Happiness is Simpler Than We Think, Karmapa Tells Leading Scientists
(May 5, 2015 – Madison, Wisconsin) His Holiness the Karmapa this evening joined some of the world’s leading researchers in neuroscience and psychology for a panel discussion on “The Heart, the Brain, and Society: Buddhist and Scientific Perspectives on the Cultivation of Well-being.” In his first opportunity for an extended dialogue of this kind, His Holiness explored with the neuroscientists how meditation and contemplative techniques contribute to wellbeing and happiness.
Daniel Goleman set the warm, informal tone of the evening by first asking the audience—both those physically present and the many others watching online via live webcast in English and Spanish—to imagine they were in a living room, where an intimate conversation was taking place among friends. He asked them audience to introduce themselves, as it were, by a show of hands to indicate how many considered themselves Buddhist (less than half) and how many of them practiced meditation (the overwhelming majority). Throughout the next hour and a half, with the audience invited to feel themselves a part of a personal interaction, His Holiness the Karmapa responded to the scientists’ questions by sharing some of his own experiences and insights into wellbeing, while the scientists in turn briefed him on their latest research findings.
Richard Davidson kicked off the discussion by explaining that as a neuroscientist, he identifies four important components of wellbeing: resilience, or how quickly an individual can recover from adversity; a positive outlook on life; generosity; and mindfulness in everyday life. He then asked His Holiness the Karmapa for his thoughts on what might be helpful for us to improve in these four areas, which are so important for wellbeing.
His Holiness replied that what resonated most from his own personal experience was the importance of having a positive outlook in the face of hardship. A person’s ability to adapt to adversity depends on how they think, he explained. Those with habits of thinking positively bounce back much more easily from adversity, while for those with a habit of negative thinking the experience can quickly worsen. The Karmapa recounted that he is often urged by those around him not to take such a rosy view of others, out of concern that his trust might be misplaced. Yet for him personally, His Holiness said, positive thinking was simply easier. Even if his optimism might not conform perfectly to the actual state of affairs, he consciously chose to retain it for the sake of simplicity and wellbeing.
“Having habits of positive thinking are basically equivalent to having less hardship in life,” he said. “We do not have to believe that our positive thoughts are one hundred percent in harmony with reality, but we can simply see our attitude as a method to generate more wellbeing for ourselves.”
Praising contentment as a key factor in creating wellbeing, the 17th Karmapa shared a story about mindfulness and contentment from his own personal experience. In India, he explained, he lives quite cloistered in a monastery and does not get to go outside a lot. Sometimes his biggest excursion is to make a couple of circumambulations around the temple where he lives—and even then, he might still be followed around by crowds of people.
On one such occasion, the Karmapa recounted, he was walking outside the building on a day when the weather was sunny and calm. As he walked, he had the experience of suddenly becoming aware of the fact that he was breathing. Along with that experience came a strong but simple feeling of happiness, and an awareness that happiness is present within us already. In that moment of appreciating his breath, His Holiness contemplated all the myriad factors needed to come together in order simply to breathe—the thousands of plants and trees needed to produce the oxygen, and the complexity behind all these the causes and conditions.
“My insight at that moment was: this is really an amazing and wondrous thing. My experience of happiness has always been that it is an appreciation of things that are very simple. Our habitual approach to pursuing happiness involves complexities such as working very hard or trying to get lots of money. But focusing all our efforts and attention on that sort of thing usually leads us to unhappiness. My experience of happiness is that it involves paying attention to things that are very ordinary, which we usually fail to appreciate in our day-to-day lives.”
The Karmapa stressed that we need to cultivate mindfulness in order not to miss the opportunities to appreciate simplicity and generate contentment. He explained that even though after many years of spiritual practice, in the end we might reach a profound insight—only to realize how utterly simple it is. As the Karmapa described it, we then think to ourselves, ‘Oh, this is very simple, why didn’t I understand this before? I was totally missing this very simple thing the whole time.’
After the Karmapa’s comments in praise of the underestimated power of simplicity, the conversation turned to Dr. Sona Dimidjian’s research. His Holiness leaned forward as she described women’s particular vulnerability to suffering from depression, and the work that she does to address that.
