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Being able to lighten up is the key to feeling at home with your body, mind, and emotions, to feeling worthy to live on this planet. For example, you can hear the slogan, “Always maintain only a joyful mind,” and start beating yourself up for not being joyful. But that kind of witness is a bit heavy.
This earnestness, this seriousness about everything in our lives—including practice—this goal-oriented, we’re-going-to-do-it-or-else attitude, is the world’s greatest killjoy. When we take this all-or-nothing attitude, we lack a sense of appreciation because we’re so solemn. In contrast, a joyful mind is very ordinary and relaxed. So lighten up. Don’t make such a big deal.
When you aspire to lighten up, you begin to have a sense of humor. Your serious state of mind keeps getting popped. Another basic support for a joyful mind is curiosity: paying attention—taking an interest in the world around you. Happiness is not required, but being curious without a heavy, judgmental attitude helps. If you are judgmental, try being curious about that.
Curiosity encourages cheering up. So does simply remembering to do something different. We are so locked into this sense of burden—Big Deal Joy and Big Deal Unhappiness—that it’s sometimes helpful just to change the pattern. Anything out of the ordinary will help. You can go to the window and look at the sky, you can splash cold water on your face, you can sing in the shower, you can go jogging—anything that’s against your usual pattern.
That’s how things start to lighten up.
Practice: Four Limitless Qualities to Gain Happiness
A teacher once told me that if I wanted lasting happiness, the only way to get it was to step out of my cocoon. When I asked her how to bring happiness to others she said, “Same instruction.” This is the reason that I work with the aspiration practices of the four limitless qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity: the best way to serve ourselves is to love and care for others. These are powerful tools for dissolving the barriers that perpetuate the suffering of all beings.
It is best to do sitting meditation before and after these practices. To begin, we start just where we are. We connect with the place where we currently feel loving-kindness, compassion, joy, or equanimity, however limited it may be. (You can even make a list of people or animals who inspire these feelings in you.) We aspire that ourselves and our loved ones could enjoy the quality we are practicing. Then we gradually extend that aspiration to a widening circle of relationships.
We can do these practices in three simple steps, using the words from the traditional Four Limitless Ones chant or whatever words make sense to us. First, we wish one of the four limitless qualities for ourselves: “May I enjoy loving-kindness.” Then we include a loved one in the aspiration. “May you enjoy loving-kindness.” We then extend our wish to all sentient beings: “May all beings enjoy loving-kindness.” Or for compassion: “May I be free from suffering and the root of suffering. May you be free of suffering and the root of suffering. May all beings be free of suffering and the root of suffering.”
The aspiration practices of the four limitless qualities train us in not holding back, in seeing our biases, and not feeding them. Gradually we will get the hang of going beyond our fear of feeling pain. This is what it takes to become involved with the sorrows of the world, to extend loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity to everyone—no exceptions.
Four Limitless Ones Chant
May all sentient beings
enjoy happiness and the
root of happiness.
May we be free from suffering
and the root of suffering.
May we not be separated
from the great happiness
devoid of suffering.
May we dwell in the great
equanimity free from passion,
aggression, and prejudice.
From Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chödrön. Translations of the lojong slogans are reprinted from The Root Text of the Seven Points of Training the Mind by Chögyam Trungpa; revised translation by Diana J. Mukpo and the Nālandā Translation Committee. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, Colorado. To learn more, visit shambhala.com.