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The Heart of Reality

Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama

Are you ready for a mind-bending exercise in perception?

Turn your brain onto high for the next few moments as we explore the nature of reality.

This is why: according to the Dalai Lama, the way we perceive the world has a tremendous impact on our behavior. If we misperceive the nature of reality, we are more prone to act in ways that will harm ourselves and others.

In Part 1 of this series A Simple Guide to Inner and Outer Harmony, the Dalai Lama reviewed the man-made challenges we face today and concluded that only a spiritual revolution can fully change the world. We need to take practical action too, but without a spiritual revolution, there is no hope.

In Part 2, the Dalai Lama clarified precisely what he means by a “spiritual revolution” – the rekindling of basic human values like kindness, compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness among others. These qualities of the human spirit need not be linked to religion. They can be cultivated by one and all.

In today’s post, we will explore the Dalai Lama’s view of the nature of reality to illustrate how we are all inextricably linked for better or for worse.  Therefore, your interest and my interest are intimately connected.  Understanding this is the secret to finding our own happiness and changing the world for the better.

Why We Misperceive the World

Hang on tight. We are going to dive into the realm of philosophy and and touch on physics to understand why interrelatedness is a natural law of the universe.

The Dalai Lama’s view of reality is based on the idea of dependent origination found in Buddhist philosophy, but also supported, at least to some degree, by quantum and probability theory. In short, the origin of phenomena is dependent on causes and conditions. Nothing exists independently in its own right.

The Dalai Lama says that we misperceive the world because our tendency is to narrow in on specific parts of an event or experience. We then take that narrow view to be all of reality. Reality however is infinitely complex and vast.

The philosophy of dependent origination helps us to understand this complexity. It explains that phenomena – material things as well as the movements of mind – come about in three ways.

1. Due to the principle of cause and effect – phenomena arise due to interrelated causes and conditions. Nothing can come into existence or remain in existence on its own. Its origin is dependent on causes and conditions.

The Dalai Lama uses the example of a pot which comes about due to many factors, including the work of the potter, the clay, the water – among other factors. There are also the molecules, atoms, and other tiny particles that make up the pot. The pot does not magically come into existence independently, on its own.

2. There is a mutual dependence that exists between parts and a whole; parts and wholes cannot exist without each other. Parts are their own whole that consists of parts.

3. All phenomena lack independent identity. There is no single characteristic which can be said to identify the pot or any other thing. The clay alone is not the pot. The water alone is not the pot and so on. When you really look, you will never be able to actually find this thing called “pot.” The word “pot” is simply a verbal designation.

The Dalai Lama applies the same principle to consciousness. You can’t pinpoint consciousness. It is not an independently existing entity. “…consciousness is more like a construct which arises out of a spectrum of complex events.”

Time is another good example of a label that is merely a convention. You can’t pinpoint the present moment. As soon as we speak the word, the present moment is gone.

Changing our Whole Perspective

Understanding this view of reality has the power to change our whole perspective. The Dalai Lama explains,

“…when we come to see that everything we perceive and experience arises as a result of an indefinite series of interrelated causes and conditions, our whole perspective changes. We begin to see that the universe we inhabit can be understood in terms of a living organism where each cell works in balanced cooperation with every other cell to sustain the whole. If then, just one of these cells is harmed, as when disease strikes, that balance is harmed and there is danger to the whole. This in turn, suggests that our individual well-being is intimately connected both with that of all others and with the environment within which we live. It also becomes apparent that our every action, our every deed, word, and thought, no matter how slight or inconsequential it may seem, has an implication not only for ourselves but for others, too.”

In short, if I harm you, it harms me.

Understanding dependent origination helps us to diminish our tendency to see what occurs both around us and in our mind as “solid, independent, discrete entities.” It is this tendency that causes us to exaggerate one or two aspects of an experience, see them as the whole experience, and neglect the full complexities.

