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The Search for Mental Balance and Happiness

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Prepared for a symposium celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Buddhist Pali College in Singapore

The aim is to promote Buddhist thinking and its relevance to society today.

This article is written in the hope of offering some suggestions on how life’s burden could be managed wisely so that it is possible to achieve some degree of mental balance in our daily life and thus be happy. This is essentially a lay practitioner’s suggestion on how to weave the Buddha’s teaching into secular life, such that one can experience some initial fruit of spiritual success and be truly inspired even while living a lay life. I believe the spiritual journey and self-discovery can begin for lay disciples still caught up with secular demands and responsibilities and still unable to completely quench cravings and other negativities.

What is Mental Balance?

First, let’s define the term mental balance. This is a seemingly straightforward state of mind and yet it is tricky to explain. It is tricky because mental balance is not such an obvious state of mind. It is not an intense emotional state. If anything, it is mild. We usually know when we are severely unbalanced. But for the most part of the day, we can’t quite say that we are actually mentally unbalanced, and yet are we truly balanced? If we are truly balanced, surely we must be at peace and happy. But really, are we?

Mental balance is a state of mind which is steady, calm, quiet and unshakeable in its inner core. In this state, the mind is at equilibrium. It is neither restless nor sluggish, neither excitable nor disinterested, neither high emotion nor low spirited. When there is mental balance, the mind is objective, alert, content, peaceful, and unaffected by the external conditions and environment that one has no control over.

Mind of the Puthujjana is Unbalanced

Buddha had called the average man a puthujjana (translated as “worldling”). A puthujjana is not a lay person per se, but anyone who possesses two characteristics: (a) he is trapped, caught up and swept along by sensual desires; and (b) he is unable to see the world apart, separate from the “I-conceit” prism.

(a) Sense desire trap

The worldling is caught up with and obsessed about the allure of the five sense objects: beautiful sights, melodious sounds, aromatic smell, delicious taste and sensuous touch. His mind would happily “repeat-playback” the pleasurable sensual experiences so that it can repeatedly enjoy the memory of delightedness. The puthujjana is thus swept along by the tidal waves of sensual bombardment through the sense bases and often drowns in gratifying delight. Hence, the expression – the ariyas (i.e., those who have understood the Dhamma) have ‘crossed the flood’. What flood? That would be the flood of sensual desires, amongst other things.

Conversely, when the puthujjana is denied his fulfillment of sense pleasure, his mental state swings to the other extreme and he gets annoyed or agitated or plain furious. How upset he gets would depend on how intensely he wanted that object of desire, and how much he craves the desired sense experience. So the puthujjana mind, on just this one issue of sense experience, would swing between the two extremes of lobha (greed) and dosa (ill-will).

(b) Lens of ‘I conceit’

The puthujjana is also caught up with his ‘self’, alternately described as ego or the ‘I-conceit’. He instinctively regards everything he experiences as ‘I, mine, my self/soul/essence’. What does this mean? It means he internalizes each mental-physical experience, feels it as unique and special, identifies with it, be a part of it and owns it.

In the Alagaddupama Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya), Buddha said, “the untaught ordinary person” (i.e., puthujjana) “regards each of the five aggregates (form, consciousness, perception, thought formation, feelings) as ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’… he regards what is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, encountered, sought, mentally pondered as: ‘this is mine, this I am, this is my self.’ On this view, namely, ‘this is self, this the world; after death I shall be permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change; I shall endure as long as eternity’ – this too he regards as: ‘this is mine, this I am, this is my self’.”

The ‘I’ is a mind-made illusionary concept that feels so real yet it requires, indeed demands, constant and perpetual pampering, assuaging, feeding and stroking, to ‘feel alive’ and ‘meaningful’. It is so tenacious it grips our mind and demands attention all the time. And yet it is so fragile that it requires the puthujjana to expend so much energy pacifying its insecurity and giving it substance.

So, the bottom line is the puthujjana’s mind is unbalanced because it is constantly juggling the twin forces of craving-gratification demands and ‘I-ego’ instincts. Conversely, to have mental balance, that inner core of peace and unshakeable stability and calm, one must be able to tame the restless and relentless craving-gratification demands and be able to moderate, pacify and even let go of the ‘I-ego’. In the Buddha’s Dhamma, the emphasis of the practice is to develop the mental skills necessary to pacify these twin forces of craving and ego.

