Therefore, they can be overcome.
The same applies to the feelings of unhappiness, anxiety, discontent, frustration, uncertainty, and depression that plague the modern world despite all our material wealth and conveniences.
None of this is permanent or unsolvable.
In the first article of this series on Inner and Outer Harmony, the Dalai Lama concludes – based on the pervasive discontent he has observed in developed countries – that material wealth does not bring happiness. He says that science, technology, and knowledge on their own – although important - also have not and cannot solve the world’s problems.
He points out how the very structure of modern life is now geared toward creating a greater illusion of autonomy and independence. This has lead to an increase in loneliness and alienation and a diminishing ability to express basic human affection – causing further problems and adding to our challenges.
When we look carefully at all these external problems, he argues, we see they are all fundamentally ethical problems. He says,
“They each reflect our understanding of what is right and wrong, of what is positive and what is negative, of what is appropriate and inappropriate. But beyond this we can point to something more fundamental: a neglect of what I call our inner dimension.”
“A revolution is called for, certainly, But not a political, an economic, or even a technical revolution. We have had enough experience of these during the past century to know that a purely external approach will not suffice. What I propose is a spiritual revolution.”
What is a spiritual revolution?
A spiritual revolution is not a religious revolution. The Dalai Lama clearly distinguishes between religion and spirituality. He defines spirituality in this way,
“Spirituality, I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit – such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony, which bring happiness to both self and other. These inner qualities need not be connected to religion.”
While religion might encompass spirituality, religion is not required for the cultivation of a kind heart.
All the positive qualities of the human spirit can be nourished with practice and become a springboard for consistently acting out of concern for the welfare of others. This is how the Dalai Lama defines spiritual practice and it is not necessarily connected with religion. He says we might be able to do without religion, but we cannot survive without these basic spiritual qualities.
A Concern for Others
The single characteristic common to all these positive qualities of the human spirit is a concern for the well-being of others.
With this underlying motivation, you are cognizant of the potential impact of your behavior on others and adjust your actions accordingly. As much as possible, you try to help and you try to avoid harming.
Just like you naturally feel love for your own child, you can grow love and compassion for all beings with practice.
In order to change the world for the better, the Dalai Lama proposes a reawakening of these basic human values like compassion, patience, forgiveness, and the others mentioned above along with,
“…a radical reorientation away form our habitual preoccupation with self. It is a call to turn toward the wider community of beings with whom we are connected, and for conduct which recognizes others’ interests alongside our own.”
That’s right – we need to give up our self-centeredness if we want to see a better world. Paradoxically, reducing our self-absorption and over-focus on our own “needs” brings greater happiness. Remember, all those shiny, bright new things are not bringing us a meaningful sense of contentment or lasting happiness.
Being “good” actually pays off. When we look closely at the impact of our actions, we will see time and again that helping others, helps you. Whereas harming others, harms you. This is the logical behind the Dalai Lama’s advice to be “wisely selfish.” Ultimately, helping is in one’s own self-interest as is avoiding harmful actions. Thus the age-old adage, “What comes around, goes around.”
The sense of ethics the Dalai Lama proposes is not a prescriptive one, but a natural expression of a heart-felt concern for others.
By definition love, compassion, and other basic spiritual qualities that presume some level of concern for others also presuppose ethical restraint. Ethical conduct is not something we engage in only because it is prescribed or coerced, but because of the heart-felt concern we feel for others. This is how spirituality and ethics are interconnected even when religion is not in play.
There is no formulaic approach to ethics that can provide an answer for every possible ethical dilemma.
Instead, the Dalai Lama proposes that we take as a starting point the observation that we all wish to be happy and that we all wish to avoid suffering. He suggests that one determinant of whether an act is ethical is its effect on another person’s experience or expectation of happiness. An act which diminishes happiness is potentially an unethical one.
Ultimately, it is our motivation or intention that drives and inspires our action. Therefore, it is our motivation – the overall state of one’s heart and mind – when we act that is key to determining the ethics of an action.
The aim of spiritual and, therefore, ethical practice is thus to transform and perfect one’s motivation. When our motivation is positive, wholesome action follows. Perfecting our motivation is how we become better human beings. It is key to living consciously.
Perfecting Our Motivation
1. Take time to establish your motivation each day – the wish to help and the desire not to harm. For example, every morning make a conscious heart-felt aspiration to help and not to harm in all that you do that day.
2. Check you motivation and your actions throughout the day.
Make conscious choices. Consider how each of your actions will affect others – not just those close to you but your community and the whole world around you. For example, when it comes to buying a new product, consider its impact on the environment. Mindful consumption is an expression of a good heart.
Re-establish your positive motivation if you feel it waning at any point during the day.
3. Use challenging encounters and situations to cultivate positive qualities like love, compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness, and to diminish harmful qualities like anger, hatred, greed, attachment, and so on.
4. Gently encourage positive qualities in others without succumbing to judgment.
5. Briefly examine your actions at the end of each day. Celebrate the positive ones. Acknowledge the harmful ones. Learn from them. Consider how you might have handled a situation differently. But don’t be harsh with yourself! Re-commit to positive motivation and to expressing it through positive actions.
The more you transform your heart and mind through this simple approach the happier you will become. Your actions will naturally become positive and you will be contributing to creating a better world for everyone else at the same time.
Practical Solutions Are Also Necessary
The Dalai Lama is not suggesting that cultivating positive spiritual values alone will make all the problems in the world automatically disappear. Each challenge needs its own practical solution as well. For example, climate change isn’t going to reverse itself simply because we are nice to each other. We need to change our consumption habits too. However, having a deep concern for the well-being of others is the motivation that can wake us up and spur us to do so.
A spiritual revolution can’t solve all our problems on its own, but without such a revolution of the spirit, there is no hope of achieving a lasting solution to our problems at all.
Do you feel an inner revolution is crucial to changing the world?
This series A Simple Guide to Inner and Outer Harmony is based on Ethics for a New Millennium by the Dalai Lama
- Part 1: The Key to Building a Better World
- Part 2: The Revolution Begins Within
- Part 3: The Heart of Reality
- Part 4: Happiness Is An Inside Job
- Part 5: A Magical Recipe for the Supreme Emotion
Image of the Dalai Lama from his Facebook Page.
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