How to catch a problem before it catches you

should i tell him

This carries on directly from this last article.

My lovely dad turned 80 on October 2nd, and we were discussing the meaning of (the rest of his) life. He told me he’d been perusing the obituaries to get a sense of how long he had to live and worked out (by some strange and somewhat optimistic algorithm known only to himself) that most people die at 82. And he has been thinking about what he can accomplish in this remaining time. He thinks making his family happy might be it. I’m quite happy to go along with that ;-)  “And how about accomplishing inner peace?”, I suggested. He liked that, so this article is for you, dad. (Your comments are welcome in the comments section below if you can figure out how to get it to work. Just scroll way down the first page of this blog til you see “I’d love to hear from you”, write your comment in that box, and hit the button that says “Post comment”. Anyone else reading this is also welcome to do this!)

Because to accomplish inner peace, I think, we have to understand that our mind is naturally peaceful. That natural peace is constantly being disturbed, however–but by inner problems, not outer ones.

waves on samsaric ocean In this article I talk about how according to Buddha all our problems fit into a pattern of seven types of problem, and all of these can be recognized as stemming from our delusions. The very day after we spoke, my father emailed me about a problem he’d been having with a car and possibly a policeman … even that would seem to fit into the category of having to encounter what we do not like.

So without understanding the nature and causes of our problems (as described in the last article), and if we try instead of fixing our delusions just to fix one outer problem at a time, our problems will continue to arise like endless waves on an ocean. My dad said he was using the car thing as a way to practice inner peace — if he manages it, his actual problem will be over, even if he still has to do something external to make the policeman happy. And also he’ll be better set up to solve the next problem that comes his way. Inner peace, just as much as anxiety, is habit-forming.

When was your last problem-free day?
should i tell him

We’re looking in the wrong place!

This time next year we will still be having a problem. It may well appear in a different shape and size to the one we have been having today, but it will still fill our mind, just like today’s problem. The chances are we will have no clue then what today’s problem was, it’ll be long forgotten. I don’t even remember what problem I was having this time last week. However, we’ll still be thinking: “All I need to do is solve this particular problem and I’ll be happy again!” This won’t work. We won’t be happy again, or at least not for more than a few minutes or hours. Something else will have come up. This is pretty much what has been happening for as long as we can remember – can you remember having even one completely problem-free day?

We have to heal our mind, our mental continuum. The causes of our problems have been lurking in our mind since beginningless time – now is the time to address these, not their symptoms.

Essential advice: catch them early

And it is a very good idea to come to understand how the delusions each operate in our own minds so that we can spot them early. Spotting the inappropriate attention as it is about to arise and dealing with it is like extinguishing a match before it becomes a forest fire. match

For example, if we feel the murmurings of disappointed attachment arising, “Why is it not as good as it used to be?” and we run with that, rather than letting it go and turning our thoughts to compassion or some other actual source of happiness, it will quickly take over our mind and make us feel despondent and lethargic. It will be hard to apply the antidotes to attachment once it has taken over the mind. If we let our delusions or so-called “afflictions” take over our mind, we have no choice but to ride them out or pray for a massive blessing to zap them away. We quickly become stuck and confused and powerless.

On the other hand, when the first murmuring of unhappiness aka delusion does arise, I like to ask myself:

Who are you, thought!? And where do you come from? Where are you going?

I let it dissolve away into emptiness and/or the clarity of my root mind, like a snowflake dissolving onto a hot roof. Then I think about something else, such as faith, or love, or wisdom. I know that my real pleasure always comes from these positive, wise thoughts, and that the changing suffering of attachment is always a disaster — so enough already.

anger 4For anger, I think it is particularly essential to catch it early if we want to control it. It is the most self-justifying delusion – once it has arisen in the mind, it brooks no discussion. So, if for example we feel the rumblings of discontent or dislike, and are about to hone in on someone’s faults and get mighty annoyed, thus ruining a perfectly good day, we can go into the restroom and remember just 3 good things about that person to derail the runaway anger train.