Methodology to Achieving Mental Balance and Happiness

– Adopting right perspective /understanding

Before we get started on the spiritual journey, we have to be convinced that the Buddha’s Dhamma, his observations about the nature of the mind and life’s experiences, about why we experience all kinds of emotional pain, are valid and correct.

Second, do we also agree with the Buddha’s premise that the reason why we are experiencing unhappiness, stress, mental imbalance, etc., is because we are insatiable in our wants? Do we, can we, see that the more desires and demands we have, the more we will feel stress and distress and be less emotionally balanced? In the practice, we have to correctly connect the dots between craving and mental distresses, as the Buddha had. We have to see and understand that the correlation between these two, craving and mental distresses, are direct and proportionate.

Then we have to realize and accept that if we can learn to manage expectations and to moderate craving and wants, our mental distresses and emotional angsts would accordingly diminish. Only when we know how to let it be would we have pain relief and mental balance.

Finally, we must have the wisdom to want to do the necessary to pacify craving and tame I-conceit. Essentially, this means embracing a methodology that is counter-intuitive and in that sense difficult to master. Our instincts are to grasp and to want more, to enjoy and to indulge. But the Buddha’s method requires letting go, giving, containing anger and managing the ego. The practice is not easy and we must have the confidence, conviction, determination, and discipline to persevere even when the journey feels overwhelmingly difficult.

– Right concentration skills

Assuming that we have the wisdom and will to begin the search for mental balance, the next big challenge in the methodology is to be able to see for oneself how the mind works. This is extremely difficult because mental processes move at lighting speed. Worse, we are often caught up in the objects and sense experiences contained in the mental processes that we lose track of the mental process itself.

The big challenge for the practitioner is thus to be able to significantly reduce the amount of mental content arising, so that it is possible to observe how each one arose and fell away. By mental content, I mean sense contact, perception, feelings and thoughts. The observation of each mental episode must be done objectively, without assumptions, without prejudice, without mindless chattering.

How to train the mind to do this? According to the Buddha, one has to develop two different sets of meditation skills: mindfulness and concentration.

a) mindfulness the skill where the mind is able to focus, observe and track movement and changes. In the Buddha’s methodology, the objects for mindfulness tracking are essentially, the body, feelings, mind, and mental objects.

b) concentration the skill where the mind is trained to be still and to stay focused on one object. Stay put on that object for long enough, and the mind becomes sharp, clear, light, tranquil, objective and equanimous. This is the state where insight into and vision of the nature of the mind can arise.

What are we supposed to be seeing?

The rising and falling away of each and every mental and physical experience, particularly, craving. If one sees craving for often enough, if one becomes so thoroughly familiar with craving, if one remains very objective in observing these craving experiences each time it arises and fades away, then at some point, the mind would turn away from and get more dispassionate about the experience of craving. The mind becomes less and less affected by craving. The sensation of craving is thus tamed.

Separately, when one sees how each mental experience is conditional upon the preceding mental experience, one may realize intuitively the non-existence of an “I” driving mental processes. It may dawn on one that the awareness of a “self” is in itself a conditioned process. This awareness is not proof of the existence of a soul. However momentous that awareness feels, it is just awareness. One may realize that the experience of life’s moments, however special those may be, is nothing mystical and unique. Life’s experience is condition-based and identical for all and anyone with the same cognitive and physiological tools.

Ethical Discipline and Restraint

Where does ethics fit in the whole practice? In the eightfold path, there is an entire category devoted to restraining action, speech and livelihood. Exercising ethical discipline and observing restraint over speech, action and mind is necessary for the developing of the conditions critical for meditation. As the Buddha had put it and I paraphrase: one observes morality practices so that one has “freedom from remorse”. Having a clear conscience is a condition for the arising of joy. Joy is a condition for rapture, which is in turn necessary for tranquility, happiness and concentration.

Concentration is a condition necessary for the arising of “vision and knowledge according to reality”. (This means being able to see objectively and understand with wisdom the nature of the mind.) With this “vision and knowledge according to reality” as condition, the mind would “turn away and be detached”. Eventually, “vision and knowledge with regard to deliverance” would arise.

Right action, right speech and right livelihood are important to the spiritual practice not just for themselves (although they are important too): but as critical prelude to meditation and realization of Dhamma.

