When we spoke in a small, hot room late on a Wednesday night, with a twelve-and-a-half hour time difference and a live-feed monitor separating us, I didn’t know what to expect. The personal emissary to the Dalai Lama told me not to look directly at His Holiness, out of respect. He is the 14th reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, after all.

But the man worshipped as a living deity looked me straight in the eye. Maybe he was challenging me, like a teacher, to see if I paid attention? And yet—he didn’t seem like he was trying to scold me. More like he wanted to play. At one point he told me I should smile more.

“Humanity isn’t about worshiping a higher power,” he said, surprising me. “Religion creates division.” Instead, “focus on the self, the present.” I can’t imagine the Pope or any other religious leader espousing that doctrine. And yet, to hear him say it, it didn’t sound heretical.

As I sat in the high-rise offices of a tech company in Glendale, Calif., we communicated via a live video feed from Dharamsala, India, part of a media push for his 80th birthday at the Global Compassion Summit.

Without the pomp that typically accompany world leaders, the Dalai Lama was genuine when expressing the value of common experiences, talking about common humanity, affection, kindness, even science. He believes clarity and peace of mind extend to the body, which in turn create a better life and world. It’s a simple ethos, and one that began to make sense the more he spoke. This message wasn’t about God, but humanity.

“Truth, honesty, compassion, really very, very powerful. Nothing to do with religion,” he said. “Nothing to do with the next life. Simply how to bring happy individual, happy family, happy face.”

There’s a lightness to him straight out of Milan Kundera. Even his almond brown eyes beam smiles. How can a man worshipped since boyhood seem so normal? How can this exalted leader be so in touch with the simple troubles of humanity?

“When I present myself as a human being, instead of someone special, communication becomes much easier,” he explained before pausing and smiling. Draped in traditional maroon and gold robes, the only pieces of the 21st century about him were his glasses—and a Rolex on his left wrist. “I never consider I’m Buddhist, I’m Asian, I’m Tibetan, particularly I’m His Holiness, Dalai Lama. I never do that. That creates my own prison. My emphasis is that I’m the same as other human beings.”

Although nearly an octogenarian, he has a disarming childlike aura. And despite a demandingly choreographed life path, he emanates a kind of freedom of spirit. Here stands a living deity, yet a man nonetheless. A man battered by years of oppression, forced into 56 years of exile when Mao’s Red Army invaded Tibet in 1959. And yet, here’s a leader that doesn’t seem affected by his title. A “God King” that still maintains an almost divine optimism. Even compassion for his detractors.

How? What is his holy secret?

Growing up in Los Angeles, I heard all manner of spiritual rhetoric. From Kabbalah to Hare Krishna. I’ve traveled through the Himalayas, stepped foot on Everest, met monks and disciples. I’m aware of people persecuted for their faith.

I was born to interfaith parents. On my mother’s side, my grandparents met in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, a whole generation wiped out after six-pointed stars were stitched on their shirts. My father’s family was forced to celebrate Christmas in secret, curtains drawn, lights out, stuck on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain in communist Romania.

My life has been a counterintuitive spiritual narrative. Born in America, the first of my family. Things should be simple, right? Just when I’m sure I have it figured out, when the rational part of me takes over to explain the unexplainable, I once again question everything.

To hear the Dalai Lama awakened, in me, a different understanding of spirituality. There’s a greater power amongst us all, and it’s not religious—it’s the power of our fellow man. A collective power of humanity. Collective experience and consciousness, a commonality we can all tap into.

Real spirituality, he says, is about understanding ourselves. It’s about what’s here. Now. He’s right.

“Basic human nature is gentleness and love and kindness,” he said. “The smile is the expression of respect, love, affection. War, fundamentalism, hate, since these problems we human beings created, we must make effort to reduce these problems. It’s our responsibility.”

Total peace, he says, comes from scientific learning and human experience. Again, a seemingly simple notion of happiness. But I found myself identifying with his words.

The Nobel Laureate’s strategy for winning hearts and minds hinges on secular ethics, values more intrinsically human than religious. Values I could practice in my life—values anyone can, regardless of faith or family.

When the meeting was over, it was nearly 9 PM. His Holiness asked if I had had dinner. I hadn’t, but my mind was swimming, preoccupied with what I’d just experienced.

Head bowed and hands pressed in a chorus of namastes, I walked out of the room and stepped down the hall with Lama Tenzin Dhonden, the Dalai Lama’s personal emissary for peace. I felt lighter as I walked. I just had tete-a-tete with a figure many believe to be the Buddha reborn.

Then Lama Tenzin, a very smart man in his own right, turned to me and recounted a parable about the value of my work, my mission going forward. As he spoke, that same light I saw in the Dalai Lama’s eyes was there. That same passion for life.

“Media is like an elephant,” he said. “A flashlight to illuminate the darkness. Use your trunk to smell forward, then back. One can tell of suffering, or compassionate stories to make more smiles.” His eyes locked on me. The monk took a step closer, pointing a bony finger. Then his face suddenly softened. “His Holiness says you should smile more. And laugh!”

Does happiness start with something that seemingly small? Could life’s obstacles really be easier to navigate with that little change?

I felt my lips curling up. Not to please someone else, something was growing from inside me. The smile of contentment, of knowing, the smile of understanding. And when I smiled, it felt good. Halfway across the world, I knew he was smiling, too.

This article was originally published on July 5, 2015.