Like Tossing a Ball in Swift Flowing Water

Working with the transient nature of happiness and life.

Happiness and its Causes Conference, Sydney April, 2006
Geoff Dawson

Let me begin by reflecting first on the title of this conference: Happiness and its Causes, which I believe is inspired by the book The Art of Happiness- A Handbook for Living, by the Dalai Lama and a Western psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler, M.D. 1

I was puzzled by this conference title at first and struggled with it, wondering how I was going to present, as it didn’t fit with my own personal experience or my understanding of Zen and Buddhism. After mulling it over, I came to some peace of mind when I acknowledged to myself that I didn’t know what the causes of happiness were! I immediately felt happier! Why this is so will perhaps become clearer as this presentation unfolds.

The Zen perspective is that happiness is the natural way of the mind. If we remove the causes of unhappiness, happiness will naturally be there without us having to do anything else. This is the same as medical practice. If we remove the causes of the disease we will have good health.

Let me mention to you the Buddhist sources of this view:

Shakyamuni Buddha, on his awakening under the Bodhi Tree exclaimed:
Oh! Wonderful! Wonderful! Now I see that all beings of the universe are the Tathagatha (that which just comes and just goes), it is only their delusions and attachments that keep them from acknowledging that fact!

This is somewhat like saying that all of us without exception have the potential to be happy and fulfilled right now in this moment but we don’t realise it. And it is only our cognitive constructions and our personal investment in them as a substitute for reality that stops us from being happy and fulfilled right now.

Zen practice is about seeing through the delusions and attachments that stop us from realizing our true nature. It is not about searching for happiness or its causes. From a Zen perspective, looking for the causes of happiness is a red herring that will take you further away from happiness that can only be found in this very moment the way it is right now! From a Zen perspective, there is no need to strive for or search for the causes of happiness, just remove the causes of unhappiness. What are these causes?

The Buddha after his Awakening under the Bodhi Tree met his old meditation friends in the forest and in the full flush of his realisation, gave his first teaching:

The Four Noble Truths:
There is dissatisfaction or suffering in life
There is a cause of dissatisfaction or suffering, (grasping, aversion, ignorance)
There is an end to suffering (The absence of grasping, aversion and ignorance)
There is a path that leads to the end of suffering.

The Four Noble Truths are a medical metaphor. It is about removing the causes of psychological disease, not finding a cause of mental health, or happiness, or enlightenment. Nirvana, in classical Buddhism is not the gaining of anything, it is the absence of grasping, aversion and ignorance, the absence of the disease called craving. In the absence of craving there naturally arises; loving kindness; compassion; joy and equanimity.

One variation on the Second Noble Truth that is very relevant to this conference on happiness is that if we grasp for personal happiness we will never find it. It will only perpetuate our grasping mind and happiness will always be out of reach. Happiness comes to us when we are not directly trying to achieve it. That is why in Zen we prefer the indirect approach of removing the causes of unhappiness.

The title of this conference also gives rise to a question in my mind: Since the nature of life is transient or impermanent, can we have a permanently happy state of mind? Or conversely, can we have a permanent state of suffering? Hence the title of my presentation that comes from an old Zen dialogue – Like throwing a ball in swift flowing water. 4

Life is a stream of moment-to-moment non-stop flow. Surely if we are to find true happiness and fulfilment in life we need to surrender to this fact of life and become like the ball in the mountain stream, rather than resist the transient nature of life itself. All of our attempts to grasp onto something permanent, like a state of mind called happiness, or avoid a state of mind called suffering just causes more suffering.

Life is a series of ups and downs, we cannot stay permanently up all of the time, but being “up” is not the nature of true happiness. True happiness, I believe, is being one with our circumstances in life, moment-to -moment, no matter what they are. The ball in the mountain stream bobs up and down and gets tossed about on its journey.

