His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaks to audiences all over the world, and because it is always relevant, he frequently reminds them that there are now over seven billion human beings on this planet. “Physically, emotionally and mentally our needs and wishes are all the same,” he says. “All human beings want a happy life.” He emphasizes that when we talk about a happy life and a peaceful world we cannot neglect the importance of inner peace.
Although meditation is often proclaimed to be an avenue to inner peace, the effect of any meditation depends on its type and the motivation one brings to it. Research in the fields of neuroscience and psychology has investigated brain activity during meditation. This research has demonstrated that just as one can learn to play a musical instrument, ride a bicycle, or play a game of chess, one can also learn methods to cultivate happiness and compassion. The two go hand in hand. All of these endeavors require practice and time, but the good news is that because the brain changes in response to mental training, the plasticity of the brain makes it possible to train the mind to be happy.
Methods to cultivate inner peace and a happy mind practiced in Buddhist traditions include developing an expansive view of interdependence, or very simply put, an understanding that no one and no thing exist independently. The byproduct of this view is an altruistic state of mind that is strengthened through meditation and practices including mindfulness of one’s thoughts, actions, morality, and by cultivating wisdom, compassion and understanding—all of which are the underpinnings of the Buddhist philosophy and path.
At first glance the altruistic mind—the intention to benefit others—may seem easy to embrace until we experience the uncomfortable realization that benefiting others doesn’t apply only to a selectively chosen group of friends, nice people, or relatives. Altruism is a universal intention that includes all beings with complete equanimity, with neither attachment nor aversion—even toward those we consider to be enemies. Holding the awareness that all beings want to be happy and that no one willingly invites unhappiness into their lives, we can learn to develop the quality of equanimity as we come to understand also that the root cause of our own suffering is self-centeredness. This self-centeredness is the absorption with and attachment to a misguided concept of an inherently existing self—a self that engages life on automatic pilot, as if it has some permanent quality at its core, a quality that is in fact constructed by the self. Some people consider this self to be the ego. It often filters experience through a “What’s in it for me?” or “Who’s trying to hurt me?” attitude and believes it exists independently of others and of the many causes and conditions that sustain its existence. It is also the view of someone who believes, “If I change my self-centered view, people will walk all over me and I’ll be taken advantage of.” But what actually happens is that when we understand it, the view of interdependence heightens wisdom so that we can then navigate all experiences much more skillfully and with results that are more likely to be beneficial to all.
Interdependence is linked to the laws of cause and effect, or karma. When we take the time to reflect on the nature of cause and effect, we can observe how it plays out in our own lives and in the lives of others. Through this reflection we can see that the negative results of our self-centeredness are apparent in every dispute ranging from those on a personal level to those on a global level. Whether on a small or large scale, people experience these disputes through issues related to pride, greed, jealousy, anger, hatred, and other negative states of mind.
While Buddhist logic and philosophy require a level of understanding the true nature of reality that few of us will likely ever get our minds around, we can begin by understanding interdependence on a basic level. Living in a culture where so much is readily available to us with just the click of a few buttons, a phone call, or a credit card, our interdependence is easy to miss. However, we can train ourselves to broaden our minds when we recognize that, in truth, no matter how independent we consider ourselves to be, we do not and cannot exist in isolation. The clothes we wear, food we eat, electricity that lights our homes and the fuel that heats them are available to us only in dependence upon a vast collection of others. When we consider the numbers of humans, animals, and insects that have contributed in some way to making the things that sustain our lives available to us, and then consider where and under what conditions they live, then little by little a sense of gratitude and appreciation begins to enter and the walls we have built around ourselves begin to soften. Through this type of reflection, our capacity for compassion and our experience of inner peace begin to deepen and grow.
For years, the Dalai Lama has been writing and speaking to audiences about the need for secular ethics—ethics that are not tied to a particular religion but are a characteristic of our humanity. He says that the seed of unlimited and unbiased compassion is present at birth and therefore, everyone has this seed. He points out that the younger generation is our hope for the future and that we need to cultivate the seeds of compassion for children in order to plant the seeds necessary for a happy future and a happy world—a world of peace. He describes this effort as “educating the heart.” When human values such as compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment and self-discipline are nurtured, people develop increased inner strength, which in turn develops self-confidence and reduces fear. Because fear and love cannot coexist, with less fear we are free to experience a feeling of closeness, warm-heartedness and compassion for others.
While the younger generation may be our greatest hope, adults of all ages must take very seriously the power we all have as individuals to change our internal worlds. Research presented this past September at The Mind and Life Institute’s Power and Care Conference in Brussels reveals that by engaging just twenty to thirty minutes in daily reflection and meditation on compassion and equanimity, we can change the automatic-pilot tendencies within our own minds, bringing inner peace to ourselves and thereby to those around us. Through the focused efforts of educating the heart and embracing secular ethics, then regardless of faith or tradition, true peace is not naïve optimism but an achievable reality that begins with a wise and compassionate mind.
Janet Kathleen Ettele is a mindfulness based life coach and the author of How Generosity Works, How the Root of Kindness Works, and How Patience Works. Also a musician, Janet brings her background as a student of Buddhist dharma into contemporary practice through her writing, coaching, and her music. http://janetettele.com