Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Art of Happiness 6

Relaxing on Sant'Andrea Beach, Agosto, 2011
In the last post, we concluded by saying that regular practice and repetition of positive mental attitude actually recruit new nerve cells, and they also change the neural connections that were originally involved in any particular task. Hence, and it is important once again to reiterate this point, that our “mind” or “thoughts” can literally change the physiological structure of our brains. To use a rather pun-like metaphor here, we could say that this is figuratively a “mind-blowing” concept. Yet, both Eastern practice and Western science support this fact. Let me quote Dr. Cutler in full here:

By mobilizing our thoughts and practising new ways of thinking, we can reshape our nerve cells and change the way our brains work. It is also the basis for the idea that inner transformation begins with learning (new input) and involves the discipline of gradually replacing our ‘negative conditioning’ (corresponding with our present characteristic nerve cell activation patterns) with ‘positive conditioning’ (forming new neural circuits). Thus, the idea of training the mind for happiness becomes a very real possibility. (The Art of Happiness, p. 32)

Ethical Discipline

In summary, then, we learn to perform those actions that lead to our happiness, and avoid those actions that don’t. We can, of course, now see a parallel with ethical discipline or ethical practice. Such ethical practice also leads to a happier state of mind. The Buddha himself advised his followers to perform wholesome actions and to avoid indulging in unwholesome ones. I believe that there is a strong overlap here with the philosophical theories of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle who argued that to become good we must do the good. If my memory serves me rightly he called this his theory of phronesis.

The Importance of Education and Training

We in the West would consider education as paramount, indeed far more important than mere training, by which latter we would mean the learning of some skill by repetition. However, to the Eastern way of thinking training in thinking and behaving is essential to becoming happy and peace-loving individuals. Education for us Westerners has become far too cerebral, and far too intellectual. So much so that we have forgotten a lot of factors that go to make a happy and fulfilled human being. Thankfully, through our on-going intercourse with Eastern thought and practices, the likes of great thinkers and clinicians like Carl Gustave Jung, Daniel Goleman and Howard Gardner have proposed far more rounded and comprehensive notions of what it means to be an intelligent human being with such concepts as Introvert, Extrovert, Feeling, Thinking and Intuition functions, Emotional Intelligence and Multiple Intelligences respectively.

The Dalai Lama stresses that knowledge does not come by naturally. Certainly all human beings naturally want to avoid suffering and gain happiness, but this is, more often than not, very much a selfish and egotistical thing, or indeed motivation. Knowledge of how we hurt others, and indeed ourselves, has to be learned all too slowly. Like conventional knowledge, which we all learn at schools and colleges, doing wholesome deeds doesn’t happen naturally either. We have to learn to do them and to reflect on why it is beneficial to so do.

The Decline of Conventional Religion

One has to admire how perspicacious and how well informed the Dalai Lama is. Given that this book was written in 1998, this present writer is even more surprised at the venerable gentleman’s appreciation of the then current state of conventional religion. Ireland, from where I write has only experienced the decline in conventional beliefs in the last fifteen or so years, mainly through the slow and painful revelation of the cover up of clerical sex abuse scandals. This has led to a severe decline in the numbers practising formal religion. So these occurrences have personally coloured my own viewpoint on conventional religion. However, what the Dalai Lama has to say with respect to such decline and to a lack of social ethics to take its place is insightful, I believe:

Traditionally, it has been considered the responsibility of religion to prescribe what behaviours are wholesome and what are not. However, in today’s society, religion has lost its prestige and influence to some degree. And, at the same time, no alternative, such as secular ethics has come to replace it. So there seems to be less attention paid to the need to lead a wholesome way of life. It is because of this that I believe we must make some special effort and consciously work towards gaining that kind of knowledge. For example, although I personally believe that our human nature is fundamentally gentle and compassionate, I feel that it is not enough that this is our underlying nature; we must also develop an appreciation and awareness of that fact. And changing how we perceive ourselves, through learning and understanding, can have a very real impact on how we interact with others and how we conduct our daily lives. (Ibid., pp. 34-35, original italics)
Insight into Philosophy of Education

The Dalai Lama’s basic philosophy of education is in essence ethical. In a great sense this is counter-cultural in the West which emphasises a model of education based on success, and indeed wealth if we are really honest here. For the venerable Tibetan Lama, the most important use of knowledge and education is to help us understand the importance of engaging in more wholesome actions and bringing about discipline in our minds: “The proper utilization of our intelligence and knowledge is to effect changes from within to develop a good heart.” (Ibid., p. 36)

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