In 1972, Matthieu Ricard had a promising career in biochemistry, trying to figure out the secrets of E. coli bacteria. A chance encounter with Buddhism led to an about turn, and Ricard has spent the past 40+ years living in the Himalayas, studying mindfulness and happiness. In this free-wheeling discussion at TED Global in October 2014, Ricard talked with journalist and writer Pico Iyer about some of the things they’ve learned over the years, not least the importance of being conscious about mental health and how to spend time meaningfully. An edited version of the conversation, moderated by TED Radio Hour host Guy Raz, follows. First, Pico Iyer on how he became taken with the idea of staying still:
Pico Iyer: When I was in my twenties, I had this wonderful 25th-floor office in midtown Manhattan, in Rockefeller Center — and I had a really exhilarating life, I thought, writing on world affairs for Time magazine. And it was so exhilarating, I never had a chance to find out if it was really fulfilling me, or if I was happy in a deeper sense, because I was constantly happy in the most superficial kind of way.
And so I left all that behind. I moved to a single room on the back streets of Kyoto, Japan, and now I’m probably the rare journalist who’s never used a cell phone. I live with my wife in a two-room apartment in Japan; I have no car, no bicycle, no media, no TV I can understand. Essentially, no internet. And I still have to support my loved ones as a travel writer and a journalist. It’s only by keeping a distance from the world that I can begin to see its proportions and begin to try to sift the essential from the fleeting. I feel that so many of us now have the sensation of standing about two inches away from this very crowded, noisy, constantly shifting big screen, and that screen is our lives. It’s only by stepping back that we can see what the screen is communicating.
Matthieu, in 1972 you were a molecular geneticist in France. You had just completed your PhD, and you made a life-changing decision to seek a different path. Can you describe your journey?
Matthieu Ricard: I had a fantastic adolescence. My father was a philosopher and my mother is a painter, so all these people, writers and thinkers were coming to our home. I was a musician myself — I met Stravinsky when I was 16 years old. My uncle was an explorer, and I was in the lab with two winners of the Nobel Prize of medicine. You could not wish for better potential for looking either this way or that way at life.
Then when I was 20, I saw some documentaries on all the great Tibetan masters who had fled the Communist invasion of Tibet. And when I saw those faces I thought, “Wow, here is Socrates, St. Francis of Assisi, alive now. I’m going there!” So I just went. And then at one point I thought, “Well, it’s nice to study the cell division of E. coli, but if I could have a little insight on the mechanism of happiness and suffering …”
So I retired when I was 26, and I’ve done my post-doc in the Himalayas for 45 years.
“It so often happens that somebody says ‘change your life’ and you repaint your car rather than re-wire the engine.” Pico Iyer
Pico, you were working on a book about the Dalai Lama when you first met Matthieu about a decade ago. What struck you about him back then?
PI: What struck me about both Matthieu and the Dalai Lama is they present happiness not as something peculiar to Buddhists or monks, but available to everyone whenever you want. I once went for my annual checkup with my doctor, and he said, “Well, your numbers are all fantastic, but you’re getting on in years so you should spend 30 minutes every day in a health club.” As soon as he said that, I signed up the next day, and I religiously, so to speak, observed that practice.
But when another friend of mine asked me, “Have you ever thought of sitting still for 30 minutes every day?” I said, “Oh no! I don’t have time, especially now I’m on the treadmill for 30 minutes every day.” Not beginning to think that of course the mental health club or just sitting still is much more essential to my well-being, my happiness, and probably even my physical health than the treadmill. And I think it so often happens that somebody says “change your life” and you repaint your car rather than re-wire the engine.
Matthieu, what does the word “stillness” mean to you?
MR: There is outer stillness, which is relatively predominant in this room, except that we’re making a little noise, but there’s also inner stillness. The real question is how can you integrate those two?
There is often this feeling that we put all our hopes and fears outside ourselves. “If I have this or that then everything will be fine. If I don’t have it, I cannot really be happy.” Of course we should improve the condition of the world — I run 140 humanitarian projects so I know what it is to be at the service of others and I rejoice in that — but in the end, we deal with our mind from morning till evening, and it can be our best friend or our worst enemy.
If we don’t deal with the inner condition for well-being, then we are really in trouble. And so that’s what inner stillness is — not that cliche about meditation, that you blank your mind and relax. Stillness is to avoid the chaotic aspect of the mind, and then you can deal with thoughts and emotions, or sometimes you just sit or rest in that pure awareness. That’s a place of immense peace.
PI [to MR]: What do you say when people say, “Here we are in Rio, there are probably three million people here without enough food, or there are crime problems in the street. Isn’t it selfish just to go and investigate the mind or go on retreat or sit still?”
