Feeling compassionate? Then act on it.
That’s the message to us all from the Dalai Lama as he turns 80 today.
He says it’s not enough to merely feel concern for those who suffer. Convert those feelings into action. Join him in improving the world.
I’ve had the privilege of knowing the Dalai Lama for decades, and more recently writing a book with him. He turns out to be a futurist, thinking deeply about the world’s problems and how we all might have a role in solving them. Let me share his vision for a better tomorrow.
For starters, begin in our mind. An avid listener to the daily news, he points out how our daily newsfeed can leave us with a distorted, overly pessimistic worldview. The news media are the central nervous system of society, and so the headlines tend to feature the worst events of the day – perhaps because they alert our brain’s radar for threat to what we need be vigilant about.
Yet in a day when dire and dismal events headline the news of the day, his message to us strikes a remarkably upbeat note. The world, he says, actually harbors more warmth and positivity than hatred and destruction.
If you put on one side of a scale of justice all the acts of cruelty and horror on a given day worldwide, and on the other all the acts of kindness large and small – everything from, say, relief work in Nepal to moms making lunch for their schoolkids – the kindness would far outweigh the cruelty. Stay positive, he urges.
To help with that, the Dalai Lama takes a long view of history. Two centuries ago just one in five people could read; now four in five are literate. In the last few centuries the human lifespan has increased from an average in the 30s to the 70s. There are vast improvements in how we treat the mentally ill, prisoners, debtors, women.
There is far to go, he tells us, but think over centuries – not just to the next quarter or next election. The Dalai Lama, like the Pope, represents a leader who can engage the great challenges of our time, not just those issues that matter to a given constituency. This is the kind of leadership we urgently need in the world today.
His optimism comes not from a pollyana-ish denial of the negative forces at work in the world, but from an active engagement with reality. Since fleeing the Chinese Communist occupation of Tibet in 1959, the Dalai Lama has traveled the world for decades, meeting with people of all kinds and ranks, from heads of state to paupers, and of all political views.
He regularly engages scientists on topics like neuroeconomics – how the brain makes fiscal decisions – to cosmology to the latest thinking on brain science and human behavior. From these myriad explorations he proposes a practical vision. And though a monk, he puts aside Buddhism to offer a hopeful plan for the 7 billion people on this planet.
First, he urges us, counter the energies within the human mind that drive negativity – transform our minds to weaken destructive emotions like hatred and panic, and build up our better side. Add to that a moral rudder guided by concern for others.
His version of applying compassion goes beyond Sunday School niceness. Don’t stop with espousing compassion — act from it with conviction and, if needed, forcefulness. He targets several global problems with this variety of muscular compassion.
A desire for social justice and fairness drives some of his agenda. For one, he says, bring transparency and accountability to corruption and collusion in the public sphere. “There’s dirty business, dirty politics, dirty religion, dirty science,” he says. To that list we could add dirty sports, given the FIFA scandal. Bringing sunshine to these dark corners, he says, opens the way to cleaning them up with real sanctions.
Deeply troubled by the growing gap worldwide between rich and poor, the Dalai Lama urges bringing an ethic guided by compassion to rethinking economics. He applauds companies, for instance, that do good, not just well. And he admires the Scandanavian economies that preserve entrepreneurial dynamism while providing the basics for living to everyone.
Of course the Dalai Lama says to help those in need – but he adds, go beyond simple charity for the poor and the helpless. Wherever possible help them take care of themselves with dignity. This might mean anything from job skills to simple independent living and self-care.
When it comes to the painful divides of hatred that plague the world, he dares to counter us-and-them thinking with the perception of our oneness beneath surface differences – the “we”. This he sees as an antidote to divisiveness of every kind, from local groups to entire nations. Add the kind of forgiveness on display in Charleston as a force that changes the dynamic. The longterm peacekeeping strategy he hopes for will come when disagreements are solved by “dialogue, not by war.”
Earth is our home; as he says, “A genuine concern for humanity means loving the environment.” The way we are living consumes the planet in countless ways. Pay attention to this, he urges, and analyze the causes and the effects at work – and come up with smart solutions that maintain economic stability while reinventing whatever causes problems.
Finally, rethink education so future generations come into their adult years with self-discipline, understanding, and a caring moral compass. An “education of the heart” as he calls it offers the basis for coming generations to find innovative solutions to the inevitable problems and collective dilemmas they will face over their lifetime.
The Dalai Lama sees us as working together, each in our own way. What matters, he says, is that we act now, using whatever specific means we have at hand. Everyone has a role, each one of us can do something. Together we can create a force for good.
On the Dalai Lama’s birthday we might ask, What could you give someone who wants nothing for himself? His answer is clear: “Keep your mind and heart more compassionate,” he says. “A sense of concern for others’ wellbeing – that’s the best present for my birthday.”
Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and science journalist, is the author of A Force For Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World.
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