What am I so attached to?

emptiness take care of the housework
emptiness take care of the housework

Fire of wisdom?!

Back in this article I was surmising that the reason we don’t go for a realization of emptiness more passionately seems to be because we are so attached to inherently existent things, particularly if they appear nice. That seems to me to be our deep laziness of attachment. There’s a contemplation I do to combat it, so I’ll share it here in case it is of some practical use to you.

(1)    First of all, I ask myself, “What or whom am I most attached to at the moment?” Then I ask myself, “Do I want this person or enjoyment to be real?”

For example, if you’ve fallen in love with someone, do you like the idea of them really being there, existing from their own side, ready at any moment to send you flowers and texts? Or really waiting there for you at the train station, really wanting to see you, really making plans with you, etc.? Or not?!

Sure, it is nice to meditate on the emptiness of difficult conditions like annoying co-workers and ageing bodies, but is it so nice to dissolve our loved ones away into emptiness, to realize they are mere projections of our own mind with no power from their own side to make us happy!? And what about that delicious pizza that’s just been delivered, or that show we’ve really been looking forward to watching  this weekend; what is so fun about those not existing from their own side?

And, in any case, what’s the alternative to inherently existent or real things?! If we get rid of those, what do we actually have left to enjoy?

Anyway, these are the kinds of questions we can ask ourselves. And if we’re honest, we might have to reply that we do want our objects of attachment to be at least a bit real.

(2)    So then I ask myself, what is so wrong with wanting nice things to be real? It seems innocuous enough.

Which is why we need renunciation, or non-attachment, from knowing the faults of attachment. Without this, we’ll never get around to realizing emptiness, even if we’re an intellectual giant.

What is wrong with attachment?

Attachment does not make us happy either now or in future lives. As Geshe Kelsang says in his new book How to Understand the Mind:

“It is important to contemplate repeatedly the faults of attachment and to recognize it as a delusion whose only function is to cause us harm.”

There are a gazillion things wrong with attachment to inherently existent things, and at this point in my meditation I think of some of these, specifically relating them to whatever is my current object of attachment. For example …

attachment vs loveReal nice things and people seem to be over there while real me seems to over here, trying desperately to pull them toward me, to keep them with me, to stop them from getting away. With attachment, we feel moreorless bereft or on the verge of being bereft in every moment. It is impossible to get enough of our objects of attachment – if they send us roses and say I love you one day, we’re happy for a moment, but then we wonder why they don’t do it again the next day, or even the next hour. Perhaps it’s because they no longer love us?! But we need them to! If we set ourselves up in need for reassurance, no one can ever possibly reassure us enough. Attachment causes our mind to become like a yo yo of excitement and nerves when it is reciprocated, and makes us feel like attention-seeking idiots when it is not. Attachment is a desperately insecure state of being. It gives us zero control over our mind. It burdens people the world over. It has done this since beginningless time. We have set ourselves up in need through our own deluded thought processes or inappropriate attention. We have given away the key to our own happiness — now dependent on the behaviors of others or the freshness of the cupcakes. Why we may wonder are serials or on-going TV shows now so much more popular than movies? Perhaps because we can never get enough of the storyline, we need it to go on and on, generally feeling cheated in the last episode.

We can’t be happy with our objects of attachment out of the underlying anxiety that they’re about to end or leave us, and we can’t be happy without them as we miss them, feel hollow, out of sorts. In short, we can’t be happy with attachment at all.

With attachment, it is hard to stay in sync with another person for very long. It is love that puts us on the same wavelength, not attachment.

“Attachment is the principal cause of dissatisfaction. It never causes contentment, only restlessness and discontent.” ~ How to Understand the Mind

Attachment puts our life on hold. Look around at people not suffering from strong attachment right now who are just getting on with having lives, concentrating on whatever it is they are doing without having to watch the clock or feverishly tap into their smartphones every 10 minutes in hope for a sign of reassurance or affirmation from their beloved. Without attachment, and if they have love and wisdom, not only are they having a life, but they’re having a good life, even a great one. And we can too if we recognize that the pain or dissatisfaction or fragility or uncertainty we feel come not from a lover or a lack of a lover, a place/home or lack of one, a job/position or lack of one, etc, but only from our attachment to these. We don’t need it.

functioning adult attachment in BuddhismAnd our attachment, or uncontrolled desire, also causes us to act in odd, sometimes undignified ways that lead to future suffering too. We desperately seek to fulfill our wishes day after day, week after week, year after year, and life after life but, like the donkey chasing the carrot on the stick, we never quite succeed. And in the meantime we create a lot of bad karma, including the karma to continue to feel separated from beautiful things.

Moreover, we are not making any effort to escape while we are attached to the objects of self-grasping ignorance–inherently existent things. And, given that we’re attached to many nice real things, this is clearly sticking us down to samsara. Ignorance for sure is what traps us in the prison of samsara, but attachment is like the chains binding us to the wall.

Emptiness is naturally beautiful

Ironically, we think we want real things, but in fact what we are attached to are the hallucinations of our self-grasping ignorance. Inherently existent things don’t exist at all. How can being attached to an hallucination ever work out for us? It is, as Geshe Kelsang says, like chasing a mirage, desperate for its water. If we want reality, we need to understand that the true nature of all things is emptiness – that’s the only reality. And, as it says in Vajrayogini Tantra, emptiness is naturally beautiful.meditation and reality

Empty things and people seem to be naturally beautiful too. We can enjoy anything endlessly if we realize that it’s the nature of our own mind, mere name, mere imputation. That full satisfaction, union, or non-duality is infinitely preferable to the gulf that inevitably separates us from all those nice inherently existent things. Not always grasping, which is inevitably accompanied by some kind of tension in the mind – a tension we are sometimes not even aware of until we are not grasping and it blissfully disappears. And it feels so good to be in control of our own happiness, not dependent on the vagaries of hallucinations.

(3)    So, all that being said, I prefer to have non-attachment for inherently existent objects and the self-grasping ignorance that apprehends them. This non-attachment itself is renunciation. We are already relatively free.

(4)    So, how can I be completely free from self-grasping (and its deceptive objects)? By slicing it with the sword of the wisdom realizing the emptiness of inherent existence, which is its direct antidote. Therefore, I’m going to practice wisdom today and every day. Nothing exists from its own side. Enjoy without grasping.

(5)    I then try to come up with a practical plan to remember to practice wisdom in all the remaining hours of the day. And one of the most fruitful ways is to notice when attachment is arising, be aware of its painful nature, and let that remind me!

old machineryWe were at the Science Museum in London recently and saw a lot of huge industrial machinery down the ages, accompanied by tales of sweat, effort, and immensely hard labor. It was reminiscent for me that a lot of heavy cranking of metal is required to try and get real things to work for us. We toil very diligently to get the external world to cooperate, we spend most of our days doing that. But it seems that life becomes a whole lot less hard work if we can also remember that everything is mere projection of mind. Rather than get the results we seek by tinkering around with the projection, which is as much an exercise in futility as trying to move the frames around on a movie screen, we are better off fixing the projector itself.

Postscript: Nothing wrong with being in love

BTW, there is nothing wrong with being in love. It’d be nice to be in love with everyone! Love is great. Attachment is a delusion whose only function is to harm us, so don’t be alarmed that you’ll lose anything special by letting it go. We can transform our relationships through Buddha’s teachings on the stages of the path of Sutra and Tantra so that we can keep and increase the love, the passion, the bliss, and keep and transform even the desire … but jettison the attachment.

Over to you … What ideas do you have for doing this?

Learning to meditate in 2014

happy new year 2014

calvin and hobbes new year's resolutionDeciding to learn meditation is a really great new year’s resolution. Anyone can learn, if they want to.

Meditation means becoming familiar with positivity and wisdom, both on the meditation seat and off it in our normal daily lives; and it is a powerful way to become a happier, more fulfilled person. It also helps us to help others. Life is short, our time is passing, and meditation helps us get the most out of our remaining years, months, weeks, or days, as well as prepare for the future.