We can learn a thousand wise, positive ways of thinking to which we gently turn our mind as soon as we notice that it is getting agitated. In this way, over time, we can stay in control, stay spacious, stay light, stay content, stay free.

It is a great pity to let delusions/problems take over our mind if we have a choice not to do that.  And we do have a choice. We can understand how delusions arise in dependence upon causes and conditions that we can change, ie, from inappropriate, unhelpful thoughts that we don’t need to think if we just catch them early enough and learn not to indulge them. Then we can stay happy and problem-free instead.

In this way, we can remain with our natural inner peace and let it gradually increase — first for one hour, then one day, then two, then a week, then a month, then a year, then two years, then for the rest of this life, however long that may be, and then for all our future lives. May my dad and everyone else accomplish this permanent inner peace.

How do I get rid of problems? Buddha’s advice

problems outside the mind

problemA million-dollar question. If we could answer this, we could get finally be free of the wretched things. In fact, this would be priceless information.

Buddha did answer this. The whole of Buddhism, or “Dharma”, is supposedly a method to solve all our daily problems, and not just temporarily but FOREVER! This might seem a bit far-fetched. Unless …  unless we realize what our problems actually are and where they are all coming from. At which point the Dharma method suddenly make a lot of sense. And if we gain some actual experience of how this works by trying it out in practice, it makes increasingly more sense. At least, that has been my experience over the past 33 years. I think Buddhism is supercharged common sense.

In his Medicine Buddha teachings of 2004, my teacher Geshe Kelsang said:

Buddha’s teachings are the actual method to solve human problems. To understand this, firstly we think, “What is the real nature of our problems?” Secondly we think, “What is the main cause of our problems?”

The nature of our problems
Medicine Buddha 1

Medicine Buddha helps us cure our inner problems

Have you already had a problem today perchance? What was it? A work problem, a relationship problem, a health problem, a family problem, a computer problem, an ageing problem, an existential problem?

Whichever it was, there were two things going on if we check. For example, if someone said something to us like, “You are not a priority in my life,” and we felt disappointed, there was the outer problem presenting as the thing they said and the inner (actual) problem of our unwished for sad response to that. These are not the same. If that person had said the same words and we hadn’t given a monkeys, we wouldn’t have had an actual problem. And in some cases, like if you happen to be a celebrity and that person a stalker (and I don’t know who reads this blog), those same words might even be a source of relief.

Our problems do not exist outside our mind. Their real nature is our unpleasant feelings, which are part of our mind. Normally we conflate outer and inner problems. Yesterday during a phone call my friend cursed, “Oh darn, I have a problem,” when Avast antivirus disabled his Yahoo toolbar. To be fair he got over it right away – his own unpleasant feeling, his actual problem, passed quickly. Then he sorted out the outer problem by fiddling about with his computer. (Or maybe he didn’t, I didn’t check.)

No unpleasant feeling = no problem. As my teacher says:

 “The computer’s problem exists outside. Our problem exists inside.”baby Rousseau

We can solve external problems as and when necessary by external means, eg, taking the computer to a computer whizz who understands the causes of the problem and can therefore fix it. To fix our inner problems, however, we need to understand their causes, which are not the same at all.

The cause of our problems

Geshe Kelsang continues:

problems outside the mindNow, what is the main cause of our problems? The delusions. All our problems, our unpleasant feelings, come from the delusions of our attachment and ignorance. Therefore, these delusions are the main causes of our problems.

To show how this works, he goes onto explain the role that uncontrolled desire or attachment to our own wishes plays, and you can read about this in How to Solve our Human Problems pages 3-4.  (I recommend having that book on your bedside table and dipping into it every day or whenever you are having a problem —  it is a treasury of practical advice.) I have also written several articles on delusions here.

