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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Matthieu Ricard. Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk and has authored several books including Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World. He’s a major participant in the research collaboration between cognitive scientists and Buddhist practitioners spearheaded by the Dalai Lama and the Mind and Life Institute.
Matthieu Ricard will be a featured presenter at an upcoming Living a Life of Presence conference. This is a four-day event to benefit the Eckhart Tolle Foundation, and it will be taking place November 8-11 in Huntington Beach, California. If you’re interested in more information about Living a Life of Presence, this four-day event, please come visit us at SoundsTrue.com. With Sounds True, Matthieu Ricard has also co-written a new book, along with Christophe Andre and Alexandre Jollien, a French bestselling book that has now been translated into the English language, called In Search of Wisdom: A Monk, a Philosopher, and a Psychiatrist on What Matters Most. In this book they share their views on how we uncover our deepest aspirations in life, the nature of the ego, living with the full range of human emotion, the art of listening, the origin of suffering, true freedom, and much more.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Matthieu and I spoke about a revolution of altruism, how we can clarify our motivation in each situation we find ourselves in and every project we begin, and how it’s possible to put at the forefront of our lives our desire to be a benefit to others, and how doing so changes us and our world. We also talked about the difference between empathy and compassion, and the science that shows how an empathic response versus a compassionate response leads to different areas of brain change, and how empathy can lead quickly to empathic distress, whereas compassion can lead to courage and resilience. And finally, I spoke with Matthieu Ricard about what it means to be a high-fidelity person and to live with no regrets. Here’s a very inspiring conversation with Matthieu Ricard.
It is a great joy and honor to be speaking with you today, Matthieu. Tell us a little bit where you are right now as we’re talking.
Matthieu Ricard: Well, I just returned from my hermitage in Nepal facing the Himalayas, and right now I’m in the South of France in a beautiful, quiet countryside attending to my dear mother who is turning 95, and who also is a Buddhist monk. So, that’s where I am now.
TS: Well, good, you’ll bring some of that Himalayan sparkle, I’m sure, and brilliance to our conversation. You have created a new book called In Search of Wisdom with two friends and colleagues of yours. And I wonder here at the very beginning of our conversation, if you can introduce to our listeners how this book project came into being, and who these two friends and colleagues are.
MR: So one of them, Christophe Andre, is a very well-known and well-loved psychologist and psychiatrist. He’s probably the most bestselling author in psychology, but he’s basically a clinician. He works with phobias, with those kinds of things, and is a very well-known author. So, I met him, I don’t know, 15 years ago. I wrote a book on happiness, which the French intellectual don’t like very much happiness, they think about the dirty word of happiness. And he also had written a book on happiness, by the way. So, we met while doing some interviews for a TV channel and we became very close friends.
And then, he was friends with a remarkable person, Alexandre Jollien, who is a Swiss handicapped philosopher. So, he was for 17 years, Alexandre, in an institution for handicapped people, and not so well looked after. And then when he turned about 18, a Jesuit priest found he was very smart, studied with him philosophy, and within a few years he graduated at the Lausanne University in philosophy. And so, when I met him, I found he was such a moving, insightful person, even though he’s sometimes difficult to speak. But when he speaks, he speaks both with his knowledge of philosophy and with his guts, because he went through so much hardship in life. And he has so many stories to tell, that if you want to have a dialogue, he always has a incredibly moving story to start reflecting upon the thing that is important for life.
So, we knew each other then for a number of years, and especially Alexandre, the philosopher, wanted us to get together in a quiet place as two real friends and then discuss an important issue. And so, in France because we are three bestseller authors, I think there’s something recently in the French magazine looked at the 20 most sold authors in nonfiction, and we were all within the first five or six. So, they thought it was just a kind of making three stars doing a blockbuster, but just for making another, selling books. But in fact, we are two friends in real life and it’s just for the joy of discussing. We were not sure what the book would be, and so it was very much welcome in France. I think in 2016 in nonfiction all throughout the year, it was number one bestseller. But that shows simply that when there is a genuine dialogue, then it’s different than something that’s a little bit fabricated.
TS: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Now, several of your books have come from dialogues that you’ve had. And I wonder, in an age now where it’s often difficult for people to take other people’s perspective, what you feel the value of dialogue is? And how people can engage in more thoughtful dialogue with people who perhaps have opposing views?
MR: Well, I cannot but think of what the Dalai Lama says, he says the 20th century was the century of bloodshed. 100 million people died in two world war, and he said he hopes, unfortunately not yet could be fully happening, that the 21st century will be the century of dialogue. Because basically, peace is not just the absence of war, it’s an active and a sort of move towards understanding each other, putting each other’s shoes, changing ideas, and deepening each other’s perspective.
So, now from, in my case, it was sort of an accident that I did those dialogues. The first book with my father, The Monk and the Philosopher, a publisher proposed that. I was totally unknown sitting in the Himalayas for 25 years, living on a shoestring, and I was quite surprised that he accepted to do this dialogue, and then that somehow was the beginning of my idea of travel opportunity and engage again with the world. And then they did that with an astrophysicist. Again, it was a request from him. So, it just happened when you meet wonderful people in life.