In the Ordinary Mind Zen School we have a verse that we recite together at the end of a meditation meeting called ‘Practice Principles’:

Caught in the self centred dream, only suffering
Holding to self centred thoughts, exactly the dream.
Each moment life as it is , the only teacher,
Being just this moment, compassion’s way.

When we practice these principles over and over again in our life, with a foundation of sitting meditation, a transformation may start to take place in the way we experience our life and live our life. We may shift from a self-centred grasping way of life to a non-grasping way of life. When this happens we begin to naturally live without effort in the present moment and with this comes intimacy, compassion and openness. In other words, connectedness is happiness. Rather than saying these things are the causes of happiness, I would say they ARE happiness. The flowers blooming do not cause spring to happen, they are spring!

I often refer to Zen Practice, half jokingly, as Ego Deconstruction Therapy. The less self-preoccupied we are (including our preoccupations with becoming happier), the happier we become. Zen is the practice of emptying ourselves of ourselves until we become zero. When we become zero, we become full of life.

This process may be called the Law of Reverse Effort. The more we struggle against the stream the more we exhaust ourselves and finally drown ourselves in despair. If we give up the struggle and relax into floating, we will thoroughly enjoy the ride – including the perilous rapids, the final letting go over the waterfall into the chasm of death; and the never-ending stream of living and dying that goes on moment to moment with no end and no beginning.

Lets look now from this perspective at the topics set forth:
The Psychology of Depression, Addiction and Other Disturbing Negative Emotions


Human beings are often referred to as “the melancholy animal”. Apart from genetic and physiological predispositions to depression, we suffer from melancholy more than other animals because we experience loss in a more prolonged way. Depression can come from loss of a relationship, loss of good health, loss of status, loss of faith or an ideal, loss of innocence. Its key emotion is sadness. Sadness itself is not a problematic emotion necessarily. Sadness can bring richness and depth to human experience but when it is accompanied with repetitive self-referencing negative thought patterns, what we call ruminating, it solidifies into clinical depression. We are the melancholy animal because we are the thinking animal.We ask why incessantly and look for explanations, trying to find the answer to questions, the subtext being, “Why is this happening to me?” And “What’s wrong with me.”

When we are depressed from experiencing loss, we are holding onto some deluded and irrational conviction somewhere inside of ourselves that life ought not be impermanent. We take loss personally and see it as unfair, rather than seeing the big picture – that the stream of life is impersonal and is not concerned with gain or loss.

However a natural grieving process without self-preoccupied ruminating is at one with the transience of life itself. There is a bitter toxic sadness we experience when we resist the moment-to-moment flow of life. But there is also a sweet sadness that can be found, particularly in music such as slow Irish Airs that evoke the compassionate acceptance of loss.


All human beings suffer from addiction, not just drug addicts and alcoholics. What we refer to as addiction in the clinical sense is just a more desperate and destructive form of grasping that we all experience. Addiction is wanting more and more of a pleasant experience even when it is no longer healthy or desirable. It comes not only in the form of drugs and alcohol of course, but also in the form of gambling, eating and sexual addiction.

But what about other forms of addiction that are considered normal? More and more acquisition of material possessions, more and more status, more and more attention, more and more empathy, more and more busy-ness? Surely these are addictions as well. We get caught in addictive behaviours because they distract us momentarily from our suffering and feelings of emptiness, but the overwhelming negative result is that we never grow from experiencing our pain. I believe that the vast majority of people who suffer from clinical addictive behaviours have a dual diagnosis of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, or psychosis and their addictive behaviour is an attempt at self-medication to distract themselves from their suffering. They are ourselves writ large. The more socially acceptable forms of addiction also have a dual diagnosis. Buddhists refer to it as dukkha (unsatisfactoriness).

Other Disturbing Negative Emotions

Other disturbing emotions that lead to emotional disorders are excessive guilt and shame, excessive fear and excessive anger.

Let me introduce you to a framework for emotions that I put together a few years ago that puts them in a perspective of emotional maturity.

