“A disciplined mind leads to happiness. An undisciplined mind leads to suffering.” Dalai Lama – Discipline
Do we control our own happiness?
Teachers and parents alike espouse the value of focus. With focus, children appreciate the value of the moment and can learn to control their mind. Yet, phones and social media conspire to make focus difficult. The undisciplined mind, split from its foundation, shifts and drifts in different directions leaving tasks undone, leaving students feeling inadequate and powerless.
Steve and Dan Fouts are joined by Evan Harrel and Laura Berland from the Center for Compassionate Leadership to explore the power of a disciplined mind and how it can not only foster compassionate leaders, but can also lead us to a peace and contentment we never knew was possible.
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Hello, Steve and Dan Fouts here. We’re veteran educators from Illinois, who’ve created the Teach Different podcast to model how to have unforgettable conversations using a super simple three-step method, and quotes from some of the world’s great thinkers. This method works with students of all ages and all types of classrooms and can be used in online or face-to-face environments. So, if you’re a teacher, administrator, social emotional learning specialist, or anybody who loves the art of conversation, you’ve come to the right place. Welcome.
Dan Fouts: 00:37
All right, welcome everybody. For the Teach Different episode this week, we are very excited to have Laura Berland and Evan Harrel from the Center for Compassionate Leadership. They are in such an interesting line of work. We’re really happy that they decided to come on the show to share their wisdom and to kick around a really interesting quote from the Dalai Lama, which we’re going to get to in a moment. But first, we’d like Laura and Evan to provide an introduction to what they do. Welcome.
Laura Berland: 1:12
Thank you so much for having us. It’s such a joy to be here to talk about the intersection of compassion and leadership. And it’s such a perfect time to do this, because, of course, the world has been just a little chaotic. We’re emerging into the next phase of how we’re all going to show up in life, in work, in our communities, and our families. Compassion is an essential component of how we will all be able to grow and flourish in this new time.
Evan Harrel: 1:51
We’re really excited to be here with you because compassion is something innate to all of us, something that we can practice, and learn. What we aspire to do through our teaching is to help people gain a deeper understanding of compassion, and as Laura said, the intersection of compassion with leadership. We think that we’ll all be better off for that.
Dan Fouts: 2:27
That’s great. It’s such an important focus. As educators, Steve and I are constantly met with the challenge of how to be compassionate leaders in the classroom, because it starts with the youth. The challenges you shared are things that we deal with as well. Again, thank you so much for being here. Let’s jump right in. This is where we have deep thinking and conversation. Here we go.
This quote is from the Dalai Lama, and it’s a little bit long, so I’ll repeat it several times during the podcast, “A disciplined mind leads to happiness, and an undisciplined mind leads to suffering.”
The way this works, Evan and Laura, is we walk through what we call the Teach Different method for conversations. We start with a quote, and then we’re going to unpack. You’re going to do this with us. What is the Dalai Lama saying here based on your personal experiences in your line of work? About halfway through, Steve and I, via telepathy, will decide when it’s time to push against this quote with a counterclaim against what he’s saying that’s equally reasonable. This is where critical thinking comes in, and the understanding of different perspectives. We’ll end with an essential question. So that’s the method. Let me read the quote again, and then I’ll let Evan and Laurie weigh in. “A disciplined mind leads to happiness, and an undisciplined mind leads to suffering.”
Evan Harrel: 4:20
Great quote, and thank you for letting us be here with you to converse on it. I think we have to start this conversation by thinking about what it means. What does discipline mean and what is the disciplined mind? When we hear the Dalai Lama talk about this we think of control as discipline and control that arises out of an ability to understand what you want to do and then being able to do it. When it comes to a disciplined mind, it refers to the ability to place your mind, your attention, and focus at the place where you want it to be focused. On the other hand, an undisciplined mind is one where we let our emotions and our feelings direct us off elsewhere away from the present moment, away from what truly is, and get into a wide range of thinking. An undisciplined mind is a mind that allows distraction to redirect our attention.
