Q & A with Dr. Howard C. Cutler,
co-author of The Art of Happiness
Q: How did you come to know the Dalai Lama?
HC: In 1981, I received a small research grant from the University of Arizona College of Medicine to travel to Dharamsala, India to study the traditional Tibetan system of medicine. At that time, the Dalai Lama's late elder brother, Lobsang Samden, was director of the Tibetan Medical Institute, and it was through Lobsang that my first meeting with the Dalai Lama was arranged. Over the years since then, I've attended many of the Dalai Lama's public talks, arranged private audiences with him in India and during his visits to the U.S. whenever possible, and, acting as one of his hosts, had an opportunity to meet with him daily during a visit to Arizona in 1993.
Q: What inspired you to write The Art of Happiness?
HC: The Dalai Lama has always struck me as being a genuinely happy person, despite the tragic situation in Tibet, his personal losses, and the burden of many heavy responsibilities. I was curious to learn about his personal approach to living and the principles and practices that had enabled him to achieve this state of contentment. While I was aware that his attitudes had
been shaped largely as a result of his training as a Buddhist monk, and he had already written a number of books on Buddhism, I realized that he had never written a book specifically aimed at a general Western audience and focusing on the ordinary problems of daily life. I wanted to write a book that focused not on the specific doctrines of Buddhism, or the political situation in
Tibet, which he had already written about, but a more practical book focused simply on how to lead a happier life.
Q: How does the Dalai Lama define "happiness?" What is the difference, as he defines it, between "happiness" and "pleasure?"
HC: Recognizing that any broad concept such as "happiness" can be quite complex and include many different levels, degrees, and components, the Dalai Lama avoids giving a brief precise definition of the word in the book. Having said that, however, based on our discussions, I would say that his definition of everyday happiness would be along these lines: a feeling of joy and a sense of inner contentment that results from developing a calm, stable state of mind, rooted in affection and compassion. From his perspective, it seems, pleasure can also result in a feeling of joy, but he views pleasure as based mainly on physical sensory experiences. And since these sensory experiences are fleeting and subject to change at any time, and will not last, that feeling is only temporary. Happiness, as he sees it, relates more to the state of one's mind and heart, and because of this it is seen as much more stable, reliable, and long lasting than pleasure.
Q: Is attaining that kind of happiness a reasonable goal for all of us?
HC: Yes. Since achieving that kind of happiness depends on systematically training and developing one's mind and heart, and each one of us has a mind, that means that even at this very moment every one of us has all the raw material we need to achieve complete happiness. But the achievement of happiness is not an "all or none" process--with some effort all of us can make definite improvements in our levels of happiness, we can all become happier than we are today, even if we don't achieve complete "bliss."
Q: Why is happiness more determined in the mind than by external events? Wouldn't many people argue that certain "external events" like having a certain amount of money or having a devoted loved one are crucial to happiness?
HC: I think that the Dalai Lama would agree that there are many components to a happy life, and certainly this would include having enough money to have one's basic needs met, other people with whom one can share things, love, and so on. He points out however that it is still possible to be happy even if one has very little money, is in poor health, or even if one is not fortunate enough to have a special relationship with a spouse or lover. The world is filled with examples of this. On the other hand, no matter how wealthy a person is, no matter how wonderful their spouse is, or no matter how much "external" success one enjoys or praise one receives, if a person's mind is in turmoil, if it is troubled by anger, hatred, fear, anxiety, or jealousy, then it is impossible to really be happy. This suggests that even though certain "external events" (having a certain amount of money and so on) are factors for enjoying a happy life, one's mental state, the "mind factor" is the predominant or key component.
Q: What personal experiences did the Dalai Lama share with you about his own efforts to overcome obstacles, counter suffering, and attain happiness?
HC: In our discussions, it became clear that the Dalai Lama's personal approach to overcoming obstacles, and dealing with suffering, whether he was describing personal or global problems, has involved a systematic effort, sustained over many years, to cultivate certain mental attitudes and gain insight into the nature of existence. In a sense, this involves laying a certain groundwork that helps him deal with a variety of difficulties when they arise. For example, he shared how the conscious effort to try to see situations from a wider perspective, and take a more long term view of things has enabled him to continue working towards freedom and human rights in Tibet and not lose hope despite many years of work without results.
