Saturday, August 13, 2011

Interlude - The Search for Self

The Search for the Still Point of Self

Getting to know oneself on Sant'Andrea Beach
One would have thought that by the grand old age of 53 years one would have found the solid ground of Self, or at least some firm viewing point from which to observe both ascent and descent in one’s life. But, that seems not to be the case. One simply never manages to arrive at that final destination – perhaps true self-knowledge is only encountered in dying and in death. And, then, often when one thinks one has arrived at the final destination, one suddenly realises that it is yet again another beginning. In getting to know oneself, I often think of a maze which winds spirally ever inwards. Death must surely be at the centre or end-point of that inwardly moving spiral?

As a young boy, I can never remember being pre-occupied with many thoughts. Certainly I was a sensitive little soul. I suppose we all are as children. However, it was the magic of books that from early on captivated my child’s mind. Was it something about their contents? I don’t know. My first memories are that they were rather rare and precious where I grew up. As a working class child we had very little of them indeed. The first books I remember were my school books. I was lucky as I had very good teachers when I was a small boy, and one great schoolmaster who always gave me books for doing well in my exams. Luckily, I always did well in them, and luckily, too, I always received books. Early on also, I loved the feel of books, their smell, indeed, their wonderful covers and arranging them on shelves in our sitting room at home.

From early on, then, books had become my inseparable companions. And they remain so to this day. As I write these words, I have spent almost two weeks of holiday on my own in Calabria, Southern Italy, in a little coastal town called Isca Marina, which is just 10 kilometres south of the better known town of Soverato. I love this holiday period as it has become my annual retreat where I encounter my Self at a very deep level, at a far deeper level that I do when I am at home in Ireland surrounded by family and friends. Here, I meet this Self, almost from minute to minute. The reading I bring with me also helps me in this encounter.

For this present retreat I am reading the following books: (i) Night (Hill and Wang, 2006) by Elie Wiesel for the second time, (ii) Distance (Penguin, 1998) by Colin Thubron, also for a second time, (iii) The Art of Happiness by The Dalai Lama and Dr Howard Cutler (Hodder and Stoughton, 1998)for a third time, (Iv) Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus (Harper Collins, 1997) by Dr Anthony Storr, (v) When Nietzsche Wept (Perennial Classics, 1993, 2005) by Irvin D. Yalom and (vi) a short book in Italian called Afghanistan dove Dio viene solo per Piangere by Siba Shakib, (Edizioni Piemme, 2002, 2008).

I find that I am reading them simultaneously, which allows me to leave one down and take another up. Their subject matter interests me profoundly as in reading them I am searching for a deeper knowledge of myself within their covers. As a young boy the covers of books were always eye-catching and enticing – as all good book publishers, well aware of the potency of advertising, well know. I have also always been entranced by a good title, and all of the above books possess just that attribute. Then, certain authors more than others have a potent allure for me – anything by Elie Wiesel, or Irvin Yalom or Colin Thubron (a brilliant travel writer as well as an equally talented novelist) or any good spiritual author like the Dalai Lama.

Horseman - Sant'Andrea Beach
One could say all of these books listed have in common the human search for Self, a search for meaning, the search for some Still Point of Existence. As I have said many times in these posts over the years, we are meaning-making creatures, and whether on another level of significance – at a meta-meaning level as it were - such is meaningful or not is beside the point. The whole point is that your life makes sense for you, that my life makes sense for me, that X’s life makes sense for X or Y’s life makes sense for Y, not that your life or my life, or that of X or of Y makes sense to another. That’s what I mean when I use the phrase “another level of significance” or even coin the term “meta-meaning”, the possible meaning of meaning as it were. However, words are beginning to trip up over themselves here, as always happens when we try to come to terms with making sense of our own lives.