So I won’t go into more detail here — I just wanted to share the simple logic of figuring out (1) what is the nature of our problems ie, unpleasant feelings, and (2) what is the cause of our problems ie, delusions. Once we can see this, problems becomes so much more easy to handle.

 

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.

Enemy or victim?

Winston 5

Yesterday J and F bought Winston for a visit. He has been scratching himself a lot recently, due to fleas, and J has been applying anti-histamine cream out of great concern for his discomfort. Apparently, I was informed, he no longer has fleas. But sitting at the dining table, stroking Winston, F looked up suddenly: “Oh, here’s a flea.” Then he added, perhaps somewhat in defense of his beloved pooch, “You must have fleas in the carpet!”

Winston 5 Now, not wanting to quibble, but I did feel the need to point out that I have thus far never had any fleas in my carpet, and Winston is the one who has been scratching like crazy, so I was coming to an entirely different conclusion… my carpet (and cat) were now at risk from Winston, not the other way around!

And I caught myself developing a split second of aversion toward this usually adorable fellow, “Oh, Winston, as if it’s not enough that you chase my cat, I wish you hadn’t bought fleas into my house”, as if the fleas were all his fault, and somehow part of him. But of course it was not his fault. He is a poor little dog plagued by flea bites, not an annoying flea-dog at one with his fleas.

This got me thinking some more. If I had the constant, unconditional love for Winston that J and F have, I would not assume for a moment that the fleas are somehow his fault, nor ever identify him with his fleas. I would distinguish between Winston and his fleas, seeing the faults of being bitten by fleas without seeing a single fault in Winston.*

You know how, if we encounter a co-worker with a huge head cold and then develop symptoms ourselves, we can easily think: “Oh it is their fault I feel so ill, they are the one who gave me this” (as if the head cold was part and parcel of them as opposed to something victimizing them.) Think about the panic, aversion and vilification that used to surround people with cancer, for example, or more recently AIDS, as people conflated the victims with the very enemy who was drawing the life out of them. They were not distinguishing between the person and their illness, and this caused hard-heartedness and even cruelty.

Yet when a mother sees her child with a head cold, she is not thinking about herself but about him, so she never identifies the child with the illness or develops aversion out of selfish concern for her own welfare. Instead she distinguishes between her child and his illness and tries her best to free him from this enemy, to make him feel better.

mother childThe common denominator here strikes me as being love. When we have love for someone, we seem to naturally focus on their pure nature and potential and don’t mistake them for their temporary faults, even if we see that they have them. We don’t think “Oh, all you are is a flea-carrying cur, get out of my house!” or “You are just one big head cold, get away from me!” We think “Oh, you poor thing, let me help you overcome your problems and feel better.”

This reminds me of that quote I mentioned here:

It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the faults of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any living being. Consequently, their love and compassion for living beings never diminish. ~ Transform Your Life, p 131

It strikes me that this goes both ways, in a virtuous cycle. If we don’t identify people with their delusions, we can keep loving them; and if we love them, we are far less likely to identify them with their delusions.

*By the way, I have nothing against fleas per se. They are sentient beings and as such are not enemies at all. But I won’t get into all that right now.

What do you think?

Postscript: I wrote this some time ago too. Winston has since moved to New York and I am about to move to a place with another carpet.

Do you even like yourself?!

self sabotage

This is the fourth in a series of articles on overcoming discouragement.

The last article looked at how the laziness of discouragement comes from ignorance. I think it can also have a strong relationship with anger directed inward.

dislikeHave you ever been in a situation where you’ve noticed that someone really doesn’t like you? (‘Course you have!) And you don’t really understand why they are so cross with you, but you suspect it’s because they don’t really get you. Yet their idea of you seems so fixed that there is no point in trying to change their opinion – in fact, everything you do seems to validate in their eyes what a b****y awful person you are. They don’t give you a chance. They have fixed you with the super glue of their dislike, you’re not going anywhere.

