Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Art of Happiness 5

Mental Discipline

Dr. Cutler asks the Dalai Lama to define what he would mean by a psychologically healthy or well-adjusted person. With his customary humility the Lama replies that the questioner, being a psychiatrist, would, in fact, be more qualified to define that state of mind. However, he goes on to underline the fact that from a Buddhist point of view such a well-adjusted person would be compassionate, warm and kind-hearted. I’ll quote the venerable gentleman here again in his own clear words:

If you maintain a feeling of compassion, loving kindness, then something automatically opens your inner door. Through that you can communicate much more easily with other people. And that feeling of warmth creates a kind of openness. You’ll find that all human beings are just like you, so that you’ll be able to relate to them more easily. (The Art of Happiness, p. 27
In other words, then, the Dalai Lama is arguing that cultivating (or learning to cultivate) positive mental states like kindness and compassion will definitely lead to better psychological health and happiness. All of this requires, of course, a determination to learn on the part of the person who wishes to acquire such positivity. It is an on-going and life-long task, because it involves changing the way we look at things, questioning our prejudices – even learning to be aware that we have them in the first place. All the while, then, as we proceed on our journey through life we have to learn to identify and cultivate positive mental states. This approach has been, and still is, widely used by motivators of all kinds from the 1970s onwards where such people promote what they call PMA or Positive Mental Attitude.

The Dalai Lama classifies emotions, as does Buddhism indeed, as positive or negative simply on the basis of whether they lead to happiness, or ultimate happiness in the long term, or not. This also, to my mind, underscores the central appeal of Buddhism over other religions – namely that it is very practical and very psychological. In a sense, one can argue, that it can be interpreted as not being a religion at all. No wonder great thinkers like Schopenhauer and psychologists/therapists like Carl Gustave Jung could see so clearly the value of its teaching. The great monotheistic religions – or the religions of The Book, viz., Judaism, Christianity and Islam – are rigidly codified systems of law which impose a moral judgement from without like “Greed is a sin,” “Hatred is evil,” “It is wrong to fornicate,” and so on and so forth.

One simple suggestion the Dalai Lama makes is that everyone should begin with a positive mental attitude in the morning and say: “I will utilize this day in a positive way” or some similar form of words. Repeated practice in calming and stilling the mind is essential if we are to learn to be well-adjusted people who have a calmness and peace of mind. When one, through sheer dint of practice learns to possess such a peaceful mind, huge tragedies and traumas will affect one on the surface, but not at the level of what the Dalai Lama calls “the deeper mind.” This deeper mind is, as I’ve stated, the result of continual and sustained practice, and it can never be disturbed. (See ibid., p. 30)

Hence, what the Dalai Lama is teaching here is the positive daily training of the mind. Dr Cutler adds here what he considers a modern parallel from the findings of neuroscience, viz., the malleability and plasticity of the brain. In fact the brain can design new patterns, new combinations of nerve cells and neurotransmitters in response to new input. Hence, he argues that modern science backs up the Dalai Lama’s contentions:

In fact, our brains are malleable, ever changing, reconfiguring their wiring according to new thoughts and experiences. And as a result of learning, the functions of individual neurons themselves change, allowing electrical signals to travel along them more readily. Scientists call the brain’s inherent capacity to chain “plasticity.” (Ibid., p. 31)

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