I often think that it is somewhere between the words in these books that I like to lose myself and again to find myself as it were. It is in this journeying, albeit at a secondary level, with the various authors that inspire me to make some little sense or meaning out of my own life that I can begin to get a sense of personal progress. In the novel Distance by Colin Thubron, the protagonist or even anti-hero – central character would perhaps be a better term – one Edward Sanders has lost two years of his life, his memory totally obliterated by an unknown trauma. The novel is literally a search for his true forgotten identity, for his real self. There is also a haunting memory of a woman who fades in and out of focus and also whom he is unable to name, and yet who carries a key to his identity. So, this thought-provoking novel seeks to map the human heart in its search for meaning. Hence it is a good companion for me on my two weeks’ journey or retreat into my own soul.

Night by Elie Wiesel, which I have reviewed at length in these pages some years back, is also a suitable companion for such a journey as it, too, is a book – a searing memoir in this case – of the journey into self-knowledge.  In fact it is an account of the journey into the hell of Auschwitz Concentration Camp in the final months of The Second World War. You need a strong constitution to read it, but it is so worthwhile because it is like a meditation on dying and death, told in the haunting voice of a fifteen year old boy who had to lie about his age to be spared by The Angel of Death himself, the infamous Dr Mengele. Somewhere between those tightly chiselled words – Wiesel pares his words down to the barest necessities where not a single word is redundant – we travel with Wiesel in a vain attempt to find some meaning in this hell of hells. Then it dawns on the reader, as it does on the writer, that the only meaning is in the telling, the very telling of this horrific and most gruesome tale: “...Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams into ashes...” (Op. cit., p. 34)

In these bleak words, few as they are in the shortened quotation above, we have a link with Friedrich Nietzsche whom we meet as a character in the wonderful novel When Nietzsche Wept by Irvin D. Yalom. This was the Nietzsche, who in the words of his great prophet Zarathustra proclaimed the death of God, or rather the death of the idea of the existence of a great Creator God behind this world of appearances. This novel tells us a most interesting and challenging story – imagined, indeed, as the two protagonists never met in their lives - of the meeting between Friedrich Nietzsche and Josef Breuer, one of the founders of psychoanalysis. Nietzsche engages in a series of consultations with the great Doctor, and so if you like this is the story of the psychoanalysis of Nietzsche. I was overwhelmed when I first came across this book on Amazon, because who could be so bold as to come up with such a topic for the story of a novel? The great and wonderful psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Irvin Yalom could! And indeed he did, and wrote it wonderfully well with consummate historical detail, a witness to his pains-taking research. Their first encounter ranges over areas of theology and philosophy and self-knowledge. One part of their disquisition relates to what they think the truth is. We all know that famous quotation from the beginning one of Bacon’s essays where the author open’s with Pilate’s question to Jesus in the Praetorium as to what the truth was, but the Roman Governor refused to wait for the answer. Anyway, here is what Yalom has Nietzsche say as to what he believes the truth is or may be:

“It is not the truth that is holy, but the search for one’s own truth! Can there be a more sacred act than self-enquiry? My philosophical work, some say, is built on sand: my views change continually. But one of my granite sentences is: “Become who you are.” And how can one discover who and what one is without the truth?” (Op. cit., p. 68)
Storr’s book is a wonderful study of gurus or those who set themselves up as bearers of the sacred messages from God or the gods; those who maintain that they have been given sacred knowledge from the Divine; those whose mission it is to save their band of followers from hell fire and self-destruction and deliver them out of evil; those who have all the answers to life’s problems; in short, these are the appointed ones to show the rest of humanity the way to salvation. It’s a book I shall have to read several times as it is rich in observation and insightful into the character of those who set themselves up as gurus or prophets. I’m one with the late great Teacher (or Guru) Anthony de Mello, S.J. that the role of the real or true guru is to break the link with his disciple, to allow, as it were, the young bird to fly alone and independently. A real teacher or guru will never seek dependent disciples. He will want them to be free to go their own way. Some of the gurus recounted in Storr’s book were only interested in the question of power and having power over others. That’s what all sects are about – the wielding of power. Religions, uncoupled from real spirituality, become power-oriented all too quickly. As the saying goes, there’s nothing as bad as a bad religion, but a good religion with a true spiritual heart to it can lead its faithful to some form of self-knowledge and/or consolation.