Well, that may be bad enough, but I think it is even worse when we are doing it to ourselves because then we really can’t get away! In the case of the other person who dislikes you, some projection is going on that has more to do with them than with you, but they believe it to be the truth. In the same way, when we put ourselves down with negative self-talk, “You can’t change! You’re basically an irritating old (put favorite derogatory noun here)”, we are projecting an image of ourselves that says way more about our delusions of ignorance and dislike than about who we actually are. But we believe it anyway and then we’re stuck.self sabotage

To change, therefore, we have to drop those limited ideas of ourselves and identify entirely with our potential and pure nature instead. All our meditations need this as their starting point. See this article for how this can apply to the first 2 stages of the path meditations, for example. I’ll explain another way in which we might do this, once I’ve given you some more examples.

The only thing that seems to work when someone hates us with no apparent reason is to have patient acceptance. We can stop focusing on their faults in a problematic way and instead accept them warts and all, without judgment. We can focus on something good about them, and let this gradually melt away the negativity — changing the atmosphere to allow both of us to change. Freedom.

Likewise, a way to counteract being heavy on ourselves is also to change the atmosphere by making an effort to focus on our good qualities instead of exaggerating our faults, so we can accept and love ourselves. Even more freedom.

Still smoking?!

smoking analogy for giving up bad habits in meditationI started smoking at school, and was still doing it at university. I tried to give up several times, but it was too hard – as soon as someone offered me a cigarette I would take it because I thought of myself as a smoker. Smoking was my natural default — I was a smoker trying hard not to smoke. There was a disconnect there, a contradiction. It was painful! It was unnatural.

One day, however, perhaps due to some blessing, I literally just woke up thinking of myself as a non-smoker. “I’m a non-smoker! I realize this now. I’m a non-smoker who has picked up this bad habit of smoking. I’m going to pack it in.” In the student bar later that day, when a friend offered me a cigarette, I declined: “No, thanks, I’m not a smoker.” “Course you are,” they laughed, but I no longer believed them. I never smoked again.

giving up smokingIf we identify and grasp onto ourselves as being deluded, deluded we’ll stay. “See, I’m deluded! I can’t help it. I want to give up but I can’t.” If we identify ourselves as pure, generous, full of potential, and so on, we can give up our delusions because we are no longer grasping at them as who we are. They are no longer our natural default. They are just habits, just thoughts. Let them go. Think different thoughts instead.

In the next article, how to quickly dig ourselves out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves with some out of the box thinking.

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?

Being realistic

captain sparrow quote about problems

ice cream makes you happyMore on delusions and how to get rid of them.

Just before any delusion develops, we have an inch of space to change things around. For example, we have the seed of attachment in our mind, and let’s say we have an attractive object, such as a donut. This does not guarantee a delusion. Why not?

The advertising agency in our mind

For attachment to arise for the jelly donut, we have to think about the jelly donut — how yummy it’ll taste, how it’s capable of giving us pleasure, how it’ll go really well with our coffee, and so on. We conveniently edit out all the things it won’t do for us – how it’ll rot our teeth causing pain at the dentist, how it’ll make us fat and flabby, how no one will fancy us any more, etc. The mind of attachment exaggerates the good and edits out anything unpleasant about the object, like an advertising agency in our mind.

When I first went to America decades ago for a visit, I discovered the most extraordinary invention, one that in my mind had Americans living up to their reputation for being innovative and smart. Anyone who could take chocolate, which is good from its own side, and then combine it with peanut butter, also good from its own side, and then combine them…. well, Mr. Reese must have been a genius.

things are not as they appear

Things are not as they appear

I developed a very strong liking for his peanut butter cups—and I would share them with others, my bags full of them whenever I returned to England. I tried to turn everyone else on to them, for their sakes. This went on for about three years! But you already know the end of this story. One day I ate one too many (“just one more wafer-thin mint!”), and I was struck with the thought: “I cannot put another one of these in my mouth!” I realized that whoever invented this sickly thing was an idiot. Now when I think about Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, I simply can’t stand them. I could talk about their bad qualities for a long time… Yet I have to concede that the manufacturers haven’t changed anything in them at all. I cannot blame them for letting me down.