For example, if we perceive someone as harming us, we may focus intently on our perception of harm and feel the urge to harm back. But if we understand this view of reality, we understand that harming in return only perpetuates further harm and is not in one’s best interest.  We also understand that the “harm” in question came about due to several different causes and conditions and not one factor or individual alone.

This view of reality challenges us to stop seeing events and experiences as black and white. Instead it shows us how to see them as a “complex interlinking of relationships.”

Extending Our View of Self

InterconnectednessIf phenomena cannot exist independently, even the “self” cannot be said to exist in the way we normally believe it does. If we investigate and try to find the “self” through self-analysis, we will only find there is no “real” self to be found.

The “self” – the one that we cherish and protect so strongly – is simply another construct or label that we apply to a collection of parts. The habitual distinction we make between “self” and “others” is to some extent an exaggeration.

This doesn’t mean we don’t exist. We exist, but not in the way that we think we do – not as an independently existing self. The idea and label of “self” is a handy convention for relating in the world, but it is not an accurate picture of reality.

“When we say that things and events can only be established in terms of their dependently originating nature, that they are without intrinsic reality, existence, or identity, we are not denying the existence of phenomena altogether. The “identylessness” of phenomena points rather to the way in which things exist: not independently but in a sense interdependently.”

The distinction we make between self and others is primarily due to conditioning. We could just as easily extend the concept of our “self” to include others. You are part of me and I am part of you. Just as we extend our identity when we consider we are part of a family or a part of a particular heritage like being American, Canadian, or French.

“If the self had intrinsic identity, it would be possible to speak in terms of self-interest in isolation from that of others’. But this is not so, because self and others can only really be understood in terms of relationship, we see that self-interest and others’ interest are closely interrelated. Indeed, within this picture of dependently originated reality, we see that there is no self-interest completely unrelated to others’ interests. Due to the fundamental interconnectedness which lies at the heart of reality, your interest is also my interest. From this, it becomes clear that “my” interest and “your” interest are intimately connected. In a deep sense, they converge.”

The idea of dependent origination encourages us to take the reality of cause and effect with utmost seriousness. Certain actions lead to suffering while others lead to happiness. It’s in everyone’s interest to do what leads to happiness and avoid that which leads to suffering. In other words, it is plain stupid to harm.  This is the logic, ethics, and spiritual wisdom we need to embrace ourselves and impart to new generations if we wish to see a change in the world.

This operation of this principle can clearly be seen in the Western overindulgence in consumption.  Our narrow focus upon our own perceived “needs” and wish for elusive satisfaction are like a boomerang returning with a plague of chronic illness, cancer, and heart disease and a proliferation of childhood disorders.

Our interests are inextricably linked. Interconnectedness is the heart of reality.  It is a natural law of the universe.  This is the basis for the Dalai Lama’s call for a spiritual revolution and a return to heart-felt ethics in order to make the world a better place.

This series – A Simple Guide to Inner and Outer Harmony – is based on Ethics for a New Millennium by the Dalai Lama.

Image of the Dalai Lama from his Facebook Page.

Please let your friends know about this article by using the share buttons below.  Every share helps me reach out to others.  Thanks so much for your support!  Sandra

The Revolution Begins Within

Dalai LamaWith the exception of natural disasters, whatever global problems we face – the environmental crisis, war, poverty, child slavery, drug abuse, drug trafficking, and so on – are all man-made problems.

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.

As much as you wish to be happy yourself, you also wish for others to be happy.  As much as you would like to avoid suffering, you also do not want others to suffer.

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 bewisely 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.”

Heartfelt Ethics

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

Following are some simple ways that you can establish a positive motivation everyday.

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.

The revolution is now.  It begins within.  It starts with you.

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

Image of the Dalai Lama from his Facebook Page.

If you liked this article, please share it with others via your social media networks.  Thanks!  Sandra


Love & Compassion: the Key to a Better World

Dalai LamaIs there anyone who isn’t concerned about the world today?

The question is:  how do we get to the heart of the matter and turn the tide?

