Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Art of Happiness 21


Raphael's School of Athens, 1509-1510. Plato and Aristotle are at the centre, left to right.
In our last post we spoke about our basic resistance to change, and we highlighted fear as being one of the greatest causes of this resistance. The fourth step in fighting this resistance to change that the Dalai Lama recommended is taking action or making an effort to change,  Making a sustained effort to change our external behaviour is hard, but as we persist in it we reap the benefits. Such effort is not only helpful in overcoming bad habits, but it can also change our underlying attitudes and feelings.  I believe there is a certain overlap here with the Aristotelian principle of phronesis which may be defined as practical wisdom or knowledge learnt from our actions.  Aristotle also said that it is impossible to become good without doing good actions.  We can readily see these Aristotelian tenets in the following passage written by Dr. Cutler in our book under discussion here - The Art of Happiness.

Experiments have shown that not only do our attitudes and psychological traits determine our behaviour, an idea that is commonly accepted, but our behaviour can also change our attitudes.  Investigators found that even an artificially induced frown or smile tend to induce the corresponding emotions of anger and happiness; this suggests that just 'going through the motions' and repeatedly engaging in a positive behaviour can eventually bring about genuine internal change.  This could have important implications in the Dalai Lama's approach to building a happier life.  If we begin with the simple act of regularly helping others, for instance, even if we don't feel particularly kind or caring, we may discover an inner transformation taking place, as we very gradually develop genuine feelings of compassion. (Op.cit., p. 194)
Also sustained effort to bring about change takes time, and a lot of time.  That is why books or gurus offering quick and immediate answers to life's difficult problems are literally selling a lie.  There are no "quick fixes" or instant solutions.  Such answers are offered by fundamentalist religious sects of one kind or another.  Therefore, we must always set ourselves realistic goals and develop realistic attitudes and expectations.  Having idealistic goals are okay as a goal in the long term, but expecting  to achieve them in the short term is an extreme and unrealistic attitude.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The art of Happiness 20

Resistance to Change
Clouds over Lambay Island, from Baldoyle, late August, 2011

If there is any one thing which astounds me about human nature is why certain people stay in jobs, and indeed in relationships that they really hate.  The obvious reason for this resistance to change is one of fear.  Even in this abusive or stressful job or relationship, we know what's in store for us, while in another alien situation we simply do not know at all.  Not alone do we fear change, but we fear encountering the unknown.  Hence, we prefer stay on and suffer in abusive jobs and relationships.  The following are the steps to change that the Dalai Lama recommends in The Art Of Happiness:

Step 1: Learning and Education

It is interesting that the Dalai Lama identifies learning and education as the first step in bringing about internal transformation or change.  It's slightly disconcerting that this great spiritual teacher is not recommending any transcendental or spiritual practices to evoke change or transformation.  First, he declares, that we must appraise ourselves of all the facts no matter what problem the world at large or our own personal lives present us with.  Dr. Cutler points out that modern scientific studies are showing that even purely academic education is directly linked to a happier life. (See The Art of Happiness, p. 192).  Knowledge, then, is empowering i.n many ways leading to more positive self-esteem, which in turn is one of the essential ingredients of being happy.  For example: I want to give up smoking, for example.  I set about learning all the facts about the harmful effects of smoking on the human body.

Step 2: Developing Conviction

A second step in bringing about internal change that the Dalai Lama underscores is that we must develop a conviction about anything we are doing - such a conviction makes the effort and the result worthwhile. To continue my above example, I must now develop the conviction that smoking is harmful and that it is important that I give up smoking to improve my health.

Step 3: Developing Determination:

Continuing with my example I now develop a determination to cut out smoking.

Step 4: Taking Action

Now I must take action by either gradually cutting down or cutting out smoking completely.  I know this is far easier said the done, but I have only taken this as one among many possible examples of how change can be brought about in our lives.  I am not implying whatsoever that such change is easy.  In fact, quite the contrary is the case.  Much pain and resistance will be involved in bringing such change about.

Step 5: Developing a Sense of Urgency

I believe that this is an interesting and important step, as whenever anyone is in urgent need of help we will do all in our power to get that help for them through calling the emergency services, making them comfortable, putting them in the recovery position, not moving them if there is serious concern about spinal injury etc.  The Dalai Lama sees that this sense of urgency is a vital factor in effecting change.

It's interesting to note that developing this sense of urgency is urged on us by a Buddhist Lama or Teacher when we associate a "let it be" or "passive" attitude with Eastern spirituality.  This is a good example to show us that Buddhism is not such a particularly passive religious or spiritual practice.

