Tanya Lasuk stumbles onto a technique sitting in plain sight:

About a year ago, it occurred to me that for a sadhana practice to be transformational, the imagery and recitations have to be deeply felt and experienced. Otherwise, the practice becomes a particularly detrimental form of idle talk—some dull script, meaningless except for a superstitious idea that I should recite it. So I tried an experiment. I began imagining the practice as clearly as I could and engaging all my senses as deeply as possible.

Over the same period, I’d been unsuccessfully trying to follow Ven. Tarpa’s advice to “gladden the mind.” She finds it really useful, but I was puzzled about how to accomplish it. I’m sure there are many who easily maintain a positive outlook, but I am not one.

One morning as I was starting my daily practice, I happened to think of a recent time when I felt really happy. I decided to focus my attention on the situation and the physical feelings that went with it. I did my best to feel as if the event were recurring at that moment. I began smiling and feeling the warmth and happiness throughout my body. I then began my practice and found it to be entirely different. I felt and understood the practice in a new way.

After that practice session, I found my day going particularly well. I was able to apply patience and generosity almost effortlessly. I felt that I was as close as possible to fulfilling my Dharma motivation of benefitting others and not harming them.

Ven. Chodron talks about the importance of bringing the Buddhas to mind and to see them looking at us with acceptance and wisdom. Luckily for me, the moment of happiness I was thinking of included looking with acceptance at someone who was looking back at me in the same way. So it was easy to move from that memory to vividly imagining looking at the Buddha instead. I started beginning my daily practice by generating a feeling of happiness and bringing the smiling faces of the Buddhas to mind.

Psychologists tell us virtuous behavior makes us feel happy. When we act from an altruistic motivation and succeed in doing something good, we automatically feel happy. They also found that cheerful people are more generous and compassionate in their actions than those who are not. Happiness promoting good actions which promote happiness—a virtuous feedback loop.

There are so many statements in the Dharma that say exactly this—starting with the definitions of good and bad. “Good” is what brings happiness and “bad” is what brings unhappiness. The Buddhas—who think only of others—are happy, while we foolish ones think only of ourselves and are miserable.

Clearly, the Buddhas are happy and wish only for our happiness. So why not purposely generate happiness as I visualize the Buddhas? Why not imagine the Buddhas happily looking back at me as the first step in practice?

Of course, some “jackal speech” came up for me: “This is just a trick!” “How can I be happy without proving I am worthy of happiness?” “Since I did such-and-such, surely I deserve to be miserable!”

I’m so steeped in the “who’s right and who’s wrong” game that it’s hard to shake off the idea that I need to “punish” myself with “unhappiness” when I’m “wrong.” When I really look, I find myself thinking that happiness must be a reward for being “good” rather than my natural state.

In the win/lose view, happiness comes from the outside and not from my own mind. In that world, happiness is inherent in some external agent or object. Happiness is some permanent, unchanging “thing” that I must capture and hold onto.

Of course, the Dharma teaches us the exact opposite: All things lack inherent qualities, things constantly change, and attachment is futile.

Try the experiment for yourself. Find a clearly remembered time when you were happy—maybe being with a loved one or enjoying a beautiful day. For a parent, it could be looking at your child for the first time. Remember as deeply and clearly as possible and notice where in your body you feel the happiness. Then spend some time growing the feelings of happiness, renewing in your own way what brings a broader and deeper sense of happiness. Then rest in the happiness for a while. After that, see how your subsequent activities are affected by having taken an active role in creating a happy mind.