Embracing Hope, Courage, and Compassion in Times of Crisis
Thekchen Chöling, Dharamsala, HP, India – Mind and Life president Susan Bauer-Wu opened a dialogue on ‘Embracing Hope, Courage, and Compassion in Times of Crisis’ this morning by welcoming His Holiness the Dalai Lama. She expressed joy at seeing him again and noted that he was in such good health. She went on to introduce the panel for today’s discussion.
Professor Elissa Epel is a health psychologist and Vice Chair in the Department of Psychiatry at University of California San Francisco. She studies how stress resilience and mental training can protect health and promote well-being. She also studies how it is possible to transform distress about climate change into empowerment and climate action. She also serves as Co-Chair of the Mind and Life Steering Council.
Professor Michelle Shiota is a psychologist and Director of the Substance Use and Addiction Translational Research Network at Arizona State University. Her research investigates positive emotions, emotion regulation, close personal relationships, and behaviour change.
John Dunne, who His Holiness knows well, was to function as the moderator. Dunne holds the title of Distinguished Chair in Contemplative Humanities at the Center for Healthy Minds of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is also department chair of Asian Languages and Cultures. He is also a Mind and Life Fellow.
The panel was joined in addition by Thupten Jinpa, His Holiness’s long-time English interpreter, who serves as the Board Chair of the Mind and Life Institute.
In his opening remarks John Dunne mentioned how much he personally had learned from previous Mind & Life discussions. At the present time people around the world are facing multiple challenges and crises, especially in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change. Wondering what is our best way forward he invited Prof Elissa Epel to ask the first question—How can we become more comfortable with uncertainty?
His Holiness began by stating how happy and honoured he felt to have the opportunity to hold discussions with friends.
“As far as uncertainty is concerned, Buddhists believe that things are always changing and that the future is unpredictable. Some of the problems we face arise naturally, but some, like climate change, are a result of our own actions.
“Among other mammals there are predators like lions and tigers that kill to eat. However, they only kill when they’re hungry. Human beings on the other hand engage in violence out of discontent, suspicion and narrow-mindedness. The past century saw two world wars and huge amounts of money spent on weapons. We human beings are not equipped with the teeth and claws of lions and tigers. Indeed, the shape of our faces indicates that it is in our nature to behave peacefully.
“Using our intelligence, we can develop inner peace. On both an individual and community level we can lead a peaceful life if we rely on our compassionate nature and cultivate a wise outlook.
“In the past we confined our concerns to ‘my nation’, ‘my community’, but now we have to consider the entire world and the whole of humanity. Since I became a refugee living in India, a pluralistic, multi-religious society, I’ve come to appreciate that we are all the same in being human and that we have to live together on this planet.
“In India I enjoy freedom of thought and freedom of speech, and I am able to share my thinking with other people. I believe we can not only think about it, we can actually build a more peaceful world on the basis of the oneness of humanity. Our lives begin with our being cared for by our mother. Without her compassionate attention we would not survive. This is how life begins, with the experience of compassion.
“However, once children go to school, they receive no guidance on how to achieve peace of mind. They learn to develop their intelligence and engage in competition. What’s missing from much of our education today is how to cultivate a peaceful mind. It’s not something that falls from the sky. We have to work on it and build it, not by relying on weapons, but by nurturing warm-heartedness. This is how we become more mature. The basis for hope is to have a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood, mindful of the oneness of all seven billion human beings.”
John Dunne called on Prof Michelle Shiota to put the next question to His Holiness. She told him that many people today are deeply distressed and worried about the world ahead. She wanted to know how to reduce suffering and despair, but also how to make space for joy and inner peace in everyday life.
“The reality is that the world is becoming smaller,” His Holiness replied. “Climate change is compelling us to recognise the oneness of humanity and that we have to work together. If we cling to a self-centred attitude and rely on weapons, the result will only be more suffering and more problems. We have no alternative but to help each other because we have to live together.