The last book mentioned above is a short book in Italian called Afghanistan dove Dio viene solo per Piangere by Siba Shakib, (Edizioni Piemme, 2002, 2008). I bought it to improve my Italian, but the story itself is a heart-rending one of the misery of Afghani women in the wake of modern warfare and their suffering at the hands of their very own men. The title says it all – Afghanistan where God alone comes only to cry. The writer, Siba Shakib is an Iranian journalist who is documenting the lives of Afghani women in a Refugee camp.

Therefore, all of these books interweave their stories into my own soul-journey these two weeks of retreat in Southern Italy before I return to work on the 25th of August for another school year. In between reading these books, I find that my own personal reflections are sharpened to a degree I oftentimes find challenging, sometimes frightening, but always inspiring. They are like instruments in an orchestra blending their sounds into a great unity, which draws my own story in my own voice into the authentic embrace of their music. If there is a fitting adjective to describe each of these very different books, then I have just mentioned it here in the last sentence – AUTHENTIC – yes, that’s the word to sum them up.

The journey of the soul to know itself can only be that. AUTHENTIC.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Art of Happiness 9


The Dalai Lama proposes five ways of establishing good relationships with others, viz., (i) use reason to educate the individual about the value and practical benefits of practising compassion, (ii) establish empathy by use of the imagination in deliberately going through in one’s mind how X or Y would be feeling by placing oneself in their shoes, and as they say attempt figuratively to walk some miles in their moccasins, (iii) always start from what we have in common with others – our basic humanity, (iv) appreciate the background of everyone we meet if we possibly can become aware of it and (v) always be open-minded and honest in our dealings with others.

The Myth of Romance

Young couple on the beach at Sant'Andrea, August, 2011
I have touched upon this many times before in these posts. Undoubtedly, the early twentieth century pedalled this myth to a greater extent than did the nineteenth century with the advent of the movie or cinema industry which raised the idea of stars, of beauty, of ideal one-to-one relationships to the nth power. It was the ideal to be young and beautiful and to be in love with the perfect partner. There was much money to be made, and indeed there still is, from pedalling this myth. People will pay exorbitant amounts to attempt to achieve this myth in their own lives.

However, Romantic love per se had begun to be expressed first in the poetry of the Troubadours of Provence who wrote brilliant and over-wrought love poems for their beloved ones. In brief, at the risk of a little oversimplification, the Romantic Movement grew up in the late 17th and early 18th centuries in reaction to the over-rationalization of things, and indeed of humanity itself, in that period of reason ascendant known as the Enlightenment. Writers and artists began to place much more premium on the emotions and the feelings rather than reason alone. In England, the Romantic Movement was known primarily through the poets William Wordsworth, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and of course through the writings of the poet-philosopher and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The latter had imbibed a lot of his philosophy from the German Romantic writers.

While all of this poetry and all the novels and films springing from their notion of Romantic love may be momentarily moving, they are merely fleeting and momentary amusements. Real love and real relationships are of a different order. In the day to day reality of work and living, marriages fail, people fall out of love just as quickly as they fall into it. Recently a carpenter who was doing some work for me in my own home remarked that both his sons were separated and he lamented the fact that young people seem very un-inclined to work at their relationships. He felt that his sons took the easy way out to some extent. I could tell from this man that he was a relaxed, easy-going sort, a hard and consistent worker, if slow and precise, who liked to smoke his pipe after having drunk his tea. There was a lot of wisdom in what he was saying.

I also liked Cutler’s quotation from Euripides on the subject of marriage: “Marry and it may go well. But when a marriage fails, then those that marry live at home in hell.” (Quoted, The Art of Happiness, p. 78)
A little bit of Mythology

I always feel that a little bit of mythology is good for the soul. In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates tells the story of the myth of Aristophanes, concerning the origin of sexual love. According to this myth, the original inhabitants of planet Earth were round creatures with four hands and four feet and with their back and sides forming a circle. These self-sufficient sexless beings were very arrogant and repeatedly attacked the gods. To punish them, Zeus hurled thunderbolts at them and split them apart. Each creature was now two, each half longing to merge with its other half.

