In an exclusive interview with EURACTIV, French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard warned against taking the European Union for granted as it is an “immense factor of peace”.
He urged EU leaders and the media to show the glass half full rather than half empty to regain the people’s trust and push for progress.
Matthieu Ricard is a French intellectual and Buddhist monk, who has written extensively on the meaning and fulfillment of happiness. His book Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill was a major best-seller in France. Since 1989, he has acted as the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama.
He spoke to EURACTIV’s Editor-in-chief Daniela Vincenti in the margin of the World Economic Forum in Davos at the end of January.
Europe is back. We heard it from Macron, we heard it from Merkel, we hear it from other prime ministers and presidents. Still, there are some members that seem unhappy with the current construction. You have written extensively about happiness. Is there anything that you can contribute so that EU leaders see the glass half full rather than half empty?
First of all, Europe has been holding on, and it is an immense factor of peace. That’s why they got the Nobel Peace Prize. Instead of having like in the Middle Ages five thousand small entities and under Napoleon 250, today we only have 50 democracies. There is no chance that Italy would go to war with Belgium.
That is already an immense progress. When the media flags that values have decreased, I say: In the 14th century the average homicide rate in Europe was 100 homicides per year per 100.000, now it’s 1. So it is not just 10% less, it is 100% less.
Of course there are dramatic events as in Brussels, Paris and elsewhere, but altogether the likelihood that you might be killed in Europe is as low as it has ever been in history.
Nowadays, there are still cars pulled by horses in the countryside in Europe, but relatively when you speak of crisis you’d better come to Nepal where women are queuing one kilometer to get kerosene to cook for their kids. So it is very relative.
Of course, they are what you would call the Fourth World, there is plenty of misery in Europe but overall we should appreciate also how much citizens are taken care of and appreciate what we have compared to many other countries.
It is clear that wellbeing is not automatic and will not come from GDP. Simon Kuznets, the economist who conceived the idea of GDP, said that in no way GDP could be the real measure of a country’s prosperity. Wellbeing is not a by-product of the GDP but rather trust, quality of human relationship, sense of being taken care of, sense of security are a measure of wellbeing.
So, in reality it is not that bad in Europe. We should carefully look at what are the factors that contribute to wellbeing and then work on those, and especially not expect that those will come along with the increase of GDP.
So well-being means trust, human relationship ….?
In terms of the individual, of course, there are many other things that have a positive effect. Less toxic tools like anger, jealousy, arrogance and more a sense of having some ways to fulfill your aspiration by having some control over your life, in terms of education, opportunities and so forth.
Not only autonomy in terms of your wishes but also the rich network of human relations, not just knowing a lot of people but people on whom you can count, with whom you can exchange, to whom you can go for advice when things are going wrong – not being left alone in the middle of the crowd.
So there are many factors and trust is a big factor. But trust has been decreasing steadily.
You mentioned trust. How to regain trust in Europe, which has been undermined by so many crises?
Well, you could start at the workplace. I think the media, by not always overemphasizing the negative aspects that create fear and create distrust. And when a 20-year old in Europe sees 40,000 dead on TV, film and other media, it is ridiculous, very few people have witnessed actually someone being killed, it is very rare unless you go to war.
In 1972, I lived in difficult countries like Nepal during the Maoist insurgency. I heard gunshots being fired, but I never saw someone being killed before my eyes. But still if you open the news within one hour you see at least 50 dead people, you know. This creates an element of distrust.
Thirty years ago, 60% of people would say: “I would trust others unless proven wrong”. Now it is 30% of people. So can there be remedy? Take Scandinavia, where there is still a lot of trust. You can leave your baby outside to take some air. You do the same in New York and the cops arrest you, saying you are crazy. It is really creating a culture.
And also within the enterprises, the working place. We really need to emphasize cooperation. It is much more productive for a company to have people who trust each other, that can have access to the hierarchy rather than be completely separated. People are just the so-called lower hand of the hierarchy if they are creative, take into account their ideas. There needs to be much more a culture of working together as a family, as a team.
Do you see that among European leaders? Working as a family?
