Happiness Is an Arm of Resilience

Saturday, March 26, 2016 - 9:51am
Photo by Stefano Corso

Happiness Is an Arm of Resilience

Many years ago, a friend of mine, someone very committed to self-awareness and passionately committed to social justice activism, said to me,

“You know, I feel so guilty all of the time for the suffering of this world, the suffering that I haven’t been able to ease. Knowing the likely conditions in which it was harvested, I can’t even let myself enjoy eating a banana.”

We all make personal ethical choices, of course, but at the time, my friend was in a pretty deep depression. He wasn’t at all claiming that the sacrifice of enjoyment was the cause of his depression, or that the depression prevented him from enjoying the banana. He knew, with his keen self-awareness, that he tended to push away pleasure. He sensed that he was more attuned to suffering than joy. He also sensed that he was bone-deep tired.

American society by and large can be suffering-phobic. We are taught to be ashamed of our pain, our fear, or our difference. We are taught to avoid the suffering of others as though we will somehow become tainted if we witness it too closely. We’re taught that we’d do better to hide the suffering away.

For the sake of resilience, we not only need to learn to relate to suffering with compassion instead of disdain; we also need to be able to accept and absorb pleasure. If we can’t, we will burn out. There’s an awful lot of suffering around, and trying to be fully awake to it demands energy, balance, perspective, and the ability to let go of attachment to results. There’s a lot of bad news out there, but there is good news too, if we stay open to it.

A few years ago, in the heart of winter, I was on the island of Maui leading a retreat alongside my old friends Ram Dass and Krishna Das. I found myself feeling bad when I told people where I was going. The weather there was glorious, and it felt almost too good to be true. When friends would write and ask how it was, something funny happened again: I would tell them how humid it was, implying that it wasn’t as nice as I anticipated — disowning the deep pleasure of my experience. I spent a great deal of time in Maui preventing myself from connecting directly to the pleasurable experience, and instead distracted myself with feelings like guilt and self-deprecation. Perhaps I assumed that by distancing myself from pleasure, I would protect other people from getting jealous. Or perhaps I felt I wouldn’t be abandoning my winter-burdened friends if I didn’t enjoy where I was. Or maybe it’s just hard for me to let in the joy, to admit fully that I deserve to be happy, just as I am committed to the wellbeing and happiness of others.

I wasn’t totally conscious at the time that I was doing this, but it’s pretty common when you stop and think about it. How often do you get a compliment, or hear someone else get a compliment, and find that the most automatic response is to say “No, no!”? We have an infinite number of ways that we distort our experiences through habits of the mind. When teaching meditation, I talk about these patterns of distortion most often in relation to pain or discomfort; for instance, rather than noticing a feeling like anger as it arises, we may start to blame ourselves or wonder how long the anger will last. All of these responses distract us from the feeling itself, and distort our relationship to the direct feeling, thought, or experience.

In the Buddha’s terms, real, true happiness can be seen as an arm of resilience. Happiness is not about feeling like everything’s great, but about recognizing our inner resource of self-trust and our connection to others that keeps us from feeling depleted by tough emotions and experiences.

In my first years studying meditation with one of my teachers, Munindra, a fellow student once asked him why and how he came to practice meditation. I expected a studious response, perhaps a pious one, but Munindra’s answer totally surprised me. Without hesitation, he replied,

“I practice meditation so that I can notice the small purple flowers by the roadside that we otherwise miss.”

This is the essence of mindfulness: paying deliberate attention, and doing so with an open heart. His answer really got to the heart of taking in joy, and being nourished by it. Rejoicing in something beautiful doesn’t have to mean the same thing as attachment. Allowing ourselves to enjoy a delightful experience with an open heart enhances our capacity for generosity and gratitude. We feel capable of being loving and connecting, and we want others to be able to feel the same. In that recognition, we see, with strength, that we are not fundamentally isolated, that our lives really do have something to do with one another.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has said,

“Happiness is available. Please help yourself.”

Helping ourselves could not only amount to our own happiness, but also to our commitment to the wellbeing of others.

Share Post

Shortened URL


Sharon Salzberg

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears monthly.

She is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is the author of many books, including Love Your Enemies, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace.

