In 1972, Matthieu Ricard was a promise of biochemistry and was trying to understand the secrets of the E. coli bacteria. A chance encounter with Buddhism led him to change, and now Ricard has spent the last 40 years of his life living in the Himalayas, studying consciousness and happiness. In this October 2014 free debate for TED Global, Ricard spoke with journalist and writer Pico Iyer about some of the things he has learned over the years, as well as the importance of being health conscious mental health and how to use time in a meaningful way.
Here you can see an edited version of the conversation that begins with Pico Iyer talking about how he became fascinated by the idea of standing still:
Iyer Peak: When I was in my twenties, I had this incredible office on the 25th floor of a beautiful building in Manhattan at Rockefeller Center, and I had a life that I thought was incredible at the time: writing about issues of global relevance. And it was so exhilarating, that I never had a chance to really wonder if it filled me up or not, or if I was happy in a deeper sense because I was always happy in a superficial way.
So I left it behind. I went to live in a room in Kyoto, Japan and today it is likely that I am that strange journalist who has never used a cell phone. I live with my wife in a two-room apartment in Japan, I have no car, no bicycle, and no television. Also, I don't have internet. And still, I have to support my loved ones with my job as a travel writer and journalist. Only by keeping a certain distance from the world can I see its proportions and begin to separate the essential, the important, from the fleeting. I feel like a lot of us have this feeling of being 2 inches away from this stuffy, loud and constantly changing screen, and that screen happens to be our life. Only by leaning back and looking from an appropriate distance can we see what the screen is communicating to us.
Matthieu, in 1972 you were working as a molecular geneticist in France. You had finished your PhD and you made a decision that changed your life. Can you describe that journey?
Matthieu Ricard: I had an incredible adolescence. My father was a philosopher and my mother was a painter, so our house was always full of these people, writers and thinkers. I was a musician myself, I met Stravinsky when I was 16 years old. My uncle was an explorer and in the laboratory I was accompanied by two winners of the Nobel Prize in medicine. I couldn't have been surrounded by better people in all areas of life.
Then, when I was 20 years old, I watched some documentaries about Tibetan teachers who had escaped the invasion of communism in Tibet. And when I saw those faces, I thought: “Here are Socrates and Saint Francis of Assisi, alive in our age. I'm going there! " So I went. And then at some point I remember thinking, "Well, it is interesting to study the cell division of E. coli but if I could understand a little better the mechanisms of happiness ..."
So I retired at 26 and have done my post-doctorate in the Himalayas for 45 years.
P. Iyer, you were working on a book about the Dalai Lama when you met Matthieu, almost a decade ago. What impressed you about him at the time?
PI: What impressed me most about both Matthieu and the Dalai Lama is that they present happiness not as something particular to Buddhists or monks, but as something that is available to everyone at any minute we want it. I once went for my annual checkup with the doctor and he said, "Well, it's all great but you're starting to get old so you should spend at least 30 minutes every day in a gym." Taking into account what I had said, I signed up the next day, and religiously (so to speak) I observed this type of practice.
But then when another friend asked me, "Have you considered being still and sitting for 30 minutes every day?" I immediately replied, “Oh no! I don't have time, especially now that I spend half an hour on the treadmill every day ”. I didn't even think that, of course, mental health or sitting still is much more essential to my well-being, my happiness and even my physical health than the treadmill. And I think many times when people say "change your life" what you do is paint the car a different color instead of fixing the engine.
Matthieu, what does the word 'stillness' mean to you?
MR: There is the outer stillness, which is something predominant in this room, except for the noise we are making, however there is also the inner stillness. The real question is how can you integrate both types of stillness?
There is usually this feeling that we put all our hopes and fears outside of ourselves. “If I have this or this other then everything will be fine. If I don't have it, I can't really be happy. " Of course we should improve the conditions the world is in. I run 140 humanitarian projects so I know what it's like to be of service to others and I rejoice in it, but in the end we grapple with our mind from waking up to going to bed and it can be our best friend or worst enemy.
If we don't deal with the internal conditions that will lead us to well-being, then we are in trouble. And that's what inner stillness is, it's not that cliché of meditation that you blank your mind and relax. Stillness is avoiding the negative aspect of your mind so that you can later deal with your thoughts and emotions or sometimes so you can just sit back and rest being mindful. It is a very peaceful place.
Is stillness a physical act? Is it the same as being still?
PI: When I made the trip to get here, I was in one of the busiest places: Los Angeles airport. I was in the United Airlines lounge and out of nowhere, I saw a quiet room. I was only five feet from where everyone was eating cheese and watching CNN, but when I walked into that place it was as if I had been five miles away. It had a dim light and there were candles too and all I wanted was to read or close my eyes, but out of nowhere, the stillness was with me. So in that case, stillness was a kind of active presence. It wasn't the absence of sound, it was the presence of a kind of stillness that had manifested itself.
