Buddhist Psychologist Lorne Ladner on Depression, Compassion, and Positive Psychology

lorne ladner

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Dr. Lorne Ladner is a clinical psychologist, a dedicated Buddhist practitioner, and the author of the wonderful book The Lost Art of Compassion. In this interview we discuss the top questions he receives from his patients and how he helps them not only to overcome problems but to build joyful, meaningful lives through integrating meditation and Western psychology. We talk about the difference between selfishness and self-compassion, how to set healthy boundaries, what depression is from a Buddhist and psychological perspective, and how to treat it.

[00:01:05] Scott Snibbe: Lorne, it’s a pleasure to have you on A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. You and I have been Dharma friends for some time, attending retreats together, and I’ve enjoyed your guided meditations and events you’ve organized. It’s an honor to get a chance to talk to you on the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

[00:01:20] Lorne Ladner: Well, thank you.

The lost art of compassion

[00:01:21] Scott Snibbe: So I want us to start out with a great book that you wrote that I enjoyed called The Lost Art of Compassion. And I wonder if you could talk about why compassion is a lost art and how we might regain it.

The Lost Art of Compassion by Lorne Ladner

[00:01:34] Lorne Ladner: Actually by way of answering the question, I’ll start with thanking you because it was striking me this morning, as I was thinking about doing this, that there are so many people in the world right now who are using technology to spread misinformation or to spread craving or to spread anger or to spread hatred. That is why it’s a bit hard to answer your question, why is compassion a lost art?

The answer is that we don’t focus on it. I actually thought of it this morning. I was thinking about this view personally. I view this podcast as your meditation on compassion and love and it is radiating out through technology to the world. I think, it is a lost art because we don’t focus on it.

In psychology, at the time I was trained, there was no training in love or compassion, no mention of it. I would talk to medical doctors and nurses and they would say, No, there was nothing in my training about that. If there are any fields that should have some degree of training in compassion, it’s ones directly aimed at alleviating suffering, but it wasn’t included in the curriculum.

It wasn’t included in our way of thinking, we don’t put so much emphasis on it, people have called it the culture of narcissism. Actually,

Narcissism is the opposite of compassion. Hatred is not the opposite of compassion. It’s narcissism, preoccupation with self.

Our culture has gotten more and more extreme, but thank goodness there are people trying to share the opposite of that, including you, through this podcast.

The overlap of Western psychology with positive psychology

therapy session

[00:02:58] Scott Snibbe: That’s very nice of you to say, I appreciate that. Yeah, this idea of positive psychology was a big new idea, 15 or 20 years ago. And you were probably completing your training around the time that was emerging. Can you talk about that development? How Western psychology overlaps with positive psychology? How is it starting to work?

[00:03:25] Lorne Ladner: You’re right, they were starting to do the research right when I was doing my training and that research was starting to come out. It was really striking because the people who are interested in positive psychology, those early researchers made a number of points.

One of which was the whole field of Western psychology grew out of a focus on symptoms. There was no question initially about the positive aspects of the psyche, that weren’t addressed early on.

And then after that, it was part of the medical system. It was driven in a large part–many, many years–by finances. Who is going to get funding, the people who are going to look at addressing a specific diagnosis.

If you look at psychology, there was a huge emphasis on the DSM one and then DSM two. Now we’re up to five, to sort of categorize illnesses. If you look at it, historically, they point out that it was mainly for financial reasons, to get funding.

So the insurance companies would also fund therapy and government agencies would fund research. It was actually a radical step in psychology, in the West, to start to say, Wait a second, there are also life-enhancing, positive aspects to psychology. And if you research the insight, it might actually help, which of course is quite true.

Personally, as a Buddhist, I was really so thankful because our Buddhist tradition for over 2,000 years has focused on the positive aspects of psychology. There’s been this research on all different positive mental states and what ways they protect–help us be resilient–from trauma, protect us from depression, protect us from anxiety, and protect us from other negative states. But also in what ways might they enhance our quality of life, our well-being. It has been interesting and wonderful for me.

I remember when I first started as a psychologist, I helped form a group of Buddhist psychologists in the area. I remember I was talking early on about, can you really introduce meditation in therapy? And this idea was radical. Now, it’s on everybody’s website.

I teach mindfulness and it’s part of therapy, but Buddhist psychology emphasizes love, compassion, mindfulness, other positive mental states, and gratitude, which has helped the positive psychology movement. So there’s been a humongous amount of cross-fertilization in the research and in clinical practice. And for me, I use those every day; there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t focus in some way on people’s strengths and positive mental states, as ways of increasing their sense of meaning, their sense of purpose, and also coping with the challenges of life and finding resilience.

