Are you happy? Truly happy?
Perhaps you would be if you had a better job or a more expensive car or more friends or won the lottery? You aren’t alone if you feel this way. Many of us do. The elusive promise of happiness is just out of reach. Indeed, most of us assume that how we feel is beyond our control. We’re but a small sail boat on the ocean of our emotions; tossed violently as the waves crash about us.
I recently read “The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the somewhat trite title revealed a tome filled with homogenised Eastern wisdom dumbed down into fortune cookie morsels; a tragedy of a self-help book promising a dozen steps to liberation.
What you actually get is a series of conversations and interviews between the Dalai Lama and an American psychiatrist which reveal candid and useful guidance on how to lead a more fulfilling life.
Western culture tends to be overtly pessimistic. Our media fuels our fears daily. A warming planet; economic crisis; epidemics; pandemics; diseases; et all. Freud’s pessimistic view has dominated modern psychiatry. We’re doomed to battle with our ego and id for the rest of our lives. Indeed psychiatry is more focused on making us less miserable than making us truly happy. A simple example of how we think is in how we treat ageing. Each wrinkle and grey hair must be eradicated lest it betray our true age. A booming market in creams makes empty promises of smooth skin and wrinkles plumped. Instead, we should consider wrinkles and grey hair as a celebration of a life lived and not something to fear. Fortunately the Dalai Lama has a more optimistic world view.
The Dalai Lama as a Tibetan Buddhism monk has spent his entire life training his mind and firmly believes that everyone has the right and ability to be truly happy if they are prepared to invest time and patience into training their own mind.
The Dalai Lama comes across as warm, funny and — cliched as it may sound — wise. Howard reflects on these conversations at various points in the book and uses his own cases to re-enforce the Dalai Lama’s teachings.
I firmly recommend this book to anyone be they happy or sad. It contains a lot of useful methods to really get the most from your own life and to, dare I say it, develop a spiritual nature.
The Dalai Lama’s basic rule for sustainable happiness is to develop a warm heart and compassion for others. He considers that all humans are born to be compassionate and to help one another. This may seem an alien concept to anyone who has been in a supermarket on a Saturday. To illustrate his point, the Dalai Lama asks one to consider a suffering animal in pain, You would have to have a very hard heart to not want to help it.
The book is broken down into rough sections which explore the topic and offers advice on how to improve your own life in this area. I’d like to share some passages which I found relevant or very interesting.
Whether we are feeling happy or unhappy at any given moment often has very little to do with our absolute conditions, but rather, it is a function of how we perceive our situation, how satisfied we are with what we have.
I found this statement to resonate. It’s easy to think about what you don’t have and never consider what you do. This is compounded when you compare yourself or situation to another. If you focused solely on what you do already have, you would certainly feel happier about your life and situation.
While we have this body, and especially this amazing human brain, I think every minute is something precious. Our day-to-day existence is very much alive with hope, although there is no guarantee of our future. There is no guarantee that tomorrow at this time we will be here. But still we are working for that purely on the basis of hope. So, we need to make the best use of our time. I believe that the proper utilization of time is this: if you can, serve other people, other sentient beings. If not, at least refrain from harming them. I think that is the whole basis of my philosophy.
‘So, let us reflect on what is truly of value in life, what gives meaning to our lives, and set our priorities on the basis of that. The purpose of our life needs to be positive. We weren’t born with the purpose of causing trouble, harming others. For our life to be of value, I think we must develop basic good human qualities – warmth, kindness, compassion. Then our life becomes meaningful, and more peaceful – happier.’
When you consider those that regularly donate their time and energy to a cause they believe in are generally more happy and content with their lives than greedy selfish people, you would find it hard to disagree.
On Self Reliance
Our modern Western society fosters the belief that you need to be self reliant. This tends to disconnect us from each other as we all try to move through life on our own. The Dalai Lama believes that we should develop a warm heart and willingness to help each other.
