A closer look at attachment …

3 eyes

By guest writer TT, who says he “is in his second year of university studying philosophy, politics and economics, working out how to unify student life with Kadampa Buddhism.”

3 eyes

Look unflinchingly at the mind of attachment

At the moment, as during most moments in recent years, I am suffering from attachment… When attachment becomes very strong, I find it hard to let go of using the traditional opponents to attachment such as meditation on emptiness, death and renunciation. If I meditate on these, then my attachment may be gone by the morning but back by midday because my mindfulness is not strong enough to hold onto the opponents and oppose my mind’s tendency to focus on objects of attachment. This article is an explanation of a slightly different way in which I have recently been dealing with my attachment.

What is attachment and what are its faults?

An experience of attachment is the perfect opportunity to see the faults of attachment – how it makes us pathetic and foolish, causing us great pain and anxiety. By believing that a source of our happiness exists ‘out there’ in that person or enjoyment, we effectively put our happiness there, and therefore make ourself deeply emotionally vulnerable and deprive ourself of any stable happiness – we actually make it the case that we can only be happy if so-and-so likes us by believing that we can only be happy if he or she likes us; we believe that we need them for our happiness. It is this belief that is the real demon. It sucks out any joy from our life, stops us living in the moment, and causes an underlying pain that means we can never quite feel truly happy. When it is strong, it means that we are constantly walking around with an uncomfortable feeling in our stomach.. My teacher once said that we need to learn about the faults of delusions from our own experience and deeply understand them, so that when we contemplate the faults of attachment we are not just reciting a list or reading from a book – we are basing our understanding of the faults of attachment on our own experience. That way, our understanding of the faults of attachment will be strong, stable, and not merely intellectual.

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Dispel the demon of attachment

When strong attachment arises I like to sit down on my meditation cushion and to look directly and unflinchingly at the mind of attachment. What is it exactly? What is it telling me? Where is it coming from? What are its faults? See for yourself precisely what this mind is, and what it is telling you. Don’t take anyone’s word for it that attachment means that you have actually put your cause of happiness in someone or something else – actually see how this is happening in your own experience. When we see attachment for what it really is, we see its absurdity and how it can cause nothing but pain for us. Seeing this, it naturally begins to drop away, like realizing how the magic trick works: once we know how the trick works, we are no longer sucked in by it.

Become an inner scientist: investigate the nature of your delusions
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Put attachment under the microscope

I think that there is so much to be said for not just watching our mind in an abstract way, but really looking deeply at our delusions – where they come from and what they’re saying. The same is true for all delusions I think, not just attachment – if we’re experiencing anger, for example, I believe it can be very valuable to sit down on the cushion and look directly at precisely where the anger is coming from (from what views and thoughts) and what it is saying to us. Once we do that we begin to see how absurd it is, and as we see the truth the delusion immediately begins to drop. I find this especially useful and if delusions are very strong – if we can’t seem to breath them out or let go of them in the usual way, we have a unique opportunity to sit down and really look, really learn deeply about where our delusion is coming from. Therefore we can attack it right at the root: we can challenge our deluded views and beliefs from which our delusions arise, such as ‘My cause of happiness is over there’, with the truth, by directly and unflinchingly seeing the absurdity of our delusion.

Why let go of attachment? Isn’t that letting go of our happiness?!

Now, this practice is unlikely to rid you of all attachment overnight! I have suffered from strong attachment for many years, and continue to do so. But gradually, as my understanding of attachment and its faults increases, attachment decreases. You may find that attachment soon creeps back after you try this meditation – but that is ok, because then you can just do it over again! So I try to remember repeatedly the faults of attachment: how it makes us pathetic, foolish, unhappy, emotionally dependent, vulnerable, and deprives us love and virtue, the only source of true meaning and happiness in our life. I simultaneously contemplate the benefits of letting go of attachment: the mental freedom, spaciousness, relaxation and happiness we experience. Wow!! The happiness and freedom that non-attachment has to offer is truly incredible. In Meaningful to Behold (in the chapter on Concentration, verse 170), Geshela writes:

In the past, great Indian and Tibetan yogis such as Milarepa spent much of their lives in seclusion. Compared with us, who spend our life in comfortable houses surrounded by luxuries, who has the greater happiness? Without a doubt yogis like Milarepa experience bliss that is a thousand times greater than anything we ever experience. Their unsurpassed happiness is due to their inner calm and their complete lack of attachment to external objects while our suffering and dissatisfaction is due to our complete submersion in attitudes of attachment and aversion for external objects.

If we get a heartfelt feeling for any Buddhist, or Dharma, practice whatsoever, it will bring us incredible joy and freedom. The experience of letting go of attachment and turning inwards to find the joy inside ourselves that comes from this, will bring incredible happiness and meaning to our life, and free us from so much of our everyday pain and dissatisfaction. Without attachment, we can just enjoy whatever arises, every moment, without grasping onto it. We have no pain about what has gone, and no fear about what is coming. We simply enjoy every moment, deeply, engaging fully with the world around us. The thing is, there is absolutely no problem with enjoyments. There is nothing wrong with surfing, spending time with friends, having sex or drinking lots of mango smoothie. The object to be abandoned is not the object(s) of our enjoyment, but grasping onto these objects – it is the clinging, the craving, THE ATTACHMENT, that causes us pain, dissatisfaction and keeps us chained to the prison of samsara. But if we let go of our attachment then we can enjoy all these objects without pain, without feeling like we need them for our happiness. And then we can see all our experiences of enjoyment as in the mind, and offer them to the guru at our heart, giving us a taste of liberation; or if we have had a tantric empowerment then we can recognize these feelings of bliss and emptiness as the nature of our guru’s mind and from there we can self-generate as the deity and impute ourself upon bliss and emptiness.

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Contentment is the most precious jewel

As Geshela says in Meaningful to Behold (in the chapter on Concentration, verse 176-177):

… the person who is content with what he or she has does not experience the pain of dissatisfaction and instead receives inexhaustible happiness. Of all forms of wealth, that of contentment is found to be supreme…

… A person who feels no attachment to beautiful, external objects will find a beautiful mind within. Remaining content is the best wealth; not to grasp at what is attractive is the best of all possessions.

How amazing is that?!

Licking honey off the razor’s edge…

Usually we focus on the initial good feelings of attachment like, as Geshela says in Eight Steps to Happiness (p. 67 of the latest edition), the taste of honey as we lick it off the razor’s edge–the excitement, the buzz, the rush, the thrill–without really thinking about its faults. And then, before we know it, it’s too late: we’re on the razor’s edge. Instead of this, I am trying to spend my time thinking repeatedly about the faults of attachment, not being deceived by the initial pleasant feelings that tend to come as we first develop attachment. I think we need to do this again and again and again, continually. We need to contemplate the rottenness, the anxiety, the pain, the vile nature of attachment, the way it causes us so much pain and suffering, keeps us trapped in samsara, and turns a person into an object of our selfish enjoyment, over many, many hours. As Geshela says in his new book How to Understand the Mind on page 116:

When attachment arises in our mind it does not feel harmful; on the contrary, it usually feels beneficial. Therefore, 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.