What is positive psychology?

[00:05:54] Scott Snibbe: What’s a specific example of some positive psychological method that you’ve used recently with one of your patients?

[00:06:03] Lorne Ladner: I’ll just give a very simple example. Just last week, I was working with a woman about conflict in her family and very difficult interactions in divorce context. Again, the emphasis initially was on what’s wrong.

Well, good, we need to do that, in order to come to the right place. But I paused at a certain point. That focus on the problems that were going on in the family connected back to her heart, which I knew was at the core; it’s love for her. And we really paused and just focused on reconnecting–away from all the stress–back to the source of why she was talking in the first place, which is actually love.

And she was able to get back in touch with the love she has for her children. Then I said, let’s come from there and come up with the solution of what are your next steps? Not strategizing out of frustration, with other factors that were real, but starting back from the fundamental place of love and then coming to, Now, how do you want to intervene in this situation? A few days later I got an email, overjoyed that the thing she had come up with had worked and I was so happy.

[00:07:11] Scott Snibbe: Does anyone ever come to you and say, I’m feeling good and I’d like to feel great?

[00:07:19] Lorne Ladner: Occasionally, it’s rare, and kind of fun. 

[00:07:27] Scott Snibbe: That’s how I’ve heard positive psychology described sometimes, going from surviving to thriving.

When we were preparing for this interview, you told me that there’s a number of questions you get almost every week from your patients. I thought going through some of those would be really beneficial for our listeners because they’re probably having some of the same questions. One of them you mentioned was that people ask, What’s the difference between self-care and selfishness. You were talking about narcissism before, and probably some of us might be afraid that we’re narcissistic if we think about ourselves too much.

monkey looking in mirror

[00:08:01] Lorne Ladner: Yeah that is, and that does come up all the time. I think people get really confused about what is self-care and self-compassion. I used to say this before the pandemic, and then over the course of the pandemic–it’s become almost a mantra for myself as well as for patients–genuine self-care and effective care for others are totally interdependent.

In other words, you can’t care for others if you’re not taking care of yourself. What I’ve seen is that the pandemic has helped make it clearer that if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t really be there for other people. It gets to an important key point,

Self-care and self-compassion are grounded in awareness of our interdependence. Our well-being and others’ well-being are completely interdependent. And if you’re effectively taking care of yourself, that leads to taking care of others.

Also, if you’re actually taking care of others in an effective way, it’s a version of self-care that gives meaning to your life. It gives joy to your life. It gives happiness and connection. Those are not selfish, taking care of yourself in order to love yourself and thereby be present lovingly to others. That’s not selfishness.

Selfishness and narcissism come out of confusion, a confusion that denies our interdependence. So you think, I can take care of myself in a way that is going to protect me in the absence of others and that is disconnected from others, which also denies impermanence.

Selfishness, self-centeredness, and narcissism, deny the truth that everything’s impermanent, that our wellbeing and others’ well-being are interdependent. Effective self-care is grounded in this awareness that I have to take care of myself in order to be present for others.

I’ll just add one more point, there’s one verse in a Buddhist practice I do,

“In order to fulfill the welfare of myself and others.”

That verse is getting at that point. In Buddhism, they make this point, the better you take care of yourself–the more you’ve fulfilled your own welfare–the more you’re capable of fulfilling the welfare of others. And the flip side is also true.

I remember I read this point in my training about narcissists, everybody knows that narcissists are bad at empathy and understanding the needs of others. What people miss is that narcissists are just as bad, or worse, at understanding their own needs. So they do things to make themselves happy that actually cause them suffering. If you watch a narcissist, that’s true. They try to make themselves happy in a way that actually doesn’t take care of themselves.

So that’s the core difference, self-care actually leads to your own well-being and also to the well-being of others. Self-centeredness is not only unhelpful to others but actually harmful to yourself because you’re not being realistic about what actually causes you happiness.

Self-care and happiness

man walking down street smiling

[00:10:43] Scott Snibbe: What would be a good way to take care of yourself and to create a cause for your own happiness?

[00:10:51] Lorne Ladner: I was thinking about that after you and I touched base. You could almost make a self-compassion hierarchy of needs. It was striking me that oftentimes when I’m working with people the first step is just non-violence. It is kind of an extreme point, but you can’t address the deeper versions of self-compassion if you’re being violent to yourself.

