Interview with Matthieu Ricard

My favourite line from the interview with Matthieu Ricard was "Thinking about your death gives extraordinary quality to every moment of your life." Image Copyright: Joy Works

Matthieu Ricard is a monk, photographer and best-selling author of “Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill” and “Why Meditate?” among other books. He is the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama. He is dubbed as the happiest person in the world by popular media but do read about how he feels about this on his blog. Here’s one part of the interview I did with him on 13 September 2012 in Singapore. The other part, especially for leaders, is here.  ~ Vadivu

There’s often a split between what we know is compassionate, wise and truthful and what we do. And sometimes we think we are growing because we keep going to spiritual events or our place of worship but our daily life actions may not reflect that. What are your reflections on this and how can we heal this gap?

That’s the main challenge. We can deal with this by recognising the truth of the teachings. After all, it’s not an obligation. You don’t have to practise meditation or live a spiritual life, like you pay tax. Who’s going to keep those accounts? Nobody. So it’s really a way to become a better person and live a more fulfilled life.

When you don’t live with spiritual awareness,  you may get a slap on the face. These are not just rules by anyone to just annoy us. They indicate what need to be accomplished so we can avoid  suffering.

You don’t see a bird as “renouncing” its cage but it’s freeing itself from its cage. There’s nothing sad to abandon one’s cage. So the ultimate criteria for healthy spiritual practice is to blend one’s mind and life with the teachings.  That comes slowly and with that comes happiness.

My thoughts. 

What are your favourite movies?

I like movies that give hope in the human nature… so any movie that brings the best out of yourself..there are quite a few like Groundhog Day…so it [Phil’s way] fails, it fails, it fails, until compassion comes in. I like this kind of movie with the message of compassion.  There’s another one in French – The intouchables.

Many movies now have meanness and violence. It seems there’s nothing except the gratuitous will to harm. This is a wrong presentation of human nature. Pure evil is very very rare in humanity. Even people who commit terrible acts always think they have a reason. It’s never just doing evil for the sake of evil. This is really wrong. Unfortunately [these movies] have great influence on everyone, especially the children, but also adults. It increases their aggression and gives them a pessimistic outlook on life. It’s extremely negative.

There was a very interesting study by Ed Diener and Darlene DeFour which showed that when people were shown a programme with violent scenes deleted, it didn’t significantly affect the popularity of the programme.  So the idea that you gain more audience because it’s violent is morally wrong and isn’t true.

See my post on Groundhog Day. 

If you knew you had one year left to live, what would you do more of? What would you do less of?

I’d stop mending my socks! I would very quickly hand over this charitable organisation, Karuna-Shechen, in a few weeks. And then I will entirely spend that time getting instructions from my teachers and then go into hermitage.

Interview conducted by: Vadivu Govind, Director, Joy Works (joyworks.sg) on 13 Sept 2012, Poh Ming Tse Temple, Singapore. (Deep gratitude to Matthieu Ricard for the gift of his time.) 

See Part 2 of the interview. 

If you’d like to re-publish this interview or excerpts of it, please write to me at vadivu[at]joyworks.sg.

Related: My Interview with Kit Miller, Director of the Gandhi Institute of Nonviolence

(This blog isn’t tied to any specific religion. It has a multi-faith approach and promotes inter-faith harmony.)

On truth-speakers

There are some people in my life – very few of them – who have spoken the truth to be about my weaknesses. But it was very uncomfortable and I asked them to leave.

They say the truth will set you free but first it will piss you off! :)

When we don’t allow truth to surface, we stifle opportunities for growth -ours and others’. And we may be stifling compassion and justice.

Sometimes the higher we rise up in rank, the fewer people give us constructive feedback.  Watch The Emperor’s New Clothes. How do you accept truthful feedback or hear the truth of something important that is happening in your organisation? Do you reward those who speak it? For example, do you incentivise whistle-blowing?

And what situations do you see that call you to speak truthfully? It is not always easy to and sometimes it is even dangerous.   Look at ways to develop bravery and wisdom. Watch movies such as Erin Brockovich.

In speaking up on some matters, we may alienate ourselves at times. And sometimes it isn’t possible for us to change something pretty major at that point in time with the power and resources we have.  So we may lose certain relationships and communities. The path isn’t always fun.  However it can be incredibly rewarding. The loss is only temporary. If we choose, we soon can find new spaces and communities whose values in action resonate more deeply with us. :)

Wherever you are, I hope you find the courage to speak the truth (which is inspired by compassion) with love and wisdom.

