The world’s happiest man talks about happiness
After training in biochemistry at the Institute Pasteur, Matthieu Ricard left science behind to move to the Himalayas and become a Buddhist monk — and to pursue happiness, both at a basic human level and as a subject of inquiry. Achieving happiness, he has come to believe, requires the same kind of effort and mind training that any other serious pursuit involves.
Transcript: So, I guess it is a result of globalization that you can find Coca-Cola tins on top of Everest and a Buddhist monk in Monterey. (Laughter) And so I just came, two days ago, from the Himalayas to your kind invitation. So I would like to invite you, also, for a while, to the Himalayas themselves. And to show the place where meditators, like me, who began with being a molecular biologist in Pasteur Institute, and found their way to the mountains.
So these are a few images I was lucky to take and be there. There’s the Mount Kailash in Eastern Tibet — wonderful setting. This is from Marlboro country. (Laughter) This is a turquoise lake. A meditator. This is the hottest day of the year somewhere in Eastern Tibet, on August 1. And the night before, we camped, and my Tibetan friends said, “We are going to sleep outside.” And I said, “Why? We have enough space in the tent.” They said, “Yes, but it’s summertime.” (Laughter)
So now, we are going to speak of happiness. As a Frenchman, I must say that there are a lot of French intellectuals that think happiness is not at all interesting. (Laughter) I just wrote an essay on happiness, and there was a controversy. And someone wrote an article saying, “Don’t impose on us the dirty work of happiness.” (Laughter) “We don’t care about being happy. We need to live with passion. We like the ups and downs of life. We like our suffering because it’s so good when it ceases for a while.” (Laughter)
This is what I see from the balcony of my hermitage in the Himalayas. It’s about two meters by three, and you are all welcome any time. (Laughter)
Now, let’s come to happiness or well-being. And first of all, you know, despite what the French intellectuals say, it seems that no one wakes up in the morning thinking, “May I suffer the whole day?” (Laughter) Which means that somehow — consciously or not, directly or indirectly, in the short or the long term, whatever we do, whatever we hope, whatever we dream — somehow, is related to a deep, profound desire for well-being or happiness. As Pascal said, even the one who hangs himself, somehow, is looking for cessation of suffering — he finds no other way. But then, if you look in the literature, East and West, you can find incredible diversity of definition of happiness. Some people say, I only believed in remembering the past, imagining the future, never the present. Some people say happiness is right now; it’s the quality of the freshness of the present moment. And that led to Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, to say, “All the great thinkers of humanity have left happiness in the vague so that they could define — each of them could define their own terms.”
Well, that would be fine if it was just a secondary preoccupation in life. But now, if it is something that is going to determine the quality of every instant of our life, then we better know what it is, have some clearer idea. And probably, the fact that we don’t know that is why, so often, although we seek happiness, it seems we turn our back to it. Although we want to avoid suffering, it seems we are running somewhat towards it. And that can also come from some kind of confusions.
One of the most common ones is happiness and pleasure. But, if you look at the characteristics of those two, pleasure is contingent upon time, upon its object, upon the place. It is something that — changes of nature. Beautiful chocolate cake: first serving is delicious, second one not so much, then we feel disgust. (Laughter) That’s the nature of things. We get tired. I used to be a fan of Bach. I used to play it on the guitar, you know. I can hear it two, three, five times. If I had to hear it 24 hours, non-stop, it might be very tiring. If you are feeling very cold, you come near a fire, it’s so wonderful. Then, after some moments, you just go a little back, and then it starts burning. It sort of uses itself as you experience it. And also, again, it can — also, it’s something that you — it is not something that is radiating outside. Like, you can feel intense pleasure and some others around you can be suffering a lot.
Now, what, then, will be happiness? And happiness, of course, is such a vague word, so let’s say well-being. And so, I think the best definition, according to the Buddhist view, is that well-being is not just a mere pleasurable sensation. It is a deep sense of serenity and fulfillment, a state that actually pervades and underlies all emotional states, and all the joys and sorrows that can come one’s way. For you, that might be surprising. Can we have this kind of well-being while being sad? In a way, why not? Because we are speaking of a different level.
Look at the waves coming here to shore. When you are at the bottom of the wave, you hit the bottom. You hit the solid rock. When you are surfing on the top, you are all elated. So you go from elation to depression — there’s no depth. Now, if you look at the high sea, there might be beautiful, calm ocean, like a mirror. There might be storms, but the depth of the ocean is still there, unchanged. So now, how is that? It can only be a state of being, not just a fleeting emotion, sensation. Even joy — that can be the spring of happiness. But there’s also wicked joy, you can rejoice in someone’s suffering.