“Anger is of no use. Anger just brings fear and fear gives rise to violence. We need to pay attention to how we can develop peace of mind. We have to rely on reason.
“We human beings are brothers and sisters. Our skin may be a different colour, we may belong to different nations or subscribe to different faiths, but basically we are the same. The fact that people of different colour, nationality and so on can marry and have healthy children together demonstrates that we are all fundamentally the same as human beings. When I visit different countries, I always point out that we are all the same.
“Every morning when I wake up, I remind myself that I am just one human being among many and that we’re all the same. Rather than think of others in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’, I find it helpful to generate bodhichitta, the awakening mind, the aspiration to attain enlightenment for all sentient beings.
“I reflect on passages from the work of the Indian master Shantideva that make clear that at the root of many of our problems is an excessive focus on ourselves. Good things are rooted in being more oriented towards the welfare of others. He states:
All those who suffer in the world do so because of their desire for their own happiness. All those happy in the world are so because of their desire for the happiness of others. 8/129
“If we focus too much on ourselves, we’ll not be happy even in this life, whereas to concern ourselves with the well-being of others is the gateway to great joy. If we’re really serious about happiness in the long term, we need to open our hearts and focus on others as well as ourselves. I find this very meaningful.
“If we dig deeper into the psychology of this, we find that fear, stress, anxiety and suspicion come about when we are disproportionately focused on ourselves. If we’re able to open up some space for courage in relation to others, we can be more relaxed. So, in Buddhism there is an emphasis on cultivating an altruistic attitude, to opening up to the awakening mind. We combine this with a more philosophical view that incorporates a sense of interdependence and connectedness with others.
“This idea of interdependence is rooted in the Madhyamaka view of dependent arising, the rejection of an independent, objective reality out there. By helping others, we help ourselves. Our well-being is intertwined with the well-being of others. If we reflect on this in our own minds, it really makes a difference.
“In my own practice, I employ Shantideva’s method of equalizing and exchanging self for others. Dependent arising provides the philosophical grounding because it demonstrates that the idea of things having an independent, objective existence is untenable. At the same time, it prevents us from slipping into a nihilistic perspective that nothing matters. Essentially things exist in relation to other factors. This undermines the idea of separateness that is expressed in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
“Things have an illusion-like character. They appear to have an objective existence, but do not. Their existence can only be spoken of in terms of relations and interdependence. This undermines our assumptions about separateness, the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’.”
Elissa Epel mentioned a survey of young people across the world that asked how they felt about the state of the world and the climate crisis. 75% replied that the future is frightening, while 60% felt humanity is doomed. She asked how, in such a context, we can continue to adopt a positive outlook and maintain hope.
His Holiness told her that alongside hope there is a need to focus on courage. He suggested that once we focus on a problem there is a tendency for the mind to lock onto that and to see problems everywhere. Being fixated only on the problem doesn’t help. It leaves no room for hope or courage.
His Holiness described Buddhists’ aspiration to follow the path to enlightenment. It involves cultivating wisdom and compassion that are likened to the wings of a great bird that soars into the space of reality to reach the other shore of enlightenment. The goal is ambitious, but is rooted in each one of us. Recognizing whatever progress you’ve made gives you courage and confidence. Therefore, rather than being fixated on the problem, it’s better to develop courage, a sense that you can do something, and the confidence to bring it about.
“This helps me,” he said, “and I think there is a general lesson here.”
Elissa Epel observed that we have the opportunity to lead a purposeful life and that it’s recognized that small groups of dedicated people can lead to a social tipping point. She asked how to encourage practical action to make the world a better place.
“In my own case,” His Holiness told her, “what gives me courage and confidence is the continual renewal of warm-heartedness. Shantideva is clear about this:
For those who fail to exchange their own happiness for the suffering of others, Buddhahood is certainly impossible – how could there even be happiness in cyclic existence? 8/131
Proceeding in this way from happiness to happiness, what thinking person would despair, after mounting the carriage, the awakening mind, which carries away all weariness and effort? 7/30
“I find reflecting on these verses to be very helpful. What we need is a way regularly to renew our positive intention.”
