Last week, I saw Matthieu Ricard give a talk about his new book Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change You and the World (hardcover, ebook and audiobook) in an event hosted by Soren Gordhamer and Wisdom 2.0. Ricard is an interesting fellow. After finishing his doctorate in molecular genetics in 1972 in the lab of Nobel-winning legend François Jacob, he promptly took off for a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the mountains of Nepal, where he has resided since. Subsequent to participating in a pioneering study by Richie Davidson from the University of Wisconsin on the effects of meditation on brain physiology, the media dubbed him “the happiest man in the world.”
You know this is a man grounded in reality because he is quick to refute that label not out of modesty but from the simple fact that all of his fellow monks would do (and have done) equally well on measurements of their brain activity that could result in such a label. My inclination is to think that if you’ve put in the 50,000 hours of meditation that Ricard has, your brain is bound to manifest some unusual phenomena.
Ricard is an exceptionally lucid and engaging speaker, even in English, which is not his native tongue. In fact, he’s so engaging that I hardly took any notes. Here is some of what he mentioned in his talk:
- Happiness is not the constant seeking of pleasurable experiences. That can turn out to be quite exhausting.
- One definition of happiness: not excluding anyone from your heart.
- Constantly making the world about you — why did this happen to me, why are people mean to me, why am I so unlucky — you create the phenomenon of “the world arising as enemy.”
- If you find meditation boring, it’s not the fault of the meditation.
- The word “meditation” itself has little meaning. It’s a bit like saying “training” — what kind of training? Weightlifting? Running? Tennis?
- In the same way that you can’t expect to play the harpsichord expertly without practice, you can’t expect to be an expert at compassion, altruism, mindfulness, gratitude without practice either.
- Mindfulness by itself is not enough. You could have a mindful sniper or psychopath. You must add the caring component to it.
At the request of the moderator, Ricard led us through a 4-part compassion meditation.
- First, you project loving-kindness to several people in sequence, from easy-to-love to very difficult.
- Then, you wish for a reduction of their suffering. This is the compassion component.
- Rejoice in the existence of all the other people also wishing for the reduction of suffering and taking an active part in it.
- Make impartial your projection of compassion and loving-kindness to all sentient beings, without preference or special allocation.
I have adapted that into this 12min audio, which you can listen to here. The clinical effects of loving-kindness meditation on positive affect and psychological health are well-documented. Besides, it feels good. If you do not have a meditation practice yet, you may wish to consider trying this for starters.
You may download the audio here.
Ricard is currently touring the US to promote Altruism. He will make two stops in New York City next week — check his event calendar here. I urge you to go see him if you have the opportunity.