When we are in harmony with the stream of life; or the ground of existence; or God; Buddha-nature; whatever we may wish to call it, we appreciate the miracle of existence in each moment. Then we are happy regardless of what emotional state comes and goes or whatever circumstance comes and goes. We can be happy while we are sad, or happy while we are angry, or happy while we are in fear because we can see that these energies inside of ourselves are the stream of life as well. 6

Getting real about the human condition

Let me begin by giving an explanation of the human condition by quoting from one of my dharma friends and brother teachers, Ezra Bayda from his book Saying Yes to Life: Even the Hard Bits:

Residing fully in the present moment allows the unconditioned energy of life to flow through the conditioned body and mind. 7

The human condition is both unconditional and conditional. We all have our cultural, family and personal conditioning as human beings but that is not all we are. As Walt Whitman said. “I am large, I contain multitudes.” We are not separate from life. From a Zen perspective, this sense of separateness is our fundamental delusion.

But as we practice and touch the unconditional life that flows through us the self-centredness gradually dissolves. I believe that at our essence we are basically compassionate and kind rather than basically self-centred. Our self-centredness is simply based on faulty thinking and is not our true human condition. But when we are caught in our own self-centred dream we become robotic and mechanical and don’t appreciate the life that we have.

Causes and antidotes to depression

As mentioned before, research indicates that the causes of depression may be physiological with genetic predispositions being a factor. But there is always our relationship with life as well and our reaction to loss.

Chemical antidotes in the form of anti-depressant medications are of course useful, especially in severe depressive disorders, but I am of the opinion that they are over-prescribed. By themselves they provide no skills for people to prevent relapse into depression and to grow more resilient to life’s difficulties.
One of the most recently utilized antidotes to depression, which has its origins in Buddhism, is mindfulness, as outlined in the book, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression by Segal, Williams and Teasdale. 8

Mindfulness is the practice of intentionally bringing attention to the present moment-to-moment-non-stop-flow of one’s experience in a non-judgemental way and dis-identifying with our thoughts and beliefs.

This is different to conventional Cognitive Behavioural therapy that uses the antidotes of rational or positive thinking to replace irrational and negative thoughts.

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy is just watching the passing show of positive and negative thoughts and not investing identification with any of them. Thoughts are observed as just thoughts, energy fragments that just come and go that we need not place any meaning or weight on. A useful metaphor here that people usually connect with is to imagine that a thought arising is a train of thought and you watch it going past the station rather than getting on the train. Or alternatively, seeing thoughts as clouds coming and going in an empty sky. Whatever metaphor we use, mindfulness is activating the impartial witness that dwells within each of us.

This is not a form of thought control, or ridding the mind of thoughts, trying to make the mind blank or cognitive restructuring, it is simply watching what arises in the mind. Dr Hubert Benoit, a psychiatrist and author of the book The Light of Zen in the West, gave the following instruction in the way he related to his own mind:

“You can do anything you like, but I am watching you.” 9

However, as a metaphor or as an idea, mindfulness has little therapeutic value. The value is in the actual practice of sustained, quiet, still, mindful observation.

A clear distinction that needs to be made is that the skill to be developed here is one of observation not one of analysis. It is not asking WHY I am thinking a certain thought, which just leads to more and more thinking. Rather it is asking WHAT am I thinking – and noticing the content without investing in it. Meditation students and patients alike frequently mistake analysis for observation. This requires constant mindfulness on the part of the teacher/student or therapist/client to correct the mistake and break the habit.

Mindfulness also involves bringing one’s attention to noticing the breath and body sensations as they come and go, particularly when they are associated with a negative emotion. Practising this over and over again, the power of repetitive thoughts and beliefs is diminished and the flow of present moment-to-moment body sensations becomes the focus of here and now reality. We become filled with the largeness of life as it is, rather than filled with our small self-preoccupations.