Unrealistic attention

The way I was thinking about Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups was not appropriate because it was not realistic. Inappropriate attention, which was introduced in the last article, is like unrealistic attention. We’re paying attention to something in a way that is not going to work because that peanut butter cup for example is not capable of giving me the pleasure it pretends to give me. It can temporarily satisfy an itch, the hungry or bored craving for something both sugary and savory, and that’s about it. We can do a lot better than that.

It is the same with objects of irritation, such as the example of someone who walks into our room while we’re peacefully reading, and “annoying” us, as described in this article. We’re like a dog with a bone, we can’t let it go. “He’s ignoring me again! He is always ignoring me!” That song in Guys ‘n Dolls that goes something like this:

“You promise me this, you promise me that…. when I think of the tiiiiimes gone by, I could honestly die.”

We’re mentally writing a shopping list of all their failings while conveniently editing out all the nice things about them, like the fact that we’ve been married to them for 20 years and borne their children.

once you realize we're all mad And the next thing we know, we’re mad. Literally mad. We say, “I’m mad at you.” I think that we do go a little bit mad, sometimes very mad. It’s the same with “I’m mad about peanut butter cups.”  We are actually mad when a delusion arises, why? Because of this inappropriate or unrealistic attention. We’ve honed in on the object and we have totally exaggerated either its good qualities (in the case of attachment) or its bad qualities (in the case of anger.) We do something similar with jealousy, pride, and miserliness — they’ve all got unrealistic attention in them, they wouldn’t be here without them. If we didn’t pay that inappropriate attention, the delusion could not get a foothold and our mind would stay peaceful and happy.

We wouldn’t feel so helpless. We would stay in control of our minds and our lives. Sounds good to me.

An inch of space

So, there is an inch of space we have with every delusion before inappropriate attention gets going. For example, in the case of the irritating person, we have a choice. We may not take the choice, but we do have it. (1) We can follow the path of least resistance and start itemizing the laundry list of their faults, leading to a negative, uncontrolled mind, and a hundred clever, barbed comments to say to them next time we meet. This is the easiest thing to do because we are so used to doing it, it’s a bad habit. Or (2) we can choose to stop that train wreck before it starts, and with that inch of space we have before the inappropriate attention starts, catch ourselves as we’re about to get annoyed, and take our mind away from the object and put it somewhere better and more enjoyable.

Three good things

captain sparrow quote about problemsUntil we’re trained in this, we may even want to go to the restroom or something to get away from the object and steer our mind in a different direction. We can do a little bit of breathing meditation to forget the object, that’s very helpful, and then we can think, “Okay, this person is appearing really annoying to me right now, but I’m not going to get annoyed — I’m actually going to think about their good qualities.”

One of my good friends has a wonderful, practical method for staying positive that has stood him in good stead for decades, so I use it too. He comes up with, for example, three good things about this person. Or, if he can’t do three, if that is too much of a tall order, he does one! Anything that takes our mind away from inappropriate attention toward appropriate attention will do. And there is always something. Perhaps Mister Annoying has a dog they rescued who loves them — focus on that! How nice! We avert the irritation, and our mind stays under control and peaceful.

These three—the seed, the object, and inappropriate attention–are the main causes of delusion, and the stage of inappropriate attention is the weakest link and the opportunity to change things around. We can do this through learning meditation, slowly but surely putting it into practice in our daily lives. This is definitely possible. It is how people learn to control their minds to actualize their potential for lasting peace, happiness, and fulfillment.

My choice

We have the choice. Right now it may seem we don’t have much choice because our habits are so strong, but they are just habits, they are not us; and if we understand the causes of delusion, then we know that we do actually have a moment of choice there. We can continue to follow the same old frustrating rigmarole, taking the path of least resistance, or we can change; and the choice is ours for the taking if we understand how delusions develop.

