In a country that seems to be pulling away more and more every day, it can seem nearly impossible to find time for yourself to clear your mind and feel joy. We talk to Douglas Abrams about the week he spent learning from two of the world’s spiritual leaders, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Abrams shares the joy practices and little things that the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu do daily to experience joy regularly.
- Douglas Abrams, author of The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World
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Lessons on the Pursuit of Happiness
Gary Price: It can be easy to feel down. We are barraged in the media and on our own social pages with outrage and paranoia. Sometimes we need to shut out the noise and focus on ourselves. For Douglas Abrams, the opportunity to shut out the noise came with an invitation to spend a week with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and co-author a book with these two spiritual leaders about finding joy in our lives
Douglas Abrams: It was really an incredible privilege, a daunting responsibility. I will tell you, the night before we started the interviews I was wondering when Anderson Cooper or Oprah Winfrey was going to step in and do these interviews. But fortunately, I was there, assisted by the Dalai Lama’s translator, Jinpa, and we had a thousand questions from the world that we had gathered, and it was just an incredible honor to able to be the world’s ambassador, to ask these questions of these two extraordinary men, and to witness this and be able to try to share it with the world.
Price: Abrams’ experiences and some of the many lessons he was taught in his time with the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu are shared in the New York Times bestselling book: The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.
Abrams: The Book of Joy is not about “don’t worry be happy,” it’s about how do we experience joy in the face of suffering and adversity in our own lives and in our world, the reality of the world that we live in and the lives that we live.
Price: In the book, there is much discussion over what goes into creating joy, specifically what they call the eight pillars of joy.
Abrams: The eight pillars are four pillars of the mind and four pillars of the heart. The pillars of the mind are perspective, humility, humor, and acceptance; and the four pillars of the heart are forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity. And these were the core values and qualities that these two great spiritual leaders were telling us are at the core of finding lasting joy. So we were interested in, how do you take joy, which often feels like it’s this fleeting emotion or this transient emotional state, and actually make into it an enduring character trait, which is what you see in these two men, is that their joy is not something that comes to them when they’re listening to a good song or having a good meal, it’s a fundamental way of being. And that’s what we were trying to understand, is how do you live with that, and what they said is that if you seek happiness in and of itself, that’s the fastest way to miss the bus. If you grasp after it you’re not going to find it. But if you cultivate these eight pillars of joy, then you have the greatest likelihood or the greatest chance of experiencing that grater, lasting joy in your life.
Price: Of course, it’s not always so simple to incorporate these pillars into your life. Some things will always seem to rear their heads and get in your way.
Abrams: The obstacles to joy is everything from fear, anger, stress, envy, loneliness, all the way through serious adversity and illness and even death. Scientists told us that we basically have four fundamental human emotions: we have fear, we have anger, we have sadness, and we have joy. So really, as you can tell, three of those where we spend a lot of time in the fear, anger, and sadness are what we often consider negative or aversive emotions and joy is really kind of the bedrock of what we have to live a life of satisfaction and fulfillment, but it can be everything from the pleasures of the five senses all the way to the kind of spiritual radiance and benevolence that you see with these guys. And what we wanted to do was to understand how is it not just that fleeting joy from the pleasure of the five senses, but that deeper experience.
Price: Abrams says the book doesn’t provide a roadmap to joy, everyone’s journey is different, but Abrams wanted to share with the world the meditation and gratitude practices that have helped the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu find their joy, even in the face of tragedy.
Abrams: I remember when Archbishop Tutu went to Rwanda after the genocide, and was weeping in the church where one of the massacres had taken place. I mean, these are men who have faced the depths of human horror and not turned away and one of the things that was so profound in the book was realizing that joy and sorrow are so deeply connected that they’re two sides of the same coin and we can’t separate them, but that what we can do is, as the Archbishop said, we can be dishwashers for suffering and not vacuum cleaners, by which he meant, you know, you don’t suck up all of the negativity and the pain in your life or in the world that you’re witnessing and hold onto it, you have to process it like a dishwasher and put it out through the pipes and the way they do that is through their joy practices, through their meditative practices and prayer practices, and by doing that we can become instruments of healing and transformation in our world and not become despairing.
Price: Abrams says his co-authors are men who, in addition to being two of the four most spiritual leaders alive, walk the walk when it comes to living life with joy. They have things like you or I that just never fail to bring them some happy.
Abrams: They’re not kind of these aesthetics who are saying you shouldn’t enjoy life. One of my favorite memories from the trip was sitting next to the Dalai Lama and having him turn to me with his bowl of Tibetan rice pudding, which is this traditional monastic dessert, and saying, “I love this,” with just relish and gusto and to see that you can meditate five hours a day as he does, and you can still not be so detached from life that you can’t enjoy a good bowl of rice pudding
Price: Another of Abrams’ favorite memories from his trip was a moment captured in a photo on the back cover of the book. The photo shows the two men dancing.
Abrams: They call each other their “mischievous spiritual brother” and they are incredibly funny and constantly teasing each other which is so surprising and delightful, and that picture that you’re talking about was the moment that the Dalai Lama danced for the first time in his life it was incredible because as a Tibetan Buddhist monk he is prevented from dancing but Archbishop Tutu, who south African, was having none of it, and he was up and boogying, all elbows, and he’s waving for the Dalai Lama to come up and dance with him, and the Dalai Lama gets up and does a little shuffle, a little shimmy, a little jazz hands, you know, you could see the delight of dancing for the first time. He was about as comfortable, obviously, on the dance floor maybe as a junior high school boy, but you could see that joy coming through and it was just incredible to watch.
Price: and this bond that the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu share can be a great lesson for all of us. These two men, despite differences in religion, geography, and culture, have come together and become great friends.
Abrams: They are a fantastic example of the fact that at the core of the world’s religions, at the core of our humanity, we are the same. And even though the Dalai Lama comes from Tibetan Buddhism and Asia, and Archbishop Tutu comes from Christianity and South Africa, as the Archbishop said, when they were quiet, they realized that their souls were kindred, and I think that they remind us also that when you are looking at the core of the world’s traditions, they are kindred, they are kin, they are related, that all paths lead to the same mountaintop and when you are a devout practitioner of those traditions, when you have the kind of spiritual development that these two men have, you see the world with the same eyes of the heart, and I think that is an empowering and important message today, especially when it feels like there is so much division and conflict in our world.
Price: This lesson brings us back to the beginnings of our story. Sometimes, we need to focus on ourselves and tune out the noise. But Abrams says we can and even should experience the satisfaction of true joy while being engaged in our world and finding ways to make an impact. He says the frustration we feel with our environment can either make us bitter, or we can let it ennoble us to do good.
Abrams: That difference between whether our suffering and adversity and the horrors that we see in the world around us become embittering or ennobling, is whether we can find meaning and purpose and engage with it and participate and try to use it for the benefit and look at what’s happening in our world and see how we can turn it to good, so that we can find meaning in it and make it ennobling.
Price: You can read more about Douglas Abrams’ time with the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in The Book of Joy, available now in bookstores and online. For more information about all of our guests, visit our site at viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs on there, and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.