And I think in the case of this one, what’s remarkable is we certainly bring quite different perspective. The person who is a physician, who takes care of people who suffer, day to day of patients, and then the philosopher who he said went through so much hardship in life, and myself who choose a more contemplative life and also running humanitarian projects now, almost 200 of them.
But it was not just challenging into having very, very different views on things which are almost incompatible. It was more coming from different angles, but discovering each other’s depth of course. And so, there was not the slightest, even with something we disagreed, but it was, we never had any type of conflict or situation where you feel that discrepancy. (There’s a dog running around. I’m outside in the forest.)
TS: That’s beautiful, no worries.
MR: And when there is, when people really don’t agree in depth on world view, then they have somehow to manage something. But, of course you can, but it’s not very inspiring and not very pleasant.
TS: Now, in the very beginning of the book In Search of Wisdom, you talk about the importance of clarifying our motivation. Clarifying our motivation about anything, including a project like dialoguing together for nine days.
TS: So, can you talk more about this and what it means for someone to clarify their motivation about whatever project they might be taking on?
MR: Well, it’s important. When I did the first dialogue with my father, I had no idea where this would lead me, so I came back to the things that were… But then, as the book keep on being successful, when there’s an opportunity or reason to write something, then you have to ask yourself, “OK, this book has been very much welcome by the public. So, I’m trying to do another book just to sell a lot of books? Or I’m really trying to do something that could be useful.” And I remember that when I did the book on happiness, I was sitting alone in my hermitage, I said, “OK, is that going to be useful to others?” Otherwise, what’s the point?
So, precisely because we were sort of three well-known authors in France, so we needed to eliminate that perspective and say, “OK, now all gathering together, of course we’ll enjoy tremendously being ten days with each other, but basically we have to generate the attitude that this is service to society, a service to humanity, a service to anyone, and even it’s useful to one person, it’s worth doing.” And so, the idea is what we are starting now, make the profound aspiration, “May it be dedicated to the welfare of others, if possible to the greater number, and if possible for the long term.” So, that’s I think, we need to, and we did spend, five, 10 minutes silently trying to check our motivation to see if we were really inspired by this compassionate and benevolent attitude. So, otherwise it will be sort of crooked motivation and self-centered one.
TS: Mm-hmm (affirmative). This theme, Matthieu, of clarifying our motivation and really centering in altruism is something that runs throughout the book In Search of Wisdom. And really, as I was preparing for this conversation and reading many of the interviews you’ve granted recently, you’re emphasizing that what we need in our world right now is a revolution of altruism.
TS: And I noticed as I was reflecting on that more and more, and your TED Talk which focuses on altruism, I started seeing in myself ways that I am altruistically motivated, and I felt good about that. But then I started seeing in myself ways that I’m not. Ways that I’m really focused in my life around personal economic security, just to say it bluntly. I want to make sure that I have retirement funds, things like that.
TS: And I wonder if you can address that how in our age, even people of good heart find themselves spending a lot of time and energy on their own economic security.
MR: Well, to start with, to wish good for oneself, to wish to gather all the conditions that allows one to strive, to be in good health, to live the full span of one’s life, and to fulfill one’s aspiration in life, to wish good for oneself has nothing to do with selfishness. That’s a legitimate aspiration. We are one of the billions of sentient beings who don’t wake up in the morning thinking, “may I suffer the whole day and often my whole life.” We want some kind of fulfillment and the stage we need to pursue that. Selfishness is when you do that with total disregard to other’s well-being. That means you don’t give a damn, or even worse, that you instrumentalize others for your own interest. And then even something like causing the suffering for others. So, that’s selfishness.
So now, that’s a lose-lose situation, because if you think “me me me” all day long, usually you feel miserable because it’s very stuffy and narrow in that bubble of self-centeredness. And then you make everyone’s life miserable because you are behaving in ways that are very sort of inconsiderate, unkind, with a very cold front heart. So, on a personal level, it’s a lose-lose situation.
Now, on a personal level, again, it has been shown that when we generate benevolence, altruistic love, compassion, the work I’ve done with neuroscientists has shown that this is the state of mind that activates also the area of the brain which is also connected with well-being in the strongest possible way. So, that’s why Barbara Fredrickson finds, one of the pioneer of positive psychology, said that love is the supreme emotion. So for you, it’s very fulfilling and of course, because it’s intended for the benefit of others, then others will see it that way. So, it’s a win-win situation. So, that’s for the personal experience.
If you look more at the global picture—the situation of the world, situation of humanity, situation of eight million other species who are coexisting on this Earth—selfishness will not do the job, especially at a time where we have immense power for the first time in our history of humankind. Now 12,000 years ago we’re five million people on Earth, it’s no big deal. Whatever we could do, and we had tools that we held in our hands. Now those tools are a million-fold more powerful, they are in the hands of groups and nations, so they can do immense good or immense damage. And if we don’t match that with the same magnitude of care, then we’re sort of, not really doomed, but we go to the, what do we call, the sixth extinction of species on the, all kinds of not really good news.