I have to admit that recently I have become a bit suspicious of ‘falling in love’. For people with a close friendship, perhaps, there is a genuine mix of love in with the attachment. But for me, I think that most of my experiences have not been of ‘falling in love’ involving love at all. I used to think that they were a mix of love and attachment, and that all the good feelings were coming from affectionate love, but now I’m not so sure… The good feelings seem to me like the initial stages of attachment; I value the person and ‘love’ them because they make me feel good. But this is not real love – it is not based on renunciation, cherishing them or recognizing their kindness and good qualities, but only on them making ME feel good right now; it is based on self-cherishing. Furthermore, it’s clear that there’s not really much if any love there when they tell me that they’re not interested, heh heh – if I love them, then why does that cause me so much pain, and no mix of pain and joy at all, just pain….?!! I am tending to think that falling in love, and the joy it brings, is more like a temporary drug trip that makes everything seem wonderful due to rose-tinted spectacles and not at all due to love or wisdom which see things as the truly are.

5 scalpelBut, that said, there is nothing wrong with falling in love! Another mistake that I have made over the last few years is to really beat myself up when attachment arises, thinking ‘I’m such a bad practitioner’, and ‘Oh no, I’ve got attachment!’ But how can wisdom arise from such attitudes? Such feelings are based entirely on self-cherishing, I think – it does not bother us if someone else, who we do not much care for, is suffering from attachment, does it? Yet if it is us, then it seems terrible. We need a realistic attitude that sees attachment for what it is and applies the opponent of wisdom with the calm and clear-sighted approach of the surgeon who applies the knife. We do not feel overwhelmed, guilty or exasperated; on the contrary, we have is a perfect opportunity to see the faults of attachment and overcome it from the root, so we should rejoice! One of my teachers recently explained to me that dharma is not about denial – if we have attachment to someone, for example, dharma is not about pretending to ourself that we do not have this attachment and supressing it. Not at all. Of course, it is not always appropriate to follow our attachments externally; for example, if we are ordained then we probably should not ask that person out to dinner with us…(!) But if we are a lay practioner, then that’s fine! And if (s)he says ‘yes’, then we try to increase our love and reduce our attachment; and if (s)he says ‘no’, then we try to increase our love and reduce our attachment. Either way, we are working on our mind, trying to decrease our attachment and increase our love, and therefore we are heading towards the city of full enlightenment. As one Kadampa teacher often exclaims: ‘If a delusion comes up, great!’ We can use our experience of delusion to overcome that delusion – if we have strong attachment then great: this is the perfect time to see its faults and overcome it.

What are we chained down by?

9 chainsThink about an attachment that you have right now. Ultimately, we have to make a choice between happiness and this attachment. As soon as we pick up an attachment our heart is thrown off beat, and we lose the ability to live a joyful, relaxed life. (NB. This is a choice between our happiness and the attachment, nor our happiness and the object – externally abandoning the object of our attachment does not necessarily mean that we have abandoned our [internal] attachment to it; but if we let go of our attachment then we will be happy regardless of whether or not we have the object.). Just realizing this is extremely liberating. We feel like we have to choose attachment because that is where our happiness is – but that is completely false! Look at how many people are not attached to our object of attachment, simply getting on with their lives and enjoying themselves! It is only the belief that we need someone for our happiness that makes us unhappy; and it is only the complete abandonment of this belief that allows us to be truly and utterly happy. At the time, our attachment object seems like the most important thing in the world – and letting go of it seems like an impossible task. But think about how many people or things we have been attached to in the past, and which now we hardly think of at all. We have managed ok without those people and things after all, haven’t we? And the same is true of our present attachment – if we develop a sense of perspective, we can easily see that our attachment is not important at all, it really is just a triviality. So what are we so worried about letting go of? The key to happiness lies within us, in letting go of this mind of attachment!

How to let go of attachment

We can look around and see how many people are engrossed in attachment, falsely believing that they need someone or something to be happy; deeply contemplating its faults, we begin to feel repulsed by the mind of attachment. With this complete disgust for attachment, we can actually let go of it by realizing that the object of our attachment is just an illusion, an idea, a false projection – it does not actually exist, at all. NOTHING and NO ONE has the power to make us happy. As Geshela says in Eight Steps to Happiness (p. 142 of the revised edition):

We are like the thief who entered Milarepa’s cave one night, looking for something valuable to steal. Hearing him, Milarepa laughed and said, ‘How do you expect to find anything valuable here at night, when I cannot find anything valuable here during the day?’ How can we expect to find happiness in the empty cave of samsara while obscured by the darkness of our delusions, when all the Buddhas with their omniscient wisdom have been unable to find it?

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Discover the pure land of non-attachment inside your own heart!

Indeed, this person does not even exist from his or her own side! Let alone do they exist as a true cause of happiness for us… So then, remembering that the object of our attachment, the attachment, and we ourself, are impermanent and illusory, we can let go of attachment, because there is nothing to hold onto – the object of our attachment does not exist. A beautiful analogy that one of my teachers once gave is that of a moth that had got ‘stuck’ to his finger that morning when he was trying to take it out of the kitchen – it refused to let go and fly off. We are like that moth: when we experience the smallest sense of enjoyment or happiness from some person or enjoyment, we cling onto it soooo desperately and tightly, thinking that if we let go of it then we letting go of our source of happiness – what is left? But in fact, it is this clinging mind that deprives us of any happiness – it stops us from enjoying the object of our attachment, and everything else. Only by letting go of our attachment can we truly enjoy the object, and everything else, without pain. When we let go of our attachment, our mind will be filled with joy and freed of fear. This is the indication that we have let go of our attachment. We can now truly enjoy the object without any pain, and we can enjoy everyone and everything else in life. Non-attachment has freed us from pain and allowed us to discover the joy and happiness in all aspects of life.

Much help for me has come from a book called The Way to Love by, believe it or not, a Jesuit priest called Anthony De Mello. There is some fantastic advice on letting go of attachment in there, a lot of which I have largely repeated in this article. The guru can manifest in many forms!!

So anyway, I wanted to share some of that beautiful advice that I have received from my teachers. Now it is time to put it into practice, otherwise I will remain miserable and will be like the man that tells his son every day ‘Do not walk outside after dark, it is dangerous’ but then walks out at dark and gets killed. If I’m here regurgitating wonderful advice but not practising any of it, then there is none more foolish than me!!

In many ways, I am the least qualified person possible to give advice on overcome attachment, hehehe. But I have 100% confidence that the instructions on letting go of attachment work, if only we put them into practice. The key to happiness is within us – it is within our grasp. All we have to do is let go of our clinging attitude and completely abandon the utterly false belief that we need any external thing or person for us to be happy. And if we do this – then we shall finally find the happiness we seek.

Thank you for being there

noodles

I just finished an Annie Chun’s All Natural Asian Cuisine noodle bowl, bought not inexpensively at the local Whole Pay Packet, I mean Whole Foods (who went and put such a money-sucking store right next to my house?!) It was kind of untasty to tell the truth, seriously it looked nothing like the picture on the packet, but it only took three minutes to make, and has kept me fed for another couple of hours so I have the energy to write this. So far in all the days of my life I have been kept alive by mountains of food already, all provided to me by the kindness of others – at least, I sure didn’t have anything to do with my noodle bowl other than buying it with dollars given to me by others, warming up the water in a kettle provided by others, using water from goodness knows where coming out of a faucet whose plumbing I had zero to do with, and putting it in my mouth (provided by my parents) with a fork manufactured by others. And of course that is just scratching the surface of all the causes and conditions that went into my supposedly “instant” dinner and my ability to eat it.

kindness of others Buddhism

Just in the last ten minutes I have been entirely dependent on others, and I could take any ten minutes in my day and never get to the bottom of it. As Geshe Kelsang says in Eight Steps to Happiness, we are all interconnected in a web of kindness from which it is impossible to separate ourselves.

