Micael Widell

Matthieu Ricard on Buddhism and Happiness

/ meditation

Matthieu Ricard grew up in France as a pretty normal guy, and embarked on a successful academic career, becoming a doctor in molecular genetics. Then something intriguing happens: After receiving his Ph.D. he moves to the Himalayas, and has since spent more than 40 years as a Buddhist monk.

Life was far from dull, but something essential was missing. In 1972, when I was twenty-six and fed up with life in Paris, I decided to move to Darjeeling, in India, in the shadow of the Himalayas, to study with a great Tibetan master.

There are two recorded TED talks by Ricard, that I watched after reading his book Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, to get a more complete picture of him and his life philosophy. Below I summarise my favourite findings from reading his book.

Ricard's first TED talk, filmed in 2004, is basically a condensation of what what he would publish in his book Happiness in 2007. Unfortunately I don't think he is as good a lecturer (probably he was nervous) as he is a writer, so I would really recommend reading his book instead. It is easier to digest and truly understand his teachings through his writings. Or continue reading below to get an easily accessible summary ;) His second TED talk from 2014 is more focused on altruism, and how it is needed to avert destroying our earth for future generations.

What is happiness?

Ricard begins by trying to explain what, according to him (and probably most fellow Buddhists) happiness really is. He emphasises the difference between pleasure and happiness. The former is often what we spend a lot of effort trying to obtain, thinking that it his happiness we are chasing.

The most common error is to confuse pleasure for happiness. Pleasure, says the Hindu proverb, “is only the shadow of happiness.” It is the direct result of pleasurable sensual, esthetic, or intellectual stimuli. The fleeting experience of pleasure is dependent upon circumstance, on a specific location or moment in time. It is unstable by nature, and the sensation it evokes soon becomes neutral or even unpleasant.


This distinction does not suggest that we mustn’t seek out pleasurable sensations. There is no reason to deprive ourselves of the enjoyment of a magnificent landscape, of swimming in the sea, or of the scent of a rose. Pleasures become obstacles only when they upset the mind’s equilibrium and lead to an obsession with gratification or an aversion to anything that thwarts them.


Even if, ideally, the satisfaction of all our desires were achievable, it would lead not to happiness but to the creation of new desires or, just as likely, to indifference, disgust, or even depression. Why depression? If we were to convince ourselves that satisfying all our whims would make us happy, the collapse of that delusion would make us doubt the very existence of happiness. If I have more than I could possibly need and I am still not happy, happiness must be impossible.

I think a lot of us can relate to this reasoning. We imagine that as soon as we just buy that thing, get that new job, or accomplish this or that – then our lives will finally be good and we will be happy! And yet that might be the point where we actually fall even deeper into suffering. But maybe this is exactly the experience that some people need, in order to realize that there is no pot of gold at the end of the accomplishment rainbow.

Another quote I take with me is how easy it is to get conditioned into chasing wealth and status. We might start out as eager 20-somethings, thinking that "I will try to get rich so that I may enjoy life and be happy" but when we have amassed an amount of money that would feed us for the rest of our lives, we just want more and more. And we continue the not-so-pleasant struggle to amass more wealth, just because that is what we have conditioned ourselves to do.

Wealth, pleasures, rank, and power are all sought for the sake of happiness. But as we strive, we forget the goal and spend our time pursuing the means for their own sake.

But happiness is something to be found inside. It is an underlying state, much deeper and richer than any other state in our mind. It isn't weakened nor strengthened by external factors. It is what is left when we are freed of all mental toxins, such as distracting thoughts, addictions and hatred.

Anyone who enjoys inner peace is no more broken by failure than he is inflated by success.


The search for happiness is not about looking at life through rose-colored glasses or blinding oneself to the pain and imperfections of the world. Nor is happiness a state of exaltation to be perpetuated at all costs; it is the purging of mental toxins, such as hatred and obsession, that literally poison the mind. It is also about learning how to put things in perspective and reduce the gap between appearances and reality.

True happiness is possible

It is likely common to think that true happiness, as in feeling an underlying cushion of inner calm, peace and contentment every moment of our lives – is indeed impossible. I certainly thought so just a year ago. You need to have bad days, right? The aim should just be to have more happy days than miserable days, right? What else is there?

My friend Alan Wallace relates the case of a Tibetan hermit whom he knew well and who told him, with no pretension whatsoever (he was living peacefully in his hermitage, making no demands on anyone), that he had lived for twenty years in a “state of continuous bliss.”

