Book Review

The Art of Happiness by His Holiness the Dalai Lama & Howard C. Cutler, MD

Photo on 19-10-2015 at 23.25

Anyone who passes even a cursory glance over my website (the rude TriumphoftheNow.com) will realise pretty quickly that I like books. I like being immersed and enmeshed and wrapped up in the written word – be it heady modernism, trash fiction, weighty literary biography, pop non-fiction, obscure academic texts, short stories, poetry, classics, contemporary, graphic novels, adventure stories, depression stories, sex stories, animal stories, whatever*: I love to read. About six weeks ago, it was my birthday, and I lamented at the time that no one gave me a prose** book as a gift. That was a lie.

My mother, oh yes my mother, gave me a book. She gifted me The Art of Happiness by the Dalai fucking Lama and a self-important semi-sexist*** called Howard C. Cutler, MD.

The only prose book that I, man that I am, received for my birthday was a self-help guide written by a tee-total, celibate spiritualist born into power. What can I learn from him??? And what does it say about my own pitiful existence that I lack so much in the arts of happiness that I no longer have enough of a social/familial/romantic life to be gifted actual prose by an actual person aware of my interests?****

It’s bad.

It’s a BAD SIGN.

What about the book, though?

Well, obviously, it’s shit.

The Dalai Lama, as he always does, comes across as a sweet, wise, calm, deeply spiritual individual who is one of the few major international political figures who deserves to be one. However, the text itself is sycophantic and one of the worst-written things I’ve ever encountered, with regular typos and spelling errors (I don’t mean Americanisations, I’m not a moron) as well as more than a handful of sentences that lack meaning. The structure of the text, too, is non-existent, an introduction at the beginning promising a “narrative” that never materialises.

Howard C. Cutler, MD, met the Dalai Lama as a young man, and as a middle-aged (I presume – that’s a felt age rather than a confirmed one) psychiatrist interviews him several times and collates their conversations and the DL’s public lectures into The Art of Happiness. We get 100 words of “I was feeling x emotion because of y reason (typical and understandable for a psychologically sound middle class American male) and then I asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama about it and referenced my own practice” before crudely edited diatribes from the man himself. There’s also some painfully obvious product placement: clearly aware of his multitudinous and easily-influenced demographic, Cutler makes an effort to get himself a Toyota Land Cruiser. Did he get one? I can’t be arsed to look it up, but I hope he did so that he didn’t ruin another chapter of his best-selling book for nothing.

Because that’s the real kick about this. This is a successful book, and it hasn’t even been proof-read properly. This is a phenomenally successful book, and it doesn’t have a single page that made me feel the slightest bit of anything.

I read it walking down the street: I was still filled with bile towards the people around me.

I read it alone: still felt it offered an unrealistic and infantalised idea of the world.

Yes, the DL did go through hardship when Tibet was invaded by China, and his people did suffer some tremendous wrongs, both physical and mental, but he was and is the spiritual leader of a nation – there is no way that the full, aggressive brunt of the attack ever fell against his flesh. It is easy to forgive your aggressor when you haven’t had his bits of metal or cock inside your skin, it is easy, too, to say you forgive your aggressor (as the DL recounts that one Buddhist monk did) once your aggressor has stopped putting his bits of metal or cock inside you and you’ve gotten across a national border and into consultation with the spiritual leader of your nation, particularly when he preaches forgiveness and altruism.

I’m being harsh, but the thing that stops me from being happy is other people. Other people demanding my time, other people distracting me from tasks, other people demanding I do tasks in a different order to how I want to do them, other people being loud, making a mess, moving things, not providing me with the services I ask of them in an appropriate way. Other people are always a source of pain. And that is why I failed to connect with the Dalai Lama’s message. He doesn’t openly emphasise the importance of solitude, which is truly the real highest state an individual can reach.

What does direct interaction with other people add to a life?

