I never know what to expect when I get a call from my father, David Hooks. He runs The Edge of Chaos (yes, it’s really called that) at UAB. “Russell, how would you like to interview the translator for His Holiness, the Dalai Lama?!”
“Um, dad, I already interviewed Ven Geshe Lhakdor last year, remember?” Turns out he was speaking of another translator, Dr. Thupten Jinpa. I put my phone on speaker and started to google. He’s a renowned speaker, author of a book on compassion, and former monk who now has an app! Sign me up!
I met Jinpa in downtown Birmingham, at Forge, in The Pizitz building. He was very engaging while at the same time very relaxed. I immediately could tell that I was going to enjoy our conversation. Of course the interview was incredible, and I could probably write page after page about what we discussed, so I thought I’d go over five major takeaways that you can apply to your daily life. But first, let me tell you a bit about Jinpa.
”As a refugee, you really feel acutely, the benefits of other people’s kindness.”
Dr. Thupten Jinpa may be best known for serving as the primary translator to the Dalai Lama. He has translated and edited no less than ten books written by His Holiness. Having been born in Tibet just before the Tibetan Uprising, Jinpa grew up as a refugee in a children’s home, specifically for Tibetan children, as he watched China take over his home country. He became a monk at age eleven (eleven!) having been inspired by the kindness of the monks who taught at his school. “They looked radiant and happy,” said Jinpa. “Even the stories they told were different from the stories told by the other teachers at the school.”
Once he reached his mid-20’s he was translating for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It’s worth noting that, while he is still practicing Buddhist, he is no longer a monk and is now married and father to two daughters who are 19 and 21. Jinpa readily expressed how much his training as a monk helped him raise teenage daughters.
In addition to his work with the Dalai Lama, Jinpa is an accomplished author and scholar in his own right, having published multiple books and holds a Doctorate in Philosophy from Kings College in Cambridge. This gives him a unique perspective and a lot of wisdom. So let’s get to it. My five big takeaways from a man who spent his entire life studying compassion, in one form or another.
”Sometimes the compassionate course of action is the tougher one.”
1. ”You will Always have a Problem.”
“In life you will always be confronted with choices. Sometimes the compassionate course of action is the tougher one.” This is one of the things that Jinpa mentioned fairly early in our conversation. Everyone faces struggles each day. Some struggles seem tougher than others, but we all have a choice as to how we react to our problems. Jinpa spoke of Nelson Mandela, “When he was released from prison, Mandela could have taken the easy route, which would have made him very popular, by preying on the black majority’s need for some kind of revenge. He did not take that route. He took the difficult route which was creating a new nation, a new chapter, and figuring out how to move forward.”
We are always going to have struggles, it’s the human condition, but it’s how we react to our problems that is so important. Compassion is a tough response, but makes a huge difference. When it comes to individual problems, “In the end,” Jinpa says, “if you can’t fix the problem, then don’t spend all your time worrying about it. If it’s a problem you can fix, use courageous compassion to address it.” If you’ve ever heard or said the serenity prayer, then you know exactly what he’s talking about.
”We are all in a different ‘lived world.’”
2. Personal Happiness comes from Personal Fulfillment.
There are many things we all want in life, but at or near the top of everyone’s list is personal happiness. Our society trains us to seek instant gratification compounded with a constant desire to have the newest, trendiest thing. Success has been defined by having “stuff.” Most of us are wise enough to realize that a new shiny toy won’t bring us true happiness, but we tend to forget about the biggest obstacle to our personal happiness. This is the desire for control. We are conditioned to crave it. We seek to control our circumstances and our relationships, both at work and home.
While discussing this need for control, Jinpa told me about an 8th century proverb from a Buddhist teacher who taught that you can never control your environment completely. “If, in order to protect the soles of your feet, you set out to cover the entire face of the earth with leather, you will fail because there’s not enough leather. But on the other hand, covering your own feet with leather accomplishes the same purpose.” So, Jinpa states, “If, in order to protect yourself, you try to fix the environment you will never accomplish this. By taking care of yourself and your own mind, it does the job to a very large extent.”
This is such a cool way to approach our environment. We can’t be the director of our own play, but we can try to play our part to the best of our ability no matter our circumstances. True personal happiness comes from personal fulfillment, not the mastery of our surroundings.
”Without spiritual training, true freedom is an illusion.”
3. True Personal Freedom
We hear the term Freedom a lot, especially here in America. It can mean different things to different people. Jinpa argues that, “particularly in North America, individual freedom is probably the highest societal value.” I agree, but constitutional freedoms are quite different from personal freedom derived from leading a spiritual life. Sometimes these two freedoms get confused. Jinpa notes that, “human beings are very complicated. We have values, ambitions, aspirations, but also impulses. Most religious traditions try to convey the idea that trying to live a life based on giving into your whims is not a good thing.
