Urban Mindfulness

Finding peace in the middle of it all.

The Dalai Lama on Urban Mindfulness, Violent Offenders, and Mad Dogs

The Dalai Lama on Mindfulness, Compassion, and Rabid Dogs

Last month, I attended a two-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. In a previous post, I discussed the refreshing novelty of his frequently professed ignorance (click here: What the Dalai Lama Doesn't Know)

In this post, I wanted to share a few insights and observations that he did offer.

Mindfulness is Important

Not surprisingly, the Dalai Lama emphasized the importance of mindfulness. He explained that wisdom and compassion can be cultivated through "mental engagement" with an object and aspiration, respectively. In other words, we become wise through deepening our understanding of things around us, and we become compassionate by focusing on compassion. He noted that mindfulness is relevant for both: it helps us maintain our focus, whether on a particular fact or goal.


City Living is Particularly Challenging

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Dr. Judith Jordan, one of the Founding Fellows and current Director of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, inquired about cross-cultural differences in relationships and autonomy. She observed that Western culture (and psychotherapy) emphasizes separateness and individuality, while Eastern culture emphasizes interdependence and collectivism.

The Dalai Lama opined that there is "no big difference" between the West and East mentally, emotionally, and physically. However, there is a "difference between the big city and countryside." He indicated that urban environments cultivate a mental state in which people more concerned with money, which gives rise to more anxiety and stress. He also noted that rich people are more likely to experience "destructive emotions" (e.g., jealousy, arrogance, etc.) and a decreased sense of community. As a result, he noted--somewhat self-consciously--that it is even more important to mindfully maintain humility and connectedness when when you become "an object of reverence."


"Wrong is Wrong"

Judith Herman, founder of the Victims of Violence program in Boston, asked a question about the limits of compassion, especially relative to perpetrators of violence. She noted that there is an apparent burden on the survivor of violence to forgive in order to more forward. The Dalai Lama responded by delineating two levels of compassion. In the first level, one seeks to understand compassion intellectually and consider factually what has happened, which can promote a sense of attachment to our selves and loved ones (i.e., me vs. "him/her"). As a result, it can lead to hatred or anger directed against the perpetrator. In the second level, one trains to cultivate compassion through a genuine sense of concern for others, including the perpetrator. At this level, one is capable of doing two things: (1) oppose the "wrongful acts" done by someone else; and (2) recognize the inherent humainty of that person. He suggested that it is possible to take the following compassionate action: (1) feel solidarity in the fact that all human beings want to overcome suffering; (2) point out what is wrong in the behavior, out of concern for the individual; (3) consider the well-being of all society, which suggests that wrong doers deserve justice. He added, "Wrong is wrong. We have to make it clear."


Metta Won't Stop a Rabid Dog

Many times during the meeting, the Dalai Lama reflected on the complexity of the human condition, and our collective inability to provide simple solutions to life's circumstances. He noted, for example, "For mental problems, there is not one anitdote." What this means, of course, is that the cultivation of any one single attribute--whether compassion, wisdom, or mindfulness--is not sufficient. Compassion is a wonderful attribute to develop, but it has limits. As the Dalai Lama stated simply, "If a mad dog is coming towards you, compassion is no use. You need to use your intelligence." It might also help if you can run really, really fast...

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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