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“If we can cultivate compassion, that’s the very best thing we can do both for ourselves and for others.”
In this episode of the Mindspace podcast, Dr. Joe welcomes Matthieu Ricard, Buddhist monk, writer, translator, humanitarian, and photographer.
Matthieu was born in France in 1946, to French philosopher Jean-François Revel and artist Yahne Le Toumelin. He trained as a scientist and got a Ph.D. in molecular genetics in 1972, but moved to Nepal to become a Buddhist monk, rather than pursue an academic career. He has been in Nepal ever since.
Matthieu’s unusual journey and training give him a truly unique perspective on the intersection between contemplative traditions and contemporary science. He shares these insights in his long-standing involvement with the Mind and Life Institute, translation of ancient Buddhist texts, public speaking, and writing best-selling books, including Happiness, the Art of Meditation, and In Search of Wisdom. He is also the Dalai Lama’s French interpreter and close friend. In 2000, after exhibiting never-before-seen brain activation while meditating in a brain scanner, he was playfully nicknamed “the happiest man in the world.”
Matthieu is also highly active as a humanitarian, supporting animal rights and creating Karuna-Shechen, an organization dedicated to “developing and managing programs in primary health care, education, and social services for the under-served populations of India, Nepal, and Tibet.” All of the proceeds of Matthieu’s books, photographs, and events are donated to Karuna Canada, the Canadian chapter of which is based in Montreal.
Matthieu is actually going to be in Montreal this month (Saturday, April 13th), for an event put on by Karuna-Shechen, called Meeting of the Minds: Taking Care of Life. On the panel sits people from all walks of life: Steven Laureys, a neurologist, Maria João Pires, a world renowned pianist, Alexandre Jollien, a philosopher, and a worker who spent 15 years in animal slaughterhouses. Matthieu hopes the event will be “a two fold fulfillment of aspirations of oneself and that of others.”
All proceeds of the event will go to Karuna Shechen projects in Asia.
I’d like to apologize for the quality of the audio for this episode. Unfortunately, this interview came together at the very last minute, and Matthieu’s internet was not working correctly. However, below you’ll find a full transcript of the interview.
In this conversation, Dr. Joe and Matthieu spoke about:
- Matthieu’s thoughts on the explosion of the popularity of mindfulness
- The fundamental research he is involved with in regards to meditation
- His concerns about modern society and the environment and climate change
- What he calls happiness
- How altruism and love can save yourself and the world
Caring Mindfulness Versus Instrumental Mindfulness
“He said that opposite to the mindfulness revolution, maybe we’re heading to a compassion revolution. I think this would be great.”
I’ve been practicing meditation for about 20 years. And I’ve been really blown away by the explosion of mindfulness meditation in Western culture.
You have a much more rich and deep relationship with this practice, so I’m curious to hear what it is like from your perspective to see how meditation has really moved into the mainstream in Western culture?
Well first of all, I think it’s important to put meditation in context.
In Sanskrit, Bhavana, means to cultivate something. And in Tibetan, Gom means to become familiar with something. So you can cultivate focused attention, compassion, benevolence, and inner balance. And you can become familiar with thought process, with the fundamental nature of mind behind the stream of thought.
The Buddhist part is about getting rid of the causes of suffering. And the causes of suffering, some are obvious like hatred and craving and so forth. Some are less obvious like the distortion of reality, for which wisdom is the only remedy. Familiarization is also a familiarization with the correct understanding of reality.
So you see, it’s much more vast than what people usually call meditation. And even vaster than the technical definition of mindfulness.
I suppose there are quite a few definitions of mindfulness but, basically, it’s to pay attention undestructably to the present moment in a non judgmental way and notice whatever happens without losing that mindfulness. We call that attentive presence.
In Buddhism, it is not quite non-judgmental because it’s connected with an evaluation of whether what you notice in the present moment is wholesome or unwholesome, not in a moralistic way, rather whether it brings suffering or freedom from suffering.
So the other aspect of being mindful is what could be the antidote to let’s say hatred and then putting that antidote into action in a proper way. Even that has to be put into the vaster scope of the very rich array of methods to achieve freedom from suffering, which is extremely vast from a philosophical, an analytical, and a practical point of view.
When my dear friend, Jon Kabat-Zinn realized that there was a lot of suffering, especially in the medical world, from patients, from caregivers, he wondered how to use some of techniques he had learned, mostly in Burma and other places, how to use Buddhist practices in a way that could be acceptable 30 years ago in a medical setting. Which was not very open to the idea of bringing in some weird exotic practices.
So the idea of stress being one of the main factors of this suffering and how mindfulness would be able to reduce stress was genius.
And recently, I witnessed Jon reviewing 30 years of studies of the impact of mindfulness on healthcare, and in other fields of life. It was truly moving and amazing.