We can meditate anywhere and anytime, together with all our daily activities, as meditation simply means, for example, thinking kind thoughts instead of unkind ones, complimentary thoughts instead of snide, gossipy ones, peaceful thoughts instead of angry ones, generous thoughts instead of grasping ones, wise thoughts instead of blinkered ones – understanding that this is our choice and freedom. There are many accessible ways to think positive and stay positive if we want to. We can become a relaxed, kind person whom we like and respect. new year's resolution to meditate

And we can also meditate in so-called meditation sessions, where we can begin by sitting down and closing our eyes, gathering within, and doing some relaxing breathing meditation. We can let go of all troubling, neurotic, anxious, self-disliking thoughts and touch on, then dwell in, the peace and clarity that is the natural state of our mind.

“Are you sure my mind is naturally peaceful?!”

My aunt is over here from France at the moment, and yesterday she asked me how to meditate. When I explained something along the lines of what I just wrote above, she wanted to know why it is that our mind is naturally peaceful as opposed to naturally anxious and unpeaceful. It is a very good question.

get rid of delusions and find peaceWhenever we don’t have a delusion functioning, we can observe that our mind is naturally peaceful. When our mind is roiled by a bunch of negative, unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts and emotions, it is as if a vast, deep, boundless ocean is being churned up. We cannot see below the surface, below the huge, terrifying, disorientating waves, to the endless clarity and depth below. We are stuck on the surface just trying to stay afloat. We identify with that even, thinking that it is all that we and life are about. But whenever the waves die down, we can tell that the ocean is clear, vast, and very deep – this is the nature of an ocean. In a similar way, when our mind settles and those wave-like thoughts die down and disappear, we can sense immediately that our mind is vast, clear, and deep, and naturally peaceful. It is far better to identify with the natural peace of our mind (our Buddha nature) then with the adventitious neurotic unhappy thoughts that come and go and are not who we are.

ocean like clarity and peace of mindStress relief

How can you begin meditating? It is good to think about why you might want to do it. One of the main reasons people turn to meditation is to relieve stress. They want to find a way to turn off the anxiety and find a measure of calm and relaxation. They’re fed up with being fed up.

Stress kills happiness stone dead. I’ve recently met a hamster called Patch. He is the luckiest hamster I’ve ever met because instead of having just one or two plastic balls and connecting pipes to run around in, his kind mom has pretty much bought up the entire hamster shop for him. Still, although he is a relatively lucky little guy, as hamsters go, he is not without his problems, just like the rest of us. I was watching him running on his wheel the other day, trying to go fast enough to avoid falling off. When we’re stressed out, we’re a bit like that. No matter how hard we work to solve the stress-inducing problem, it never seems to get any better. We can reach the point where we are so burnt out that we cease functioning productively at all, spending our days pushing pencils across our desk. treadmill of life

Stress arrives at any income bracket. If we’re earning $200,000 a year but our overheads, including for example alimony and kids’ education, is costing us $300,000 a year, it can be just as stressful as earning $50 a day but having $75 a day in expenses.

When we feel stressed, we see the stress as something that is happening to us and not in any way as a reflection of our state of mind: “My situation is so stressful! That selfish person is causing me so much stress! The ghastly noise my neighbors make day in day out winds me up!” We feel stress is intrinsic in our situations, but stress is not out there, external to the mind – it is a troubled way of responding to what’s appearing to our mind. For example, two people can be in a traffic jam and one can be very calm not really minding at all, whilst another can be hugely upset. If we react every time in a troubled way, then stress builds up and leads to unhappiness, a growing inability to cope, and related physical problems. dealing with stress

According to CNN.com, 43% of adults suffer from stress-related problems or illnesses. Even children are increasingly stressed these days. Doctors say that for 90% of patients their conditions are either caused by or aggravated by stress. Stress has been implicated in six major killers, including heart disease, lung disease, cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. Alcoholism and addiction often arise from or are exacerbated by stress.

Documented medical benefits of meditation

benefits of meditationMany medical studies now show how effective meditation is in combating both stress and sickness, including one by Dr. David Eisenberg and his colleagues at the Harvard Medical School that lists an increasing number of medical benefits from the practice of meditation:

  1. Reductions in heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, oxygen consumption, blood flow to skeletal muscles, perspiration and muscle tension, as well as improvement in immunity.
  2. Women with PMS (premenstrual syndrome) who meditate regularly reduce their symptoms by 58 percent. Women going through menopause could significantly reduce the intensity of hot flushes.
  3. In a study of a 10-week group program that included meditation (along with exercise and nutrition changes), women struggling with infertility had significantly less anxiety, depression, and fatigue, and 34-percent became pregnant within six months.
  4. New mothers who use meditation with images of milk flowing in their breasts can more than double their production of milk.
  5. Patients with coronary-artery disease who meditated daily for eight months had nearly a 15-percent increase in exercise tolerance.
  6. Patients with ischemic heart disease (in which the heart muscle receives an inadequate supply of blood) who practiced for four weeks had a significantly lower frequency of premature ventricular contractions (a type of irregular heartbeat).
  7. Angioplasty patients who used meditation had significantly less anxiety, pain and need for medication during and after the procedure.
  8. Patients having open-heart surgery who meditated regularly were able to reduce their incidence of postoperative supraventricular tachycardia (abnormally high heart rate).
  9. Medical students who meditated regularly during final exams had a higher percentage of “T-helper cells,” the immune cells that trigger the immune system into action.
  10. Nursing-home residents trained in meditation had increased activity of “natural-killer cells,” which kill bacteria and cancer cells. They also had reductions in the activity of viruses and of emotional distress.
  11. Patients with metastatic (spreading) cancer who meditated with imagery regularly for a year had significant increases in natural-killer cell activity.

Just recently, a study published in Psychiatry Research by Dr. Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, reports that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with stress stress was reduced and there was a noticeable increase in empathy and memory. The New York Times also wrote an article recently called “How meditation may change the brain.”

Our mind and body are closely connected. This mind-body connection is not so mysterious, we instinctively understand it. Why else would we say things like, “I worried myself sick,” or, “My head’s about to explode.” According to Dr. William Collinge, the WebMD on CNN.com, there is mounting medical evidence to support the role of mind/body medicine in promoting health:Buddha and meditation

At the heart of mind/body medicine lies the age-old practice of meditation, a quiet, simple technique that belies an almost extraordinary power to boost disease resistance and maintain overall health.

Two approaches to dealing with stress

As explained here, there are two types of problem. This means that there are two main approaches to dealing with stress: working to resolve the practical “outer” problems causing it as far as is possible, but, more importantly, keeping our mind positive to solve the actual problem, the “inner” problem. Maintaining a positive mind, even if it is challenging, will help us deal with our practical outer problems. Meditation overcomes stress by enabling us to cultivate relaxed, peaceful, happy states of mind.

happy new year 2014So, why not get started!? Learning to meditate is not as hard as you may think, and you’ll never regret learning. Wherever you go, whatever you do, meditation will become your own tool for discovering peace and happiness in 2014. You could resolve to meditate ten minutes a day, every day this year. You will be taking matters into your own hands, and feeling a great deal better for it.

Here is a recent article on breathing meditation that you may find helpful.

Please share this article with anyone you think might like to learn meditation this year.

Comments etc welcome.

How to win friends and influence people (according to Buddhism)

goody-two-shoes

moral discipline in Buddhism is not goody two shoesSometimes I think we approach moral discipline the wrong way around, thinking of all the things we’d have to give up and deny ourselves if we really went for it, making our lives dull and hard work; and how we’ll be plagued with guilt the moment we put a step out of place. And perhaps we worry that meantime all our characterful, devil-may-care friends will find us really boooring…

But I think that moral discipline is really our way of not harming others and helping them instead. It makes us into a kind, reliable, happy, interested friend whom everyone wants to hang out with. Others can trust us, and are a great deal more likely to help us out when we need it.

Ten negative actions

Buddha Shakyamuni said:

“Anyone who deliberately harms others is no follower of mine.”

moral ethics according to BuddhismWithin that, he advised us to avoid the so-called ten negative actions as our bottom-line moral discipline. We avoid killing and violence – and don’t you generally prefer to be around people like that? We avoid stealing, including stealing others’ partners – again, people appreciate us for that, and trust us. I know that I prefer to hang out with someone who will lift my spirits by not bitching on about others’ faults – sure, it can seem like a fun way to pass 15 minutes by the water cooler, but it always leaves a sour taste in the mind. We usually like people whom we know are not coveting our things or plotting to harm us or scorn us or slander us as soon as we hit any kind of road block. We enjoy the company of people who have open, curious minds, not closed minds through holding onto wrong views. We are more comfortable around someone who is not out of control through drinking and drugs (unless perhaps we are out of control ourselves). We like people with integrity.