 I mean non-violence in the sense that Gandhi used, ahimsa, because many people in our country and our culture say things to themselves every single day–sometimes thousands of times a day–that are horrible. I can’t tell you how many times I talk with somebody and they’ll say something that they thought, and I’ll say, Imagine saying that to your best friend or your child or coworker.

And they would say, I would never say that to somebody else, that’s horrible. You know how often people say “I’m an idiot” or “What the hell is wrong with you?” Or much worse than that. Like, “I’m a this. . .” and “I’m a that. . .” all kinds of insults to themselves. They sometimes think they’re motivating themselves or think they’re trying to improve themselves.

It doesn’t work. There’s good scientific research showing that’s not an effective way of change. So I sometimes say the first level of self-compassion is to stop saying horrible things to yourself.

The second level is how you treat yourself. There are people who live and work outside the Washington DC area–and I don’t know if it’s the same in other parts of the country–who will say, I worked 73 hours last week. And I don’t know why I’m tired. That’s cruel, isn’t it? If a boss demanded you work 73 hours a week regularly, that would be horrifying. Those are ways of being violent or cruel to yourself.

Then you get to very basic ways to actually take care of yourself. Meditation, exercise, eating healthy, social connections, and so on.

Scientific research now shows that loneliness is worse for your health than smoking cigarettes. That’s amazing. You’ll die faster by being lonely. Smoking cigarettes is terrible, but loneliness is worse for our health and longevity.

Staying socially connected would be on that list. So that the second level I would say is basically taking care of your body so that you can be present with others.

Then the third level of self-compassion, starting to look at the deeper causes of our suffering. Many Western psychological approaches address this. And also much of Buddhist psychology addresses this. The recognition that happiness is a mental state, primarily. Suffering is a mental state.

So actually look at your own experience and ask, What in my experience causes me to suffer? People when they start out usually think it’s external things, but it’s our mind because our mind is the source of happiness; our mind is the source of suffering. So ask what are the actual causes of your well-being or suffering.

In one way, it’s a cliche to say happiness and suffering come from the mind. But I wanted to share a personal reflection. When I was a therapist and working with patients, I would see people who had everything other people on the planet want. They made much more money, were good-looking, had a beautiful house, had an expensive car, had an attractive spouse, had children, and they wanted to die. They wanted to kill themselves.

I would go from work–where I was trying to help somebody not kill themselves–and then I would go to one of my teachers, Ribur Rinpoche, who had cancer and I was taking him to chemotherapy appointments.

And one day we were sitting in a chemotherapy appointment and I looked at him and I realized he was happier.

He was in his eighties, he had cancer and he was dying. He was getting chemotherapy. And I realized he was happier than I’ve ever been in my life and happier than anyone I knew.

And everybody around him could tell. A nurse came up to me, she was crying actually. She said, How can I meet someone like him? He’s the most blissful, beautiful person I’ve ever met. And even the doctor started tearing up talking to him. That was a moment where I realized, Oh, it’s not a cliche and it’s not a metaphor.

He could be in a chemotherapy appointment and blissful, while somebody else could be driving from their beautiful house to a great job in a beautiful car and want to drive off the bridge. And I realized it’s not a metaphor. It’s literally true.

[00:15:37] Scott Snibbe: The story about your patient who is suicidal is so sad. Is someone in that state, by definition, also depressed?

[00:15:44] Lorne Ladner: Yeah, that person was certainly depressed. Most of the people who have suicidal thoughts are depressed or have bipolar disorder. But it’s possible to have suicidal thoughts without depression. 

What is depression from a psychological and Buddhist background?

woman sitting near lake

[00:15:56] Scott Snibbe: And what is depression? I know there’s a clinical definition, but with your understanding, as a Buddhist practitioner. What is depression and how do you treat it from that middle-way perspective where you have a psychological and Buddhist background?

[00:16:10] Lorne Ladner: One point I’ll make is that same teacher of mine, Ribur Rinpoche–right before he left to go back to India– said to me that it’s good to take medical treatment and also to meditate. Do both, not just one.

I found that to be a useful point. They did a wonderful research study using mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to prevent relapses. One thing they found–that some other studies found–was that rumination on negative topics could bring about an episode of depression. So first of all, some have a genetic predisposition to depression.

But some people don’t have that predisposition, just like some people that are predisposed to diabetes or high blood pressure or whatever. But if you have a biological predisposition to depression, then you ruminate on negative things about yourself, your life, and the world.