(This is part of an interview I did with Matthieu Ricard. These are my thoughts to the questions I posed him. Please click here for his responses. )

On What We Know and What We Do

There’s often a split between what we know is compassionate, wise and truthful and what we do. And sometimes we think we are growing because we keep going to spiritual events or our place of worship but our daily life actions may not reflect that. What are your reflections on this and how can we heal this gap?

My thoughts on how we can heal this gap:

– Connect to the joy that comes when we are true to virtues such as Love, Wisdom and Truth. Let it remind us of the benefits of practising these virtues.

 Do quiet self-reflections daily. How did we treat the cashier? Did we hurt our partners because of our lack of sensitivity and empathy? And I don’t just mean to do this from the mind. What real feedback did we receive from others? We can also “scan” our feelings, thoughts and actions of the day with our heart and soul.

– Learn the lessons life is asking us to learn. See my post on Groundhog Day, one of Matthieu Ricard’s favourite movies. 

However our own self-monitoring is often not sufficient. We have blindspots. We have an ego that may skew our self-perception.  So we need others. We can…

– Surround ourselves with people whose actions are highly congruent with what they say they value or what they teach.

We learn from what people do more than what people say. We are all works in progress so are not perfect. Sometimes we are inspiring role-models in one area of life, but not in others. We each need to know what kind of inspiration could support our transformation to become more evolved human beings.

I am personally drawn to catalysts who are reasonably open about their own journeys, and speak from what they have learned experientially, can own up to mistakes etc and remind me of the importance of always growing.

We may especially need to choose our spiritual/personal growth communities very carefully, because this is where we very consciously learn to be better human beings. We tend to be more open here to people who seem more evolved  and learn from what they do pretty unconsciously. And because what they say sounds beautiful, and true, we sometimes cannot see that their actions don’t add up to their words or we don’t want to speak up about it. Why?

  • We may be blinded by our loyalty to our communities
  • We may enjoy their company so not want to “rock the boat”
  • We may be approval seeking so not want the alienation that may occur if we chose to speak up when we may witness actions that are incongruent to what is being taught. This may also prevent us from leaving a community and join another which may be more beneficial to our growth.

I personally find this dangerous as it can lull us into spiritual slumber – with each class, retreat or prayer session, we think we are growing but we may not be.

Choosing our friends and romantic partners carefully is also very key.  We are influenced by their behaviours too.

Yet this does not mean we withhold love and compassion from anyone. We can love all unconditionally. It’s just who we invite into our inner circle and spaces where we’re learning from others that I think we need to be extra discerning about.

– Be open to truth-seekers/speakers who point out not only our good, but also our blindspots. (This links to my other question to Ricard.) It feels good to be praised and this can feed our need for approval, especially if we don’t love ourselves enough. Then someone comes along and sees us clearly, and it gets uncomfortable. They name our flaws.

We often tend to choose friends like us so they may share our blindspots too as they may have had a similar upbringing etc . So some may not be able to mirror back to us areas in which we need to grow. It all seems well and fine, till as Ricard says, we get a “slap on the face”.

I have learned that we need to be strong in our self-worth and love ourselves to really be open to honest feedback. If we feel insecure, we will not be able to take such feedback and will ask those who speak the truth to leave our lives or we close up to them.

More on truth-speaking.

 Get prepared for a life review. How would we feel if our lives were played back to us? Some people who say they have had near-death experiences claim that their lives were played back for them upon their clinical death. Whether we believe in this or not, it is a useful lens to use to take stock of our lives.

If our lives are indeed played back to us and we saw the impact we had on others and ourselves, how would we feel?

Watch the film, A Christmas Carol, and see your life as others have experienced you. Scrooge gets a wake-up call to who he is during his trip to the past, present and future. Most of us are not an “extreme” as Scrooge. Our faults may be more subtle, nuanced, sometimes even well-intended. Yet if we knew it all added up – every feeling, thought and action – our motivation to wake up to a higher level of consciousness would be much stronger.

All this is relevant to us all, but particularly those of us in educational or healing professions where people come to us for help or growth – teachers of all kinds, counsellors, coaches etc. Our own growth and healing directly affects the quality of our service to others. We are out there helping us – who’s helping us? We need to stay vigilant to our own blindspots and growth areas so we can be examples to those we serve.

(This is part of an interview I did with Matthieu Ricard. These are my thoughts to the questions I posed him. Please click here for his responses. )