The Dalai Lama continues:

Then, in order to generate a sense of urgency to engage in spiritual practices, the practitioner is reminded of our impermanence and death [having already been reminded of the preciousness of human existence].  When we talk about impermanence in this context, we are talking in very conventional terms, not about the more subtle aspects of the concept.  In other words, we are reminded that one day, we may no longer be here.  That sort of understanding.  That awareness of impermanence is encouraged, so that when it is coupled with our appreciation of the enormous potential of our human existence, it will give us a sense of urgency that I must use every precious moment. (Op. cit., pp. 187-188)
Interestingly, and quite understandably when I think about it, the Dalai Lama also underscores the fact that there is no such thing as instant change.  In fact, he says that he is deeply suspicious of people who state that they have effected any type of significant change with ease or within a short space of time in their lives.  Now this is very realistic and resonates with the lived experience of this reader and writer.  I have recounted many times in these posts how I had what is commonly called a "nervous breakdown" when I was exactly forty - a very significant time indeed for any human being.  In fact, you could say that happened after many years of accumulated hurt.  In hindsight this was very painful, but it effected many great changes in my life over the last eleven years as I learned gradually to change my attitudes and life style.  In fact, with many other fellow travellers through the "dark night of the body" or "the dark night of the soul" (both terms from the writings of St John of the Cross), or in more common terms through "the hell of depression," I had learnt that my "break-down" was really a "break-through."

The Dalai Lama admits to Dr Cutler that the long time needed to effect personal change could become discouraging for the individual if he or she takes a short term view, rather than a long-term view of human problems and of tackling the change necessary to cope with them.  This is quite a philosophical approach, and we spoke about this before as our needing to take a more general perspective on our problems.  I spoke deliberately about learning to forget the microscope or magnifying glass with respect to our concerns and worries in preference to a telescope which puts them into a far healthier perspective.  Here, the Dali Lama recites one of his favourite lines from the Buddhist scriptures:

As long as space endures
As long as sentient beings remain
May I too live
To dispel the miseries of the world. (Quoted, ibid., p. 191)

Now, the wisdom contained in these words encourages his soul to hope and to go on hoping by taking a far wider perspective, the perspective of eternity if I may use a Western Christian perspective, or the perspective of infinity if I may use a scientific metaphor. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Art of Happiness 19

The Dalai Lama's Lecture on Tong-len

More cloud at Baldoyle, Dublin, last Sunday
Tong-len is a special type of visualization meditation which aims at strengthening one's compassion.  Moreover, it can also be used in order to transform one's personal suffering, thereby enabling the practitioner better to deal with it.  One can use this practice to increase one's compassion by visualizing relieving the suffering of others, by purposely (and rather extraordinarily or mysteriously) absorbing and dissolving their suffering into one's own.  This Dr Cutler calls "a sort of suffering by proxy." (The Art of Happiness, p. 178.)  As this is a straight meditation visualization given directly by the Dalai Lama, there's no need to paraphrase or interpret as a straight transcription of his words would be far more authentic:

To begin this exercise, first visualize on one side of you a group of people who are in desperate need of help, those who are in an unfortunate state of suffering, those living under the conditions of poverty, hardship and pain.  Visualize this group of people on one side of you clearly in your mind.  Then, on the other side, visualize yourself as the embodiment of a self-centered person, with a customary selfish attitude, indifferent to the well-being and needs of others.  And then, in between this suffering group of people and this selfish representation of you see yourself in the middle, as a neutral observer.
Next, notice which side you are naturally drawn inclined toward.  Are you more inclined toward that single individual, the embodiment of selfishness?  Or, do your natural feelings of empathy reach out to the weaker group of people who are in need?  If you look objectively, you can see that the well-being of a group or large number of individuals is more important than that of one single individual.
After that, focus your attention on the needy and desperate people.  Direct all your positive energy to them.  Mentally give them your successes, your resources, your collection of virtues.  And after you have done that, visualize taking upon yourself their suffering, their problems, and all their negativities...
This Tong-len practice can become quite powerful if you combine the "giving and receiving" with the breath, that is, imagine "receiving" when inhaling and "giving" when exhaling.  When you do this visualization effectively, it will make you feel some slight discomfort.  This is an indication that it is hitting its target - the self-centered, ego-centric attitude that we normally have.  Now, let us meditate."  (Op. cit., pp. 178-180)