by Matthieu Ricard
Print Length: 308 pages
Atlantic Books (September 1, 2011)
Read from December 17, 2013 to January 15, 2014
My Rating: 4 / 5 stars
A curious book, because it mingles some scientific approaches with Buddhism philosophy. It was actually my first contact with a book related to Buddhism. My main reason to pick up this book was that it brings some findings on the effects of meditation in our brains.
I think that the parts about meditation and inner peace were useful and enlightening. I was amazed at how the practice of meditation could result in significant changes on the brains of monks that meditate for long periods daily. It brings information about the methods of meditation and also the fundamentals of Buddhism. There are examples of these fundamentals being used in cognitive therapies as a way to deal with anger:
“Buddhism takes a different position. It stresses enhanced awareness of the formation of thoughts, which allows for the immediate identification of an angry thought as it arises, and for its deconstruction the next instant, the way a picture drawn on the surface of water melts away as it is sketched. We repeat the same process with the next thought, and so on. So we need to work on our thoughts one by one, analyzing the way they emerge and evolve and gradually learning to free them as they arise, defusing the chain reactions that allow thoughts to invade the mind. This method, which presents some similarities with those developed in the West in the cognitive therapies of Aaron Beck and the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program of Jon Kabat-Zinn, is essentially centered on the present moment.”
The main focus of the book is happiness, tho. And the author discusses many topics that usually can be related to our happiness: power, pleasure, wealth, etc. And the causes to our suffering: selfishness, ignorance, afflictive emotions, etc.
In the beginning there is ample discussion on possible definitions of happiness. A sociological view would be:
“Sociologists define happiness as “the degree to which a person evaluates the overall quality of his present life-as-a-whole positively. In other words, how much the person likes the life he or she leads.” This definition, however, does not distinguish between profound satisfaction and the mere appreciation of the outer conditions of our lives.”
And the author goes further:
“By happiness I mean here a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. This is not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being. Happiness is also a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.”
What I’ve learned from this book is that happiness is a skill, it must be learned and it resides in us. Here is a good insight of the state of happiness and our perspective towards reality:
“The search for happiness is not about looking at life through rose-colored glasses or blinding oneself to the pain and imperfections of the world. Nor is happiness a state of exaltation to be perpetuated at all costs; it is the purging of mental toxins, such as hatred and obsession, that literally poison the mind. It is also about learning how to put things in perspective and reduce the gap between appearances and reality. To that end we must acquire a better knowledge of how the mind works and a more accurate insight into the nature of things, for in its deepest sense, suffering is intimately linked to a misapprehension of the nature of reality.”
The book is filled with philosophical insights and quotes about happiness, like this one:
“According to the philosopher André Comte-Sponville: “The wise man has nothing left to expect or to hope for. Because he is entirely happy, he needs nothing. Because he needs nothing, he is entirely happy.”
It also brings exercises and ways for us to practice meditation and mindfulness. There is a nice summarization about meditation and its objective:
“There are many other ways of meditating, but as varied as they are, they all share the common function of being part of the process of inner transformation. Meditation differs from mere intellectual reflection in that it involves a constantly recurrent experience of the same introspective analysis, the same effort to change, or the same contemplation. It is not about experiencing some sudden flash of understanding, but about coming to a new perception of reality and of the nature of mind, about nurturing new qualities until they become integral parts of our being.”
I felt that towards the end of the book it was becoming a little repetitive and the Buddhist content increased significantly, but that didn’t spoil the experience for me.
It was a very positive reading, and lead me to think about how violent and pernicious our society can be as a result of our state of mind. It is a book that encourages love, peace and altruism.