Why can’t I be happy?! Buddha’s reply.

Buddha 1

We all want to be happy, isn’t that the truth?! In fact, we all want to be happy all the time; it’s the way living beings are wired. But are we happy all the time? And if not, given our wish and the 24/7 effort we put into it, why not? Buddha Shakyamuni and many meditators since him have taken this question pretty seriously and, luckily for us, come up with some answers.

What is our problem?

This article dealt with how self-cherishing ties itself in knots to cherish a real me that doesn’t even exist. This gives rise to all our problems, misfortunes and painful experiences.

How?

We all seem to have loads of problems all the time which obstruct our happiness. But what is a problem? What is our problem?!

Here’s just a mini illustration. Flying back from San Francisco late the other night, I tottered tiredly to the back of the plane to use the restroom and then entirely forgot where I was sitting – I thought it was 32E (like my previous flight) when in fact it was 28E. (I am a little directionally challenged at the best of times – once, while visiting a friend in his semi-detached house on a long street in South London, I went off to get his kids some sweets. I forgot to note his house number and spent the rest of the morning spying through every letter box in the neighborhood …) So I was peering through the gloom into Row 32, wondering who could have stolen my bag and who this stranger was with his feet up on my seat, and then looking down all the rows in the vicinity of 32, when I noticed that some of the other passengers were looking at me as if I was a mad woman. I felt self-conscious for a moment there, wondering what they were thinking. Later, safely back in seat 28E, the following thought occurred to me:  If someone looks at me in a funny way and I get embarrassed or unhappy, where’s the problem? I could reply: “Well, this is a horrible situation as they’re looking at me in a funny way. The atmosphere is really weird. I need to get out of here.” (Usually not an option at 37,000 feet). Generally we think the problem is out there. But if we check, our actual problem is the agitation in our mind. If I don’t care how they are looking at me, if I stay peaceful, I have no problem.

So where is that agitation coming from? I might still conclude, “Well, they’re making me agitated.” They’re not making me agitated, actually. No one can make me agitated unless I let them. If we can control our minds and stay peaceful, we’re not agitated, and we have no problem. They’re not causing our problem, we are.

Specifically, we become agitated and lose our happiness due to some unpeaceful, disturbed, uncontrolled state of mind. We call these in Buddhism, “delusions”. For example, any agitation in this case could be coming from attachment. We are very attached to our feelings, we want to feel good all the time, we don’t like people offending us, we’re attached to our reputation, we want people to like us, we have strong attachment to the way we think things should be. So maybe it’s coming from attachment. Or maybe it’s coming from aversion — we don’t like that person, they feel threatening to our happiness or sense of self in some way. Our mind is troubled because we have the unpeaceful, uncontrolled mind of anger.

Losing our freedom

This attachment or anger is coming only from our self-cherishing. Geshe Kelsang says in Transform Your Life:

We often feel that it is someone else who is making us unhappy, and we can become quite resentful. If we look at the situation carefully, however, we shall find that it is always our own mental attitude that is responsible for our unhappiness. Another person’s actions make us unhappy only if we allow them to stimulate a negative response in us. Criticism, for example, has no power from its own side to hurt us. We are hurt only because of our self-cherishing. With self-cherishing, we are so dependent on the opinions and the approval of others that we lose our freedom to respond and act in the most constructive way.

We think things like, “He’s really upset me. I’m the victim here.” And in doing so we disempower ourselves, disengage from others, and thus lose the freedom to respond with patience, for example, or loving-kindness, or generosity.

Buddha’s answer in a nutshell

So, our happiness is constantly interrupted by problems, misfortunes and painful experiences. These come from our delusions; our delusions come from our self-cherishing; and, as explained in this article, our self-cherishing comes from thinking that our me is the only real me, namely self-grasping ignorance. (More on the dynamic of these two ego-minds in the next article.)

Start small

Clearly, we will not be able to remain happy in big horrible situations unless we practice first with mild examples like the one above. We can start to overcome our self-cherishing and other delusions gradually, starting with situations that we can transform, and working our way up to more challenging problems.

Over to you: Do you have any personal examples of restoring your happiness by overcoming a delusion?

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Five ways to deal with criticism, part 3

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This is the final installment. For the first two installments, see Five ways to deal with criticism and Five ways to deal with criticism, part 2.

How about us criticizing others?

Most of you agreed that it is best avoided. This is because our criticism can hurt others and is often not that helpful. If we can’t take it (and even if we can), perhaps we need to avoid giving it, unless we are quite sure of our motivation :-) As Nicola Bear Davis said on Facebook: “I know how I feel when I’m criticized, so if tables are turned I will advise someone with enthusiasm and compassion.” We have to know who we are talking to and be free from delusions such as aversion or pride.