Laura Berland: 5:37
Yeah. From an evolutionary standpoint, we are programmed to be distracted and on threat alert all the time. In this modern day and age, what has amplified our distraction, of course, is our technology, with the alerts, bells and buzzes, bangs, and knock knocks that are coming all day long to pull away our attention and focus from where we want to direct our energy. Energy follows attention. It’s critical to keep focus and to keep discipline, as the Dalai Lama says. It’s a little intimidating to actually comment on this quotation, but it is the one that we most adored, because he, of course, is a champion of compassion and compassionate living.
Steve Fouts: 6:46
I really like the way both of you unpacked that. I didn’t think of the word focus as a synonym or another way to say discipline. I think focus is a good way to explain what he’s trying to say, right? We have distractions. We can think about anything at any time. We are free on a lot of different levels, but ironically, when it comes to happiness, he’s saying that you’ve got to keep a focus. When I picture introducing this quote to a classroom, I would probably circle, just as you did, the words discipline. You could almost just have a conversation about what it means to have a disciplined mind. I’m thinking of adolescents and their association with what discipline means. It’s probably a little different, perhaps, than what the Dalai Lama’s is trying to say. So, essentially, it’s going to depend on your audience on how to unpack those words. I thought that was a really good way to start it off, though focus is what I’m focused on from what you said.
Evan Harrel: 8:12
I completely agree that with adolescents the first big hurdle you have to get over is that discipline is punishment, is D. Hall. In this way, the word means something different. But even then, the idea of discipline is what athletes do. Strong athletes are well disciplined. I think in our sort of puritanical American way that discipline is thought of as what you must do. And if you do not do it, we have ways.
Discipline is more about being aligned with what is truly here in front of us. It’s actually, at its deepest point, what we want to be doing, and that’s what you need, the deepest mark. The disciplined mind is the ability to recognize the authentic self. For adolescents, this is actually a wonderful time to introduce this, because they’re really going through, and will be for years, dealing with this question of who am I, and what does this mean? And so, what they often seek is that external validation which is a sign that it’s not part of the discipline, because ultimately, what the Dalai Lama is talking about, is finding this discipline within one’s own mind.
Dan Fouts: 10:03
Yeah, that’s really good. I’m thinking back to my first day of class in August. I haven’t seen many students in my class for an entire year. It’s been a year of loss, and I teach high school in the Chicagoland area at a really good school district. My first challenge, in fact, I think I’m going to devote the entire first day to their phones. What are we going to do about their phones? I’m going to start with these 33 pockets that I have in the room. I’m going to start by saying, actually I’m going to use this quote, and just say, “I am going to lead the way and discipline my mind.” Yeah, it’s focused, it’s not a pain, and it’s not a negative. I’m going to put my phone in the number one pocket, and then I’m going to have every student come up and do that as their first gesture of compassion to themselves and the class.
Laura Berland: 11:10
Yes, I love that idea. I would almost offer it as a gift to themselves. I mean, getting into this wholeness, this quiet space where we really can be with our deeper selves. That place is available to us only when we clear away all the distractions, when we bring our attention, focus, and intention to the present, still and clear. That’s what insight is. That’s what clear-mindedness is. If they want to discover, I mean, this is the greatest exploration of all time. As you know, I worked for a famous astrophysicist for many years. We talked about what’s in the heavens and out in the universe. The biggest universe is right inside our own being. I think what kids today are lacking is the opportunity, space, and the invitation to come home to themselves, to discover that deep, quiet place within themselves that will give them the source of love and compassion for themselves. This is the hardest thing at that age. How do I love myself? How do I feel good about myself? End of story. It doesn’t matter who’s around me, or what anybody’s saying about me, only where the source of all of that truth comes from. It has to come from inside themselves.
