Today I’m reviewing The Joy of Living : Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche and Eric Swanson. Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche is a revered Tibetan Buddhist master who acquired knowledge in neuroscience, studying alongside leaders in the field. The Joy of Living is curated by Eric Swanson from transcripts by the Buddhist master. The book is an eye-opening look into the science of meditation and happiness in addition to practical advice on starting meditation. It is these two parallels, of a scientific and spiritual practice, becoming a combined entity that has made this book a fascinating read for scientists and meditation practitioners alike. So what can it teach us about happiness?
Central to Yongey Mingyur’s work is highlighting various forms of dualism. For example, the self and other. He outlines how these dualistic items only exist when comparing one to another, which can create disatisfaction as we measure ourselves and our emotions against others. Another dualistic example he provides is happiness and unhappiness. Often we are unhappy because we are busy comparing our current state to other states we have experienced in the past. By practising compassion – the recognition that ‘you’ and ‘another’ are one and the same, you can begin to break divides and comparisons to reach a happier, more peaceful state of being. And through practicing mindfulness, you can learn to appreciate or bring patience to each moment rather than see it as lesser an experience than another moment.
Yongey Mingyur challenges humanity’s tendency to believe that when facing obstacles in life, we aren’t in control or that we can’t change our situation for the better. He states, “Without even consciously thinking about it, the idea that we can’t alter our minds blocks our every attempt to try” [Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, 2007, P32]. This sentence is particularly poignant in highlighting how a lot of our ability or inability to achieve something is to do with our mindset. By practising to free ourselves from the mental constructs that we create for ourselves through practices like meditation, we are able to break through barriers and create a greater sense of inner peace.
I enjoyed Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s description that the mind was like an orchestra, or a jazz ensemble. There are many players (emotions, thoughts, memories and movements) that interact to create the greater tapestry of what we do [P33]. As there is no physical evidence of the “self”, Yongey Mingyur goes on to compare us to a jazz ensemble, seemingly without a conductor: “When jazz musicians are improvising, each of them may be playing a slightly different musical phrase, yet somehow they still manage to play together harmoniously” [P42]. To create a happy whole, we need to respect the individual players of our orchestra or jazz ensemble. Every element has its place, including those that we sometimes try to deny like sadness or frustration. By observing them, we become liberated. By pushing one away or elevating another, we can end up with problems such as suppression and/or egoism.
The topic of emptiness is explored in the context of the mind. Yongey Mingyur states, “Just because something hasn’t been identified doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist” [P53]. This statement is in relation to the fact that the mind, in a physical sense, does not exist. Yet we all know it to be present. The mind empty like a blank canvas, against which our experiences rise and fall. Our greatest potential for happiness comes with observing our minds and the waves of our emotions and thoughts. Each are passing through the mind and none are permanent states. Yongey Mingyur comments that we each possess a natural peace within, it’s just that many of us haven’t yet observed it.
Another sentence that caught my attention was about how scientific advancement is also mind’s creation: “Modern physics has indicated that our understanding of matetial phenomena is limited to some extent by the questions we ask of it” [P84]. This highlights that we only learn what we know to ask in the first place. We only prove or disprove something by knowing to what question to ask and then asking it. Relating this back to happiness and mindfulness, I feel this exemplifies that we sometimes allow life to happen rather than really observe it and understand it. In observing it and being very true to ourselves, natural questions arise and become answered. Often we find that feelings such as stress, that can stay with us for lengths of time, can be just as fleeting as a less troublesome state of mind. Our seemingly predefined notions of how things are become disproved and our inner natural peace proved.
Quotes aside, the first half of the book provides well described basics of neuroscience. It explains how meditation can exercise parts of the brain. It also highlights how repeating thoughts or motions can change the brain structure. So as much as we may have mental habits such as being predisposed to pessimism, we can train our brains to create new neural pathways that are optimistic.
The second half of the book is about meditation practice and how to approach this. I felt that it was very encouraging that choosing the form and frequency of meditation to suit each individual was encouraged. It’s easy to become so enthusiastic about practice that you can become unrealistic, pushing yourself for extended periods rather than having quality practice.
In conclusion, this work by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche forms an important part in our understanding of happiness and meditation. With many people requiring evidence of something working before trying it, this book highlights some examples of where scientific work has been carried out to display the benefits of meditation. Tying knowledge with practice so that we can better improve our wellbeing, I’ll close with one of my favourite statements from the book, “Wisdom is pointless without a practical means of applying it” [P130].
You can buy The Joy of Living : Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche and Eric Swanson on Amazon UK.