"There’s a Tibetan monk who says that if you live a life on a sensual level, there’s not much to differentiate a human from an animal.” To counter this, Jinpa says that “Where humans can excel is to live a life according to your deeper aspirations and values. Now in order to do that you need to do a little bit of work,” he says with a chuckle. “This is where having some form of spiritual dimension in your life makes a difference because it gives you some discipline.” Image Source
At this point I had to ask about social media and the polarized climate in which we now live. I wondered if Jinpa felt that social media let to a lack of compassion. He believes that social media is a tool that can be used for good or bad, but “there’s just no substitution for face to face interaction. There just isn’t, because human communication is WAY more than just words.” Our tone, body language, and inflection all play a big part in empathizing with the person we are speaking with. “They have found that without thinking about it, we adjust our body language to accommodate the other person and match their movements. It’s a dance. There are a lot of things that are happening below the surface of consciousness. All of that would be out when you just use the digital platforms like social media. Social media should NEVER fully replace personal interaction.”
When it comes down to it, Jinpa states that, “To be truly free is to be able to live you life based on your own values and principles.” If you are like me, you have a defined set of both values and principles, but sometimes they end up in the passenger seat to our impulsive nature. So, while we are free to express ourselves on social media, keep in mind that we should strive for personal freedom from our impulses, especially in the comment section.
”Many of the fears we create in our own minds are avoidable.”
4. Dealing with Fear and Anxiety
When it comes to fear, there are many different kinds. When I asked him about fear, Jinpa shared a simple philosophy. “Of course fear is a very natural human response. Without fear we’d get into a lot of trouble. However, many of the fears we create in our own mind are avoidable like suspicion when dealing with other people. These fears that get in the way can be handled by compassion.”
This reminded me that sometimes the simplest concepts end up being the most profound. My brain immediately went to what I consider to be the extreme opposite of taking a stance of compassion when dealing with others. (Here’s where I throw in a spoiler free Game of Thrones reference.) In the show, one of the master manipulators is Petyr Baelish, aka “Little Finger.” He gives this piece of advice:
“Sometimes when I try to understand a person's motives, I play a little game. I assume the worst. What's the worst reason they could possibly have for saying what they say and doing what they do? Then I ask myself, "How well does that reason explain what they say and what they do?" -Petyr Baelish
This is just a terrible way to go about life and it isn’t driven by cunning, but by fear. Jinpa says, ”If we are more open and allow our compassion to express itself, a natural courage sets in. Because in the end, the other person in front of you is just like yourself, who wants to be happy, doesn’t want problems, who wishes the best for their children. There’s nothing to really differentiate and be afraid about. And often we hesitate and we bring resistance in the form of anxiety and fear that comes in the way.”
In his new book, Jinpa makes the relationship between compassion and courage very tight, because as he puts it, “In the end, taking a compassionate stand requires courage and it promotes courage!” Ask yourself, is the fear you have healthy or is it preventing you from becoming more accomplished? If it is acting as a roadblock, then take Jinpa’s advice and try using compassion to overcome it!
”We need to pay attention to our intentions."
5. Self Awareness is Key
According to Jinpa, in order to actively change our way of thinking, we have to remain aware. When it comes to our emotional reactions he had some sage advice. “You need to actually start thinking about [your reactions] because these kind of responses don’t come naturally since we are emotional creatures. Emotions are powerful indicators of something that is happening around you that is affecting you. When emotions arise, it seems like our reactions are simultaneous, but there is a temporal process. If you can somehow step in before the trigger arouses you and you are able to bring awareness before the actual explosion, there’s a gap. In order to catch that gap you need to start practicing, in some sense, by working backwards. So before you get there, you start decoupling full blown emotion and expression in behavioral terms, like shouting out or hitting something.”
Jinpa says that we should work back from our initial impulse to the trigger of that impulse, and even further to how we were feeling at the time of the trigger. This akin to feeling the urge to yell at another driver because they cut you off in traffic, but stopping yourself from manifesting this urge. You’d realize that you are in a bad mood because you are running late due to your own actions that caused you not to leave your house on time. “This is a mental training process,” Jinpa said. “You must learn this when you are in a calmer state of mind. If nothing else, when you feel worked up, take a step back and breathe.”
This all sounds familiar...
I was amazed at the similarities between the pieces of wisdom Jinpa imparted to me and the things I have personally learned in Bible studies, my own path of recovery/sobriety, and even the rapid fire teachings of entrepreneurial guru Gary Vaynerchuck. They all focus on rigorous self-awareness, personal honesty, patience, and following a personal path to happiness.
Jinpa’s teachings on compassion transcend cultural, societal, and religious barriers. If put into practice, they can help us to be our best selves. Once you achieve this personal freedom, others will take notice. They will see the difference in you and may even catch a glimpse of that “something” they have been searching for. This glimpse may make all the difference to them in their own struggles. It may start a much needed conversation, and can even save a life. You may think this is hyperbole, but I, and many others I know, have been on both sides of this. By being self aware, de-linking from impulsive reactions, showing compassion, and being your best self, you will help those around you and, in doing so, get that much closer to true happiness and joy.
Dr. Thupten Jinpa goes into much more detail about using compassion in our daily lives in his book “A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to be Compassionate can Change our Daily Lives.” It’s now available on Amazon. As I mentioned earlier, he also has an app available for both iphone and Android. It’s called “The Mandala App.”