Within this mythical conception of sexual love, Eros can be visualized as the drive towards passionate or romantic love which is based on the ancient desire for fusion with the other half. It seems to be a universal unconscious human need. This feeling involves the sensation of merging with the other. Also mysticism and spirituality became also to be seen as involving the sensation of merging with the Divine or with the One, the source and summit and origin of the very universe.

There are also some writers and scholars who maintain that the feeling of being in love re-captures the physical bond of the baby with the mother in the womb.


I’ll finish this post with an extended quotation from Dr Cutler as it places Romantic love in context:

It seems that as a source of happiness, romance leaves a lot to be desired. And perhaps the Dalai lama was not far off the mark in rejecting the notion of romance as a basis for a relationship and in describing romance as merely “ a fantasy...unobtainable,” something not worthy of our efforts. On close examination, perhaps he was objectively describing the nature of romance rather than providing a negative value judgement coloored by his years of training as a monk. Even an objective reference source such as the dictionary, which contains well over a dozen definitions of “romance” and “romantic” is liberally peppered with phrases such as “a fictitious tale,” “an exaggeration,” “a falsehood,” “fanciful or imaginative,” “not practical,” “without a basis in fact,” “characteristic of or preoccupied with idealized love-making or courting,” and so on. It is apparent that somewhere along the road of Western civilization a change has taken place. The ancient concept of Eros, with the underlying sense of becoming one, of fusion with another, has taken on new meaning. Romance has acquired an artificial quality, with flavours of fraudulence and deception, the quality that had led Oscar Wilde to bleakly observe, “When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving oneself, and one always ends up by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance. (Ibid., pp.89-90)

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.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Art of Happiness 7

Our Fundamental Nature

Option/Position 1: We are basically Selfish and Greedy Beings

We Westerners, having been figuratively breast-fed on both the theory and the practice of the capitalist system, have all imbibed such beliefs as the right to private property, the right to amass ever and ever more wealth, along with the concomitant beliefs in outward success professionally and in the power to do things. We are brought up with a philosophy which places us at the centre of the universe (often one of our own making) and that we have a right literally to achieve anything we so wish. In short, we are egotistical or selfish – literally all out for ourselves. Now, the more sophisticated amongst us will add in certain ethical principles that curtail the more obscene nature of such arrogant capitalism. Books have been written and continue to be written about applying ethical standards to the capitalist outlook, books firmly convinced that one can do so in a highly ethical way.

Now, another thing we have learned, having been breast-fed on the above presuppositions, and indeed prejudices, which indeed they are, is that that nature of the human being is basically one of greed and selfishness. This is a belief which is also a presupposition and indeed a prejudice. Given, our circumstances here in the West, it’s hard to deny this very common belief.

Option/Position 2: We are basically Gentle and Compassionate Beings

Now this basic pre-supposition is certainly not a prejudice because it puts other people first. However, it is very hard for us Westerners to accept, as the capitalist system surrounds us with such mind-benumbing propaganda through both the media and all official and unofficial organs of society. However, if we are truly human, we must be trained to question our own presuppositions as prejudices. Let me here return to the profound words of the Dalai Lama on our basic nature:

Now, we are made to seek happiness. And it is clear that feelings of love, affection, closeness, and compassion bring happiness... In fact it is one of my fundamental beliefs that not only do we inherently possess the potential for compassion but I believe that the basic or underlying nature of human beings is gentleness. (The Art of Happiness, p. 37)

Now, the Buddhist axiom that he bases this belief on is the Doctrine of “Buddha Nature.” This doctrine states that at base we all are gentle and non-aggressive. Briefly, it is our duty to uncover or discover our basic Buddha nature through the various practices of meditation and living a good life.