Eventually, that rumination leads to biochemical changes in the body, if you do it long enough. So if somebody has that predisposition and then they spend enough time ruminating on negative things, it induces psychological and also biological changes that have to be addressed. So that’s where that research study was interesting, if the people took an antidepressant, it could change the biological components. But if they continue to ruminate, once they got off the antidepressant, they would relapse.

Whereas if people learned to not ruminate and to replace negative ruminative thoughts with either neutral things or positive things, that would protect their biology from having another physiological depressive episode.

And that would protect their mind from the negative thoughts and feelings of depression.

[00:18:02] Scott Snibbe: Yeah and for those of us who interact with depressed people, they don’t like it too much when you say stop thinking about all the negative. So what do you do? How do you help somebody like that?

[00:18:17] Lorne Ladner: I sometimes, as a psychologist, differentiate two different things. There are many people I’ve seen who have good things in their life and are wishing they were not alive. I think before one gets to strategies it’s important to ask, is there wisdom in their depression?

 On the one hand, yes, there could be rumination, but did the rumination begin because the person isn’t actually living the life they wanna live? So sometimes actually listening to the depression and if it has something to tell you or to teach you about how you do or don’t want to live?

That’s often the first step is actually trying to learn from the symptom. It can help a person to realize maybe they want to change their life in certain ways. Then after that, I think there could be usefulness in then saying, What are the actual practical strategies? Because to say, Don’t ruminate, is not helpful. What is helpful is to come up with what are the topics of rumination and how do you get away from rumination?

I’ve asked so many people this question and they’ll say, I watch TV, I go on Facebook or something. And I’ll say, Well, no wonder you ruminate. That’s not enough, people need practical, real strategies.

woman watching tv

It’s great to have a whole menu. Mindfulness actually helps people catch their ruminations. If you practice mindfulness every day, then you start to notice when you start to ruminate, because once you’re caught up in rumination, it’s much harder to stop.

So if a person wants to stop ruminating practicing mindfulness helps them catch the beginning of their rumination. But then if you don’t have many strategies to break away from the rumination, just saying don’t ruminate is not going to help somebody.

But if they have 15 different options of how do I shift my focus, then they can try some of those and see which ones work best for them. That is a useful approach.

[00:20:20] Scott Snibbe: That sounds like it might be a good book, 15 Ways to Get Yourself Out of Depression.

When you’re with your patients, do you prescribe meditations? Do you teach them how to meditate and how to work themselves in this way?

[00:20:32] Lorne Ladner: My policy for many years is if there’s a meditation that’s been supported by scientific research then yes. But I won’t teach Buddhist meditations that aren’t supported by scientific research unless somebody specifically asked me, that’s just a policy thing.

So somebody who says to me, I’m curious about Buddhism and I want to try this technique for this reason. If I think it’s appropriate, then I will share that, but otherwise, I’ll only teach meditations that have been shown to be effective in scientific research.

I guess I’ll say a couple of things. One, I’ll sometimes teach a technique. Second, sometimes without even formally teaching it, I’ll just use aspects of a technique: slow down, breathe, and so on. I’m not explicitly teaching a technique, but sometimes we’ll actually go through a meditation technique in the session without saying, This is meditation.

I say slow down, feel your feet on the floor, feel your breathing, and now let’s focus. That’s the second way. One last one, I have so many people come to me for therapy who are using some of the meditation apps and things like that regularly and use them every day.

And that’s wonderful, that wasn’t true five or 10 years ago, but is true now.

What is meditation?

rocks stacked near lake

[00:21:35] Scott Snibbe: Earlier when you were talking about self-compassion you grounded it in an antidote, in interdependence, expand your idea of your place in the world. I don’t know if you’ve read Robert Thurman’s new book, Wisdom Is Bliss, but I’ve started to read it and I’m loving it.

One of his big realizations and statements in this was how meditation may not be that useful until you have some sense of interdependence. If you sit down and meditate, but think of yourself as a hard, separate, unitary, solitary being outside of the world, then even if you’re following all the instructions it may not be of that much benefit.

Can you talk a little bit about that? Because that aspect of Buddhist meditation practice isn’t always included in this therapeutic approach to meditation. So can you talk a little bit more about that interdependence wisdom and how that can get into helping our delusions?

[00:22:29] Lorne Ladner: Yeah, first of all, I totally agree with that point and I’m going to step back for a second. If you think about it, what is meditation actually? The Buddhist definition of meditation and the popular culture’s definition of meditation are not the same. Even in popular culture, what is meditation?

I just think that’s worth asking,

What do we mean by meditation? I sometimes say it’s like stretching in the context of the Olympics. All the athletes stretch but that’s not one of the sports.