So this being said, it never pretended to be the essence of Buddhism. I think Jon also clearly says that it is inspired by Buddhism. But it’s not an integral Buddhist practice.
The only problem is with those who say that it is the essence of Buddhism. It’s much too simplistic obviously.
Also, one issue might be when you come out of the medical world and go into the corporate world, you worry that it might be used in an instrumental way to make people more efficient and productive, while remaining less stressed. I don’t think this has materialized as a genuine cause of concern.
Nevertheless, when Jon and his team and later on many others brought mindfulness into the medical context, they were of course there with a compassionate attitude to reduce suffering.
So to make sure that mindfulness is not disembodied from compassion or what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls heartfulness, I believe instead of having two things, mindfulness and heartfulness, we should just think of caring mindfulness. Then you cannot go astray with mindfulness becoming a sort of cold tool to just become more attentive for whatever instrumental purpose, devoid of ethics and compassion.
So meditation is vaster than that, and Buddhism is vaster than meditation.
But there’s nothing wrong with this mindfulness revolution. It has done tremendous good throughout the world.
I think since compassion is such an important thing, my humble suggestion would be to always speak of caring mindfulness.
What do you think the risk is of using mindfulness instrumentally?
A friend of mine, Sebastien Henry, interviewed a hundred CEOs who decided to incorporate mindfulness at their workplace. It was very interesting because at first they hesitated because they thought maybe mindfulness would make people less motivated, more soft, and then it’s a waste of time.
But what they found is actually something quite different. They found that there were two main advantages, which was not just to make people more efficient. That’s not what happened.
The two advantages were having better judgment because they saw things in a bigger sort of way, with a different perspective. And then the second thing was the improving of human relationships in the enterprise.
So those two things are, of course, much welcome. So far—of course, I’m not a specialist, since I don’t work in the corporate world—I haven’t heard much of anyone saying, ‘look at this company. They just used mindfulness to make them less stressed, while working them like crazy.’
I think since compassion is such an important thing, my humble suggestion would be to always speak of caring mindfulness. Then, at least, you always put compassion and loving kindness at the forefront. And many studies right now put more and more emphasis on the benefits of practicing compassion and loving kindness.
I remember Thupten Jinpa, the chairmain of the Mind and Life Institute, and I were in Singapore presenting the work of Mind and Life, and he said that opposite to the mindfulness revolution, maybe we’re heading to a compassion revolution. I think this would be great.
The Science of Mind Training
“A pilot study done on long term meditators showed that it seems that long term meditators have a structurally and metabolically younger brain.”
So I wanted to talk about the science of mindfulness because of course that’s one of the reasons why mindfulness has grown so much in the West. And you’ve been a really important figure in advancing the science.
I’m curious how do you think science in general is doing. How much progress is it making in understanding the Buddhist wisdom around well being and the reduction of suffering?
I’ve also participated in a lot of studies as collaborator, co-author, guinea pig, everything.
I’m not practicing mindfulness in the technical way it is done in MBSR.
We decided that initially with Francisco Varela, then Richard Davidson, and Antoine Lutz, and later with Tania Singer and Steven Laureys to simplify things because there are so many kinds of meditation. When you think of meditation, you think of mind training.
So you can train your mind in so many ways. It’s like physical training. What are you doing? Football? Or volleyball? Or chess? It’s different.
So we decided that there are 3 types of traditional meditation that could be useful to society and usable in a secular context. One was of course focused attention. This would be the closest to mindfulness. The other one was compassion or altruistic love. And the third one is what we call open presence. Which is roughly defined as a very open vast, vivid state, which is somehow deeper than mindfulness because it’s also resting in the deepest nature of mind.
So those 3 are being extensively studied. They have different signatures in the brain. There’s no doubt that they do change the brain functionally and structurally. So that’s one of the many studies I’ve been involved with those labs.
They are mostly about fundamental research. While mindfulness has been studied a lot in a clinical context to see what sort of good effect it could have on health, which they have. A lot, a lot of studies I think Jon Kabat-Zinn showed 20 years ago that there were 4 or 5 publications every year, and I think now it’s 400. So I’ve been involved in fundamental research on meditation.
And recently, I’ve been involved in a vast development study on aging and whether meditation will slow down the aging process, which a pilot study done on long term meditators showed that definitely it seems long meditators have a structurally and metabolically younger brain.
Sometimes 10 to 15 years younger than the average.
“It’s something that replenishes your strength and courage, while empathetic resonance with suffering will overburden you and overwhelm you, as the suffering of others is repeated.”
I’ve also been involved in a study on the different levels of consciousness of vividness and clarity with Steven Laureys and also with Tania Singer. We did quite a few—I think—groundbreaking studies to distinguish empathy from compassion. And they show that when people speak of compassion fatigue, that’s not the right term. We should speak of empathy fatigue, or some kind of emotional exhaustion that leads to burn out.
