A daily meditation on the four levels of happiness in Buddhism. Investigate the varying depths of happiness you get from sensory pleasures, positive states of mind, meditation, and the very nature of reality.
What is Happiness?
Most of us would probably agree that we want to be happy. But what is happiness? In a way, it’s our job as human beings to figure out an answer to this question for the unique life each of us lives, and for the unique body and mind each of us has.
But there are a lot of overwhelming external forces that tell us what happiness is—or what it should be—that can drown out this inner search. In particular, we hear a huge number of messages from society and advertising and the media that material things and external measures of success are what bring happiness.
Still, it’s also important not to dismiss the importance of external things: of health and safety, of some measure of wealth, and of all the wonderful joys of sensual pleasure: beautiful sights, beautiful people, great food, great music, pleasant smells.
What I like about the strand of Buddhism I learned, that’s rooted in the Tibetan tradition, is that we don’t renounce or avoid sensual pleasure, but we come to understand pleasure as one of the continuum of things that brings happiness and meaning to life.
In our last episode we had a talk by Ven. Sangye Khadro on the four levels of happiness as Buddhism sees them. Sensual pleasure is seen as the first level of happiness, but then there are 3 more that follow. And each one is said to provide greater and greater satisfaction. In this meditation, we explore these four levels of happiness in a way that lets us each have a taste of these levels and to decide for ourselves whether such a ranking of happiness might be true.
Happiness Meditation Practice
Settle into your meditation posture, either cross-legged on the floor, or sitting in a chair with your legs uncrossed, feet flat on the floor. Straighten your spine, tilt down your head, half-close your eyes, and relax all the muscles in your shoulders, neck, and face. Place your hands palms-up in your lap, one atop the other; or palms-down on your knees.
Motivation of loving-kindness (metta)
Set a motivation for your meditation session: to explore the sources of happiness and well-being with openness and curiosity so that I can make the most of my life, bring the most joy and meaning to myself and others.
Mindfulness meditation on the breath
And now focus on your breath for one minute. Bring your attention to your nostrils, where the breath comes in and out: cool as it comes in, warm on the way out. Or you can focus on your abdomen rising and falling with the in and out of your breath.
Bring all of your attention to your breath. But don’t stress out if your attention wanders. Realize that when you notice you have wandered, you are already on the way back to focus. And that you don’t need to push thoughts and perceptions that intrude away, and you also don’t need to bring them closer. Just let them pass by naturally and let your attention go back to your breath. For one minute.
1. Sensory pleasure: the first level of happiness
And now we explore the first level of happiness: sensory pleasure. Try and picture various sense pleasures now, to get a feel for them in your meditation. Think of places and images and movies and songs whose sights and sounds you enjoy. What places do you love to be? What movies, paintings, or photographs do you love to look at? What music fills you with pleasure? What are your favorite foods and restaurants? How do you like to be touched, and what and who do you enjoy touching: from beach sand and summer grass to your pet and your partner?
The drawbacks of sensory pleasure: impermanence
All of these things genuinely make us happy. But what are their drawbacks?
First of all, they are impermanent. None of them lasts. It’s inevitable that we leave the beautiful place, the TV show ends, the song’s finished, the meal’s over, the vacation’s done, we’ve finished making love with our partner, and so on. So if our happiness is wholly dependent on external sensory pleasure, then there’s a little bit of constant disappointment at these experiences running out in the various ways that they do. Think about how or whether this is true for you with some of the sensual pleasures you enjoy.
The drawbacks of sensory pleasure: craving and acting out
The other problem is that we naturally get attached to these sense pleasures. We don’t have to feel bad about getting attached to them. It’s a natural feeling to want to have more of something pleasant. And it’s a feeling we don’t want to deny. But there are different ways to process those feelings. And some of them generate disturbing emotions inside us. We can feel an unpleasant sense of craving when we don’t have some of the sense pleasures we enjoy, and that craving can keep us from appreciating whatever’s in front of us right now. Sometimes, we can feel that we can’t even be happy without those external sources of pleasure, that we have to have them. And such thoughts can make us miserable.
