The Dalai Lama's Way Toward Happiness
By Alisa Ikeda
Co-author of The Art of Happiness and Western psychiatrist Howard Cutler spoke to healthshop.com about his experience interviewing the Dalai Lama for the book. Dr. Cutler first met the Dalai Lama in 1982 while visiting India to study Tibetan medicine.
Perhaps most striking about the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet, is his genuine smile and hearty laugh. His presence emanates contentedness and joy. In The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, Howard C. Cutler, M.D., and the Dalai Lama explore what happiness is and how every person, regardless of circumstance, religion, or personality, is perfectly poised to achieve it.
Convinced that the Dalai Lama has "learned how to live with a sense of fulfillment and a degree of serenity that I had never seen in other people," Cutler explains, "I was drawn to his personal qualities. He's genuinely happy, down-to-earth, warm, and incredibly smart. You want to be in his presence, because he walks his talk."
Cutler attributes the book's popularity to its widespread appeal. "I felt it was important to create a book for a Western audience, one that wasn't academic, scholarly, or for only people interested in Buddhist philosophies," says Cutler. "Even the Dalai Lama is surprised at the success of The Art of Happiness. Why this book? I think it's because it distills his essential messages." Cutler adds that it "gives you principals you can live by" and "ideas that help every day."
In extensive interviews with the Dalai Lama, Cutler was not afraid to press him about life's most common but elusive issues and quandaries: Why do conflicts so often arise in marriages? How have you handled the deaths of loved ones? How does one cope with unfairness and injustice? Is self-reliance a virtue? What should be done about those who intentionally harm others? Is it really practical to think that we can all be happy, given that suffering is inevitable?
In recounting their passionate conversations, Cutler elaborates on the Dalai Lama's thoughts with his own observations as an expert in psychiatry and as a fallible human being. Cutler also includes scientific research and case studies. What emerges is an informed spiritual guide to living happily.
One's formal religion is not the key to determining one's happiness, according to the Dalai Lama. He says, "There are five billion human beings, and in a certain way, I think we need five billion different religions. I believe that each individual should embark upon a spiritual path that is best suited to his or her mental disposition, natural inclination, temperament, belief, family, and cultural background." But the spiritual journey that unites us, the Dalai Lama teaches, is the seeking of happiness—the very purpose of our existence.
It's really quite simple and natural, says the Dalai Lama, to achieve happiness. "One begins by identifying those factors which lead to happiness and those factors which lead to suffering. Having done this, one then sets about gradually eliminating those factors which lead to suffering and cultivating those factors which lead to happiness. That is the way."
But the "mental training" required to come to such awareness is a bit more complicated. It involves inner transformation—an unrelenting discipline and commitment to "combating negative states of mind such as anger, hatred, and greed, and cultivating positive states such as kindness, compassion, and tolerance." And it involves a calm, balanced state of mind.
Learning, conviction, determination, action, and effort—these are the necessary steps in making personal change, says the Dalai Lama. For example, you can apply these to the process of quitting smoking. First you must become educated in the harm smoking does to a body, and you must become convinced of that harm and how it is manifesting in your own body. Then you must use that information and those beliefs to strengthen your determination to change, figure ways to implement change, and make a concerted effort to establish new behaviors. Eliminating damaging behaviors in this way helps transform you into a happy person.
Obstacles and challenges are inevitable, admits the Dalai Lama, but they don't have to be debilitating.
- Combating worry—Worry needn't consume you. The Dalai Lama suggests that if there is a solution to a problem, there is no need to worry. And if there is no solution, there is no need to worry. It's so logical and obvious that it's easily overlooked, but this philosophy can be liberating and life altering.
- Maintaining perspective—According to the Dalai Lama, "if you focus too closely, too intensely on a problem when it occurs, it appears uncontrollable. But if you compare that event with some other greater event, look at the same problem from a distance, then it appears smaller and less overwhelming." This ability to view one's problems from different perspectives is known as having a supple mind.
- Letting go—Sometimes things can't be changed, wrongs can't be righted, and circumstances can't be controlled. "It's like an old person eating—an old person with very poor teeth," says the Dalai Lama. "The soft things you eat; the hard things you just leave."
Happily Ever After
Transforming one's mind toward achieving happiness is a gradual process and a lifelong commitment. Make time for daily "reminders of how to speak to others, how to deal with other people, how to deal with problems in your daily life, things like that," says the Dalai Lama. Call it prayer, meditation, or whatever you like, but make the time to do it every day, to reinforce your principles and remain dedicated to your spiritual journey. You will not only cultivate happiness and mental well-being but physical health as well.
Cutler describes the profound effect that the book's creation has had on him: "I'm trained in medicine and science. I probably wasn't aware enough to realize the importance of kindness and compassion. And these qualities are critical. I'm now able to see people differently, that they are the same as me, striving to be happy. It's about human connection, you know?"
In practicing and perfecting the art of happiness, remember this verse, which the Dalai Lama recites to himself regularly to summon courage and determination:
As long as space endures
As long as sentient beings remain
May I too live
To dispel the miseries of the world.