His overall approach to attaining happiness involves working on overcoming negative states of mind such as anger, hatred, greed, etc. and cultivating positive states of mind such as kindness and compassion. In our conversations he described how he has personally found that by making a consistent effort in this manner over many years he has noticed a gradual change in the state of his mind. For instance, he mentioned that when he was young he had somewhat of a temper, but gradually he has become much less troubled by anger, and now it has no more impact on his deeper mind than the ripples on the surface of the ocean. Of course, when speaking of overcoming obstacles and dealing with various problems , the Dalai Lama's efforts are not limited to inner development--he is very active and involved in world affairs, working towards the improvement of human rights, world peace, etc.
Q: What can people do to battle their own inner turmoil, loneliness, depression, or the everyday bad mood?
HC: As a general measure, one could begin by getting into the habit of spending a few minutes each day engaged in any practice that helps quiet and focus the mind--practices such as meditation or prayer. This can help one develop a calm, stable state of mind. "Cognitive intervention" can also be very powerful and effective: when negative thoughts or emotions arise one can directly examine, analyze, and challenge these thoughts, actively neutralizing and replacing them with rational, alternative ways of thinking. For example, when depressed, one might spontaneously have a thought such as, "I'm completely worthless," but when this thought arises one can actively challenge that thought by objectively listing one's strengths and accomplishments. Or, if one is in a bad mood, that mood can be shifted by making a deliberate effort to "count your blessings," to remind yourself of all the things you have and all the ways that things could be worse, and the people who have it worse off than you.
In overcoming feelings such as loneliness, the Dalai Lama recommends actively
cultivating feelings of kindness and compassion--and, in fact, cultivating compassion and reaching out to help others is not only one of the most powerful methods of connecting with others, but it is also useful in counteracting a wide spectrum of negative feelings.
Q: How can the Dalai Lama's ideas help us in our most personal relationships with friends, family members and lovers? Given that the Dalai Lama is, after all, a Buddhist monk, how can his ideas be applied to modern Western notions of romance, love and marriage?
HC: I think the Dalai Lama offers a great deal of sound advice in helping us improve our personal relationships. Throughout our discussions, he gave a number of practical suggestions for building stronger relationships: these include developing empathy by practicing "perspective taking," making our best effort to be honest and open with others, and taking the time to get to know the deeper nature and characteristics of the person we are dealing with. Getting to know the true nature of the other individual often involves a concerted effort to form an unbiased view of both the positive and negative qualities of the person. This can be important, because at a moment when you are angry at your friend, sibling, or parent, you tend to perceive them as "100% bad." If you can remind yourself of their positive traits at that time, however, and shift to a more accurate and balanced view of the individual (composed, as all humans, of both positive and negative traits), this can help modify or reduce your feelings of anger. Conversely, when you are "in love," the tendency is to see your lover as "100% good." Taking the time to get to know the individual, recognizing their limitations as well as strengths, can go a long way to prevent the devastating disillusionment that could arise in the event that the "bloom of romance" begins to fade and some of the lover's less desirable human characteristics begin to emerge.
I think that even though the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist monk, his ideas about the best way to relate to one another have great relevance to our modern Western notions of romance, love, and marriage. The Dalai Lama points out that like everything else in nature, relationships are subject to change, and those based primarily on passion, romance, sex, and excitement, tend to crumble if these intense feelings subside-- which they eventually tend to do, to one degree or another. One need only look at divorce rates of 50% and 60% in our society to discover that many of our modern notions of love and romance aren't working very well as the basis of long-lasting relationships. But with the Dalai Lama's model of the ideal relationship, one based on mutual respect and compassion, one can still fully enjoy sex and romance, but the relationship is more stable and long lasting because those are not the primary factors and the relationship is sustained by deeper bonds.