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What's Better for Creativity: Depression or Happiness?

Posted: 10/30/10 05:38 AM ET

Last week the Dalai Lama was at Emory University, where he holds a Presidential Distinguished Professorship. Amongst the offerings were a teaching on compassion and an exploration of scientific research into compassion meditation. There was also a discussion with Alice Walker and Richard Gere called "The Creative Journey: Artists in Conversation with the Dalai Lama on Spirituality and Creativity."

This was how it was described:

How do the arts help us to express, or indeed to uncover, our spiritual yearnings and questions or certainties? What do the artist and the spiritual master have to teach each other from their respective disciplines? What is the role of tradition (or, conversely, iconoclasm) in maintaining or renewing art and spiritual life? Is the human being innately spiritual, innately artistic?

The first question began, "In the West many people believe that creativity comes from torment, while in the East there is more of a tradition of great art coming from balance and realization." I myself know that this is true because many meditation students have asked a variant of this, equating edginess, boldness and creativity with inner pain, and happiness with dullness, laziness and giving up. Artists, actors, musicians have expressed some reluctance to practice meditation lest they be content in all the worst ways, lying about in placid obliviousness.

Alice Walker responded in an interesting way, saying that early in her career she had felt that good poetry must come from sadness, a notion that she had picked that up from Langston Hughes. But as she got older, she said, she found that she was just getting happier and happier, and was, of course, still writing. Richard Gere talked about being a lost, angry young man playing roles of lost, angry young men, and how the spaciousness of greater and greater happiness allowed him not to identify with those roles, not inhabiting them so fully, but to play with them, to be flexible.

The Dalai Lama took the conversation to another place, seeming to define beauty as a good heart or wholesome mind state, rather than by any external measure. He recounted that many times he had been brought to a cathedral and asked to admire its artistic beauty, but that that didn't hold a lot of interest for him. He was more concerned with freedom from suffering, with internal states, with motivation and heart space.

I suspect that the Dalai Lama couldn't even imagine the concept that one might cling to suffering for a creative edge or think of happiness as a dulling agent. Happiness in Buddhist teaching is seen as inner abundance, resourcefulness, the wellspring of energy within that allows us to serve, give, offer, create. If we don't ever think we have enough, we're not motivated to give. If we are depleted, exhausted, demoralized and despondent, we don't nearly have the energy to help others, to express, to go forth and try to make a difference. So happiness isn't at all seen as laziness but the foundation of very great activity of all kinds.

 
 
 

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