So, again, selfishness would not do the job. I’m a fan of Groucho Marx, it’s my version of Marxism. And Groucho said, “Why should I care for future generation? What did they do for me?” So, if we think like that, and unfortunately quite a few people these days even in high position of government think that way, then of course, “There’s no environment problem, we won’t be there, so who cares?”
But, if you think of the kind of schizophrenic dialogue between financiers, economists, politicians, social workers, and scientists who study the environment, one of the economistics of the very short term, the people who deal with the quality of life in a nation, gross national happiness, they speak of a generation, a lifestyle. And then an environmental scientist speaks of many generations to come. So, they all stick on the same timeframe, so of course, selfishness again would not make them sit at the same table and work for a better world. And I believe that most people do want a better world. I mean, most of the time, most of the seven billion human beings just behave decently toward each other. It’s the exception, the barbaric exception, that attract our attention. So, the banality of goodness is there.
So, they need a common concept to sit at the same table and try to bring a better world. And the only concept that works is having more consideration for others. That leads to a caring economics, a more social justice, less inequality, and care for future generation. Sorry for going on. This is to show that altruism is not a kind of idealistic, naive, utopian idea. It’s the most pragmatic concept to answer the challenges of the 21st century.
TS: OK. I want to understand more of its practical applications, when you talk about something like a caring economics. Because as I mentioned, in my own sort of self-inventory, I feel like sometimes I’m caught in a system that doesn’t support my altruism. It supports my selfishness.
MR: Well, caring economics is a general sort of way of seeing economics, we’re dealing with two things that the normal economy, that means just maximizing personal preference and interest, cannot deal with. One is poverty in the midst of plenty. Someone who tries to maximize their immediate interest doesn’t care about poverty in the midst of plenty. You bet all the t-shirts made in Bangladesh and make people work for nothing so that you can make more profit. That’s one thing. So, you need to step out of this limitation and add the voice of reason, the voice of care. Caring for others.
The second thing that the normal economies cannot deal with is the idea of the common good. I mean like environment, freedom, democracy, the state of the atmosphere, of the ocean, public park. I mean, anything that is all in common, and that you could enjoy without doing anything as a free right. So now, if we want to work that way, again that’s to step out of our immediate reward, of maximizing personal interest, and that’s the only way.
So, now in terms of one sense, as an individual, there’s much more that we can do. Even we have to try to make ends meet at the end of the month. I mean, there’s so many things if we look in our life, that sometimes are not quite necessary on which we do spend quite a lot of money. And I love the idea in the book of Peter Singer, The Most Good You Can Do, where you can see examples, is called effective altruism. Of people who have quite a simple walk of life, but they decided that they don’t need all these superfluous things. They don’t need two cars. They don’t need this and that. And they could set aside some amount of money to do maximum good with that amount according to the level of their resources. Maybe save a few lives somewhere in the world. Or give back the eyesight to a few kids somewhere. And so, there’s always something we can do. Or we can volunteer for taking care of elderly people instead of going to some sport event or to the movies.
So, there’s, if we have that in heart, it’s not a sacrifice. So, I don’t like this idea of altruism should go with a sacrifice. Because if you do that with joy, it’s so much more a reward than spending your time in the supermarket or going to a movie. There’s really so much more meaning. It’s so much more fulfilling to do so. So, there’s no sacrifice at all. It may look like that to others, but for you, it’s a great joy and accomplishment.
TS: Now, Matthieu, can you make more explicit for our listeners the connection between compassion meditation and specifically what you mean by that, the actual practice, and how that affects our altruistic motivation?
MR: If I may add something from the former question, now when I left at 26 years old with just with a few thousand dollar in my pocket from my work, I had no idea where I was going to in life. To start, I spent time with my teacher, for twenty-five I didn’t come back, I lived maybe on 1500 dollars a month in a small hermitage, so happily so. But I survived really well. And no problem. And when money start to come my way because of the books and of course they were bestsellers, I don’t need that, I’m not going to buy a swimming pool or a Ferrari car. So, I started a foundation. Today, that foundation grew and we are helping 300,000 people in India and Nepal and Tibet in health, education, and social services. So, you see starting from very little, somehow it happened.
OK, so now to come back to compassion meditation, now meditation is really to train a skill for which you have a potential, but which is dormant unless you train it. And so, we know that, because we know that we are not born knowing how to read and write, or play chess, or solve mathematical equation. We didn’t know how to play tennis and all that. So, most of this we learned. And that we are happy with that, we see no problem with that.
But I find quite strange that when it comes to fundamental human qualities, which are in fact more important than playing tennis or piano or whatever, like lovingkindness, compassion, inner freedom, emotional balance, we somehow feel, either we think that I’m born like that, that’s the way I am, there’s nothing much I can do. Or we don’t even consider the fact that like any other skill, they could be enhanced by training. So, compassion meditation is nothing more than doing for 10, 20, 50 minutes, one hour, whatever, something that we do often in our life which is imagine how you feel about a dear child or someone very beloved to you, you send this unconditional love to that person. You don’t have to force yourself. You just flow. You just wish that child, may that child be happy, prosper in life, be spared hardship, fulfill his or her aspiration in life. Nothing but good wishes. Fill your mental landscape.