So how do we proceed in our quest for happiness? Very often, we look outside. We think that if we could gather this and that, all the conditions, something that we say, “Everything to be happy — to have everything to be happy.” That very sentence already reveals the doom of destruction of happiness. To have everything. If we miss something, it collapses. And also, when things go wrong, we try to fix the outside so much, but our control of the outer world is limited, temporary, and often, illusory. So now, look at inner conditions. Aren’t they stronger? Isn’t it the mind that translates the outer condition into happiness and suffering? And isn’t that stronger? We know, by experience, that we can be what we call “a little paradise,” and yet, be completely unhappy within.
The Dalai Lama was once in Portugal, and there was a lot of construction going on everywhere. So one evening, he said, “Look, you are doing all these things, but isn’t it nice, also, to build something within?” And he said, “Unless that — even you get high-tech flat on the 100th floor of a super-modern and comfortable building, if you are deeply unhappy within, all you are going to look for is a window from which to jump.” So now, at the opposite, we know a lot of people who, in very difficult circumstances, manage to keep serenity, inner strength, inner freedom, confidence. So now, if the inner conditions are stronger — of course, the outer conditions do influence, and it’s wonderful to live longer, healthier, to have access to information, education, to be able to travel, to have freedom. It’s highly desirable. However, this is not enough. Those are just auxiliary, help conditions. The experience that translates everything is within the mind. So then, when we ask oneself how to nurture the condition for happiness, the inner conditions, and which are those which will undermine happiness. So then, this just needs to have some experience.
We have to know from ourselves, there are certain states of mind that are conducive to this flourishing, to this well-being, what the Greeks called eudaimonia, flourishing. There are some which are adverse to this well-being. And so, if we look from our own experience, anger, hatred, jealousy, arrogance, obsessive desire, strong grasping, they don’t leave us in such a good state after we have experienced it. And also, they are detrimental to others’ happiness. So we may consider that the more those are invading our mind, and, like a chain reaction, the more we feel miserable, we feel tormented. At the opposite, everyone knows deep within that an act of selfless generosity, if from the distance, without anyone knowing anything about it, we could save a child’s life, make someone happy. We don’t need the recognition. We don’t need any gratitude. Just the mere fact of doing that fills such a sense of adequation with our deep nature. And we would like to be like that all the time.
So is that possible, to change our way of being, to transform one’s mind? Aren’t those negative emotions, or destructive emotions, inherent to the nature of mind? Is change possible in our emotions, in our traits, in our moods? For that we have to ask, what is nature of mind? And if we look from the experiential point of view, there is a primary quality of consciousness that’s just the mere fact to be cognitive, to be aware. Consciousness is like a mirror that allows all images to rise on it. You can have ugly faces, beautiful faces in the mirror. The mirror allows that, but the mirror is not tainted, is not modified, is not altered by those images. Likewise, behind every single thought there is the bare consciousness, pure awareness. This is the nature. It cannot be tainted intrinsically with hatred or jealousy because, then, if it was always there — like a dye that would permeate the whole cloth — then it would be found all the time, somewhere. We know we’re not always angry, always jealous, always generous.
So, because the basic fabric of consciousness is this pure cognitive quality that differentiates it from a stone, there is a possibility for change because all emotions are fleeting. That is the ground for mind training. Mind training is based on the idea that two opposite mental factors cannot happen at the same time. You could go from love to hate. But you cannot, at the same time, toward the same object, the same person, want to harm and want to do good. You cannot, in the same gesture, shake hand and give a blow. So, there are natural antidotes to emotions that are destructive to our inner well-being. So that’s the way to proceed. Rejoicing compared to jealousy. A kind of sense of inner freedom as opposite to intense grasping and obsession. Benevolence, loving kindness against hatred. But, of course, each emotion then would need a particular antidote.
Another way is to try to find a general antidote to all emotions, and that’s by looking at the very nature. Usually, when we feel annoyed, hatred or upset with someone, or obsessed with something, the mind goes again and again to that object. Each time it goes to the object, it reinforces that obsession or that annoyance. So then, it’s a self-perpetuating process. So what we need to look now is, instead of looking outward, we look inward. Look at anger itself. It looks very menacing, like a billowing monsoon cloud or thunderstorm. But we think we could sit on the cloud — but if you go there, it’s just mist. Likewise, if you look at the thought of anger, it will vanish like frost under the morning sun. If you do this again and again, the propensity, the tendencies for anger to arise again will be less and less each time you dissolve it. And, at the end, although it may rise, it will just cross the mind, like a bird crossing the sky without leaving any track. So this is the principal of mind training.
