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Wisdom From the Dalai Lama: 'Keep Working on It'

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No, I did not go to Tibet.

That's the first question that people ask when I tell them that I got to see the Dalai Lama recently. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was in the U.S. for several appearances, including a couple of days in Madison, Wisconsin, where I got to see him.

The second question is usually, "What did you learn?" or, "What did he say?" or most commonly just, "Well?"

Everyone is hoping for a big reveal. However the question is phrased, it is accompanied by an expectant look and a sense that there might be, there should be, one answer, one word of wisdom, one piece of advice that will lead to a happy life.

And there is. And I can share that answer with you, right here and right now. But you might not like it.

Keep working on it.

Yep, that's it. When I try to distill all the wisdom that the Dalai Lama shared, all the examples and specific practices that I heard, it boils down to this: Keep working on it.

That's what he does. The Dalai Lama himself says that he knows he isn't perfect, isn't "done." He admitted that sometimes his mind wanders during his meditation practice. And that he sometimes feels the difficulties in life get under his skin. It came as a bit of a surprise to me to hear him talk about his own need for improvement. He was pointing out that happiness and well-being are not a static state nor a divine gift, but a process. The scientists from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, who were with the Dalai Lama in Madison, referred to well-being very specifically as a skill, one that has to be continually practiced and developed.

We're not naive. We know that there is rarely a quick fix in life. That hasn't stopped us from looking for the superfood that will solve our weight or health problem, the one exercise that will make us fit, one mantra that we can chant to find peace in our lives and in our souls.

I carried a saffron-colored small notebook with me when I saw the Dalai Lama, not really expecting just one answer, but hoping for a list of ideas or action items or concepts that would lead me to the answer. I didn't write much down.

Instead of a pithy prescription that we could all record or post on our status or tweet out, what we got was acknowledgment that every day, every minute, we make a choice about whether to try to be happy or not. Choosing happiness means cultivating your compassion, your generosity, your concern for others and continuously trying to push those ahead of the negative thoughts that wander into all of our lives and constantly push into our heads.

If the idea that you're never really done comes across as bad news, here's some good news. The very idea of looking for the answer is part of the answer. If you want to be happier, however you construe the specifics of that, you can take actions to be happier. When you take those actions, you learn and improve and move forward. The act of cultivating happiness, in and of itself, leads you to more happiness.

There is an increasing amount of hard science validating that happiness -- sometimes characterized as well-being -- makes you more likely to be successful in your work, in your personal relationships, as a parent, and in other critical life roles. Focusing on your happiness, then, ends up having an impact on the roles that define you and on the important people in your life.

Just like learning any new skill, it will not be a linear progression. If you are learning to golf or to play the piano or speak new language, you know that you are going to have good days and not-so-good days. You can expect resistance, even failure, on any single day or at any particular time. Over time, however, you will see improvement. So goes the progress of achieving happiness. Even if you haven't reached a goal of ultimate transcendent happiness, you will be getting happier.

Getting happier doesn't mean that all hurt or disappointment or anger will automatically go away. The Dalai Lama's message is that by allowing yourself to experience those negative feelings, you begin understand them and figure out how to transform them. Don't drown or ignore or block the negative feelings, but use them to move forward. Keep working on it.

When I think about the Dalai Lama, my mental picture always comes back to his smile. It is not the languid, satisfied smile of someone who has accomplished something great. Rather, it is the impish, quick, almost furtive smile of someone caught in the middle of something. He looks like he is having fun. He looks like he enjoys working on it.

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