It feels good to be around peaceful, relaxed people, and moral discipline leads to a more controlled and therefore peaceful mind.

“Pure societies”

Geshe-la statue in temple at Manjushri Centre EnglandLike Je Tsongkhapa before him, Geshe Kelsang has said that he would like to create “pure societies” where people improve their cherishing of others and moral discipline together, encouraging each other. This does not refer to being an exclusionary, judgmental, “superior” goody two-shoes, much less losing our passion for life or our sense of humor. As mental freedom opens up in our mind through bringing our actions under control, we have a far lighter, happier, and more entertaining time, and this reflects in the people around us.

We have just had the International Kadampa Festival in Portugal, with inspiringly clear and do-able teachings from Geshe Kelsang himself. Over seven thousand people* gathered from around the world for six days in the Hippodrome in Cascais, all doing their best to refrain from harming others and to help them instead. It was impressive. For me, the Festival in Portugal demonstrated that Geshe Kelsang’s vision for a pure society is not so far-removed from current reality – in fact, people remarked that it was easier to cherish others than not to in that environment.  Peter from Poland, the cousin of a close friend who was on his first trip to any kind of Kadampa gathering, remarked that he had never seen so many peaceful, smiling people, and “They didn’t even mind me going through their bags!” (he was on bag check in case you’re wondering). Portugal Festival 2

Your turn: do you agree or not that moral discipline can make life less boring and more enjoyable for you and your circle?

*The gathering

While on the subject of 7,200 people practicing moral discipline at the same time, I just wanted to add something … I found it fascinating that far too many causes and conditions to count were involved in the arising of this Festival, a Festival that had been talked about for a very long time and then appeared for six magical, dream-like days. The feat of organization, transforming an empty hippodrome into a Pure Land for 7,200 people, was supplemented by the umpteen intentions, conversations, imputations, and travel plans created over months and years by individuals all around the globe — from Lisbon to Zululand. (And if we take all the karma from past lives into account…)

The statue

statue of Geshe Kelsang GyatsoMeanwhile, countless more causes and conditions came together to produce the  queue snaking out of the Festival shop, where people waited just a few more minutes to buy their statue of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. This statue is exactly the same as the new statue of Geshe Kelsang that arrived in the World Peace Temple in England this summer, except for being only six inches tall. These 2,000 statues too travelled a very long way, in a shiny red box, complete with a throne, hat, and khatanga. Seven weeks previously they were in China, then they travelled the globe via Hong Kong, Malaysia, up the coast of Sri Lanka, up the red sea past Mecca, past the pyramids, into the Mediterranean. Three days holidays in Algiers and a week in Spain, then a whole day waiting in customs less than two miles from the Hippodrome in Cascais. They arrived at the Festival just on the day it started, phew, along with the thousands of travelling Kadampas. They have been privately sponsored and all proceeds go to the International Temples Fund. Geshe-la statue in Madeira

The Festival has now dissolved like a rainbow into the sky because its innumerable causes and conditions have ceased. (Though not inherently–there will be positive effects arising individually and collectively from this Festival for years to come.) Now there are pictures of Geshe-la statues all over the world appearing on Facebook, as he continues to travel far and wide. What do you make of that?!

How are you feeling? Musings on karma continued…

karma painting

(You may want to read this article first to get up to scratch. I’ve divided the article up into two parts to make it easier to read in a coffee break.)

Feelings

Going back to the discussion in the last article, as there are three types of object, there are three types of feeling that experience these objects – pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and neutral feelings.

“It is impossible to cognize an object without experiencing it as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.” ~ Understanding the Mind

photo 3Feeling that things are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral is part and parcel of living beings’ subjective experience, whether we are a baby, an old person, an animal… Right now my cat is pursuing pleasant feelings by trying to get real comfy on the sofa next to me, with a choice view of the birds outside — birds who luckily are safe right now from experiencing unpleasant feelings to do with his murderous paws, the “same” paws that give me the warm fuzzies.

Again, if you check your own feelings or experiences, have you ever had a feeling that is not pleasant (or good), unpleasant (or bad) or neutral? Even during your dreams?!

So why, if my friend and I are both given a bowl of Haagen Daaz’s vanilla ice cream, does he experience it to be yummy whereas I would have preferred chips? It is mainly due to our karma. Understanding the Mind says:

The general function of feeling is to experience the effects of previous actions, or karma.

Karma gives rise to all our pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings. Feelings and experiences are the same. In other words, all our feelings or experiences come from karma, which are the intentions or mental actions we created in the past. Pleasant feelings come from positive actions, unpleasant feelings from negative actions, and neutral feelings from neutral actions. Pleasantness and unpleasantness do not exist from the side of the object, but depend entirely on our karma. Therefore, as it says in Understanding the Mind:

Two people might eat the same food and one find it delicious while the other thinks it is revolting. 

Milarepa

Have you heard of Milarepa? He was one of the most beloved Tibetan saints or yogis because he gained incredible, deep realizations, in fact actual enlightenment, and then sang beautiful songs of realization that became known and sung throughout Tibet. There were no CD players back then, let alone MP3s or Spotify, so these songs passed down orally through the ages and he became very famous. He lived many years ago (1452-1507).

Milarepa's caveMilarepa spent many years in retreat as an ascetic living in caves and isolated places. Wherever he went, it seemed there would be an abundance of nettles. (These are a green plant with stingy bits on their leaves, and there are, arguably, way too many of them in the English countryside.) One famous fact about Milarepa is that he ate these nettles. He was miles away from anywhere and so he’d have nettle soup, nettle tea, nettle sandwiches… (maybe not, no bread). For him, nettles utterly nourished his body and sustained his spiritual practice. He ate so many nettles that he turned green. But he was perfectly healthy.

So Geshe Kelsang once asked how anyone living on nettles could be healthy? It would appear to be impossible. Frankly, even though, as mentioned, there are plenty of nettles in England, if I had to live on them I would not be healthy. I would be complaining vociferously; this would not be a 5-star hotel in my opinion. Milarepa was living in a 5-star hotel because everything he needed was in those nettles. Geshe Kelsang explained that this was the ripened karma of his practice of generosity, which meant that he had everything he needed to sustain his life and spiritual practice.

We can share a similar set of external conditions and yet have radically different experiences. Our karma does not ripen, therefore, as external conditions, so much as our experiences of those conditions. Whether those experiences are good or bad depends on whether our karma is good or bad. For Milarepa, eating nettles was good karma ripening – he was nourished by them and able to gain profound spiritual attainments, and even being green proved to be no problem. For me, having to eat nettles would be horrible karma ripening as I haven’t created that same karma of generosity. This is one example Geshe Kelsang uses to show how the quality of our experience doesn’t depend on the object but on our previous karma.

We can do something, everything, about causes, but once an effect is ripening it is too late to change it. Therefore, it is futile to run after pleasant feelings with attachment or to try to avoid unpleasant feelings through aversion. We need either to enjoy the pleasant feeling without attachment, or be patient with the unpleasant feeling. If we want to create the life we want, we have to pay more attention to improving the numerous intentions or karmic causes we are creating on a daily basis than to our ripened feelings.

(Funnily enough, just after writing that last paragraph I went to a nearby greengrocer to buy some fruit. On the way back I overheard a young man advise his girlfriend: “You should do the right thing, even if it seems a bit inconvenient and doesn’t immediately deliver you results.” Apropos, I thought.)

Back to the case in point, the blue bike …. 

karma paintingWas it F’s karma, as technically the bike had been given to him by N, or was it N’s karma? And if so, what kind of karma – good, bad, or neutral? My guess is that N won’t give a hoot, unless he gives into nostalgia for the fun in the sun he used to have with that bike when he lived here (and that in turn would depend on him finding out about his old bike, which may never happen). Some might argue that it was no longer even his bike, so all his karma related to that bike has gone. I don’t know if that is true or not. For example, if I give my cat away and then something happens to the cat, will I or will I not be experiencing the ripening of karma?