I think that's the reason why people like me, who are not part of any kind of religious tradition, usually retreat to monasteries: because suddenly you can hear everything and you are not talking constantly and you are not trying to impress those who you are. They surround you and are not distracted by emails or text messages. Out of nowhere, when you start to see things and you start to hear things, even if you are a journalist with no religion, the world becomes much richer.
Sometimes people assume that going on a retreat is very ascetic, but in my little experience, it has a lot to do with the senses. You start to listen to the birds, you are seeing, you are listening to the chimes in the distance, you begin to see things in detail.
It is common in our culture to confuse stillness with doing nothing. Practically speaking, how can we get to that place, even for a few minutes every day?
MR: I also hear a lot about it. People say they are so busy that they can't give themselves an extra 20 minutes. It's the same thing that Pico was saying about physical well-being a while ago. If people from Nepal come to Paris and see people jogging very early in the morning or riding a bike that has no destination, they will think they are crazy. Because they usually run in the mountains all day, so they don't need that. If giving yourself 15 minutes of stillness can have a positive impact on the 23 hours and 24 minutes left in your day, including how you sleep and your human relationships, it seems to be worth it. So saying "I don't have time" is like going to the doctor for a prescription and then saying to the doctor "It's impossible!"
Much of our life takes place inside our heads. This process of trying to experience stillness can also be a process for working with our anxiety, right?
PI: I go to a retreat four times a year, for the last 22 years I have done it in a Catholic monastery even though I am not. In the beginning, it was like walking towards light and liberation, and I was very touched by that first experience. But inevitably, at some point I was back inside myself, and all the things that I had tried to avoid in my daily life came back too: the shadows, the demons, the bad memories and the fears. It was then that I said to myself: well, better to face this than to try to ignore them as I would have done in my normal life. If that had happened to me in my room, I would have been able to click on YouTube or put on a baseball game or do something to distract me and I was thankful that there was no place to hide.
MR: Buddhism is like being at the base of Everest: there is no doubt that the mountain is there, but you may have doubts about being able to climb it. Will I be a good enough observer or will I have the necessary determination? In the case of budimos this mystery does not exist. Enlightenment is the elimination of metal confusion, eliminating hatred, envy, mental toxins and desires. It's very simple. Whether or not you can do it is another matter. But you will not have those existential and fundamental doubts, it has more to do with getting tired along the way and having to look for strengths within yourself, but I think it is very different from everything else.
I think many of us deal with the noise that exists in our minds looking for distractions, right? Trying to avoid these quiet periods.
PI: Yes. And distractions are the problem. The further we get away from a problem, the more we do is get into it.
P. Iyer, there is a concept that you talk about in your book, which you describe as "Not having a destination." Can you tell us a little more about that?
PI: I think it refers to two things: First, to be still. I have been lucky enough to go to Bhutan and Easter Island and Ethiopia and I have had extraordinary experiences there, but nothing compares to standing still in one place. Second, as Matthieu and Leonard Cohen and others have explained, it has to do with not feeling like you always have to have a destination. In my youth, when I went to expensive colleges and universities, they always told us the same thing: "You have to have an incredible resume, you have to do this and this, become a partner, become editor-in-chief, be a Supreme Court judge." And that seems to lead us to permanent dissatisfaction, because once you become a judge of the Supreme Court, you will want to be the head of the court in The Hague or once you get the Pulitzer Prize you will want the Nobel Prize and this wish will never be ends. So I think that not having a destination one way or another seemed like a better alternative than always trying to get somewhere. Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman and so many other great American writers have always extolled the virtue of sitting where you are.
Is it so easy to find those places and get to this stillness? Because it seems like it's difficult.
MR: It is easy and difficult. It is easy but it takes time. The Dalai Lama usually says, "The problem in the West is that people want lighting to be quick, easy and, if possible, cheap." When referring to cheap, he is not referring to money, but to "doing it casually and making it work." But you cannot become a pianist instantly, we are not born knowing how to read and write, everything comes to us with practice and what is wrong with that? Skills don't appear just because you want to be more compassionate or happier. But in a way, this effort is a form of happiness. Anyone who trains to do something, musicians or athletes, knows that there is a kind of happiness in their training, even if it seems hard. So in that sense, it takes time. But why not spend that time? We don't mind spending 15 years on education, so why not do the same when it comes to being a better human being?
PI: William James, who I think is one of the great psychologists in the United States, said: "The best weapon we have against stress is to choose one thought over another." And of course, stress has been called the great epidemic of the 21st century. Getting to choose one thought over another has to do with mental training. At the end of the day you can think about all the things that went wrong or all the many things that we take for granted and go well. Day after day people ask His Holiness the Dalai Lama how to deal with change or loss or whatever. And he responds: "look at it from a bigger perspective and change your mind."
In that sense, it is like the wisdom of Shakespeare: "There is nothing good or bad, it is human thought that makes it seem like that." We have more power than we imagine and more options when looking at a certain event from different points of view.