MR: I hear that a lot. And if you were just going there to escape paying tax or seeing nagging people, then of course that would be some type of selfish. But if one of your chief goals is get rid of selfishness, how could you call that selfish? It’s like saying to someone, “Why do you want to build a hospital? That takes years! You should do surgeries right now in the street!” When you build the hospital, making plumbing or doing cement work obviously doesn’t cure anyone, but when the hospital is ready, how much more you can help. I see now, working in the humanitarian world, we start to help people, and we get derailed by conflict of ego, corruption — human shortcomings. So the best thing you could do instead of training to run an NGO or make accounts would be to start to become a better human being so that you can serve others better and not be distracted by trying to make everyone perfect on the way. That’s the job of the Buddha, not your job.
Is stillness a physical act and is it the same thing as quiet?
PI: On my way here I was in that most exalted of places, Los Angeles airport, and I was in the United Airlines lounge, and suddenly I saw a quiet room. It was five feet from where everyone was grabbing pieces of cheese and watching CNN, but I just stepped into that place and it might have been five miles away. It was softly lit, and there were candles, and all I really wanted to do was read or close my eyes but suddenly, quiet was right there. So certainly in that case, the stillness was a kind of active presence. It wasn’t the absence of noise, it was the presence of a kind of quiet that they had laid out.
I think that’s why people like me, who are not part of a religious tradition, will often go on retreat to monasteries, because suddenly you can listen to everything and you’re not endlessly talking and you’re not trying to impress everybody around you, and you’re not being distracted by emails and texts … Suddenly when you start to watch things and start to listen to things, even if you’re a journalist without religion, the world becomes much richer.
Sometimes people assume that going on retreat is a very ascetic thing, but in my small experience, it’s extremely sensuous. Suddenly you’re hearing the birds, you’re seeing, you’re listening to the tolling of bells, you’re seeing detail.
You’re hearing your own heartbeat.
PI: Matthieu, I loved it when I met you here yesterday night, you said you’re on retreat a lot of the time still — sometimes with your 91-year-old mother. In other words, you’re on retreat, but it’s about compassion, and it’s about tending to your loved ones. So my sense is that going on retreat is a waystation to coming back into the world with more to give.
MR: We say that a beggar cannot give a banquet. If I have nothing to give you, I cannot invite you for lunch.
It’s not uncommon for our culture to confuse stillness with being idle, with maybe wasting time. Practically speaking, how can we go to that place, even if just for a few minutes every day?
MR: I hear that all the time too, people saying they’re so busy, how can they possibly take another 20 minutes? It’s just as Pico said about physical fitness before. If people from Nepal come to Paris and they see people jogging early in the morning or going on a bicycle that goes nowhere, they think they are mad. Because they are running in the mountains all day, so they don’t need that. If 15 minutes of stillness change the 23 hours and 45 minutes left in your day, including your sleep and your human relations, it seems to be worthwhile. So to say “I don’t have time” is like going to see a doctor for treatment and then when you hear it saying, “Oh Doctor, it’s impossible!”
“Enlightenment is eliminating mental confusion, eliminating hatred, jealousy, mental toxins, cravings. That’s very simple and straightforward. Whether you can do it or not is another matter.” Matthieu Ricard
So much of our lives plays out in our heads. This process of trying to experience stillness can also be a process of working through anxiety, can’t it? I’m sure I’m not the only person in this room who has woken up at three in the morning in a quiet and still time to find the mind racing. You can’t stop it, and it’s actually not very pleasant.
PI: I go on retreat four times a year — for the last 22 years at a Catholic monastery, though I’m not Catholic. Initially it was like walking into pure radiance and liberation, and I was so excited by that first experience. But inevitably, at some point I was just thrown back on myself — everything I was trying to evade in my day to day life would come up, shadows, demons, bad memories, terrors, but I thought, well, better to face those than to run from them as I would in my normal life. If that happened in my bedroom, I would be able to go and click onto YouTube or turn on a baseball game or do something to run away from that, and I was grateful for the fact that there was no place to hide there.
MR: I remember one time I translated a 1000-page autobiography of a great Tibetan master from the 18th century into French and English. It was a beautiful biography — and then I was giving an interview in France, and someone was presenting the life of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, one of those mystics who had those dark, dark nights, and the interviewer said, “Your autobiography is very inspiring, but it’s kind of dull, because it doesn’t say anything about all those obstacles, about those storms.” And I wondered why this doesn’t happen so much in this kind of practitioner. And I thought maybe it has to do with the view that pervades different spiritual traditions. Look at Mother Teresa’s nagging doubts. If everything is to relate to an absolute deity, whatever you call God or other names in other traditions, then of course, if you have complete confidence that such an entity exists then there will be this incredible richness. If suddenly you think maybe it’s not there, everything sort of collapses.