Also, F probably won’t give a hoot because (1) he never gives much of a hoot about anything; and (2) it is not directly affecting him as he has moved to New York. But any neutral feelings he may have are still the result of neutral karma ripening.

Was it my other friend’s karma, then, the person who always used the bike? He professed to feeling a “little disappointed” and, although he quickly got over it, one could argue that the unpleasant feeling was a result of some negative karma ripening, even if he didn’t own the bike. Or else, as he managed quickly to overcome his disappointment and be very positive again, was it good karma ripening overall?!

Or was it my karma, as the custodian and lender of the bikes? And if so, given my relative calm on discovering its theft, was it neutral, good, or bad karma ripening!? And what exactly did I or the others all do for this to happen? And did we do it at the same or at different times?!

As for the person who stole the bike, well, I can’t judge his karma because I have no idea of his intention, and karma depends entirely on intention. He might have needed the bike to go visit his mother on her deathbed, for all I know. We figured he probably needed it a lot more than we did, so we mentally gave it to him, which protected him from incurring the full karma of stealing and created good karma for more bikes to come our way later. In fact, the very next day we sold our old car for a couple hundred more dollars than we were expecting, and were able to go ahead and buy another bike!

See, karma is a curious thing! It is far from being fatalistic or simplistic but is a constantly changing, complex play of causes and effects. The immensely mind-boggling interdependence of all conventional appearances hinges on karma, individual and collective. Karma is the other side of the coin from ultimate truth, the emptiness (lack of inherent existence) of all phenomena.

Keep it simple

karma 5Still, however much fun we can have discussing whose karma and what kind of karma it all is, when it comes to actually observing the law of karma on a daily basis it helps to keep it simple. When I want to put good into the world, that’s what I’ll get out, one way or another. Same for my bad and neutral intentions. We can understand the general principles of karma (such as explained in Joyful Path) and leave most of the detailed, subtle stuff for once we’ve fully realized the union of conventional truth and ultimate truth. At that point we’ll be omniscient and can see exactly which actions lead to which effects while simultaneously seeing their emptiness.

I learned a couple more interesting things from this bike situation, which I might as well share now.

No bike 

When we first came off the beach, we both saw it, a rather significant absence, a space where the bike had been. “No bike!” In the meditation on emptiness, we are also seeking a significant absence — lack of inherent existence. That absence is filled with rather cosmic meaning. It means that nothing exists from its own side, so nothing is fixed, and everything depends entirely on the mind. As the great Indian Buddhist master Nagarjuna said:

For whom emptiness is possible, anything is possible.

Perspective = reality

While I was using the restroom before our long walk home, my friend happened upon a police aide and mentioned the theft of the bike. He was a jovial elderly Mid-Westerner with a moustache, who drove his blue and white cart up and down the beach all day, just waiting to help people like us, so he took it more seriously than we expected and called it in. Another police aide, his boss, a young friendly Latino turned up, and we chatted about all sorts of things while we waited the hour for the actual police officer to show.

Why didn’t they show sooner? Because they had things like murder and home break-ins to deal with – it seems fair enough. In fact, just as I was wondering whether I should perhaps be a bit more upset about the theft of this fine $700 bike, a crackling message came over the first police aide’s radio: “Woman distressed, male intruder in her house, over.” Yikes. Then this police aide told us that just the previous day his son, a police officer, had been called to a homicide – the victim had been shot in the back of the head for the $400 drug money he had just collected from the shooter.

The theft of our bike and the prospect of the long walk back home were becoming less and less significant the longer we hung out with our friends in blue, and indeed we were beginning to feel really rather lucky! If perspective can change in the light of other thoughts and/or events, it shows there is no “real” situation out there to begin with.

The kindness of strangers

Yet despite our trifling complaint, the police were still attentive and courteous to us, as if they had nothing better to do, and this in turn reminded me of the kindness of strangers and increased my love. So, all in all, a good day’s meditation work …

Postscript: I wrote this article months ago, and, apart from the Buddhism in it, pretty much all my personal circumstances have changed since then, showing the unpredictable nature of karma and how you never know what karma is going to ripen next.

Over to you: Have you been in any situations recently that particularly reminded you of karma and/or emptiness?

Delusions be gone!

Charlie Brown sigh

I had one more article on delusions up my sleeve, quickly finishing off the six causes of delusion as these are so practical. They show how delusions arise in dependence upon other factors and so, if we avoid those factors, we don’t have to experience the delusions.

overcoming delusions and negative mindsFirst it is worth remembering, as always, that it is our dualistic mind of self-grasping that is distorting our reality – reality itself is fine. We grasp at self and we grasp at other, and so we have a problem. And, believing in our own flimsy projection of our limited self, solidifying it, we grasp at negativity and impurity that are not actually there; they are the infrastructure needed to hold up this projection. “How is it even possible for me, me of all people, really to be free from all delusions?! I’m made of them!” we think. Instead of recognizing that the nature of our mind is fundamentally pure, our ego minds project impurity where it does not exist. Without the deep, abiding, confident recognition of and identification with our Buddha nature, although we may try to clean up our acts a little, we cannot help but reify our sense of an impure, unworthy self with the notions that we are deluded now, we will always be moreorless deluded even if we practice meditation, and we will probably die deluded.

 Buddha nature clouds of delusionsLuckily, these deluded projections have no power from their own side to stick because they are not the truth. They are momentary and extrinsic, like clouds in the sky – they can never become part of the pure, spacious, sky-like mind itself. Our own mind has always been naturally pure and brimming with every blissful potential for happiness and liberation, it is pure now, and it will always be pure. What we call delusions are superficial clouds arising from temporary causes and conditions that can be removed. They are fantasy. Once we start to relate on a daily basis to our Buddha nature, everything becomes easier and more joyful, and we find there is in fact no room in our space-like, empty mind for heaviness or mawkishness.

So, that being said, here is a whistle-stop tour of the last three conditions of delusions, explained beautifully in Understanding the Mind. (The first three causes are the seedthe object, and inappropriate attention.)

Cause # 4: Familiarity

Geshe Kelsang says:

The reason we develop delusions naturally, whereas we have to apply effort to cultivate virtuous minds, is that we are very familiar with delusions. ~ Understanding the Mind

Right now, although delusions have no actual leg to stand on in the space of our Buddha nature, following our delusions is the path of least resistance because it is the path we have always trodden. In certain situations, for example, we are always going to get annoyed because we always have. But if we practice patience in that situation, everything will change.

familiarity with delusionsOn a long hike some years ago in Andalucia, I got amazingly lost in the mountains when I followed the goat trails mistaking them for some kind of human path going somewhere useful. As darkness fell, me and my companion, a dog called No No, realized that just because a path is well trodden doesn’t mean it’s the best path to take. Luckily, No No (so-called as he was a very affectionate, grubby stray and everyone in the village was always saying “No, no!” when he jumped up on them) not only stayed perfectly cheerful, but also had a better sense of direction than I, so we got home eventually. Thing is, we have to start treading new, positive paths until they become clearer and easier to follow than the old ones, which will meantime become overgrown through lack of use. We come to the point where it’s easier for us to be patient than to be angry, it’s easier for us to feel love than to feel dislike, it’s easier for us to feel spiritually energetic than to succumb to the laziness of attachment. We even eventually get to the point where we’d have to work at it to develop delusions! Not that we would work at it, but if we wanted them, we’d have to. Imagine! Definitely this will happen.

We know from our own regular day-by-day experience that everything becomes easy with familiarity.  When I first started to drive a car, for example, it seemed almost impossible! In fact, I was relieved, aged 17, when I failed my test because it indicated that there were no drivers like me on the road. I thought I was never going to learn all this stuff! But we do. Next thing we know, we have music playing, we’re talking to other people in our car, we’re eating crisps, (some people these days even seem to be watching TV), and we’re still driving, effortlessly!  Effortlessly. In the same way, when we become familiar with positive minds, they will start to arise effortlessly regardless of what we’re doing. We won’t have to work at it. Until we get to that point, we need to work at it; but the end is in sight.

