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.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Art of Happiness 23

The Western versus the Eastern Mind

In a "former life" I spent three years as a religious!
In the West we do our professional thinking mainly, though not exclusively, through analysis and are very used to "breaking a subject down" into its constituent parts while in the East, it seems to me, thinkers proceed in a more holistic fashion, seeking to bring out the "whole" or "larger picture" with respect to a given subject.

In the West, also, many people turn to religious beliefs as a source of happiness.  This refuge in religious tenets in common to all the great world religions: especially the monotheistic revealed religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam who all believe in another life where souls will be either be rewarded or punished for their sins.  Often happiness is projected into this Utopian idea of a heavenly reward.  The message simply is: - if one suffers in this life, one can and will be happy in the next.  Now, admittedly, I am simplifying here to make my point and I do allow for more nuanced and sophisticated theological understanding of heaven among professional theologians.  However, what I am getting at here is that our Western Religions (and for handiness sake I'm including all the great revealed religions here) leave themselves wide open to the often-quoted and understandable criticism of Karl Marx who argued that such religions act quite like "an opium" in the following famous quotation:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.  It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.  (See here )
Such a basic and simplified explanation as I have given above of revealed religions does do grave injustice to the sophisticated and nuanced positions of eminent theologians in mainstream churches.  It is also, perhaps, an extreme simplification of more mysterious and complex and indeed authentic faith positions taken up by wonderful human beings like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Dr. Martin Luther King and many other wonderful religious personages who have done wonderful things for people on our little Blue Planet.  However, oftentimes mainline churches and their believers state their positions in such crude and un-nuanced ways as to leave the ground open for the broadside attacks of the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins whom I call "evangelical atheists" or "proselytizing atheists."  As a former staunch believer, who is now an agnostic, I cannot bear any evangelistic or proselytizing factions whether in the churches or the sciences.  As a philosopher, I prefer to think things out for myself, and as as an educator, I prefer to train the young minds in front of me to come up with their own answers and to raise their own questions.

As regards the pursuit of happiness, where do these thoughts lead me?  Well, going back to the book under discussion in these posts, The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living (Hodder and Stoughton 1998) by the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler it leaves me with the belief that Buddhism offers a more practical way of pursuing happiness than do the revealed religions.  Indeed it can be argued that Buddhism is less a religion and more of a philosophy of living.  In fact, it could be argued that it is a practical psychology solely.  This, of course, is why it has been so popular with certain philosophers (like Schopenhauer) and many psychologists (like Jung) over the years.

The Dalai Lama's approach is fundamentally different from many Western religions in that it relies more heavily on reasoning and training the mind than on faith.  Howard Cutler argues that "in some respects, the Dalai Lama's approach resembles a mind science, a system that one could apply much the same way as people utilize psychotherapy.  But what the Dalai Lama suggests goes further.  While we are used to the idea of using psychotherapeutic techniques such as behaviour therapy to attack specific bad habits - smoking, drinking, temper flares - we are not accustomed to the idea of cultivating positive attributes - love, compassion, patience, generosity - as weapons against all negative emotions and mental states." (Op. cit., p. 204)

In the West we tend to concentrate on relieving or assuaging the neuroses suffered by our clients or patients rather than practising the positive psychology outlined in such Buddhist practices that the Dalai Lama and other great teachers of Buddhism like Thich Nhat Hanh recommend and practise with great success.  Dr Cutler quite rightly maintains that the school of cognitive therapy - as founded and practised by the likes of Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck comes nearest to the Buddhist approach to improving our well-being as human beings.  These great doctors and psychologists argue that our upsetting emotions and maladaptive behaviours are quite simply (or quite complexly, depending on your view-point) caused by distortions in thinking and irrational beliefs.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Art of Happiness 22

The Ability to adopt different Perspectives

Self with two students who edited the school Year Book with me, 2004 
As a teacher, I have often pondered on the subject of what makes a good, bad, indifferent or poor teacher.  I take knowledge of one's subject area as a given - after all, teachers have passed their exams and got their professional credentials as well by the time they start teaching.  Last evening, once again I discussed this topic with my good friend Thomas Gleeson.  We agreed that what made the good teacher was his/her ability to connect with their pupils, to intuit whether they were lost or not, to empathise with their confusion or sense of being lost. 

