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What a Conversation With the Dalai Lama Taught Me About Anxiety


The first time I met His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, I was invited to ask him one question. He tends to go on and on, his people told me. So one question only. Of course, I fretted. One question.

I was interviewing His Holiness for a magazine column I wrote in which I explored ways to have a better life. The column was one of my smarter orchestrations. Anxiety-related illness had planted me in a spot such that I was too sick to hold down a “normal” job, and I was too broke to get the healing treatments I needed. So I confected a gig where I tested different ways to heal myself. Two birds, one stone.

I deliberated for days. How would I reduce things to “the question” that would provide a salve to all us Westerners seeking a more meaningful path through the foggy, heart-sinky angst of life? The choice left my head spinning and chattering. What is it exactly that we need to know? Are we here to evolve into higher beings? Why are we so alone? Is there a grand scheme to our allotted 85 years on this earth?

When we met a few weeks later, His Holiness kissed my hand and tossed his thongs aside. We sank into adjacent hotel room lounge chairs. I still didn’t have my one question. So I asked the most authentically pressing thing in that exact moment:

“How do I get my mind to shut up?”

You know, to stop the fretful chatter that makes us so nervous and unsettled and unable to grasp the “present moment” at the end of yoga classes when the instructor talks about it as though it’s something you can buy off the shelf.

His Holiness giggled and blew his nose. “There’s no use,” he told me. “Silly! Impossible to achieve! If you can do it, great. If not, big waste of time.”

“But surely you can do it,” I said.

I thought to myself, I mean, is the Pope a Catholic? Can the Dalai Lama still his mind?

“Noooo. If I sit in a cave for a year on mountain, then maybe I do it. But no guarantee.” He waved his hand. “Anyway, I don’t have time.” He has better things to do, he told me. Like teaching altruism to massive crowds around the world, I thought.

His Holiness then told me about his recent trip to Japan, how he hits his running machine at 3 a.m. every day and talked to me all about his anger issues (yes, the Dalai Lama gets cranky!). But he said nothing further about the torturous human experience of having a fretful, frenzied mind that trips along ahead of us, just beyond our grip, driving us “mad” and leaving us thinking we’ve got it all terribly wrong. It was as if the subject bored him.

I left feeling deflated and anxious. I didn’t exactly have a pearly insight for my column. But a few days later, I was defending his seemingly easy response to my close mate Ragni, and suddenly, I realized what His Holiness had done.

He’d given me a response that came with a screaming subtext: You’re OK as you are! He’d given me — and everyone else out there whose whirring thoughts keep them awake until 4 a.m., trash-talking their poor souls into agitated despair — a big, fat, red robed hug. It was perfect.

Now, a strange thing happens when you realize some gargantuan, looming issue you’d been fretting over no longer needs to be fixed. I took a deep, free breath, expanded a little, released my grip and got on with better things.

I suspect you might be reading these words here because you are also someone with a mind that goes too fast, is too high and too unbridled. And, like me, you might have tried everything to fix this fretting, because people like us often try really, really hard at everything. They may also tend to think they need fixing. And like me, you might have wondered if there’s another way. I’d like to say this up front. I write these very words because I’ve come to believe that you can have a fretful and chatty mind, be awake at 4 a.m. every night from your thoughts, try really hard at everything and have a great life.

Hey, the Dalai Lama told me so.

A version of this piece appears in, “We Make the Beast Beautiful” by Sarah Wilson, published by Pan Macmillan Australia

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Photo via Dalai Lama Facebook page.