As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, November 10, 2005

Just days before writing this column, I was sitting, along with about 30,000 other people, in Rutgers Stadium. We were all intently listening to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. He spoke about peace, war and reconciliation. As a psychologist, I paid attention to how what he said applied to individuals in their daily lives.

Although revered by some as a living Buddha, he took several opportunities to express that he was just another person, much like you and I. What became apparent to me during his speech was that his humility was more than a personal preference for how he wants to be seen by others. For the Dalai Lama, humility is crucial for compassion, which is fundamental to both individual and world peace.

The Dalai Lama explained that when people experience negative emotions, their distress impairs their cognitive functioning. He highlighted how negative emotions distort our perceptions of reality. We tend to see the object of our anger or hatred as 100% negative. This emotionally driven negative perspective is inaccurate and pits us against others. To make matters worse, we often act in ways we later regret. He further explained that the result is a state of distress with no options for peaceful reconciliation.

As I listened to this part of his speech, I could not help but think of my experience with conducting therapy and in life. Frankly, who can’t relate to being petty in our evaluation of someone we are already angry with? This is a common case of anger coloring our perceptions.

Although you might think that you can find peace and happiness by caring only about a small group of individuals, like family and friends, the Dalai Lama eschewed this belief. He explained that you feel good around these people because they have done something good for you. I took this to also mean that they might represent something positive to you (i.e. you should love your mother or sister). However, if these people act in ways that hurt you, the peace or happiness you feel diminishes. So, although these relationships might bring you happiness, they cannot be relied upon to do so.

According to the Dalai Lama, the only way to maintain peace, calm, and happiness in your life is through compassion; an unbiased way of seeing others as people just like you. All people have the common desire to want to end their suffering and to be happy. In this way, we are essentially the same. Compassion, thus, uses this reasoning to understand others through a mutual respect. Although achieving compassion is more difficult when people act in hurtful ways, it can be practiced with all people under all circumstances. So, it is a more stable foundation for feeling positively toward others than is relying on certain relationships. The Dalai Lama was clear in explaining that compassion does not just happen. It takes effort.

As I listened, I nodded to myself. Time and again I’ve seen people heal and grow from gaining this perspective. I’ve also seen resistance to this idea. I could almost hear the questions some people might have, such as “I think that my family makes me happy and I can rely on them for that. Are you telling me that’s not true?” I think that the Dalai Lama would say that family ties are not enough to ensure peace and happiness. Differences could arise, causing conflict and hard feelings. By seeing family compassionately, you will understand and respect their experience of the world. You can then be at peace whether or not they support you at any particular time.

The Dalai Lama also explained that he is hopeful that individual compassion will extend out to family and community and ultimately the world. He has been able to extend his compassion to the Chinese, who have occupied his homeland of Tibet and oppressed his people. If compassion has the potential to extend outward to bring about world peace, he is clearly doing his part to make it happen. Frankly, I find it a daunting leap, beyond my experience as a psychologist.

Whether or not you agree with everything he says, his ideas are worth thinking about. Do you think that practicing compassion could bring peace to your life? Could it bring peace to the world? Is either of these goals worth changing your life for?

After some thought, let’s say that you want to be a more compassionate person—or at least learn more about what it entails. So, now what? Unfortunately, his short speech did not really address how to do this. There are, however, several places you could look to for help. If not to Buddhism, you can look to your own religion for an answer. Or, to popular psychology books. Or, maybe even to my next column. However, wherever you look, you will find that being compassionate takes work. For now, know that deciding to work on being a more compassionate person is an important first step.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ

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