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The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

By Sharon Salzberg
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Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzberg

Lovingkindness (1995) is a gentle guide to uncovering the profound meanings of love and happiness. With psychological insights and actionable meditations, it shows us how the Buddhist path to pursuing a liberated heart can help each of us tap into our inner radiant joy – allowing us to be kinder to ourselves and to others. 

Key idea 1 of 9

To attain true happiness, embrace all aspects of your experience.

In the Taoist yin-yang symbol, a circle that’s half dark and half light, there are two dots. In the heart of darkness, light can be found. And surrounded by light, darkness is acknowledged. 

Less abstractly, the symbol means that even if things aren’t going well for us in life, we shouldn’t be impervious to happiness. And if things are going well for us and we’re happy, we can’t ignore the possibility of suffering in the future. This integration – the capacity to accept both states, deeply, at the same time – results in abiding happiness.

The key message here is: To attain true happiness, embrace all aspects of your experience.

Western culture’s definition of happiness doesn’t usually make room for suffering. Media and cultural assumptions suggest that experiencing pain or sadness is shameful or blameworthy. And underlying these messages is an expectation that we should be able to suppress any feelings of fear or loss. 

Pain is, by nature, an isolating experience that can make us feel disconnected from humanity and life. When we define pain as unacceptable, life becomes even more constricting. But if we become willing to relate to life fully, including the suffering, we can move our hearts out of isolation and into true connection. 

One way to get there is meditation. In meditating, we learn to really pay attention – to become aware of and embody constructive mental states, and to let go of ones that don’t serve us. If you think this is just another woo-woo practice, not so fast! Meditation has numerous science-backed benefits. 

One study published in the journal Pain Management Nursing revealed that after a 20-minute guided lovingkindness meditation, migraine sufferers reported a 43 percent reduction in emotional tension and 33 percent less pain. And when scientists taught lovingkindness to people with chronic back pain, they also found large improvements in pain and stress reduction.

The Buddha had his own list of the particular advantages of a lovingkindness practice. These included: pleasant dreams; being loved by people, celestial beings, and animals alike; immunity from external dangers; a serene mind; and a radiant face.

In the following blinks, we’ll explore the four brahma-viharas, or “heavenly abodes” – a series of Buddhist virtues and the meditations designed to cultivate them. In practicing these, we can radically change our relationship to life, making room for a calmness and clarity of mind that allows us to shed stress, fear, and criticism. First up? Metta, or lovingkindness.

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