Cause # 5: Distraction and being influenced by others

We naturally imitate those with whom we associate. ~ Understanding the Mind

In fact, there is nothing wrong at all with having love and compassion and feeling close to everybody, but this cause of delusion seems to be talking about whom we are influenced by, whom we allow ourselves to influenced by; so we can check. If we are coming under the influence of people who are leading us into more delusions, who have no interest in developing their minds, then this will rub off on us. We are a bit like sheep, aren’t we? (Or goats, judging by my example.) Let’s face it, we copy the people around us, and we especially copy the people we admire. (We do it consciously and unconsciously). We don’t much like breaking ranks. That is fine if they are doing good things, but a cause of going backwards if they are not.peer_pressure

Geshe Kelsang talks about this cause of delusion over a couple of pages, there is a lot to it; but what I mainly take from it is that we’re easily influenced by our friends, so either choose good friends and be influenced by them, or make sure we’re not coming under the baleful influence of people doing destructive things. Watch our minds. Don’t succumb to negative peer pressure. Maintain integrity. Just because other people are, for example, engaging in some kind of gossip fest about someone, slandering people, developing angry minds, doesn’t mean we have to join in. That kind of thing. 

Cause # 6: Bad habits

Bad habits are the main cause of strong delusions arising in our mind. ~ Understanding the Mind

Examples given are stealing, sexual misconduct, talking meaninglessly, etc. For example, if we watch a lot of violent movies or play violent video games, thinking, ‘Kill them, kill them, kill them!’, this doesn’t seem very conducive to peaceful, loving minds. We want to check what kind of junk we’re putting in our minds, and see if we can do something about it, in terms of our lifestyle. Because we’ll always justify our lifestyle, even if it’s a bad one, with our delusions. Mmm?

That was just a whistle stop tour. There’s lots more to discover in Understanding the Mind and Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

reality checkSomeone asked me once: “How do we know that the minds like love are not just delusions, good delusions?” Good question. Minds like love and compassion are based on reality, whereas anger and so forth are not. For example, there’s no exaggeration in the mind when you’re wishing someone else to be happy out of love or wishing to protect others from their suffering out of compassion. You have an understanding of what suffering is and a wish for them to be free from it, and there is no exaggeration or inappropriate attention there. Our peaceful, positive minds are in tune with reality and our Buddha nature. Not only do we feel positive and peaceful when we are generating these minds, but they aren’t in any way undermined by our wisdom realizing the way things are. In fact, they are increased by our wisdom, whereas our delusions all automatically diminish as our wisdom improves.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

Karma and us

Ice cream makes you happy

Some of you may remember the inappropriate attention I paid to the supposed theft of two bikes two summers ago… bikes that turned out not to be stolen at all.

clear sky cafeWell, some months ago, the big blue bike was stolen “for real”! Someone really wanted that bike. We’d locked them to a palm tree on a relatively busy pathway near the Clear Sky Café, and whoever it was must have pretended to be busily opening the lock whilst actually sawing through it. We figured he must have needed it for himself, rather than for sale, as he left the other bike standing there.

It is good I’d had the rehearsal earlier! And it would have been way too much of an indictment on my progress as a meditator if I had gone through all those mental acrobatics again… So this time, when we returned from two hours on the beach to the sight of no bike, I was prepared, and stayed totally calm. Imagine that!

(The cynical amongst you might say that I stayed calm because it wasn’t actually the bike that I ride that was stolen – my red bike was still next to the palm tree … Or you might ask who doesn’t feel relaxed after 2 hours on the beach?! You’d have a point. But I still claim a small victory.) stolen bike

A few conclusions from this latest bike saga:

Everything has a cause

As we started to walk with the remaining bike on the long journey back home by foot, we wondered whose karma it was and what kind of karma it was.

Everything has a cause. Nothing arises from nothing – a phenomenon arises from something that’s in the same substantial continuum. Physical things must arise from physical causes. The cause of an oak tree is an acorn seed, the cause of a flood is rain, and the cause of our human body is the union of our mother’s egg and father’s sperm.

Buddha was a scientist of the mind who penetrated the actual causes of our mental experiences. He observed that if an action is motivated by a good intention, such as compassion, an experience or feeling of happiness results; but if an action is motivated by delusion, such as anger, it is the actual substantial cause of a suffering experience. Also, there are neutral actions that give rise to neutral experiences. Buddha talked in detail about actions that cause negative effects and those that cause positive effects. He helpfully listed ten negative actions to avoid: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, hurtful speech, idle chatter, ill will, covetousness and wrong view. By abstaining from these, we avoid having to experience their painful results. By practicing positive actions, such as generosity, kindness, patience, cherishing, love, compassion and wisdom, we create the causes for happiness. In this way, we can gain control over the experiences of our life and make it successful.

Bill Meyer put it this way:

Every thought is a seed.  If you plant crab apples, don’t count on harvesting Golden Delicious.

Purification and accepting what is

VajrasattvaIt is worth remembering the teachings on karma often, and especially when we are really suffering deeply– that way we can assume some responsibility and feel less like a hopeless, hard-done-by victim. We can start getting the control back over our lives by purifying all the crud causing this kind of suffering since beginningless time so we don’t have to go through it ever again. Vajrasattva purification is immensely helpful for this, makes you feel lighter again inside, optimistic for the future. The complete blissful purity of all enlightened beings appearing as Buddha Vajrasattva obliterates the heavy karmic load we are bearing, which has been weighing us down year after year and life after life without our even realizing it. If we let our suffering remind us to purify what is actually causing it, this suffering itself leads us straightaway to far less suffering now and in the future! Therefore, suffering is not inherently bad and we can accept it.

We can also accept patiently if we understand this is all karmic appearance to mind – deceptive appearances with no existence from their own side. Our unbearable situation is the reflection of our own delusions and the karma they spawn, no one else’s fault, which means, very fortunately, that to be happy again we don’t actually have to wait helplessly in the (often futile) hope that others might improve. A good friend once said:

“Leave the object alone. Change the mind.”

Real deep, inner refuge and peace comes from doing this, rather than from struggling with the external situation that seems so inherently painful but in fact is not.

Whatever we think and feel depends on our karma

Understanding the MindIn this very useful manual explaining everything you need to know about your mind and how it works, it says:  

The general function of feeling is to experience the effects of previous actions, or karma. ~ Understanding the Mind

Feeling is defined as a mental factor (or state of mind) that functions to experience pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral objects. Feeling accompanies every fleeting moment of mind – there is never a time when we are not feeling or experiencing something.

Have you ever come across an object that doesn’t feel pleasant (or good), unpleasant (or bad), or neutral? I can’t think of any; if you can, please let me know in the comments.

In truth, objects are not good, bad, or neutral from their own side – what they are depends on our minds apprehending them, and specifically on the mental factors of feeling and discrimination. Discrimination distinguishes one object from another and, when associated with conceptual minds, functions to impute, label, or name objects. As Geshe Kelsang says:

The defining characteristics of an object do not exist from the side of the object but are merely imputed by the mind that apprehends them.

How we discriminate and experience things depends entirely on our states of mind and our karma. This is rather a significant observation by Buddha.

What are your thoughts on ice cream?
Ice cream makes you happy

Nice try, Wall’s!

Do you like ice cream? And don’t you think it’s funny how if we like something we assume it is nice from its own side? We project or label niceness onto the object and then think that niceness inheres in it. We do this all the time. “Ice cream is great!” you may say, really believing that. However, if ice cream was really great, everyone would think so, yet I for one am more likely to say “Ice cream is okay, sometimes,” which is a fair enough comment from my point of view, and some Eastern cultures just as validly (from their point of view) say “Ice cream is disgusting, it is like eating snot.”

If the people who think ice cream is inherently great just because they like it insist that everyone else thinks that too, then we are in for trouble. And we do this kind of thing all the time, getting into conflict by assuming that the world is WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) and therefore people must have a screw loose not to feel good about the things and the ideas we like, such as our politics, our religion, our country, our friends, and so on.

The same goes of course for thinking things are bad just because we personally discriminate them as such.

