The Book of Joy Part 2 – 8/22/2017

Tonight I will present the second in a series of three Dharma talks about some of the key points in The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. The book contains uplifting dialogues between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the theme of finding joy amidst life’s suffering. (Once again, I’ll take the liberty of referring to His Holiness as “H.H.”)

In the first Dharma talk, we touched upon two topics that H.H. and Desmond Tutu addressed: the nature of true joy and the obstacles to joy. Now we will examine some of what they call “eight pillars of joy,” which provide a base for lasting happiness. Among these pillars are four qualities of the mind: perspective, humility, humor and acceptance, and four qualities of the heart: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity. Today I will be discussing the first four pillars, which pertain to the mind.

Regarding the first pillar, “perspective,” the Buddha teaches in the Dhammapada, “With the mind we create our own world.” According to the Dalai Lama, “When you look at the same event from a wider perspective, your sense of worry and anxiety reduces, and you have greater joy.” He is able to view even the tragic loss of his country as an opportunity to gain new relationships, with more freedom to explore the world and to learn from others.

Auschwitz survivor, Viktor Frankl, stated that our perspective toward life is our final and ultimate freedom. Similarly, H.H. recommends using a larger perspective to transcend the limits of self-awareness and self-interest. Neither the Dalai Lama nor Archbishop Tutu see the world through rose-colored glasses. They continue to face courageously harsh global realities. Yet both spiritual leaders remind us that what we think of as reality is only part of the picture.

If we apply this concept to the recent bloody mayhem in Barcelona, we can focus with horror on those who were killed or maimed by the terrorist ramming a van into a crowd of innocent people. Or we can expand the lens of our perspective to consider how many volunteers reached out to help those who were hurt and suffering. With a broader view, we can see the situation and all those involved from a more neutral position. By considering the multiple conditions and circumstances that led up to the event, we realize that our limited perspective is not the whole truth.

The royal astronomer of the United Kingdom, Sir Martin Rees, points out that the Earth will exist for the same amount of time that it has taken us to go from one-celled organisms to human beings—thus we are only halfway through our evolution on the planet. Thinking of global problems in the context of the full range of planetary history gives us a long view that makes our daily concerns seem less pressing.

Sometimes we can ease our own worries by taking on the perspective of others. For instance, Archbishop Tutu deals with being stuck in traffic by imagining that any one of the other stalled drivers or passengers might be suffering from an illness that requires urgent medical treatment. Instead of feeding self-centered frustration, he sends prayers of compassion to his fellow human beings, “Please God, give each one of them what they need.”

Even when H.H. was in great pain from a gall bladder infection, he thought about all the other people who were undergoing a similar excruciating situation. Compassion means literally “suffering with” others. By remembering that we are not alone, we lessen our own pain. With a wider perspective, we confront difficulties with creativity and compassion instead of rigidity and reactivity. Once we see the interdependence that encompasses us all, we understand that how we treat others is ultimately how we treat ourselves.

Astronauts who have seen the blue orb of earth from space—floating without any visible human-made borders, in the huge expanse of blackness—reported loosening attachment to their personal and national interests. Many of these astronauts were motivated to teach earth-bound humans about the oneness of terrestrial life and the preciousness of our planetary home.

The second mental pillar of joy is “humility.” The word “humility” comes from the Latin word for earth or soil, humus. Archbishop Tutu asserts, “Whenever we realize that we are all children of God, and of equal and intrinsic value, then we don’t have to feel better of worse than others…. No one is a divine accident.” He explains that while we are not special, each of us is essential. Nobody else can fulfill our unique role in the divine plan. He cautions that although humility allows us to celebrate the gifts of others, it does not mean that we should deny our own gifts or hesitate to use them. Each of us is incarnated to unfold in our own way, and even if I am not the best one at a particular skill, I may be the one who is needed or the one who shows up at a crucial moment. H.H. cites a Tibetan prayer: “Whenever I see someone, may I never feel superior. From the depth of my heart, may I be able to really appreciate the other person in front of me.”

The third mental pillar of joy is “humor,” which comes from the same root word for humanity, humus. Archbishop Tutu admits that his wife Leah teases him and keeps him humble. One day when they were driving together, she directed his attention to a bumper sticker that read, “Any woman who wants to be equal to a man has no ambition.” Both the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop suggest that we learn to laugh at ourselves, letting go of being pompous and serious, and looking for the humor in life.

The fourth mental pillar is “acceptance,” which is the opposite of resignation and defeat. Many causes of suffering are due to our reactions to unpleasant life circumstances. Being present in each moment involves the ability to accept the vulnerability, discomfort and anxiety of daily life. H.H. explains the Buddhist paradox of setting goals to grow and mature, while releasing rigid assumptions about how to achieve them. Peace and equanimity arise when we let go of attachment to both our goals and our methods.

Now, to deepen our understanding of these four mental pillars, we will practice one of the guided meditations in The Book of Joy (p. 320): The Dalai Lama calls this “A Common Humanity Practice” which can alleviate loneliness. He refers to our common humanity as being at the “first level.” What divides us (ethnicity, race, nationality, and gender, etc.) is much less significant than what unites us: common humanity, human emotions, and a fundamental desire to be happy and to avoid suffering. Because each of us has a human body, brain and heart, we each have similar human longings, frailties and vulnerabilities. This common humanity practice reminds us that despite outer appearances and inner fears of rejection, we are deeply interconnected.

Archbishop Tutu was born nearby the Cradle of Humankind, where our species is supposed to have originated. In a mere thousand generations, humans have spread throughout the world. The Archbishop claims, “We are all cousins, really, perhaps just a few thousand times removed.”

Please sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes.

  1. Think of someone you love—a child, parent, close friend, or even a cherished pet. Visualize or sense their presence and feel your love for them. Notice the warmth and openheartedness that stems from connecting with loving feelings.
  1. Imagine your loved one’s desire to be happy and to avoid suffering. Reflect on how their life reflects those aspirations.
  1. Think of someone you do not know well. You might think of a colleague at work or someone who serves you in a store or restaurant. Recognize how your feelings for this person differ from the feelings you have for your loved one. Towards this less familiar person, you might feel indifference, a sense of separation, or maybe even judgment. Now imagine yourself in the shoes of this relative stranger. Reflect upon their life—their hopes, dreams, fears, disappointments, and suffering. Recognize that, just like you, they wish to achieve happiness and to avoid suffering. Connect with the common bond of humanity that you share. Consider that this person may be lonely and that your gesture of reaching out to them might be received as a welcome gift.
  1. Imagine taking this awareness about human interconnectedness out into the world and opening your heart to those you encounter. You can start by smiling or acknowledging others with kindness. Different cultures have varying ways of acknowledging others, but try to discover what is appropriate in each situation so that you can greet members of your extended human family. Do not be discouraged if some people, who may be suffering from their own loneliness and isolation, do not respond to your overtures. Because of your own experience with lonely feelings, you can empathize with their fears about interacting. Greet the world with greater trust, kindness, and compassion, and those around you will tend to respond in kind. When you smile at the world, it tends to smile back.