MARCH 2000 NEWS   

Training the Mind    

Training the Mind

The Kathmandu Post (Review of Books)
March 12, 2000

By Kesang Tseten

The Art of Happiness offers simple but authoritative words by the Dalai Lama, who many view as one who knows and lives the art. If making it on the NY Times bestseller is indication, his words are being taken seriously in North America.

In 1992 American psychiatrist Howard Cutler met the Dalai Lama and was convinced he was a truly exceptional man. The Dalai Lama was a Buddhist monk with a lifetime of Buddhist training; could his approach to life be identified and utilized by non-Buddhists as well, Cutler wondered. The Art of Happiness is the result, based on public talks and extensive conversations with the Dalai Lama, augmented by Cutlerís observations and commentary.

The fundamental tenet of the Dalai Lamaís approach is that the purpose of life is to seek happiness; it is in our nature to do so, and it is our right. And happiness can be achieved by training the mind.

This is a radical premise for the West, according to Cutler. Hadnít Freud said all man could hope for was "the transformation of hysteric misery into common unhappiness?" For psychiatrists, "happiness" is not a therapeutic objective. "Happy," Cutler notes, comes from the Icelandic word happy meaning luck or chance; thus, happiness is a mystery.

For the Dalai Lama, "mind" does not only refer to cognitive ability or intellect; rather, it is embodied in the Tibetan word sem, which is closer to "psyche" or "spirit." The mind includes intellect and feeling. This is what needs to and can be transformed, through inner discipline.

Just what is this inner discipline? In the Dalai Lamaís view, it entails knowing what brings happiness and what causes suffering, then replacing destructive mental states of mind with positive, constructive ones. These are: kindness, tolerance, forgiveness and the final component - spirituality. For the Dalai Lama, the method is Buddhism, but there are others, and you have to find one to match your own predisposition.

Happiness depends on our state of mind, not on externals, he says; that is, it depends on how we perceive our situation. Why else would a professional athlete earning two million dollars feel victimized when a teammate gets more? Cutler writes about two friends. One becomes hugely successful; she buys, travels, indulges in all she always wanted. After a while the excitement wears off and things return to normal. The other is devastated when he contracts the HIV virus, but after a year heís grateful no AIDS symptoms have developed. Coming to terms with his mortality, he now wakes up each morning with excitement for what the day will bring.

In one of many studies Cutler cites, subjects were asked to complete the sentence - "Iím glad Iím not...." Repetitions of the exercise distinctly elevated their feelings of life satisfaction. A reverse exercise brought opposite results.

Going by the Dalai Lamaís prescription, the challenge lies in cultivating the causes of positive feelings irrespective of the situation, so that they become stable, a constancy; this quiet, stable mind is in fact our underlying nature, distorted by our misguided intellect.

The Art of Happiness gives us access to the Dalai Lamaís "enlightened pragmatic" approach to everyday life. For example, he says wanting a car in an urban society is fine, but wanting one better than your neighborís creates discord. But isnít it my right to buy one if it brings me satisfaction, Cutler counters; after all, jealousy is someone elseís problem. No, says the Dalai Lama: "ÖSelf-satisfaction alone cannot determine if a desire is positive or negative. A murderer may have a feeling of satisfaction at the time of committing a murder."

Similar reasoning leads us to something quite relevant today. We all feel the stresses of modern living, and long for and need assuagement. Not surprisingly, a new ethos has thus emerged, become rampant, which goes: if it makes you feel good, it is right. While compassion should extend to self, the Dalai Lama says, there is a crucial difference between pleasure and happiness; one is shortlived, the other lasting. Inner discipline isnít called that for nothing.

On the subject of intimacy, Cutler tries to engage the Dalai Lamaís sympathy. In the West, intimacy is not just the physical act of sex but the whole idea of falling love, of being deeply in love with oneís partner. The Dalai Lama says quite firmly that it is profoundly limiting to expect deep intimacy with only that Special Someone, that soulmate; moreover, it is often based on fantasy, and therefore a source of frustration.

Far from dismissing intimacy, Cutler reflects, the Dalai Lama has an ability and a propensity to be intimate with many. At times of being disappointed or unhappy, he is known to have voiced his feelings to the cleaning person, "so we can face it together." He admits his open nature makes him bad at keeping secrets.

Spirituality isnít necessarily religion, he says. Nor is it prayers, which are simply a reminder of principles and convictions, though these "reminders" take up to four hours of his day. Rather, spirituality is about developing compassion: the wish to be free of suffering, the cultivation of that wish, and extending the same to others.

At times, just sometimes, Cutler tries too hard to force connections with his understanding of the Dalai Lamaís words. Otherwise, The Art of Happiness very richly fulfills two of the three conditions of the Buddhist approach - "hearing (learning), reflecting, and meditating." It is a book to be read certainly, but its value can be much more.

(K Tseten is a writer and filmmaker)

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