The Book of Joy Part 1 – 8/14/2017

Tonight I will begin a two-part discussion of some of the key points in The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, which entails illuminating dialogues between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. (I’ll take the liberty of following the example of my Tibetan sponsored daughter Tenchoe, who refers to His Holiness as “H.H.”) In April of 2015, the Archbishop flew from his home in South Africa to Dharamsala, India, to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. With the facilitation of their editor and co-writer Douglas Abrams, various monks serving as aides and translators, and a film crew, the two Nobel Peace Laureates discussed how to find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering.

After over fifty years of living in exile from his Tibetan homeland, H.H. spreads joyous energy wherever he goes. Archbishop Tutu has emerged from the oppression of apartheid and recurring pain of prostate cancer with a resilient sense of wellbeing. During their week together, these two friends exchanged intimate stories and teased each other tenderly, laughing, crying, and even dancing. They also cited serious research by Richard Davidson and other neuroscientists who have found that meditation produces measurable benefits for the brain.

Among the topics that H.H. and Desmond Tutu addressed are the nature of true joy, obstacles to joy, and eight pillars of joy, which provide the base for lasting happiness. They shared daily meditative practices that support their remarkable equanimity and joy. Each morning, both men wake up very early to pray, meditate and contemplate for four or five hours—the Dalai Lama rises at 3:00am and teases the Archbishop for “sleeping in” until 4:00am.

The book starts with their joint “Invitation to Joy.” I am struck by their assertion: “No dark fate determines the future. We do. Each day and each moment, we are able to create and re-create our lives and the very quality of human life on our planet.” The Dalai Lama states, “ I believe that the purpose of life is to find happiness.” He quotes Shantideva, the 8th century Buddhist master: “If something can be done about a [tragic] situation, what need is there for dejection? And if nothing can be done about it, what use is there for being dejected?”

Accordingly, H.H. enlarges his identity beyond his own personal ego and recognizes the truth of the Buddha’s teachings that all sentient beings are connected: “We realize that not only do we suffer, but so do… our human brothers and sisters. [By looking at] the same event from a wider perspective, we can reduce our worrying and our own suffering.” Referring to his life as a refugee in exile, the Dali Lama mentions a Tibetan saying: “Wherever you have friends that’s your country, and wherever you receive love, that’s your home.”

According to psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, the three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing our happiness are our ability to reframe our situation more positively, our ability to experience gratitude, and our choice to be kind and generous. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu each embody these attitudes.

Both spiritual leaders have developed four independent brain circuits that neuroscientist Richard Davidson claims influence lasting wellbeing. By cultivating love and compassion within themselves, they have mastered the capacities to maintain positive emotional states, to recover quickly from negative states of mind, to focus the mind amidst distractions, and to be exceptionally generous.

H.H. states that he starts each day by remembering the Buddha’s teachings about the importance of kindness, compassion, and alleviating suffering. Then the Dalai Lama recalls that everything is interrelated. He sets an intention to serve and help others or at least not to harm others. In his words, “That’s a meaningful day.”

Regarding how to deal with obstacles to joy, H.H. describes what he calls “mental immunity,” as learning to avoid destructive emotions and to develop positive ones. Through meditation and self-inquiry, it is possible for us to discover the nature of our mind and learn to soothe our emotional reactivity. He cautions, “The last thing we want to do is judge ourselves harshly.”

The Dalai Lama points out skillful ways to handle others’ criticisms. He says, “This person is not your enemy from birth. Certain circumstances caused the person to be negative toward you. There may be many causes, but usually your own attitude is an important contributing factor that cannot be ignored…. You…realize that basic human nature is good [and] compassionate, and that the person does not want to harm you. So therefore you see that [people’s] actions are due to their own destructive emotions. You can develop a sense of concern, compassion, even feel sorry for their pain and suffering.”

In the Dalai Lama’s view, “Stress and anxiety often come from too much expectation and too much ambition…. Right from the beginning, there is a self-centered attitude: I want this. I want that. Often we are not being realistic about our own ability or about objective reality.”  Desmond Tutu agrees with H.H. that we need to concentrate on the priorities of what is truly worth pursuing. What do we really need? Both men value love and connection most highly and need little else. All the achieving and grasping that we think is so essential to our wellbeing can become an obsession that makes us miserable. How can we be conscious about how we live so that we can resist the modern trance, the relentless speediness, and the anxious push to achieve more? The Dalai Lama urges us to be realistic so that we can feel a sense of inner peace right here and now, instead of chasing after expectations and ambitions for whatever might come next.

Both H.H. and Archbishop Tutu see themselves as part of a greater whole and make room for a full range of human emotions. According to the Dalai Lama, “If we think we are something special or not special enough, then fear, nervousness, stress, and anxiety arise. We are the same.” He notes that beneath the emotion of anger is a fear that we will not get what we need, that we are not loved, that we are not respected, [or] that we will not be included. Our way out of anger is to admit our vulnerability and, with great self-compassion, investigate the hurt or the fear that caused the anger.

The Dalai Lama would concur with psychologist Gordon Wheeler, who considers grief a reminder of the depth and beauty of a love that is lost. As Douglas Abrams muses, “To linger in the longing, the loss, the yearning is a way of feeling the rich and embroidered texture of life, the torn cloth of our world that is endlessly being ripped and rewoven.”

In the face of so much global suffering, Archbishop Tutu sees hope as the antidote to despair. Hope requires faith in the essential goodness of human nature and in the persistence of life to continue no matter what. Hope is nurtured by relationships and by community…Whereas despair turns us inward, hope sends us into the arms of others.

Now let us follow one of the Dalai Lama’s rituals, undertaking a Tibetan form of mind training called Lojong practice, which entails transforming suffering through spiritual practice (p. 323):

Close your eyes and sit in a comfortable position. Breathe gently into the area of your heart.

  1. Think of one way that you may be experiencing suffering or adversity.
  2. Think of others who are experiencing a similar or a worse situation. Can you feel empathy and compassion for them?
  1. How might this challenging situation be useful to you? What lessons could be learned? How could this circumstance help you mature and grow?
  1. Can you cultivate gratitude for the opportunity that this suffering is providing?
  2. Reflect upon this phrase: “May my suffering spare others from similar suffering.”

Consider how your actions might contribute to preventing similar suffering or to reducing others’ suffering.

Return to the sensations of breathing gently into the area of your heart. When you feel ready, slowly open your eyes.  Turn to a partner and share what you learned from the Lojong practice.