Steve Fouts: 13:16
Well said. Discipline might be kind of a harsh word, you might think of rules and obeying things and punishments. But if you read the quote, who is disciplining your mind? You are. It’s different when you’re the one disciplining yourself. There’s a difference, almost a satisfaction from that. I think that adolescents, and probably adults, associate discipline as an external thing. You know when you realize that it’s an internal thing, and it has all these great benefits when you do it the right way, it’s something you can fall in love with. You fall in love with yourself, and your power really, right? So yeah, it’s an inspiring quote. How would you characterize why an undisciplined mind may put you in a pretty unhappy place? How would you share that side of this quote?
Evan Harrel: 14:37
Well, the opposite of being present to where you are, to the moment that you’re in, is being distracted and being off. When we do that, and as Laura said, this comes out from an evolutionary point of view, we ruminate, we worry, and we think about, “Oh gosh, these are my problems. Why did this happen? What did I do wrong?” We start to beat ourselves up. We start to catastrophize – “Oh, it’s going to get worse. He’s never going to talk to me again. She’ll chill. She’s saying bad things about me to all of our friends.” And our mind just goes to these horrible places. That is the undisciplined mind, the opposite of being present to what is right in front of us. There’s a reason for this. We did not evolve from the relaxed chill monkeys. We evolved from the monkeys who were always worried and on the lookout. They saw danger around every tree. This is part of what we have within us. But we evolved to a higher level, and have the ability to go beyond those reactive thoughts, and move to a higher level of thinking and thought process. It takes practice. It takes awareness. It takes discipline.
Laura Berland: 16:13
Yeah, and there are a lot of scientific papers about why rumination does not lead to happiness, and why bringing our attention to a point of focus and having that level of concentrated ability is an opportunity to really open up. We have to overcome that negativity bias, we have to be intentional about being positive, holding on to positive, savoring positive, and that’s a mindset. That’s a discipline. We have to recreate the neural pathways that automatically draw us into the negative zone, and sort of push ourselves into this level of positivity, so that the brain starts rewiring. And of course, that’s the beauty of neuroplasticity and all the things we’ve learned from neuroscience in the past 20 years.
Evan Harrel: 17:16
I want to make two quick comments about social media and our devices, like our phones. The first is, Dan, the brilliance of you having everybody put their phones in the 33 slots. The bells are programmed to trigger our fears. The people creating the devices and the apps know exactly how to zap our amygdala so that we’re immediately triggered. The second thing is that what we see on social media is not reality. When we spend all of our time looking at Instagram or Tiktok. We’re looking at everybody else’s highlight reel and comparing it to our everyday life. That is not reality. That just contributes to further challenges and unhappiness based on the science that Lauren was referencing.
Steve Fouts: 18:18
Very interesting. Back to the idea of the undisciplined mind. You made me think of something for the first time, which is rumination and reflective thinking. I usually associate that with being peaceful and being present, regenerating yourself, just thinking about things. But, in truth, that’s actually where the devil comes out to play. It’s really more about a focus on something. That’s the discipline, right? That’s going to lead to that happiness if I’m understanding the Dalai Lama correctly.
I’m a 20-year veteran teacher, as well. I was in Chicago while Dan is in the suburbs. I’m not in the classroom now, but I was a teacher on the west side of Chicago. I was in some of the most challenging underserved neighborhoods in the city, and I got a chance, on a daily basis, to deal with students who were drifty. It was difficult to get their attention and their focus, even if you taught a good lesson. They would forget because they’re experiencing the trauma that they always have to watch their back. They’re in that survival mode.
It’s hard to give them the advice to focus on one thing here, because the minute they start doing that, they begin to worry about their externals again. So, they feel they always have to be ready to be distracted. Anyway, it’s not conducive to learning, as you can imagine. I’m now thinking of it in a different way, because of the way that you put this. I don’t know if that made sense,
Laura Berland: 20:26
Totally, because the most fundamental thing we all require to function, in the most basic fashion, as humans, is safety.