But usually we think that’s all permanent, and then something happens—the child goes away, we get hurt, or whatever. We don’t have the habit to sit, bring that to our mind, and then nurture it for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes. Nurturing, I mean bringing that with full bloom in our mental landscape. Then if we’re distracted, come back to it. If it declines, revive it. So, to correct, to modulate and monitor the quality, intensity, vividness of that altruistic love, so if you stay with it for 20 minutes a day, we know from personal experience, this 2,000 years of contemplative science. And today, a scientist will tell you that anyone who does something new regularly, day after day, very soon, within a month, the person’s brain will change structurally and functionally. So, we will become a different person as we train into something. It’s as simple as that. Simply we need to do it, just like to play the piano you need to play the piano.
TS: Now, one of the things that I discovered in the book In Search of Wisdom is that you make a big distinction between practicing the kind of meditation you just described, compassion meditation, and empathizing with suffering and feeling the suffering. And I read that you really discovered this in a profound way also when you were being tested in a brain scanner, and you were asked to come forward with an empathic response, and they tested you and, can you explain that experience to our listeners?
MR: Yes, I was not so familiar with the term empathy. There’s no real immediate word in Tibetan, and somehow I was asked, I remember Paul Ekman, a great psychologist knew when you feel compassion, you need to suffer with the person or not? And that was because of sometimes yes, sometimes not. So, it wasn’t clear until I collaborated with Tania Singer. She is a German neuroscientist. She is the head of the Max Plank Institute for Cognitive Science in Leipzig, and she one could say, in neuroscience, is one of the world’s specialists on empathy.
So, I went to her lab because I started becoming friends with her, and she put me in the scanner. I’ve been a fine guinea pig for many neuroscientists over the years now. And as well she thought I was going to do empathy, but I was practicing compassion. So, it was what we call real-time camera. It’s a particular technique where you can see immediately the areas of the brain which are active, and you’d have to wait for weeks of analysis. And after 10 minutes, she told me through the mic, “What are you doing? We don’t see what we [expect], not the areas of the brain which are normally activated during empathy.”
I said, “Well, I’m doing compassion.” She said, “Look, we have to talk,” she said. So, I came out of the scanner and we did talk. And she said, “Well, can you just do only empathy? And we resonate again and again and again and again with the suffering of other people.” So I say, “OK, I can try that.” They said, “Don’t bring your compassion.” So, I visualized some very poignant case of suffering I’d been witnessing. In our humanitarian project, there were some earthquakes in Tibet, so people caught under the rubble. And I visualized all kinds of intense suffering and just noticed empathic resonance, emotional resonance and cognitive resonance with the suffering. And, no wonder, within the 40 minutes of being in the MRI doing that, alternating neutral state with empathic state, I felt in a complete empathic distress, like complete burnout. So, then she said, “Now we can have a break, or you could move to your compassion meditation.” I say, “OK, please let me move because I feel very sort of difficult inside.”
So, overwhelmed by this empathic distress. So, when I shifted to this compassionate, basically unconditional love applied to the suffering of others, it was like opening a dam. Completely different. Embracing that suffering with so much love, every atom of suffering alternating with an atom of love. And then it was such a wholesome, constructive state of mind, filled with courage, instead of being overwhelmed with the distress, it was so different. And in the brain, of course, it was a very different set of areas in the brain that were activated.
So, then Tania did more studies with more subjects, and then we published some papers saying that there’s no compassion fatigue, there’s empathy fatigue. And if we just do standalone empathy, you go straight to burnout. While compassion, which is this strong altruistic love, is the antidote to burnout. So, the idea came also as she started something called a “resource project” to teach that to caregivers, to nurses, to social workers, who very often fall into burnout and this empathic fatigue. And so that they have a tool now, instead of just trying to blunt their emotion or burning out. So, now this alternative is so much better. You react with compassion that builds up your courage, that builds up your resilience. So, that was a very interesting discovery even for me while collaborating with a scientist. So, we did a few scientific paper and Tania is continuing to study that. And I think it’s quite important for the world of caregivers.
TS: It seems so important, Matthieu, to me today, especially as people become more and more aware of suffering in different parts of the world through news media and the web. And it’s easy to develop empathy fatigue just by reading the news, if you’re empathizing with the suffering, whether it’s the suffering of animals or species being destroyed, all kinds of suffering. So, how, just for example, when somebody’s experiencing their news feed, could they responded with compassion, such that they don’t have the same kind of burnout?
MR: Compassion again, builds up your resilience. It builds up your courage. Determination and compassionate courage. Because you see, if you are a doctor on the battlefield, if the first time you encounter someone who is wounded and start crying and fall down completely sobbing, what’s the use? You’re much better, the more there are people wounded, the more your courage and determination, and you do something to relieve the suffering, so you’re uplifted by the compassion that you put in action. So, I think that, I met so many nurses also who tell me, “I feel a great joy to take care of my patients, even those who suffer a lot. But I don’t have to tell that to my colleague because they might sort of tease me.” But I thought, that’s the right thing, to feel this great joy of holding someone’s hand who is dying, and giving much love to that person.