Mountain reflections

Buddhism home is where the heart isI saw a “Colorado Native” bumper sticker recently in the Rockies (where I live now!) Where am I native to, I thought? I seem to be a bit of a nomad. But I think I may be indigenous to the land of others’ kindness. We are all indigenous here. We are born into it naked, with nothing, and then supported by it. It is quite a big world. Can feel at home anywhere if we remember.

I was marveling at the feats of human ingenuity – the roads, tunnels, and bridges carved goodness knows how through the mountains next to the rivers, rocks, and frozen waterfalls, past Glenwood hot springs and the place called No Name, a Starbucks (yee haa!) in every wild west town. I watched the wheels of vehicles rotating on the highway as a moment by moment testimony to other people, each inch of the meeting of tire and asphalt coming from their kindness – I didn’t pay for even an inch of the journey between Denver and Grand Junction.

Buddhism in ColoradoI glanced at the driver – on the surface it looks like a driver is in charge of turning the steering wheel, but in fact the wheel has to turn in dependence upon the curving road, which is entirely dependent on others – not even the coolest driver has any autonomy. Driving, like any of our activities, merely reflects off a vast narrative of causes and conditions, karmic and environmental, just carved into the scene as a whole – the driving in this instance not other than the mountains, and the mountains not other than the drive. So with no inherently existent driving in all that, no findable driving, where is the inherently existent driver? Our constrained and findable self, whatever we are doing, is just an hallucination of self-cherishing ignorance.

These kinds of contemplations on our complete dependence on others and on our environment, which we can do anywhere, help us feel closer to others — more in our heart, and less fixated on a heady, dualistic sense of me and them. (Funny how the more in the heart we are, the more we feel connected with the whole wide world.) They also increase our wisdom understanding emptiness, that nothing exists from its own side.

There was a gold rush out here once. Didn’t amount to much (though I believe they found some silver). But as Buddha pointed out, if we were a pauper living our whole life in a hovel, we’d be pretty delighted if someone showed us that we had a gold mine right beneath our feet. The gold of our Buddha nature has always been inside us, we simply haven’t known. And we can mine these seams of limitless wisdom and compassion through contemplations on the interdependence of ourselves and others.

(As you are probably guessing, I might have had too much time to think on that journey – ten hours in a car, caught in a blizzard, my thoughts meandering along with the winding roads … surely I am practically a native of the Western Land of the Snows myself now?!)

Buddhism and meditation in the Rockies

Is anyone not kind to us?

I think that is what Thanksgiving is about, remembering the kindness of others. I suppose it is customary to remember the kindness of our nearest and dearest as we gather around the laden dining table, but we can also remember the kindness of strangers, and why not even of enemies?

Attentive friends and family are obviously kind to us in ways we can recognize (at least, if we notice in the first place). When we meditate on our dependence on all living beings, we realize that strangers are very kind too, eg, Annie Chun and co, the road and railway company, etc.

What about people who annoy us or even set out deliberately to harm us? They are arguably the kindest of all as they allow us to practice patience and unconditional love, qualities we need for lasting happiness and freedom.

We watched the Life of Atisha in Cascais, Portugal, at the Kadampa Buddhist Fall Festival the other day – a truly insightful script and well executed production directed by the talented Olivier. There was a lot of good acting, but Atisha’s cook arguably stole the show. Atisha took this rude, obnoxious servant all the way with him to Tibet and, when the Tibetans asked him why, replied:

Without this man, there would be no one with whom I could practice patience. He is very kind to me. I need him!

Geshe Kelsang goes onto say:

Atisha understood that the only way to fulfill his deepest wish to benefit all living beings was to achieve enlightenment, and that to do this he needed to perfect his patience. For Atisha, his bad-tempered assistant was more precious than material possessions, praise, or any other worldly attainment. ~ Eight Steps to Happiness

We don’t need to have a servant to practice patience, there will probably be someone willing to fit the bill amongst our parents, partner, or children over Thanksgiving, or our boss and co-workers back at work next week. If anyone tries to start an argument over the holiday, you could try just playing about with offering them the victory and see what happens. I think it is often not the content of an argument that is the issue (especially when we’ve overeaten and feel grumpy)–it is the emotional luggage and inappropriate attention. Diffuse this and the content can often take care of itself.

Kind just because they’re therekindness of others in Buddhism

Shantideva says that others are kind just because they are other – because they are there, really! If they are there, we can cherish them, and if we cherish them we experience happiness both now and in the future.

As Mark Twain put it:

The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.

I borrowed a cat this morning, here in Denver, called Bella. She is a cuddly little grey fur ball, who sat on the fire escape crying to be let in my attic window, and then lay peacefully next to my leg as I meditated. In Buddhism, we never meditate alone – we don’t have to have an actual cat (or human) sitting next to us, but we always think we’re surrounded by countless living beings. It takes us out of ourselves, makes the meditation flow better.

kindness of others ShantidevaFor as long as there are people around you, or even just one person, we can be cherishing others and making our life meaningful and happy. Big heart translates into big action. One analogy Geshe Kelsang uses is that even if all we are doing is putting crumbs on a bird table, if we do it with great compassion our action is far more powerfully beneficial than giving a diamond ring to someone out of attachment.

This next bit is old news, and wide rivers have flown under the bridge since then; but it is when I became 100% convinced of the advantages of cherishing others in times of crisis, so I’ll share it. When I was fired from my very enjoyable long-term job several years ago, I relied upon those around me to bring me out of it – not by expecting them to do anything, but simply by serving as my immediate objects of cherishing to take me out of myself, to help me keep moving onward and upward. I would not just survive, in the words of Gloria Gaynor, I was determined to thrive. I remember the moment I received my firing letter. Immediately I had perspective as it was the same morning that my dear friend Trish died of cancer, died most beautifully I might add, with a smile on her face and with the faint euphoric words over the phone the night before: “L, this is all just appearance! Geshe-la is everywhere!” News travels fast, but not that fast, and before she found out another friend came to me in tears of guilt about losing a precious gift a friend had given her, and then another friend came to me in tears seeking advice on how to communicate better with her husband. Later they both said words to the effect: “So sorry to dump on you, I had no idea you’d just been fired!” but they didn’t know they were being the kind ones, allowing me think about others in my hour of need.

Kadampa Buddhism in ColoradoAnd I continued as I meant to go on, deciding that the only way not to go doolally would be to firmly and stably put myself in everyone else’s shoes. Self-cherishing is like trying to keep your balance on high pointy (just focused on one person, me) Giuseppe Zanotti stilettos; loving others is like wearing solid flat (focused on lots of people, others) Doc Martens. When you find yourself navigating uncertain terrain, lumpy, full of potholes, treacherous in places, believe me you’d far rather be wearing Doc Martens. It worked every time I did it (which was a lot due to desperation); and I know I’m more stable and confident now thanks to it.

Thanks, in fact, to others.

Do liberals and conservatives share any common ground?

Tom Tom and Zia's new home

Someone commented on my last article that from the perspective of someone in the UK there is no difference between the two US presidential candidates. But I think that up closer there is a difference in candidates (and parties), not just in terms of their policies but in terms of the core values that motivate those policies.

In general, I think the best value of liberals is their wish for equality and fairness, helping each other based on an understanding of mutual dependence and that the health of the whole depends on the health of its parts.