Yes, they might provide you with things that you want – art, poetry, money, food, shelter – but most of these things can be fulfilled at a remove. What isn’t improved by being alone? A film is more enjoyable if there’s no one interrupting it beside you, literature is easier to enjoy without distraction, cooking is more pleasant accompanied by music rather than conversation. (FYI, these are facts, not opinions, based on years of experimentation.) Yes, people can provide you with things, but they also take away the ability to reside in your own thoughts, your own sources of happiness.

The DL meditates, which to my mind makes him a hypocrite when he also says that affection from and towards others leads to fulfilment. In The Art of Happiness the Dalai Lama states that he spends about six or seven hours a day in meditation/prayer. That’s the most self-indulgent thing I’ve ever heard. I may like to spend many hours a day reading books and – in a dreamworld the like of which I’ll never know again – writing, too, but I don’t sit on my own in an absence of others and focus on the thoughts within my own head. That’s not right, surely?

Surely the whole purpose of happiness and self-fulfilment is the ability to not have to “shut off” the outside world, but the DfL seems to think that doing so in “his way” is acceptable.

How is hours of meditation better than intoxication? How is that a more productive use of time?

Oooh, as Cutler is quick to point out, scientific evidence points towards happier people living longer, healthier lives.

Well, fuck ’em. Us sad types don’t want to live long, healthy lives. If I enjoy life I’ll have more of it? Great deal!?

Cutler even makes the complete misnomer than intelligence increases happiness, which is in complete contrast with every single person I’ve ever known. ALL of my intelligent, creative friends have had some kind of psychiatric help at some point in their lives, and those that haven’t should’ve done. The only non-empty-headed acquaintances of mine without a leaning towards the melancholic are those who were privately educated or have somehow learnt to affect its result: a brash self-confidence that makes life easy, a sense of purpose and self-importance that the Dalai Lama thinks comes from centred self-knowledge and deep spiritual understanding of the world. Bullshit.

Happiness comes from two places:

a) Not being clever enough to understand your own mortality and having never had enough ambition to feel your ambitions thwarted;

b) Being culturally conditioned to see happiness as your right, as something you are owed and something that is unchanging. In my culture, this usually – but not always – comes from affluence.

The Dalai Lama, let’s all remember, is a very wealthy man. He is a man with the world’s ear, who has been told from birth that he is the 14th reincarnation of the most compassionate monk of all time. Of course he’s got an inflated ego, of course he’s got the sense of self-importance necessary for happiness. His spiritualism, his diet, his lifestyle, his interactions with other people, all are coloured by the fact that he is, and has been from birth, the fucking Dalai Lama.

It’s easy to be happy when the world listens to your every word, but it is equally easy to be unhappy when your life has ended up as whatever it is, in comparison to what you hoped. And those are the theoretically interesting/useful bits. The bits about the problems of misjudged expectations causing unhappiness, the bits about doing unto others etcetera, the bits about the importance of not living in a vacuum – making the whole book a mediocre combination of entry-level cognitive behavioural therapy and Buddhism for Beginners. An unproofread, middle-of-the-road cocktail of cod-psychotherapy and ITV presents An Evening with the Dalai Lama. No one with any kind of negative outlook will be helped by this, no one with any literary nouse will be impressed by it and no one staring into the abyss will do anything but scoff at it, sneer in his self-portrait that accompanies the review and reflect on the most important thing I- I mean he learnt from The Art of Happiness:

He is so low, this is what he is gifted.

DO NOT READ.

See About & Contact for context.

NB: I’m off on holiday in the morning. Maybe that’ll cheer me up.

________________

* Except sci-fi and fantasy.

** My sister gave me the graphic novel Dotter of her Father’s Eyes, a perfectly pitched gift. (Review here)

*** There’s a really abrasive bit about eavesdropping on a woman arguing with her husband, she villainised, he ignored; Cutler also constantly writes about how patients with ex-wives they hate, and uses the word “ruined” to describe any marriage that ends in divorce.

**** I haven’t even been able to persuade my girlfriend to let me buy a dog yet, a pet that I am sure would give me books on every available opportunity, even if I had to pay for and wrap them myself. (Opposable thumbs.)

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