Reading Room

ReadingRoomDalaiLamaThe Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living – The Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler

The Dalai Lama:

“We each have a physical structure, a mind, and emotions. We are all born in the same way, and we all die. All of us want happiness and do not want to suffer.”

“I believe that the proper utilisation 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.”

Howard Cutler:

“Over time I became convinced that the Dalai Lama had learned how to live with a sense of fulfilment and a degree of serenity that I had never seen in other people … Although he is a Buddhist monk … I began to wonder if one could identify a set of his beliefs or practices that could be utilized by non-Buddhists as well. Practices that could be directly applied to our lives to simply help us become happier, stronger, perhaps less afraid.”

In a nutshell

Achieving happiness does not have to depend on events. Through mental practice we can form the ability to be happy most of the time.

Have you heard the one about the psychiatrist who met the Buddhist monk? Normally this would be the beginning of a good joke, perhaps involving a couch and a begging bowl. In this instance it forms the basis of a book. The Art of Happiness is the result of a collaboration between Howard Cutler, a respected psychiatrist, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It is a blend of the Dalai Lama’s thoughts on various issues and Howard Cutler’s personal and scientific reflections on them.

Many people have objected to the fact that the Dalai Lama is presented as “co-author” when he did not actually write anything, but it doesn’t matter when you consider the result: an unusually strong happiness manual based on questions any of us might ask if we had a few hours with the man himself.

The nature and sources of happiness

Cutler began working on this book with certain beliefs derived from his western scientific background, such as that happiness is a mystery and that the most we can really hope for is the avoidance of misery. Over the course of many conversations, the Dalai Lama convinced him that happiness is not a luxury but the purpose of our existence. Not only that, there is a definite path leading toward it. First we have to identify the factors that invariably lead to suffering and those that lead to happiness. Then we must begin eliminating the suffering-causing factors and cultivate the happiness-causing ones.

Perhaps the most surprising point about happiness is that its achievement is “scientific” and requires discipline. As Cutler puts it: “I realised that right from the beginning our interviews had taken on a clinical tone, as if I were asking him about human anatomy, only in this case, it was the anatomy of the human mind and spirit.”

Below are some points from the book:

* Happiness has many levels. In Buddhism there are four factors – wealth, worldly satisfaction, spirituality, and enlightenment – which create “the totality of an individual’s quest for happiness.” Good health and a close circle of friends are also important, but the door into all these things is your state of mind. This not only works to create the experiences in your life, but is the filter through which you view them. Without a disciplined mind you are not really in control of what you are doing, nor can you be independent of events if you wish to be. The real source of happiness is the control of your consciousness. A calm mind or one engaged in meaningful work equates to happiness.

*A basic way to happiness is to cultivate affection and connection with other human beings. Even if you lose everything you will have this. The Dalai Lama notes that while he lost his country, he in a way gained the whole world, because he had the ability to bond with others quickly. Always look for what you have in common with others and you will never really be lonely.

*No matter how powerful they seem, negative emotions and states of mind have no foundation in reality. They are distortions, stopping us from seeing things as they really are. We only have to experience shame or embarrassment once after losing our temper to appreciate this. When we experience positive states, however, we are generally closer to the true nature of the universe and how we could be all the time. All emotions, if practiced regularly, grow in size. The Dalai Lama continually suggests that we cultivate the positive. Like any good habit you start off small, but the end benefits are great.

*A positive state of mind is not merely good for you, it benefits everyone with whom you come into contact, literally changing the world. No matter how difficult it is, reduce your negative states of mind and increase your positive ones.

*Having “wholesome” actions as opposed to “unwholesome” actions is not a matter of morality or religion, it is the practical difference between happiness and unhappiness. Through self-training, you can develop a “good heart” that lessens the chances that you will act in an unproductive way.

*Don’t confuse happiness with pleasure. Pleasure is of the senses and can seem like happiness, but lacks meaning. Happiness, in contrast, rests on meaning and is often felt despite negative external conditions. It is stable and persistent. While pleasures are a bonus in life, happiness is a must.

*Happiness is something to be developed over time. Make a decision to apply the same effort and determination that you devote to worldly success to studying and practicing happiness. Systematic seeking after the causes and ways to happiness can be one of our most important life decisions, like deciding to get married or embarking on a career, Cutler says. The alternative is drifting in and out of happiness by chance, vulnerable to unexpected attacks of unhappiness. The student of happiness will experience ups and downs, but will be better equipped to get back to a positive state more quickly, or to raise their “normal” mental state to a significantly higher level.

*Over time you must try to cancel out negative emotions, particularly anger and hatred, and replace them with tolerance and patience. The Dalai Lama’s idea of countering negative thoughts with positive ones has been validated by the rise and success of cognitive therapy which gets people to replace distorted modes of thinking – “my life is a mess” – with more accurate ones – “this part of my life isn’t good, but a lot else is.”

Compassion and connection

The fundamental nature of human beings, the Dalai Lama suggests, is gentleness. Science and philosophy like to portray humans as self-interested, but many studies show that people like to be altruistic if they get a chance – an example is disaster relief efforts. We may think of a baby as the perfect example of humanity living only for its own physiological needs, but another way to look at it is in terms of the joy that babies give to those around them. When we see the world not as aggressive but as basically compassionate, it is easy to see the evidence.

Compassion is useful. Rather than being sentimental, it is the basis of communicating well between people. Echoing Dale Carnegie, the Dalai Lama says that only by really seeing and feeling things from another’s point of view will you truly be able to bond with them. Compassion is not “feeling sorry for someone” but a recognition of commonality – what someone else feels today might be what you will be feeling next week.

The Dalai Lama is “never lonely.” The antidote to loneliness is to be prepared to connect with anyone. Most people who consider themselves lonely are surrounded by family and friends, yet they put all their longings into the hope of finding that “special someone.” Open your eyes to the wealth of people, he says, and loneliness can be a thing of the past.

Distinguish between love based on attachment and love based on compassion. All human beings want to be happy and avoid suffering; instead of loving a person just so that they will love you back, begin with seeing the commonality of the human condition and what you can do to increase this particular person’s happiness.

If you fail to cultivate compassion, or the ability to feel the suffering of others, you lose the sense of belonging to the human race that is the source of warmth and inspiration. While feeling another’s pain may not seem appealing, without it we set ourselves up for isolation. While the ruthless person can never properly relax, the compassionate person experiences freedom of mind and a rare peace.

Final comments

An effect of reading The Art of Happiness is that you find yourself asking: “How would the Dalai Lama deal with this situation?” He gives off a sense of the lightness of life, despite all the negative things, and this is a person who has lost his whole country.

In the face of Cutler’s probing questions it is surprising how often the Dalai Lama says “I don’t know,” particularly when addressing the case of individuals. People are complex, he says, but the western way is always to find the causes of things, which can lead to a kind of agony if we don’t find an answer. We will not necessarily understand why life plays out the way it does within the scope of our lifetime. This view partly comes from his belief in reincarnation and karma, but can be appreciated separately to Buddhist doctrine. Precisely because we may not understand everything about our existence, it is all the more important to be good to other beings and to leave the world a slightly better place. With this simple command we know that we can’t go wrong.

This copy was taken from 50 Self-help Classics, written and compiled by Tom Butler-Bowdon.

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About Tom Cottrell

Tom is a struggling author, pilgrim and citizen of Planet Earth.
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