10 min read ⌚
Meditation in the 21st Century
How happy are you? Yeah – we know: we can (and should) do better at it as well.
Fortunately, Buddhist monk Gelong Thubten is here to help:
Who Should Read “A Monk’s Guide to Happiness”? And Why?
“The aim of this book,” writes Gelong Thubten at the end of the first chapter of A Monk’s Guide to Happiness, “is to help you create happiness through bringing meditation into the heart of your daily life—not only to reduce stress and gain greater mastery over your thoughts and emotions but also to discover your mind’s deep potential for unconditional compassion and freedom.”
If that sounds like something you’d want to do, then A Monk’s Guide to Happiness is definitely a book for you. Because we honestly feel that it achieves what it attempts.
About Gelong Thubten
Gelong Thubten is a Buddhist monk from the UK.
He became one after a life-threatening heart problem and severe burnout cut short his promising acting career at 21, on which he had embarked after being educated at Oxford.
A world pioneer in mindfulness meditation training, Gelong Thubten has lectured at his alma mater and for the UN, in addition to teaching at major companies such as Google and LinkedIn.
After collaborating with Yale neuroscientist Ash Ranpura and Ruby Wax on How to Be Human, Thubten wrote A Monk’s Guide to Happiness, his debut solo book.
Find out more at https://www.gelongthubten.com/.
“A Monk’s Guide to Happiness PDF Summary”
If there is one thing Gelong Thubten, a Buddhist monk from the UK, can’t understand, it is the extent to which the concept of happiness is misunderstood and misinterpreted by the majority of people.
“I’ve found that many people seek a kind of happiness which is a fleeting sensation: a ‘high’—an injection-like bolt of energy,” he writes. “Yet this never seems to last, and when they no longer experience that high, they crave it again.”
Unfortunately, Thubten is right.
Most of us don’t think of happiness as a skill we can learn, but as a state we should obtain. We don’t think of happiness as something asking for our expertise and personal commitment (i.e., something similar to, say, math or sculpting), but as something which is the direct result of external circumstances, something that can only come from the outside.
Yet, this is evidently not true.
“If it’s the case that two or more people don’t always find that the same things make them happy or unhappy,” reminds us Thubten, “then it means we’re talking about a mental experience within us, not the things around us.”
A Monk’s Guide to Happiness is a book about turning within, a manual on how one can find the source of happiness inside himself.
It is a book based on the premise that we can choose to be happy, no matter what.
And it is yet another book we’ll gladly summarize for you!
What Is Happiness?
According to Aristotle (and almost all philosophers after him), happiness is the only thing we desire for its own sake. It is the end-goal of all our endeavors. Whether you want more money or more love in your life, the real reason why you want these things is that you believe they will bring you happiness.
Consequently, it is not at all surprising that all of us are constantly searching for happiness. But what if we’re looking for it at all the wrong places?
Gelong Thubten thinks this the case for a very simple reason: most of us don’t even know what happiness is. That is why we confuse it with being a “hit,” a “buzz,” a sudden bolt of energy.
In Thubten’s opinion (and, more importantly, experience), happiness is much less temporary and much less linked to external circumstances. It is something we have inside, and something into whose power we can easily tap in if we understood its nature.
So, perhaps, that is a great place to start—with a clear and profoundly thought-out answer to the question: “what is happiness?”
Thubten defines it along the lines of a few “crucial terms”—presence, completeness, and freedom:
What does happiness feel like? We are completely in the present, with no urge to hang on to the past or ruminate about the future; we are right here in the moment, feeling complete. There is a sense of freedom; when we are genuinely happy, we are free from desire and other conflicting emotions. We are free from wanting happiness.
What Makes Us Unhappy?
An even better way to understand happiness is to define it against its opposite: being unhappy. And Thubten has a very original and interesting take on what unhappiness is.
It is, according to him, nothing less than the state of searching for happiness.
Because when we are searching for happiness, “there is a sense of hunger, of incompleteness; we are wrapped up in the expectation of getting what we want and the fear of not getting it; we feel trapped by uncertainty.”