If you have some belief in karma, it’s worth remembering that harsh words (motivated by delusion) are one of the ten non-virtuous actions identified by Buddha Shakyamuni as being karmic pathways to immense future suffering. As Jas Varmana put it: “Minds being paths, do we choose the malicious speech path to suffering realms, or the loving-kindness path to higher rebirth? (Both when giving and receiving criticism?)”

A good time to remember karma is when we are on the the receiving end of hurtful criticism — we wouldn’t be hearing this if we hadn’t created the causes through previous criticism of our own. Time to catch the ping pong ball; it stops here.

Cindy Corey said: “I think most of us don’t quite have the skill or non-attachment that would allow non-harmful criticism. I would almost define criticism as trying to use negative feedback to get someone to do something our way and that’s a failure — as people are different and why should people do things our way? I was just doing some reading today with regards to happiness and better relationships and criticism was certainly in the list of 7 deadly habits that create more problems and unhappiness. I think we can help people see or discover what is not working for them through caring and encouraging dialogue, but our interior dialogue is so negative already that I don’t think judgments from others are helpful. In the end, what is important is the intention — to help someone or control them?” Eileen Quinn agrees: “Motivation is key, isn’t it? If someone is criticizing you through irritation/dislike/anger, you will be more likely to put up walls/dig your heels in/get angry etc. I remember a key incident now when this happened to me a few years ago, I didn’t react positively, well more with bemusement than anything, but then the criticizer’s words did seem to me to be from a position of personal dislike and irritation.” Maria Tonella chipped in: “How can you say ‘I don´t like the way you are doing something’ without hurting any feelings…?”

Most of us prefer criticism of us to be indirect (ideally prefaced by some praise?!), but some brave souls do prefer brutal honesty. JB Christy said: “I wish I would get more honest feedback. Mostly people seem to just stop talking to me rather than speaking honestly about what’s going on for them. If they’d talk to me I’d have a chance of doing better. As it is I have to guess what happened. I’m apparently a terrible guesser.” Eileen agreed: “I deal best with directness. If someone is indirect with me I can tell they’re ‘beating around the bush’ and find that kind of frustrating. I would rather someone honestly and straightforwardly said something to me.”

So, if we do decide we really must go ahead and give those invaluable words of advice out of a pure motivation, it seems we need the skill to know whom we are speaking to as well – some people might be okay with the direct approach, but others would prefer us to beat about the bush, giving constructive comments in an accepting context.

Follow the beautiful advice of the ancient Kadampas

The ancient Kadampas were experts when it came to criticism, flourishing on it as the peacock flourishes on hemlock. And luckily all their advice has survived to this day.

As Neil Toyota pointed out: “Remember Langri Tangpa’s Eight Verses of Training the Mind in Geshe-la’s Eight Steps to Happiness, which includes liberating methods to deal with criticism and view/cherish all living beings as spiritual guides.” Wong Tho Kong agreed: “All Vajrana Buddhism practices the Eight Verses of Training the Mind. Criticism is a welcome teacher. It depends on how much you are ready to let go.” And as Isabel Golla reminded us: “Remember Atisha’s advice: praise binds us to samsara so in order to overcome pride we don’t hold on to praise and instead practice non-attachment to reputation.”

Atisha and Geshe Langri Tangpa were old Kadampas and fully realized Lojong (training the mind) practitioners. I love reciting Eight Verses of Training the Mind regularly, including the verse:

When others out of jealousy
Harm me or insult me,
May I take defeat upon myself
And offer them the victory.

The Lojong teachings on exchanging self with others are probably the most powerful methods in existence for helping us to accept and even enjoy criticism, and thereby make rapid spiritual progress.

The emptiness of the self we normally see

When we are criticized it is a great time to check and see how our understanding of emptiness is doing — how sharp still is the pain of self-grasping? If we are still becoming angry or anxious in these situations, and blaming the other person and trying to get free from them, we can make a mental note that we need to improve our understanding of the object emptiness. These are signs that although we may have an intellectual understanding of emptiness we are not meditating on it.

The emptiness of the self we normally see every day is what we are trying to meditate on and realize. Being criticized gives us an enjoyable challenge — the bigger or closer the target, “How dare they criticize ME!!”, the easier and more fun it is to knock it down, and the deeper the understanding of emptiness and resultant joy. We can therefore use specific difficult situations that cause this inherently existent self to appear strongly to deepen our understanding of its utter non-existence. I find this the most blissful and liberating method of all, and it means no criticism (or problem) need ever go to waste!

