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​​​​​​​​Inner Harmony and Nirvana

The word 'happiness' is vague. If two friends, separately, tell us 'I'm happy', the causes behind their corresponding satisfactions certainly would be different. Love? Money? Fame? Power? Other kind of victory? To refer to positive mental states, this columnist prefers the expression 'inner harmony', the absence of anxiety and stress. The so much wanted happiness demands accomplishing  certain objectives or achieving particular goals. To enjoy inner harmony, nothing needs to be done... When we pursue inner harmony, we will be losing it.

The ingredients that increase our happiness are as numerous as changeable; unfortunately the mere thought about the absence of such ingredients diminishes our joy: "Is my sweetheart cheating on me? What if that deal does not go through? I'm getting fat! Will I lose my power?" In a recent study, psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert came to a disturbing conclusion: "A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind".

The research project involved 2,250 adults who, over several days and at random times, answered through their smart phones, specific questions about (1) the activities being performed at the time of each call, (2) the level of attentiveness at that moment and (3) the prevailing mood of the participant: How do you feel right now?

The simplicity and straightforwardness of the scales applied warranted a high level of confidence to the conclusions reached in the study. The average percentage of the mental dispersion, as calculated, is frightening: In 46.9% of the recorded events, participants reported to be thinking of activities different from those they were performing and, what is worse, they, on average, acknowledged feeling less happy while drifting, even when the distracting themes​ were pleasant ones.

Human progress is undeniably the result of our ability to fantasize about nonexistent products or imagine unknown scenarios. But, conclude the researchers, "The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement with a high emotional cost."

Do ramblings have some negative impact in inner harmony? No, because the mind of those who enjoy inner harmony wanders a lot less. Is it feasible to replicate the referred investigation for inner harmony? It would not be easy. People enjoying inner harmony tend to avoid the electronic divagations of their smart phones. 

Why, in neural terms, we digress so much? I asked the question to doctor Google with disappointing results. On the one hand, I found in Internet many descriptions of the phenomenon, which  added nothing to the subject because we all know exactly what mental dispersion is. There are in the web, on the other hand, abundant references on how to improve concentration, which it is not what I was looking for. I did not find any link in the web that did satisfy my curiosity.

The disappointing and disturbing news of the psychologists' study is the unhappiness resulting from mind wanderings. We commonly ramble about trivial wishes and minor dislikes; these, I think, are not only harmless but even amusing. Unfortunately, when 'in crescendo', wishes tend to become cravings, addictions, compulsive demands, psychotherapy... And dislikes might turn into aversions, phobias, uncontrollable panic or hatred, psychotherapy​... Both streams carry unhappiness when not to anguish.

What is the solution? Meditation! The primary benefit of mindfulness meditation is the strengthening of our faculty to concentrate; other positive outcomes -fewer migraines, better temper, more calm, less insomnia- are simple by-products of the permanent awareness of our life as it unfolds.

Mario Rios, a wonderful teacher I had in high school, explained that 'nirvana' in Buddhism was the equivalent to 'heaven' in the Judeo-Christian traditions, but that this 'heaven' was not a place, located who knows where, but an attainable joyful mental state here on Earth. A Catholic devout then, I did not understand how a state of mind could be the 'heaven' I most wanted to reach after my death.

Decades later the Buddha resolved my doubt: "Nirvana is the release of anxiety and stress that it occurs with the total abandonment of all our cravings and aversions". Nirvana is thus inner harmony. That is what my teacher meant.  And, by the way, the Buddha also knew that mind wanderings lead to unhappiness.​

Gustavo Estrada

Atlanta, April 12, 2016