Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Art of Happiness 2

The Questioning Mind

True love is always sharing with your partner... Soverato
One thing that hit me about the opening of the book currently under discussion – it bears the title of this series of blogs – is that the Dalai Lama is possessed of a very astute and sharp intellect. In this sense, to my mind, he is a true philosopher, because that is the true essence of philosophy – the ability to go on and on asking questions. Early on in the book, this wise Tibetan Lama tells his interlocutor – Dr. Howard Cutler – that once some Western scientists had told him that thoughts and feelings were the result of different chemical reactions in the brain. To their surprise the Dalai Lama had asked them as to whether it was possible to conceive the reverse sequence where thoughts and feelings might give rise to a sequence of chemical events in the brain. Now, this surely is a brilliant question and a question which any good philosopher would ask. It does not surprise me in the least that the Dalai Lama could and would ask it. However, the answer given to him by the scientists was very disappointing indeed. They just quoted their own unquestioned scientific assumption that all thoughts and feelings are products and functions of chemical reactions in the brain. The disappointing thing here is that they could not see further than their own assumptions, presumptions and presuppositions. In fact they were blind to their own scientific prejudices. Now that’s very bad philosophy. Indeed, one might argue that it is poor science too.

The Unconscious versus Imprints

Dr Cutler explains aspects of Western psychiatry to the Dalai Lama and the latter aspects of Eastern psychology to the psychiatrist as the book develops. Dr. Cutler explains that we in the West explain a lot of human behaviour by saying that sometimes behaviours can be the result of psychological processes that we are not conscious of at all – that is, that these behaviours spring from unconscious or repressed desires – as Freud explained it. The Dalai replies that in Buddhism there is a parallel idea to the world of the unconscious, namely the idea of dispositions and imprints left by certain types of experiences. The Lama goes on to express the moot point, indeed the criticism, that in the West we have over-emphasized the role of the unconscious. Indeed, from my reading in this area, a lot of the writing in the field of the unconscious mind has tended to emphasize its negative aspects – most especially in Freud’s notion of the unconscious as a veritable cess pit of unfulfilled, thwarted and suppressed instincts and desires. Admittedly, Jung and his followers and even later interpreters and developers of Freud’s thought had a far more positive take on the reality of the unconscious mind.

The Primacy of Hope

The little things always count, Soverato
Dr. Cutler noted how much a person of hope this marvellous human being, the Dalai Lama, is. Everywhere he went, everybody he met was literally the recipient of an extremely powerful and disarming hopeful attitude. The psychiatrist noted his sheer positivity and openness to every human being and to every human interaction that came his way. Hence, he sums up succinctly the Dalai Lama’s philosophy thus:

Underlying all the Dalai Lama’s methods, there is a set of basic beliefs that act as a substrate for all his actions: a belief in the fundamental gentleness and goodness of all human beings, a belief in the value of compassion, a belief in the policy of kindness, and a sense of commonality among all living creatures. (The Art of Happiness, p. xvii)

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