Imagine a mother whose child is in a very difficult health situation, and she can’t stand it. So, she’s pacing in the corridor while the child is alone inside the room of the hospital. It’s so much better if the mother just sit by the child and with complete love, be with the child. It’s so much better for the child and for the mother. So, this can be cultivated by completely ordinary people. You don’t have to spend years in the Himalayas.
And that’s what Tania Singer has been doing. She did a longitudinal study with 150 subjects over nine months, and she saw this incredible difference in those who did three months of lovingkindness meditation compared to three months of just mindfulness meditation, and three months of perspective-taking meditation. And those who did the lovingkindness, they were so much more pro-socially acting, they were so much more resilient when facing the other’s suffering. And I remember when I did the book A Plea for the Animals, that I showed some disturbing images about the way we treat animals in the slaughterhouses, and I asked the public if it’s OK to show those images, and someone said, “I love animals, I can’t look at that.” I say, “Why? You better look, and then do something. Instead of looking away and sort of shrinking inside.”
So, if you get that determination, that courage, so much better to relieve suffering. Otherwise, you see basically, empathy and distress is the effect that other’s suffering has on you. It’s self-oriented. Compassion is others-oriented, so you sort of disappear from the picture. Everything is oriented to us relieving the suffering of others. So therefore, why should you burn out?
TS: Very helpful. I think, very, very important point. Now I’m curious, Matthieu, what you think about practicing self-compassion when you find yourself suffering from something or other?
MR: Yes. So, I was not so familiar with that. And in the beginning, we don’t have such a technical way of meditating in the East. So, in the beginning I was a little bit suspicious. I thought, “Hey, here, again, what a narcissistic, individualistic, Western people are sort of hijacking compassion to think about themselves only.” But then I was wrong. When I met clinicians like Paul Gilbert and Kristin Neff, and I realized that this was completely different. That actually people who have this, practice self-harm, and I was shocked to know that, I don’t know in the U.S., but in Europe, there’s about I think it’s 15% of teenagers do self-harm, seriously cutting themselves and inflicting wounds. So, this kind of very sad situation is pretty common, more than what we think. So now, these people probably were denied happiness when they were young through some abuse or other, or contempt from their close ones, so they don’t even see the possibility of happiness. So, to think of happiness for them is even almost increasing their suffering because it’s something that they feel denied to experience.
So first of all, you need to bring them the mere idea, “Yes, day by day, if I could prefer to be happy than just cutting my wrist or something.” So, if the teaching of self-compassion is to be softer with oneself, to see that many other people are suffering in the world, different part of the common humanity. There’s many techniques that Paul Gilbert and Kristin Neff have been teaching and I also would do that, which are extremely helpful for people who suffer in that way. And then, when they recognize in themselves, that “Yes it would be so much better if I was happy, and then better to be reasonable about the way to achieve happiness, is probably not the best way if I inflict wounds to myself.” Then they can also transport in other’s mind and say, “Well, other people also want to be happy, so if I value my own wish for happiness, I should value the wish of happiness for others. If I’m concerned with my own well-being, there can be concern with other’s well-being.” And then the full compassion comes.
So, I think this is for people who find very difficult to have benevolence with themselves, self-compassion is required. And the very good news is though boosting self-esteem, and this has been overdone, especially in North America, it leads to the narcissistic epidemic that Jane Twenge has been writing about. But cultivating self-compassion does not increase narcissistic tendencies, but rather a more, I would say, inclusive aspect of wishing your own happiness and then later other people’s happiness. So, that makes sense. And I think it’s a very good tool for beginning meditational compassion, and from there you can extend to others. But we should not just only do self-compassion.
TS: Yes. Now, you mentioned that perhaps people who engage in self-harm had had very difficult childhoods. Perhaps they were neglected in some way. And I’ve noticed that I think a lot of people are very, very hard on themselves, not necessarily even because they were neglected in their early upbringing, but just because of existing in an extremely competitive environment, in an extremely competitive educational environment, where you really have to be the best, and if you’re not, then you’re considered a failure. And there’s a lot of self-criticism and self-condemnation that can come from that. And in reading some of your work on altruism, you mentioned that the transformation of our educational system, if we can emphasize cooperation over competitiveness in school, that this could be extremely helpful as part of this altruistic revolution. And I’m curious how you came to that notion about changing to cooperation in schools?
MR: Well, surprisingly enough, in the turn of the 20th century, I mean, the beginning of 20th century, there was a strong movement in North America about cooperative learning. There was someone in Quincy, Massachusetts, I forget the name [Colonel Francis Parker], who really started that in a big way. And people were coming from all over America to see how he was teaching cooperative learning. It was very successful. And it gives very good academic result as well. But then, in the 1930s, the more individualistic, narcissistic approach sort of started to take over, and then went back to competitive learning.
But every study that has been done about schools that do practice cooperative learning have shown that it increased so much the emotional intelligence, the quality of human relationships among the children, with the teacher, so much less bullying. So, just to know, typically you could make it very simple, the way it works. Instead of having exams where only of course, a very few can be on the top, just by nature you can’t put everybody in the first five of the class. You don’t have exams in terms of ranking them, but more like appreciating their efforts like they do in Finland, there’s no grades. Just people are rewarded for working hard or studying. Not because of they get first, second or third grade.