[00:23:05] Scott Snibbe: They don’t give a medal for it either.

[00:23:07] Lorne Ladner: No, you don’t. So mindfulness of breathing is not all we mean by meditation. That’s like a warmup oftentimes. Another thing is, I think what Thurman was getting at in his book was meditation is habituation, a way to something, habituating to mindfulness of breathing, or habituating to love or habituating to compassion.

And if somewhere deep down, you’re holding on to some kind of wrong understanding about yourself, then if you dwell on that in meditation, you’re actually strengthening it.

That becomes the problem. For example, if somebody approaches meditation from a narcissistic perspective–their focus is a kind of grasping at their self-importance–then their meditation is reinforcing self-importance, which is not the goal of meditation.

That’s what it’s getting at, to recognize that we have to be aware of and work through this or our meditation reinforces negative habits.

Setting healthy boundaries

[00:24:05] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. I don’t know if you remember, The Onion, the satirical newspaper, when they had a headline that said Monk Gloats Over Yoga Championship: I am the Serenest! I found that so funny, but it’s actually very relevant. It’s a very relevant problem with meditation or even yoga with this idea of the self and others’ interdependence.

Another question you said you get a lot is about how we set healthy boundaries and how that contributes to a healthy mind. I’m also curious if boundaries are different for a Buddhist who’s trying to have love and compassion for all beings and a “normal” person. So it’s a big topic, but could you talk a little bit about boundaries and the kind of challenges people have with them and some of the antidotes you help people with?

[00:24:56] Lorne Ladner: Yeah, this is a topic I’ve thought about. There’s not a week that goes by where that doesn’t come up in therapy, but I’ve thought a lot about this in terms of a Buddhist view on that topic. What I realize is that the only context or Buddhist texts that use the word “boundary” is the context of retreat. They’ll say, Set up your retreat boundaries.

But there’s something in that. And as I’ve looked at Buddhist teachers and Buddhist teachings, they don’t use that term in other contexts that much, but it’s actually humongous. It’s huge, they’re all kinds of boundaries in Buddhism, humongous numbers of them.

And boundaries take courage. Setting boundaries takes courage because people don’t always like it when you set boundaries.

And also you’re having to admit your own limitations. Take the example of the life story of the Buddha. The Buddha was a prince. He was married and had a young child. His father wanted him to take over the kingdom and he set a humongous boundary. He said, No, I have to leave home. I have to cut my hair and give up my kingdom to pursue inner development, to pursue enlightenment.

monks walking barefoot

And what a boundary! Incredibly radical boundary and what courage that would take, right? At that moment, he knew very well, that his father, his wife, his child, none of them liked that boundary.

The reason I bring that up is when we set boundaries in our daily lives, we are going to have people who don’t like it. But if you get angry, that’s a sign that you need to set a boundary and you haven’t set it yet. Because you’re not admitting the truth actually, to other people of where your own limit is.

And so boundaries are about recognizing or taking care of ourselves actually. And recognizing I’m going to get frustrated or I’m going to get angry or I’m going to get irritable unless I stop at this point, or unless I ask another person to stop at this point or step away if they’re going to go beyond that point.

Sometimes I think Buddhists, we’re actually worse. Sometimes I’ve noticed that– myself included–that sometimes we Buddhists can be phony actually. There’s this ideal of patience–which is the goal, Bodhisattvas become incredibly patient–but to say well, I’m not that patient yet.

If I’m going to take care of myself, not take care of myself in some narcissistic way, but take care of myself in the sense of my mind. Then I have to avoid certain situations where I’m going to get overwhelmed and become irritable or become angry or become impatient.

That’s part of the practice. It doesn’t mean that someday I won’t go beyond that and be able to engage in that situation. So boundaries are about seeing, if I go this far, I’m gonna lose my love, and I need to stop here. It’s admitting that to ourselves and then asserting that with others, which takes bravery, courage, and honesty.

[00:27:49] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. I’ve gone through that myself in our tradition too. There’s a sense of fake it till you make it; you try to pretend that you have compassion. But I found, that I fall across the border sometimes until it is denial or bypass, which is really harmful.

So yeah, I think the more conventional forms of couples therapy and psychology help a lot just to be quite tender and honest, with my partner. And say, Hey, I’m starting to feel really angry about this thing. Or hey, I want to spend some more time with you or these places where you’re quite vulnerable and maybe you admit a need.