I think the best value of conservatives is their emphasis on taking personal responsibility for their lives. They also believe in charity and community support on a private, individual, voluntary basis, and can be exceedingly generous. (And giving is the karmic cause of wealth.)

My theory is that these two world views are not contradictory and in fact are mutually supportive. We need both attitudes. You can’t actually have one working properly without the other. At their best, they are two attitudes of a Bodhisattva.

kitten finding forever home

See below for (ir)relevance of kitten photos.

There is a Buddhist Lojong or training the mind meditation called equalizing self and others, where we understand how we are all exactly the same in the way it really means something, in our two main wishes in life – wanting to be happy and free from suffering.  If we value the equality of all living beings, this entails a fairness in our treatment of everyone else. But it doesn’t stop there. We are also entirely bound up in each other in mutual dependence – everything we have and everything we are depends entirely on others.  We are one body of life. And if one part of the body is suffering, say the foot has a thorn in it, the hand will want to pull it out even if not directly affected.

It is all very well not wanting people to take advantage of the system, but you cannot pull yourself up by your own bootstraps if someone didn’t make you those boots in the first place. Everyone needs boots made for them — ontologically speaking, there is no such thing as a self-made man. This is because without others we are, literally, nothing. We came into this world with nothing — not a silver spoon in our mouth, not even a plastic utensil. Rich or poor, we were given everything. All of us are entirely connected in a web of kindness. (For a description of this meditation, read Eight Steps to Happiness pages 54-57.) In that context, people with fewer resources are not undeserving of a helping hand, and they in turn can then pay it back or forward. The safety net can be like a trampoline, helping everyone have more success. (An insight into mutual dependence and karma also indicates that life is not a zero sum game, where some have to lose for others to win – that it can be a win win.) cat going to his forever home

Yet, at the same time, our mutual dependence is not an excuse for letting others pull us along like dead weight without making any effort according to our capacity, power, and ingenuity to help ourselves or others, becoming dependent in a, well, “dependent” way. Understanding our mutual dependence and what we owe to others on the contrary gives Bodhisattvas a strong sense of personal responsibility, called superior intention, where they promise to work continually until they have really freed themselves and all living beings from the ocean of suffering and actualized their full potential. They see this as their job and their obligation. It doesn’t matter what conditions they find themselves in, good or bad; they still take responsibility for their own progress and freedom.

I deliberately went over to watch the VP debate with a friend who happens to be a member of the other party, as a sort of experiment to see if we’d still like each other by the end of the evening (LOL), and during the debate I put myself in her shoes to see what that felt like. I still thought my own candidate “won”, but then so did she, which was in itself quite a teaching on relativity — we had been sitting in the same room eating the same popcorn watching the same screen but, even without watching the Spin afterward, we came to opposite conclusions! However, as a result of putting myself in her shoes, I had more sympathy for her position that I might otherwise have done.

My friend’s point was that she doesn’t like people “scrounging” off the state. I pointed out that in a way we all scrounge off the state and each other because we rely on the infrastructure of this country for everything and we paid for just a fraction of it. For example, to get to work, we all need to use roads or public transport, and even a yard of road would cost a great deal more money than I could afford – I wouldn’t get very far if I had to pay for/build the road myself. The things we use every single day cost billions of dollars, toward which we have contributed a minute fraction, whatever our tax bracket.

In fact (and she liked this point the best), the higher up we are in the world, and the more we have, the MORE we depend on others. I wrote all about that here.

Dependence is not a dirty word. It is a fact. Self-reliance is not a dirty word. We need it. Recognizing our mutual dependence is a strength, not a weakness, for it is in touch with the way things are and it also encourages us to take responsibility for ourselves and everyone else, understanding that no man is an island. Likewise, within that context it is desirable to encourage people to take responsibility for their own destiny, for although others can give us the boots, only we can pull ourselves up by the straps. So, where is the contradiction?

As pretty much half this country is Democrat and half Republican, and that is not going to change anytime soon, I think it’d be a relief if we could recognize what is good or even noble about the other party’s world view and try to embrace it. Otherwise at least half of us are in for a pretty annoying four years, starting Tuesday. We don’t have to like everything the other party is trying to do (like that is ever going to happen anyway!) Some politicians and activists do try to do this, start from respect and understanding rather than dislike; but these days many more seem to be entrenched in the “We’re inherently right, you’re inherently wrong” polarity. Mutual antipathy based on accentuating others’ faults is unrealistic and crippling at any time, as it is based on inappropriate attention. Throw out those attack ads, they demean everyone.  

On the whole, politics and religion have different goals because the former is concerned with this life and the latter with future lives. But we need to overcome our delusions and get along with others to gain peace and happiness in this life and in future lives, and we can find practical ways of doing so through Lojong.

So, for example, understanding how our values are not contradictory but mutually supportive might be a good way of engendering respect and even some affection, and on that basis it might be easier to work together? What do you think? (Now I’m ducking as I wait for some of you to throw eggs at me… This was my last foray into politics. But I still want my candidate to win on Tuesday, ha ha!!)

(By the way, two of my kittens just found a wonderful home, and I had to write this whole article with lonely big-eyed Alyona on my lap, so I blame her cuteness for any sentimental idealism or oxytocin-induced lapses of logic. That has given me an idea… I don’t know what other pictures to use, so I’m going to transform this into a feel-good article by sprinkling it with kittens in their new forever homes.)

Compassion and the super-rich

kindness of Buddha

A man walked past me on the beach recently dressed in a plain grey tee-shirt and ordinary looking shorts, only his state of the art new trainers and the X-Men type headset gracing his crown gave him away. I caught a drift of his conversation: “Yeah, the plane can stay there at the airport, we can catch the game, the car can take us back to the airport, and we’ll be back at the hotel no later than midnight.”

compassion and the super richHe is clearly one of the super-rich, in a world where cars seem to drive themselves and whole planes can be left casually lying around waiting for us. Yesterday I read in the paper that the top 5% of the US population buys 37% of the goods. What do you feel when you read statistics like this (and there are plenty of them)? Judging by the press, the Facebook comments I often see, and my own occasional grumpiness about it, I’m guessing sometimes maybe a touch of resentment or irritation? “Bl**** rich people with bonuses got us all into this mess!” An annoyance at society’s inequality and the decline of the middle class? A fear for the future? A burning desire to get involved in politics to put an end to careless rich people gorging on the rest of us? (I think being a politician is possibly the most thankless task of all). Envy arising from insecurity (especially when we ourselves are suffering from the recession)? Dislike? (If you count yourself amongst the super-rich, is there still someone richer, a neighbor perhaps, whom you feel annoyed about sometimes?)

Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day

I decided to write on compassion to celebrate Buddha’s Return from Heaven Day, which is today, September 22nd. You can read a beautiful teaching given on this day in 1991 by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso here. In it, he says:

On this day we should especially remember Buddha’s kindness…. kindness of Buddha

The nature of Buddhadharma is compassion – an unbiased compassion that is not just for human beings but for every living being, including animals.

I often write about developing compassion for animals — today I feel like writing about developing compassion for rich people, who are also “living beings” and still in samsara :-)

What is samsara?

In samsara, there are six realms, including the demi-god and god realms that outshine the wealth, possessions and glory of the super-rich as a sun outshines a firefly. But all these realms are in samsara and all of them are to be abandoned if we are to find true and lasting happiness.

