Advice from the Happiest Man in the World

“We deal with our mind from morning till evening, and it can be our best friend or our worst enemy.” -Matthieu Ricard

Matthieu Ricard, heralded “the happiest man in the world,” is the French translator and right-hand man for the Dalai Lama. Ricard, originally trained with a PhD in molecular genetics, left the science world to become a Buddhist monk. On a mission to pursue happiness both at a basic human level and as a subject of examination, Ricard has concluded that happiness requires effort. He places importance on training the mind with the same focus that any serious pursuit involves. He further draws attention to mindfulness and the importance of being still.

In an interview at TED Global 2014, Ricard said, “There is often this feeling that we put all our hopes and fears outside ourselves. ‘If I have this or that then everything will be fine. If I don’t have it, I cannot really be happy.’ …If we don’t deal with the inner condition for well-being, then we are really in trouble. And so that’s what inner still is – not that cliche about meditation, that you blank your mind and relax. Stillness is to avoid the chaotic aspect of the mind, and then you deal with thoughts and emotions, or sometimes you just sit or rest in that pure awareness. That’s a place of immense peace.”

Stillness is a kind of active presence, according to Ricard. It’s not simply the absence of noise; it is a presence that is intentionally designed for oneself. Practicing meditation is one of the most effective ways of bringing awareness to stillness, because you become aware of all the sounds, movement, and thought patterns that disconcert the mind. “You’re hearing your own heartbeat,” Ricard says, and in this stillness one is able to pronounce the joy in simple existence that isn’t dependent upon anything outside oneself.

He adds that enlightenment can be attained by “eliminating confusion, eliminating hatred, jealousy, mental toxins, cravings. [It’s] very simple and straightforward. Whether you can do it or not is another matter.” The pursuit of happiness and exercising mindfulness, then, is like training a muscle – the more it is worked out, the more it will be in shape.

Ricard himself goes on retreats four times a year. In these environments where the pace of time slows down, everything avoided in day-to-day life, such as the past, anxiety of the future, restlessness, worries, failures, regrets, bad memories and associations surface. But unlike the “real world,” a retreat forces an individual to face them rather than run away or play them on repeat, perpetuating further mental habits futile to finding happiness.

Ultimately Ricard says that finding happiness isn’t simplified by merely being still. He admits that it’s easy and hard. He says it’s easy but it takes time. He quotes the Dalai Lama, who has said, ‘The problem in the West is people want enlightenment to be fast, to be easy, and if possible, cheap,’ the latter not so much in the sense of paying less money, cheap in terms of doing things casually. “Skills don’t just pop up because you wish to be more compassionate and happier. It needs sustained application. But it’s joy in the form of effort. Everyone who trains to do something, musicians, sportsmen, and so on, says there’s a sort of joy in their training, even if it seems to be harsh. So in that sense, it does take time. But why not spend time? We don’t mind spending 15 years on education, why not the same to become a better human being?”

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