Evan Harrel: 20:37
We’ve already talked about neuroplasticity and neural growth. Then, in the specific cases that you’re talking about Steve, in the neighborhoods where you were teaching, there is an inability of the brain to develop in the same way as children of the same age who have extended periods of safety, extended periods of time where their brain can actually wire to be able to do more complex tasks. Before coming into this work, I was running inner-city preschools in Houston. It’s such a critical time for their brain development. I thank you for the work you did. What you’ve just expressed, by the way, is a very valuable form of compassion, because it requires an understanding and a connection to the students, and a desire and an interest to help relieve the challenges that they’re facing. So, we salute your compassion, Steve.
Steve Fouts: 21:52
Well, hey, I salute yours. And it’s not easy, right? It’s not just adolescents who struggle. If you haven’t gotten this, you’re going to be in the workplace, and you’re not going to be functioning at your optimal capacity.
Dan Fouts: 22:08
So, as we come to the new school year, all of education is going to be in a funk. This next school year, we’re going to be in a situation where the adults and the kids have been in this weird sense of trauma from a pandemic, and everybody has to relearn their brain and relearn how to talk. I’ll never forget, it was in early March, I had about maybe ten students in person in one of my classes, which, by the way, was a huge day. A student came in and I was listening in the corner, just near them. They didn’t know I was really listening. One of the students told another student, “I forgot how to interact.” This was a senior in high school. She didn’t know how to interact. So anyway, that’s a little bit of a tangent, but it gives a sense of how difficult it’s going to be for them to discipline themselves to learn new skills because they’ve been so used to the distractions.
Laura Berland: 23:17
Yeah, and I will just add that it’s all of society because we were unglued from our basic ways of interaction, and the social cues. You know, we were all doing the best we could through Zoom, but it still doesn’t really replicate the kinds of cueing that we get by being in person with each other. The words, as you know, are just a portion of the communication. It’s the way the facial expression works, or the body language, or the energetic enthusiasm that somebody brings to the table. There’s a lot of that conversation in leadership, and business organizations as well.
Evan Harrel: 24:13
I hope that your administrators, and the people at the state level setting the guidelines, are going to recognize that this is going to have to be a different year. We’ve got these benchmarks that say a 12th grader should know this, or an 11th grader should know this. They don’t have to throw everything out the window, but they do have to show a little bit of adaptability and flexibility and recognize that this is going to be a different time. We’ve lived through wars before. We’ve lived through other major crises. We can do this if we’re willing to exert a disciplined mind approach to a very challenging problem and not pretend that oh, we’re going back to the way it was.
Steve Fouts: 25:11 – Counterclaim
I would add to that, Evan, giving people a voice in the conversation. This is one of Teach Different’s things. We’re trying to say to the world, you don’t have to complicate this. You need to get everyone together, give them a voice, practice listening skills, and practice empathy. We’re going to have a wonderful new generation of leaders that could emerge from a situation like this, in my opinion, and we have to take advantage of it. This is our time to focus. This is our time to reinvent, to discipline ourselves, is maybe one way to look at it.
What do you think? I’ll be the Mr. Counterclaim. Let’s switch this up. Now we always say read it again, just to remind everybody. Here’s the quote again, “A disciplined mind leads to happiness, and an undisciplined mind leads to suffering.”
When we talk counterclaim, you can take a different approach. You can take multiple approaches to a counterclaim. You could just say, well, in what way does an undisciplined mind not always lead to suffering? Or you could say, in what way does a disciplined mind not always lead to happiness? There are different ways to take it. I’d love to hear your thoughts, either of you, on this. This is really what we want to bring out here. This is the critical thinking part of the conversation that really gets into depth. So Laura, and or Evan, feel free to give me a counterclaim. Now, we know you picked this quote because you agreed with it, so, this might be hard.
Evan Harrel: 27:04
I’ll jump in first. I think the first counter claim is that suffering has always existed. It exists for everyone and it always will. The sun shines on everyone equally. The disciplined mind, the undisciplined mind, the rain falls on everyone equally. I think the counterclaim is that everyone, whether they have a disciplined mind or not, will find themselves to suffer.