Buddha called ordinary, suffering life “samsara.” What is samsara? Samsara is the experience of an impure, uncontrolled mind. Our world does not exist from its own side but is projected by our own thoughts. At the moment, due to our delusions and karma, we are projecting a world full of suffering.

This world is characterized by a lack of freedom. At the moment we experience only relative freedom. We are not free in significant ways. For example, are we free from being born, getting sick, growing old, or dying? These happen without any choice, whether we like it or not. At some point, without choice, we have to be separated from everything we love, we have to put up with things we don’t like, and we experience a lack of satisfaction. No one who is truly free would choose to experience pain over happiness.

The different realms of samsara are all dream-like projections of a mind distorted by delusions, in particular self-grasping and self-cherishing. Liberation from samsara, so-called nirvana, or the Pure Land, is a dream-like projection of a pure or non-deluded mind. Samsara is not a place, and when we are aiming to live a pure life free from suffering it is not necessary to go somewhere else to find Milarepa's cavethis. When Milarepa (who lived in Tibet in the 11th century) was asked where his Pure Land was, he pointed to his cave. Samsara is not outside our minds any more than nirvana is. We can remove the samsara from our minds by gaining true mental freedom from our delusions, and then we will naturally be creating and living in a pure world, with blissful experiences.

Compassion for everyone

In Eight Steps to Happiness Geshe Kelsang says we also need compassion for everyone in samsara, including those who appear to be better off than us. There is something missing otherwise, and we are in danger of feeling resentful, which undermines our spiritual progress. Of course, some people are rich right now, but that doesn’t mean they are not suffering. It doesn’t in fact mean that they are suffering any less than us. Quite possibly many of them are suffering more. They have all the human sufferings we have – sickness, birth, ageing, rebirth, no satisfaction, etc. And they often have more desire, trying to slake their thirst with yet more salt-water as attachment can never be satiated. He didn’t seem particularly excited, my friend on the beach, just matter of fact, and it struck me that having your own plane soon grows old, just like every other 21st century marvel even many of us hoi poloi have already gotten used to – cars, comfortable bedding, indoor plumbing, traveling through the air, high definition TV, computers, iPhones, etc etc. My great-grandparents would have thought they’d died and gone to heaven if they could have used a fraction of what we now routinely take for granted in our daily lives. Even beings in the god realms may be getting some ideas from Apple.

shit creek of samsara

Better to get out of samsara’s creek altogether!

So, we can do what we can to balance out society and make it fairer; and to preserve our democracy I personally think it behooves us to take some responsibility, at least by voting. However, it is impossible to fix samsara or make it work for any length of time, and having an unbalanced mind about the rich is not going to improve a thing for us or for anyone else. We have to gather all blame into our delusions, not rich bankers. Actually, rich people got their wealth from past giving. If they continue to give, they will also continue to create the causes for future wealth, just like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, and that is something to rejoice in, without feeling insecure. Every time we get annoyed or jealous, we burn merit or good fortune. But every time we rejoice in someone’s qualities or good fortune, we create the cause to have those ourself.samsara is not a zero sum game

There is not set amount of wealth, it is not a zero sum game. Wealth and possessions are a result of good karma or merit, so if we create merit we necessarily create the cause for wealth – it’ll appear from somewhere, even if we are in a desert, as there is no external world that is fixed. In a dream, things just appear due to the ripening of karmic seeds. It is the same in our waking worlds. If we are worried about running out of resources, the Kadampas say the best thing we can do is practice giving to others and offering to holy beings. In one concentrated mandala offering we can create the cause for whole worlds of prosperity and joy!

 

 

Surfing life’s waves

SurfingMonkNKTimage

The other day I saw a little dude with his surfboard looking disappointedly at the ocean – it was clearly his first day of vacation and his parents perhaps hadn’t warned him that the Gulf of Mexico is not known for its waves.

Lojong or mind-training practitioners are also a little disappointed when everything goes too smoothly because they have no exciting challenges to harness and transform into positive outcomes.

Transforming a sickness

My mother asked me how I found enough material to write about on my blog and, to give her an example of no shortage of subject matter when it came to applying meditation to daily life, I said I would write about my brother T as we had just been talking about him. Thanks for your permission, T, it is for a good cause ;-) (This is not the brother of this article, but after this I’ve run out of brothers to write about).

new life

T started life as a 7 pound baby and then a skinny boy. But by the time he reached his teens, he was starting to pack on the pounds, and he loved his food. He was also a brilliant and disciplined athlete who captained a whole bunch of school teams, scored 100 runs at Lords Cricket ground, can run fast, and is as strong as an ox (he can lift up my mother and me at the same time). But plump, and getting more so by the year. His Facebook picture is the Michelin man. I gave him the XXXL waistcoat (US vest) for Xmas and it barely zipped up around his big tum.

Early this year he was diagnosed with diabetes. My mother didn’t bother telling me for a month or so and, when she did get around to it, she sounded oddly cheerful. She even chuckled. I know she loves her first-born child, so what was that about?! Turns out it was because the apple of her eye is happy about his diagnosis! It has cheered him right up! I kid you not. He now says that he has to lose weight or die, and he is really relishing the incentive. He says having diabetes is making him lose the weight he could never have lost otherwise, it has given him the will power, and now he’ll live long and healthy and thin.

To give you some context here… people’ve been trying for YEARS, make that decades, to encourage him to lose weight. His two young daughters, his family, friends, his grandmother, everyone has veered between the extremes of nagging him and giving up and pretending the problem is not there. Naturally he has not been fond of all the interference and judgment, and in any case it didn’t make the blindest difference. His wife alone — who is so slim she disappears if you look at her sideways — accepted him the size he is. But the rest of us….

I saw him in the summer. He is a new person. At Xmas he was tired and listless and not as happy as he used to be. But the sparkle in his eyes is back, his energy levels are high, he is happy and engaging, and he has already lost 4 stone (56 pounds). His attitude to food has changed — he ate far less at lunch, for example, and didn’t seem to mind. He says he feels healthier than he has done in years. He intends to lick the disease through diet. If you saw what he ate before and how much, such bad habits over such a long period of time, you’d know what a huge step forward this is. And he can now fit into my Xmas gift with room to spare.

I complimented him on his discipline but he waved it off: “I’m not disciplined, I just had to do it. This was the greatest incentive.”

Suffering has good qualities

This is proof that diabetes is not inherently bad. You can’t call something inherently bad if it it is possible to transform it into something helpful. From a Buddhist point of view, we try to transform all our adversities into the spiritual path through renunciation (aiming for lasting freedom and happiness), compassion, bodhichitta (aiming for others  to have lasting freedom and happiness), wisdom… There is no such thing as a problem that cannot be solved with these methods. As Shantideva says:

Moreover, suffering has many good qualities.
Through experiencing it, we can dispel pride,
Develop compassion for those trapped in samsara,
Abandon non-virtue, and delight in virtue.

If we really in our heart of hearts know that suffering has good qualities and offers us unprecedented opportunities, as T spontaneously understands about his serious illness, would we not decide to make use of it, and slowly but surely take delight in doing so? As mentioned, ancient Kadampas would look forward to difficulties – they were almost disappointed when things were going their way (although we don’t need to worry, there are ways to transform good things too…;-) We can know for sure that it is possible to transform whatever difficulty arises into a solution, and then find out the best way to do that in each case – eventually it’ll become a habit. (If you want, you can start by picking up one of the Lojong or mind-training books – Eight Steps to Happiness or Universal Compassion for example. It’s all explained in there.) Like my brother T, we’ll end up healthier and happier and with thinner delusions.

