sunday life: in which the dalai lama tells me his secret to happiness

This week I meet the Dalai Lama.Dalai Lama

And can I be honest? The experience nearly turned me inside out, what with the three days of fretting beforehand. I’d been invited to meet His Holiness, the spiritual leader of the people of Tibet, and ask him, on behalf of all you lot, how to make life better. Seriously, what does a girl ask? What’s the one question that will cut straight to the fuggy, constipated, heart-sinky life angst that people like you and me experience when we drop our facades?

The dilemma left me awake for nights, my head spinning in circles, my thoughts grumbling back and forth like Statler and Waldorf in the opera box on The Muppet Show. Are we here to progress or to enjoy? Will the world end in 2012? How does one remain compassionate when Vodaphone’s Lara has had you locked in voice-recognition purgatory for 25 minutes? Do you sometimes wake up anxiously beige, for no reason, wracked with a vague sense of despair?

And so it came to pass that I sit down with arguably the world’s most influential spiritual leader, he kisses my hand and tosses his thongs, and I ask, “How do I get my mind to shut up?” To which His Holiness giggles and blows his nose on three paper serviettes, which he then shoves down the front of his robe, just like my Year 4 teacher, Mrs Makepeace (deadly serious!), used to do. “There’s no use,” he says finally. “Silly! Impossible to acheive! If you can do it, great. If not, waste of time.”

But surely you’re able to do it? “No.” What? “If I sit for a year on mountain, then maybe I do it. But no guarantee. Anyway, I don’t have time.” He’s committed his life to helping other people, the “practice of altruism”, he says. He has better things to do.

So, not to put too fine a point on it…


This is big. Silencing the mind is the aim of meditative practice, which, as a Buddhist for the past 70 years, I would’ve thought he’d have some familiarity with. But the Dalai Lama chose to answer as he did. And in this simple exchange he extends the most gentle, “don’t worry, you’re not alone” hug to all of us out there whose whirring thoughts keep us awake until 4am or reduce us to panic while trying to meditate or trash-talk us into agitated depression.

And therein lies the great man’s power. I’ve heard him speak before and read a few of his books. His broad aim, to my mind, is to remind humanity that we’re OK. To get us to back off ourselves. And then, kindly, steer us toward more fruitful endeavours, like helping others and causing less harm.

To be sure, the Dalai Lama likes a chat. He tells me that it’s not good to deny the uglier sides of our human being-ness, like anger. (Does the Dalai Lama get angry? “Oh, hoo, he, he, hoo, yes!”) “To think anger is wrong destroys peace of mind, it’s not a solid basis, ” he says. “It makes things worse.” To crudely paraphrase, he advises that instead of fighting anger, we focus on cultivating patience and compassion. This thinking has always appealed to my belief that we’re better at progressing forward with action, rather than stopping or denying ourselves (I’ve written about this here before). It ‘s more akin to life’s magical flow. We cultivate these qualities, he stresses, over time. And gradually they become stronger than the ugly qualities.

Contemplate, he says. Reflect and stand back from a situation as often as possible and look for the positive perspective. And prioritise peace of mind. So that we can contemplate some more. And with more steadiness. “It’s like building up immune system,” he says. “You make it strong by contemplating compassion and patience so that when the germs and virus – like anger and hatred – come, they don’t affect you as much.” That is, it’s not about quick-fixes applied draconianly in the heat of the angry moment. It’s about steady practice. Which suddenly makes me feel OK about my human-beingness.

The Dalai Lama didn’t really give me the answer I’d been looking for. But as he once said, “Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.”

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