As the Dalai Lama spoke, I began to think about all the people involved in making my shirt. I started by imagining the farmer who grew the cotton. Next the salesperson who sold the farmer the tractor. Then, for that matter, the hundreds or even thousands of people involved in manufacturing that tractor, including the people who mined the ore to make the metal for each part of the tractor. And all the designers of the tractor. Then, of course, the people who processed the cotton, wove the cloth, and the people who cut, dyed, and sewed that cloth. The cargo workers and truck drivers delivering it to the store, and the salesperson who sold the shirt to me. It occurred to me that virtually every aspect of my life came about as the result of other’s efforts. My precious self-reliance was a complete illusion, a fantasy. As this realization dawned on me, I was overcome with a profound sense of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all beings. I felt a softening. Something. I don’t know. It made me want to cry.
Is our treasured self reliance nothing more than an illusion? Almost everything we do or touch is a combined human effort if you really think about it at that level.
On Pain and Suffering
If I’m unhappy, then I must be the ‘victim’ of someone or something – an idea that’s all too common in the West. The victimizer may be the government, the educational system, abusive parents, a ‘dysfunctional family,’ the other gender or our uncaring mate. Or, we may turn blame inward: there’s something wrong with me, I’m the victim of disease, of defective genes perhaps. But the risk of continuing to focus on assigning blame, and maintaining a victim stance, is the perpetuation of our own suffering.
This is a very common trait, I believe. When something unfortunate happens, it’s all too easy to become a victim of some external force rather than dealing with it.
But we also add to our own suffering in other ways. All too often we perpetuate our pain, keep it alive, by replaying our hurts over and over again in our minds, magnifying our injustices in the process. We repeat our painful memories with the unconscious perhaps wish that somehow it will change the situation – but it never does. Of course, sometimes this endless recounting of our woes can serve a limited purpose; it can add drama and a certain excitement to our lives, or elicit attention and sympathy from others. But this seems like a poor trade-off for the unhappiness we continue to endure.
I know that I am guilty of doing this. We tend to replay moments and exchanges and negative ones always receive prominence and it only serves to keep the pain alive.
‘So I think that to a large extent, whether you suffer depends on how you respond to a given situation. For example, say that you find out that someone is speaking badly of you behind your back. If you react to this knowledge that someone is speaking badly of you, this negativity, with a feeling of hurt or anger, then you yourself destroy your own peace of mind. Your pain is your own personal creation. On the other hand, if you refrain from reacting in a negative way, let the slander pass by you as if it was a silent wind passing behind your ears, you protect yourself from that feeling of hurt, that feeling of agony. So, although you may not always be able to avoid difficult situations, you can modify the extent to which you suffer by how you choose to respond to the situation.’
This is a key part of the book for me. How often do we destroy our own peace of mind by reacting badly to an event? We create that pain, it is not thrust upon us! This passage should be read and re-read until you fully understand the power of simply changing the way you react.
One of the key points the Dalai Lama stresses is that to be truly happy you need to weed out your negative thoughts and concentrate on the positive ones. This can take years of training but it is a vital step to take. Most of us tend to focus on the negative. The things we’re not good at. The bad things that have happened. This is destructive thinking.
‘It seems that often when problems arise, our outlook becomes narrow. All of our attention may be focused on worrying about the problem, and we may have a sense that we’re the only one that is going through such difficulties. This can lead to a kind of self-absorption that can make the problem seem very intense. When this happens, I think that seeing things from a wider perspective can definitely help – realizing, for instance, that there are many other people who have gone through similar experiences, and even worse experiences. This practice of shifting perspective can even be helpful in certain illnesses or pain.
How true this sounds to me. When a worry arises, it is easy to magnify it and allow it to consume you. Sometimes a shift of perspective is all that is needed to change how you feel. Indeed, the Dalai Lama’s thoughts on worry are very simple. “If there is a solution, then don’t worry. If there isn’t a solution, then there is no point in worry”.
I found the book to be incredibly insightful and gave me much to reflect on. The book doesn’t push religion. Indeed, a lot of the book is aimed at those who have no faith. The Dalai Lama offers his Buddhist training and insight in a simple to digest format. His notion of spirituality is simply a social conscience and a desire to help others.
The value of training ones mind to be calmer and more robust is obvious. Life is constant change. We get older and our relationships change. We will face many difficulties on our paths. A calm and robust mind will meet these challenges and be strong enough to cope with them.
As the Dalai Lama said: “A tree with strong roots can withstand the most violent storm, but the tree can’t grow roots just as the storm appears on the horizon.”.