The Dalai Lama has answered this question and given us a remarkable step-by-step guide for building a better world.  His plan doubles as a template for securing your own happiness and well-being at the same time.  All the details are contained in his bestselling Ethics for New Millennium, published ten years ago.

Voted the most respected world leader in a 2009 Gallup poll, the Dalai Lama – with his warm heart, infectious smile, and positive disposition – is universally admired.   Wouldn’t we all love to know his secret formula for happiness?

As disastrous oil spills shake us to our core and the dangers of climate change continue to unnerve us, it seems judicious to revisit his plan for global sanity.

In this 5-part series based on Ethics for a New Millennium, I will present some of the key principles and practices that the Dalai Lama emphasizes as crucial to greater peace and harmony both as individuals and as a society.  They are simple steps, easily accessible to all.

How Can I be Happy?

The Dalai Lama has traveled the world far and wide.  He has met people from all walks of life, cultures, religious traditions, and those who ascribe to no religion.  Among the countless people he’s encountered, he’s observed one single factor as the driving force behind all our actions.  He says,

“Indeed the more I see of the world, the clearer it becomes that no mater what our situation, whether we are rich or poor, educated or not, of one race, gender, religion, or another, we all desire to be happy and to avoid suffering.”

This is the great question that confronts all of us:  “How can I be happy?”  It is the motivating question behind all our actions and endeavors both as individuals and as societies.  The desire to be happy and to avoid suffering is our very nature.

This simple principle lies at the heart of his plan for transforming the world.

Despite Material Abundance, Unhappiness Prevails

As he has traveled about, the Dalai Lama has also noticed,

“…those living in materially developed countries are in some ways less satisfied, are less happy, and to some extent suffer more than those living in the least developed countries.”

“They are so caught up with the idea of acquiring still more that they make no room for anything else in their lives.  In their absorption, they actually lose the dream of happiness, which riches were to have provided.  As a result, they are constantly tormented, torn between doubt about what might happen and the hope of gaining more, and plagued with mental and emotional suffering – even though outwardly they may appear to be leading entirely successful and comfortable lives.”

He notes a disturbing prevalence of psychological and emotional suffering in the form of  “anxiety, discontent, frustration, uncertainty, and depression” among people living in developed countries.  “Indeed, if we compare the rich with the poor, it often seems that those with nothing are, in fact, the least anxious, though they are plagued with physical pains and suffering.”  The simple abundance that Raam Dev found in a remote village of Nepal illustrates the Dalai Lama’s point well.

Ethics for a New MillenniumOne of the significant changes that has occurred in developed countries is a reorganization of the way we live.  Our lives are now structured to increase autonomy and independence, while reducing our direct dependence on others.  Thus people strive to own their own home, car, computer, and so on.  This acquired autonomy makes it seem as though we are self-sufficient and that our future is no longer dependent on our neighbors, but only on our employer.  This in turn can lead us to feel that if others are not so important to my happiness, their happiness is not so important to me.

The end result is a society where it’s difficult for people to express basic affection.   There’s a diminishing sense of community and belonging, and a growing sense of loneliness and alienation.  The emphasis on economic growth and development reinforces competitiveness and envy, compounding the sense of separation.  As science takes precedence over religion, there are fewer guideposts and more confusion about how to conduct ourselves in daily life as well as a tendency to think that nothing exists.

Just take a look around the blogosphere and you will see an explosion of blogs offering advice on how to find happiness, love, and positivity to fill this growing chasm of discontent.  Isn’t it ironic that despite having all our basics needs met, we simply don’t know how to be happy?

This same scenario of inner suffering occurs in areas of the world – like parts of Southeast Asia – where prosperity has recently increased.  A sense of discontentment seems to consistently rise in tandem with economic development.  This shows us that the potential for this unease exists within all of us and can easily manifest given a shift in circumstances.

The success of science and technology has led us to believe that the keys to happiness are material well-being and the power conferred by knowledge.  However, with each passing day it  is becoming clearer and clearer that material well-being cannot bring happiness.  The budding interest in minimalism reflects this conclusion.  While knowledge is powerful indeed, it alone cannot bring happiness.  Happiness can only be found through an inner personal development that is not dependent on external factors.

