Always Well Within

Calm Your Mind, Ease Your Heart, Embrace Your Inner Wisdom

Do Your Beliefs Lead to Happiness or Suffering?

Do your beliefs bring happiness or suffering?

Everything depends on how you perceive, which in turn depends, to a large extent, on your beliefs about the world and how it operates.  Your mind is the universal ordering principle, the creator of suffering and the creator of happiness.

What beliefs do you hold?  About:

  • The way the world works?
  • The purpose of life?
  • The nature of the self?
  • Your responsibility as a human being?
  • The impact of your thoughts, words, and actions?
  • Why you suffer?
  • What happens when you die?
  • Are your beliefs in line with reality as it actually is?
  • What is true happiness and freedom?

What Are Your Beliefs?

Do you have an overarching set of beliefs and principles to guide you on your path of personal evolution.  Consider whether your beliefs – conscious or under the surface – usually lead you to happiness or suffering.

If your beliefs are bringing you unhappiness, you can pause and adopt a new view.

I didn’t consciously ascribe to a belief system the first half of my life.  I just wandered around, bouncing off events, people, and circumstances.  Wanting happiness, but for the most part operating on automatic and in reactive mode.

Thus, moments of happiness arrived in a random fashion, but emotional turmoil prevailed to a great degree.  Not necessarily constant drama, but the persistent edge of subtle discontent.  The itch that needs to be scratched, the small adjustment so life will be a bit better.

A vague set of beliefs began to constellate when I launched into the study and practice of Buddhism.  Now, years later, my beliefs are crystal clear guiding principles, ones that I trust will bring me the greatest possible freedom.

The Four Seals:  A Set of Guiding Beliefs

My beliefs line up with the “The Four Seals,” which are the hallmark of what it means to be a Buddhist.  But, you don’t have to be a Buddhist to ascribe to this way of seeing the world.

The Four Seals tells us:

  1. All compounded things are impermanent.
  2. All emotions are pain.
  3. All things have no inherent existence.
  4. Nirvana (the state beyond suffering) is beyond concepts.

More than ideas, these are fundamental truths observed by the Buddha – his understanding of reality as it is.

Radical, to say the least.  I sometimes wonder, “How on earth did I ever become a Buddhist?”  It’s a demanding path that ultimately requires the full dismantling of the ego.  As frightening as that may sound, “ego” in this context means “grasping at a non-existent self”.  And that’s precisely what causes suffering.

At first glance, these statements may seem mind-boggling.  But, if you really take time to reflect upon them, gradually their truth will become more apparent.  Of course, understanding them intellectually is a far cry from realizing them in the core of your being.  That might take years.  But intellectual understanding is the first step, and can, in fact, completely change your perception of the world and bring more comfort and ease into your way of being.

So what do the Four Seals mean?  This is my simple understanding.

All compounded things are impermanent

When two or more things come together, whether in material form or as thoughts, emotions, and sensations, they are impermanent.

Sounds obvious, but most of us are slaves to the illusion of permanence.  Then we suffer when change occurs.  When we allow the truth of impermanence to take hold in our heart and mind, suffering starts to peel away and there’s more space for genuine happiness.

“Of all footprints
That of the elephant is supreme;
Of all mindfulness meditations
That on death is supreme.”
– the Buddha

All emotions are pain

Most of us would gladly be rid of difficult emotions like anger, frustration, jealousy, sadness and shame.  But what about the “good” emotions like joy, happiness, love, and peace?

Even positive emotions remain within the realm of dualistic mind and thus are the source of suffering when we cling to them.  The problem isn’t the moment of joy that arises in our experience, but the way we grasp onto it and try to force it to remain and continue.  Emotions are just passing phenomena with no substantial existence, but we tend to make them very solid and real.  Then, they become the cause of harmful words and actions and we get stuck in a repetitive cycle of suffering.

The solution is to simply be mindful and aware of whatever arises in the mind without trying to fabricate or hold on to any particular state.  Ultimately, this will bring a tremendous sense of freedom that goes beyond the limitations of happiness and unhappiness.

“Awareness doesn’t prevent you from living, it makes living that much fuller.  If you are enjoying a cup of tea and you understand the bitter and the sweet of temporary things, you will really enjoy the cup of tea.” – What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse

All things have no inherent existence

This bring us to emptiness.  On the level of mind, Mingyur Rinpoche explains:

“The sense of openness people experience when they simply rest their minds is known in Buddhist term as emptiness, which is probably one of the most misunderstood words in Buddhist philosophy. – The Joy of Living, Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

On a physical level, take the example of a cup.  There is no such thing as a “cup” that exists permanently or independently.  When you really take a look at it, what is the cup?  Is it the handle?  Is it the inside?  Is it the outside? Is it a moving arrangement of atoms? When you investigate, you can never really find a permanent, singular, independent cup.

“Cup” is just a label for various parts that have temporarily come together due to causes and conditions and will, at some point, also fall apart due to causes and conditions.  For example, if you drop the “cup”, there’s a good chance it will break.