Buddha’s observation that everything depends on how we are discriminating and feeling it, both of which are states of mind, might seem obvious once it is pointed out, but we would behave quite differently if we were to live by it. We over-trust our highly subjective and fleeting discriminatory labels and feelings, believing that they are telling us the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the way things actually are. Then we generalize the way we think and feel out to everyone else, often with disastrous consequences.

More on the bikes in part 2 later … meantime, do you believe in karma? Have you got any karma stories you’d like to share?

 

Who ARE we?!

don't believe everything you think

Have you ever wondered this …?!

who_are_you

Well, who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)
I really wanna know (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)

It is a good thing to figure out as our sense of self dominates our entire life and everything we do.

We are, by and large, who we think we are. Because we don’t exist from our own side, but are merely a projection of mind — the object of a thought, a notion or collection of notions – with training we can change into whatever we want to be.

However, this will only happen if we first stop buying into our own and others’ superficial and generally wildly inaccurate stories about us.

The other day, I was talking with a teenage girl who is beautiful and intelligent, but try telling her that (!) for she also has a very low sense of self-worth. She is not alone in hating herself, a lot of people do it, and in particular it is a common reaction to being put down, over-teased, criticized, or bullied. We can end up believing what deluded people say to us, take it on as the truth about who we actually are. (This can even be the case when we know we are being falsely accused of something; just through the force of others gossiping about it we can end up feeling less worthy.) Then even if those who love us and know us best say how beautiful we are, etc., we don’t believe it. As a result, we find it inordinately hard to get our act together. We may even engage in crazy self-sabotage or self-destructive behaviors, which in turn make us feel even more substandard and worthless.fun house mirror reflection of our own mind

I think most of us do this — self-sabotage in some way — to a greater or lesser extent, at least at times, holding ourselves back from happiness and progress. Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve noticed that someone really doesn’t like you, for example? And perhaps they are spreading the word?! And, even if you are generally quite self-confident, this time it gets to you and undermines your effort? It discourages you?

We need to find a way not to be influenced by others’ opinions of us. See if this technique helps.

Who are they really looking at anyway?

If we understand that we all suffer from delusions based on self-grasping ignorance, and that the world is a reflection of our own minds, we can understand that we are all currently moreorless in our own worlds. When people look at us in a certain way, what are they really looking at?

A mirror.

This can be very helpful to visualize. Next time you are in the presence of someone who doesn’t like you, imagine they are looking into a mirror and not actually looking at you. Do this whenever you think of them thinking of you. They are seeing the distorted appearances arising from their own delusions, their own baggage, bouncing back on themselves, harming them more than you. The chances are that the pattern in the mirror is quite familiar to them at other times too, when they think they are looking at other people. They are themselves locked up in their own un-fun house of mirrors, which are reflecting back their painful anger, hurt, and lack of self-confidence. Understanding this, you can disregard what they are seeing as not having anything to do with who you actually are. You need not rise verbally or mentally to what they say. Let it die down.

Wiping the projector

what do cats thinkWhen people say hurtful things to or about us, it is of course also an effect of our own past karmic actions of saying unkind things to or about others. We can cleanse the grimy obscurations from our own karmic projector as well, and one powerful way to do this is to learn to look at our detractors with love and understanding instead of dislike. (This is not the same as being unnaturally nice or polite to them out of the wish to please or out of fear of their potential anger, which makes us feel and act even more like a helpless victim – the love we develop and express has to be genuine, self-confident, and strong.)

I’m Starting With The Man In
The Mirror
I’m Asking Him To Change
His Ways

Once we are feeling more confident and loving, and have our mojo back, we can also check to see if any crticisms they are leveling at us have any validity — in which case, if they are pointing out a fault we may actually have, we can take steps to remove it, but without identifying ourselves with it. (See these articles on how to deal with criticism.)

(Also, of course, it’s worth pointing out that sometimes that person likes us just fine, or at least more than we think they do, and we are projecting dislike onto them because we already feel dislikeable, in a vicious spiral. Something to watch out for.)

Tara reflecting on usWho are we? We can relate to ourselves as our pure potential for happiness, goodness, and change, where our faults and delusions are temporary and not us, like silt temporarily obscuring the purity and clarity of water – that view is far closer to reality. We can stop relating to ourselves as others’ version of us, unless it is a Buddha’s version of us!

(By the way, at the other end of the spectrum, if we believe others over-the-top praise and hype about us, we can end up proud and limit ourselves in that way as well. We need to come to know our own minds and capabilities and faults, and believe in our own potential to cleanse our perceptions and change completely.)

This article is part of an occasional series about overcoming discouragement. More later.

Over to you: in what ways do you stay self-confident?

What’s YOUR problem?! :-)

complaint

Beware of Whinging PomsA recent survey discovered that people in the UK “feel fully fit and well only 61 days of the year”. Some Australian commentators apparently reacted to this report as typical of the “whinging Poms”, but the fact is that other studies show that this level of health worry is just about normal throughout the Western world (including the land of giant deadly insects and combative kangaroos).

And these are not the seriously ill or dying people who are in hospital, say, but people who are out and about. Based on this survey, people claim to be suffering 304 days a year from colds, backaches, bitten tongues, cricked necks, headaches, heartburn, old sporting injuries, ear infections – you name it, and we’ve got it.

Our bodies are pain machines. Sometimes I see people on the jogging trail outside my window in Liverpool run past with an incredible spring in their step, smoothly and effortlessly, and I like it; but this level of fitness and health seems to be the exception. Sometimes the body cooperates, sometimes you just feel you have to lug it around with you — you know that thought when running, I’m sure it is not just me, “Please, can I stop now?!” Most of us have aches, pains, and a lack of energy a lot of the time. Have you ever met anyone who can say that they always feel comfortable in their bodies? I sometimes marvel at how well the body functions at all, given that it is made of meat, bones, skin, fat, and a bunch of weird organs squashed really tightly together. (I used to think there was loads of space inside me, between, eg, my kidneys and my heart, but that was before I went to the Body Worlds exhibition about 15 years ago – quite the wake-up call.) discover the mysteries

I work at editing and project-managing medical magazines, which daily reveals to me bizarre symptoms it is apparently possible for humans to get, some of them exceedingly awful. I try not to look at my Dorland’s medical dictionary too much – a fat tome full of all the things that can go dreadfully wrong, many in body parts I’ve never heard of! This week I was editing a dermatology article on a rare autoimmune blistering disease affecting the subepidermis called bullous pemphigoid, and musing how I had never met anyone with this, which is perhaps just as well as it sounds really nasty. But then today I just happened to visit a poorly bed-ridden friend of my parents who has been itching like crazy for months… her husband said no one has ever heard of what she’s got, so I said “try me”, and guess what. Maybe it’s just me, but the sheer unexpectedness of having things go horribly wrong in layers of skin you never even knew you had (and your painful condition possessing a daft, no-one’s-ever-heard-of-it name like bullous pemphigoid) strikes me as a tad, oh I don’t know, unreasonable …?

Buddha pointed out that greater or lesser suffering is normal in a contaminated body (that arises from ignorance and delusions, and the karma created by these). The 4 “great rivers” of suffering are birth, ageing, sickness, and death, and we’re constantly being tossed around in their cruel waters. And this is not even taking into account the mental pain and agitation we feel every day as a result of our uncontrolled, oversensitive minds!

The point of looking at this physical and mental suffering head on is to decide we don’t want any of it anymore and to ask the question, “What can we do about it?”

Samsara

Sailboat on the Ocean in a Storm

The seventh Dalai Lama, who lived in 18th century Tibet, said:

Whoever I behold, of high position or low, ordained or lay, male or female, they differ only in appearance, dress, behavior and status. In essence they are all equal. They all experience problems in their lives.

Buddha identified 7 categories of suffering for every human in what he called “samsara“: birth, ageing, sickness, death, having to part with what we like, having to encounter what we do not like, and failing to satisfy our desires.

Our problems are neither unusual nor special, but part of a monotonous pattern.

If I were to ask you: “Have you had any problems today?”, I’m almost prepared to bet that you’ll say yes. If you don’t mind, could you recall today’s problem for a moment…

Does this problem fall into any of the 7 categories described by Buddha – does it have anything to do with sickness, say? Or ageing? Or failing to satisfy your desires? Or losing something you liked?