Now I have done many CPD courses over the years, and I have benefited from them all.  In fact, I have retrained as a Resource and Special Education Needs teacher after some thirty years in the mainstream classroom.  Now this course required a year's re-training and some nine supervisions of classroom teaching.  This experience was renewing and affirming of one's professionalism and of the skills garnered over years of hard-won experience as well as equipping me with new ideas and deeper understanding.  I tell this personal story here to illustrate the ability to adopt different perspectives.  In other words, I am arguing here that what makes a good teacher is precisely that, the ability to adopt different perspectives.  It is impossible to teach if one cannot empathise with one's class, especially if they are weaker academically, and also if one is not open to learning new skills as a teacher.  Then Thomas and I, in our discussion which I alluded to in my opening paragraph, agreed that what also made a good teacher was actually learning to "like" your students or pupils.  They will pick up very quickly whether you like your subject and indeed whether you like them or not.  This is all part of a good teacher's ability to connect with his/her students.  Now connecting with students is not something shallow like trying "to be popular."  Far from it. Pupils learn quickly to dislike a teacher who deliberately sets out to be popular.  What they need is an authentically good teacher, not a seeker of shallow popularity.

Let me return to the words of the Dalai Lama here:

Within Buddhist practice, this ability to adopt different perspectives is utilized in a number of meditations in which you mentally isolate different aspects of yourself, then engage in dialogue between them.  For instance,. there is a meditation practice designed to enhance altruism, whereby you engage in a dialogue between your own self-centered attitude, a self that is the embodiment of self-contriteness, and yourself as a spiritual practitioner.  There is a kind of dialogical relationship.  So similarly here, although negative traits such as hatred and anger are part of your mind, you can engage in an endeavour in which you take your anger and hatred as an object to do combat with.  (The Art of Happiness p.197-8)
Here, there is a considerable overlap with the theory of subpersonalities as outlined in the theory and practice of the type of psychotherapy called psychosynthesis.  Working with subpersonalities is a central theme in psychosynthesis therapy and very often it gives the client some very good skills to handle the many different and oppositional forces inside the personality and coordinate them into a well integrated personality. But working with subpersonalities presupposes that the therapist simultaneously makes an effort to strengthen the client's centre – his awareness of a centre of pure self-consciousness and will. It is from this centre that all the subpersonalities can be identified, included, transformed and synthesised. To have a clear experience of this inner observer and witness - this entity and the subject in man - is very often connected with a profound feeling of freedom. Because there can be no free choices between the many competing forces and needs without an inner director that manage the inner battleground.

Over the history of psychotherapy, many forms of therapy have worked with subpersonalities, not just psychosynthesis. Early methods were Jungian analysis, Psychosynthesis, Transactional Analysis, and Gestalt therapy. These were followed by some forms of hypnotherapy and the inner child work of John Bradshaw and others. More recently forms of therapy have arisen that are largely based on working with subpersonalities—Voice Dialogue,  Ego-state therapy, and John Rowan’s work.  However, Roberto Assagioli  (1888 - 1974) is most associated with the theory and practice of integrating subpersonalities. He was a leading Italian psychiatrist and pioneer in the fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology. In fact it was he who founded the psychological movement known as psychosynthesis, which is still being developed today by therapists, and psychologists, who practice his technique. His work emphasized the possibility of progressive integration of the personality around its own essential Self through the use of the will.

Continuing with the Dalai Lama's comments, one could say that the following is consonant with what Assagioli and the above named therapists were and are about:

So, although in reality, there is only one single individual continuum, you can adopt two different perspectives.  What takes place when you are criticizing yourself.  The "self" that is criticizing is done from a perspective of yourself as a totality, your entire being, and the "self" that is being criticized is a self from a perspective of a particular experience or a particular event.  So you can see the possibility of having this "self-to-self relationship." (ibid., p. 198)
A Personal Conclusion

Let us ask ourselves the question: "What are our subpersonalities?"  My list, I believe would look something like this: "My Teacher Persona," "My Adult Persona," "My Ego Persona," "My Innocent Child Persona," "My Entertainer Persona," "My Mr.Know-All Persona," "My Self-Pitying Persona or Poor Me Syndrome," "My Depressed Self or Persona", "My Happy-Go-Lucky Self," "My Angry Self or Persona," and "My Selfish Self or Persona" and so on and so forth.  Each reader of this short post can make out his or her own personal list of subpersonalities which we can call "masks" if we wish.  Then, using the Dalai Lama's technique, we can set up a visualization or inner dialogue between one of these and the central, core or integrated Self or "self as totality" as the Buddhist Teacher calls it above.  All in all such a series of meditations can only lead to fuller and fuller self-integration or individuation.