Laura Berland: 27:44
I agree completely. And the opportunity to turn the suffering into learning, into development, into resilience.
Dan, what are you thinking?
Dan Fouts: 28:01
I would go the route that the disciplined mind leads to happiness. The implied premise is that happiness is something you can control. I can see a lot of kids saying, I don’t control my happiness. Happiness is determined for me by events that happen to me. Some kids would say, well, if this and this happens in my life, I can be as focused as I want to be, it’s not going to help my overall happiness. If this were brought up in an adult setting, you would get a sense for the people who feel a bit powerless in the world, who think they cannot control their own happiness. I think that’s a legitimate counterclaim. Sometimes your situation makes it too difficult.
Laura Berland: 29:01
Great point. What the last year and a half has taught us is basically that none of us controls anything. We have to look beyond that aspect of control and just be willing to accept our circumstances and do the best with what we’ve got at that moment.
Evan Harrel: 29:27
Yeah, and getting back to your point, Steve, about agreed upon definitions, what does happiness mean? I think that if you think happiness means blue sky and a warm sun, then half the time you’re going to be happy and half the time you’re going to be cloudy. But, if it means that you are able to breathe in fresh air, that has been impacted by the weather outside in unbelievable ways that are so far beyond our imagination that then perhaps, when it’s raining or humid or cold, we could still be happy. It’s when we attach a meaning to happiness that is equated with pleasure, equated with a specific type of pleasure, that’s where I think we get a little bit confused. That counterclaim is completely valid based upon the normal way we think of what happiness is.
Yeah, we’re conditioned to want stuff.
That’s right. And the blue skies forever, right? I just saw a connection between Laura and Evan, based on what you just said. Laura, you were bringing up this idea. Well, Evan, let me start with you. If we’re going to define happiness as a rethinking of what it is that gives us peace or gives us joy, it’s not always a smile. That made me think of Laura, what you were saying, as far as accepting things and tolerating things. It’s not that we create happiness, we don’t create a smile. We focus on what the really important things are. You can have a cloudy day, and that can make you fulfilled. I see a connection now between the definition of happiness, and this idea of accepting things, instead of working too hard to do any one thing.
Laura Berland: 31:55
Yeah. I’m just in the middle of writing an article about slowing down, because along with getting stuff, succeeding, and on and on, what we’re all conditioned to do, we do it too fast. We’re over scheduled, we’re over demanded, we’re over stressed, and we’re overwhelmed. The only way to find that level of, I would almost replace the word happiness with contentment. How do we find contentment with our presence, in this moment with our being on this earth, with our ability to breathe air in and breathe air out? That’s what we’ve got.
Steve Fouts: 32:42
This is the easiest thing in the world, but our mind is clouded, we’re thinking too much, and we’re getting distracted. That discipline is almost like going back to the start. Or it’s a reduction, right?
Laura Berland: 33:02
Yes, it is a simplification, back to the core essence values of what it means to be human, what it means to be connected, what it means to be safe, and what it means to belong. And when we get down to those very simple, as you said simple things, and yet, these are the hardest moments when people have this experience of clarity, of insight, of stillness. It’s like, oh my God, how do I get more of that? This is just our modern world, we’ve lost all of that. I mean, go back on Walden Pond. It was hard to find all of that 150-200 years ago, and it’s still hard, hard, hard. It takes that intention and focus.
Dan Fouts: 34:01
To bring in another interesting word with a little philosophy and Aristotle, Aristotle talked about human flourishing. I love the word flourishing. We can’t flourish. It’s not really happiness. It’s that we can’t be the best of who we are, if we don’t have a disciplined mind. Aristotle is all about doing things, developing the right habits of thinking, and that creates the virtue and then peace.
Maybe the focus.
