Countering Stress and Depression
At a fundamental level, as human beings, we are all the same; each one of us aspires to happiness and each one of us does not wish to suffer. This is why, whenever I have the opportunity, I try to draw people’s attention to what as members of the human family we have in common and the deeply interconnected nature of our existence and welfare.
Today, there is increasing recognition, as well as a growing body of scientific evidence, that confirms the close connection between our own states of mind and our happiness. On the one hand, many of us live in societies that are very developed materially, yet among us are many people who are not very happy. Just underneath the beautiful surface of affluence there is a kind of mental unrest, leading to frustration, unnecessary quarrels, reliance on drugs or alcohol, and in the worst case, suicide. There is no guarantee that wealth alone can give you the joy or fulfilment that you seek. The same can be said of your friends too. When you are in an intense state of anger or hatred, even a very close friend appears to you as somehow frosty, or cold, distant, and annoying.
However, as human beings we are gifted with this wonderful human intelligence. Besides that, all human beings have the capacity to be very determined and to direct that strong sense of determination in whatever direction they like. So long as we remember that we have this marvellous gift of human intelligence and a capacity to develop determination and use it in positive ways, we will preserve our underlying mental health. Realizing we have this great human potential gives us a fundamental strength. This recognition can act as a mechanism that enables us to deal with any difficulty, no matter what situation we are facing, without losing hope or sinking into feelings of low self-esteem.
I write this as someone who lost his freedom at the age of 16, then lost his country at the age of 24. Consequently, I have lived in exile for more than 50 years during which we Tibetans have dedicated ourselves to keeping the Tibetan identity alive and preserving our culture and values. On most days the news from Tibet is heartbreaking, and yet none of these challenges gives grounds for giving up. One of the approaches that I personally find useful is to cultivate the thought: If the situation or problem is such that it can be remedied, then there is no need to worry about it. In other words, if there is a solution or a way out of the difficulty, you do not need to be overwhelmed by it. The appropriate action is to seek its solution. Then it is clearly more sensible to spend your energy focussing on the solution rather than worrying about the problem. Alternatively, if there is no solution, no possibility of resolution, then there is also no point in being worried about it, because you cannot do anything about it anyway. In that case, the sooner you accept this fact, the easier it will be for you. This formula, of course, implies directly confronting the problem and taking a realistic view. Otherwise you will be unable to find out whether or not there is a resolution to the problem
Taking a realistic view and cultivating a proper motivation can also shield you against feelings of fear and anxiety. If you develop a pure and sincere motivation, if you are motivated by a wish to help on the basis of kindness, compassion, and respect, then you can carry on any kind of work, in any field, and function more effectively with less fear or worry, not being afraid of what others think or whether you ultimately will be successful in reaching your goal. Even if you fail to achieve your goal, you can feel good about having made the effort. But with a bad motivation, people can praise you or you can achieve goals, but you still will not be happy.
Again, we may sometimes feel that our whole lives are unsatisfactory, we feel on the point of being overwhelmed by the difficulties that confront us. This happens to us all in varying degrees from time to time. When this occurs, it is vital that we make every effort to find a way of lifting our spirits. We can do this by recollecting our good fortune. We may, for example, be loved by someone; we may have certain talents; we may have received a good education; we may have our basic needs provided for – food to eat, clothes to wear, somewhere to live – we may have performed certain altruistic deeds in the past. We must take into consideration even the slightest positive aspect of our lives. For if we fail to find some way of uplifting ourselves, there is every danger of sinking further into our sense of powerlessness. This can lead us to believe that we have no capacity for doing good whatsoever. Thus we create the conditions of despair itself.
As a Buddhist monk I have learned that what principally upsets our inner peace is what we call disturbing emotions. All those thoughts, emotions, and mental events which reflect a negative or uncompassionate state of mind inevitably undermine our experience of inner peace. All our negative thoughts and emotions – such as hatred, anger, pride, lust, greed, envy, and so on – are considered to be sources of difficulty, to be disturbing. Negative thoughts and emotions are what obstruct our most basic aspiration – to be happy and to avoid suffering. When we act under their influence, we become oblivious to the impact our actions have on others: they are thus the cause of our destructive behaviour both toward others and to ourselves. Murder, scandal, and deceit all have their origin in disturbing emotions.
This inevitably gives rise to the question – can we train the mind? There are many methods by which to do this. Among these, in the Buddhist tradition, is a special instruction called mind training, which focuses on cultivating concern for others and turning adversity to advantage. It is this pattern of thought, transforming problems into happiness that has enabled the Tibetan people to maintain their dignity and spirit in the face of great difficulties. Indeed I have found this advice of great practical benefit in my own life.
A great Tibetan teacher of mind training once remarked that one of the mind’s most marvellous qualities is that it can be transformed. I have no doubt that those who attempt to transform their minds, overcome their disturbing emotions and achieve a sense of inner peace, will, over a period of time, notice a change in their mental attitudes and responses to people and events. Their minds will become more disciplined and positive. And I am sure they will find their own sense of happiness grow as they contribute to the greater happiness of others. I offer my prayers that everyone who makes this their goal will be blessed with success.
The Dalai Lama
December 31, 2010
Originally published in the Hindustan Times, India, on January 3rd, 2011