She explained that depression involves a persistent experience of sadness that makes it difficult for people to do the things they normally do. Women are twice as likely as men to experience depression, with increased risk around the time of becoming mothers, which is known as post-partum depression. While a typical response is to prescribe antidepressant medications, Dr. Dimidjian’s own research has shown not only that there is no evidence of greater benefit among those taking the medications compared to a control group taking placebos, but there is not even evidence showing that the medications help prevent a recurrence of depression, once a person stops taking the medication.
Dr. Dimidjian described to His Holiness how psychological researchers look at the way people’s thoughts react to their emotions, a process known as cognitive reactivity. Studies have shown that higher cognitive reactivity can help predict the likelihood of future depression, she explained. Another key investigative concept is rumination, or when the mind grasps onto the experience of sadness and starts incessant questioning, such as, ‘Why am I feeling so sad? Why do these things happen to me? Why do I have a harder time than other people?’ Rumination tends to prolong the symptoms of depression, she said, and studies have shown that in general women are more vulnerable to rumination than men.
This is exactly where contemplative practice can benefit affected people, Dr. Dimidjian told His Holiness. For example, people can be trained in moments of high stress to simply notice the fact that they are breathing, and use this awareness to react to the stressful situation with more skill, rather than being hijacked by patterns of rumination and cognitive reactivity.
She then asked the Karmapa for his reflections on ways to use mindfulness skills to help cultivate individual wellbeing among women, as well as to develop communities of wellbeing.
His Holiness responded with a moving expression of his appreciation for the work she is doing to ease the sufferings to which women are particularly vulnerable. He added that mindfulness is important because when emotions arise, it is important to be able to catch ourselves and direct our attention elsewhere. We do not need the painful experience or situation to be the only thought occupying our minds, but rather through a cultivation of mindfulness and can instead direct our attention to a different object, such as the breath.
His Holiness the Karmapa noted that a major focus of Buddhist thought and practice can be brought to bear in this context, namely, developing an awareness that there is a difference between our selves and our emotions when we are experiencing them, he said. To the degree that we are able to differentiate between our selves and our emotions, we will avoid being hijacked by the strongest ones.
The Karmapa explained that meditation provides a sense of space, allowing us to choose whether or not to assume the negative emotion as a part of our identity. He described a meditation technique in which we learn to set our emotions in front of us, with a sense of distance between ourselves and them, and just observe those emotions with a relaxed state of mind.
As the panel discussion wound steadily to its conclusion, Richard Davidson took the opportunity to tell His Holiness about pioneering neuroscience research around the biophilia hypothesis, or the concept of an innate disposition in humans for wanting to be close to nature. Research indicates that being in nature has beneficial neurological effects such as stimulating certain circuits in the brain, reducing the stress hormone cortisol and improving certain aspects of our thinking and cognitive function.
His Holiness responded by saying he has a very strong feeling about the concept of biophilia, which illustrates the power of the connection between our mind and the natural environment. Again speaking from his own experience, he said that after growing up in even merely seeing pictures today of the natural environment where he grew up in Tibet made him feel happy. Conversely, he could also see how spending time in big cities can naturally promote a sense of being cloistered, narrow and depressed.
The Karmapa further explained that certain Vajrayana teachings also address this connection when they talk about the relationship between the inner vajra body and the outer environment, in a kind of Vajrayana version of biophilia. There are legends of great meditation masters, who had done extensive retreats in isolated areas, who developed such a level of sensitivity to the natural world that they could recognize when an eclipse was occurring—not through seeing it or being informed of it but through their heightened awareness of subtle shifts taking place in their body in meditation, and in particular, the movement of prana or wind in their body.
“A lot of us live in what we might call an artificial world,” the Karmapa concluded, “through being too separate or alienated from the natural environment. If we get a chance to slow down, remain in a place of solitude for a while and stay close to nature, we might come to appreciate the very intimate connection between the movement of the outer elements of the natural environment and that of the inner elements of our body.”
As the evening’s discussion between Buddhist spiritual master and leading scientists drew to an end, the audience left the gathering with the feeling that, in fact, this remarkable conversation has only just begun.