Emptiness isn’t voidness, but the potential for anything to appear, change, and disappear depending on causes and conditions.  Emptiness and appearance are inseparable and everything that occurs is interdependent.

“Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form.
Emptiness is no other than form,
Form is no other than emptiness.”
– The Heart Sutra

Our problem is the tendency to attach permanence to the display of temporary phenomena swirling around us – from material items to thoughts and emotions – and that, more often than not – brings about suffering.

Attachment and aversion soften once we realize that life is more like an ever-changing dream, bringing more spaciousness and ease into our life.   At the same time, we understand that, due to interdependence, our thoughts, words, and actions have a definite effect – either helping or harming.  Thus we act responsibly.

“Always recognize the dreamlike qualities of life and reduce attachment and aversion.  Practice good-heartedness toward all beings.  Be loving and compassionate no matter what others do to you.  What they will do will not matter so much when you see it as a dream.  The trick is to to have positive intention during the dream.  This is the essential point.  This is true spirituality.”  Life in Relation to Death by Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche

Nirvana (the state beyond suffering) is beyond concepts

Enlightenment is not a place or a state.  It’s freedom from believing everything to be permanent, independent, and singular, and thus freedom from suffering.  It is the recognition of our own pure awareness, constantly present within us, inconceivable and inexpressible.  We’re so identified with our thoughts and emotions, we fail to recognize this pure awareness, which is like the sky hidden behind the clouds, but always there.

Do Your Beliefs Bring Happiness or Suffering?

These are the guiding principles in my life.  I’ve been studying and reflecting upon them over the past few weeks in order to better understand and integrate them into my way of seeing and being.  I realize they may be difficult to grasp if this is your first encounter with these ideas.  But you might let them simmer a bit and see what resonates for you.

Your view or set of beliefs may be different than mine.  You may believe in God, nature, love or something else.  The main question is do you have a view?  And, does it bring you and others happiness or suffering?

Sources:  This particular translation of The Four Seals is from What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse.  This wonderful book explains The Four Seals in a way that is engaging and accessible for modern people.

Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious!  Don’t forget to sign up for my e-letter and get access to all the free self-development resources (e-books, mini-guides + worksheets) in the Always Well Within Library. May you be happy, well, and safe – always.  With love, Sandra

Image:  freestock.ca

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20 Comments

  1. Wow Sandra. Beautifully put. I love this article, I’m going to save it and read it again later.

    “Nirvana (the state beyond suffering) is beyond concepts.”
    I’d like to add my perception that it is not a fixed location or destination. There is no fixed thing to realize, the journey itself is the realization. Our practice is never ending.

    Dan @ ZenPresence

    • Dan, I’m glad this article resonated for you so strongly. I agree, nirvana is not a fixed location or destination. I’m not sure I would say that the journey is the realization or that our practice is never ending, but then again, it’s very difficult to communicate about this with words. There are beings who are realized and they are able to abide by the flow of pure awareness. It not longer requires effort or is a practice in the same sense. But perhaps that is what you are meaning!

  2. Sandra,

    Thank you so much for sharing and explaining the four seals. I was not familiar with them.

    I especially like the second one: “All emotions are pain.” This is a difficult concept to begin to grasp and relay to others, but it makes so much sense. Similarly, I believe that all emotions are also joy because any raw feeling is what you interpret it to be in your processing. All emotions are a spectrum and malleable within your own mind.

    Our view is the singular thing that allows happiness in our world, no matter what else is going on. Herein, we have the power to create joyful lives and a better world.

    • Hi Debbie,

      Yes, that’s quite a challenging idea for most people to put their head around! On a relative level, I agree with you fully. Our mind is pliable and we can transform and interpret our emotions. At the highest level of meditation and understanding though, the aim is to go beyond the conceptual mind so there is no interpretation, there’s just pure awareness. But along with that pure awareness there is clarity as to how to act in ways that are wholesome and beneficial. And, thus create joyful lives and a better world.

      Thanks for your thoughts. This is a challenging topic!

  3. jean sampson

    Hi Sandra. Wow, what a wonderful post to begin the new year ! I had to stop at the 2nd Seal, but , then, as you explained it, it made perfect sense. I think we live in such a polarized world, that it is hard for most of us Westerners to even begin to grasp what these seals mean and how to apply them to our lives. We are so conditioned to the concepts of “good and bad” that it takes the 2nd half of our lives to even begin to see that those constructs are really just ways the people who came before us tried to figure out the world and our place in it. I see things visually, so when I think of the polarized view as opposed to the view that it all just “is” and don’t assign a value to that, it becomes represented by two lines, one with “good ” at one end and “bad” at the other. There is a dot that moves between these two concepts on one line, representing how something is judged by the mind, depending on circumstances and emotions. There is another line, however, another way of seeing us and the world, that is represented by a line with the dot in the center with nothing on either end, no “good” or “bad” judgments at all. The place I like to be and always am seeking to reside, is in the balanced center of my life . It really is a feeling of peace with no reason except that I like to be there. I think that is in part what this post is about. I am still learning to let go (and the older one gets, the more you must let go of if you do not want to suffer). However, in the process of letting go and learning to let go, there is struggle, sadness, anger and grief, that need to be processed because we are, after all human!
    Gosh, sorry to be so long-winded. Guess I need to let go of some words, huh? Happy New Year, Sandra!