However, the Dalai Lama points out that this is not the only ground on which he bases his belief in humankind’s gentle and compassionate nature. After all, human gentleness and compassion are indispensable factors for day-to-day living.

It’s hard to square all the suffering there has been historically over the lifetime of civilized humankind and the wilful suffering that still continues on a global scale today with this rather romantic belief of the Dalai Lama.

(I might add in a rather long parenthesis here, if the reader forgives my self-indulgence, that I am no way being cynical or sarcastic here in my use of the word “romantic” as I am a firm romantic in the classical sense of that word. I remember many years ago a priest-poet Fr Padraig Daly who at the time was my student master in religious life – where I spent 3 happy formative years – telling us that religious life, and certainly the monastic forms of it, were all based on a romantic impulse. People have always believed in romantic ideals like escaping the hostile world to live a life more in harmony with nature. Beliefs like the brotherhood/sisterhood of humankind are also romantic in nature. The desire to set up communes, whether they are hippy ones or religious ones is also romantic in quality. However, I hasten to add that cults are never romantic in nature as they are based on the obsession with power by the cult leader who exercises such power over his followers even to the extent of raping and killing them, e.g., Jim Jones and David Koresh. Such beliefs like the perfectibility of humankind, continual linear progress, belief in a Heaven after this world, or in the possibility of a Utopia here on earth are all forms of the Romantic thrust in humankind. Indeed, we need such dreamers and dreams to encourage us on our onward path through life. Otherwise, we would succumb to severe depression or at least black pessimism which would take away all our zest for life.)

This is a very positive stance by the Dalai Lama and indeed in Buddhism. Christianity, or versions of it, has not always been as positive. Most mainline Christian churches have at one stage or another seen humankind as literally “a fallen people”, “a massa damnata” (a mass damned to hell as one ancient theologian put it once – perhaps St Augustine – I have forgotten) in need of being redeemed by a loving and forgiving God. Most mainline Christians, consequently, believed and still believe in original sin, namely that even new born children are stained with the sins of their forbears. And yet, St Augustine, a great philosopher and theologian could come up with a theodicy or theology of evil which stated that the good was always logically prior to evil. This theodicy had such lovely gems as “malum est privatio boni” which translates as “evil is the lack of the good” in something. The way this thought worked was interesting: Leave an apple on a table and it rots. Now, the rottenness or rot needs somewhere to inhere. In fact, it naturally inheres in the good fruit of the apple which it destroys.

However, no matter what version of Christianity you follow, Buddhism offers a far more positive take on the human condition. The Dali Lama, does, of course, allow for evil of all kinds – greed, hatred, jealousy – to be part also of the human condition, but his argument is that while it is there it is not the first basic unspoilt condition of our nature. Let’s little to the sage’s own words here:

Anger, violence, and aggression may certainly arise, but I think it is on a secondary or more superficial level; in a sense they arise when we are frustrated in our efforts to achieve love and affection. They are not part of our most basic, underlying nature. So I believe that our underlying or fundamental nature is gentleness, and intelligence is a later development. And I think that if that human ability, that human intelligence, develops in an unbalanced way, without being properly counterbalanced with compassion, that it can become destructive. It can lead to disaster. (Ibid., p. 39)
Training in Compassion

Hence, the Dalai Lama offers a programme in training the mind in compassion as one seriously important aim of education. It is hard to see Western capitalist systems owning this as a goal or aim in their educational policies. He argues cogently that when human intelligence and human goodness are used together that all human action becomes constructive. When we combine a warm heart with knowledge and education, we can learn to respect the views and rights of others.

More Negative Western Thinking

I have described much of our negative western ways in my opening paragraph. However, it is worth noting how many scholars over the centuries added to this negativity. It is hard to blame them as they were born into societies shot-through with such negativity. The seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes saw the human race as basically violent, competitive and concerned with self-interest. When caught giving alms to a beggar, he replied: “I’m not doing this to help him. I’m just doing this to relieve my own distress at seeing the man’s poverty.” (Quoted ibid., p. 41)

The Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, concurred with Hobbes and noted that while caring and loving impulses did exist they were far weaker than evil impulses of “profoundly selfish man.” (Quoted ibid., p. 41) Modern psychology caught hold of all these sentiments and imbibed them like a child at its mother’s breasts so that it saw all human motivation as ultimately egoistic, based purely on self-interest.