I think it’s hard as a Buddhist because in some ways we’re supposed to just be happy with the pure nature of our mind or something like that. It’s okay to want to be loved and be embedded in social reality and so on. Do you see that ever in some of your experiences?

[00:28:42] Lorne Ladner: I think that’s so touching what you just shared. There are different terms in Buddhism for this, but there’s spontaneous compassion, then there’s compassion that takes effort to cultivate. And that’s good. But pretending to have compassion is not useful, and I’ve made that mistake so many times.

So if it takes work to come to real compassion for somebody that’s good work, but pretending to be compassionate has no value at all. It’s not actually a practice at all. That’s a version of narcissism actually.

That’s a co-opt fake version Buddhist practice and we all do it. I’ll just share one more point about that. I remember when I was in graduate school, I was working with people with autism spectrum disorders and I was very busy.

Then I read this quote from one of my teachers, Lama Zopa Rinpoche,

“When you begin to cherish others from your heart, pure joy arises.”

I remember at the time I thought, What’s he talking about? I’m totally stressed out, I’m trying to do graduate school. I’m not really enjoying it all.

And then I had to stop and realize I was doing things that looked kind: studying psychology and working with people. But I was so stressed out that I wasn’t actually feeling love, cherishing others in my heart. And therefore I wasn’t experiencing joy, genuine love, and compassion. So that’s one thing. It’s been a measure for me ever since, if I’m not feeling joy, then my love or compassion are not love or compassion; they’re something deceiving me.

[00:30:10] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. It’s a very subtle and powerful point you’re making, just to repeat it. Fake compassion is a form of narcissism. It rings true from my personal experience. But then effortful compassion is beneficial and spontaneous compassion is amazing if and when it occurs.

I think that’s why it’s helped me to be honest about my feelings. Like you’re saying, that’s a kind of reasonable boundary. Instead of pretending that you’re just filled with love and compassion, to say what you’re really filled with, in a way that’s not obviously insulting or hurtful. But just honest from your own side, this is what I’m feeling right now.

[00:30:49] Lorne Ladner: And that’s courage, that takes courage right? To be real.

Pleasure from a psychological and Buddhist perspective

two people smiling

[00:30:53] Scott Snibbe: Another question we talked about, was actually kind of a funny one. It’s about pleasure. We’ve been talking about problems, which is normal–it’s in psychology–but sometimes we feel guilty for enjoying things. So I’m curious if you can talk about what you do with pleasure, from a psychological and a Buddhist psychological point of view. How does pleasure become beneficial?

We talked about the escapism of watching TV but is there a beneficial way to engage in the various pleasures of life?

[00:31:22] Lorne Ladner: I want to give two different answers–or maybe more than two–but I’ll start with a Western psychological point. In Western psychology, we talk about affect regulation or emotional regulation. I often say to people, in the context of therapy, what are the range of things that bring you emotional regulation, happiness, contentment, joy, and peace?

And if people have a very short list one point I would make is that leads to our emotions becoming disregulated. Shantideva, in his guide to the bodhisattva’s way of life, said

Hatred grows from unhappiness.

If we’re unhappy and stressed out, then we eventually get irritable and become angry and resentful. Then these other negative states arise.

So one very simple point I would make is if there are not simple pleasures in your life–ways of finding contentment and joy–then you’re going to become dysregulated. You’re going to be a negative presence in the world. That’s one point.

Then another point I was reflecting on after we spoke. The first noble truth is the truth of suffering in Buddhism but that’s not that’s a diagnosis. It’s not a prescription. In other words, the Buddha wasn’t prescribing suffering. He was diagnosing it. He was saying we suffer in different ways.

But then I was reflecting on actual Buddhist practice, the path is all about joy. And Shantideva says the bodhisattva goes bliss to bliss or from joy to joy. That’s the nature of the bodhisattva’s way of being in the world. And I was thinking about Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s quote,

When you cultivate love, immediately joy arises.

When I think about that it is just the most basic right. I think back to when I was a kid, going to see my grandparents, and I would get off the plane and see their faces when they would see me. I would come around the corner, off the plane, and they would look overjoyed–so happy–running over.

They were getting the joy of love, I could see on their face and their love gave them joy and I was the object of it. So one level of joy also you know, the pleasure comes from that, Bodhisattvas love more and more. They’re in love with everybody. Bodhisattva walks around all day, like my grandparents at the airport, everybody they see they’re overjoyed.

One more reflection I’ll share is that in the Buddhist context, there are long discussions about the kinds of bliss: the sutrayana teachings, tantric teachings, and all of those teachings. They teach this kind of bliss, that kind of bliss, there are 16 Blisses, there are seven levels of bliss, and there are eight blissful states. And we don’t even have the language for that. In our culture, we don’t have words. Buddhist translators try to come up with words to capture these concepts.