Summary: Five ways to deal with criticism

To summarize what everyone has been saying:

(1) Ask yourself, “Is it true or not?” Follow Geshe Kelsang’s advice above.

(2) Identify with your pure potential, not your faults, and then you can accept and use criticism without feeling bad about yourself.

(3) Follow the beautiful advice of the ancient Kadampas, who were the experts.

(4) Use criticism to realize the non-existence of the self we normally grasp at, and destroy all your delusions once and for all.

And last but not least …

(5) Avoid criticizing others unless you really have to!

Your comments are welcome on any of these three criticism articles, and please share and rate (press the stars on) the articles if you find them helpful. Thank you.

Five ways to deal with criticism, part 2

This continues on from Five ways to deal with criticism.

How to deal with criticism and overcome our faults without feeling guilty or inadequate

If we have any self-cherishing, criticism will probably sting us to a greater or lesser extent. As Christopher Penny put it: “It depends on how high my self-cherishing dial is turned up!” But if we are cherishing others and also if we have a strong wish to improve, the criticism will not upset our mind, as Geshe Kelsang’s comments above indicate.

Self-confidence can handle criticism, whereas deluded pride (and/or feelings of unworthiness) cannot. (Check out the chapter on effort in the book Meaningful to Behold for the difference between these states of mind.)

Michael Hume said: “I hope I can develop to the point of taking direct comments as this is a much more powerful way to improve. We all need to know our faults, so anyone who criticises with any intention is in fact being very kind.” Rosanne Brancatelli added: “When we have love and compassion (even a little) it doesn’t sound like a criticism, it sounds more like an advice. If we have the determination to become a better human being (as the listener), we are more open to advice.” Someone else (sorry, lost your name!) put it this way: “I suppose the very strong Dharma practitioner would react positively and constructively no matter what the criticism seemed to be coming from, and that is a goal to keep in mind. Being objective in reaction as well, keeping the ego out of it — is it true? Yes — then change it. Is it not? Well don’t worry then! Just maybe try to calm the upset or pain of the criticiser.”

Venerable Atisha

The ancient Kadampas used to enjoy being criticized as it helped them see their faults more clearly. They aimed at getting to the point where they actively loved criticism, especially from their Spiritual Guide, as it was a direct assault on their worst enemy, self-cherishing. Seen in that light, we are in it together with our Spiritual Guides, teachers and friends when they criticize our limited, faulty, samsaric self because we agree with them that it has to go!

Over the years, I’ve gotten better and better at taking criticism from others, especially from my Spiritual Guide :-) I know when my teacher seems to disapprove that he is relating to my pure potential and not to my faults – it is as if he and the pure blissful actual me of my Buddha nature are ganging up on the limited faulty samsaric fake me apprehended by my self-grasping and self-cherishing. “She’s got to go”, we both agree.

It is incredibly helpful to have help from holy beings when identifying and overcoming our faults. If we can mix our mind with theirs, we can look at ourself from within that wide-open accepting and loving perspective. This is the best place to work on ourselves as it guarantees we will not identify with our faults and feel inadequate, unworthy or guilty.

This only works if we are clear on the difference between our pure potential and the limited, faulty self we identify with when we have any delusions. Clearly we don’t want to end up hating ourselves; that would be entirely missing the point.

Kelsang Chogma describes it well: “I think if we can stop identifying with our faults, then we can take criticism from others and it also stops us from feeling discouraged and overwhelmed when we notice our faults ourself. I think there’s a strong relationship between these two. If we feel that we are an inherently faulty, deluded, impure, degenerate person then we don’t like it when others can see this too. If we contemplate how we are not our delusions, this helps. Then we can honestly say, “yes I have faults and I’m trying to do something about them”. That’s what I’ve found helpful anyway.”

Wrathful blessings

The wrathful blessings of the Spiritual Guide were always considered to be the most powerful for removing obstructions from the mind. There are four so-called “siddhis” or attainments possessed by holy beings. Nowadays, our Spiritual Guide generally has to rely on the first three — peaceful, increasing and occasionally controlling attainments — for if he displays wrath, the chances are we’ll run a mile! Our Spiritual Guides would never get away with actually beating us as they did in the old days, when the old Mahasiddhas would view it as Yamantaka’s hand (see Great Treasury of Merit page 94)! But, occasionally, if we’re lucky, our Spiritual Guide may be pretty direct with us; and during these times we have an unprecedented opportunity to cleanse our negativities and change quickly for the better.

Maria Tonella agreed: “What about when you don’t even know you are doing something bad? Or you have incorrect instructions? Or when your Teacher points you out something you should change for the better..?” Jas Varmana said: “Yes, I was thinking how my teacher can be sharply critical but so clearly wants you to live up to your potential that it’s empowering rather than hurtful.”