Living happy

why we get grumpy

It seems to me that one major reason we get grumpy, irritated, depressed, or angry is if we feel that our happiness or freedom are under threat.

why we get grumpyIf we think that our happiness and freedom are bound up with external situations and other people, this means that we are going to get grumpy a lot, as we have so little control over these things. Sooner or later, the things that we were relying upon in life for happiness and freedom blaze out or else slowly fade away. And grumpiness of course is hardly the solution; it only makes things worse.

I was at a good friend’s 50th birthday party last month in Balham. My friend has the sensibilities of an English Woody Allen, and gave a wry, amusing speech, quite spontaneous, (and to the whole restaurant, not just his gathered friends), about how grateful he was for everyone coming to support him and commiserate at this time. The night before the party, I dreamt that he, me, and several other very old friends of mine were all turning 50 together and that our whole life was just the duration of a day… It was late afternoon already. In my dream I was considering how, even if we are thinking, “Ah, just a few more years left at work, then I can chill, relax, enjoy the fruits of my labor, meditate, sit on a beach or whatever”, this is like looking forward to that sleepy couple of hours in front of the TV before you crash into bed. It all goes so fast. Now is not the time to defer gratification but to enjoy every moment and make it count. Our next life is breaths away. 50 birthday ageing and meditation

I asked one old friend at the party whether having his three teenage kids made him feel younger or older, and he replied ruefully: “Older, definitely! The taller they get, the more they look down on me!” My generation may be concerned about bags under their eyes, yellowing teeth, expanding girths, deteriorating fitness levels, and kids who now find us ancient and embarrassing. Not only are we no longer turning heads, but the quirky behavioural patterns that were charming and cute in our smooth-skinned twenties are now creepy and eccentric. Senior moments are beginning their stealthy creep up on us as we forget people’s names and where we put our new reading glasses. But what does that mean for our parents’ generation?! As Bette Davis famously said,

“Old age is no place for sissies.”

Signs of transition are all around me at the moment – indeed they always are, Mayan predictions or not, but sometimes we take more note of them. I stayed with my parents over Christmas as they were writing out their Christmas cards – every year the list grows shorter and they receive fewer cards. My grandfather, who lived to 100, once told me that he was the only person left in his address book. An increasing number of my parents’ friends are also experiencing ailments and disabilities — these seem to pile up on us as we age. It is not enough just to have to go through gruelling treatment for cancer, we also fall over and break our frail shoulder. It is not enough just to have high blood pressure, we also suffer from macular degeneration and feel our freedom curtailed as our driving license is taken away. It is not enough to be increasingly vague, we also suffer the loss of confidence as we struggle to do things we used to do without thinking, or to learn new things. And so on. On Christmas morning, I went with my sister-in-law’s family to visit her very lovable mother Christine in the nursing home she has been living in since her stroke – she is frail and no longer recognizes her own hand (sometimes, to the kids’ amusement, mistaking it for my brother’s). I felt humbled not only by the reserves of patience this is bringing out in my sister-in-law, but also the courage and dignity with which Christine’s husband John, aged 82, is facing the destroyed privacy of their 60-year old marriage, as he sat eating Christmas dinner with his wife surrounded by people lolling and dribbling.

The Buddhist teachings talk about the sufferings of old age and we may wonder why they need to point this out; surely it is just toooo depressing. But ask anyone who is there already, old age happens anyway, and surprisingly fast; and the key is to find a way to grow old gracefully, happily, and meaningfully. If we don’t die first, we’ll grow old too. We can do older people the courtesy of recognizing that they are us and we are them; there is only the slight difference of time. The more we understand that happiness and mental freedom come from within, the more control we retain over it, and the easier it is to grow older with equanimity. This has also been my observation with certain older people in my life, including my 81-year-old teacher, who is timelessly blissful, and my grandfather.