But compassion is the opposite. It’s more like an antidote to burnout. And it’s something that replenishes your strength and courage, while empathetic resonance with suffering will overburden you and overwhelm you, as the suffering of others is repeated.
So all of these have been fascinating collaborations. To show also that meditators are not just a guinea pig, but a co-conceiver of the protocols. So they asked me to co-find a paper, although I’m not involved in crunching the data, because we sort of established the protocol together. So they thought it was important to acknowledge that the meditators have an active role in the research.
Between Two Worlds: Consumerism and Environmentalism
“No house, no car, no land, I’m so happy like that. I would dread to have to take care of all of those crazy things.”
You’ve got this really unique set up where I believe part of the year you live as a monastic in Nepal. And the other part of the year, you live in a Western culture in France.
What is it like to go back and forth between those two contexts?
Well, well, well, yes and no.
I only spend a few days in Paris. Usually when I’m there, I do a lot media because of the books and all of these things.
But I increasingly spend more time either in Nepal or looking after humanitarian projects, like Karuna Sechen, which actually has our next event in Montreal in April, Journées Émergences. We help 250,000 people every year in India, Nepal, and Tibet. I’m very much involved in that. I started this organization.
And then in France, I’m mostly staying with my 95 year old mother in the countryside, and my teachers are here. I make a little noise when go to Paris because the media always wants to ask me things.
But in fact, I don’t much time immersed in city life and in the sort of modern way of life.
“The main challenge for the 21st century is climate change.”
In the moments where you are exposed to urban life, what jumps out at you the most as different or unusual or even problematic about our lifestyle?
Well, I’m a part of the world. And of course as a former scientist I’ve been doing research about the question of the need for more altruism and cooperation for our time. I’m very much involved with environmental scientists. I’m involved in too many things in fact.
The main, main, main, main challenge for the 21st century is climate change, the degradation of the ecosystem, and the climatic loss of biodiversity and population of living species on Earth. That could jeopardize every other project that has been done over the last two centuries in a vast way.
If you think of altruism as the best solution to those challenges, then you cannot be not be deeply concerned by the fate of future generations and by 8 million other species who are co-citizens on this Earth. So I’m so definitely concerned.
Now whatever I can do is not very much, but at least participating in the debate, writing books, having a little voice here and there. Having gone to weird places like the World Economic Forum or the UN to speak about these things. So whatever I can.
But if I was just on my own, it’s like zero influence. But together with many people from many different fields of life, whether they are environmental scientists or policy makers or economists who put more emphasis on caring economics. All kinds of people who really want to build a better world, despite this incredible challenge that we are facing.
So I’m just part of this community and do my best to contribute even modestly to bring some cultural change. I don’t know where it’ll lead, but we’re trying our best.
To answer your question, clearly, there is a big problem with the society of consumerism. An average US citizen emits 200 times more CO2 than a Zambian. A citizen of Qatar emits 2000 times more CO2 than an Afghani. So there’s a problem there. It’s simply that the rich countries should just stop that over consumption, which they don’t seem ready to do.
They think they can’t be happy having less, but in fact it’s just the opposite. Voluntary simplicity is one of the greatest sources of happiness and freedom. That’s one of the main sort of blindness of modern society. It’s this constant drive for consumerism, for all kinds of things that doesn’t bring happiness.
It’s been shown over and over again. It’s not just a moralistic Buddhist view. Tim Kasser did a 20 year study on the effect of consumerism. There’s a very interesting book called The High Price of Materialism that shows that it simply doesn’t make people happier. They are less happy. They are less healthy. They have less good, genuine friends. They are less concerned by global issues. They are less empathetic.
This kind of drive is not good for anybody. That’s so regrettable. But I don’t know how ready people are to give it up. They think they will be less happy. That they will be deprived of something good, while simplification just brings such a freedom.
No house, no car, no land, I’m so happy like that. I would dread to have to take care of all of those crazy things [laughs].
One of the things that has inspired me about your work is this really interesting possibility that there are actions that we can take like simplicity, cutting down consumerism that are both good for the planet, good for our communities, and ultimately enhancing of our own well being.
How do see those things fitting together?
There are so many ways.
Stop eating meat. It’s so easy. It takes 5 seconds. And this is one of the factors which is one of the easiest things to do to combat climate change. The latest report of the IPCC says that just the factor of increasing meat consumption would alone forbid us from reaching our goal of stopping climate change from reaching two degrees celsius of warming. That simple thing. Industrial farming and cattle raising for meat is the second cause of greenhouse gas emissions. The second one because of the methane.
This is crazy. It could be so easy to change that. It just takes a little decision. It doesn’t mean that you change drastically other things of your way of life.
There are so many things like that we could do.