Making Wise Choices

I call this final segment in the methodology to achieve mental balance “making wise choices”. For many practitioners, even with understanding and even after embracing the rationale for the practice, even when they have conscientiously meditated and dutifully observed precepts and ethical discipline, they may realize really how difficult it is to stay on the path, amidst all the sensual temptations and their own instincts. It is a continuous struggle to curb negative instincts and tame the mind. We must have the wisdom to see that we must make the effort not to allow our negative instincts to proliferate unchecked for when that happens, it is going to be very difficult to make spiritual progress and achieve absolute mental balance.

So from a day-to-day “tactical” perspective and in a more life-transforming “strategic” way, we have to change. We must make the right choices that will ensure that our mind is a healthy environment for spiritual growth and not a barren wasteland of negativities.

What are ‘tactical’ right choices?

By ‘tactical’ choices, I mean moral/ethical choices that we make moment to moment and that surface on a daily basis at any hour of the day. I see $5 on the road, do I take it? The mosquito is annoying me, do I kill it? She’s asking a difficult question, do I lie? I am angry, do I vent? This tastes really good, should I indulge? And the list goes on.

These ‘tactical’ choices are characterized under Right Effort (samma vayama) in the eightfold path. The intent is essentially to ensure that the mind is filled with kusala (wholesome or skillful) thoughts and be free from akusala (unwholesome or unskillful) ones, so that the mind is a fertile environment for spiritual practice. To be able to have such clarity about the content in the mind at any one time requires very sharp mindfulness. Hence right effort is traditionally parked under the concentration category of the eightfold path. But the intent is the same: to clean up the mental space so that the mind is more conducive for spiritual development and success.

What are ‘strategic’ right choices?

By ‘strategic’ I mean these are choices we make with the correct understanding and perspective about the real nature of mind, and the correlation between mental pain and craving. This is not a moment to moment decision: this is about life’s choices as a result of a way of looking at life and understanding its meaning and priorities.

I choose to do good and do no evil because I believe that these choices will take me closer to spiritual enlightenment. I choose to be generous and giving and knowing how to let go, instead of being caught up in the rat race because I believe this would make me happier. I choose to be patient and calm, instead of giving vent to anger and lashing out whenever the mood hits. It’s a way of keeping my ego in check. I choose to be kind and caring instead of being mean and cruel, which would have been so easy especially if our ego is in the way. The bottom line is I choose to live wisely, to let go, to curb anger, to be harmless, and in so doing, be mentally balanced and happy.

These “strategic” choices are characterized under Right Thought (samma sankappa) – traditionally parked under wisdom category. Rightly so because it is with understanding and wisdom that we make the right choices that will take us closer towards spiritual enlightenment.

Conditions for Success

In the Bodhirajakumara Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya), Buddha identified five conditions necessary for spiritual success and enlightenment. I think they are valid for our purpose here also. To be able to achieve mental balance and be happy, the surest way is to weave the eightfold path into daily living. To be able to walk this path successfully, below are necessary preconditions.

a) Faith “in the Buddha’s enlightenment” – I believe that the start point of any treatment success must be faith in the skill of the doctor, and in the medicine he prescribes.

We believe that the Buddha had indeed discovered a form of treatment that can enable the practitioner to realize and experience unconditioned relief from all forms of mental discomfort and distress. We also believe that the Dhamma is effective in guiding the sincere practitioner to that enlightenment and realization of unconditioned bliss. I personally find that everything that is needed for completing the spiritual journey can be found in the suttas.

b) Health – Buddha said that this meant being “free from illness and affliction” and “having good digestion and is able to bear the strain of striving”. This is practical and sound advice. For the average man, when he is physically sick, his ability to concentrate and to see the mind objectively is compromised. It would be extremely difficult for a mind of one who is physically unwell to practise because he would be so distracted by worry and pain to be objective and penetrative. So the moral of the story is practise while we still enjoy good health! Later may just be too late.

c) Honest and sincere – Buddha described this as “showing himself as is to the community”; Buddha was talking to Sangha members when he cited the 5 preconditions.

My own sense of this condition is that it means the practitioner must be honest and sincere about his own spiritual development and understanding or lack thereof. I consider this to be an extremely important condition. It is very tempting for the individual to want to achieve great spiritual attainment. I mean, how nice it is to be an ariya and be a field of immeasurable merits!