Or is your problem in a category all of its own? Such as “bullous pemphigoid” perhaps? Nope, even bullous pemphigoid is part of sickness. complaint

Again, I’m prepared to bet that any problem you care to name can be placed in one or more of these 7 categories.

Normally we labor intensively to solve one problem at a time – thinking “If only I didn’t have this splitting headache, I’d be so happy! Look at all those lucky people without headaches, they must be sooo happy!” (Are they?) Or “There is no way I can relax with all these money problems — I have to have more money so I can finally stop worrying!” (Would you?)

It’s not that we don’t try to fix our problems and experience temporary reliefs. However, there is wisdom in recognizing that just trying to solve one external problem at a time is an endless process because as soon as one problem is solved another arises to take its place, like waves in an ocean. Even on a relatively good day we may get rid of our headache, only to find that someone at work says something annoying; then we deal with that problem, only to find ourselves stuck in traffic on the way home; and then we get home eventually, only to find that the Internet is down and we can’t go surfing. We may earn some more money for our family, which is a relief for a while, until the next big problem such as a major teenage rebellion comes along to occupy our thoughts. We may take a medication that fixes our itchiness for a while, but then our liver starts to play up from the toxicity. There is literally no end to problems in samsara. There is also no end to worries while we have a mind to worry. This is not even factoring in the really BIG wave-like sufferings of life, such as bereavement, terrorist attacks, and collapsing buildings, which can literally knock us flat.

Renunciation

According to Buddhism, we have to wake up to problems every day in life after life – many of them far more hideous than those we face now. The wave-like sufferings of samsara’s ocean can never stop rolling in; samsara has to stop first.

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang often says:

“Temporary liberation from a particular suffering is not good enough.”

Never a day goes by when we don’t want to be rid of our problems — big or small they fill our minds. As someone on Facebook posted the other day:

“I want more problems today!” said nobody ever.

We rarely if ever wake up and think, “Hey, bring it on! I want loads of things to worry about today!” If you think about it, this means that we actually want permanent freedom from problems.

giving ourselves permission to be happyFor this, it is not enough to tinker about with the various symptoms as they arise; we need to work to overcome the actual causes of all our problems, which lie within our mental continuum in the form of delusions and negative karma. Only then can we experience permanent liberation from every type of suffering, called in Buddhism “liberation” or “nirvana”.

Having studied and understood this, if we develop a wish for actual, permanent liberation from physical and mental suffering, we have “renunciation”. This is described in the scriptures as a “light and happy mind”. Not getting mentally stuck to one heavy problem after another is liberating in itself. With less attachment and aversion — kept at bay by our renunciation — our daily moods are happier. With this uplifting wish front and foremost, everything we think or do will take us in the direction of liberation – we will be working our way out of samsara even as we take a headache pill, lie ill in bed, cart the kids to school, sip our latte, or strive to drum up business on the Internet.

Bodhichitta

We can also know that everyone equally experiences these problems. Ask a room of people, “Did anyone have a problem today?” and the chances are that pretty much everyone will say “Oh, yes!” Whatever problem we are having, we can guarantee that everyone else also has to experience it sooner or later. We are all in this together. And, as Jim Morrison of The Doors said, “No one here gets out alive.” This understanding can lead to compassion and then “bodhichitta” and, with this empathetic, empowering, meaningful wish front and foremost, everything we do will be taking us in the direction of enlightenment.

Do you ever feel discouraged?

Happy Easter

Happy Easter in Buddhism Happy Easter Everyone! I thought today would be a good day to start a series of articles on how to become unstuck – overcoming the long winter of our discouragement to arise anew. Sloughing off our sense of a limited, fixed, deluded self — a self that doesn’t in any case even exist — and arising and identifying ourselves as a wise, peaceful, positive, loving, happy, blissful, free person instead.

Easter and Spring both seem to me occasions to celebrate the ripening of deep potential and fertility. Isn’t that what Jesus was showing when he arose from the dead on what is, according to Christian friends, the most uplifting day of the Christian calendar? Isn’t that also what eggs and bunnies are about? And, when the daffodils do finally manage to get their little yellow heads up above the snow, isn’t that what daffodils are about too?

Self-effacement or self-sabotage?

don't believe everything you thinkAt my day job last week I was asked to fill in an incredibly long and complicated (to me) application form in a very short period of time, and I was protesting inwardly and a little bit outwardly too: “Don’t make me do this! It’s way above my pay grade, someone else could do it so much better, there’s so much at stake, I’m going to blow it!”

Later that day I overheard someone talking about the impossibility of their realizing emptiness in almost exactly the same terms!

I realized we were both under the influence of discouragement, and therefore setting ourselves up for failure. Only when I got going and realized I probably could do this after all, (with a little encouragement), did I start enjoying myself; and I did a perfectly okay job of it. Likewise, only when we get going and get rid of the notion that we can’t do emptiness, (with a little encouragement and inspiration), can we start enjoying ourselves and get the job done.

Laziness in disguise

Discouragement is rampant in our times, and when it is applied to our spiritual practice it becomes a dangerous type of laziness, called the laziness of discouragement. Over the last year or so, quite a number of people have asked me to write something about it. Now that I’m back in the land of self-deprecation bordering on self-sabotage, I thought it would be a good time to start.

We have enormous spiritual potential. And everything depends upon our mind, our thoughts; including our sense of self. Holding onto the thought of a fixed, limited self is preventing us from changing and realizing our potential.

British self-effacement can be endearing and sometimes even humble, but as often as not it is a tight grasping at a limited sense of self that is holding us back from attempting or achieving anything that will help ourselves and others. The self-talk thoughts, “You’re useless”, “You’re too old”, “You can’t do this!”… these are not humility, these are aversion, and comments we would not want to put up with from other people. That we put up with and heed our own self-defeating thoughts is a big shame, considering we have a precious human life and Buddha nature and can do anything if we go for it. As one Facebook friend put it:

overcoming discouragement in Buddhism

“Discouragement is a problem for me – often there is no boundary between being self-effacing and being self-destructive in my mind. My teacher once very helpfully pointed out that the full name for discouragement is ‘the laziness of discouragement’, but we don’t often think of ourselves as lazy when we’re feeling discouraged.”

Which is true. We might be assuming that putting ourselves down is almost innocent. We don’t think of it as a delusion, but laziness IS a delusion. Perhaps it is even the most pernicious delusion, insofar as, under its influence, we let our life go by without changing ourselves, and it keeps us forever stuck in suffering if we let it.

We can understand the delusion of laziness better if we appreciate what is its opposite, positive mind, which is effort. So perhaps we can start here.

What is effort?

“Effort” can sound like a lot of effort! Joyful effort, its full name, is better, but still seems to require, well, effort. Is “energy” any better? Inspiration?  I’m inspired to practice, I’m happy to practice, I love practicing – these are all manifestations of effort, far more than “I need to put in the effort”, “I really ought to be practicing”…

amazing race to enlightenmentEffort can sound tense, can sound like we’re squeezing or pushing for results. Sometimes we are — as competitive westerners we can bring our competitive streak to our spiritual practice. We may be sitting next to someone thinking “I wonder how they’re concentrating? Oh no, they can meditate for far longer than me! Oh, their posture is so much better…” We tend to push a lot in our own culture, job, family, society and so forth – we push for results. And we can also feel under pressure to fake for results in order to look good.

Do you ever live your life as if people are looking over your shoulder and judging you? Perhaps feeling guilty when you don’t think you’re up to scratch as mothers, workers, partners, and even spiritual practitioners? Then we feel we need to push and try harder (or fake better!); but guilt is certainly no substitute for joy, and this is not effort. I love to practice Buddhism or Dharma as if no one is looking.

When I first went to America, I noticed that Americans are unafraid to tell you about their qualities, whereas you could never get a Brit to tell you about their qualities except under torture. Brits resort to understatement and self-deprecation: “I am perfectly useless at that… I can’t meditate for the life of me”, whereas Americans like to put their best foot forward at all times, which can be good, but which can also sometimes mean faking it a little – it’s a bit like a job interview culture. Perhaps some of us associate effort, then, with pushing, and not being entirely authentic – and basically not really experiencing any change. However, effort is all about changing.