In conclusion, from a mindfulness perspective, we don’t have to replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts to overcome depression, we only have to not invest in the negative thoughts and happiness is what will be left. There is no need to gild the lily.

Techniques for uprooting negative emotions such as anger, desire, and jealousy

In contrast to depression, where we turn within and blame ourselves, emotions such as anger, desire (in the sense of craving) and jealousy arise as we turn our thoughts, words and actions outside to blame or manipulate others. Anger and its variations are the result of frustrated grasping. It is a reaction to not getting what we want.

One of the stages that are frequently overlooked in dealing with these disturbing emotions is acknowledging to ourselves that we like to hold onto them and not let them go – particularly anger. We love to justify our anger and entertain our selves and others with the drama of it.

Let us go back to the Buddha’s statement again. Not only do we have faulty thinking, we are attached to our faulty thinking and don’t want to let it go. We cling to it because it is an attempt to find some sense of security or “rightness” in an impermanent world. But it is a false security that does our selves and others harm.

By pausing to observe and acknowledge our attachment to faulty thinking, I believe we have a more honest relationship with ourselves to begin with, which will clear the way for the further stages.

The second stage is to recognise that outside events are the triggers of our anger or jealousy, not the cause of them. In doing so we pause and inhibit the acting out of these emotions and hold them in awareness without judgement towards oneself or others.

We notice the body sensations that come and go and the thoughts and beliefs that come and go and the racing mind that comes and go. All we have to do is not invest in the angry thoughts, just let them go by, or let them be, and soon the adrenalin stops pumping into your body and perpetuating the emotional arousal.

A metaphor that I constantly use in therapy in working with anger and its variations is that anger is like a fire. If you starve the fire of oxygen (self righteous thoughts) then the fire will die down and go out. One area where I practice this personally is when I am driving and getting angry at what I perceive to be dangerous or selfish driving. Being mindful of my anger saves me from the embarrassment of acting out road rage.

Anger gets a lot of bad press in Buddhism, but there is also a positive side to anger if our wise mind can utilize this energy. The healthy function of anger is to alert us that our boundaries are being violated, or the boundaries of others are being violated and that we need to say NO to something.

However underneath most anger is the emotion of fear that arises as we perceive a threat. One powerful technique in dealing with anger, craving and jealousy is to see if we can touch base with the primary feeling of fear beneath it. If we have the courage to be with our vulnerability and express it , rather than go on the attack, this often is a more skilful way of communicating our feelings to others and keeping our personal boundaries in place. It is also expressing the truth of our experience.

The Buddhist Difference: Why Meditation is the Key to Changing Your Mind

Marsha Linehan, a Zen practitioner as well as a psychologist, who is the founder of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, has pointed out that although mindfulness is now accepted as mainstream therapy, the research so far has only focused on secular types of mindfulness, leaving unexplored the role that spirituality plays in traditional mindfulness.

In its secular application it may assist one to become a better sports person, a better musician, or artist, or a better businessperson, or clinically to overcome the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

In Buddhism, mindfulness is practised in the service of opening the heart and living in the open heart. That is its sole function. That is the Buddhist difference.

But why meditation we may still ask – and why so much of it? Why can’t we just understand these things intellectually and let these philosophies guide us in our life?

Understanding the philosophy is an important beginning and can act as a reference point but without the practice of meditation the transformation from unhappiness to happiness just doesn’t seem to happen. The nature of the intellectual mind is that it wants to grasp at more and more explanations and make more and more sense of life without touching the raw energy of emotions and the raw groundless experience of being alive. Understanding the theory of music alone won’t make you a competent musician – practising an instrument will. In fact in the act of playing music, thinking about the theory will get in the way.

The unpleasant fact that we don’t want to face is that our conditioning and our dull mechanical way of being are more entrenched than we would like to believe.

Meditation is a more powerful method for seeing into the tricks the mind gets up to and waking up to what we do. Harnessing it to an intelligent and enquiring mind is a good combination.

