Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Art of Happiness 1

The Art of Happiness 1
Men fishing on Sant'Andrea beach yesterday. Living is easy...
I have already expressed the doubt quite often in these posts as to whether happiness is a worthwhile goal at all to have in life. Not only have I, but many others more educated and far wiser than I have doubted its validity as an aim in life - scholars like the great Irish psychiatrist Professor Ivor Browne. What, after all, is happiness - a good education, a good career, a successful life with the accompanying pleasures like wife and family, money, a good job and a good reputation? All of these are worthwhile goals in themselves, but either alone or collectively they do not guarantee happiness which can be very elusive indeed. We are fickle creatures who often act on whim, who often get dissatisfied once the attraction of the latest pleasure has worn away? If happiness cannot be reduced to any of these pleasures, taken separately or collectively, then what is it at all? Is it even attainable? If not, why should it be a goal of life?

It is to this question of happiness that the Dalai Lama and the psychiatrist Dr. Howard C. Cutler in their co-authored book The Art of Happiness: a Handbook for Living (Hodder and Stoughton, 1998) direct their attention. This collaboration between Eastern Wisdom and Western Medicine makes for a highly interesting read. I read this book some ten years back, but brought it on holidays with me this summer to re-read at my leisure. These days, my holidays are more of a retreat from the world of work, rather than the frenetic travelling I might have done as a young man. This, no doubt, is the result of a certain ageing with grace, a certain giving into and acceptance of the sheer contingency and randomness of life.

The conversations as recounted in this book took place both in Arizona and India. Dr Cutler gives this insight into the character of the Dalai Lama after his first meeting with him in 1982 at the latter’s home in Dharamsala, India, which for sixty or so years now has been the home of the Tibetan government-in-exile:

He seemed to have an uncommon ability to put one completely at ease, to quickly create a simple and direct connection with a fellow human being. Our first meeting had lasted around forty-five minutes, and like so many people I came away from that meeting in great spirits, with the impression that I had just met a truly exceptional man... Over time I became convinced that the Dalai Lama had learned how to live with a sense of fulfilment and degree of serenity that I had never seen in other people. (Op. cit., pp. xii-xiii)
Having now re-read the first five chapters I realise that I, along with most other Westerners, whether educated or not, have imbibed much cultural bias as regards happiness. We were and are brought up to value work, and the success that is or more likely should be the result of that work, as important factors in achieving happiness. We also have imbibed the notion that oftentimes happiness is not guaranteed no matter how successful we have been. We become inured to the fact that oftentimes suffering and pain will be encountered on our journey through life, and the philosophical amongst us recommend a quiet stoicism or a suffering in silence as the surest way to deal with those trials. Christians recommend a communing or communion with their suffering God in his Son Jesus Christ.

However, The Dalai Lama firmly believes in happiness as an aim or goal or project in everyone’s life. Not alone that, but he believes that this is a reasonable and an achievable goal. I remind myself here that the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist and from the East and is an exponent and practitioner in an almost apparently innocent and naive way – I did say apparently – of sheer positivity and compassion for every living sentient creature. What’s more, this sheer openness and compassion for all whom he meets is what endears this great and wonderful human being to all of us. He recently visited us here in Ireland and he won many hearts over with his simplicity, openness and compassion. What comes to the mind of this writer here is his wonderfully broad smile, his contagious laugh, his simplicity, the sparkle in his eye, and the picture of him, waiting for a snail to cross his path even though he was on his way to meet Mr X. or Ms Y of this or that worldly importance.

Summer time and the living is easy... Sant'Andrea beach
So, it would seem that the Dalai Lama has a different take on happiness than we Westerners. It appears to this writer and reader that our take on happiness is far too caught up in things and in material acquisitions, and further with success that only certain forms of education can bring. It appears to me also that we have grown quite depressed, or if not so depressed, at least very negative in our believing that we can really and truly achieve happiness in this life. In that sense, then, many people are content with a sort of hazy belief that things will definitely be better in a next life – a sort of wishful thinking inspired by a rather superficial and even superstitious Christianity. It is also in this sense that Freud was very much a man of his time and his psychoanalytical theory and practice is ridden with the same negativity and lack of hope.

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