Friday, May 24, 2013

On the DL: My two days listening to the Dalai Lama

Many of you may know that my bachelors degree is in religious studies. I've always loved different religions but never really agreed with one myself until I took a course my sophomore year of college on Asian religions, which is the course that made me a religion major instead of a chemistry or math major. I had been doing meditation and yoga since I was 12 (thanks Seventeen magazine!) to help with my pain but I only knew vague bits of the religions that made these practices common.

Buddhism is a wonderful religion that, much like Christianity and Islam, has different sects and different focuses depending on where you are and who you learn from. The professor I had for this class was one of my favorites and the next semester I ended up taking two or three classes in a row with her. She herself practiced Buddhism and Christianity together - something easy to do as most schools of Buddhism don't really address at all the notion of gods. It's not that Buddhism is atheistic, but instead it is non-theistic. Many call Buddhism more of a philosophy than a religion, and it definitely can be both.

Buddhism rests upon the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Life is suffering, plain and simple
  2. The origin of that suffering is attachment - cravings, wants, material goods, etc
  3. We can end that suffering through attaining Nirvana, or freedom from the cycle of rebirth (samsara)
  4. We end the suffering and reach Nirvana through the middle path, a balance between being over indulgent and an ascetic. This path is outlined in what is called the Eight-fold Path (right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration).
Many people I know with chronic illnesses find Buddhism extremely attractive, given that the first notion of this religion is about suffering and how it is so prevalent in our lives. We can't escape the suffering, and so there is a huge attraction to the notion that if we do work hard enough we can lessen and eventually end that suffering.

During my studies on Buddhism, I sort of fell in love with the Dalai Lama (don't know who he is? Check out this link). He talks about how compassion and love are at the center of all religion and how we all just want to be happy and not suffer. This isn't from a primarily religious perspective that he says these things either - what he wants is for each of us to treat each other with compassion and love and to make the world a better place. For him, Buddhism is the tool he uses to promote that but he doesn't downgrade other religions and believes that they can be just as beneficial - that it merely depends on what religion helps you to bring compassion into the world and feel fulfilled. He believes in humor and the ability of laughter to heal and add to our lives. Needless to say the man laughs a lot and his laugh is more infectious than a baby's laugh. I also feel the need to add that Michael Palin met him once on one of his travel shows he did after Monty Python, only to have His Holiness be more excited to meet Michael than Michael was to meet him! His Holiness said something along the lines of how a huge part of why he had a satellite dish was not to keep up on the news but so he could watch Monty Python reruns on BBC. He has got to be the coolest person ever.

So a few months ago when I learned that His Holiness would be in the city I live for two days giving speeches, I freaked out. When I was done half crying and jumping up and down like a four-year-old, I got tickets for both days.

The first day His Holiness spoke on a poem written by a fellow Buddhist after an intense meditation session called In Praise of Dependent Origination by Je Tsongkhapa. He was only supposed to talk for two hours, but ended up talked for almost three and barely at the end touched on this poem. I definitely didn't mind though! He spoke so much of the time about Buddhism as a religion, but also as a philosophy and what it means to have compassion for others. I honestly don't have many notes to share with you from that day because I was just so in awe of how lucky I was to see him.

The next day, he spoke as a part of a panel on global health and sustainable well-being as a part of the Global Health Institute from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There were economists, people with the WHO, psychologists, etc. I took a ton of notes there, both because I think the shock had worn off and because I felt like I wanted to share some of the information from this panel with you all. I'll indicate the person's name and then in later spots their initials from whom the information came. The Dalai Lama will be DL for example.