And then, they put children in groups of five or six, mixing those who are more sort of brilliant in their study with those who have more difficulties. They’d be mixing different social backgrounds, maybe different ethnic backgrounds, and then so that they learn the lesson together. And so, those who are a little bit sort of more bright, they help the other ones, like sort of mentoring. And they actually seemed to be loving that. So, it has both everyone, it creates wonderful atmosphere, and it gives wonderful results. So, it has been done to some extent, but somehow it has not gone yet, so the flow mainstream.
But some countries like Finland and others are starting doing it. In England now, in the U.K., 10% of schools do what they call value-based education, which is not so much about competition. But every week the students and the teacher choose a value, like say honesty or compassion or whatever, fairness. And then they try to base all the curriculum around those values, referring to those. And it’s extremely successful. It was evaluated in Australia on 60,000 children, and thought it gives so much better quality of life at the school. And all the teachers are happy, they don’t try to change schools. The kids are happy. The parents are happy.
So somehow, some of those things are known, and you wonder why they’re not more widely practiced. And it’s true that the competitiveness becomes the rule of modern education. But maybe it will change. I hope so.
TS: In the beginning of our conversation Matthieu, where you were describing to us your two French writers that you collaborated with for In Search of Wisdom, and you mentioned that Christophe Andre is a psychiatrist, so he works with people who have various kinds of emotional suffering challenges. And Alexandre Jollien, also spent 17 years in a home for the physically disabled. And I’m curious to know, because there’s a section of the book In Search of Wisdom where you talk about suffering, and you explore suffering from these three different perspectives. What you learned about the transformation of suffering from these two individuals who experience and work with it in a very different way than you do?
MR: Well of course, they bring real life situations. I sort of, one of my friends said that I’m the last person to write a book on happiness and suffering because I didn’t really have any big tragedy in my life. And mostly wonderful things happen to me, including meeting my spiritual teacher and doing wonderful things and having a very fulfilled life. So, although of course, I witness suffering, again, living in very destitute countries, that’s why I started the Karuna Shechen Project, and I’ve seen misery, I’ve seen suffering and all kinds of things. But somehow, I had a happy life, let’s say.
But, Alexandre, he suffered so much. Sometimes he used to go to see his parents, but then he had to go back to these physicians. So, he was put there when he was four years old, so each time it was like, he was torn apart by having been abandoned again and again, and every 15 days had to go back to the institution. So, the big suffering is in his life. But yet you overcome that to some extent. He has a wife and wonderful children, even [though] he’s handicapped. And somehow, he puts a lot of stress on joy.
He said even in this institution, there was so much joy because of the deep friendship between the other inmates of the institution. So, the idea of joy, of being together, facing the same difficulty and helping each other, there was something very interesting to me. And then, if the family, of course is more cautious, because he’s dealing with people who suffer so much, who have so much difficulty with their own mind. And so, sometimes he was bringing us down to Earth. Well, you can’t say certain things to people who are in intense psychological suffering. You have to go step by step, or more slowly, adapt it to their capacity of digesting those.
So yes, you learn. And if your wish is to contribute to other’s happiness and relieve suffering, for someone who breeds not just intellectual ideas, but real life situations based on their life from experience, that is so precious. So, I learned so much with them, yes.
TS: Even though you have a very happy life, Matthieu, I’m sure in your own experience with your own self, not even just from the nonprofit work you do, you encounter suffering at times.
TS: Do you have a method or an approach when that happens?
MR: Well, as I said, I mean, unconditional compassion, doing anything we can. And then there’s no regret. Nobody can regret doing things that is much beyond their capacity. So, I do everything I can. I give 100% of my revenue to start with. And spend so much of my time trying to run this organization. I mean, with my collaborators and friends. And so, if I can do something, then I’m at peace with that I do what I could. So, why should I just worry for things which have nothing much I can do? So, I do the best. And nothing much to regret and reproach myself. Of course I could have done possibly a little more, be more endeavorous, started earlier, I don’t know. But somehow I’m at peace with that. And I do as much as I can. And so that’s the best I can do. So, why should I worry?
TS: No, Matthieu, very good. One of the things that is a great joy for me and for Sounds True is that you’re going to be a featured presenter at a four-day event that benefits the Eckhart Tolle Foundation. It’s called Living a Life of Presence. And it’s happening later this year, November 8-11 in Southern California. Can you tell me a little bit about your meeting with Eckhart Tolle, and how it is that you’re inspired by him and his work?
MR: Well, I met him, first I read The Power of Now and The New Earth, and when I especially The New Earth, when he says about this first experience, when he was so desperate, contemplating suicide, and then seeing no meaning at all. He was alone in a room with the light of the city coming through the window. And then suddenly he realized that everything was about grasping to the self, and then he fell almost, and passed out. And then when he came out, he felt a kind of immense freedom toward the ego grasping. So, I felt that sounds very, very genuine. And so, when I was invited to this conference in Vancouver, we saw the Dalai Lama, there was five women Nobel Peace Prize winners, like Jody Williams and others. And he was invited, and we did a panel together.