However, Dr Cutler adduces modern research which refutes not only the idea of humanity’s innate aggression, but the idea that humans are innately selfish and egotistic Indeed, much research has shown that reaching out to help others may be as fundamental to our nature as communication. All humans truly may be endowed with the seeds of compassion just as they are endowed with the seeds of language.

Conclusion: Positivity beats Negativity any day

Family relax after a game of calcio on Sant'Andrea Beach

Starting with the basic assumption – let’s call it an axiom – that human nature is essentially compassionate and gentle rather than aggressive and rough, our relationship with the whole world around us changes immediately. Seeing others as basically compassionate and gentle instead of hostile and selfish helps us relax and live with more trust, ease, hope and peace in our lives. In short, with such a basic axiom as our firm starting point we become so much happier

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)

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)

The Art of Happiness 4

Boy with ball, Badolato Beach
I like the rather clever ring of the following statement from Cutler and the Dalai Lama – it’s not clear from the text which of the two says it – it is surely better to want and appreciate what we have rather than literally have what we want.

Another internal source of happiness, closely linked with an inner feeling of contentment, is a sense of self-worth which is not just a work in progress engaged on by the individual, it is also very much strengthened and promoted by living within the human community.

A Common Confusion:

I agree with both our authors where they say that a common confusion is often to equate happiness with pleasure or vice versa. I remember many years ago reading somewhere that once when the great writer and dramatist Arthur Miller was asked what making love with Marilyn Monroe was like, he had answered that it was quite like eating ice-cream. I’ve always found this little story interesting and amusing both from a humour point of view as well as from a strangely philosophical one. I mean, how much ice-cream can any of us eat? How much sexual intercourse can any of us experience? Like all pleasures they are momentary ones that we really cannot hang onto. Like ice-cream that melts and vanishes on our tongue the high of sexual pleasure also vanishes. This seems to me to be the essence of any pleasure, viz., their fleeting and momentary nature. They simply cannot be caught. No wonder many of us end up addicts to one form of pleasure or another which by their very nature are uncatchable.

The highest happiness is, then, when one reaches the stage of Liberation, at which there is no more suffering and no more clinging to things or to people either out of fear or out of pleasure. Essentially, then, true happiness relates more to attitudes of mind and heart. Happiness that depends mainly on physical pleasure is as fleeting as the pleasure of melting ice cream on the tongue.

From Epicurus to Freud

One cannot read Freud without being impressed at the range and depth of his reading and learning. Not alone was it at home in the medical sciences of his day but also in art and literature and he was a consummate classicist. He would have read Epicurus who had based his system of ethics on the bold assertion that “pleasure is the beginning and end of the blessed life,” but also that this ancient Greek also acknowledged the importance of common sense and moderation. He had fully realised, possibly from observation, if not personal experience, that unbridled devotion to sensual pleasures could sometimes lead to pain instead. Many centuries later the great Sigmund Freud would aver that the fundamental motivating force for our entire human psychic apparatus is the wish to relieve the tension caused by unfulfilled instinctual drives. Another way of putting this rather complex statement is to say that our underlying motive is to seek pleasure.

We Begin by Learning

Daddy shows how, Badolato Beach, August, 2011
It is a truism, but nonetheless a powerful one, to state that schooling lasts as long as we at school while education is co-terminus with life. In this sense, the Dalai Lama argues that the first step in seeking happiness is learning. We first have to learn that negative emotions and behaviours are harmful to us and that positive emotions and behaviours are helpful. Not alone do such negative or positive emotions impact on the individual in question, but also they impact very heavily also on society at large.

