Part of what I look forward to in going to Pi-Con is the trip down. I take the back roads and use the drive as an opportunity to listen to a good book, enjoy the scenery, and reflect on whatever thoughts occur to me. Last year I brought along Thoreau. This year I brought along Daniel Goleman and the Dalai Lama. Specifically, “Destructive Emotions”, in which the Dalai Lama and a small group of eminent psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers take on the challenge of working together to find solutions to the problems of anger, hatred, craving, and delusion. Don’t groan. This stuff is fascinating. And it relates to all of us. Read on.
I have enormous respect for the Dalai Lama. He’s a brilliant, compassionate, absolutely awesome individual. One of his great missions in life is to find a way to reconcile the different faith traditions with each other and with science. Once this is accomplished, we can present a united front against war and violence. Then perhaps the human race can stop behaving in such an appallingly self-destructive manner, and begin moving in directions worthy of our potential.
I heartily endorse this mission, as impossible as it seems. Until all people of good will are able to put aside their differences and work in harmony, we’re all just bailing out sinking boats with thimbles. And, in many cases, bailing out our boat into someone else’s boat. Not helpful.
Unlike a majority of Western thinkers, Buddhist psychology does not see our fundamental nature to be savage or selfish. Within each person is the impulse to empathy, the instinct to help and connect. Our most natural, healthy state is one of compassion, concern for the suffering of others. Anger, jealousy, the negative emotions do arise easily in us, and can sicken our minds if care isn’t taken to strengthen our mental immune system. Letting yourself lapse into the habit of anger and resentment is like letting yourself get weak and fat. The charge we get from anger, the excitement of violence, it’s like a sugar rush. Indulging in self-pity or self-righteousness is like indulging in French fries. Tastes great. Terrible for you.
Depression, violence and obesity are epidemic.
Before you rage-quit and go console yourself with chocolate, try this. Go through a day trying to be very aware of every small act of compassion other people show to you. I don’t mean grand gestures. Just the little stuff. The small acknowledgements that, Hey, we’re both humans trying to get along in this crazy world, so I’ll do this to make it a little pleasanter or easier.
Shopping in the supermarket, in a crowded aisle, you get bumped in the backside by the carriage behind you. The lady apologizes, you say no problem, and you both get on with things. A co-worker is struggling to get through a door with her hands full. You hurry forward to help. Rush hour, and too many cars are trying occupy the same space at the same time. The guy next to you yields, then you yield, and eventually you all get through (Jon Stewart used this example in his speech at the Rally to Restore Sanity; it’s a great one).
Sure, there are the jerks who push ahead, who ignore the problem, who swear at you instead of apologizing. But they stand out in your awareness because they are the exception. If you take the time to pay attention, you’ll realize how much of a minority the jerks are.
Driving home from Pi-Con, I was forced off the highway by flooding. It was late, getting dark, and I was getting further and further away from my route home. Trying to find my way back to the highway, I was again stymied by the damage done by hurricane Irene. I reached the small town of Shelburne Falls, MA, and was stopped in my tracks by the remains of devastation, the bridge washed out, debris all over the road. Several people were standing around, gazing at what had happened to their town. I got out to speak with them, sharing astonishment at what had happened and sharing flood stories. Then I told them I was lost, and could they help me find my way back to Rte. 2?
A woman and her adult daughter glanced at one another. “I think there might be a way, but I have no idea how to describe it to you.” They conferred, and then they offered to get in their car and show me the way.
The human impulse to help. There is a problem. How can we solve it? What can I do?
They led me through the dark, down back alleys and driveways, past barricades and washed-out roads, through a maze of residential streets, until we got to the main road again. Then they waved me on and I rolled down my window and bellowed my thanks. I couldn’t have found my way without their help.
The Dalai Lama is on the right track. There is something universal in the human impulse to compassion, to help. It gets crushed sometimes by pain, fear, social convention. But it’s there to be cultivated. No religion or philosophy has a monopoly on it, although a religion or philosophy that values it can be a force for good, nurturing and strengthening our best natures. If we recognize what is universal among us, instead of focusing on what separates us, it becomes clear. We all want to be happy. We all want to avoid suffering. We all benefit when we seek to help each other towards our goals.
Therein lies the solution to destructive emotions.