Something needs to click

When we realize things with the force of certainty, it can be far easier for our behavior to change as we are no longer negotiating with ourselves over every detail or meal. It is as if T was sabotaging himself before — he knew he was eating badly and he didn’t feel good about it all, but even if he lost weight each January (due to his once-yearly diet) there was the swing back due to attachment, lack of conviction, or whatever. And he was able to live in denial.

We all have to overcome our self-sabotage, attachment and denial of what’s going on, and it is not always easy. We know on one level that we’re going to get old and sick and dead, and that this should be incentive enough to practice being positive all the time and prepare for the inevitable; but on another level we deny these things, ‘Oh, it won’t be that bad!’ Or we even romanticize them: ‘It’ll be cozy, I can wear my PJs and slippers all day, and then I’ll have a peaceful death. Maybe I’ll do Botox and look even better!’ But when the doctor was telling T directly that he’d have to shape up or face the consequences, something must have clicked. We all could do with those click moments. That is what meditation is for. These are realizations. Better to have them before we get too old, sick or dead to do anything about our bad habits.

I find this a great example of surfing life’s waves:

It’s your turn: If you have any examples of transforming adversity to share, please leave them in the comment box below, I’d love to hear them. Please share this article if you like it.

Master Potter ~ how blessings can help

dry seeds 2

“Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, when one only remembers to turn on the light.” ~ Albus Dumbledore, Prisoner of Azkaban

Making spiritual progress

dry seeds

In terms of making progress in our meditations and training our mind, what a difference blessings make! Without the water of blessings, our potentials for realizations are said to be like dry seeds that cannot sprout nor grow into a crop of experience. We can push as much as we like at meditation and other spiritual practices, but results will be slow and, quite likely, torturous if we are relying only on our own unblessed minds.

Once upon a time there was an old man called Mr. Donn, who attended classes at Geshe Kelsang’s first Centre, Madhyamaka Centre, right from the beginning. He had been the principal of the art college there in York, and he told us this story one day to illustrate the need for blessings. He was scheduled to visit some student sculptors to survey their work, but when he arrived, a whole two weeks after they’d started, they were still trying to knead the clay into something malleable enough to sculpt! But it was tough and dry and, try as they might, they could get not joy from the task. “Did no one tell you to add this liquid?”, he asked them in surprise. When they shook their heads, he produced a bottle, poured it over the clay, and then magically kneaded it and sculpted it into a beautiful vase. I’ll always remember how Mr. Donn likened that magical liquid that enables us to create whatever we want from the (otherwise intractable) clay to blessings that enable us to create whatever we want from our (otherwise intractable) minds. 

Downloading realizations

As mentioned, the traditional analogy for receiving blessings is watering dry seeds, without which they cannot grow, even in a fertilized ground (analogous to a mind rich in merit or good karma) that is free from stone-like obstructions (analogous to a purified mind). You can check out the preliminary practices section in Eight Steps to Happiness for more on creating merit and purifying the mind, now available as an eBook too. 

In his Medicine Buddha teachings in 2004, Geshe Kelsang said:

“Just pushing in meditation or contemplation, reading books, understanding or studying, these things alone are not good enough because we need to receive blessings from enlightened beings.”

For a 21st century analogy, Kadampa dad likes to talk about “downloading realizations” from our Spiritual Guide! Why not do it if we can, it certainly makes our spiritual practice and path far more effortless and enjoyable. Maybe he can explain more in the comments. 

Everyone is blessed

Even when we don’t try, we receive blessings, because that is a Buddha’s function or job. In his Medicine Buddha teachings in 2004, my teacher said:

We always want to be peaceful and happy. We try to keep our mind peaceful, but it doesn’t work. Generally we say “I should be happy!”, but in reality just wanting to be happy is not enough, happiness is not coming! But sometimes, without any reason, our mind is naturally peaceful, calm, and happy. Where does this come from? Through receiving the blessings of enlightened beings. Even animals such as dogs have this experience. Even when sometimes we go to sleep in anger or unhappiness, in the morning we can wake up peaceful and calm — we’ve changed.

As Shantideva says in the beginning of Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Buddha’s blessings are like lightning during a dark night, quickly illuminating the environment and so forth. Similarly, Buddha’s blessings suddenly illuminate our mind with positivity, peace, and calm. At that time we are happy.

As Robert Thomas suggests on Facebook (again rather beautifully): “I was thinking about the definition of a blessing being that which transforms the mind from a negative to a positive state and it occurred to me that blessings come in the guise of many forms. Of course there’s the classic invisible un-seen magical intervention, but often a blessing is felt or transmitted by our friends and family – it can be something they say or do, or just their constant love, perhaps a kind look in the eyes of a stranger, a sunset, a gentle breeze on a hot day. There are so many ways that Buddhas find to bestow their blessings – they come in many forms, in many ways and many places and pervade everything! Ha – i’d never thought of it like that before …”

If we do try, we can tune in and receive special blessings day and night. If “at that time we are happy”, then it follows we can be happy day and night! So, that’s another reason why making spiritual progress is accompanied by increasing happiness.

For the previous articles on this subject, see What are blessings?, Blissings and Blessings are not that mysterious.

Your turn: please share your understanding or experience in the comments box below :-)

No more nervous Nellie

nervous nellie

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Tomorrow’s another day

There have been some great comments on the previous no worry articles, including this one from DhiDakini: “In a meditation class, someone asked the teacher about the emotion of anxiety. I remember that he said in answer:

“Doesn’t it seem strange and so interesting that we sit in a pleasant moment and worry about things that AREN’T happening right now…?”

 It seemed so pithy and yet so staggeringly deep in that moment for me – made me wonder “WHY would I every worry again?’ Ha! (Then I started worrying about worrying too much…)”

Less of the me, me, me

Do any of these adjectives describe you: Nervous, agitated, anxious, apprehensive, tense, edgy, excitable, fearful, fidgety, flustered, hesitant, highly strung, hyper? What is the leitmotif of all of these states of mind? “Me”. We need to work on less of Me. If we are in the habit of worrying about ourself or those we are attached to, the smallest thing can fill our mind, crowding out all other perspectives, so we become rigid, blinkered and myopic. I give one example here

Worrying is a huge distraction. It may pretend to be helpful in getting things done, but in truth it distracts us from helping others. Worry saps our joy and does nothing to fix a situation – we can solve problems more energetically and effectively with a light mind of patience. You can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time. Worry is actually very tiring. And when we are tense, people can catch it from us (unless they are protected by the mind of love or  wisdom), and so things go backward in that sense too.

Fiona Layton says: “Habit yes it is, like all delusions. Worry comes from fear, which comes from self-cherishing, especially the part that needs to control the outcomes for myself and others.”

Taking and giving

We can be pretty sure that everyone worries a lot if they don’t have control over their mind. So, when you worry, it’s a good time to do taking and giving for everyone, especially those who are having a similar worry to yourself. How many people have to take care of sick cats or, even harder, sick children? We can take on their suffering and give them relief and everything else they need. Get the self out of the way and the worry goes but the compassion and love increase.

Quick explanation of how to do taking and giving

For those who are not familiar with the so-called “magical practice of taking and giving”, you can find it in this free eBook by Geshe Kelsang, Modern Buddhism, pages 95ff. You can also find it in Vide Kadampa’s Daily Lamrim blog.