The Principal of Causality

Because the Dalai Lama explains this principle so succinctly and clearly I’ll quote his words in full here:

In Buddhism, the principle of causality is accepted as a natural law. In dealing with reality, you have to take that law into account. So, for instance, in the case of everyday experiences, if there are certain types of events that you do not desire, then the best method of ensuring that that event does not take place is to make sure that the causal conditions that normally give rise to that event no longer arise. Similarly, if you want a particular event or experience to occur, then the logical thing is to do is to seek and accumulate the causes and conditions that give rise to it.
This is also the case with mental states and experiences. If you desire happiness, you should seek the causes that give rise to it, and if you don’t desire suffering, that what you should do is ensure that the causes and conditions that would give rise to it no longer arise. An appreciation of this causal principle is very important. (The Art Of Happiness, p. 26)

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.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Art of Happiness 2

The Questioning Mind

True love is always sharing with your partner... Soverato
One thing that hit me about the opening of the book currently under discussion – it bears the title of this series of blogs – is that the Dalai Lama is possessed of a very astute and sharp intellect. In this sense, to my mind, he is a true philosopher, because that is the true essence of philosophy – the ability to go on and on asking questions. Early on in the book, this wise Tibetan Lama tells his interlocutor – Dr. Howard Cutler – that once some Western scientists had told him that thoughts and feelings were the result of different chemical reactions in the brain. To their surprise the Dalai Lama had asked them as to whether it was possible to conceive the reverse sequence where thoughts and feelings might give rise to a sequence of chemical events in the brain. Now, this surely is a brilliant question and a question which any good philosopher would ask. It does not surprise me in the least that the Dalai Lama could and would ask it. However, the answer given to him by the scientists was very disappointing indeed. They just quoted their own unquestioned scientific assumption that all thoughts and feelings are products and functions of chemical reactions in the brain. The disappointing thing here is that they could not see further than their own assumptions, presumptions and presuppositions. In fact they were blind to their own scientific prejudices. Now that’s very bad philosophy. Indeed, one might argue that it is poor science too.

The Unconscious versus Imprints

Dr Cutler explains aspects of Western psychiatry to the Dalai Lama and the latter aspects of Eastern psychology to the psychiatrist as the book develops. Dr. Cutler explains that we in the West explain a lot of human behaviour by saying that sometimes behaviours can be the result of psychological processes that we are not conscious of at all – that is, that these behaviours spring from unconscious or repressed desires – as Freud explained it. The Dalai replies that in Buddhism there is a parallel idea to the world of the unconscious, namely the idea of dispositions and imprints left by certain types of experiences. The Lama goes on to express the moot point, indeed the criticism, that in the West we have over-emphasized the role of the unconscious. Indeed, from my reading in this area, a lot of the writing in the field of the unconscious mind has tended to emphasize its negative aspects – most especially in Freud’s notion of the unconscious as a veritable cess pit of unfulfilled, thwarted and suppressed instincts and desires. Admittedly, Jung and his followers and even later interpreters and developers of Freud’s thought had a far more positive take on the reality of the unconscious mind.

The Primacy of Hope

The little things always count, Soverato
Dr. Cutler noted how much a person of hope this marvellous human being, the Dalai Lama, is. Everywhere he went, everybody he met was literally the recipient of an extremely powerful and disarming hopeful attitude. The psychiatrist noted his sheer positivity and openness to every human being and to every human interaction that came his way. Hence, he sums up succinctly the Dalai Lama’s philosophy thus:

Underlying all the Dalai Lama’s methods, there is a set of basic beliefs that act as a substrate for all his actions: a belief in the fundamental gentleness and goodness of all human beings, a belief in the value of compassion, a belief in the policy of kindness, and a sense of commonality among all living creatures. (The Art of Happiness, p. xvii)