So, as mentioned, if our happiness and freedom are tied up entirely in externals and other people, we are sure to lose them sooner or later and so get sadder and quite possibly grumpier as we get older. But if our happiness and freedom are inside, depending on our own states of mind, this is not the case, as they cannot be threatened by change. This is why I think it is so valuable to learn how to meditate, and why it is never too late to learn.

And for you young things…

And for all of you under 40 reading this, time to get your act together! (as the Buddhist teachers of old would say.) If you don’t believe me, ask anyone over 40 how they got so old and they are at a loss: “I was 20 only yesterday! What happened?!” Don’t live up to the classic grumpy old man adage: “Youth is wasted on the young.”

Happiness training

Happy Rd

I see meditation practice as “happiness training.” Old or young, there is never a time when we don’t want to be happy and free from suffering. Happiness and suffering are opposites, like light and dark. The happier we become, the less we suffer. Happiness is part of who we actually are, as well as a skill that we can cultivate.

According to Buddha’s teachings, happiness is a state of mind and therefore its real causes lie within the mind, not in external objects. Happiness is not some divine favor granted on whim to the chosen few. Nor does it depend on dumb luck (although, tellingly, the Scandanavian root of the Western word “happiness” means “luck,” implying we don’t have much say over it). We cannot buy happiness, nor indeed find it existing anywhere outside the mind. Yet each of us possesses the potential to be happy, and each of us can become happy and stay happy. How? By training our mind so that it is always peaceful and positive.

Meditation is the means for finding and keeping happiness in our mind; and if we’re happy in our mind, we’re happy everywhere. The Tibetan word for meditation is “gom,” which literally means “familiarize.” What are we trying to become familiar with? The positive states of mind that make us happy. According to this explanation, meditation is not something we just do on a cushion, but throughout the course of our lives. Like a doctor, Buddha identified the healthy, productive states of mind that make us peaceful, contented, happy, or blissful and the unhealthy, counterproductive states of mind (or delusions) that make us unpeaceful, discontented, unhappy and depressed. Examples of positive minds are love, compassion, patience, kindness, and wisdom. Examples of delusions are “the three mental poisons” of anger, attachment, and ignorance.

violinIn fact, whenever our mind is free from the mud of delusions, it is naturally peaceful and clear. We’re often so tightly wound up in our self and our problems that we fail to see that our natural default experience is actually being happy. By learning to meditate, we pay attention to the seeds of happiness within us. In a cacophonous urban din we may hear the strains of a beautiful violin; and by paying attention to this it becomes louder to our ear. In the same way, by paying attention to the small moments of happiness that are already within us, gradually and without forcing it our experience of happiness grows stronger and louder.

Over to you: do you agree that it is possible to get happier as you grow old? Do you have any examples?

Learning to meditate in 2013

calvin and hobbes new year's resolution

(A holiday bonus special article, twice the length! :-))

calvin and hobbes new year's resolutionIt is that up-in-the-air time again, when between recovering from the same-old, same-old hectic holidays and looking lugubriously ahead to the same-old, same-old January treadmill we may decide we want things to be different this year. We may want it to be a better year, preferably a really good year.

Which will only happen if we make it one. It is not too likely to be a good year from its own side, as nothing even exists from its own side.

One of the best ways to make a year into a good year is to (learn to) meditate. Happiness is a skill we can cultivate, and practicing meditation — namely familiarizing ourselves with positivity — is a most effective way to become a happier person. Deciding to meditate is a fabulous New Year’s resolution.

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, a Buddhist nun, 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 $100 a day but having $150 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.

So, why not get started!? happy new year learn to meditate 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 2013. 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.

Over to you. Why do you want to meditate?

