Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Art of Happiness: Lessons from the Dalai Lama

(Sermon shared on January 8, 2012 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro by Rev. Jane Page)

Happy New Year!   How often have we heard that in the last couple of weeks!  How often have we wished it for others?  And are we serious?  Do we really expect happiness?  Do we deserve happiness? 

Our forefathers must have thought so!  The Declaration of Independence includes these words:  “All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; these rights include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Fortunately – “All men” has expanded through its fullest vision to include “all people.”  Now Jefferson didn’t pen that we had the RIGHT to happiness – just the right to pursue it.  Still, it’s included right up there with life and liberty, so certainly it was deemed important by these founders. 

I’m afraid our forefathers would not have liked this map. 
This is a map showing where countries stand on the Happy Planet Index.  “Each country’s HPI value is a function of its average subjective life satisfaction, life expectancy at birth, and ecological footprint per capita. The exact function is a little more complex, but conceptually it approximates multiplying life satisfaction and life expectancy, and dividing that by the ecological footprint.” The light bright green ones are the countries at the top.  The brown ones are at the bottom. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happy_Planet_Index)

Now you may be thinking – well, the USA is so low because we use so many of the world’s resources – and that is factored in; and that certainly does make a difference.  But even if you just look at the life satisfaction surveys, we are at the VERY bottom.  How can this be?  And does it matter?

Is “being happy” important to us today in our complex world? Can we be happy? Should we strive to be happy?

His Holiness the Dalia Lama, exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, believes so – and shares his ideas with psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler, who incorporates them with some of his own perceptions in their book, The Art of Happiness:  A Handbook for Living. 

This book was recommended to me by Steven Rowe when I asked folks to share some “contemporary sacred texts” for me to use in my sermons.  Well, actually Steven recommended a whole slew of books – but this is the one that I chose.  I read the 10th Anniversary Edition published in 2009 – but it’s the same book as the original, with a different preface and introduction.  It took me a while to get through it – because I kept putting it down to read other things – then picking it back up.  Perhaps I needed time to digest it – or perhaps I wanted to really pursue happiness instead of reading about it.  But I did, indeed, find it helpful.  It was a good reminder to me of many things that I’ve perhaps learned through books like this – or more likely – through experience, through listening to others, and through thoughtful contemplation.  Now I’m not saying that I’ve already strongly developed “The Art of Happiness” – but I’m certainly a believer in many of these principles and do try to practice them.  I do not really identify as a Buddhist though.   I do not have the gift of faith in things like reincarnation or the gift of maintaining the spiritual practices that most would require to truly be able to claim that identity.  However, this book is not just for Buddhists – and in fact, the Dalai Lama says he does not believe that we should all be Buddhists.  This book has some gems for all of us – regardless of our theology or cosmology.  I only have a small amount of time – so I’m just going to share a few of those gems with you today.

Before I do though – I want to emphasize that when the Dalai Lama speaks of happiness, he is not talking about immediate pleasure or gratification.  Now there is nothing wrong necessarily with having some pleasure.  But the kind of happiness he is referring to would more likely be thought of by us as “joy” or “contentment” – a happiness that is more long lasting.  So that being said - I’d like to read something to you that the Dalai Lama wrote in the preface of this book – that does a good job of tying in his former encouragement that we work our state of mind – especially on compassion – with the latest research on happiness.  He says:

“Many years ago I wrote:  ‘If you want others to be happy practice compassion, and if you want yourself to be happy practice compassion.’  (Then he goes on to say) "Today, growing scientific data confirm this insight.  Researchers on human happiness identify compassionate service to others as one of the key characteristics shared by many of the world’s happiest people."

Now some of us may question his Holiness on this.  We may say something like:

But this correlation of compassion and happiness doesn’t necessarily show causality.  How do we know which comes first?  Does one become happy by being compassionate – or is it just that compassionate people are happier?

Yes, it’s the old chicken or egg question.

Well, the Dalai Lama responds to that question.  He says that on a practical level, it doesn’t matter.  The important question is:  “Can we cultivate both?”  And his answer is a resounding YES! And of course he and his co-author point out that the science does back that up more and more.

