But listen closely to his still, small voice, and you will receive transgressive truths. Today, conventional wisdom too often teaches that people who disagree with us are obstacles; we must coerce others to follow our wishes; happiness is supposed to come from getting exactly what we want. In contrast, the Dalai Lama asks us to treat others gently as sisters and brothers, even if they disagree with us; to love unconditionally; to reject self-centeredness, which he sees as the source of unhappiness.
To take his message to heart means setting yourself apart from the orthodoxies that rule our culture—including, perhaps, some that you don’t even know are influencing your assumptions and limiting your thinking.
For the past seven years, one of my most treasured collaborative friendships has been with His Holiness. Beyond our writing and interviews, he has given me personal advice that has deepened my religious faith, guided my career, and improved my relationships. Ordinarily around this time, I visit him at his monastery in Dharamsala, India. But not this year, due to the pandemic—so, like the rest of the world, we met by Zoom. We had a public conversation in front of my graduate students and a worldwide live-streamed audience.
The Dalai Lama’s broad message sounded straightforward from the start of our conversation: To attain happiness, one must be able to say, “My life is something meaningful, something useful.” This, in turn, requires an understanding of our common purpose: “the taking care of each other,” which is our “human nature.”
Nothing controversial there, right? Wrong. Gentle words, yet a very radical claim.
Many Western philosophers, from Thomas Hobbes to Friedrich Nietzsche to Herbert Spencer, reject the idea that looking after one another with compassion is part of our nature. On the contrary, these thinkers and their traditions argue that people are naturally self-interested and untrustworthy. As such, coercion—or, at best, cold negotiation—is the only way we can attain our ends. This outlook might sound harsh, but it guides more of day-to-day modern life than you might expect. Consider the more than $100 billion we spend each year on policing in the United States, and the $429 billion each year on tort litigation. Or simply consider how political leaders all around the world—including so many today on the American left and right—have embraced fear and hatred of people with different views as if it were perfectly normal.
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The Dalai Lama rejects this negative view of human nature. On the contrary, he believes that self-centeredness represents an emotional and moral disequilibrium. “Self-centered thinking … is against” nature, he told me in our conversation, and the “selfish way is actually destroying your own happy” life. By extension, leaders who foment fear of one another instead of bringing us together deliver discontent to the people they lead.