So, when I first met him, I thought, “OK, now this is a person whose whole sort of approach is about egolessness, or making the ego transparent, so he can’t have a big ego within it.” So, I was curious to see how he was as a person. And that time he was so sort of simple, almost like surprisingly genuine, and sort of almost naive, but in such a sweet way. So, I really thought it was nice and great. And so, we had a very good time during those few days. And though I didn’t have a chance to meet him again, so when he wrote to come to this place, and although I’m not doing much conferences anymore because I’m 72, and I want to go back to my hermitage.
But since I’m going also to the Contemplative Science Symposium not far from there, just a few days’ difference. It’s held at the Mind and Life Institute and it’s the idea of transmitting to the next generation what we did over the last 20 years. So, I say, “OK, I will come.” So, those two I could combine without taking too much time out of my hermitage. And so, I’m very glad to go there, and meet him again and hopefully extend a few, whatever can be useful. A little talk there somewhere.
TS: Wonderful. Now you mentioned, Matthieu, that right now you’re with your mother in France, and that she is also a monastic. That she is a Buddhist nun.
TS: And I’m curious to know what you see as the role of monasticism in our contemporary world, the role of the monk and the nun. So much now, as you know, people are saying, “Well, I can just be secular and take the techniques from Buddhism that work for me. Oh great, compassion works. I’ll do that, wonderful.” What’s the role of the monk and the nun?
MR: Well yes, I think so.
MR: I agree with that. Monasticism, my mother is a nun, but she doesn’t live in a monastery. She did three years retreat. I think that monastic life is quite difficult in the West a little bit, because you have to be really a renuncient, to go from home to homelessness. So, basically it’s not really the way of life, it function there. So, for me, as my teacher said when I became a monk, now my only one goal is to practice the dharma. Imagine, I did about five years of solitary retreats on different occasions. If I had a spouse and had children, who I am to go for three years or somewhere? “It’s OK, bye bye, I’ll see you in a few years!” No, it’s not fair. So, you can’t do that. And then it’s so much, I know most couples, they spend 20 years on the wonderful work of upbringing children, it’s fantastic. But it does take a lot of time.
For me, I’m lucky I’m completely free, if I get that, only the footprint of my shoes somewhere and then I can go. Not sort of tie behind. I can disappear tomorrow. It doesn’t harm anyone. So, humanitarian projects will go on. So, this idea of complete freedom to dedicate yourself either to spiritual life or contemplative life, or to a retreat in a cave in the mountain, or to do humanitarian projects, and I can just go from one place to the other just completely free. So, it’s a kind of dedication, and also a kind of freedom that I find in monastic life. Plus, there are rules which of course are safeguards for not falling into things that obviously bring suffering: Obsession with possessions, with sensual pleasure, what becomes so much a preoccupation for so many people.
So, there’s nothing wrong fundamentally with possessions and sensual pleasure, but when it becomes mixed so much with grasping and craving, then that brings suffering. So, it’s not that something is wrong by itself, it’s wrong as long as there is grasping, suffering, clinging that comes in the picture, it brings suffering. That’s a fact. So, to be free from that, that freedom allows you to dedicate more of yourself to the spiritual part.
TS: Now I’ve met many people, and some of them work here at Sounds True with me, who have said, “I have a sense that in some of my past lives, maybe many of my past lives, I lived as a nun or a monk. But here I am, I’m in contemporary Western society, and actually sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it feels especially hard to be a parent because there’s this tension. I really want to go off and do a retreat. Sometimes it’s hard to deal with the economics of the world. I wish I didn’t have to. I wish I just could give all my money away and not even have to deal with it.” And I’m wondering if you could address those people who feel that tension in their life?
MR: Well, first of all, I’ve not the slightest idea about my past life, and I don’t care much about it. But for me, it is a freedom because you say dealing with the difficult economics, yes, if we live in a world where you have a house, you have a car, you have a rent, you have this and that. Frankly, when I said, first when I left Pasteur Institute, I went first to India in 1967. Then I was with a PhD in molecular biology for six years in Pasteur Institute. In 1972, my boss let my salary go for six months. Not big salary, I was just a beginning researcher, but with that money I lived for 25 years in India, basically on 50 dollars a month. Why? Because I was staying in small hermitage, which was wonderful, so nice, you can’t believe it. But there was no running water, no electricity, no central heating at 6,000 feet. But so wonderful because I was near my teacher, and never felt any discomfort. I had a big bucket of water on my balcony.
So then, if you choose that way of life, the economics comes very easy. Now of course, if you have to be in the system, and of course not everyone can do that, and I don’t advise people to do that, but for me it was easy. I decided to do that. It was a joy. So now still, I mean we can live in a more simple way possibly and do spend some time with our meditators or something without becoming necessarily monastics. Have some hours, an hour or so or two every day or on the weekend to seriously pursue a spiritual practice. I mean, we can do that while living modestly, but enough to meet ends at the end of the month. And not pursue your always more and more and more.
