Friday, September 23, 2011

The Art of Happiness 24

Irish Coast Guard Building Howth, September, 2011
Amongst the most disempowering of emotions, perhaps anxiety is one of the worst.  It can simply freeze a person from doing so many worthwhile things in his/her life.  There are so many people who become literally paralysed with fear in front of audiences of any size that they simply cannot speak in any public forum.  Others are so anxious about flying that they can never take an airplane.  Now the list goes on, as there literally are myriads of fears and anxieties to which human flesh is heir.  I teach in an ASD unit for half my timetable.  ASD stands for Autistic Spectrum Disorder.  Most of the boys with ASD suffer from varying levels of disempowering anxiety.  One lad suffers inordinately from OCD and this awful comorbidity prevents him from leading any type of reasonably relaxed existence.  I do a lot of relaxation techniques, visualisations and meditations with this young man to supplement his medication and other therapy.  If the reader knows anyone who suffers from inordinate anxiety he/she will understand how disempowering this irrational anxiety can be.

What can be done?

Once again there are no easy solutions, but, of course, there are many programmes suggested by the medical professions and other enlightened groups.  However, always beware of those who offer cheap answers or easy fixes to complex problems.  I run away swiftly from such persons.  Only this morning we had a small team meeting about one of our senior boys who suffers from an eating disorder, and who literally eats for comfort.  He also has anger and anxiety issues.  The first thing we recommend is that such a student visit his General Practitioner so that medical issues can be sorted out.  Luckily also, our boys have the services of psychiatric, psychological, social and other services provided by our Health Executive - the HSE.  Our work with this student has to be done on a team basis so that his health and education issues can be dealt with holistically and professionally.

However, we can also put structures in place to monitor his eating habits, and, of course, lessen his anxiety and anger.  In The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama gives some excellent advice and outlines some very helpful visualizations and meditations to help us reduce anxiety.  Much of what he says is fairly obvious, but still unless we hear it said clearly we simply do not become aware enough to put it into practice.  He says that in any problem about which we may be anxious we should say logically to ourselves something along the following lines: If there is a solution to the problem, there certainly is no need to worry as that solution can be implemented either by ourselves or others.  If there is no solution, there still is no sense at all in worrying as we simply cannot do anything about it.  Worrying simply will not lessen the problem, but it certainly will make into a greater one by increasing our fear and anxiety. (See op. cit., pp. 228-229) This is good common sense and sound reasoning.

It is interesting to note that while Western theorists, psychologists and psychiatrists are preoccupied with categorizing standard human motives, the Dalai Lama's and Buddhism's primary interest lies in re-shaping or changing one's underlying motivation into one of compassion and kindness. 

Positivity Versus Negativity

Another old building, Howth Harbour, September 2011
We learn in the book under consideration that the Dalai Lama - and it is true for Buddhists in general - finds it hard to believe, even to conceive, that human beings in the West can have such a low self-image or self-esteem that they actually can end up hating themselves.  In fact the Tibetan leader and teacher admitted to Dr. Cutler that the idea of hating oneself was completely new to him. (This was during a conversation in the Dalai Lama's home in Dharamsala, India in 1991).  Apparently, from the Buddhist point of view, humans actually love and cherish themselves too much.  We have a long history of self-hatred, or at least self-criticism in the West.  Groucho Marx, funnily though sadly, once quipped:"I'd never join a club that would have me for a member."  Further back in time, Mark Twain once remarked that "[n]o man, deep down in the privacy of his own heart, has any considerable respect for himself." (Quoted ibid., p. 239).  Then, in the mid-twentieth century the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers declared that "[m]ost people despise themselves, regard themselves as worthless and unlovable."

Fortunately, it would seem from anecdotal "evidence" that self-hatred is not quite an innate part of the human condition and may very well be culturally learned as the Tibetan culture is simple unaware of this malaise.  The Dali Lama's firm belief, like that of all Buddhists, is that all of us have an underlying self-love.  This may be hard for us in the West to grasp, giving the centuries of self-loathing we are inured to.  The Buddhists' definition of love is the utter, absolute, and unqualified wish for the happiness of another individual.  It is a heartfelt wish for another's happiness and well-being and the sincere wish that that particular person not suffer unduly.  Dr Cutler states that "if our definition of love is based on a genuine wish for someone's happiness, then each of us does in fact love himself or herself - everyone of us sincerely wishes for his or her own happiness." (Ibid., p. 241)

The Dalai Lama recommends that the practitioner of meditation reflect daily on the fact that all beings, including oneself, have Buddha nature, that is, that every single human person carries within himself or herself the seed or potential for perfection or full enlightenment, and that this is the ultimate and most essential antidote to self-loathing.

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