Just in brief, for taking, with a mind of compassion we imagine we are taking on all the sufferings of others individually or collectively in the aspect of thick smoke, which dissolves into our self-cherishing at our heart and blows it up. We feel joy at having removed others’ suffering and destroyed our own worst enemy, self-cherishing, and meditate on this for as long as we can.

For giving, with the love wishing others to be happy we imagine that our body transforms into a wishfulfilling jewel, from which light rays radiate to touch all living beings, giving them whatever they need or wish for. As a result they experience a lasting and perfect joy and happiness. We too feel joy and meditate on this for as long as possible.

We can also combine the practice of taking and giving with our breathing, which really is one of the most fun and powerful methods for making our daily life meaningful. Not only does it reduce our worry, but it also improves our love and compassion, and creates potent causes for being actually able to bring happiness and freedom to others in the future. (If we understand emptiness, we’ll get the idea how everything begins (and ends!) in the imagination.) Taking and giving is taught in the books Universal Compassion and Eight Steps to Happiness

On Facebook, Samuel Forbes beautifully explained how helpful taking and giving can be: “I suffer from intense anxiety (panic disorder) and I’ve found meditation on taking extremely helpful when panic sets in. In my experience, anxiety stems from self-cherishing, at least for me. When I’m anxious, I’m only worried about myself, not others. So, when meditating on taking, it helps me think of the fear others experience and I imagine taking it upon myself in the form of black smoke, ridding myself of self-grasping (the source of the fear) at my heart and developing compassion, purification and so forth all at once. Beautiful. With enough concentration and blessings it can work extremely quickly, sometimes in a matter of seconds, not only taking the fear away, but actually making the mind peaceful and happy. It is far more effective than any conventional medicine I’ve tried over the years.”

Victoria Kaya added: “My brother was diagnosed with cancer a year ago and most of my close family suffers from a rare heart condition. I know it can be difficult at that time not to worry; however the time I have spent in hospital I feel that the practice of taking and giving helped me to feel like I was able to do something for them and not feel helpless.”

You’re not alone

As explained in Ralph’s story, we can also turn our worries over through prayer, if we have faith. This method has worked pretty well for many people over the ages! As Sally Anne Atkinson says: “Hand it over :)” We obviously don’t have to be Buddhists to do this.

Mike Hume gives some personal examples: “When I look back at my life I can see many times when I have been in dangerous situations, several involving motorbikes. Once I fell in the river and was rescued and resuscitated, another time I was rescued from a large window falling on me, and there have been numerous less serious situations as well. Once I prayed very hard to Geshe Kelsang and Dorje Shugden [a so-called “Dharma Protector” who is the same as Wisdom Buddha Manjushri] to save my brother who was on life support when his vital signs were well below critical, and he survived; and I prayed in the same way when I was in a plane in a storm, when the captain announced, “A hole in the clouds has just appeared”. Fiona Layton says: “When I feel that I am not equipped to deal with certain situations, then I have forgotten my Spiritual Guide and Dorje Shugdan and all the other countless Buddhas who could bless my mind if I turned to them and instantly feel relaxed. This normally happens when I have skipped my prayers and Lamrim (must do it now actually!)” Maria Tonella says: “In reality for me there is not a worrying situation that cannot be softened by praying a mantra with faith.”

Have you found that any of the methods in this article have worked for you? Please share your experiences in the comments, and let others know of the article if it’s helpful.

One last article on worry in the pipeline! For all the no worry articles, see No worries.

Have you ever fallen for a perfect stranger?!

Winston 1

With just a few twists and turns we can and do bump into perfect strangers who become part of our hearts and lives for a lifetime. In fact, apart from our immediate family, which of our closest friends did not start off as a stranger?!

Sparky and Joe

The happy tail of Winston

A marvelous encounter took place in heat-drenched Manhattan yesterday. I was meeting my friend J (her of Ralph’s story) to do some shopping for a laptop. Right next to Best Buy was Pet Smart and so I said entirely jokingly: “Let’s go in there and I’ll buy a small dog.” J agreed that she needed to go in there anyway to buy some cat treats so we visited with the adoptive cats for a while and then made to leave.

At the doorway, a cute dog stopped us in our tracks, and we bent to pet him. Then we noticed his owner sitting on the window ledge with tears in his eyes. Joe told us in a delightful but sad Irish brogue that he was being forced to bring Sparky back as he was severely allergic to him and that he and his girlfriend Julia were gutted, absolutely gutted. This half-Peke half-ShihTzu ”Shinese” was the best dog in the world and this was obvious even though they’d only had him for a week. Joe had been trying everything to work a way around the allergies, but “I feel like I’ve swallowed a furball and if I cuddle him I just can’t breathe.” The tears in his eyes came from the allergy and the fact that he was finding it agony to hand him back in. The shelter woman hadn’t arrived yet, he was waiting.

We asked him where Sparky came from – he and his family were in a house fire and wasn’t allowed in their shelter, and then his family were not able to have him back as they lost everything. He is just one year old. He was in a cage for weeks.

I looked at J. She looked back at me. It was obvious what she was thinking. “What is there to lose?” I rather naughtily encouraged her half under my breath. “Perhaps he could just spend the weekend with you and F and then, if F or the cats object, you can bring him back on Monday? Delay his re-entry into the cold lonely cage?”

Thing about J is that she is a pushover when it comes to animals… but there was just something about Sparky.

The 29-year-old DJ sized up the situation and seized his chance: “Hey girls, how about we take Sparky for a walk to the dog park? It’s not too far. You can see how good he is with the other dogs.” (Said Sparky is apparently spectacularly well behaved and friendly with every life form on earth, if Joe with the blarney stone is to be believed, and of course, smitten by Sparky, we believed him.)

We walked miles through the sweltering heat, Sparky tugging on the end of J’s green leash, his panty pink tongue hanging out. He is a human-magnet. And it is true that he managed to make friends with all the dogs in the park within a matter of minutes. Then Joe sloshed him with water to cool him down, and we started walking back.

“Why not cut out the middleman”, I proffered. “Just lend Sparky to J and you could both meet up again next week at Pet Smart if it doesn’t work out?”

And so we came to be carrying Sparky home in a shopping bag via Bleeker Street subway to the World Trade Center and the Park line back to New Jersey to an unsuspecting fiancé who never knew what hit him until it was too late and he’d fallen for him at first sight :-)

And there he is to this day. Well, it is only a day later, but it looks like he has stolen the hearts of his new family and will not be going back into a cage anytime soon. Even the cats liked him instantly, and when it comes to Fluffer that is really saying something. And the landlords say he can stay, even though they don’t allow dogs. He is now called Winston because of his Churchillian jaw. Sir Winston, to be precise.

So in one chance meeting, this perfect stranger entered the hearts and lives of a family who weren’t looking for a dog but will love him for his whole life. Joe, all smiles, says he thinks he ran into angels this sweltering summer’s day in Soho. But it was the other way round.

Meet your daughter (again)

Another friend sent me an ultrasound of his daughter in her mother’s womb yesterday. She is lying in the position in which Buddha entered paranirvana, and he is chuffed: “It’s quite something when you see your daughter facing straight at you on the big flat screen TV, lying on her right side, with her head on her hand (not sucking her thumb)! I can’t say that’s her orientation relative to anything in the outside world, as she floats in her ambionic fluid, but it was very clear on the screen and I rejoice in my projection!”

