Saturday, January 29, 2011

Book Response: The Art of Happiness

I recently finished reading The Art of Happiness, a Handbook for Living by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C Cutler, M.D.  The book is one of a series that made the New York Times and other bestseller lists.  In it, Howard Cutler relates a series of conversations he had with the Dalai Lama and his own musings, as a psychiatrist, about them.

While my own highlights and notes tended to be quotes from the Dalai Lama, Cutler's comments and stories give the book a more practical and human feel than books written by His Holiness alone. (For psychology wonks like me, it's fun to read parallels between Buddhist philosophy and psychological theories.)

The ideas that stayed with me are simple but powerful:
  • The purpose of our life is to seek happiness.
  • Happiness can be achieved through training the mind.
  • Happiness gives us long term satisfaction and should not be confused with pleasure which is short-term.
  • Developing compassion is important to our mental and physical health and our relationships with others.
  • Cultivating basic spiritual values – goodness, kindness, compassion, caring – is critical to our own happiness and creates a less troubled society.
American culture is excited by the idea of happiness, but we don't think of it as something we can learn or choose. Rather, it is something that comes and goes in our lives as outward circumstances change. Buddhist philosophy is that positive states of mind can act as direct antidotes to negative states of mind.

"One begins by identifying those factors which lead to happiness," says His Holiness, "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."

"Easier said than done," snarls my monster mind. Then I read about the meditation exercises practiced by Tibetan Buddhists.I remember the comments of a friend who visited Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama settled after fleeing Tibet in 1959. She resisted comments of others who characterized Tibetans as "a happy people," but found herself thinking the same thing: "these people are so happy."

Being diagnosed with a progressive incurable illness seemed like an invitation to unhappiness. I suppose that I have been, ever since, trying to find a way to say "will not attend." Western psychology has given me some tools (such as cognitive therapy, visualization and creative expression) with which to make a different choice. This book reminded me of – or introduced me to – another set of tools, varieties of Buddhist meditations, that can redirect the motion of my life toward happiness.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Frugal Enthusiast

A nine-month-old has inspired me to describe myself in a new way. My newest creative experiment is to think of myself as a frugal enthusiast.

Charles Vachon posted a time lapse video of his nine-month-old son, Charles-Edward, as he played on the floor. Four hours of play were condensed into about two minutes of "synaptic exuberance."

Baby Edward's curiosity and sensory involvement are glorious to watch. Robert Krulwich, writing about the video on NPR's Sciencey Blog concludes,
"babies go wild making connections and then, as we grow into our preferences, our personalities, life is like a scalpel. We slowly shed what we don't need or use or want. Having watched Edward for those time lapsed four hours, it's hard to imagine what he’s going to give up later in life but he's got to give up something. We all do."

My mother will turn 90 this year. She was describing how much more difficult it was this year to pack away the Christmas decorations. She just doesn't have the energy or stamina she used to have.

Though I am 40 years younger than she, I find myself in a similar situation. The natural losses of aging are compounded in my body by chronic illness.

We all have to give up something. The trick, of course, is to do it gracefully.

In the late '80s I watched a television show called "The Frugal Gourmet." Host Jeff Smith cooked good-tasting food prepared with an eye toward budget and prudent use of ingredients.

I love Baby Edward's engagement in the world. I remember the childhood feeling of wanting to do everything, to try everything. There is a piece of that I don't want to give up.

On the other hand, at my time of life, conscious choices are my allies. In a metaphorical Baby Edward's world, if I spend too much time kicking the oval basket, I may lose energy before I get to crawl under the chair in the corner. As we age, we get better at seeing our options. As a person dealing with chronic illness, I have to take a step back, consider the universe of choices and set priorities. If that chair is important, I better visit it first.

So I have arrived at the phrase "the frugal enthusiast." Frugal because I need to be economical, not wasteful, in my expenditure of energy. Enthusiast because I want to be a person active in interest. I would rather get excited about things for seconds than be bored for hours.