Yes, true happiness is possible.

If the wise man can be happy, then happiness must be possible. This is a crucial point, since so many people believe, in effect, that true happiness is impossible.

But it requires work for most people. Mental training. Which within Buddhism means meditation.


Ricard argues why there, from a rational standpoint, is no reason to identify with our flow of thought.

Our experience is simply the content of the mental flow, the continuum of consciousness, and there is no justification for seeing the self as an entirely distinct entity within that flow.


We are so accustomed to affixing the “I” label to that mental flow, however, that we come to identify with it and to fear its disappearance. There follows a powerful attachment to the self and thus to the notion of “mine” — my body, my name, my mind, my possessions, my friends, and so on — which leads either to the desire to possess or to the feeling of repulsion for the “other.”

We can now start connecting some of the dots of Buddhism. We want to diminish or even dissolve the ego, so that we minimize the strong desires and repulsions that the ego nurtures. This is because all kinds of desires and repulsions that cause us to lose equanimity act as toxins to the mind and prohibit us from reaching clarity and happiness. This is beautifully illustrated by the metaphor below.

You are napping peacefully in a boat in the middle of a lake. Another craft bumps into yours and wakes you with a start. Thinking that a clumsy or prankish boater has crashed into you, you leap up furious, ready to curse him out, only to find that the boat in question is empty. You laugh at your own mistake and return peaceably to your nap. The only difference between the two reactions is that in the first case, you’d thought yourself the target of someone’s malice, while in the second you realized that your “I” was not a target.


Likewise, if someone punches you, your irritation will be long-lasting. But consider the physical pain — it fades quickly and is soon imperceptible. The only thing that continues to hurt is the ego’s wound.

So if we can keep the ego small by just observing it calmly, we can avoid all the drama and stress and meaningless pursuits mentioned above, thus becoming happier.

True self-confidence

And also as a note on true self-confidence, it should not be attained through strengthening the ego, an approach most people take. Instead it should be approached from the completely opposite direction:

For Buddhism, paradoxically, genuine self-confidence is the natural quality of egolessness. To dispel the illusion of the ego is to free oneself from a fundamental vulnerability. The fact is, the sense of security derived from that illusion is eminently fragile. Genuine confidence comes from an awareness of a basic quality of our mind and of our potential for transformation and flourishing, what Buddhism calls buddha nature, which is present in all of us. Such recognition imparts peaceful strength that cannot be threatened by external circumstances or inner fears, a freedom that transcends self-absorption and anxiety.


Psychopaths, who are unable to feel any empathy for others or any regret for the suffering they inflict upon them, are also ego-supremacists. As Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy, observes: “Professionals who have worked with psychopaths have been struck by their extreme egocentricity. They are totally self-serving, feel that they are superior to others, and, above all, think that they have innate rights and prerogatives that transcend or preempt those of other people.”

The stream of constant thoughts

Not only should we try not to identify with the constant stream of thoughts through our minds, we should also remain equanimous to it and not place too much importance to individual thoughts racing through our minds. Or in other words; don't take everything so god damn seriously!

Learning to tone down the ceaseless racket of disturbing thoughts is a decisive stage on the road to inner peace. As Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche explains: These trains of thought and states of mind are constantly changing, like the shapes of clouds in the wind, but we attach great importance to them. An old man watching children at play knows very well that their games are of little consequence. He feels neither elated nor upset at what happens in their game, while the children take it all very seriously. We are just exactly them.


But there is also a quality of mind that is always present no matter what kind of thoughts we entertain. That quality is the primary consciousness underlying all thought. It is what remains in the rare moment when the mind is at rest, almost motionless, even as it retains its ability to know. That faculty, that simple open presence, is what we may call pure consciousness, because it exists even in the absence of mental constructs.

I really love the classic analogy with the mind being an ocean, and the thoughts just waves on the surface:

Thoughts emerge from pure consciousness and are then reabsorbed in it, just as waves emerge from the ocean and dissolve into it again. Once we understand this, we have taken a great leap toward inner peace.

Hostility, hatred and envy

Hostility and hatred is not only frustrating and making us lose inner calm and self-control, it is also deadly.

255 medical students took a personality test designed to measure their level of hostility. Twenty-five years later, it was found that the most aggressive among them had suffered five times more cardiac events than those who were less irritable.