From these feelings of craving we can become sad, we can become irritable to the people around us, causing relationship problems. We can even be driven to act out physically, to try and get the things we think will make us happy in unhealthy ways – through manipulation, or to excess that harms us, like when we overeat, or even through lies and violence. If we look at some of the biggest problems in the world, many of them are caused by attachment to pleasures that drive powerful people to do some awful things.
How to enjoy pleasure: impermanence and interdependence
Still, the answer from the Tibetan Buddhist approach is not to eliminate sense pleasures from our life, but to integrate them with the higher forms of pleasure in a way that makes them more pure, more joyful, easier to accept when we have them, and easier to let go of when we don’t.
This is jumping ahead a little, to the next levels of happiness. For example, we can integrate this first level of pleasure with the second level of pleasure, which is positive states of mind, using the technique of universalizing. That means, as we enjoy something, we wish that everyone in the world could have this wonderful thing too.
Or, we can integrate sensory pleasure with the fourth kind of happiness, the wisdom understanding interdependence or emptiness. We can see that the thing we are enjoying that appears to exist outside ourselves, is actually interdependent through an infinite number of parts and causes and conditions; that it relates in a way to the whole universe, including our own body and mind.
Where is that thing outside ourselves that we think brings us pleasure all by itself? Sights are invisible electromagnetic radiation that our brains turn into imaginary color and form. Sound is the soundless vibration of air that our brain hallucinates into music and voice. Taste is the reaction of our tongue and brain to chemicals sliding over our tastebuds. Smell is our nose making emotional reactions to chemicals that float into our nostrils. Touch is the vibrating of skin against different materials.
And then everything we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell is made of parts that have infinite causes.
So that’s another way to deepen our appreciation of sensory pleasure: to realize its interdependence.
2. Positive states of mind: the second level of happiness
The second level of happiness is positive states of mind. From this Buddhist perspective, positive states of mind like love, compassion, kindness, and generosity offer a higher level of happiness than sense pleasures.
When we’re with people we love we have this second level of happiness, like a parent has to her child, a child to her parent, or warm feelings for our friends and for people we are in common cause with in the world to accomplish what we believe in. Or the love we feel for our pets.
Bring to mind now a time that you had one of these positive states of mind, and mull around this idea to see if it’s true for you. Is it true that the times I’ve felt unconditional love, compassion, kindness, or generosity were more pleasurable than a great vacation, a great TV show, a great meal, a great song, or a massage, making love, or other sensual pleasure?
Take a look at this second level of happiness, positive states of mind, and notice how and why this form of happiness might be greater than sense pleasure. Because sense pleasures can tend to be a little self-centered, like this tastes so delicious to me, this feels so good. Whereas this second form of happiness is more altruistic, more concerned for others. We’re less focused on our own pleasure and more on others’ happiness. And the beautiful irony of this, is that focusing more on others makes us happier than the more selfish focus on ourselves with sense pleasure. Like the Dalai Lama says, if you must be selfish, be intelligently selfish, because the true cause of our own happiness is cherishing others.
3. The bliss of meditation: the third level of happiness
The third level of happiness is one that comes from meditation. When you develop your concentration to a certain degree, there’s a deep, timeless form of happiness that’s often called bliss. It’s possible for anyone to experience this if they put some effort and focus into meditation and have the right instruction.
There are technical names for this kind of bliss, shamatha or calm abiding.
And it’s said that this pleasure that comes from deep meditative focus is better than sex, drugs, any sensual pleasure and that you don’t feel hungry or tired or thirsty or physically uncomfortable when you’re in it. You’re happy just sitting and meditating for long stretches of time.
Of course most of us don’t have this level of concentration. But for a minute let’s try and get a taste of it.
Try and let all of your sensory focus dissolve. Let go of sight, smell, taste, touch, sound, and also fantasies of these senses, memories, or plans.