  4. Jean,

    Interesting, I also thought this was a good way to begin the year! Your description of a “polarized” world is so fitting. These aren’t easy ideas for most people to embrace, but I think they are the heart of being a truly spiritual person. I’m inspired by your aspiration to be non-judgmental! That’s huge. A truly compassionate heart can hold it all and continue to work positively on behalf of all. It doesn’t mean we accept harmful behavior, but we understand its root and try to excavate that. You are an inspiration! Yes, we are all human and many emotions come up as we gradually learn to let go! I appreciate your thoughts. I see how deeply you think about these ideas.

  5. Sandra – As Debbie mentioned, the second point is a challenge. All emotions are pain? Hmmmm….It doesn’t feel very good to think of good emotions at pain but what you’re saying seems to make sense. That being mindful of those emotions and letting them pass instead of holding onto them makes those moments that much richer! Treating emotions like moving clouds like my friend Andrew Olson mentioned recently on his take on impermance at http://www.blogandrew.com.

    I like your thoughts about nirvana too as the place beyond suffering. I have felt that nirvana would be a pleasurable place but I probably missed the point. haha If pleasurable I’m probably not in a state of awakening and mindulness – I would have probably just woken up for a invigorating nap! But seriously here – I’ve thought of enlightenment in the Hindu tradition of one of being awakened – in peace and one with the universal truth/God and that really did seem like a happy place to be in. Maybe you’re suggesting that we can embrace that place but just not clutch onto it?

    Since I mention it in every comment, I’m going to stop telling you how much I appreciate your wisdom:) in each one.

    • Hi Vishnu,

      I know that’s a tough one and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s translation really takes it down to its bare bones. I trust that there’s a way of being beyond dualistic emotions that isn’t like a cold stone! For example, the Dalai Lama is so warm-hearted yet he fully gets the Four Seals.

      As the fourth seal says, “nirvana is beyond concepts”. So whatever we think it is, probably isn’t it! But great masters do use words to describe it to give us a taste.

      It’s sweet of you to express your appreciation, but I can honestly say this isn’t “my” wisdom. I’ve just been fortunate to study and receive teachings and be able to share a bit here.

      • Thanks for replying Sandra. Your wisdom comes in being able to express these teachings to the rest of us – in understandable concepts when it can be abstract or difficult to comprehend.

  6. This is the second time I have read about the Four Seals today, so I shall study them a bit more to see why they are being placed.

    I was raised with a certain set of beliefs that I was told not to question. These beliefs caused suffering for those whom taught me, and I watched them suffer and couldn’t understand why, then, I was being told to follow them. Only when I was of age to leave home, did I begin questioning, seeking, learning–a process I enjoy greatly. I learned by feel of experience presence to unfolding, and it always surprises me how similar my practices are to Buddhism. It might be difficult to understand, but first I learned “a way” and now I’m learning words for that way.

    And, I agree with Vishnu; I very much appreciate your wisdom!

    • You came into contact with the Four Seals twice today? That’s amazing! It is interesting how your approach is quite in sync with Buddhism. Buddhism represents universal truths so I can understand how you could connect with those truths without meeting or need the label “Buddhism”. “Buddhist” isn’t even a word used in Tibet, for example. The word used to describe people who follow the teachings is something more like “insider”, meaning one who looks inside for the truth.

  7. Sandra,
    So what you’re saying is joy isn’t pain unless you cling to it? Did I get that right?

    • That’s my understanding, Tess. Emotions are compounded phenomena, always changing. “Nirvana” is something indescribable beyond that. At least according to the Buddhist view.

      • Totally get it! When my granddaughter had her first boyfriend she didn’t visit us for the first time on a school break. That’s when I realized I was attached to her joy. I gave myself a week to grieve and move on. It worked. Now to get to the point to not attach in the first place…hmmm!

  8. Like others, I find this article very helpful and will read it again, more slowly, and probably again after that! As you already know about me, I find my “view” is based in different traditions, but the closest I can come to a statement about what I believe is in the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching.

    “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of ten thousand things. Ever desireless, one can see the mystery. Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.”

    This seems very consistent with how you are describing the pain that comes from being attached, and Nirvana being beyond concepts.

    • Hi Galen,

      Beautiful quote! Yes, this seems very consistent with the Four Seals. Thank you so much for sharing this. I love it! We’re on the same page. And this also shows how these ideas go beyond the boundary of Buddhism.

  9. Althea Young

    Right perspective and I learn a lot of things from your blog. Happiness can always be found always on the right place, right person and to the right view. Thanks for sharing!

  10. When I read all emotions are pain, I thought I read that wrong. But then reading your explanation about how we can hold on and suffering occurs when we cling, it made complete sense.
    Living consciously seems so simple, until we delve deeper and try to maintain consistency.

    You’ve given me much food for thought here Sandra.
    🙂

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