  • Richard Davidson: Stress decreases growth of new brain cells and inhibits connections between cells
  • RD: There was a 2012 study on 2500 health plan members over the span of one year. For each increase in well-being an individual was less likely to go to the hospital due to an illness and had overall better health. Well-being was measured as emotional - self-respect, etc. These people spent on average $1185 a year on healthcare as opposed to those who did not have these improvements, who spent $5172 per year on average - two and a half times the annual expenditure on healthcare.
  • Don Berwick: Despite what our senses would tell us, the best health is in places spending less money on health care.
  • DB: Often we believe that more is better - with healthcare that is often false. We focus on more technology which is so costly and does not help as many as focusing on other areas might. We falsely believe that the way to get healthy and stay healthy is through the health care system. Environment and our own actions are 400% more of an influence on our own health than the health care system. We almost always separate mental health from physical health also and we just cannot do that - our minds are so integral to how our bodies do that these two are just too intertwined to really separate.
  • Ilona Kickbusch: People create their own health and the health of others in their community through support.
  • IK: We at the WHO are seeing an epidemic of non-communicable diseases (i.e., chronic illnesses).
  • IK: In order to move forward and improve we have to focus on the past and engage in reverse innovation - looking to countries and communities with more communal views on health.
  • The highest obesity rates are in the United States for those in poverty. However, the WHO is seeing obesity rapidly rising in developing countries due to the lower costs, longer period of food preservation, etc, of junk foods.
  • Richard Layard: The British government's new focus officially is the well-being of people in the nation. Most departments have a well-being section focused on the employees and how to help those concerned with that field.
  • RL: Income only explains 20% of the variation on who is happy and who is miserable according to studies. Instead the most important factors include family and community relationships, and mental and physical health.
  • RL: Most chronically ill people develop mental issues caused by their illnesses.
  • RL: According the the workplace wellness alliance, an organization that works with several big and successful companies, up to 40% of disability cases and absences from work are more mental than physical.
  • RL: Only one-third of those with mental illnesses are really getting treatment, and some of that is sub-par.
  • DL: When asked why he thinks so many people assume mental illness isn't something to be focused on, he said that he believes a lot of it has to do with the societal religious beliefs. The Judeo-Christian tradition focuses on faith not on discussion or action. If you have a problem, you pray and you ask for help and guidance versus making a strong decision based on what you think and what you talk about. In Eastern religions there is a huge focus on you as a person from your overall well-being to actions, etc, instead of just on faith. It is more secular, focused on tolerance and respect for others and yet containing humanistic morals as well. Here in the US secular is almost a dirty word for people see it as removing their morals. Since every person sees his or her religion differently, the best way to combat this would be to focus on really cultivating ethical and moral humanism instead of relying specifically on religion for guidance. If for you religion guides your personal life, that is fine and no one is saying that is wrong but we all need a common ground to stand on not founded on religion because of how it can cause competition, hypocrisy, and hate for some.
For me, attending these two days and having time to think on each presentation was a life changing experience. I began, for example, to be annoyed with children crying during the first presentation. It was already so hard to hear His Holiness due to the noise issues with the venue's speakers. And suddenly what he was saying about being compassionate got through to me. Instead of being annoyed with these children, I was empathetic towards them - they were bored, tired, warm, hungry, and just wanted to play. Another example is at work there was someone audibly crying last week and having a tough day in the row of cubes ahead of me. I was on a call and couldn't go check on this person, but I wanted to so badly. I practiced a compassion meditation, breathing in the negative feelings he or she was dealing with and breathing out good thoughts. I don't know who this person was or why they were having a bad day or if what I did made any difference. But it made me feel like I could do something to help and it calmed the nerves I had for that person. Even dealing with situations I will never be able to change, these two days have helped. Instead of wanting to physically assault idiots I know for their actions, I'm trying to combat their negativity with compassion and voicing how tough it is for me to feel like I am not heard trying to draw compassion from them. It is really hard for me to tone down my anger (being Italian and Irish is dangerous!) but these two days did so much for me. I'm focusing more on the good in my life than the bad - I have my days still and yesterday was definitely one of them, but this is bringing me more and more peace the more I invest into it.

I've always flirted with Buddhism as a religion, with the tenets I wholeheartedly agree with, but could never bring myself to really act on those feelings aside from within myself. At one point, the Dalai Lama asked to see who were Buddhists and I half raised my hand until my future sister in law pushed it up higher. So much  of my lifestyle screams Buddhism and I keep not wanting to label myself. Brynne saw it and the Dalai Lama saw it too, so I guess I'm officially a Buddhist. I can't wait to explore this even more in the next decade than I have in the last.

Thanks for reading!
  • For more on Buddhism, please visit this PBS site, where I found the Eight-fold Path information because I was a little rusty on that
  • Definitely check out Toni Bernhard's website. She suffers from chronic illness and talks about how Buddhism helps her.

1 comment:

  1. I've seen the Dalai Lama speak three times now, and he was completely delightful every time. In addition to his his wisdom, he is just so charismatic. So glad you got to have this experience!

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