A concept within Buddhism that might differ from western psychology, is the notion that feelings can be strictly divided into positive and negative ones; good thoughts and bad thoughts. Hostility obviously falls into the latter category. Some people argue that feelings such as hostility are not purely bad; evolution encouraged them because they can help us ward off dangerous people. Buddhists reply that one must separate the emotion, which is bad, from the action that goes with it, which can be good in certain circumstances:

Buddhism, however, goes further by saying that hostility is always negative because it generates and perpetuates hatred. It is entirely possible to act firmly and resolutely to overpower a dangerous person without feeling the slightest trace of hatred. The Dalai Lama was once asked about the best course of action to take when an intruder enters a room and threatens its occupants with a gun. He responded in a tone that was half serious and half playful: “I’d shoot him in the legs to neutralize him, then I’d go over and stroke his head and take care of him.” Although he knew full well that reality isn’t always that simple, he wanted to make it clear that vigorous action is enough and that it is not only pointless but harmful to inject hostility or hatred into it.

In the same vein, Ricard talks about envy, and how self-destructive that emotion is:

In every instance, envy is the product of a wound to self-importance and the fruit of an illusion. What’s more, envy and jealousy are absurd for whoever feels them, since unless he resorts to violence, he is their only victim. His pique does not prevent those he’s jealous of from enjoying further success, wealth, or distinction.

The blessing of our mind's lack of emotional multitasking

One of the key takeaways for me with this book, is that it is impossible for the mind to entertain two opposing thoughts at the same time. Ie. good ones and bad ones.

One fundamental point emphasized by Buddhism is that two diametrically opposed mental processes cannot form simultaneously. We may fluctuate rapidly between love and hatred, but we cannot feel in the same instant of consciousness the desire to hurt someone and to do him good.


In the same way, by habituating your mind to altruistic love, you gradually eliminate hatred, because the two states of mind can alternate but cannot coexist.


It is equally impossible for greed or desire to coexist with inner freedom. Desire can fully develop only when it is allowed to run rampant to the point where it monopolizes the mind. The trap here is the fact that desire, and its ally pleasure, are not ugly like hatred. They are even extremely seductive.

And this is why I think Buddhism focuses so much on compassion. Because even if compassion wouldn't in itself equal happiness, it is a "good" or "positive" emotion in Buddhist doctrine, and thus effectively blocks negative emotions. Compassion is, as Ricard says, an "antidote" against a lot of negative emotions that removes our inner Buddha nature, our happiness.

We also get to learn another distinctive difference between pleasure and true happiness:

You can experience pleasure at somebody else’s expense, but you can never derive happiness from it. Pleasure can be joined to cruelty, violence, pride, greed, and other mental conditions that are incompatible with true happiness.

Renouncing stuff = liberation

Why do Buddhist monks think it is a good idea to renounce so many things in their lives? Things such as material possessions and marriage. Ricard says that we should not view it as getting rid of something good, but rather something that might distract or block us from reaching inner freedom.

For many people, the idea of renunciation and nonattachment implies a descent into a dank dungeon of asceticism and discipline. The depressing privation of life’s pleasures. A series of injunctions and bans that restrict one’s freedom to enjoy life. A Tibetan proverb says: “Speaking to someone about renunciation is like hitting a pig on the nose with a stick. He doesn’t like it at all.” But true renunciation is more like a bird soaring into the sky when its cage is opened. Suddenly the endless concerns that had oppressed the mind are gone, allowing the free expression of inner potential. We are like weary marchers, carrying heavy bags filled with a combination of provisions and stones. Wouldn’t the smart thing be to set our bag down for a moment to sort it out and lighten our load? Renunciation is not about depriving ourselves of that which brings us joy and happiness — that would be absurd; it is about abandoning what causes us inexhaustible and relentless distress. It is about having the courage to rid ourselves of dependency on the root causes of suffering.

Experiments with meditators

Something that Matthieu Ricard is known for, is that he has taken part of research where avid meditators have been put in MRI machines. The researchers have wanted to find out if someone who has meditated for many years has a different brain or different brain activity than a normal person. This is described in the book. Twelve meditators were compared with twelve ordinary people.

There is a part of the brain which is central to happiness and well being in humans, and that is the left prefrontal cortex. Happiness is very much connected to activity in this part of the brain.

when people report feeling joy, altruism, interest, or enthusiasm, and when they manifest high energy and vivacity of spirit, they present significant cerebral activity in the left prefrontal cortex. On the other hand, those who predominantly experience such “negative” emotional states as depression, pessimism, or anxiety and have a tendency to become withdrawn manifest more activity in the right prefrontal cortex.