But seriously, this is not an ego trip. Ultimately, this is about realizing unconditioned peace and bliss as a result of enlightenment. Pretending to be what one is not does not change the fact that there is no wisdom and no peace. The practitioner must thus be fully aware of his own strengths and weaknesses, and be honest about what he knows or not. If one were to lie to oneself, it would mean he can’t see what needs to be done and then how could he complete the spiritual journey?

d) “Energetic in abandoning unwholesome states and in undertaking wholesome ones” – To me this demonstrates not just a strong determination to practise but the mental discipline and skill to practise moment to moment, on a daily basis, as a matter of routine, as a way of life. I have found that when one is conscientious and makes careful and deliberate effort to “abandon unwholesome states and develop wholesome ones” on a moment to moment basis, the meditation practices for the day tend to be more fruitful. The mind settles into a calm and focused state faster. It is more detached faster. It is sharper with observations.

e) Wise – Buddha was specific about the nature of wisdom as a condition for spiritual success: it is “possessing wisdom regarding rise and disappearance that is noble and penetrative and leads to the complete destruction of dukkha.” This is the insight that arises when one sees for oneself how the mind really works and as a result of that knowledge and vision, realizes unconditioned bliss.

Dhamma in Daily Life

In this final segment, I shall offer some thoughts about what it means to embrace Dhamma in daily living. If we are sincerely committed to the spiritual practice, and conscientiously pursue it, at some point, there will be inevitable change in the way we see the world and interact with it. Below are a few of the more obvious and common transformation. But there will be those that may be unique to individuals.

a) Accepting Conditionality

What does this mean? Most of us have a compulsive desire to change our environment and/or the people we encounter to suit us and our preferences. We often demand that others change to accommodate us. Why can’t you do this? Why do you behave like that? Why are you so rude? Why is the sun so hot? Why is the room so cold? And so on.

A sincere practitioner would accept external conditions as they are. He knows that happiness lies within himself and if the mind is balanced, he would not have problems with the world without. He would accept others as they are: creatures of conditions, like himself. He would see them as having similar types of instincts, no different from what he has: craving, anger, delusion, fear, generosity, kindness, capacity for good and bad. Like him, they are heir of their own actions: good or bad choices, they must live by the beds they had made. So if they are like him, who is he to make self-righteous judgment about them? Who is he to demand that others must change for him? He knows that it is all about the state of his mind: as long as his mind is balanced, he is happy. The external environment is as it is: he would just accept and live with it.

b) ‘Default’ Mindfulness

There should be some degree of “default” mindfulness as opposed to perpetual mindlessness. When you spend a lot of effort and time training the mind to be focused, attentive and mindful moment to moment, eventually and inevitably, the mind would get used to being objectively aware of the moment, of breathing, of the body, of rising and falling away of mental states, and so on. This mindfulness is not forced. The mind can still be distracted by sense objects, but it will also return to watchfulness relatively quickly, i.e., ‘a default state’. Mindfulness is now both a tool of mental balance and a way of life.

c) Living Brahmavihara

Over time, if he is on the right track, the sincere practitioner would begin to be less caught up with his own ego. He has humility not because he feels inferior to another but because the sense of ‘I-ego’ is becoming unreal, dissipating. If you spend a lot of time looking at the mental parts, after a while, you will stop perceiving things from an essential ‘whole’. When that happens, when he has constantly let go of the ‘I-ego’, he would find that being in a state of metta (kindly-friendliness), karuna (compassion), mudita (altruistic joy) and upekkha (equanimity) is relatively second nature and effortless. If there is very little of ‘I’ in his worldview, there is plenty of room for others.

d) Effortless Sila

I mentioned earlier why upholding ethics and exercising restraint on our instincts is so necessary to the meditation practice. For the sincere practitioner, as craving reduces and as the ‘I-ego’ diminishes, his capacity to undertake action that hurts another or that hurts himself will also diminish. He doesn’t have to keep telling himself he should not kill. He will not steal. He must not lie, and so on. He just won’t do it. He wouldn’t cheat and steal because the craving to enrich himself or to advance his interest is lacking. Over time, being morally upright is just a way of life, not a restraint to be remembered and to be carefully practised.

e) Happiness and Mental Balance

Finally, and all paths lead to this: a successful practitioner on the right track will find that he has greater mental equilibrium and inner happiness. He is not too caught up with sense objects. He responds to them mindfully, being aware of the danger of being too attached and having the mental skill to distant himself when necessary. He is also mindful of his ‘I-ego’ and does not allow that instinct to blind him and cause him to either over-react to or be shaken by the external environment. In this sense, he has a far better chance of being less affected by the eight vicissitudes of life: gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, pleasure and pain.

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