This week in Sunday Life I try “infinite altruism”
There’s something special about His Holiness the Dalai Lama, if I can be permitted such an obviousism. Something disarming. It’s the way he answers questions like, Is being gay OK? His response to a journalist once makes me smile: “I will ask ‘What is your companion’s opinion?’. If you both agree…then it is okay'”. It’s the way he quietly takes off his shoes while presenting to 3000 people and sits with his brown fluffy-socked feet tucked under him, as he did during his recent visit.
On Friday I met His Holiness for the third time. Each visit I’ve expected it to be a bit like Christmas – all build-up, then more of the same.
But he gets me every time.
This visit I asked if it’s better to pursue happiness or altruism. He wagged a finger at me: “Altruism! Because altruism is the easiest, fastest way to be happy.” Infinite altruism, he said was his life goal. Every morning after waking at 3.30am he consciously offers his “body and mind to the purpose of others”.
“This is what brings me my joyfulness,” he said rather significantly.
His Holiness was in Australia to present at the Happiness & It’s Causes conference where, perfectly, altruism emerged as the theme of the two-day joy pow-wow. Top minds in the field shared their research showing compassion and volunteering lead to the greatest happiness hit. In previous years the vibe at the conference has been all “happiness as an end-goal” with presenters sharing up-beat tricks for personal feel-goodness. The shift this time was palpable. Perhaps it’s the natural disasters, the GFC…they’ve left us raw and seeking something more connected. Perhaps.
Now, the Dalai Lama suggesting we should give to others – it’s hardly about to knock anyone’s (brown, wooly) socks off. And, really, it’s advice I tend to find a little eye-glazingly dispiriting. It’s like, how can I ever be happy when I’m so damn selfish? Sure, I share and give. But it’s often tainted with a whiff of “What can I get out of it?” or an aftertaste of “Hopefully everyone will notice”. “Infinite altruism” – consistent and unconditional – seems so very out of reach for us mere Western mortals, caught up as we are in the hedonic, up-with-the-Joneses chase.
But wait! His Holiiness offers this two-fold kicker. First he says he learned infinite altruism from his Mum, not Buddhism. We all do, he adds. From the moment we emerge from their wombs. Ergo, infinite altruism is available to us all. It’s just that it gets harder to access as we get older and confront enemies.
So, how do we give even when affronted or threatened? What’s the antidote? Meditating? Getting out of our heads and going inwards to connect with loving-kindness? Or any of that other Zen stuff we – and I’ll speak on behalf of most of you – find so difficult as we deal with making school lunches and supermarket queues?
The antidote is in fact our busy, bothersome minds. “To be altruistic requires rational reasoning. To be compassionate with enemy – meditation and prayer not answer!” he says. We must use our human analytical skills to remind us that selflessness is better for us. He suggests consistent training – like going to Church or learning ethics or simply analyzing reality.
I don’t know about you, but this seems do-able. Or at least more so than reaching a totally detached, monk-ish state. What’s more it seems more…right. Less selfish than “working on myself” or sitting in lotus. What His Holiness is saying, is that happiness is not about going inwards so much as giving outwards. And when we falter, to use our noggins to have a good hard look at ourselves and then consciously choose to act.
I’ve been trying this out the past few days. When I got affronted by someone’s rude email I stood back and reminded myself they’re not angry with me, they’re lashing out for who-knows-what-reason. They’re shitty, hurting for some reason. Bam! Compassion! Just now, I’ve called a homeless charity to offer to help with handing out food. I’ll have to report back on the results.
This doing rather than sitting approach to goodness and happiness sits well with my Western sensibilities. Something I suspect His Holiness is, disarmingly, very aware of.
I’ve been talking about this for a few weeks….explaining to people the particular brilliance of His Holiness’ ability to tap into what we in the West right now need to hear…I think we need to hear that it’s better to get on with helping others instead of “working on ourselves”…a relief. Agree?