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Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Art of Happiness in a Trouble World.

I just finished reading the follow-up book to the #1 bestseller, "The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living" by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, MD. The follow-up is titled, "The Art of Happiness in a Trouble World. I found things that I liked in this book, however, I wouldn't be honest if I said it was an excellent book. I don't like to be critical in life but I won't say I liked something if I didn't. I must say though that this wasn't the Dalai Lama's fault in the least but rather the author who came across as almost pestering His Holiness when he didn't like the answer the Tibetan monk gave.

For example, the author Mr. Cutler spent the first part of the book (five full chapters) on one subject -- the importance of diversity. Now, this is a very important and noble subject to be sure. That said, the author could have covered the subject in breadth within two chapters but spending 109 pages talking about all the different ways one can say, "Diversity is important" gets frustrating and a bit annoying. Of course, I'm not the most patient person in the world but after 109 pages I was somewhat exasperated.

At one point Cutler even writes that the Dalai Lama appeared exasperated with the line of questioning as to why the author couldn't understand that it's not "Me or We" but "Me and We" when relating to others and yet taking care of one's own needs. The Dalai Lama said:

"So, we are not saying to forget about oneself, one's own concerns. That is not realistic. We are saying that you can think about both one's own welfare and the welfare of others at the same time."

Sounds simple enough but not for the annoyingly minutia dwelling author. He apparently thought that wasn't a good enough answer. So he writes, "Nonetheless I persisted with my original question..." which is understandable at first but this was an obnoxious trait of pushing the Dalai Lama persisted through the book. Even someone with unlimited patience like Dalai Lama can't take that much philosophical rambling. So the author continues, "We continued along the same lines for several more moments, as I pressed him for a way to deal with the "opposing" sensibilities of a Me or a We orientation. The Dalai Lama absently rubbed his palm over the crown of his shaved head as I spoke, a gesture of frustration that was also reflected in his rapidly shifting facial expression. As his expression on a priceless mixture of three parts bewilderment, one part amusement, and a dash of disgust, he shook his head and laughed. "I'm just not clear as to where the contradiction lies! From my perspective there is no inherent opposition here."

I realize that I should have more patience for absolutist, black and white thinking such as the one shown by the author in these interviews but such desire for clear-cut, definitive solutions to broad human problems doesn't make for very easy book reading. After awhile you lose focus as the reader and your mind becomes a bit blurry, numb and confused as to what the original point of the author was. Finally, on page 114 I found something useful and insightful brought about by the interviews as the author asked the DL about September 11th and how could human nature be inherintly good in the face of such horrific acts. The Tibetan monk responded wisely:

"Perhaps one thing is that I look at such events from a wider perspective. When such things happen we often tend to look for one person or a group of people to blame. But I think it is wrong just to look at one individual or group of individuals and isolate them as the sole cause. If you adopt a wider view, you'll see that there can be many causes of violence. And there can be many factors contributing to such events. So many factors. In this case, for example, I think religious belief is also involved. So if you reflect on this event more deeply," he explained, "you realize that many factors contributed to this tragedy. To me, this reinforced one crucial fact: It showed to me that modern technology combined with human intelligence and guided by negative emotions -- this is how such unthinkable disasters happen." This made total sense to me and seemed clear but once again the author responded with confusion saying, "Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?" I understand he wants a clear cut answer that fits neatly into his psychiatric, scientific background. That said, by this point it was starting to give me the impression that he was dragging this out, in part to squeeze more juice out of the "Art of Happiness" turnip for another book.

The next 50 pages was more drilling down and getting lost in the minutia of a subject. This time the subject was on the sources of violence, which while important was done at a depth that just frustrated me. Once again the author dissected the subject down so finely that there wasn't much left to take away. The next chapter, chapter 9 about dealing with fear was really good but by page 181 I was exhausted mentally. Unfortunately this was the point at, which I stopped reading because I just couldn't read anymore of the author's pushing the Dalai Lama to say things the author wanted to hear. However, I'll end my long review with quoting something that I did really like from the author in speaking about violence and having hope for reducing it in the future.

"Aren't we essentially compelled to conclude that human nature is fundamentally aggressive? Fortunately the answer to that is, No! According to researchers, during the age of hunter-gatherer socieites, 30 percent of the male population died by violent means, at the hands of others. What was the percentage during the bloody twentieth century, even with the war, the genocides, the constant warfare? Less than 1 percent! And as the new century and millennium has dawned, this rate has continued to fall dramatically."

I wish I had more good to say about this book because as I said, I don't like being critical but I also don't want to be misleading as I think some reviewers tend to be. I often read snippets of reviews on all these book jackets that just gush over them. However, I can't tell you how many times I've been disappointed to find out for myself that what they were saying didn't square with my reading. So while there are some nuggets of insight within this book the majority of it is pretty annoying and again, that's not the fault of the Dalai Lama.

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dcanon said...

Totally agree. The book is too self-absorbed. You can definitely tell it was written by a dyed-in-the-wool American M.D.

Mountain Humanist said...

I wonder, though, if Cutler was simply playing devil's advocate as a kind of intellectual stand-in for the "average American (or other) reader?"

I am only just now reading TAH-At Work (the second Art of book, I think) and that seems to be Cutler's role.

One quibbling point: I think it's time to drop the whole "His Holiness" prefix from the Dalai Lama's name. If he insists on this appellation then my respect for him plummets. If we all have inherent Buddha nature then we are all "Our Holiness" in which case it seems excessive and unnecessary to carry such titles. Otherwise, the next time I order a sandwich at Panera Bread, I will insist "His Holiness" be spoken on the loudspeaker when my order is ready. "Simplify, Simplify, Simplifly."

Royally Yours,
His Handsomeness
Teh Mountain Humanist

Count Sneaky said...

I bought this book hoping that it was as clear-eyed and informative as the DL's previous books. It wasn't. The author made the DL's words seem almost unintelligible and redundant in the face of his hectoring and inability to understand any explanation. Good post.

Katers said...

I'd be interested in reading this book as I enjoyed The Art of Happiness.

It's interesting that you didn't like this one so much.


mentalzenn said...

I would like to know how you would rate "The Middle Way" by Lou Marinoff and "Plato, Not Prozac!" By Lou Marinoff. The Middle Way I have read I enjoyed it. It challenged my views. As a fellow Buddhist I wonder what you would think of it?

Bodhi said...

Thanks for the great info on this book, I've read and listened to the other Art of Happiness and I think I enjoyed it. Will have to check this out too.

Susmita Barua said...

Jay I bought this book hard cover version for my spouse as I was atrracted by the face and title. It still sits on the shelf. Did not grab me somehow after initial browsing.

Marco said...

Read the book. I found it as a good reference.alumni bball

Reena said...

The art of happiness also depends a person's mindset. I have yet to read the art of happiness book but I am a fan of inspirational arts in which I can put up on any wall in my home.

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