevitably leads to one kind of misery or another.
This is where meditation practice can help. Meditation trains our minds to reside in the present moment. There are many mediation techniques that use various points of concentration and breathing exercises to cultivate presence. But the goal of most types of mediation is the same helping us experience the true nature of reality.
One practice that I have found most helpful is Vipassana. Vipassana means insight, the practice of looking inwards turning the sight into the self. And happiness can only be found within.
At its core, happiness is the choice to enjoy the present moment. Anyone in any situation can be happy if that persons awareness is centered in the present moment. What robs us of happiness is letting our attention be drawn into the past and future. Happy people still process the past and plan for the future, of course. But their memories and plans are in service to helping them make appropriate choices in the present moment. And for the most part, they are paying attention to each passing moment, living in the practice of presence.
In Vipassana it is understood that there are different forms of happiness. The most basic and easily accessible is the happiness that comes from sensual gratification, experiencing pleasant sights, sounds, and interactions. We might more appropriately call this pleasure.
Following this is the happiness that comes from generosity, then the happiness that comes from following the precepts living in ways that are harmonious and healthy. Then comes the happiness born of concentration, of focusing the mind. This requires a deeper level of clarification, bringing us closer and closer to the true happiness of our essence.
The happiness of concentration is more essential than the happiness of mere pleasure. It also more fulfilling, as it feeds a deeper part of our souls than good food or other sense gratifications ever could. The happiness of concentration is cultivated by practicing techniques such as loving-kindness meditation, compassion meditation, or chanting mantras.
The next level of happiness is that which comes through insight. True insight can only come when the mind is still. This insight allows us to see all the parts of ourselves beautiful and ugly with compassionate non-judgmental awareness. As we continue to purify the mind through concentrating on the present moment, opinions and judgments fall away, and we experience a sense of coming home. We recognize the beauty and interconnectedness of life.
Beyond even the happiness of concentration is the happiness of equanimity. Then we can experience joy in the midst of suffering, in the midst of the bliss and turmoil of life. Beyond that, the ultimate happiness is called nibbana or nirvana. It is the state of no-mind, and no separation. If you do experience it, wise teachers say you will understand the true nature of happiness, which is beyond our minds attempts to describe it.
Eventually, there is no more doing, no more striving, no more concentrating, even. We are left with only our essence which is joy. Meditation is not about making us happy, nor giving us momentary pleasant escapes from our stressful realities, nor even letting us rest in a blessed out state but rather enabling us to witness and experience the happiness that is our true nature beyond duality and the world of the senses. Vipassana meditation is one way to find a connection to our essential happiness.