The Art of Happiness 1

The Art of Happiness 1
Men fishing on Sant'Andrea beach yesterday. Living is easy...
I have already expressed the doubt quite often in these posts as to whether happiness is a worthwhile goal at all to have in life. Not only have I, but many others more educated and far wiser than I have doubted its validity as an aim in life - scholars like the great Irish psychiatrist Professor Ivor Browne. What, after all, is happiness - a good education, a good career, a successful life with the accompanying pleasures like wife and family, money, a good job and a good reputation? All of these are worthwhile goals in themselves, but either alone or collectively they do not guarantee happiness which can be very elusive indeed. We are fickle creatures who often act on whim, who often get dissatisfied once the attraction of the latest pleasure has worn away? If happiness cannot be reduced to any of these pleasures, taken separately or collectively, then what is it at all? Is it even attainable? If not, why should it be a goal of life?

It is to this question of happiness that the Dalai Lama and the psychiatrist Dr. Howard C. Cutler in their co-authored book The Art of Happiness: a Handbook for Living (Hodder and Stoughton, 1998) direct their attention. This collaboration between Eastern Wisdom and Western Medicine makes for a highly interesting read. I read this book some ten years back, but brought it on holidays with me this summer to re-read at my leisure. These days, my holidays are more of a retreat from the world of work, rather than the frenetic travelling I might have done as a young man. This, no doubt, is the result of a certain ageing with grace, a certain giving into and acceptance of the sheer contingency and randomness of life.

The conversations as recounted in this book took place both in Arizona and India. Dr Cutler gives this insight into the character of the Dalai Lama after his first meeting with him in 1982 at the latter’s home in Dharamsala, India, which for sixty or so years now has been the home of the Tibetan government-in-exile:

He seemed to have an uncommon ability to put one completely at ease, to quickly create a simple and direct connection with a fellow human being. Our first meeting had lasted around forty-five minutes, and like so many people I came away from that meeting in great spirits, with the impression that I had just met a truly exceptional man... Over time I became convinced that the Dalai Lama had learned how to live with a sense of fulfilment and degree of serenity that I had never seen in other people. (Op. cit., pp. xii-xiii)
Having now re-read the first five chapters I realise that I, along with most other Westerners, whether educated or not, have imbibed much cultural bias as regards happiness. We were and are brought up to value work, and the success that is or more likely should be the result of that work, as important factors in achieving happiness. We also have imbibed the notion that oftentimes happiness is not guaranteed no matter how successful we have been. We become inured to the fact that oftentimes suffering and pain will be encountered on our journey through life, and the philosophical amongst us recommend a quiet stoicism or a suffering in silence as the surest way to deal with those trials. Christians recommend a communing or communion with their suffering God in his Son Jesus Christ.

However, The Dalai Lama firmly believes in happiness as an aim or goal or project in everyone’s life. Not alone that, but he believes that this is a reasonable and an achievable goal. I remind myself here that the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist and from the East and is an exponent and practitioner in an almost apparently innocent and naive way – I did say apparently – of sheer positivity and compassion for every living sentient creature. What’s more, this sheer openness and compassion for all whom he meets is what endears this great and wonderful human being to all of us. He recently visited us here in Ireland and he won many hearts over with his simplicity, openness and compassion. What comes to the mind of this writer here is his wonderfully broad smile, his contagious laugh, his simplicity, the sparkle in his eye, and the picture of him, waiting for a snail to cross his path even though he was on his way to meet Mr X. or Ms Y of this or that worldly importance.

Summer time and the living is easy... Sant'Andrea beach
So, it would seem that the Dalai Lama has a different take on happiness than we Westerners. It appears to this writer and reader that our take on happiness is far too caught up in things and in material acquisitions, and further with success that only certain forms of education can bring. It appears to me also that we have grown quite depressed, or if not so depressed, at least very negative in our believing that we can really and truly achieve happiness in this life. In that sense, then, many people are content with a sort of hazy belief that things will definitely be better in a next life – a sort of wishful thinking inspired by a rather superficial and even superstitious Christianity. It is also in this sense that Freud was very much a man of his time and his psychoanalytical theory and practice is ridden with the same negativity and lack of hope.