But sometimes we may wonder if it’s selfish to want to be happy. The Dalai Lama resists this idea.  He says that:  “I believe the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness.  That is clear.”
And of course he believes that happiness can be cultivated by training of the mind.

He further states that: “By bringing about a certain inner discipline, we can undergo a transformation of our attitude, our entire outlook and approach to living.” Now you’d have to read the entire book to see lots of the examples of this training, including meditative activities, prayers or reminders, intentional comparisons and acts of compassion, and much more.  But here’s a statement which kind of sums it up:  He says:

“Generally speaking, 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 which lead to happiness.  That is the way.” 

Or as Zen Teacher Geri Larken says:  Plant Seed, Pull Weed.

BUT WAIT – I Say – and you may say too!
Much suffering can’t just be eliminated --- “Stuff happens” – Isn’t that the first noble truth of Buddhism?

Oh yes, he spends a good bit of time discussing how we may deal with that kind of suffering – actually looking at it – feeling it – not denying it. But the Dalai Lama contends – and I agree – that many of us add to that suffering by nurturing feelings of bitterness, hatred, and anger, long after the pain should have subsided.  He has a whole chapter on self-created suffering; and others on eliminating anger and hatred and dealing with anxiety.  And that is the kind of suffering we CAN avoid if we train our minds to do so. 

Of course the Dalia Lama has had a lifetime of training – but he says it’s never too late.
Hallelujah!

One of the chapters that was especially meaningful to me was Chapter 10 on “Shifting Perspective.”   The Dalai Lama uses his own life as an example of the power of shifting perspective.  He says: “For example, in my own case, I lost my country.  From that viewpoint, is very tragic – and there are even worse things.  There’s a lot of destruction happening in our country.  That’s a very negative thing.  But if I look at the same event from another angle, I realize that as a refugee, I have another perspective.  As a refugee there is no need for formalities, ceremony, protocol.  If everything were status quo, if things were okay, then on a lot of occasions you merely go through the motions; you pretend.  But when you are passing through desperate situations, there’s no time to pretend.  So from that angle, this tragic experience has been very useful to me.  Also, being a refugee creates a lot of new opportunities for meeting with many people.  People from different religious traditions, from different walks of life, those who I may not have met had I remained in my country.  So in that sense it’s been very, very, useful.” 

He spends the rest of the chapter giving some insight into how we can work on even taking on the perspective of our enemies.  We can even remind ourselves that a harmful act from someone else give us an opportunity to practice patience and tolerance.  Now that does not mean that we do not stand up for what we feel is right.  But then how far do we take this – and what is the eventual result? 

Reading this book has caused me to question many things that I may say or do.  Is my action going to lead to my own long term happiness and the happiness of others?  Or is it just going to give me some gratification about getting even or something.  I am also trying to understand WHY someone may be saying something hurtful to me or someone else and attempt to understand their perspective and communicate with them from that shift in perspective.  

I’m not ready to necessarily “turn the other cheek” all the time – but I can see Jesus’ point.  Jesus was actually a pretty good Buddhist. 

Now -- another helpful exercise was the idea of thinking of good wishes for yourself, for your friends and those who may be more like enemies.  Can you wish them good things?  The authors of the book provide some ideas for cultivating the ability to do that with all folks – but for today, perhaps we can just start with ourselves and those of us here.

On Wednesday evening, I sent our listserv an email asking you to share words or phrases that you could share as wishes for other members and friends of UUFS for 2012.  Do you all have an envelope?  You can open it now and see what someone has wished for you for 2012.  

Hold it in your hand and in your heart. 

But we are not going to just keep these – we are going to pass on that happiness with a little ritual of sharing to close out my message time. 

Guided Ritual of Sharing Wishes
We’re going to sing “From you I receive to you I give – together we share, and from this we live.”  And I invite you to rise in body or spirit and share that paper with that wish as we sing with someone near you – so find a partner.  We’ll do this three times. 

NOTE:  For those READING this sermon, I'm sharing THREE of the wishes of our members and friends for you for 2012:
  1. To be present for your own life.
  2. Restful nights
  3. Simple pleasures.
Oh, may we all be so blessed.
And yes, let’s have a Happy New Year.

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