“The Art of Happiness: A handbook for living” – A book review
“The Art of Happiness: A handbook for living” – A book review
The Dalai Lama (TDL) and American psychiatrist Howard Cutler wrote this book in 1998. It consists of five parts: The Purpose of Life, Human Warmth and Compassion, Transforming Suffering, Overcoming Obstacles, and Closing Reflections on Living a Spiritual Life.
This book is an attempt to summarize the Mahayana Buddhist approach to achieving happiness and compassion in ways that make these qualities accessible to a largely secular, Western audience. Dr. Cutler interviewed TDL over many months about his modern interpretations of this Mahayana approach. Howard Cutler simultaneously provides a Western framework for readers so we can grasp its teachings without too much knowledge of ancient Buddhist precepts and TDL’s interpretations. However, TDL is a savvy observer of most things Western, and comes close to bridging the gap between the two worlds with the exception of the lived experience of marriage and sexual relations. Dr. Cutler knows more than the average American as he studied Tibetan medicine. The book clearly forms many strong parallels between Tibetan Buddhist practice and wisdom, and Western scientific, medical, and psychotherapeutic findings around living the compassionate life.
According to TDL, the purpose of life is happiness. The big question is how to achieve it? It is not easy but possible. TDL’s basic beliefs are: the fundamental gentleness and goodness of all people; the value of compassion, kindness, and a sense of commonality among all beings, which is based on sound reasoning and direct experience, and being optimistic and realistic. He says whether we are religious or not, we all seek something better in life, which is happiness. This is based on training the “mind” in the Tibetan sense: intellect and feeling, heart and mind. This results in inner discipline and then a transformation of attitude, outlook, and approach to living.
TDL is asked what leads to happiness and to suffering? He recommends eliminating the factors that lead to suffering, and cultivating those that lead to happiness as our days are numbered. Happy people are more social, flexible, creative, and tolerant of life’s ups and downs, which can lead to openness, a willingness to reach out and help others.
Happiness is determined by more the state of one’s mind than external events. Feelings of contentment are strongly influenced by our tendency to compare. Our mental outlook is supreme in determining whether we live a happy life or not. Happiness is not simple, as it has many levels.
Peace of mind is rooted in affection and compassion, which in turn creates a high level of sensitivity and feeling. How does one achieve inner contentment? We have two choices: we can try to obtain everything we want, which is rarely possible at best, or, to want and appreciate what we have–also known as “enoughness.”
Another internal source of happiness, closely linked to a sense of contentment, is a sense of self-worth. This can be derived from relating to fellow humans as we are one, and that bond can become a source of consolation in the event that we lose everything.
The highest form of happiness is when we reach the stage of Liberation, at which there is no more suffering. That’s genuine, lasting happiness, which relates more to the mind and heart. Epicurus acknowledged the importance of common sense and moderation, recognizing over-indulgence can lead to pain, even disaster.
Once our basic needs are met, the message is clear: We have a mind, which is all we need to achieve complete happiness. The first step is learning; studying how to use our mind to seek happiness. We need to clearly identify different mental states and make a distinction as to whether they lead to happiness or not. Negative states of mind, such as hatred, jealousy, and anger, are harmful as they destroy our mental happiness. If we maintain a feeling of compassion, then something opens our inner door to communicating much more easily with others, and that feeling creates openness. We will find all humans are just like us, so we will be able to relate to them more easily and create a spirit of friendship. With that, there is more transparency; less fear, self-doubt and insecurity; and in turn, more trustworthiness.
Emotions are either positive or negative, and they can be categorized on the basis of whether they lead to ultimate happiness. Achieving genuine happiness requires a transformation in our outlook, our way of thinking. This is not simple and requires many different approaches. Change takes time. No matter what is our pursuit, it is all made easier through relentless training and practice; through this we can change and transform ourselves. Our brains are endlessly adaptable.
Education is important, as knowledge does not come naturally. We have to go through systematic training. Although human nature is basically compassionate and gentle, we must also develop a deep appreciation of that, and change how we perceive ourselves through understanding and learning. All this will impact how we interact with others and conduct daily life. The most important use of education and knowledge is to help us appreciate the importance of engaging our minds in more wholesome actions and with greater mental discipline. The proper use of our education is to create changes from within to develop a good heart.
We are made to seek happiness–love, affection, closeness and compassion are important to us. The underlying nature of humans is gentleness, not aggression. Compassion and affection is indispensable to daily life, which begins at birth with mother and child, as they are calming and good for our well being. Negative feelings of fear, frustration, agitation, and anger are mostly bad for our health. Conflicts are a result of human intellect, not human nature. Intelligence needs to be balanced with compassion; otherwise it can be destructive and disastrous.
When we combine a warm heart with education and knowledge, we can learn to develop respect for other’s rights and views. If human conflicts are created by human intelligence, it can also be used to resolve these conflicts. When intelligence and goodness are combined, all actions become constructive–we can learn to respect other’s views and rights. This can lead to a reconciliatory spirit that can be used to overcome aggression and resolve conflicts.
Leading scientists state we do not have an inherited tendency towards violence, as it is not part of human nature. The inclination to bond closely with others and to act for the welfare of all was developed long ago when we needed to become a part of a group in order to survive. This need is with us to this day. These scientists also discovered those who lack close ties tend to suffer from poor health, deep unhappiness and more stress. Reaching out to help others may be as basic to our nature as communicating.
One simple truth is woven through the discussions in this book: The purpose of our life is happiness. When life gets overwhelming, it is important to step back and remind ourselves of our overall purpose in life–what will make us truly happy in life. This can put our life into proper perspective and clears the way as to which direction to take. The cultivation of happiness in a systematic manner can profoundly transform the rest of our lives.
As life is short and unpredictable, it is crucial that we use our time wisely. We are alive with hope, even without a guarantee of our future. TDL believes the best use of our time is this: Serve other beings; if not, at least do no harm. That is the whole basis of his philosophy. He asks: What is truly valuable in life, and what gives meaning to our lives? We should set our priorities on the basis of the answers to those two questions.
The purpose of our life needs to be positive by developing fundamental positive human qualities–warmth, kindness, compassion. Then our life becomes meaningful and more powerful–happier. The art of happiness has many parts. It begins with developing an understanding of the best sources of happiness and creating our life priorities based on cultivation of those sources. It encompasses inner discipline, the gradual process of rooting out destructive mental states and replacing them with positive, constructive ones, such as kindness, tolerance and forgiveness. The final steps can lead to a full and satisfying life in spirituality.
TDL believes it is critical to appreciate our potential and recognize the importance of inner transformation. This is best accomplished through a process of mental development–a spiritual dimension in our life. There are two types of spirituality: Religious beliefs and mental development, which can be used 24 hours a day.
True spirituality is a mental attitude that we can practice at any time or place. We ground this practice by investigating the fundamental nature of reality and by contemplating impermanence, suffering, and the value of altruism and compassion.
TDL says this is basic spirituality, which is even more important than religion as we are all members of the human family, and we all need these basic spiritual values, everyday.