Try and turn your mind inward for a moment and focus on your inner experience. The mind focusing on the mind.
Thoughts and sensory experience may still arise in this mind watching the mind, but try and see that these are made of something more subtle, that thoughts and perceptions are made of this subtler aspect of mind. Focus on the mind rather than the contents of the mind and see whether it has an appearance: is it bright or dark? Is it spacious or compact? For a minute let the mind meditate on the mind with curiosity and openness, and see how a side effect is a kind of joy and lightness that has always been available to you.
4. Happiness that comes from wisdom: the fourth level of happiness
The last and highest level of happiness available to us from the Buddhist view is the happiness of wisdom, understanding the interdependent nature of reality. This is sometimes called emptiness. One of the ways to understand this wisdom is through the logic of dependent origination, seeing how all things are interconnected through an endless chain of interdependent parts, causes, and conditions.
It doesn’t seem completely obvious that understanding reality would make us happier than anything else. It’s not like physicists or chemists are any happier than other people.
But this particular way of understanding reality cuts at the root of our suffering, which is a sense of separateness and loneliness, a feeling of independence from others and from a universe that we are actually entirely interconnected with.
So to explore this idea, let’s meditate on it in the context of an object of pleasure and then of ourselves.
Bring to mind one of the objects of sensory pleasure that you enjoy.
Now analyze how it is made of parts: ingredients, molecules, light, particles, skin and muscles, whatever it is. There’s actually no “thing” there, no meal, no TV show, even no partner, separate from those parts. It’s kind of mind-blowing and can be a little scary to see things this way. Don’t go to an extreme and convince yourself it doesn’t exist at all though. You’re just getting in touch with how it actually exists, not negating existence.
Now look at how all those parts have causes. They didn’t just spontaneously come to be. They came from other things: food came from plants and animals, water and sunlight; media came from minds of its creators and an interaction with the history of all our culture, technology. And other people, even our partner, are built out of things they ate and heard and saw and their parents and their parents’ parents. And each of these chains can be traced back forever, so that we are all connected to the birth of our star, the heavy elements in the universe, and even the origin of the universe.
Like Carl Sagan says, if you want to know how to bake an apple pie, you have to go all the way back to the Big Bang.
And the last element, in addition to the object’s parts, and the causes that brought them together, is our mind. Our mind plays an essential role in projecting a wholeness, a thing-ness, a you-ness onto this collection of caused parts. Meditate on this way of seeing your object of pleasure now, as a collection of parts, with infinite causes, and your mind projecting a label of wholeness onto them.
And then, for the last part of this meditation, the highest form of happiness, steer this analysis onto yourself. See how your body and mind are also made of parts, how the parts all have causes, and how your own mind labels this interdependent, constantly changing bundle of caused parts with the illusion of an unchanging, independent you.
In meditation, in a way that goes beyond words now, try and see yourself in this fuller, more dynamic, wholly interdependent way, for a taste of the highest form of happiness that comes from wisdom.
And now, as we come out of the meditation, think for yourself whether this hierarchy of happiness makes sense. Maybe take these ideas with you through today and tomorrow and beyond and see if they are true for you.
Sense pleasure, the happiness of positive states of mind, the happiness of bliss in meditation, and the happiness that comes from the wisdom understanding the interdependent nature of reality.
Is this really true?
Take it on at least as a hypothesis for a little while and decide for yourself. With the motivation that we want to be happy in order to make our life and the lives of everyone we encounter as joyful and meaningful and connected as we possibly can.
Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry and Chris Boulton
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio
Episode art: Group III by Hilma af Klint (1907)
If you’re a beginner who enjoyed this guided meditation for happiness, you can learn more about the sources of happiness, self-esteem, self-love, inner peace, and mental health, positive emotions, and positive states of mind in daily life from meditation teachers like Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Jon-Kabat-Zinn, and Tara Brach. They also offer meditation courses on the practice of meditation adapted from the long tradition of the Buddha that is now being validated through the scientific principle of neuroplasticity.