Monday, August 08, 2011

The Art of Happiness 3

Psychiatry and Freudian Psychoanalysis

Volleyball on Badolato Beach, August, 2011
Dr. Howard Cutler, like any good contemporary psychiatrist, having imbibed all the current scientific biases, begins this book by asking the Dalai Lama whether happiness is a reasonable goal for any of us to have. The learned Lama’s reply was simple and direct, not just a “yes” but the statement that he believes that happiness can be achieved through training the mind. And so, fundamentally this book recounts the conversations between the Tibetan Lama and the American psychiatrist that tease out how one can train one’s mind to achieve this goal. However, it also shows us Cutler’s authenticity and congruence as he learns gradually that he must apply what he hears to his own life and begin to question his own assumptions, scientific or otherwise.

Freud’s Legacy

While it is true to say that modern psychotherapy in all its various incarnations are no more than various footnotes to the great doctor’s theories, writings and clinical practice, it is also true that Freud left the fields of psychiatry and psychotherapy with a rather negative imprint. We have been burdened with his contention that “one feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be “happy” is not included in the plan of “Creation.” (Quoted, The Art of Happiness, p. 3)

Another defining characteristic of modern psychiatry is the concentration on the chemical or psychopharmacological treatment of mental disturbances and illnesses through drugs, that is essentially a view that looks to the relief of symptoms, and so consequently not a particularly positive approach per se.

For the Dalai Lama, then, the purpose of our existence is to seek happiness. One can trace this particular belief back to the ancient Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and company and right up to the writings of the famous American psychologist William James. However, both Cutler and the Lama at one in emphasising that this pursuit of happiness is not self-centred or self-indulgent in itself, as it may appear to be initially. In fact, scientific research supports the common belief that happy people are very open to others; possess a willingness to reach out to others altruistically and are to be found in abundance in all the helping professions.

Sources of Happiness

Life teaches us lessons on this topic very quickly indeed, and often rather cruelly. We all learn by making the same mistakes for ourselves, despite others having told us that we will not necessarily be happy by acquiring more money, more prestige, bigger and better jobs, promotion at work, this or that academic degree and even a partner and family. As soon as one thing or another has been achieved the gloss wears off and we desire something else. Somehow or other we are never as happy as we could be.

Our conclusion can only be that happiness is determined more by one’s state of mind than by external events. As the old cliché puts it, and it is so true that it bears repetition here: “Happiness is an inside job!”

Undoubtedly, also genetics has also some influence as I know personally as I suffer from clinical depression of the unipolar variety.

The Curse of Comparisons

No one described this curse more succinctly and poetically than William Shakespeare in one of his famous sonnets, Sonnet 29 to be precise where he says:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Many of us can resonate with the great bard's sentiments in these brilliant lines quoted here above when we begin to compare our lot with that of others.

However, we have to learn to go beyond comparisons and go deeper inside ourselves to find the source of happiness. The Dalai Lama teaches Dr Cutler that there are four levels to happiness: (i) wealth, (ii) worldly satisfaction, (iii) spirituality and (iv) enlightenment. However, he emphasises that it is together, and certainly never singly or alone, that they embrace the totality of an individual’s quest for happiness.

In all of this the Dalai Lama stresses that one’s state of mind is key to the whole quest for happiness – open, alert, present to others, and essentially calm and peaceful. However, he goes to pains to point out that peace of mind or a calm state of mind is rooted in affection and compassion, that there is always a high level of sensitivity and feeling in such an attitude of mind.

To achieve this calm state of mind one requires much practice in meditation, in awareness and in openness and compassion. In other words, to achieve such peace and calmness of mind requires inner discipline. Now, the important thing here is that if we possess this inner quality or calmness of mind, it is very possible to live a happy and joyful life even in the absence various external and material things.

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