When my wife found out that I was going to be reading a book by the Dalai Lama, she remarked “I think if you ever met the Dalai Lama, you’d get along with him really well.” After reading through The Art of Happiness, I think I can see why: though I am not technically a Buddhist, I share a great deal of the same philosophy and perspective on existence as the Dalai Lama. That said, a shared outlook does not necessarily make for a good book — in may ways (especially in scholastic or intellectual capacities), the sign of a good book is one that makes you want to argue with the author, to sit down and point out all the reasons why they are wrong. But that isn’t the only criteria for a good book, and The Art of Happiness manages to succeed in other ways.
The format of the book is fairly straightforward: it is a collection of talks between Howard Cutler (the co-author and narrator of the book, also a licensed and practicing psychiatrist), and the Dalai Lama, both in his residence in Dharmsala, India, and various locations in Arizona. This collection is then broken down first into sections (“The Purpose of Life”, “Human Warmth and Compassion”, “Transforming Suffering”, and “Overcoming Obstacles”), then into chapters, closing with some final reflection on the nature of spirituality and basic spiritual values. Cutler augments the conversations with anecdotes and corroborating scientific evidence concerning various points that the Dalai Lama made in his talks. I found his writing in the beginning to be a little forced, but it feels like he came into his own as he got further into the material (concordantly, I was also getting more into the material), leading to this being a fairly quick read, even weighing in at 300+ pages.
The overtone of the entire book was one of compassion, and the development and nurturing of that trait. The Dalai Lama comments several times throughout the book of the necessity for compassion for all things, and that it is through this compassion that we connect both with other people and with our own spirituality. Distilled into one phrase, his statement was “Compassion is the key to genuine happiness.” My initial response to this realization was “Well, of course.” I’ve long held the belief that it is through helping others that we really begin to know ourselves and our true nature.
I definitely became more interested as the book went along: the subjects became far more topical to me on a personal level when they began to discuss suffering, self-image, anxiety, and spirituality. Concerning anxiety and worry, I found this quote particularly interesting:
If the situation or problem can be remedied, then there is no need to worry about it… Alternatively, if there is no way out, no solution, no possibility of resolution, then there is also no point in being worried about it, because you can’t do anything about it anyway. (Dalai Lama, 268)
The thing that I found most interesting about this quote isn’t just the quote, but how much it reminded me of my own philosophy for a long time. I used to see people stressing about things unnecessarily, and would try to convince them that it would all work out as it needed to work out, that it wasn’t worth injuring your mind or health about. It is a bit frustrating to realize that I’ve become so wrapped up in worrying and rushing, myself. A change in outlook is definitely in order.
On the subject of spirituality, the Dalai Lama really helped to give a clear working definition that I think I can really get along with. “True Spirituality is a mental attitude that you can practice at any time.” (Dalai Lama, 299) This really helped calm me down a great deal; I was becoming increasingly agitated by my perceived lack of current spirituality, and increasingly more anxious about finding a formal time to set aside for things of a spiritual or religious nature. This one phrase really helped me snap out of it, to realize that I’d been making mountains out of molehills, adding a level of formality that had at no point actually been required or even asked of me.
Instead, I need to work towards slowing myself down, organizing my time better so that I’m not constantly trying to do too many things at once. Simplify, and regain my former sense of composure and appreciation for all things. It isn’t a matter of setting aside time to do so, it’s a matter of BEING. Just be who I want to be. Work hard to achieve the things I want to achieve, yes, but stop beating myself up over the things I fail to do in time. I need to learn to let go and be myself, whoever that is. My mind is turbulent and muddy: it is time to clear the waters.
The Dalai Lama; Cutler, Howard C. The Art of Happiness. Riverhead Books.