Educate Your Heart: Lessons from the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama turns 80 on July 6, 2015.
The Dalai Lama turns 80 on July 6, 2015. Ben Stansall / AFP / Getty Images

The Dalai Lama turns 80 on July 6. To celebrate a few days early, three of his most influential interpreters and explicators whipped up an intellectual birthday cake at Manhattan's Cathedral of St. John the Divine on June 16. It was a three-way conversation bringing together French Tibetan monk Matthieu Ricard, author of the new book Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World; Daniel Goleman, psychologist and best-selling author whose A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama's Vision for Our World also recently came out; and Richard Davidson, the pioneering University of Wisconsin neuroscientist whose research has established a Western scientific foundation for the value of Eastern meditative practices. The trio affirmed that altruism, putting other people's well-being on a more equal footing with our own, was the cornerstone of the Dalai Lama's vision and of the Buddhist worldview in general, a kind of fast-track to personal happiness and the key to how we as a species are going to survive the next century.

Matthieu Ricard: We meet a lot of challenges in life that we are dealing with with our minds from morning to evening. And this mind can be our best friend or worst enemy. And it seems that the pursuit of so-called "selfish happiness" is bound to fail. The world is not a sort of mail-order catalogue for you. So that's the personal aspect, but if you look at the much more global perspective, we see the challenges of our times. If you look at the principles of modern economy, it's maximization of personal preferences. So that in no way can address the issues of our time, which are poverty in the midst of plenty and the problem of common goods: the quality of the air, the atmosphere. Suddenly we find ourselves being responsible for the fates of many generations to come. Nowadays, human activities will determine the quality [of life] of future generations. We may lose 30 percent of all animal species on earth by 2050 at the current rate of disappearance. That's why altruism is not just another unrealistic utopia. It is the most pragmatic concept, to work together for a better world. We can cultivate this quality. When the number of individuals who have this sort of new idea achieves critical mass, then you can have a tipping point to a change in society, in culture, and in institutions.

Richard Davidson: I think that there's a wealth now of scientific evidence that is beginning to show that human beings come into the world with a propensity for altruistic behavior. And it turns out that very young infants have an overwhelming bias in preferring to look at altruistic and warm-hearted encounters compared to those that are selfish. Along with other data, this leads us to the conclusion that compassion and altruism are best thought of in the same way we think of language. That innate propensity needs to be nourished and strengthened in order to become more fully expressed. In studies with preschool children, we have developed something called the kindness curriculum. It's being taught in public preschools, and we're testing this in randomized controlled trials. In America, what we find is that over the course of a normal preschool year, the average child becomes more and more selfish, unfortunately. And kids who are exposed to the kindness curriculum actually show the opposite trend. And so these are qualities that clearly can be nourished. And adults, when we use age-appropriate practices to do the same sort of thing, we actually can see changes in the brain after as little as two weeks of practice, as little as 30 minutes a day.


Davidson: For example, [the adults] will do a mental exercise where they envision bringing a person into their mind and their heart. It could be a person who is close to you, and you're invited to envision a time where this individual may be suffering. And then you cultivate the strong aspiration that they'd be relieved from that suffering. And you are invited to feel the emotion rather than just thinking about it and to notice whatever sensations may be present in the body. And you go through that simple kind of exercise and use different targets. So you start with a loved one, and you eventually move on to what we have called a difficult person — someone who may push your buttons. And one very well-known meditation teacher said that one hour of practice with a difficult person is equivalent to 100 hours of practice with all the other categories. You do that sort of practice for just 30 minutes a day for two weeks, a total of 7 hours. And we put people in the MRI scanner before and after, and we can actually see differences in their brain. To us, this suggests that these are qualities that are just waiting to be nurtured. And the bodily changes we see involve decreases in inflammation among other changes, which we think may be beneficial for our physical health. So these are remarkable findings that are beginning to appear in the modern scientific world.

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Daniel Goleman: This is part of a curriculum that the Dali Lama refers to as "educating the heart." He's talking about the kind of thing that Richie [Davidson] is doing and also the kind of education that promotes compassion and altruism that we really need to survive, as a planet as Matthieu [Ricard] is pointing out. He sees this as one of his key messages for the world. He makes the point that when we take in the daily news cycle, we get a very distorted view of what humanity is really doing. If you put all the acts of negativity that you hear about in the news on one scale and on the other scale, every act of kindness and consideration and civility — mothers caring for their infants, parents taking their kids to school, people helping people in need — the good far outweighs the bad. People actually are compassionate. The Dali Lama is going to be 80 on July 6. He's in very good health, thank goodness. I think he'll be around a long time, but he's looking to leave a legacy, a message, and a very important part of that message is that we have the potential to enrich our altruism, our compassion, and we need to do it explicitly. We need to reach younger kids, while they're in school. Because the world's future actually depends a lot on this attitude. Do we feel, as he says, each one of us has a point of leverage? Each one of us has something we can do to be part of a force for good.


Ricard: So we know that if we want to excel in a sport or at a musical instrument, we have to train, so how come we believe that our kindness, our compassion will be at the optimum level right from the start without doing anything about it? So why are we not applying this knowledge to these inner qualities?

Davidson: For example, we cannot read a book and learn how to play the violin or read a book and learn how to ride a bicycle. Compassion, the cultivation of compassion, is likely, at least in part, a skill that we learn through an embodied kind of practice. And then it becomes much more enduring.

Ricard: You know, just the other day in Washington, at a red light, there was someone who was begging and the driver of the car gave him something. You know what [the man in the street] said? "Thank you for seeing me." So we have this quality, it's called empathy. It's what allows you to precisely become aware of the other's situation.

Davidson: [On neuroscience research, some of it involving Ricard as a subject, that shows how the brain responds differently when the mind is sending out compassionate thoughts in a "loving-kindness" meditation versus simply empathizing with another's suffering:] There are other networks in the brain that come online during compassion that are never seen typically in empathy. When they're activated, they're not associated with a sense of exhaustion, they are actually refreshing. We also find that the stress hormones are lower, not higher. So it's very different and, in many ways, opposite to the biological response.

Ricard: The Dalai Lama refers to that as "compassionate courage." Imagine the mental [benefit] of twenty minutes [a day] of caring mindfulness, of loving kindness meditation, in your family, at work. You have better judgment, you have more emotional balance. That seems to be a pretty good investment in your life.

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Davidson: I think we're at a tipping point in the culture where we're having scientific evidence to support exactly what Matthieu was describing. One way to think of this is that our brains are constantly being shaped, willingly or unwillingly. And the invitation I think we're [offering] is that we can all take more responsibility for our own brains and shape our brains in ways that support these healthy habits of mind. It's available to every one of us and it really is very simple. And [compassion and altruism] deal not only with our individual lives but the possibility of changing the world.

Ricard: It's the best way to flourish in life, a win-win situation. If you only think of yourself, then you feel quite miserable in that bubble of selfishness. 

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