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Attempting to Take the Dalai Lama’s Advice to Heart

I began to feel better last week after my first interview and I quickly fell right back into my happiness exploration, but by the end of the week things took a turn for the worse. I again became preoccupied by my unhappiness and seemed unable to recall or utilize any of the happiness philosophies and meditations I have been reading about for so long.

This brings me to something that Anne and I spoke at length about during our last meeting: how difficult (and often seemingly impossible) it is to continue to work towards your happiness when crisis strikes. All of the authors we have read so far have touched on this very issue. They all recommend spending as much time as possible working to fortify yourself against the hard times during the goods times. This is a piece of advice I’ve been trying to take to heart over the last year and I think, although it’s hard to believe while I’m in the thick of sadness, that this effort has served me well.

In the Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama, he speaks of learning to let go of the worries that you can not do anything to change, to not waste your time dwelling on things out of your control.   Anne and I talked about this for a long time in the context of anger. I don’t think of myself as an angry person generally, but one thing the Art and my talk with Anne has reminded me is that all people have anger about something. Anger is an emotion that really only comes into play for me when I am worried about other people. I have a very hard time getting angry for myself, mostly in that case I just get really sad. That’s what I am currently going through now. Intense sadness and confusion. I’m trying so hard to take the Dalai Lama’s advice and let go of what I can do nothing about, but it is much harder in practice than in theory. I’m sure this is something I’ll have to continue working on for the rest of my life.

Working on this blog post is definitely a step in the right direction. It’s the first time that I’ve really been able to accomplish anything this week. That’s something to be proud of.

(from Anne:) I’m very grateful to Alex for enticing me into the reading of these texts about Buddhism; I’m now finding the exercises in Hanson and Mendius’s workbook, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom of great use. As we discussed in our last conference, what both Alex and I want to get out of this shared project is  a greater sense of well-being in our own lives, so the most important ‘homework’ we can be doing is trying out the lessons of these texts in various concrete ways. This is not theoretical–or not only theoretical!–work; the test of its efficacy is whether it makes a differences in how we feel about ourselves and the world in which we live. This most recent book is all about the power we have over ourselves–the power to change what-and-how we are thinking. So: I’m on it.

Here are the passages in Hanson and Mendius which I found most useful:

  • Suffering is not abstract or conceptual. It’s embodied; you feel it in your body, and it proceeds through bodily mechanisms. Understanding the physical machinery of suffering will help you see it increasingly as an impersonal condition (p. 51, my emphasis)
  • Throughout all of this, keep in mind the big picture, the 1,000 foot view. See the impermanence of whatever is at issue, and the many causes and conditions that led to it…. Over the long haul, most of what we argue about with others really doesn’t matter that much (p. 153, my emphasis).
  • Try to decouple your thoughts from the other person’s. Tell yourself: She’s over there and I’m over here. Her mind is separate from my mind (p. 164).
  • [this exercise is really the key for me!]: The Ten Thousand Things
    *Pick a situation in which you feel someone has wronged you.
    *Reflect on some of the various causes–the ten thousand things–that have led this person to act in the way that he has…the historical events and other upstream forces that have formed the river of causes flowing through his life today (pp. 165-166).
  • have faith that others will pay their own price one day for what they’ve done. You don’t have to be the justice system (p. 168).
  • Wishing well to microoganisms of all kinds, the amoebas, the bacteria, even the viruses: may every living being be at ease (p. 172).
  • Concentration is the natural ally of insight…We find ourselves in a forest of ignorance and need a sharp machete to clear a path to liberating understanding: insight makes the blade shape and concentration gives it power…. Monkey mind is the traditional, critical term for skittish attention–this is exactly what helped our ancestors stay alive. Or consider open awareness meditation, where you practice choiceless awareness of whatever comes to mind without becoming engaged by it; this is equally contrary to our evolutionary nature (p. 191-192).
  • subjectivity arises from the inherent distinction between this body and that world…subjectivity is generated … in the ongoing interactions the body has with the world …. Then the brain indexes across moments of subjectivity to create an apparent subject…. But there is no subject inherent in subjectivity… from neurological standpoint the everyday feeling of being a unified self is an utter illusion: the apparently coherent and solid “I” is actually built from many subsystems and sub-subsystems over the course of development,  with no fixed center, and the fundamental sense that there is a subject of experience is fabricated from myriad, disparate moments of subjectivity …. It’s not so much that we have a self, it’s that we do self-ing. As Buckminster Fuller famously said, “I seem to be a verb” (210-211, 213).
  • It’s a wonderful paradox that as individual things–such as the self–feel increasingly groundless and unreliable, the totality of everything feels increasingly safe and comforting (p 221, my emphasis).

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Revisting Story of a Soul at Exploring Happiness linked to this post on March 8, 2011

    […] I think I am fairly successful at following it (of course like everyone, there are exceptions…see this post). But I also recognize that I am lucky in this respect; I do not get angry by nature. I am just not […]