Discovering Joy with His Holiness the Dalai Lama & Archbishop Desmond Tutu

(photo: Miranda Penn Turin)

Douglas Abrams is the founder and president of the book/media agency Idea Architects, where he collaborates with visionaries to create a better world. For more than a decade, Abrams has worked with Archbishop Desmond Tutu on various books and projects, including co-founding Human Journey, an initiative "committed to spreading the African understanding of Ubuntu--the realization that each of us thrives only when all of us thrive." In April 2015, Abrams spent a week with the Dalai Lama and Tutu as they tackled an age-old question: How do we find joy in the face of life's inevitable suffering? The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (Avery), which Abrams co-authored with the two spiritual leaders, is the outcome. Abrams lives with his wife and children in California.

What an extraordinary experience it must have been for you to spend a week with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.

It was truly extraordinary to be in that room facilitating what we knew was going to be a historic dialogue during what was perhaps the last time these two leaders and close friends might ever meet. I think what we didn't quite realize--even though we knew how much this would mean to the world--was how much this experience would mean to the two of them. Seeing how significant, rewarding and delightful it was for them to be with each other for that amount of time--to play together, explore together and share their traditions--was incredibly moving to witness.

That comes through in the book. I almost got the sense that writing this book was a spiritual experience for you. Did this project transform you in any particular way?

My journey to writing The Book of Joy has been a lifelong process. It began with growing up in a home shrouded by the black dog of depression. Working on The Book of Joy allowed me to see how all the suffering and experiences in my life were necessary for the completion of this project and for me to play this role of scribe. I think there are experiences where we see a larger pattern and a larger meaning, and this was certainly an experience that went beyond the body, the mind and into the heart. It felt like an expanded state of consciousness. 

Tell me about the preparations for the visit. You share a long friendship and a long working relationship with Archbishop Tutu. Had you previously met the Dalai Lama?

I met the Dalai Lama in Washington, D.C., during the preparations for the book, which was created in honor of his 80th birthday as a gift for the world. The Book of Joy was envisioned as a layered birthday cake, with the first layer being their insights, teachings and stories, followed by a travelogue experience of being there with them during this time as they shared their lives. The Dalai Lama teaches Archbishop Tutu how he meditates, and the Dalai Lama dances for the first time in his life. You get those very intimate experiences, along with the science behind their insights.

Their message is universal, one that resonates with people of all faiths as well as those who are unchurched or atheist, or who have had that part of their lives fall away. They offer a very practical way of living that doesn't make the reader subscribe to any one faith.  

The Dalai Lama was adamant that this needed to be a universal human book. It shouldn't require people to believe in any one thing. We knew we were dealing with two global moral leaders who are much larger than their faith traditions and who also speak to people of many faiths or of no faith. They're also very deep practitioners of their traditions. It was an opportunity to bring their two traditions together, along with their universal worldview.  

This visit took place in April 2015, before many significant world events, such as the Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election. At one point in the book, Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama comment that the world is getting better. Do you think they would still say that? What part of the book's message do you think is most pertinent for us living in these uncertain times?

I visited with Archbishop Tutu right after the Paris bombings, and he spoke specifically of what to say to people who were so discouraged by the terror and intolerance. He remained adamant that we need to have a wider perspective, to realize humanity progresses two steps forward and one step back; however, if you look at the long sweep of human history, we are going in the right direction. We forget that we evolved and grew as a species in a context very different from the world now, and we're not going to further evolve overnight. The book talks about how we deal with despair and those feelings when it seems we're taking a step backward, and even in our own lives when we feel overwhelmed by bad news and feel like we are personally going in the wrong direction.

It's not a "don't worry, be happy" book or one that promotes a superficial understanding of joy while denying the real suffering that exists in the world. Rather, it's about how to cultivate joy in the face of adversity in our own lives. These are two men who speak with the mantle of moral courage because of the suffering they faced. Through them, we understand how we transcend and grow through adversity rather than ignoring or denying it. There's a zig and zag to all our lives and we don’t evolve without that.

We need the pain to realize the growth we're capable of and that we have inside. We have the capacity within us to become stronger and better people.

That's exactly right. For me that was one of the most profound things I learned while growing up around depression. We don't have to get stuck in those emotions. We don't have to live there. As the Dalai Lama would say, we have mental immunity. None of us would be the person we are without our respective losses. The key is not to look at those losses from a place of deficiency, but as a foundation for the character we need to fulfill our purpose. Archbishop Tutu would not be Archbishop Tutu if he hadn't stared down apartheid. The Dalai Lama would not be the Dalai Lama without the experience of being in exile. 

That concept is a powerful one when combined with the understanding that developing this mental immunity is a lifelong learning process, one that can be cultivated. Very few of us can meditate five hours a day like the Dalai Lama, but there are things we can all implement in our own lives. Your book includes a section of practical ways to cultivate those pillars of joy.

If the book was envisioned as a birthday cake, that last layer is the frosting. The overall goal isn't to experience joy as a fleeting emotional state, such as when we're enjoying a song or our lunch. What the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu model for us, and which we saw so powerfully over the course of a week, is how it is possible for joy to become an enduring character trait in everyone's life. --Melissa Firman

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