Writer searches for happiness with the Dalai Lama
ATLANTA (CNN) -- The way Dr. Howard Cutler sees it, we could all be a little bit happier.
The Phoenix, Arizona, psychiatrist and author quotes recent studies he has read that back up his claim.
"Thirty percent of people rate themselves very happy, about 10 percent of people rate themselves as pretty miserable, and then most of us fall in the range somewhere between those points," says Cutler.
Because Cutler believes our desire to achieve satisfaction in life is an innate human quality, he set out to find the fountain of happiness, and went directly to a known source -- he sought answers from Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, advocate for human rights and religious freedom in China, and a guy who seems to have unlocked the secret to living in an infinitely content state.
Cutler's visits with the Dalai Lama are recorded in his recently published book, "The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living" (Riverhead Books). The book has a unique selling point that sets it apart from other books by and about the Dalai Lama -- it acts as a running conversation between ancient Eastern Buddhist philosophies and modern Western psychiatric practices.
'He has this ability ...'
Cutler, 45, says he first gained interest in Buddhism from reading beat writers like Jack Kerouac. Through further studies, Cutler became so intrigued with Buddhism that he eventually won a meeting with the Dalai Lama in India in 1982.
For Cutler -- for anyone -- meeting with the Dalai Lama was a memorable moment.
"He has this ability to connect with you, to create rapport with people," says Cutler. "He's very warm and very friendly he has a good sense of humor, laughs very easily. Obviously, when you see somebody like that you can feel this happiness, and you want some of it yourself."
Their meeting in India was just the beginning, however. Cutler eventually got the idea for the book and through persistence was able to set up additional meetings at various locations with the Dalai Lama, who welcomed Cutler's book project.
Publishers, however, were less receptive to Cutler, who had never written a magazine article, let alone an entire nonfiction book.
"I thought, this is a done deal," he says. "Everybody likes the Dalai Lama because he's a nice guy, he doesn't say anything that offends anybody and he's won the Nobel Peace Prize. But I was getting a lot of responses from publishers that didn't get this whole collaboration concept between the Dalai and a psychiatrist."
In truth, Cutler admits he didn't totally understand what he was getting himself into. At first blush, he assumed the project would be simple: He would present the Dalai Lama with very human problems that he has encountered in his Western practice, and the Dalai Lama would provide responses infused with Zen, leading immediately to an all-knowing nirvana.
Cutler even thought that he would be able to edit hours and hours of conversation with the Dalai Lama into neat, Deepak Chopra-esque points for living the good life.
"It didn't turn out that way," says Cutler. "Over and over again he reminded me, things are not that simple. There's no single key or magic bullet that's going to cure all human ills or difficulties or problems."
Still, after five years of writing and editing, the finished project seems to be satisfying readers. "The Art of Happiness" has risen to No. 12 on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list.
Melding Western and Eastern beliefs, the book explores challenges of everyday life -- relationships, death, the pursuit of wealth -- while providing insight to how the Dalai Lama believes each person can overcome obstacles to achieve their own inner peace. This is a book that is unafraid to offer sections like "The Purpose of Life," "Bringing About Change," and "Finding Meaning in Pain and Suffering."
Picture "The Art of Happiness" as a sort of therapy session, with the Dalai Lama sitting in, offering spiritual guidance, hope and that trademark smile.
"The type of Buddhist practices that I talk about in 'The Art of Happiness' have to do with reconditioning one's way of thinking and one's outlook, and one's perception and how one relates to people," says Cutler. "That type of thing, any Westerner can practice at any time."
Cutler says some people who have read the book have been under the impression that they would be reading something groundbreaking. At one book-signing, a reader stood up and asked, "What's so revolutionary about this stuff?"
"I completely agreed with him," says Cutler. "These are basic human principles, when you're talking about kindness and compassion and the innate desire for happiness. But it still doesn't hurt talking about it ... You never know when it's actually going to sink in and a person is going to implement it in their own lives."
Because of the book's success, Cutler has gone from a writer who recently struggled through his first book to a hot commodity in the publishing industry. Riverhead Books has signed him to write another book, though Cutler hasn't even decided what he's going to write about.
But Cutler doesn't like to lose focus. He says writing "The Art of Happiness" made him a happier person. And he won a friend in the Dalai Lama.
Cutler recalls a scene following their last interview -- he was packing up his things, and he offered a handshake to Tenzin Gyatso.
"Instead of shaking hands, he walked over and gave me this big bear hug, and not one of those hugs that is a light pat on the back, but a good strong connection and he held it for a moment and he let go and said, 'Thank you so much. I really appreciate your sincerity.'
"It just made me feel so happy and so good."
Now, Cutler is hoping that happiness spreads to readers.
"The purpose of the book isn't necessarily, 'We're all miserable and here's how to be happier,'" says Cutler. "There are many people who are feeling very happy. But it's addressed to people from the standpoint of whatever level of life satisfaction and contentment you're experiencing, it's always possible through your own efforts to increase that level and improve upon it."
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