If we can avoid the extremes of self-deprecation and insincerity, and have a joyful, confident, enthusiastic, and relaxed approach to our meditation practices, we are guaranteed to change a great deal for the better.

What is “virtue”?

Effort is defined in Buddhism as “a mind that delights in virtue”.

Virtue means the causes of happiness. Again, not what we always think when we think of the word virtue, which can sound a bit too, well, virtuous (goody two shoes = not what it means.)

So, effort delights in the causes of happiness. This doesn’t sound much like effort as we know it! But we can see that if we did have a mind that delighted in cultivating the causes of happiness, we’d end up being very happy, because we’d be joyfully creating joy! With effort our meditation becomes delightful, like a child playing his favorite video game, and how much effort does THAT take?! We are aiming at enjoying our practice so that it feels effortless – and that funnily enough IS what genuine effort feels like.Buddha's face in flower

We may not be there yet, but it is as well to know that this is what effort is. Not pushing. Not squeezing. Not clenching. Not forcing. Not grasping at results. Not feeling miserably as if I am over here TRYING so hard to practice, and the results are over there, years or even lifetimes away in the future, an unbridgeable chasm between us — setting ourselves up for failure. Not comparing and contrasting what everyone else is doing or fantasizing about what they think of us. Not putting ourselves down or believing all our own inner narrative about who we are. Effort is all about being in the present moment, enjoying virtue or the causes of happiness, identifying with being a happy person – enjoying, in other words, being positive, kind, wise, happy, and free.

Next time, more on how we get stuck and how to get unstuck.

YOUR TURN: Please help me with my continued market research on the subject. Do you ever feel discouraged? How do you overcome it?

 

Wherever you go, there you are

Buddha happiness is within

Buddhism 101 explains how happiness and suffering are states of mind, and how external conditions can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful. Even if we are in the most blissful surroundings and have everything we need — the one time we might reasonably expect to be deliriously happy — we’re still not if any agitation is arising in our mind for any reason.

Let’s say you’re having a particularly amazing experience. It’s your birthday party, your devoted friends have been planning it for months, and it is taking place on an exotic island. Every single one of your best friends since early childhood has been invited and can be there; it’s a miracle! The food is incredible and none of it has any calories. Wafting scented breezes, lapping waves, soft lighting, your favorite music, the perfect temperature…. It’s paradise, isn’t it? What’s the problem? There isn’t one!

paradise lost through angerBut then one of your childhood friends says something a bit off color, like “You’ve put on weight!” or “So you haven’t done much with your life, then…” And you immediately think, “That was cruel!” and maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t, but it’s a little dagger in your heart. It could be anything, and it doesn’t have to be much. All that has to happen is for you to get a bit upset, a little irritated, and the happiness starts to seep out of the whole event.

“I wish I hadn’t invited you!” you think to yourself. This is followed by a spontaneous recall of all the mean things they’ve ever said to you, and suddenly you can’t let it go. All the magic and fun of the party has been sucked out, it’s gone. Your experience has changed because now you’re in a bad mood. Now you’re having an ordinary, boring day, just as if you were chained back at your desk.

You can run, but you can’t hide

As they say, you can run but you can’t hide. We’ve taken our same old states of mind to this paradise, so our happiness can be destroyed in a moment, just as the tranquility of an ocean can be destroyed by a sudden storm. As my teacher puts it:

Even if we are in the most beautiful surroundings and have everything we need, the moment we get angry any happiness we may have disappears. This is because anger has destroyed our inner peace. ~ Transform Your Life, p. 6

I bet all of us can think of examples like this – we were having the time of our life and then it just collapsed.

We can see from this that if we want true, lasting happiness we need to develop and maintain a special experience of inner peace. ~ Transform Your Life, p. 6

We need to find a way to keep a happy mind regardless of what happens because s*** happens. Even today I’ll wager that a bunch of annoying things have already happened? And that some of the things that you wanted to happen didn’t happen?

Did you have a problem today?

A long time ago I was doing a Post Graduate Certificate in Education in York, UK. Soon after we arrived, we were all asked to sit in a large circle, and I was sitting to the right of the moderator. Starting from her left, she went round each person in turn, asking solicitously: “What problems are you having?”

Now, weirdly, when she started, I had no problems. I was feeling very happy. I had been meditating for a few years already, so I also knew that problems were not as fixed as they had once appeared. But as she worked her way around the group, and everyone came up with their dreadful and seemingly intractable problems, I did start to feel nervous. “What the heck am I going to say when she asks me?!” I now had a problem, albeit a small one. I cast around wildly in my memories for something that had gone wrong that week, and think I gamely came up with something in the nick of time.

solving problems with meditationI found it quite interesting that every single one of these cool young people, however together and sorted they looked on the outside, had a major problem. It is something I remember when I have problems in order to gain perspective — I am by no means alone. I have tried out the same market research quite often since then in a shortened form, and by all means try it yourself if you like. If you ask a group of friends, “Did you have a problem today?”, I bet 99% will say yes (and then look at each other in surprised recognition).

Things are always going to go wrong, one way or another, so if this throws us off balance we’re going to be unhappy — a lot. Therefore, we’ve got to find a way to be peaceful and positive no matter what’s going on.

Baby steps to nirvana

As Geshe Kelsang says:

The only way to do this is by training our mind through spiritual practice—gradually reducing and eliminating our negative, disturbed states of mind and replacing them with positive, peaceful states. Eventually, through continuing to improve our inner peace we will experience permanent inner peace, or nirvana. Once we have attained nirvana we will be happy throughout our life, and in life after life. ~ Transform Your Life, p. 6-7

Nirvana (a Sanskrit word) means liberation, permanent inner peace, or true mental freedom. But nirvana is not some pie in the sky thing. The way all the so-called Foe Destroyers (who have destroyed the inner foes of their delusions) and enlightened beings have come to experience this forever inner peace is through developing moments of inner peace and learning to connect them.

Buddha happiness is withinFor example, every once in a while we feel a state of deep well-being, a feeling of peace or connection—life is good! This usually lasts between a few seconds and half an hour ~ it doesn’t last that long, does it? But at these points we really get a glimpse of what our life could be about. Why don’t we just stay here, seeing as we like it so much? It’s because some negative thought interrupts as we’re not in control of our mind.

Buddha’s point is that those moments we get of joy, peace, and contentment, even bliss, are a manifestation of our own Buddha nature, our boundless potential for lasting peace, universal love and compassion, omniscient wisdom, endless joy and flexibility, incredible goodness. Buddha called it Buddha nature because we all, without exception, have the potential not just for liberation but to be a Buddha, a fully awakened person who has all good qualities to perfection.

baby steps to enlightenment

So how do we get there? Baby steps. We gradually train our mind so we can find and hold the positive, peaceful feelings, like love for others, for longer and longer periods of time, always identifying with them and giving ourselves permission to stay there. We gradually clear our minds of all obstructive, destructive thoughts that interrupt, letting the clouds disperse from the sky. We can do all this because we have the potential and we have the methods. And as soon as we’ve attained the true and lasting mental freedom of liberation we’ll be happy throughout our life, and in any future life.

Happiness now, happiness later

In Buddhism, we talk about how our mind and our body are different natures. Our body is like a guest house for our mind. There is no use pretending that this body is anything other than a piece of meat with a rapidly approaching expiration date. But we are not our body; we are so much more than our body. Our mind has limitless potential.

At the point when the body dies, our mind does not die because it is a formless continuum of awareness that never stops. Our gross waking minds do stop — they dissolve into our subtle mind, and this dissolves into our very subtle mind that travels onto our next life. Buddha’s understanding of life after life comes from the direct experience that mind is formless. Happiness will always depend upon the positive qualities in the formless continuum of our mind and not on externals, and that is not going to change. Wherever you go, there you are. Therefore, if we want to be peaceful and happy in this life and in any future lives, we need to develop and maintain these qualities as a matter of priority.

Over to you: do you agree that to be happy we need to train our minds? Or can we find lasting happiness in other ways?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,315 other followers

%d bloggers like this: