Tuesday, 17 June 2008

BOOK REVIEW Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill

Buddhists often talk about 'skilful means' and being skilful in their dealings with themselves and others. This book written by a Buddhist monk who also happens to be a former molecular biologist, photographer and philosopher, examines happiness as a skill that can be developed. Whereas most people conceive happiness as 'a momentary, fleeting impression, whose intensity and duration vary according to the availability of the resources that make it possible,' author Matthieu Ricard looks at it differently. Ricard declares that happiness is actually a skill that can be honed through a two-pronged approach at overcoming 'ignorance', in the Buddhist sense of the word. 'Ignorance' is the inability to recognize the true nature of things and the law of cause and effect that governs happiness and suffering. Ignorance can be dispelled through honest and sincere introspection:

*A candid and systematic evaluation of every aspect of our own suffering and of the suffering we inflict on others , development of understanding which thoughts, words and actions inevitably lead to pain and which contribute to well-being.

*Contemplation which allows us to rise above the whirlpool of our own thoughts for a moment and to look calmly within, as if at an interior landscape, to find out our deepest aspirations.

This introspection is achieved through the practice of meditation, and Ricard offers some exercises to help with developing a meditation practice.

The most interesting aspect of the book is the detailed look at scientific studies done to determine how meditation affects the brain wave patterns of people. I could go into it here, but there has been a lot of coverage on Ricard and these studies, so I will provide links instead:

Scientists Meditate on Happiness

A geneticist-turned-monk takes a scientific approach to a spiritual life

How Thinking Can Change the Brain

Matthieu Ricard: Meet Mr Happy
This article is my favourite, as it is written by a typically cynical Brit.

I haven't finished this book yet, but I am certainly enjoying it. I am nearly half way through it. I have to admit, there is not much new here. There are only so many ways you can spin the 4 Noble Truths and the Noble 8-Fold Path. Buddhism is not complicated, but is deeply profound. Matthieu Ricard's book resonates with me more deeply than did Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth. The fundamentals remain the same...the difference is the remarkable and endlessly fascinating ways that basic tenets Buddhism line up with science. This is merely touched on in this book, and yet is the aspect of the book that I find most appealing, in addition to Ricard's excellent writing style.

Which leads me to the next book I intend to seek out: The Quantum and the Lotus, in which Ricard and a quantum physicist compare ideas.

May all beings be at ease.

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