When we meditate we directly observe the grasping and avoiding and ignoring dynamics of the mind and see clearly and immediately the harm it does our selves and others.

Sitting meditation also slows the mind down considerably and enables us to see more clearly how it is operating and what is happening cognitively, emotionally and physically.

When we examine the actual characteristics of sitting meditation, the traditional posture of practising mindfulness, we see that the act of sitting upright and still, silent, and focussed on the moment to moment flow of experience for sustained periods of time, is a powerful antidote to the impatient grasping nature of the mind.

When we just sit, there is no where to go and no one to be and nothing to do except taste each miraculous moment of being alive – even when that moment touches our core pain or our profound loss of a loved one. In time we realize it is the only place to be!

Integrating Minfulness into Everyday Life

Everyday life is our richest source of practice material. Every emotional reaction is grist for the practice mill – road rage, computer rage, feelings of unfairness or victimisation, vulnerability, boredom, being ignored, being abused, being praised, falling in love, making a mistake – the list goes on endlessly.

With a shift in perspective, we can see these events, not as obstacles to our happiness, but points in our life where we have an opportunity to wake up to who we really are. We can see them as a teaching that we can be grateful for rather another road hump that we resent. The greatest teacher is the suchness of life itself, that teaches us openhandedly every moment of our lives.

The key to everyday practice is to willingly bring the fire of attention to each moment of our lives, not just at a special time during meditation in a quiet meditation room, or surrounded by the oriental exotica of Zen or Tibetan Buddhism.

Labelling our reactions in the midst of ordinary everyday life, pausing before acting or speaking, especially in our interpersonal dealings with other people, is extremely illuminating and humbling when we do it. It deconstructs the ego.

When we bring the fire of attention to the present moment we may also touch base with the reality of our true nature, the random acts of kindness that we express to a stranger – the warmth and compassion that naturally arises when we get out of our own way.

In conclusion, let me say a few more words about the fire of attention. In Zen we refer to the human ego, the “I,me,mine, syndrome”, the cause of unhappiness, as “the frozen block of emotion/ thought.”

When the transient stream of life is frozen into a block of ice, the frozen block of ice no longer knows that its true nature is water. It becomes hard and unyielding and clashes up against other ice blocks. Practice is about melting the frozen block of emotion/thought in the fire of attention. When we do this we return to our original nature, the stream of life – soft, transparent, bubbly, fluid and adaptable. This moment to moment stream is happiness itself.

Finally, there is one simple focus question I would like to leave you with as a way of practising in everyday life. That question is: “What is really happening right now?”

If you regularly ask yourself this question, particularly in times of difficulty, you will start to distinguish between what is really happening right now and what you think is happening right now. As this distinction becomes clearer to you, you will begin to naturally immerse yourself in the reality of the moment and find a contentment and joy that you will wish to give away and share with others.


    1. Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, The Art of Happiness: A Handbook For Living (Hodder, 1998)
    2. Philip Kapleau (ed.), The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, Enlightenment (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 28
    3. The Rider Encyclopaedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion (1989), p.109
    4. Thomas and J.C. Cleary, The Blue Cliff Record, Volume 3 (Shambhala Boulder & London: 1997), Case 80, ‘Chao Chou’s Newborn Baby’ p. 519
    5. Practice Principles, Ordinary Mind Zen School Readings
    6. Geoff Dawson, Buddhism & Psychotherapy: Healing & Emotional Maturity
      (Bodhi Leaf, 2000)
    7. Ezra Bayda, with Josh Bartok, Saying “Yes” to Life (Including the Difficult Bits) (Wisdom Publications: Boston, 2005)
    8. Segal, Williams & Teasdale, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression (The Guilford Press: N.Y., 2002)
    9. Hurbert Benoit (translated by Graham Rooth), The Light of Zen in the West
      (Sussex Press: Brighton,2004)

Buddhism and Psychotherapy