What’s the difference in Buddhist practice? It’s more like being at the foot of Everest — there is no doubt that the mountain is there, but you might have doubt about being able to climb it. Will I be observant enough or determined enough? In the case of Buddhism there’s no mystery. Enlightenment is eliminating mental confusion, eliminating hatred, jealousy, mental toxins, cravings. That’s very simple and straightforward. Whether you can do it or not is another matter. But you don’t have those big fundamental existential doubts; it’s more like sometimes you feel tired on the way, and you have to reach out your strengths, but I think it’s quite different in a way.
I think that many of us deal with the noise in our minds by seeking out distractions, right? By avoiding those periods of stillness?
PI: Yes. And the distractions are the problem. The more we run from a problem, the more we’re actually running into it.
Pico, there’s a concept you talk about in your book which you describe it as “going nowhere.” Can you tell us about that?
PI: I think it refers to two things: first, sitting still. I’ve been lucky enough to go to Bhutan and Easter Island and Ethiopia and I’ve had extraordinary experiences there, but none has compared with sitting in one place. Second, just what Matthieu and Leonard Cohen and others have done, which is not to feel like you always have to get somewhere. When I was growing up and I was going to overpriced colleges, they were always telling us, “You’ve got to accumulate a wonderful resume, you’ve got to climb this hurdle and this hurdle and this hurdle, become partner, become editor-in-chief, become Supreme Court judge.” And that seems to lead to permanent dissatisfaction, because once you become a Supreme Court judge, you want to become the head of the court in the Hague, or once you get the Pulitzer Prize you want the Nobel Prize, so there’s never any end to that craving. So I think going nowhere in some ways seemed to me a more promising alternative than always trying to get somewhere. And Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman and so many of America’s great writers have always extolled the virtue of sitting where you are.
Many of us remember a beautiful TED Talk by Brother David Steindl-Rast [Want to be happy? Be grateful], and he had a very simple piece of advice for those seeking happiness, which was to express and to feel gratitude on a daily basis. Is finding those places and seeking that stillness and searching for those things that easy? Because it seems like it’s actually hard work.
MR: It’s easy and hard. It’s easy but it takes time. The Dalai Lama often says, “The problem in the West is people want enlightenment to be fast, to be easy, and if possible, cheap.” So by cheap, he doesn’t mean by paying money, but cheap in the sense of “you know, just do it casually, it will work.” But you don’t become a good pianist instantly; we’re not born knowing how to read and write, everything comes through training, and what’s wrong with that? Skills don’t just pop up because you wish to be more compassionate or happier. It needs sustained application. But it’s joy in the form of effort. Everybody who trains to do something, musicians, sportsmen and so on, says there’s a sort of joy in their training, even if it seems to be harsh. So in that sense, it does take time. But why not spend time? We don’t mind spending 15 years on education, why not the same to become a better human being?
PI: William James, who I think is one of America’s great psychologists, said, “The greatest weapon we have against stress is to choose one thought over another.” And of course, stress has been called the single biggest epidemic of the 21st century. But to choose one thought over another has to do with mind training. At the end of the day you can think of all the things that have gone wrong, or you can think of all the many, many things that we take for granted that have gone right. Day after day people ask his Holiness the Dalai Lama how to deal with challenge or loss or whatever. And he says, “see it in a wider perspective and change your mind.”
In that sense, it’s like Shakespeare’s wisdom, “There’s nothing either good or bad that thinking makes it so.” We have more power, I think, than we imagine and more choice to look at any event from any angle.
“Every day there are small moments when we have a choice: will we take in more stuff, or just clear our minds out for a bit?” Pico Iyer
Of course, this is not always easy. Pico, do you find yourself sometimes slipping or not giving yourself the space you need and the time you need to go to those places?
PI: I’m permanently slipping! My whole life is slipping. When I landed in Rio on Saturday, I realized that was the 12th airport I’d been to in three and a half days. So yes, I travel much more and I take in more data than I would like, but I do try consciously to maintain some kind of balance and not just surrender to the pull of the modern moment, which is towards being almost drowned in more information than you know what do with. But I think in tiny circular ways — when I go on the treadmill, I try not to turn on the TV. When I’m on a plane, sometimes I try not to watch a movie or read a book, but just sit where I am. Every day there are small moments when we have a choice: will we take in more stuff, or just clear our minds out for a bit? I try to lean to the latter.
In your book, you mention that we are actually working fewer hours in the West, and yet we still seem to have fewer moments to give to ourselves. Is there something about the moment we are living in now that’s different, that’s changed?
PI: Even 20 years ago, I don’t think most of us worried about information overload or multi-tasking in the same way or with the same urgency. And remember, the world is not going to get slower, and devices are not going to uninvent themselves. Ten years from now, we’ll be dealing with things that make texting and Skype look really old-fashioned. And the machines aren’t going to teach us how to keep our sense of balance. That part is up to us. The information revolution came without a manual. The one thing technology can’t teach us is how to make the best use of technology, how to keep our sanity in the face of technology. For that, we can’t go online.
The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer is available now. Featured image courtesy of Matthieu Ricard.