If you listen to Macrons speech, at least because I am sensitive to that, he spoke at least 30 times about cooperation.
He did not speak about a new global order as some journalists have said, it is a new global contract. Contract means, doing it together.
I am not just a fan of Macron, but there are good elements to see there, the way the head of the German Parliament wanted to speak in French, the same time the head of the French Parliament spoke in German in the Bundestag. Those are nice symbolic gestures that really show a desire and eagerness to work together. So the more they work together, the better.
You see Europe from far away. What kind of Europe do you see from far away?
It is a dilemma, isn’t it? Europe is a model for other countries. Have a union, feel like a big family is so much better than this fragmentation. There are challenges within Europe that might increase fragmentation, but look also at Australia, that is a federalist state and basically it has so much decreased in the risk of war.
But don’t we take it for granted? It would take so little to destroy it … look at Brexit?
This was a typical phenomenon of populism taking over. People were stunned. I hate conspiracy theories, but we should watch out for manipulation of the elections. Clearly there has been manipulation to some extent with Brexit and with the US elections, it is not conspiracy theory.
Precisely, we have European elections in 2019 and there is the risk of this manipulation and also of emphasising the negatives rather than the positives …
Between the two turns of French elections I have written an article in the Express on how the world is going better in many ways. Poverty was cut by half in 20 years from 1.5 billion to 750 million and it might be eradicated in 10 years. I talked about access to education. I underlined not to believe what Trump said that crime has never been so high in 50 years, while it went down half.
Be aware about the creation of fear—that is exactly what the populists do to get elected. I put it between the two elections because Marine Le Pen was clearly playing on that and I wanted to unmask this. I do not know how much it helped with the people, because maybe they do not read too much.
How to reassure European youth? They feel a little bit crunched in the fourth industrial revolution and they are concerned about the prospects for the future in this transformation. What would you tell them to reassure European youth?
I think that education is instantly difficult to reassure them to get a job. In the last five years or so there has been a strong incentive to have a little fresh air in education. It is happening big way in France.
Take the case of a lady called Celine Alvarez: she went to a very difficult school in the suburbs of Paris and she started mixing different classes and teaching in a more creative and interactive way. She collaborated with the most respected neuroscientist, Stanislav de Hahn, to measure their cognitive abilities.
And those kids that were two years behind average, within two years they were two years ahead with this very creative method.
She went on TV and convinced thousands of teachers and parents to experiment like that. And that became so obvious that Macron has now convened a group of neuroscientists including Stanislav de Hahn to find a way to change the system. There is strong demand.
In Holland, the government is financing the training of trainers for dozens of schools to introduce meditation—to open up the minds. It is not about creating chaos in the classroom, but it turned out that to be interactive, to mix edges, to follow kids interests, education is not only like filling a vase, it is like lighting a flame.
This movement is growing fast. In England for example 10% of schools now have this kind of meditation.
Cultural change does not happen overnight: it takes 5 to 10 years, but it is happening. So it is not just enough to have a ministerial decree, but cultural change is more powerful as it empowers people. And I think that in education it is happening.
So that would be really the way to make kids feel more confident and flourish their enthusiasm for what they do.
Meditation is a big part of your life, would you think that politicians would benefit from meditation?
I did it with at least 100 MPs in the UK, for 2 years and then there was an official request for a report on the effect of that and then three months ago there was a gathering of MEPs who do practice meditation in the European Parliament. In the US, there is this congressman who actually ran for Democratic speaker, but he didn’t get it, he wrote the book “Mindful nation”.
So it works?
It works. I do not do that regularly, but once I was asked to do it in Switzerland, a weekend with European CEOs. One of them, from Sodexo said, when they applied it in his company, it really made a big difference in the quality of human relationships. Things are happening slowly but ten years ago it would have been unthinkable.
Do you think EU leaders will slowly find a better common ground if they started summits with a meditation session?
I know a little bit the entourage of Emmanuel Macron and they said they had a meditation group during the campaign. I don’t know if he meditated but in his team some of them are using meditation. Things are happening.