Subjects whose left prefrontal cortex is damaged (in an accident or by disease) are especially vulnerable to depression, most likely because the right side is no longer counterbalanced by the left.

The research shows that the meditators could become "happy at will" very easily. It is also interesting to note that compassion and happiness, which Buddhists stress over and over again are interrelated, both correlate with activity in the same part of the brain – the left prefrontal cortex.

As they began meditating on compassion, an extraordinary increase of left prefrontal activity was registered. Compassion, the very act of feeling concern for other people’s well-being, appears to be one of the positive emotions, like joy and enthusiasm. This corroborates the research of psychologists showing that the most altruistic members of a population are also those who enjoy the highest sense of satisfaction in life.

Evidence was also found of the increased focus through meditation that I discovered on my Vipassana retreat:

Preliminary results obtained by Jonathan Cohen and Brent Field at Princeton University also suggest that trained meditators are able to sustain focused attention upon various tasks over a much longer period of time than untrained controls.

Meditation gives quick results

You don't need to practice meditation for 40 000 hours during 40 years to become happy though. Just start meditating regularly and amazing things can happen to your happiness levels and your health:

A study that Richard Davidson published with Jon Kabat-Zinn and others has shown that three months of meditation training with highly active employees of a biotech company in Madison had significantly shifted toward the left the baseline reflecting the differential activities of their right and left prefrontal cortices. The immune system of these apprentice meditators was also boosted and the flu vaccine that they received in the fall, at the end of the training, was 20 percent more effective than in the control group.


I learned something new about flow, namely that there are certain personality traits that correlate with (even cause?) reaching flow more easily:

Csikszentmihalyi has found that some people enter the state of flow more easily than others. Such people generally have “curiosity and interest in life, persistence and low self-centeredness, which results in the ability to be motivated by intrinsic reward.”

Ricard also equals flow with Buddhist enlightenment, which was kind of an "aha" moment for me:

experience of contemplative flow encompasses our entire perception of the universe and its interdependence. You might say that the awakened being remains continuously in a state of serene, vivid, and altruistic flow.


There are several beautiful things that Ricard says about death, and how thinking of it gives meaning and value to every moment we have in life:

Death seems to be so distant, yet it is always so near. Distant because we always imagine it at some time yet to come; near because it can strike at any moment.


The twelfth-century Tibetan sage Gampopa wrote: “At the start, we should fear death like a stag trying to escape from a trap. At midway, we should have nothing to regret, like a peasant who has carefully tended to his field. At the end, we should be happy, like someone who has accomplished a great task.”

And I think the below quote puts beautifully my personal view on aging and death: As long as we put the time we have to the best use possible, as long as we play the cards that we have been dealt at birth as well as we possibly are able to, there can be no regret when death occurs, whenever it might be.

Can anyone who has made the most of human life’s extraordinary potential have anything to regret? The farmer who has labored, sown, and reaped his harvest, in good weather and in bad, has nothing to regret; he has done his best. We may blame ourselves only for what we have neglected to do. Someone who has used every second of her life to become a better person and to contribute to others’ happiness can die in peace.


The wise man enjoys a very special kind of freedom: prepared for death, he appreciates every moment of life’s bounty. He lives each day as if it were his only one.


When death finally comes for him, he dies tranquilly, without sadness or regret, without attachment to what he is leaving behind. He leaves this life as the eagle soars into the blue.

We also get a Buddhist's explanation of why death is such an intimidating and angst-ridden idea to most of us:

As Sogyal Rinpoche explains: “Death represents the ultimate and inevitable destruction of that to which we are most attached: ourselves. Clearly, therefore, the teachings on non-ego and the nature of the mind can be of enormous help.”

What did I learn?

One of my key learnings from this book is that certain emotions tied to happiness hang tightly together. One of them is love/kindness/empathy. And if we do like the Buddhists and cultivate that emotion every day, the "rest" of happiness comes with it automatically. Also, certain positive emotions linked to happiness effectively shuts out and stops negative emotions. For example, if you are in a moment of feeling deep gratitude for everything you have in your life, it is impossible at the same time to feel hatred or anger.

I also got a lot of more insights and nuances of what Buddhism means.

Thank you Wonderlane for the header photo, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

back to the list of all my texts