And there’s a Tibetan saying that, “if you know how to be content, you hold a treasury in the palm of your hand.” So, we should not be content with spiritual progress. Always try to do more. But with matter and possessions, yes, we have to learn to be very soon contented. And one of the mantra I like best is, “I need nothing, I need nothing, I need nothing.” Of course, it’s not just fully depriving yourself, but basically knowing to be content with what is necessary for a reasonably healthy good life, and then not always try for double, for triple. But why not try to increase your quality as a human being? And then that’s, you can go on for a long time, trying to become a good human being. That’s the best economics I know.
TS: OK, just two final questions, Matthieu. There’s a chapter of In Search of Wisdom called “Consistency: A Question of Fidelity.” How would you define or describe a high-fidelity person?
MR: Where something that is the same inside and outside, more transparence, like the Dalai Lama’s tale of that we should be completely the same inside and outside. And he is the living example of that. He’s exactly the same with the lady who is cleaning the floor or the hotel he stayed, and with the heads of state. No difference. If he’s a human being, he looks at that person with the same presence and kindness, and is not a show for people who might look at him and say, “Oh, he’s so good with humble people as well as with the heads of state.” He sees a human being, he’s the same inside and outside.
So, that coherence and consistency, the worst can happen if you show a beautiful, and we see that so often, people who teach virtue, and then you find out they do these terrible things behind the scenes. And people who are supposed to represent the whole nation and who behave in terrible ways. So, what kind of example? They don’t walk the talk. And so then, how can you fill your dissatisfaction?
I’d much rather feel that I did nothing wrong and be accused of all kinds of terrible things, knowing that I have not done it because I’m at peace in myself, than be praised for my virtue and do terrible things when nobody sees. So, I think that this consistency and coherence is to be free from moral hypocrisy and all kinds of hypocrisy. And then you feel at peace because you are joyful, because there’s no sort of hidden dark spot. Doesn’t mean that you’re perfect, but at least you don’t pretend. And then you act according to those inner deep feelings, not just showing off, showing off.
TS: Where there any big turning points in your life where you said, “Oh, I’m going to have to make a change?” As I was reading, when you decided to start your nonprofit, that seemed like a turning point for you in a sense.
MR: Well, there were two main ones. When I first met my spiritual teacher, my first teacher Kangyur Rinpoche. I was studying a scientific area, and when I met him I said, “Hey, I have met a lot of interesting people, great philosophers, musicians, writers, artists, explorers, but I was always puzzled by the disparity, the discrepancy between their particular genius at playing the piano or something, and human qualities. You could find all kinds of distribution between wonderful people and terrible people among philosophers, musicians, gardeners, anything.” But when I met my spiritual teacher, there was a perfect consistency. The teaching is the teacher. The messenger was the message. So, that is, for me, that was one turning point. I wanted to become like that person. Not just know what they knew or their philosophy, but on the human level.
The second one, yes, is after 25 years in the East living on hardly anything, when I did the first book with my father and I saw some funds coming my way, I didn’t need anything of that, so I decided that now it’s time to put compassion in action. So, we started this organization called “Karuna,” which means compassion. And since there are quite a few Karuna in the East, we added the name of our monastery, “Shechen.” And now we started with very small projects, creating a clinic in Nepal, one in Tibet.
And now almost nearly 20 years later, today, we are helping 300,000 people in India, in northern India, in Nepal and Tibet in the field of education, health, and social services. So, it’s wonderful. We have a wonderful team. There are about 200 people working in the field programs. And we have many volunteers that we employ now for Karuna. And it’s a great joy to see that it’s like a family. We don’t have much, like sometimes there are always difficulties with NPOs, but because we also have this ideal, to transform ourselves to better serve others. And therefore I think it’s in good harmony within our organization. And I hope it will survive me in a big way and continue. And so that’s my hope.
TS: And then finally, this is a little bit odd, Matthieu, we’ll see how this rolls. But I’m wondering, would you be able to conclude our conversation with some kind of blessing for all of our listeners about the altruistic revolution?
MR: Well, not a blessing, because I remember the Dalai Lama when he started a talk, he said, “If you came here thinking the Dalai Lama has some kind of power, please, you came for the wrong wizard. If I had some power, I’d start healing my own knee,” he says. So, forget about blessing.
But I would say that if you genuinely identify within yourself the potential we have for goodness, and we do have it, and to bring it at the surface, to actualize it, to make it become fully bloomed, that’s the very best thing you can do for others and for yourself. So, it’s the two-fold accomplishment of others and your own good, a win-win situation, go for it, dare to be altruistic. That’s the best thing we can do in life, both for others and for oneself. So, that’s my heart advice.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Matthieu Ricard. Thank you so, so, so much.
MR: Thank you so much.
TS: Thank you. He’s the author of the new book with Sounds True called In Search of Wisdom: A Monk, a Philosopher, and a Psychiatrist on What Matters Most, a book based on dialogues that he had with Christophe Andre and Alexandre Jollien. He’s also the author of the book Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, and a book on happiness, A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill.
He’ll also be a featured presenter at Living a Life of Presence, which is a four-day event coming up November 8-11 in Huntington Beach, California to benefit the Eckhart Tolle Foundation. Thanks everyone for listening and being part of the altruistic revolution. Let’s go for it. SoundsTrue.com, waking up the world.