Tibetan Buddhism, Meditation, and the Spiritual Journey to a Meaningful Life
In her book Why Bother? An Introduction, Lama Tsomo discusses why she bothered with meditation and the benefits she has experienced. The practices provide a path to a happier and more meaningful life. The following excerpt introduces some of the science behind meditation and happiness. Learn more about the book HERE.
Are You as Happy as You Want to be?
We all want to be happy and don’t want to suffer. That’s true not only for us humans, but for dogs, cats, mice, and their fleas. Yet try as we might, we can’t seem to work it out to always be completely happy. In the West it was long thought that you were born either a happy person or not. Even scientists held the firm conviction that the brain changed very little after early childhood. Many recent scientific studies, particularly in brain plasticity, have turned that conviction, well, on its head.
Many of these studies compared longtime Buddhist practitioners of various nationalities with novices or non-practitioners and found positive changes of all sorts in the brain. The longtime practitioners’ readings were such as had never before been recorded in a laboratory. Scientists also found that the longer the subjects had practiced, the more extraordinary the readings. Among the positive changes recorded in the experiments were improved ability to focus on a task, increased size in desirable parts of the brain, off-the-charts readings in gamma waves (which are good things), evidence of ongoing improved mood, and improved longevity factors. The clear trend was that the longer a person had been practicing these techniques, the more marked these positive changes were.
The Buddha had set out to provide humanity with methods to achieve ultimate, lasting happiness. Had he really found the secret to happiness, after all? Could his methods work for everyone?
Although those practitioners with off-the-charts readings had practiced many, many hours, studies also discovered that ordinary Westerners who tried these techniques began to show improvement right away*. When I came upon these methods, which we’ll begin practicing in Book 2, I found that they truly worked for me. After sampling all of the major branches of Buddhism, I felt the most affinity for the one practiced in Tibet, called Vajrayana. I’ll explain more about the distinctions between those major branches a bit later. This book is an introduction specifically to the Tibetan Buddhist context or view, for the practices I introduce in this series. Tibetan Buddhist views and practices meet us as we are right now, and lead us toward nothing less than ultimate, permanent happiness.
If we really stop and think about it, everything we do all day long is devoted either to pursuing happiness or eliminating suffering. Even when we work grueling hours at a job we hate? Well, why wouldn’t a person quit? Because they would rather eat and feed their family. If there were a happier work situation for them, then they probably would quit in favor of that.
One fellow I know joined the army, not because he expected a picnic, but because it was worth the hardship for him to feel the satisfaction of serving his country. We often go through hardship to make others happy, because the satisfaction makes us happy. It’s worth it.
If we don’t have a choice that offers 100 percent happiness, we settle for the best we can get. We pick one choice because we think it will make us relatively happier than any alternatives we see. We may have times in our lives when we manage to have a lot of what we want. Even then, some of us will fixate on what we don’t have, on the glass being 5 percent empty instead of 95 percent full.
And even if we succeed in being happy for a short time, the happiness evaporates all too soon and we find ourselves suffering. Even if we hold suffering at bay for a time, it eventually catches up with us. One classic example is romantic love. Although the movies may show the couple riding off into the sunset at the end, after a few years of marriage or living with someone, it can feel a little—or a lot—less heavenly. I often tried to imagine what would have happened if Romeo and Juliet had lived and gotten married. Then they have kids, argue over how to discipline them, fight about money, and really part ways when he has an affair.
I knew a couple who enjoyed many years of relative marital happiness. Then the husband died. This one is “inescapable. We all die. We’re usually shocked and often indignant (“Why me?!”) when happy times come to an end … forgetting, again and again, that everything comes to an end. Everything. Yet we know this from both science (entropy) and personal observation.
How can a set of methods help us to be happy, even when life is full of difficulties and pain? We all constantly try to change the outer circumstances, but they’re often beyond our control. Often our inner ones are too. We can’t let go of a grudge, though carrying it does us no good. We can’t stop yearning for someone we love, who doesn’t share our feelings. We can’t stop wishing that the world were different, and that we were different in the world.
This book brings you the Vajrayana perspectives on all this. The books that follow introduce you to a set of methods that have helped millions of people over thousands of years. There are many real examples of practitioners who have followed this entire path, with all kinds of astonishing results. Some practitioners have even transformed their bodies out of the material realm altogether, with rainbow-colored light streaming out of their empty clothes as they attained complete enlightenment. A rather dramatic proof of Einstein’s theory equating matter with light, wouldn’t you say? On a more modest yet inspiring note, my teacher, Tulku Sangak Rinpoche, managed to transform his experience of being imprisoned as a spiritual leader from abject misery to true happiness.
Since Rinpoche took me on as his first American “guinea pig,” he has spent a great deal of time teaching me. Though I’m nowhere near perfecting what he’s taught me, I’m already much happier, and live with much more skill and aplomb—especially in life’s most challenging times—than I did before. I’ve continued to make steady progress over the years, and I want nothing more than to pass these gems on to anyone interested … and if you’re interested, you.”
Excerpt, pages 6-9, from Ancient Wisdom for Our Times. Tibetan Buddhist Practice: Why Bother? An Introduction (c) 2021 Lama Tsomo LLC. Published by Namchak Publishing Company LLC, USA.