There's Something About the Dalai Lama

Reflections on His Holiness and his visit to Madison

May 16, 2013

Photo of Richard Davidson and the Dalai Lama in Madison in 2010. Photo by Jeff Miller/UW Communications.

Photo of Richard Davidson and the Dalai Lama in Madison in 2010. Photo by Jeff Miller/UW Communications.

His Holiness made a swing through town this week to headline the “Change Your Mind Change The World” conference hosted by his old friend Richie Davidson of the UW’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center and his new friend Jonathan Patz of the UW Global Health Institute. A star-studded affair, the daylong event featured heavy hitters Arianna Huffington (The Huffington Post) and Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence) as moderators along with a high-end cast of thinkers and doers who could only be upstaged by someone like the Dalai Lama.

I attended the afternoon session, “Conversations on Science, Happiness and Well-being,” with His Holiness, Huffington, Davidson, Patz and renowned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, who has participated in Davidson’s research on the effects of meditation on the brain. To set the mood of this momentous occasion, UW Chancellor David Ward told the audience, “There is likely no other topic that has greater impact on the world than that of sustainable well-being.” Huffington concurred in her own words: “There is no more important conversation going on on the planet.” She went on to describe a perfect storm that’s brewing on earth right now:

  • “Smart people making terrible decisions not because they’re not smart but because they’re not wise”
  • Previously marginalized work around mindfulness is increasingly becoming mainstream
  • Technology has ironically become a source of disconnect

After plugging Huff Post’s new stress-reducer app “GPS for the Soul,” she shared her recipe for changing the world: strength, serenity, and wisdom … “We all have this,” she said. “Most of us are not there.”

The next hour-and-a-half was a reflecting exercise of sorts—each of the three panelists (Davidson, Patz and Ricard) held forth on their own body of knowledge and research interests, and then Huffington asked the Dalai Lama to respond.

Davidson laid out five facts of well-being and cited studies that prove the extraordinary—and relatively new—findings on how little we know about or respect well-being’s effect on our health, both physical and emotional. According to one study, after just two weeks of training in compassion, a study cohort’s brains changed to become more cooperative and altruistic. Another study, this one on infants, found there is an innate disposition toward well-being and generosity.

The Dalai Lama’s curiosity piqued when Davidson explained a mind-wandering study revealing that forty-seven percent of the time the average American is not actually paying attention to what he or she is doing, and is feeling unhappy while doing so. At which point the Dalai Lama leaned over and began speaking with his interpreter, who eventually asked, “Can you explain what mind wandering is?” The Overture Hall crowd erupted in laughter, finding collective humor in the notion that a great practitioner of mindfulness would have a difficult time understanding the concept of distraction. It took a couple minutes for His Holiness to wrap his uncluttered mind around the idea and respond, “That is why it is so important to focus, to practice simple point of mind.”

After Davidson’s presentation on well-being, Huffington wrapped it up by asking the Dalai Lama: “What can we do to help these tools become more widespread?” His reply was a recurring theme throughout the session: education. “That’s the only way.” He also talked about the media’s obligation to inform the public about the positive, not just the negative, as well as his own commitment “to promote secular ethics, harmony.” Human nature is gentle, he explained, but that good nature becomes dormant due to our social environment and the deeply instilled values of money, greed and competition.

UW professor Jonathan Patz, who was among a United Nations panel that shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007, was up next. He opened with the sobering news of late that the earth has for the first time exceeded 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide, which is not good. “Grappling with climate change is a golden opportunity for human health and well-being,” Patz said before exploring the concept of the interdependence of our human species with the survival of the natural world.  He did so by telling the story of a third-world village that eradicated malaria with a pesticide, only to weaken the food chain and unleash an epidemic of typhus. The lesson? “The importance of being mindful of the interdependence of life because unintended consequences outnumber our good intentions.” Other topics Patz and the Dalai Lama reflected on were measuring a country’s gross domestic product by more than financial capital—factoring in socio-political and environmental capital as well. Patz also shared with His Holiness that more than population growth, per-person consumption of natural resources is a threat to, well, natural resources and a clear link to climate change and worst-case scenarios.

Scary serious stuff, and the Dalai Lama himself seemed temporarily uncertain about whether humans have the capacity to overcome these challenges until Arianna Huffington asked a doozy of a question: “Is there a connection between burned out humans and burning out the planet?”

Matthieu Ricard’s comments were wide-ranging, from ideas like “voluntary simplicity” and “gross national happiness” to how greed has reduced human qualities to a single dimension. His answer to Huffington’s powerful doomsday question was, in the spirit of Buddhism and the Dalai Lama himself, quite simple: altruism. His Holiness agreed, but framed it quite differently. The opposite of altruism, or selflessness, is selfishness, and he told us there are two kinds of selfish: wise selfish and foolish selfish. If you think more about others’ well-being, he suggested, you will get the ultimate benefit.

At the end of the session, the speakers lined up and joined hands as the audience stood and clapped. But the Dalai Lama decided he wasn’t quite done yet. In an unscripted encore, he looked out on the crowd and began speaking about the masters of teaching in all of human history. Like Davidson and Patz’s modern scientific work, those teachings spread and multiply. “That’s the only way to change humanity’s way of thinking,” he told us. The previous century was marked by violence, “brilliant brains used for destruction,” he continued. “This century should not be that way … so, it is our responsibility.”

As he walked off stage, the Dalai Lama waved, then lingered, then walked toward the crowd and shook hands with several lucky front-row seat holders as John Lennon’s “Imagine” floated through the air.

I left feeling conflicted about whether the answers were this simple, but also moved simply by being in the Dalai Lama’s presence, an experience shared by many. There’s just something about a person whose real and tangible world power doesn’t rest in the hands of the government or the military but in his human capacity for kindness and compassion.

There’s something about the Dalai Lama.

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine.

Read more about the Dalai Lama's connections to Davidson, Patz and the greater Madison community here

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