Now, it takes time because we — it took time for all those faults in our mind, the tendencies, to build up, so it will take time to unfold them as well. But that’s the only way to go. Mind transformation — that is the very meaning of meditation. It means familiarization with a new way of being, new way of perceiving things, which is more in adequation with reality, with interdependence, with the stream and continuous transformation, which our being and our consciousness is.
So, the interface with cognitive science, since we need to come to that, and it was, I suppose, the subject of — we have to deal in such a short time with brain plasticity. The brain was thought to be more or less fixed. All the nominal connections, in numbers and quantities, were thought — until the last 20 years — thought to be more or less fixed when we reached adult age. Now, recently, it has been found that it can change a lot. A violinist, as we heard, who has done 10,000 hours of violin practice, some area that controls the movements of fingers in the brain change a lot, increasing reinforcement of the synaptic connections. So can we do that with human qualities? With loving kindness, with patience, with openness?
So that’s what those great meditators have been doing. Some of them who came to the labs, like in Madison, Wisconsin, or in Berkeley, did 20 to 40,000 hours of meditation. They do, like, three years’ retreat, where they do meditate 12 hours a day. And then, the rest of their life, they will do that three or four hours a day. They are real Olympic champions of mind training. (Laughter) This is the place where the meditators — you can see it’s kind of inspiring. Now, here with 256 electrodes. (Laughter)
So what did they find? Of course, same thing. The scientific embargo — if ever has been to submitted to “Nature,” hopefully, it will be accepted. It deals with the state of compassion, unconditional compassion. We asked meditators, who have been doing that for years and years and years, to put their mind in a state where there’s nothing but loving kindness, total availability to sentient being. Of course, during the training, we do that with objects. We think of people suffering, we think of people we love, but at some point, it can be a state which is all pervading. Here is the preliminary result, which I can show because it’s already been shown. The bell curve shows 150 controls, and what is being looked at is the difference between the right and the left frontal lobe. In very short, people who have more activity in the right side of the prefrontal cortex are more depressed, withdrawn. They don’t describe a lot of positive affect. It’s the opposite on the left side: more tendency to altruism, to happiness, to express, and curiosity and so forth. So there’s a basic line for people. And also, it can be changed. If you see a comic movie, you go off to the left side. If you are happy about something, you’ll go more to the left side. If you have a bout of depression, you’ll go to the right side. Here, the -0.5 is the full standard deviation of a meditator who meditated on compassion. It’s something that is totally out of the bell curve.
So, I’ve no time to go into all the different scientific results. Hopefully, they will come. But they found that — this is after three and a half hours in an fMRI, it’s like coming out of a space ship. Also, it has been shown in other labs — for instance, Paul Ekman’s labs in Berkeley — that some meditators are able, also, to control their emotional response more than it could be thought. Like the startle experiments, for example. If you sit a guy on a chair with all this kind of apparatus measuring your physiology, and there’s kind of a bomb that goes off, it’s so instinctive response that, in 20 years, they never saw anyone who will not jump. Some meditators, without trying to stop it, but simply by being completely open, thinking that that bang is just going to be just a small event like a shooting star, they are able not to move at all.
So the whole point of that is not, sort of, to make, like, a circus thing of showing exceptional beings who can jump, or whatever. It’s more to say that mind training matters. That this is not just a luxury. This is not a supplementary vitamin for the soul. This is something that’s going to determine the quality of every instant of our lives. We are ready to spend 15 years achieving education. We love to do jogging, fitness. We do all kinds of things to remain beautiful. Yet, we spend surprisingly little time taking care of what matters most — the way our mind functions — which, again, is the ultimate thing that determines the quality of our experience.
Now, our compassion is supposed to be put in action. That’s what we try to do in different places. Just this one example is worth a lot of work. This lady with bone TB, left alone in a tent, is going to die with her only daughter. One year later, how she is. Different schools and clinics we’ve been doing in Tibet.
And just, I leave you with the beauty of those looks that tells more about happiness than I could ever say. And jumping monks of Tibet. (Laughter) Flying monks. Thank you very much.