Share Your Reflection



Thank you for this beautiful insight.

Sharon, you are so right.

The four foundations of mindfulness are body, feelings, mind and mind objects. They are equally important, but you make a great point about feelings. When the Buddha referred to feelings in this context he was not referring to complex emotions such as worry, doubt, craving, anger, laziness. He was referring to three general feelings: positive, negative and neutral.

If we consider the feelings we experience over a particular day, which of the three is the most common? Clearly, it has to be neutral because we are indifferent to the feelings generated by most of our daily actions on a moment-to-moment basis. What comes next? Positive is a winner hands down. As you mentioned, there are so many things that we do every day that feel good, like breathing fresh air, eating our meals and snacks, chatting with friends, enjoying our hobbies, etc. When we consider this objectively, negative feelings are not very common in comparison. Even better, we can consider that neutral is more like a very subtle positive because the absence of a negative feeling is definitely better than feeling bad. So overall what do we have? We have positive almost all day with only a few instances of negative.

So why do so many of us suffer? Thankfully, the Buddha made clear to us that we suffer because we are attached. I'm glad you pointed out that when a negative feeling arises, we would do well to simply be aware of it and allow it to cease on its own. Instead, we hold on to it. We prolong it by obsessing over it. If only there was a way we could train the mind not to get so obsessed. But wait, the Buddha gave us that too. He gave us the insight meditation practice which is specifically designed to train the mind to let go of the past and be in the present moment. Finally, we can allow those relatively uncommon negative feelings to briefly arise and cease so that we can enjoy the rest of the day.

Thanks so much for bringing these truths to light through your insightful post.

-- Alex Young, Meditation Teacher, Buddhavipassana Meditation Centre, Toronto.

Good thoughts for any age. I am 66 and quite moved.

Thank you. So true.

It seems as though American life remains deeply affected by a dark, harsh Puritanical past and that this continues to suppress our lighter sides and keeps us from experiencing and expressing joy. And it seems that much of traditional Western mainstream religion seems to have largely facilitated this. I often wonder if it's not due to the continuing focus on our so-called "sinful" nature and the guilt that seems to encourage.

As a minister's daughter now 69 I think you are absolutely right. Mainstream religion is hard to get over! It has taken many years to realize how stifling it is and I quit attending church 40 years ago! I still feel guilty when things are going well for my family. Meditating is very helpful. I am thankful for this blog.

This is such a timely article for so many reasons. Thanks to Sharon Salzberg for encouraging others to seek out those things that bring them happiness. We all need it now, more than ever.

Arm of resilience on Bing. Wise words. Sometimes it is hard to detach from outcomes
I get challenge to see the difference between humility and arrogance . I do not wish to trigger envy. Any thought on this reflection?

I love the way you illuminate the nuanced ways we potentially sabotage our own happiness, by denying a compliment, or down playing a wonderful experience - hidden behind an illusion of perhaps being able to diminish someone else's suffering. It makes me wonder, have we been taught, in tiny micro pings and pangs, to be more attuned to suffering than to joy? That it is somehow selfish to steep in the joy? How absurd! Joy is replenishing. Just as self-compassion is self-care, so is steeping in joy! Thank you for this lesson of deepening the awareness and seeing through the everyday habits of illusion. I will be looking for the small purple flowers not only with my eyes, but with my heart as well.

I would like to thank you, I am new this but have been searching for something I know not what? I totally agree with what you have said. This has helped me to understand a lot of my own obstacles in my life, it has made me happy also that I had something that I must have taken for granted, I do see those purple flower by the road side I always have...

This Happiness is...blog has been my morning "spiritual" reading for several days. I find some new treasure in it every reading. And find consolation in the messages of connection and awareness and joy.

My current mantra is "I want to give, I want to receive". One part of this is really broken for me. The impulse to give, contribute comes through so clear. But I am often burnt out by my contributions to work, family, friends. I recognize that this is because I am so resistant to receiving. I see myself distort things even further when I recognize an instance where I feel I have failed to receive. I feel encouraged by this article. Seeing this mantra written down here I'll be changing it to the more open-hearted: "May I give, may I receive." and maybe add "May I help myself to happiness." Thank you, again.