“What you call happiness, we call suffering”
Isn’t it the case that some of these actions that we can would not only have a positive impact on the world, but it would also make us happier like investing in relationships—
The Buddhists are very clear about how we want happiness, but turn our backs to the cause of happiness. We don’t want to suffer, but we run to all of the causes of suffering.
I had a Buddhist teacher who said, ‘what you call happiness here, we call it suffering.’ That was a pretty terse statement.
What did he mean by that?
It means that when people look for happiness by trying to remain forever young, in wealth, in power, in fame, in rank in society, in extrinsic value, in the latest fashionable clothes, in the latest model of this and that, in the latest car, having a flashy home with a lot of stuff, and then adding to that the endless succession of pleasurable experiences, which are recipe for exhaustion.
You are completely fooled by this. You are looking for happiness in the totally wrong place. That’s called lack of discernment or ignorance. So those things simply don’t bring genuine, lasting happiness or fulfillment or contentment.
Where should people be looking for happiness and contentment?
I tried to write a book about that. There’s this idea that happiness is not the same thing as pleasant sensations. It’s a way of being. And it’s not just one thing of course.
It’s a cluster of qualities like inner freedom, inner peace, inner strength, compassion, altruistic love, not having an over inflated sense of ego. These are all kinds of basic human qualities.
The good news is that all those can be cultivated as skills. And that’s where mind training and neuroplasticity comes into the picture. So when all of those are being brought to their optimum point, then you have a fulfilled life, a sense of resilience, inner strength, of inner freedom. You have the inner resources to deal with the ups and downs of life.
It has nothing to do with the forever seeking of pleasant sensations. It simply doesn’t work. And there’s nothing wrong with pleasure. But it simply is not the same thing as fulfillment.
So what we’re up against here is a challenge of educating people to change their behaviour.
You start writing books by hopefully gathering scientific and philosophical and experiential evidence. It’s a little drop in the ocean. Altogether with many other trends of ideas and thoughts that make up our culture.
So our culture is shifting with time. Let’s see what will come up.
Is it a more cooperative, altruistic happier society or will we continue to go to the narcissistic epidemics like we can see in North America?
Love and Altruism: The Path to a Better World
I’m very aware of the proliferation of good science and books like the work you’re doing. But there’s also a terrible rise of partisanship and difficulty understanding the other side. I think this is partly due to the rise of social media.
What is your take on that as an obstacle to improving—
It’s a concerning force. I don’t know which one will win over.
I’m not a clairvoyant. You can see those forces at play. When writing my book on altruism, I had to explore those antagonist forces because, otherwise, I would have been naive just to say that altruism is the solution, and that’s it.
But of course there are so many things like the cause of violence, what makes someone a psychopath, how can we commit genocide, how can we make whole massacres of animals?
So what are the solutions? Education, more caring economics, global governance, etc. There’s this huge wealth of reflection among all of those issues. Myself, along with many other friends, have spent many years trying to formulate all of those things and analyze to the best that I could.
I have done what I could. Now I’m a bit old and I want to go back to the contemplative life.
I sort of did my best with humble limited capacity on the subjects that I felt were really important. Now I think it’s time to go and do something else.
I can speak for my listeners and for myself when I say that we hope you can keep going for as long as you can because I think you’re doing some really important work.
If there’s one thing that you would to ask people to do or one suggestion for how people can begin to both improve the world around them and cultivate their own well-being, what would you advise people to do?
Well, it’s very simple, on a personal level, cultivate loving kindness, compassion, benevolence, and on a global level, feel a sense of universal responsibility. Don’t stop at your close ones. Extend the circle to all sentient beings. And even to future generations.
So if we expand this scope and the circle of compassion, then I think that’s the best thing we could do both for ourselves and for society. I think altruism or altruistic love or whatever you call it is the two fold accomplishment of others good and your own good.
And the only way to reconcile your immediate needs, to fulfill one’s needs for survival and so forth is through cooperation and kindness. The mid term needs are flourishing in life. And the long term needs are caring for the future generation, for other species, for the planet because competition and selfishness will not do the job.
So if we can cultivate compassion, that’s the very best thing we can do both for ourselves and for others.
Thank you very much for saying that. I really appreciate the message. And I hope our listeners do as well. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Yes, in this spirit, in April, we’re trying to organize a beautiful meeting in Montreal on the subject of taking care of life. So we have people of all walks of life including a neuroscientist, we have a witness who spent 15 years in slaughterhouses, and we have a wonderful artist Maria Joao Pires, a pianist. We have Alexandre Jollien, who is a Swiss philosopher who co-wrote called In Search of Wisdom with me.
So I think this kind of event is bringing this kind of idea to a live audience to be part of that cultural change and hopefully help make a little bit better of a world.
I will definitely make all of the information about that event available on the show notes for this episode.
Also, the proceeds of all that will go to Karuna Shechen projects in Asia. So it’s a two fold fulfillment of aspirations of oneself and that of others.