As a Buddhist, you’re supposed to have bliss. That’s not just the vajrayana teaching. That’s true in the sutrayana teachings, the goal is to live in a way that’s totally blissed. I think there’s huge room for pleasure in both psychology, Western psychological analysis, and also Buddhism.

Bob Thurman sometimes makes a funny point. He says, When people are too happy they say, am I manic?

You’re in love. What are you talking about? You’re not manic. You’re supposed to be blissful sometimes, more of the time. Our problem is not that we’re not joyful enough.

[00:35:00] Scott Snibbe: Especially these more advanced people, like our teachers who went through hell literally in their lives, and yet are happier than anyone we’ve ever encountered. But it isn’t commonsensical for the average person to say, because you mentioned the bodhisattva and that is a being who dedicates all their effort, forever, to benefit others.

So I don’t think for everybody, it immediately follows that giving up all thoughts of yourself will lead to the greatest happiness you’ve ever experienced. Could you unpack that a little bit and explain why that’s true?

[00:35:37] Lorne Ladner: Yeah, I think we all have little bits of that, I’ll give two different examples. A couple of days ago it was my partner’s birthday. I kept trying to think what would bring joy. It was so fun to come up with what I could give her. I couldn’t tell who got more joy out of it.

I mean, she was very joyful–I hit the mark–but I got at least as much joy as she did. At a holiday if you watch the kid’s face, that can be fun. But if the kids really enjoying it and you turn to the face of the person giving the present and you see the joy on their face, that’s the bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas have that, only more so.

The other example I sometimes think of is the first time you fell in love and the kind of blissful experience where you forgot yourself because you were so madly in love with somebody else.

You can think of these little moments–well that’s not a little moment–as time limited. But the bodhisattva lives like that person who was just first falling in love or like the person who’s giving the gift on a holiday morning. They’re like that every day, I think that’s a way of starting to relate.

[00:36:51] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, the joy of giving.

[00:36:55] Lorne Ladner: And again, it’s self-care. If you’re really taking care of others, you’re taken care of. I think the language is actually very confusing when it says bodhisattvas don’t worry about their own well-being, they only worry about the welfare of others. We think that means they don’t eat or sleep.

What they’re talking about is not that, it is the way my grandparents were looking at me or when I was giving the gift. I wasn’t thinking, Oh will she think I’m great because I’m giving her this gift? I was thinking, I really want her to be happy and of course, that makes oneself happy. That’s what they’re getting at. It’s not some kind of self-neglect.

gift-giving

[00:37:28] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, I’ve also started to feel this recently as people’s masks are coming off, I’ve just started to see what a big deal it is to see people’s smiles. With the smiles being masked, we don’t have those signs of whether we are bringing happiness to another person. You can see little crinkles in their eyes or something, but I just noticed how much my own mind is transformed.

[00:37:52] Lorne Ladner: Oh what a beautiful point.

Engaged Buddhism

[00:37:54] Scott Snibbe: There’s this term ‘engaged Buddhism’ that Thich Nhat Hanh coined for Buddhist work that benefits the world. I think your work as a therapist fits in that category. I wanted to ask if you think there is some uniquely Buddhist way of benefiting the world. Is it the same, whether you’re Buddhist or not–or from the Buddhist psychological worldview–are there different ways that we engage and help others?

[00:38:17] Lorne Ladner: First of all, I think this podcast is an example of engaged Buddhism.

[00:38:21] Scott Snibbe: Thank you for saying that. I think that makes you happier than me. Sadly, I’m not a bodhisattva, so I have self-critical thoughts–but then I see how sincerely you really mean it.

[00:38:39] Lorne Ladner: Yeah, it brings me great joy to see it.

[00:38:41] Scott Snibbe: That makes me happy. I remember I told one of my teacher how much I appreciate their qualities and how wonderful they are.

Then the teacher said, It’s your virtue to see it that way, I’m so happy that you see it that way. So happy for you. Wow. That is a very wise answer, because the teacher–this is like a Western teacher who knows how they see themselves and I saw them as a perfect teacher.

[00:39:10] Lorne Ladner: I get it, yeah. In terms of your general point though, over the last year or so I was thinking about that question a lot. I started realizing that I was thinking back about some of the people I have great respect for, in Buddhist history, those who had humongous positive impacts on their society.