The point is, if our Spiritual Guide criticizes us, it usually is for a good reason as he or she has no wish to make us feel bad just for the heck of it. He or she can help us face up to faults that we never knew we had and get rid of them. Certainly this has been true in my case.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread…

Sometimes we may be tempted to jump on the moral bandwagon when we see a peer being criticized or demoted by the powers that be, including our teachers, and decide it is okay for us to lay into them too! (This happens in all human societies, even in Buddhist ones, and I reckon it is often due to our own feelings of inadequacy and schadenfreude.) But the truth is that if we don’t actually possess any wrathful siddhis, we might not want to emulate our teachers in this respect ;-) Wrath is motivated by compassion alone; it possesses no trace of anger or pride. It’s important to have worked our way up through peaceful, increasing and controlling siddhis first! In fact, really it is safest to stick to entirely peaceful methods unless we can be absolutely sure we know what we are doing… Always be kind, not judgmental, is the Kadampa way. Related to that… (this article will be finished in part 3, coming shortly, and including us (not) criticizing others, the advice of the Kadampas, and emptiness….)

Five ways to deal with criticism

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What is criticism?

According to Buddha’s teachings on karma, pointing out a truth motivated by kindness and skill is a positive action that leads to good results, whereas hurtful speech motivated by delusion is one of the ten non-virtuous actions that leads to a lot of trouble. If this is true, it makes sense not to criticize others unless we are sure of our motivation.

On the other hand, in terms of being on the receiving end of criticism ourselves, this is fairly routine; so we might as well learn to enjoy it.

Someone asked me to write an article about dealing with criticism so I decided to throw this question open to the experts on Facebook, feeling pretty confident that everyone’s had to do it at some point or another. Generally people don’t like it because it is one of the so-called eight worldly concerns and we’d prefer to be praised :-) So how can we come to enjoy the inescapable, or at least not mind it so much?

How do you feel about being criticized? The early Kadampas would say it was the best thing that could happen to us; but who finds it easy …. ?!

Who is criticizing us and how?

If it is people we trust and we know they have our best interests at heart, people find it easier to respond positively and learn. Eileen Quinn answered: “If it is someone you have a good, real, relationship with to start with and they are doing the criticizing from real insight then it’s easier to accept and react in a positive way.” And Allison Moxie Verville pointed out: “I think true valuable criticism, especially from those we trust, should be welcome, appreciated, and examined as a way by which to grow ourselves and learn. Supportive criticism isn’t intended as personal or negative and can be seen as an opportunity as well as indicator that someone has a positive vested interest in us.” Victoria Kaya said: “At university we are constantly criticized, but always constructively. Without being criticized I would not be where I am today. When I look back over the last few years I see that my teachers are my best friends and I owe what I have learnt to their kindness.”  Michael Hume put it this way: “Because of my self-cherishing I respond best to “skilful criticism” from people I trust & respect. Such as when someone says something slightly indirectly to help me understand something that will benefit me. That way I understand that the intention is good and they have taken the time not to directly hurt my feelings.” Rosanne Brancatelli from Brazil says “Whom I respect, I really think about, some people I don’t care. Pride? Maybe.”

So it seems that if we know the criticism is well motivated, we’re prepared to put up with it and use it. This is a fine place to start. However, the downside is that if we distrust others’ motivation we are quite likely to become annoyed or upset; and being conditional has its limits. For one thing, we cannot always choose how our criticism is served up or by whom, so that puts us in a vulnerable position. For another, if our criticizer happens to be speaking some truth, rejecting it could mean missing out on some helpful insight into our faults.

What would Geshe Kelsang do?

We can overcome these limitations by understanding that criticism can in fact always be helpful if we shift our perspective as to what we actually need out of life. The mind-training adepts of old, Kadampas like Atisha and Geshe Potowa, famously relished any kind of criticism that came their way as a vital demolisher of their egos — they far preferred a good insult to being massaged by praise!

Modern-day Kadampa teacher Geshe Kelsang explained to a friend of mine what he himself does when it comes to being criticized. (It is not as if he is short of practice — he has received his fair share of criticism from various quarters, including from people who really don’t appreciate him at all.) I’ve always found this advice very useful.

When he is criticized, he checks whether what the person is saying is true or not, regardless of their motivation. If it is true he thanks them (at least mentally) and tries to change. But even if it is not specifically true, the criticism reminds him that self-cherishing has many faults, and because he is happy to be reminded of this he also thanks them.

The second part of this article is coming soon, including how to defeat our faults confidently, without feeling guilty or inadequate.

Your comments are welcome, and please share this if you find it helpful.

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