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The 4 Levels of Happiness (Buddhist Psychology)
Learn what they are and how to cultivate them
Buddhist psychology is often associated with suffering, but happiness plays an important role too. In fact, there are four kinds of happiness rated with a one-star, two-star, three-star, and four-star rating system.
Like many, I waited around for happiness. While I was doing things to improve my life, I expected happiness to show up one day. Even after years of practice, in subtle ways, I’m still waiting for happiness. Over time, I’ve realized happiness is a practice like any other, something we do with our intention and attention.
So what are the four kinds of happiness in Buddhist psychology?
One Star Happiness
One-star happiness is the happiness of pleasant sense experience: tastes, scents, sounds, sights, and touch.
When we’re busy doing, achieving, and attaining, we lose touch with the simplicity of sense contact. Living an intense life causes us to seek intense stimulation to cut through our insensitivity.
Practices that quiet the mind and body, such as meditation or mindfulness, offer a means for re-awakening and enlivening our senses. We become more attuned to pleasant and unpleasant sensations. When not driven by desire, we become more content with less and don't need as much sensory stimulation. "Without desire, everything is sufficient. With seeking, myriad things are impoverished,” wrote Ryōkan.
The consumer marketplace offers many choices, and we have many possessions. Our possessions, it has been said, possess us. They can keep us very busy—we buy something and need to care for it, repair it, insure it, and upgrade it.
But do all our choices and possessions bring happiness?
We can access all the world’s information and entertainment with a square device in our pocket. Even in the spiritual realm, countless books, podcasts, videos, workshops, teachings, and teachers exist. When I began practicing some eighteen years ago, I intentionally didn’t read any books for many years, knowing that intellectualizing spirituality wouldn’t help me get what I was after.
One-star happiness is about awakening the senses, feeling alive, and connecting more deeply with the beauty of this world. It could be the smell of rosemary while cooking, gazing at a crescent moon, feeling the sensation of soap on our hands, putting on clean clothes, or getting under the covers at night. Amidst our busy lives, we can take time to notice such delightful moments of sensory experience.
There’s nothing wrong with pleasure, but the problem comes when we cling and grasp at more pleasure. "That cookie tasted so good. I think I’ll have another.” Or we want it never to go away. “I wish this vacation would never end.” When tainted by greed, we grasp at pleasant experience until it loses some of its pleasantness.
The one-star happiness of making contact with the senses can be a skillful way to bring about a balanced mind.
Two Star Happiness
Next is the two-star happiness of beautiful mind-states, such as compassion, loving-kindness, and equanimity.
Instead of indulging aversion, fear, and judgment, we can dwell in that which brings happiness. Offering compassion to those who are suffering brings about happiness. Rejoicing others’ happiness also brings us happiness.
This is the practice of remaining open-hearted in the face of life. Learning how to love ourselves and others is a practice, a way of using our attention. We discover that a vast ocean of boundless love exists rather than the limited supply that we believe.
It has been said that there are two kinds of rare beings—those who are kind and those who can receive kindness. Loving-kindness practice opens us to giving and receiving kindness. Open-hearted appreciation of a gift brings us happiness. When we think of giving a gift, we feel happy, and when we give a gift, we feel happy. Later, we delight in the whole process of giving. Generosity is said to be happy in the beginning, in the middle, and at the end.
Focusing on generosity and cultivating loving mind-states is always available to us, regardless of circumstances. Somehow it connects us with our true nature, which is love itself. That's the two-star happiness.
Three Star Happiness
The three-star happiness is the happiness of concentration or "undivided attention." When we are wholeheartedly attentive, the hindrances to happiness are absent—greed, fear, hatred, doubt, restlessness, and sloth. Our attention is united on one thing.
The quality of attentiveness matters, not the object of our attention. So, whether attending the breath, brushing our teeth, driving, or being with a loved one, happiness arises when our attention is undivided. Out of that steadiness of mind, we experience a stillness, an ease of being that we begin to prefer over the stimulation of thinking and external stimuli.
About forty different kinds of concentration practices lead to varying states of absorption—rapture, happiness, silence, boundless space, and pure awareness. These higher levels of absorption require much skill, guidance, and extensive practice. That’s not what we’re after here.
While the mental states of sensory awareness and loving-kindness are lovely, they are not liberating. They help balance emotions, strengthen our capacity to stay open to difficulty and live with love rather than fear. Still, they do not provide insights into the ultimate nature of reality. They are dependent on specific conditions and are therefore not liberating.
Four Star Happiness
Thankfully, four-star happiness exists independent of any condition of mind or body. The middle way requires finding the right balance between concentration or calmness of being and insight.
Now some people have lots of calmness but little insight. Others have lots of insight and little calmness. We all know people like this. Some people have neither calm nor insight. We usually think this refers to us. Finally, some are established in both calm and insight.
For those with lots of calm and no insight, more mindfulness and inquiring into the nature of impermanence can help us understand suffering. For those with insight and little calm, more steadiness and focus of attention are required.
The middle way means having enough concentration for mindfulness to penetrate the illusions of permanence, of me and mine, and believing our happiness depends on achievement or attainment, but not so much that the natural arising of mind and body is repressed. It's a balance.
What Exactly Is a Liberating Insight?
A liberating insight is a shift in perception. Sometimes subtle and sometimes profound, it changes how we see things, including our understanding of who and what we are. Feelings of release and a natural welling up of gratitude often accompany liberating insights.
Insights can happen suddenly or very, very, very slowly over time. Suzuki Roshi said that sometimes when you're out walking in the fog, you don't realize you are wet until you come inside and find you are completely soaked. Sometimes insight penetrates without our awareness.
While it would be wonderful to order a liberating insight on demand, that’s not how it works. That said, meditation and mindfulness can be used to cultivate the conditions conducive to insights—silence, slowing down, and paying attention from moment to moment. With practice, we learn to trust in the liberating power of awareness itself. "Enlightenment is an accident. Meditation makes us more accident-prone,” said Lama Surya Das.
Initially, it can be hard to see how mindfulness can be liberating. Often we’re alarmed by what we see inside ourselves—the endless monkey mind, the aches and pains of the body, the fear, the judgment, the anger, the regret, the full catastrophe, as Jon Kabat-Zinn put it.
We think these things shouldn’t be happening, so we must be doing something wrong. We judge, resist, and try to avoid all the unpleasantness. The fact that I’m having these experiences and feelings says something about me. Fear means I’m inadequate, and anger means I’m not spiritual. This is not mindfulness but rather judgment masquerading as mindfulness.
Over time, we learn to have awareness without judgment, which is a significant moment.
“Having no view of self, one is always peaceful,” says the Avatamsaka Sutta. We remain peaceful when we don’t take our inner experience to be ourselves. Instead of using our experience to build an identity, we observe the arising and passing of the whole show without becoming entangled. "How did the rose ever open its heart and give to this world all its beauty? It felt the encouragement of light against its being. Otherwise, we all remain too frightened,” said Hafiz.
Awareness encourages us to open up and allow ourselves to be known and seen. Deep happiness grows as we begin to see the possibility of inner freedom independent of conditions of body and mind. We taste the happiness and freedom of deeply knowing that letting go of self and the need for permanence is the end of suffering. This is four-star happiness.
The Wisdom of Letting Go
As we move from identifying with our personal story to understanding the universal nature of life, letting go of the story of self becomes easier. Whom we take ourselves to be begins to feel lighter, and we are less burdened by the struggle to perfect, attain, and become something.
We begin to trust and have more faith in the wisdom of surrendering and letting go.
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