One thing I started realizing, in terms of engaged Buddhism is that as a white, middle-aged, American male who’s liberal, it was easy to project onto what they were doing: my assumptions and my cultural biases. Then as I really thought deeply about it, I thought, What they were doing and what I think of activism or social engagement, aren’t quite the same.

When I started realizing was that is a Buddhist worldview, right? As long as people have mental afflictions–hatred, craving, greed, and so on–then the world is going to have problems. I guess what struck me was that as I looked at the history of Buddhist engagement–when it’s at its best, anyway–it’s usually about trying to create contexts that are peaceful and safe enough so that others can practice the path.

busy street

I think we have a certain idea, in our cultural context, about what the goal of engagement. Our ideas come in our own cultural contexts and sub-cultural contexts.

Anyway, my broader point is as I’ve been contemplating this, I actually think that in the Buddhist context, engagement is about helping individuals. 

It’s always individuals. It’s helping individuals to gain a little more understanding of their own minds and to replace some ignorance with wisdom or to replace some selfishness with love. And in a Buddhist context, that’s the only way to make the world a better place.

I was thinking about historical examples of Buddhist masters who help stop wars or conflicts. They were wise, they knew there was going to be another conflict. There was going to be another war. It wasn’t going to be some permanent solution. But what they were trying to do was create contexts where people weren’t creating horrible suffering and negative karma for each other.

The other is to create a context where those people would practice something good and learn to practice love, and therefore, those people would be better. Then the world would be that much better. I think it’s quite a realistic view in a way, whereas I think sometimes my own views in the past have been pretty unrealistic.

[00:41:57] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, you make me reflect a little bit on how today there’s a bit going back in time and judging past heroes against new, revised, mostly liberal standards of behavior.

You make me think there might be a whole other way of doing that without criticizing that at all. There are very good reasons to do that, but you make me think there’s another side to that too, of going back to think, Wow, despite this person’s bias and patriarchal attitude and so on, look how much good they managed to do.

[00:42:34] Lorne Ladner: Yeah, was there room for them to actually cultivate in themselves or help somebody else to cultivate actual love for example or actual compassion or actual wisdom? We all have our blind spots and faults.

What’s worth our attention?

[00:42:47] Scott Snibbe: Is there anything else you might want to add before we close off the interview?

[00:42:51] Lorne Ladner: The only thing is just my own feeling of appreciation. That here we are trying, in ourselves and in the world, to focus on things that have meaning and I’m going back to what you said earlier, which I found very touching, which was the honesty thing. To be honest with oneself and with others. I just hope that from this people take that away, the sense of pause, to be honest with yourself, ask what matters, and what’s actually worth your focus.

We’ve talked about many different things, but for people to answer that for themselves. What’s actually worth their focus? What’s the truth for them in that moment? How do they actually feel? And then what do they actually want to focus on, some sense of genuine meaning to them. I hope that’s what comes out of this.

[00:43:35] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, talk about taking control of your life. Taking control of your mind. 

[00:43:40] Lorne Ladner: Yeah, where your attention goes. That’s something we can control to some extent, where we put our own attention. Nobody can force us to attend to things.

[00:43:52] Scott Snibbe: So actually on that note of where we put our attention, you’ve agreed to lead a meditation for us, which will air in the next episode. Do you want to talk a little bit about what that meditation is before we say goodbye?

[00:44:04] Lorne Ladner: Sure, what I was thinking to do is a meditation. The themes will be connection, gratitude, and warmth. What I want to focus on is a felt sense and a real experience of what it’s like to both receive and give love.

And as I said earlier, self-care and other care are interdependent; receiving and giving love are interdependent. So to just connect experientially to what it is like to both receive and give love. If you want to receive love, the best thing to do is give it. If you note your actual receiving of love, that will also enhance your ability to give it. So it’s a meditation on that. 

[00:44:43] Scott Snibbe: Beautiful, thank you so much, Lorne, for agreeing to do this interview and giving such honest and helpful answers. I really appreciate it. I think people are going to enjoy it a lot.

[00:44:52] Lorne Ladner: Thank you for such a heartfelt discussion.

Lorne Ladner, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice in the suburbs of Washington DC, where he also directs and teaches at the Guhyasamaja Buddhist Center. Dr. Ladner has produced a training video on Mindful Therapy and provides workshops on the psychology of positive emotions, the integration of meditation and sychotherapy, and on Buddhist psychology. He is the author of The Lost Art of Compassion: Discovering the Practice of Happiness in the Meeting of Buddhism and Psychology (HarperOne 2004).


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