From Spirituality & Health -- The Soul/Body Connection

Despite exile and persecution, His Holiness the Dalai Lama maintains a buoyant spirit and the low blood pressure of a child. In this conversation with T George Harris, the founding editor of Psychology Today and American Health, held at the Trappist monastery Gethsemane in the hills of Kentucky, the Dalai Lama reveals the spiritual practices that sustain him.

In one of your books you talk about a secular spirituality. How much of a health component does that have?

Everybody wants a happy, successful life. Of course, external conditions are important, but I think that for a happy life, a happy family, and a happy community, much depends on our mental attitude. The key factor, I feel, is human compassion, a sense of caring for one another.

Sometimes, when we talk about the value of compassion and forgiveness and love, people get the impression these are religious matters: When people have religious faith, these things are important; otherwise, they aren’t relevant. That kind of attitude, I think, is due to ignorance or lack of awareness, and I feel it’s dangerous.

"Basically, a human being is a social animal. So, if you create some short moment of happiness for people, you get deep satisfaction."

Generally speaking, in advanced societies, the education facility is excellent. But there is a lack of something here in the heart. Sometimes, the brilliant brain can create more suffering, more trouble. So the smart brain must be balanced with a warm heart, a good heart--a sense of responsibility, of concern for the well-being of others. An individual who has this good quality automatically becomes calmer and more peaceful. So these values might promote deeper human values, not necessarily religious faith.

They also promote health. The American Medical Association Journal is doing a series of reports saying that American doctors should use meditation and relaxation therapies in combination with regular medication and surgery for most common ailments. A lot of this research was inspired by your work.

What I believe, according to my own experience, is that a calm, peaceful mind is a very important element for sustaining the body in a balanced way. When you lose your temper, immediately you feel uncomfortable. Eventually, you lose your digestion and sleep. You have to rely more and more on tranquilizers. So, whether you are a believer or a non-believer, the peaceful mind in daily life is very, very important.

I also consider human activities. Whether these activities are constructive or destructive, depends on mental attitude. If the motivation is negative, even religion becomes dirty religion. If your mental attitude is right, then human actions become useful and constructive. So the mind is very important. I think that in the medical field, more and more people may now realize this. Maybe.

How do you achieve this peaceful mind?

Analyze the situation. For example, a serious pain. Think about the pain. If there is a way to overcome that pain, then there’s no need to worry, because there’s a way. If there’s no way to overcome it, then no use to worry too much--you can’t do anything! [laughs] Then it’s very useful to make a comparison to some past experience or some other possibility of even bigger pain. Immediately, you get the feeling, "Oh, compared to that, today’s pain is easier."

So, you see, mental attitude toward the object is very crucial. Even a small event, if you are looking at it very closely, appears very big, beyond your control. If you look from a different angle, from a distance, the same problem seems smaller.

It’s worst in the middle of the night. In your own work, what kinds of meditation and prayer are you focusing on?

According to different religious traditions, there are different methods. For example, a Christian practitioner may meditate on God’s grace, God’s infinite love. This is a very powerful concept in order to achieve peace of mind. A Buddhist practitioner may be thinking about relative nature and also Buddha-nature. This is also very useful. I’m a Buddhist monk, so I’m practicing according to this teaching.

But my main concern is for ordinary people who have no particular beliefs. We must find ways and means for these people. I believe each human being has the potential to change, to transform one’s own attitude, no matter how difficult the situation. We are human beings, and we have this marvelous brain and marvelous heart, so there is potential to develop a proper mental attitude, through which we can have a happy, more peaceful life.

I think the remarkable thing we’re observing now among those in Tibet--monks, as well as lay persons who have some experience with Buddhist teaching and practice--is that when these people are passing through a traumatic period, the standard of mental peace always remains. After long periods of difficulties and tragic experiences, these people remain very calm minded.

One of my close friends spent, I think, 18 years in a Chinese prison and labor camp. In the early '80s, they allowed him to come to India. On occasion, he and I discuss his experiences in various Chinese labor camps. And he told me that during those periods, on a few occasions he faced danger. I asked what kind of danger, and his response was, "Oh, danger of losing compassion for the Chinese." [laughs] That kind of mental attitude is, I think, a key factor to sustain peace of mind.

We have rising evidence that anger is one of the great killers, not of the people it’s directed at, but of the people who have the anger. You of all people have wrestled with this problem, but you have the low blood pressure of a child. How do you do this?

That’s my secret. [laughs] As I mentioned before, when I see and I hear some sort of tragic situation, I always try to make comparison with the possibility of some event or some past experience and to look from different angles. For example, we lost our country and endured a lot of destruction. If I look only from that angle, then, of course, the sadness increases. No use. But, you see, the same event, looked at from another angle: "Oh, yes, because of this tragedy, because we became refugees, I have many new opportunities for meeting with different people."

You see, my practice is to try to lead a useful existence. That means, if you engage in some service to others, give at least a short moment of happiness to others, including animals, then you get the feeling "Now I did something good. My existence has become something purposeful."

After all, the purpose of life is happiness. That’s my fundamental belief. To achieve happiness, good food, good shelter, good friends, are part of the source of happiness, but the main thing is deep mental satisfaction. That comes if you make yourself available to others and serve others. Basically, a human being is a social animal. So, if you create some short moment of happiness for people, you get deep satisfaction. You get fulfillment of your existence.

Originally published in "Spirituality & Health--The Soul/Body Connection (R)."

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