And this state of uncertainty is overwhelming: it causes stress and discontent since we feel that our life at the present moment is not enough and that we can only be happy when our goals are completed.
But does that ever happen?
Say that you want to buy a pair of expensive glasses and say that you can’t afford them. Every time you think about them, you feel unhappy—you’re absolutely sure that once you buy those glasses, you’ll finally be happy.
Now, say that, eventually, you manage to find enough money to buy those glasses. How long before you start craving for something else? A week, a month, a few months? Perhaps even a few days. And then you’re back at the beginning.
And there’s no way you can trick this loop because of something scientists call hedonic adaptation. Also, because of something Gelong Thubten warns about at the beginning of his book: you’re thinking of happiness along the wrong lines.
The state of happiness isn’t something ephemeral—isn’t a hit of dopamine in the brain. The state of happiness, he says, is an enduring state of completeness, a state of peace, a state of no more striving and no more fear.
The good thing is that these are all mental states, and that, consequently, all of them depend on you and you exclusively. No outside “things,” no circumstances you can’t control.
Is it that easy?
We Are Hard-Wired to Be Happy
Yes, it is, says Thubten!
According to Buddhist philosophy, he reminds us, we are practically programmed to be happy: “The very reason we can be happy is that it is our true nature. This is why we feel things are in their rightful state when we’re happy: suffering feels like an intrusion into how things should be.”
And it’s not only the Buddhist who think this: science recently confirmed it as a fact.
“We are hard-wired for bliss,” famously exclaimed late neuroscientist Candace Pert sometime after discovering the opioid receptors, a group of protein-coupled receptors distributed widely in our brains, digestive tract, and spinal cord.
Their job (in case their name isn’t a giveaway) is to work as a sort of “cellular binding site for endorphins,” which, in turn, are hormones produced by the pituitary gland and the central nervous system whose principal task is to “inhibit the communication of pain signals.”
Yup, you read that right!
We may not be as blessed as the naked mole rats (which are practically immune to pain), but our body is designed in such a manner that it can’t help but producing its own morphine-like substances whenever it deems necessary to shelter us from pain.
But the very existence of this mechanism which protects us from negative influences is evidence enough that our body is programmed to know what is right and what is wrong in the first place. Interestingly enough, therein lies the problem.
Ash Ranpura, neuroscientist and frequent collaborator of Gelong Thubten, describes the problem thus: “when things are going well, the brain simply ticks over its default state, but if we are about to trip and fall, for example, it generates ‘error signal’ which kicks into gear.”
In other words, when everything’s fine, you feel nothing. When something is wrong—you feel bad. And you can’t help it: your brain will always adjust to the perfect state of things and notice only the bad things.
“Simply put,” writes Thubten, “when we are walking in a park on a glorious sunny day, and we have a toothache, we take the sunshine and beauty for granted, but tend to focus on the painful tooth. We are primed to notice what’s wrong, as it feels like an intrusion into our natural state.”
Meditation is the Key to Happiness
If there is one thing people deem inescapable, it is certainly our biology.
So, if we are biologically built to predominantly notice the things which blemish our perfect state (be their things or wants, regrets or misfortunes), how are we supposed to achieve those mental states (presence, completeness, freedom) which happiness consists of?
Well, we’re not going to tell you anything new: meditation is the key to achieving happiness.
Most people think of it as something which temporarily reduces stress. This couldn’t be further from the truth: meditation, combined with mindfulness, is a way of living your life, a way of hacking your genetic predetermination to notice the bad things, a way of connecting with your essence.
In fact, one of the Tibetan words for meditation is gom, which literally means “to become familiar with.”
And what are we becoming familiar with through meditation?
Well, it’s nothing new: it’s merely our already existing awareness that there is a part of our brain which is constantly free.
You may think this is something you’re not aware of, but, trust us—you are. Whether you want it or not, you can constantly observe your thoughts and emotions. You are not only feeling anger or sadness, but you also know that you are angry or sad.
