Psychologies: Why, in your opinion, this sudden interest in values like kindness?
Matthieu Ricard: We realize that empathy, altruism, cooperation, kindness are part of our nature. But this is nothing new: Darwin already spoke of the necessary mutual aid in humans and animals, and Adam Smith insisted on the importance, in economics, of cooperation. However, from the start of the 20th century, dogmatic perspectives emerged to deny these ideas. Freud decreed that altruism was a compensation for the desire to harm others, thus giving the feeling that selfishness was a sign of mental health; economists have argued that altruism is detrimental to productivity; scientists such as biologist Richard Dawkins have spoken of the “selfish gene”; philosophers like Ayn Rand have extolled “the virtue of selfishness” … But today, we are coming back. In psychology, studies by Daniel Batson show that genuine altruism exists; in economics, Ernst Fehr proves the need to take this value into account in the development of economic models… So many currents of ideas that are changing our cultures.
But why now?
Matthieu Ricard: Because with globalization we feel that we are all on the same boat. Faced with the ecological question, faced with the gaps between rich and poor, and between North and South, we understand that the time is no longer for competition but for cooperation. Otherwise, we will all be the losers. And, at the individual level, we can see that this selfishness and this individualism are our misfortune. They are the cause of our feeling of loneliness, of our excessive ruminations, of our depression …
In fact, it is more rejection and aggressiveness that dominate …
Matthieu Ricard: Does it dominate or does it shock us because it is against nature? You are at the side of the road, you have a flat tire and no one is stopping to help you. What is going on ? You are outraged! If selfishness was the common denominator of all human beings, it wouldn’t shock us. And we wouldn’t feel so bad after showing it.
But wanting to be nice is not enough to be nice! Often, our selfish behaviors are “stronger than us” because of less conscious issues …
Matthieu Ricard: You can’t refuse to take your hand off the heat and complain about being burnt! If you haven’t figured out that self-centeredness is making you miserable, spend a weekend cultivating just that and see how it feels on Sunday night. The next weekend, try to cultivate empathy and selflessness, and compare. Being open and considering others brings real relief. It’s a breath of fresh air. Because it goes with the flow of reality: we are all interdependent.
Do you deny that we can have selfish inclinations?
Matthieu Ricard: Not at all ! I am a mixture of shadow and light, but what are the consequences for my well-being of my selfish behaviors and, conversely, of my altruistic behaviors? The surges of hatred or jealousy come quickly, they are powerful and we do not need to cultivate them. On the other hand, reflection is necessary to understand the mechanisms of suffering and well-being, and training of the mind is essential to cultivate altruism.
Are you talking about meditation?
M.R. : Yes, but not necessarily in the oriental or spiritual sense. Etymologically, to meditate means both “to weigh a question intellectually” and “to take care of”. It is a work of reflection which passes, for example, by the development of focused attention or full consciousness, by altruistic love, or by the fact of relating to others, of accepting “impermanence”. at the same time as the interdependence of things and beings.
Concretely, what to do on the days when I would like to be kinder to my loved ones, but where, in spite of myself, I am unbearable?
M.R. : Instead of thinking for thirty seconds “How nice it would be if I was nicer!” “, Ask yourself:” Certainly, I am clumsy, but, deep down, I do not want to suffer or make others suffer. As for this person who annoys me, she too is clumsy towards herself and others, but she too does not wake up in the morning wanting to cause pain. If I value my desire to be happy, I must also value his. This is the first step in recognizing yourself as a human being connected to another human being who, in fact, deserves to be respected. Then it’s about cultivating selfless love. Start with someone you love: your child, your cat, your companion… Think about him and let a flow of love for him grow in your mind. Do this for twenty minutes every day. A month later, you will have started to change, and when you are exposed to a difficult situation, this new skill will easily spring to your mind. Studies on neuroplasticity show structural and functional changes in the brains of meditators: eight weeks to three months of altruistic meditation thirty minutes a day already brings about significant changes, for example in the tendency to anxiety, rumination and to depression.
Does becoming more altruistic oneself make sense in a world that advocates opposite values?
M.R. : Let’s be honest, it’s not the governments that will proclaim overnight “Let’s become altruistic”! Cultural changes come first from the people. I believe in the effect of “raindrops”: it’s a few drops on a sidewalk, to which others are added, then it forms a puddle, and soon the whole sidewalk is wet. These are the NGOs, the people who maintain social ties, they are also intellectual beacons that create points of infl ection. Then our natural tendency to imitate kicks in. This is how cultures change.
Can man become better for all that?
M.R. : The philosopher André Comte-Sponville says that contemporary man is no better than Aristotle and that only societies change. In scientific terms, this means that we and Aristotle have the same genes. It’s true: it takes fifty thousand years for them to change. But, thanks to the work on epigenetics, we know that, in this stable plane, some genes are expressed, others not, and that those which had not been expressed for generations can suddenly do so under the effect of external stimulation. Likewise, neuroplasticity shows that passive exposure to a particular environment affects the configuration of our brain. We will therefore not be the same if we grow up in a culture that promotes altruism, even if our genes are identical to those of Aristotle, who defended slavery! However, let’s not wait for the world to change to change us. As the Dalai Lama says, “there can be no external disarmament without internal disarmament”.
You speak of the Dalai Lama, the supreme embodiment of altruism. However, this is not enough to fix the situation of his people …
M.R. : Do you think that if we blew up Chinese Boeings and entered the spiral of revenge, the Tibetan people would suffer less? When there is little hope of negotiation between Israel and Palestine, they are given the Nobel Prize. But when the Dalai Lama is from the outset in the desire for dialogue, we say that he is weak! However, wanting to open up to others is not proof of weakness, it is proof of intelligence.
Nevertheless: we sometimes refuse to be “nice” for fear that it will be perceived as an admission of weakness and that we will be crushed.
M.R. : What is the alternative? The other behaves badly, you do the same, and, in the end, everyone loses. Or, on the contrary, you are benevolent. If the other appreciates, so much the better, otherwise, that’s his business. There is no benefit in adopting the attitude you reproach others! Insulted by a man, Buddha asks him: “If someone hands you a gift and you do not accept it, in whose hands is it left?” The man answers: “Between those of the person who wants to give it. “Buddha:” Well there you go, if I don’t take your malicious words, they stay with you! ”
MATTHIEU RICARD – HIS KEY DATES
1946: Birth in Aix-les-Bains (Savoie).
1967: First meeting with Tibetan Buddhist masters in India.
1972: After a thesis in genetics, he settles in Tibet, where he will become a Buddhist monk.
1989: Becomes the French interpreter of the Dalai Lama.
1997: Publishes The Monk and the Philosopher, a dialogue with his father, Jean-François Revel (Nil).
2008 : The Art of Meditation (Nil).
2010 : Spiritual paths (Nil).