A Revolution Is In Order

The Dalai Lama is not proposing that we abandon scientific achievements.  Nor does he recommend idealizing old ways of life.  He believes the challenge at hand is to find ways to enjoy the same degree of harmony and tranquility enjoyed by traditional cultures while continuing to benefit from the material developments we have secured.

He points to the escalation of certain negative trends as indicative of the turmoil we face in modern society, including an increase in:

  • murder, violence, and rape
  • abusive and exploitative relationships
  • drug and alcohol addiction
  • divorce and its adverse effects on children

But, he is quick to point out,

“none of these problems are by nature inevitable. Nor are they due to any lack of knowledge.  When we think carefully we see they are all ethical problems.  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.”

“…given the complexity or our species—in particular, the fact that our having thoughts and emotions as well as imaginative and critical faculties—it is obvious that our needs transcend the merely sensual.  The prevalence of anxiety, stress, confusion, uncertainty, and depression among those whose basic needs have been met is a clear indication of this.  Our problems, both those that we experience externally – such as wars, crime, and violence – and those we experience internally—our emotional and psychological sufferings—cannot be solved until we address this underlying neglect.  That is why the great movements of the last hundred years and more—democracy, liberalism, socialism—have all failed to deliver the universal benefit they were supposed to provide, despite many wonderful ideas.

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.”

In calling for a spiritual revolution, the Dalai Lama is not proposing a religious solution to our problems.  Rather he is calling for a reawakening of the basic human values that are common to us all.  These we will explore in Part 2 of this series A Simple Guide to Inner and Outer Harmony.

What are your thoughts on the Dalai Lama’s ideas for a better world?

A Simple Guide to Inner and Outer Harmony:

Image of the Dalai Lama from his Facebook Page.


How Wide Is Your Love?

How wide is your love and compassion?

That’s the topic for today’s reflection.  Most of us love in a partial way.  We easily feel warmth and compassion for those close to us, but have more trouble when it comes to people who we perceive as irritating, unkind, or negative in one way or the other.  In short, people we dislike.

Great spiritual teachers encourage us to love everyone.  To do so, we need to cultivate a sense of impartiality and see everyone as equally deserving of our love and compassion.  Impartiality means “giving up our hatred for enemies and infatuation with friends, and having an even-minded attitude toward all beings, free of attachment to those who are close to us and aversion for those who are distant.”  – from The Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche

How wide is your love?

Impartiality is not easy, but it can be gradually accomplished if we make this our aspiration and regular practice.  I was deeply inspired by the following quote from the Dalai Lama, which demonstrates this profound sense of impartiality, and chose it as the basis of our reflection today.

“On a recent trip to Europe, I took the opportunity to visit the site of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.  Even though I had heard and read a great deal about this place, I found myself completely unprepared for the experience.  My initial reaction to the sight of the ovens in which hundreds of thousands of human beings were burned was one of total revulsion.  I was dumbfounded at the sheer calculation and detachment of feeling to which they bore horrifying testimony.  Then, in the museum which forms part of the visitor center, I saw a collection of shoes.  A lot of them were patched or small, having obviously belonged to children and poor people.  This saddened me particularly.  What wrong could they possibly have done, what harm?  I stopped and prayed—moved profoundly both for the victims and for the perpetrators of this iniquity—that such a thing would never happen again.  And, in the knowledge that just as we all have the capacity to act selflessly out of concern for other’s well-being, so do we all have the potential to be murderers and torturers.  I vowed never in any way to contribute to such a calamity.” – from Ethics for a New Milennium by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Please take a moment to reflect on impartiality.  Let’s each consider what steps we might take to push out the boundaries of our love and compassion to include those toward whom we might feel neutral and, gradually, even toward those we dislike.

I would love to hear your thoughts on impartiality.

If you liked this article, please share the link with others.  Thanks very much! Sandra


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