Michelle Shiota recalled that in an early Mind & Life meeting scientists asked what they should study and His Holiness recommended that they examine mental training. She asked what those who study the human mind and behaviour—psychologists, neuroscientists, and clinical scientists—should study next?
His Holiness observed that we have sensory experiences on the one hand, and mental experience on the other. Things we see, hear and contact give rise to thought, but the way we experience them is different. Happiness and unhappiness belong to the mind, not the senses. Similarly, mental training takes place on the level of the mind. His Holiness referred to discussions he’s had with neuroscientists who have mapped mental experience onto the brain, which is very interesting. However, when it comes to understanding the nature of the mind, the Buddhist tradition and the Nalanda Tradition in particular, are rich.
He pointed out that proponents of the Nalanda Tradition like Nagarjuna emphasized rational argument over the authority of scripture. He suggested it would be wonderful if there could be deep collaborative research involving the reason-based approach of the Nalanda Tradition and the resources presented in mind-science. In Nalanda there was room for diverse perspectives focused on the centrality of reason.
Shiota explained how people feel deeply divided with profoundly different views about how to respond to the pandemic, the climate crisis and different behaviour in relation to them. She noted that arguing with people with whom you disagree can push them into more extreme points of view. Consequently, she wanted to know how we can generate compassion and loving-kindness towards people we believe are causing great damage in the world.
“One of the problems we face,” His Holiness responded, “is that we look at a situation and get caught up in its short-term implications. We don’t open up and look beyond what’s in front of us. We have to find a way to relax the mind. If we can do this, consideration and compassion arise naturally. But we also need to find ways to reinforce these skills.
“If we create space, the mind can relax. This is important because when the mind is anxious and restless, we can’t use our intelligence clearly. The solution is to work on creating a deeper sense of peace within yourself.
“One of the most important things is to focus on bringing compassion into our everyday intentions. If we can do this, it will boost our confidence, which in turn will help us deal with challenges. If you give in to anxiety instead, you can’t use your human resources to think things through. To exercise your rational faculty, you need to relax and find peace. Cultivating compassionate thoughts fosters this. Adopting a broader approach with regard to how you view others can help to bring about change.”
John Dunne invited the other panellists to offer final thoughts. Elissa Epel mentioned the importance of joy. She also noted that small acts of kindness are common and widespread, but are not reported in the news.
Michelle Shiota made three points. Joy is restorative and builds strength. It is the opposite of despair. Even small acts of kindness make a difference. Recognize our common humanity. She remarked that almost every human atrocity begins with the dehumanizing of the other. What’s important is to understand where others are coming from. Listen and maybe it will be possible to find some common ground.
John Dunne expressed appreciation of the rich dialogue that had taken place. “I trust it has filled us with hope,” he observed, “and that we can take a longer view and create a better world.”
Susan Bauer-Wu thanked His Holiness and the members of the panel for taking part in the discussion. She declared that everyone at Mind & Life wishes His Holiness good health and looks forward to seeing him again next year, hopefully in person.
In his response His Holiness considered the name Mind & Life. “These plants before me have life, but mind is more complicated,” he remarked. “It’s our mind that can be the trouble maker. If we think in the right way we can find inner peace, but if the mind is overwhelmed by anger and suspicion we won’t be at peace. We won’t even be able to sleep soundly.
“Our aim is to be a happy person with peace of mind. I’m not talking about the next life, or anything to do with God, but about being a peaceful, happy individual here and now.
“We used only to look outward, but now many people are concerned with how to achieve peace of mind. I really appreciate that Mind & Life have created this new awareness and I’d like to thank everyone who has contributed to that. Please keep it up.
“We’ll meet occasionally in the future and until then each day and each night work on cultivating peace of mind, a compassionate mind, so that each day and each night you’ll be happy. Thank you.”