Join our Mailing List

"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Sitting Quietly, Doing Something

July 23, 2009

By Daniel Goleman, New York Times
July 16, 2009, 9:30 pm

I recently spent an evening with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, the Tibetan
lama who has been dubbed ?the happiest man in the world.? True, that
title has been bestowed upon at least a few extremely upbeat individuals
in recent times. But it is no exaggeration to say that Rinpoche is a
master of the art of well-being.

So how did he get that way? Apparently, the same way you get to Carnegie
Hall. Practice.

Courtesy of Crown Publishers Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

I?ve had the pleasure of knowing Rinpoche a bit over the years, and
always found him in good cheer. This meeting was no different. When I
called him at his Manhattan hotel to arrange to get together before we
were to discuss his new book, ?Joyful Wisdom? at the 92nd St. Y, he told
me he was in the middle of a shower ? but not in the usual sense. The
shower, he told me, had run out of hot water midway. When he called the
front desk, he was told to wait several minutes and there would be more
hot water. In this situation, I probably would have been peeved. But as
Rinpoche told me this, he was laughing and laughing.

The only momentary glitch I?ve witnessed ? a few years back ? was
slapstick: he sat down in an office chair with a faulty seat that
suddenly plunged several inches with a thump. Once when this chair had
done the same to me I cursed and groused about it for a while. But
Rinpoche just frowned for a second ? and the next moment he was his
upbeat self again. Quickness of recovery time from upsets is one way
science takes the measure of a happy temperament.

While annoyances like these are hardly life?s greatest tests, handling
them gracefully takes a composure that few of us seem to have at our

Mingyur Rinpoche was not born into wealth and comfort. He spent his
earliest years in a remote Himalayan village lacking even the most basic
amenities. Nor was he a lucky winner in the genetic lottery for moods.
In his book he recounts being extremely anxious as a child in Nepal,
having had what a Manhattan psychiatrist would likely diagnose as panic
attacks, and how he cured himself of this chronic anxiety by making his
fears the focus of his meditation. He has had to earn his good cheer.

Rinpoche seems eclectic in studying paths to well-being, including
Western recipes. A few years ago, he attended a five-day meeting at the
Mind & Life Institute that brought together a group of neuroscientists
and the Dalai Lama to discuss ways to overcome destructive emotions. He
found that the Western scientific findings on emotions had much in
common with his own approach to cultivating well-being.

But when it comes to his own pursuit of happiness, Buddhist theory and
practice are Rinpoche?s chosen tools. He has done several years-long
meditation retreats, under the tutelage of some of the most renowned
Tibetan masters. Of course, what we mean by ?happiness? can be elusive,
what with the myriad varieties of good feeling running from ecstasy to
equanimity. One flavor of happiness at which Rinpoche seems to excel has
been well-studied by scientists specializing in how emotions operate in
our brains.

Richard Davidson, who heads the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at
the University of Wisconsin, has found one distinct brain profile for
happiness. As Davidson?s laboratory has reported, when we are in
distress, the brain shows high activation levels in the right prefrontal
area and the amygdala. But when we are in an upbeat mood, the right side
quiets and the left prefrontal area stirs. When showing this brain
pattern, people report feeling, as Davidson put it to me, ?positively
engaged, goal-directed, enthusiastic, and energetic.?

Mingyur Rinpoche came to Davidson?s lab as one of a dozen or so
meditation adepts, each of whom had put in anywhere between 10,000 and
50,000 lifetime hours of meditation. Research on expertise in any skill
shows that world-class champs have put in at least 10,000 hours of
practice; these were Olympic-level meditators.

One of the first findings from the research showed that when these
adepts meditated on compassion, their left prefrontal areas jumped in
activity an average 100 percent ? by contrast a control group who were
taught the same meditation practice showed an increase of just 10
percent. Two of the adepts had spectacular increases, in the
700-to-800-percent range, in key neural zones for good feeling. The more
lifetime hours of practice, the greater the increases tended to be. All
this seems to confirm the idea that in the realm of positive moods, as
in nearly every endeavor, worldly or spiritual, practice matters.

So can we all get a taste of Rinpoche?s bliss?

Davidson worked with Jon Kabat-Zinn, a teacher of mindfulness meditation
from the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, to see how a group
of novices might gain from these methods. Kabat-Zinn, who has pioneered
this contemplative method with medical patients to ease their symptoms,
taught mindfulness at a high-stress biotech company; these beginners
meditated for 30 minutes a day for eight weeks. Davidson?s measures
showed that after the eight weeks they had begun to activate that left
prefrontal zone more strongly ? and were saying that instead of feeling
overwhelmed and hassled, they were enjoying their work. So while the
Calvinist strain in American culture may look askance at someone sitting
quietly in meditation, this kind of ?doing nothing? seems to do
something remarkable after all.

Of course, there?s no guarantee of greater happiness from meditation,
but the East has given us a promising path for its pursuit.

Another fruit of these spiritual practices seems to be a healthy dose of
humility. When Rinpoche told my wife that he was being billed as ?the
happiest man in the world,? he laughed as though that were the funniest
joke he?d ever heard.

(Daniel Goleman reported on the brain and behavioral sciences for The
New York Times for 12 years. He is the author of several books,
including his most recent, ?Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the
Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything.? His Web site is )
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank