Urban Mindfulness

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What the Dalai Lama Doesn't Know...

What the Dalai Lama Doesn't Know...

Last week, I attended a 2-day conference on meditation and psychotherapy co-sponsored by Harvard Medical School. The theme of the conference was "Wisdom and Compassion", featuring the Dalai Lama as the main speaker. For six hours, he answered questions posed by prominent scientists and clinicians, including Drs. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Richard Davidson, Steven Pinker, Marsha Linehan, Bessel van der Kolk, and Judith Jordan.

It was an amazing experience, and the Dalai Lama shared many interesting observations, which I'll discuss in my next post (including his emphasis on urban mindfulness!).  Today however, I'll talk a little about the atmosphere of the conference itself and the experience of being there.  

The setting was such that the Dalai Lama was seated in the center of a large stage, flanked by his interpreter, Dr. Thupten Jinpa. The other eminent panelists sat facing him in a semi-circle. The auditorium held close to 800 people (mostly therapists--how does that make you feel?) who watched the proceedings unfold on the stage directly or via large video screens.

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Regrettably, the format with the Dalai Lama was more of a "Question-&-Answer" session than a discussion. As a result, it almost seemed like the proverbial visit to the "guru on the mountain top". Not that H.H. ("His Holiness") does not have valuable insight and teachings, but the vibe started to become too devotional for me. I would have preferred something more interactive. Given this structure however, it was quite refreshing when the Dalai Lama would consider questions thoughtfully, whisper back-and-forth excitedly with his interpreter, and then--after a very pregnant pause--declare, "I don't know".

In fact, there were many times when the Dalai Lama professed ignorance or stated that the answer is "complex." For example, when asked to lead a meditation to help the attendees to develop self-compassion, he demurred. He asked, "How can one build a healthy state of mind? There is no single meditation; it's impossible." He added later that there are thousands of meditations. The practice of only one meditation has a "limited effect."

There was also a funny moment when the Dalai Lama confusedly asked the surrounding experts, "What is psychology? What does it mean?" The whole room was abuzz as folks contemplated an answer. Dr. Marsha Linehan offered a definition of psychology as "the study of the behavior of the mind and of behavior." The Dalai Lama's brow wrinkled as he pondered her answer, nodding his head for a couple minutes, then revealed, "Now I am more confused."

While the Dalai Lama is quite learned and smart, he humbly recognized the limits of his knowledge.  If he did not know something, he just said so!  How liberating!  It provided a nice counter-point to how we often put pressure on ourselves (and others) to know the answer. Indeed, one of the leading contributors to anxiety is an inability to manage uncertainty or "not knowing."  

When professing his ignorance, H.H. was often quick to giggle and joke with the participants.  His playfulness was unexpected, and it reflected a statement from Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn on the following day:  "Life is too serious to take seriously."  

So, what does this mean for us?  Obviously, the Dalai Lama doesn't have all the answers.  Neither do I.  Neither do you.  Neither does your therapist.  Neither do your parents.  If fact, nobody does.  And you know what?  It's okay.

Jonathan Kaplan, Ph.D., has been practicing, teaching, and writing about mindfulness for over a decade. He maintains a private practice in New York City.

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