It is this latter part of the brain that meditation targets and attempts to develop: the observing part:
When we are suffering (feeling emotional pain or facing difficulties), we usually completely identify with that painful state of mind; it becomes our entire reality. When we practice meditation, however, we can learn to identify with the part of the mind which observes that emotion; we can discover that the backdrop of all experiences is spacious and free. That awareness is far greater than the pain and the suffering we do often find ourselves caught in.
Much of Gelong Tubten’s book includes practical suggestions on how you can implement meditation and mindfulness in your life. Since this is something we’ve already covered in so many other summaries, we decided to focus on the theory behind this.
And we feel that the above pretty much wraps up all the theory you need. Now, it’s time you start practicing meditation and, well, being happy.
Key Lessons from “A Monk’s Guide to Happiness”
1. Feeling Good in the “Instant Happiness” Culture
2. Happiness Is Much More Than a Hit: It Is Freedom
3. You Are Hard-Wired to Be Happy: Use This to Be Happy As Often As Possible
Feeling Good in the “Instant Happiness” Culture
Everybody wants to feel good, so it’s no surprise that, nowadays, everyone attempts to sell this feeling.
Whether it is through a new drink, a new shirt, or a new car—what all those ads you see while scrolling through Facebook or browsing through your favorite magazines are selling to you is nothing more but some mythical feeling of happiness.
Or so they say.
What they are actually selling to you is a lie—a lie that you are not good enough, that you, in your current state, lack something. And, even scarier, that happiness is something which comes from the “outside.”
Happiness Is Much More Than a Hit: It Is Freedom
As Buddhists have known for a couple of millennia, happiness is not just a dopamine rush in your brain: it is an enduring state of completeness and peace of mind.
Much more, it is freedom—freedom from the fear of missing out, freedom from the burden of the past and the future, freedom from your wants and desires.
You Are Hard-Wired to Be Happy: Use This to Be Happy As Often As Possible
No matter how good you feel, you’ll never be happy if you think of happiness in terms of external things and circumstances.
The reason is called hedonic adaptation, which, in layman’s terms, means that your brain takes the good things that happen to you for granted, and the bad states as aberrations. In other words, it only notices when something is bad.
However, as Tolstoy taught us in the opening sentence of Anna Karenina, you need to check all of the items on your list (partner, family, children, friends, career…) to be fully happy and content; even if one remains unchecked (say, you have toothache), you’ll feel unhappy.
It would be a certain recipe for disaster this genetic precondition of ours if you didn’t have the chance to learn to use it to your benefit.
And you can quite easily: just be mindful of it and meditate, and everything will work out fine in the end.
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“A Monk’s Guide to Happiness Quotes”We live in times where there’s a lot of emphasis on feeling good. We look for some kind of ‘hit,’ like a sugar rush, and so we lurch from one ‘buzz’ to the next, concerned with having our senses stimulated and satisfied. Click To Tweet A myth we have believed throughout our lives is that we have to ‘get’ happiness, and if we can just get the external details of our lives right, we will be happy. This is not happiness, it is a form of enslavement. Click To Tweet Meditation helps us to access what feels like a deep well within, filled with nourishing water that we can drink whenever we want. Click To Tweet If we are to make some sense of this world, we urgently need to understand our own minds. Meditation and mindfulness are powerful tools for a complete internal revolution. Click To Tweet Our natural state is to feel good—we are built for happiness. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
A worthy addition to our happiness, mindfulness and Buddhism shelves, A Monk’s Guide to Happiness is, in the words of Professor Lokesh Joshi, “a wonderful book… compelling to read, yet full of profound wisdom.”
“Gelong Thubten’s book is as warm, wise and generous as the man himself,” adds Melanie Reid for The Times. “We’ve never needed a voice like his more.”
And, indeed, in the age of “instant” happiness, books which advocate lasting and genuine peace of mind are something of a much necessary balancing antidote. We should not only be thankful for their existence—we should attempt to implement them in ours as well.
And one can’t do much wrong if he starts this journey toward personal happiness with Gelong Thubten’s A Monk’s Guide to Happiness.