Evan Harrel: 34:34
Absolutely, and I think that that’s important for teachers to do with their students to try, because so much of what gets measured is slightly off center, it’s close, but still slightly off center from flourishing for students. In our work with organizational cultures, we focus on compassion as a means for creating an environment of flourishing. I would say the other distinction is part and parcel of what you just said, Dan. It’s the difference between hedonic pleasure and eudemonic, and it’s deeper. It’s when we get aligned with our own individual purpose, with our own individual authentic self, not the self that we want to project because it will, we believe, cause other people to like us, which is what Laura said. We need to feel safe, we need to feel that we belong, that we are respected, and will be heard and seen for whomever we are.
Laura Berland: 35:48
That’s basically most of what we all need, and to be loved.
Steve Fouts: 35:54
Am I right in saying that that’s really the DNA of compassionate leadership? Like if you’re not a compassionate leader, your followers, or the people, are not going to be able to achieve that state, so you’ve got to provide that framework for them, where they can self-actualize, right? But, it’s so missing now. I could talk to you for hours about how to create compassionate leaders. If you want to give me a phrase, or something to remember, I would love to hear it. How do you do it? How do you foster that?
Laura Berland: 36:43
You start with yourself. You embody compassion, and you learn to do that inner work. Step one, step two.
Evan Harrel: 36:56
And you treat yourself with self-compassion. When you start with yourself, it starts with self-compassion.
Laura Berland: 37:02
Which is the hardest thing for almost everyone to do. You create cultures, you till the soil. Just what you said, you give people a framework, a container of safety, belonging, and connection, so that they are able to flourish as individuals, as teams, and as organizations, and that goes for communities, nations, and so forth. Everyone feels they are aligned within themselves, and with that greater purpose. You have to have those two things. It’s the leader’s job to inspire by living in an embodied way, a compassionate way of being, and model that for people and train people. We still all need so much training on how to, as you said before, how to listen, how to give feedback, how to support each other. There’s a lot of that that goes into the mix, and then allowing people the space to grow, and helping them appreciate that they don’t fail, we just keep working, and learning, and trying, and iterating, and learning, and learning, and learning. Then we take what we’ve learned, and we iterate and make things better while appreciating each other along the way. We don’t just appreciate the outcome. We appreciate the effort. We appreciate the intention. We appreciate whatever it is that people put into their work, and not just what came out at the end of the project or the term. Most importantly, we have fun, we play. You have to play. If there’s no space for play, the brain gets wonky.
Steve Fouts: 39:09
Yeah. Alito said that Plato said learning is all about play. That’s where it happens. Sorry, Dan go on.
Dan Fouts: 39:17 – Essential Question
I was just going to build on what you said earlier and what we’re doing with these conversations at Teach Different. This is exactly what we’re trying to do. These are not debates. The goal of a debate is to win. The goal of a conversation is to understand each other. That’s what we need more of, especially now. I love the synergy between what you guys are doing and what we’re doing. It’s very cool how it connects.
Well, this has been a really wonderful conversation. I think we touched on a lot of great ideas here with the Dalai Lama, we touched on a little bit of happiness and discipline and I think we gave good oxygen to the counterclaim. I think we picked it apart in different ways, and depending on your audience, they’re going to come up with different ones. You never know exactly what you’re going to get.
We like to end with an essential question. To take the happiness angle, one essential question that could come out of this would be, “Do we control our own happiness?” Something to leave with and to reflect upon.
Laura and Evan, we really appreciate you coming on the show. We appreciate your ideas and your sharing the importance of compassionate leadership with us.
Steve Fouts: 40:47
Thank you so much.
Evan Harrel: 40:50
Thank you. It’s been a joy.
Laura Berland: 40:52
Total joy and pleasure, and really honoring all the work you guys do. Thank you so much.
Thanks, everybody. We hope you’re walking away feeling energized by some great ideas, and are confident that conversations like this are possible. It’s just a little bit of planning and a three-step routine. Make sure you go to teachdifferent.com to learn more, and try out some conversations we have ready for you. Don’t forget to Teach Different with conversations and to make a difference every day.