Friday, August 12, 2011

The Art of Happiness 8

Two young boys look at the mysterious Mar Jonio, Sant' Andrea
Loneliness and Connection


The rampant disease of modern society is surely that of loneliness. This disease is prevalent in our modern-day cities, especially among the ageing and the elderly. Research shows that even adolescents suffer from it, too. A few chorus words from one of the songs of the famous music group The Beatles comes in to my mind here as I type these sentiments, viz., “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?” These chorus words might serve as an epitaph on the grave stone of modern society when it has become history.

In the next section of The Art of Happiness, it is to the topic of loneliness and intimacy, or the lack of the latter that Dr Cutler and the Dalai Lama turn their attention. To the question as to whether he ever got lonely Dr Cutler was surprised to hear the Lama reply that he never did. What could possibly be wrong/right with this great holy man that he never got lonely? Well, the Lama explained that the whole thrust of his spirituality was towards connection, or connecting with others. Interestingly, for this writer here, I have defined my notion of spirituality as being the power within us to forge connections with others. Here are the Dalai Lama’s own words explaining why he never feels lonely:

I think one factor is that I look at every human being from a more positive angle; I try to look for their positive aspects. This attitude immediately creates a feeling of affinity, a kind of connectedness.” (Op. cit., p.52)

In other words, the Dalai Lama is contending that compassion for all sentient creatures is no sentimental or schmaltzy feeling. Rather, it is a very useful and practical tool/skill/virtue of inter-relating with others. Such a compassionate approach reduces fear in others, allows the bearer of the virtue to connect with the other, and this entirely works to dispel and conquer any feelings of loneliness.

The Dalai Lama also points out that too many people, especially Westerners, tend to expect the other person to respond to them in a positive way first, rather than taking the initiative themselves to create that possibility.

The Buddhist Doctrine of the Field of Merit

I got to admit that I had never heard of this doctrine before in my life, that’s why it gets its own sub-title here. In Buddhism, apparently there are two fields of merit: (i) that of the Buddhas and (ii) that of all other sentient beings. Under the first field, the practitioner or follower of Buddhism generates respect, faith and confidence in the Buddhas, that is, in the Enlightened beings. The second field requires the disciple to practise such virtues as kindness, generosity and tolerance and so forth with everyone he/she meets throughout any particular day. Obviously, this second method requires one to socially interact with others. In this way, other people are a major way of our acquiring Merit.

There is no limit to the Amount of People with whom we can be Intimate

Once again I have given these words a sub-title of their own because they are extraordinary, indeed, extraordinary to the extent of almost being unbelievable. I had heard such words and such a contention before, way back in the late 1970s when I was an undergraduate. I remember well that it was Dr Brendan Purcell who stated this many times in the course of his lectures to us on Philosophical Anthropology in which he had just done his Doctorate. And here is that belief or contention once again formulated in words by none other than his Holiness, The Dalai Lama. His aim, quite simply, through compassion, is to connect with everyone.

Over-valuing or over-rating one-to-one Intimate Relationships

In this regard, the Dalai Lama is at one also with Dr Anthony Storr who argued quite cogently and quite reasonably in his wonderful little book Solitude that the premium modern society placed on such one-to-one intimate relationships was far too high, and that a good but significant minority of people could literally do without them, thank you very much. See the following link for my discussion of this book: Solitude Storr and the following posts. Hence, in keeping with the logic of Storr’s and the Dalai Lama’s contentions here, we must look to expanding what we mean by intimacy. In other words, we should learn not to put so much weight on the one-to-one intimate relationship to carry our human need for intimacy. This would also explain, to my mind, why marriages break down at a greater rate than they did in the old days. We simply are loading it with too much weight. People can learn to be intimate in other situations, not just in one-to-one relationships.

A wider view of intimacy, one that results from the strategy of treating everyone we meet with compassion would promote both physical and psychological well-being. Medical research has shown that people who have close friendships are more likely to survive health challenges such as heart attacks and major surgery or the threat of cancer. Likewise, the great psychoanalyst and social philosopher, Erich Fromm claimed that humankind’s most basic fear is the threat of being separated from other human beings.

Raiding the Dictionary of Etymology

As a writer, I have always found tracing the etymology or origins of a word of supreme interest. A near enough parallel would be the joy we get from tracing our own family origins. When we look at the root of the word “intimacy” we get the word “intima” which means “inner” or “innermost.” Writing these words in Italy, I am reminded that the word for “underwear” in Italian is “biancheria intima” or “intmate whites.” Dr Cutler quotes a Dr. Dan McAdams who defines intimacy in these words: “The desire for intimacy is the desire to share one’s innermost self with another.” Another psychiatrist team defines the same concept as “the experience of connectivity.”(Quoted ibid., pp. 62-3) On the other hand, zoologist and reductionist scientist Dr Desmond Morris would see intimacy as simply “bodily contact.” (quoted ibid., p. 62) I have always liked Dr Morris’s books and T.V. programmes and as a zoologist he is wonderful, but I would not perfmit him to stray beyond his field of expertise and reduce all of humanity to biological principles.

Culture and Intimacy

This is another extremely important sub-heading as culture dictates very much how we see things. We must, of necessity, see things through the eyes of our own culture as that is the way we are brought up. However, luckily with the advent of access to all levels of education, we can ask questions not alone of our own presuppositions and prejudices but of the presuppositions and prejudices of our own culture. When we do such questioning, we come to realise that concepts like monotheism, monogamy, romantic love and a host of other widely accepted customs are no more than that, just customs. There are other ways of living. In India young couples are still matched by their parents with absolutely no regard to Romantic love. The thing about romantic love is that one can just as easily fall out of it as into it. As the old cliché goes, nothing really is as it first seems. The Japanese seem to rely more on friendships to gain intimacy, whereas Americans seek it more in romantic relationships with a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Indeed, Dr Cutler raises the interesting question (remember this book was published in 1998) that the widespread notion in Western culture that deep intimacy can only be found within the context of a passionate romantic relationship may, in fact, be a “profoundly limiting viewpoint.”(Ibid., pp 64-5) There is, after all, he maintains, an obviously incredible diversity among human beings, literally infinite variations among people with respect to how they can experience a sense of closeness.

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