Creating space in our minds

perspective and meditation
perspective and meditation

Depends how you look at things

Until Konstantin the Russian tenant showed up, my yard in America was overgrown with prickly thistles and ugly weeds. My ultimate plan was to get rid of the seeds and roots of those unwanted plants, but how was I supposed to dig those up if I couldn’t even get to them? I first needed to create space by weed-whacking (actually, I asked Konstantin to do it, but all analogies break down sooner or later…) In the same way, my ultimate spiritual plan is to dig out the seeds of my delusions by realizing emptiness, but at the same time I can be preventing delusions from growing wild in my mind by weed-whacking their other five causes, especially the object and inappropriate attention. (Sadly, neither Konstantin nor anyone else can do this job for me.)

For example, if I wrote something really annoying right here:

“Get off this computer and get a life, you loser.”

you might become angry with me. If so, this would be because you’ve still got the seed or potential for anger right now, even when your mind is peaceful, which means there is always the danger of anger arising. However, anger does not actually arise until the other causes of anger, such as a rude comment and inappropriate attention, come together.

Cause of delusion # 2, the object
a Lambanana in Liverpool

Is it a lamb or is it a banana?
(A Lambanana in Liverpool)

Delusions cannot arise without an object. Without perceiving an attractive object like Walker’s Salt and Vinegar Crisps, I cannot develop attachment, and without perceiving a disagreeable object like a dentist’s drill grinding into my teeth, I cannot develop aversion.

This means that the fewer objects of delusion I encounter, the fewer delusions I will develop. However, it is a tall order to never again run into another object of delusion. I need a replacement crown and two fillings, for example, no way of getting around that. When I wimpily asked the dentist whether it would be painful, he smirked at his assistant and said: “Not for us.” Adding insult to injury, I even have to pay for the pain. Moreover, anything can be a disagreeable object for us if we continue to keep our disagreeable states of mind.

art and meditation in Liverpool

An elevator crashed in Liverpool

However, conversely, nothing is a disagreeable object for us if we keep agreeable states of mind. I am in Liverpool at the moment. Two nights ago, a new friend called P, born and bred in the ‘pool, was walking down a street nearby when she was mugged for the first time in her fifty-something years. Someone grabbed her handbag containing all credit cards, iPhone, and cash, and ran off into the shadows. The nice policeman commiserated with her: “You must be very angry!” Friends sympathized with her: “You must feel violated! How awful for you.” But over lunch she was all smiles and told me that she was pleased to notice that she didn’t feel any anger. Indeed, she had no mental pain over the incident at all. And, most surprising of all to her, she found she had the entirely unironic thought, “That poor guy didn’t get away with very much cash!” She said she kept those thoughts to herself, or the policeman might have thought her quite mad.

P is not mad though, she has just been meditating on patience for twenty years, and so it kicked in when needed. Meantime, she was still able to do all the practical things like cancel the cards and put a stop on the phone.

P and I were having this conversation over the best vegetarian sausage I’ve ever tasted, in the Moon and Pea, Lark Lane. The café’s name reminds me of Buddha’s analogy for our spiritual potential – the amount of mind we are currently using compared to the amount of mind we could be using is like a pea compared to a planet.

Sefton Park Liverpool meditation

A friendly swan in Liverpool

So-called Foe Destroyers or Arhats (in Sanskrit) have destroyed all the inner foes of the delusions and their seeds through their direct realization of emptiness, which means that even if they are surrounded by objects of delusions, and even if they try to, it is impossible for them to develop a delusion. Such a person has attained so-called nirvana, or liberation. Their mind is completely at peace all the time, happy and free.

It is possible to accomplish these things because there is no such thing as an object of delusion that exists from its own side. If someone was an inherently disagreeable object of anger, then everyone who saw that person would get angry; but of course they don’t – it is not just Foe Destroyers, their pet dog also loves them to bits! So objects of delusion depend upon our deluded minds. If we have a mind to get deluded, we’re going to find an object of delusion with no difficulty. But if we overcome our delusions by developing patience, compassion, generosity, and so on, the object of delusion transforms into something entirely different – eg, from a thug into an unfortunate soul who really could do with that money.

That’s pretty cool, don’t you think?

(I need to practice it on the dentist next month. Tips welcome.)

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