He has not officially met her yet but already he adores her: “As I said to my wife when they confirmed her gender, ‘I guess I’ll be saying yes to just about anything from now on!’” When did that love happen?! Why did it happen?! In beginningless lifetimes, we have all been each other’s father and each other’s daughter. That recognition – for example when the facts are staring us in the face on a flat screen TV — is enough to bring out our innate love, our Buddha nature. However, we don’t have to wait countless lifetimes to be everyone’s father and daughter again; we can recognize that relationship right now if we want to greatly speed up our love for everyone.

Actually, although it is true that our best friends started off as strangers, if we go back even further we’ll see that they also started off as our kind mothers. Take any slice of time and our bodies and relationships will appear different; but the fact is that once someone is our mother, they are always our mother. Look at a photo of your mom before you were born — is she your mother or not?! Yes, we say “That’s a picture of my mom before I was born.” And let’s say she dies and a trusted person with clairvoyance introduces you to her in another form, won’t you still recognize her as your mother and wish for her happiness and safety?

Sure, we can argue that we’ve all been each others’ enemies too, but not only is thinking in that way unproductive, we were also only each others’ enemies when we had ignorantly forgotten our mutual dependence, close relationship and lovability, and were under the influence of anger’s inappropriate attention.

We are generally superficial in our perceptions and as a result love does not flow. I reckon the three poisons actually depend on superficiality, on taking appearances at face value, on confusing appearance for reality. Someone appears disagreeable and we believe that they are, inherently so, even though stacks of evidence points to the contrary.

We can love anyone so we might as well love everyone

Nothing is fixed; we can accelerate our universal love by understanding this. We don’t need to wait for “chance” meetings like that of Winston, we don’t need to wait for someone to become pregnant, we don’t need to wait for things to change physically. We can imagine these changes happening, as we do in the meditation on equanimity, and our relationships will change dramatically. We can bring everyone up to the level of our mother, our best friend, or even our child. Genuine love entails noticing and accepting that everything and everyone changes all the time while it itself endures. Love does not take appearances at face value. Love does not judge the book by its cover. If love depends on everything and everyone staying the same, it is actually not love at all but attachment.

Sir Winston of New York

Useful tip: If you find it hard seeing everyone as your kind mother, as in the Buddhist Lamrim meditation, or you have as yet unresolved grievances with your mother, you can try seeing people as your pet dog instead to begin with! Do whatever works. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso calls meditation “beneficial believing”. It is endlessly creative — not just repeating things to ourselves, but tuning into our own experience and building on that. Geshe Kelsang says in Eight Steps to Happiness (page 148):

Since an object’s nature and characteristics depend upon the mind that beholds it, we can change the objects we see by changing the way we see them. We can choose to view ourselves, other people and our world in whatever way is most beneficial. By steadfastly maintaining a positive view we gradually come to inhabit a positive world, and eventually a Pure Land.

To conclude, we’re all going to become Bodhisattvas and enlightened beings at some point because we have the potential to and the methods exist – sooner or later these two conditions will come together and we’ll travel the spiritual path. Therefore, I always think I may as well get started now! I’ll save myself and others a lot of unnecessary heartache if I do …

Your comments are most welcome, and please share this article if you like it.

Oh woe is me! How to stop distracting ourselves from happiness.

i love myself

Probably, as mentioned in this previous article, the worst fault of self-cherishing is how it undermines our wish and capability to love and help others. I have a couple of embarrassing examples of this from just now, which I have summoned up the courage to share with you below …

As my teacher says in his wonderful mind-training book Eight Steps to Happiness:

The main reason why we do not cherish all living beings is that we are so preoccupied with ourself, and this leaves very little room in our mind to appreciate others.

It is like you’ve worked hard and paid a fortune for a hotel room with a view, only to discover that this view is entirely obscured by a huge rocky mountain right in front of your window. Self-cherishing is likened in the scriptures to a huge mountain blocking our view of the valley of others, a big shame when we’ve paid a karmic fortune to be in this precious human life.

Tai Lung

The awful distraction of self-cherishing cannot be over-estimated and makes us useless to others. Whenever it arises it distracts us to a greater or lesser extent, and sometimes tragically, from the meaning of our lives and the source of real happiness, which is cherishing others.

I had a haircut yesterday and I don’t think Vince (not his real name) cut enough off. Vince was regaling me with a long sad story about an obese employee, and clearly he is a bit of a ham, and I’m not sure if he paid enough attention to my hair. He probably did, but my self-cherishing thinks he should have talked less and concentrated more. So I’m wondering whether to go back and have more chopped off, even though a friend told me its nice (but she doesn’t have to live with it on her head…). Basically, I have had some boring monotonous petty thoughts, plus annoyance at those bits of hair that keep falling into my eyes (which also remind me that my eyesight is deteriorating, which reminds me that I’m getting old…) Oh woe is me!

Then a particularly crafty mosquito buzzed around me all night and this morning, and I haven’t been able to catch her to take her outside. I have slathered myself with OFF! and smell like a chemical factory, but nonetheless she scared me in the night into having the sheet right up to my neck even though it’s hot, and she was still hungrily bugging me during my morning meditation session. Look, I love mosquitos in principle, and especially when they are behaving themselves. But I’m covered with itches. Oh woe is me!

So I open my emails and one is from a friend I haven’t seen in a long time, who was always a bit disturbed but is now sounding flat-out paranoid and threatening suicide. I have to find a way to help her…. I also get an email from a close friend saying that her mother has just had a (mild) stroke and is being kept in the hospital, and that it is a “shock”. And it is, for a few minutes until Madam Mosquito bites again.

Okaaaaaaay……

You’d think those two bits of news would be enough to occupy my mind with thoughts of compassion and how to help, but no, still my self-cherishing wants to veer off those things and back onto the bad hair day and the buzzing mosquito. I have to make an effort to ignore its demands.

(I would like to seguey into a little praise here for my friend, the Buddhist monk Kelsang Nyima. Standing chatting with him outside the NKT mother center Manjushri Centre’s front entrance one day, I noticed his hands were covered with small red welts. Indeed, there was a still a mosquito sucking out his blood. I asked him why he didn’t shoo her away and he replied matter of factly that she was hungry. Then he changed the subject.)

I can only be humbled by such patient generosity, but at least my own 30 years of practice helps me to recognize that it is crazy and, frankly, embarassing to be even remotely bothered about myself given the far worse situations of my friends, not to mention the entire rest of the planet and all six realms. Yet these two incidents have been a useful reminder that, until my self-grasping and self-cherishing are entirely eliminated, I am always in danger and cannot be complacent. My “biggest problem” during the minutes of distraction is bad hair and buzzing mosquitoes, not my sick friend or my friend’s sick mom, if I’m honest, and I might as well be. Those seemingly reasonable and self-protecting worries are entirely unreasonable and treacherous. Stop you buzzing biting mosquito and let me generate compassion!!! Let me offer the victory to others, but please be sure my hair looks hot while I’m doing it.

(Check out this blog, where the blogger says the same thing, only better. I don’t think this blogger is a Buddhist, which just goes to show that these teachings are common sense and you don’t have to be a Buddhist to choose cherishing others over self. It works for everyone, every time. Buddha gave some beautiful wise practical advice on how precisely to do it though – and you can read this in Eight Steps to Happiness.)

Got any examples of your own that you’d like to embarass yourselves with in the comments? And if you like this article, please share it.

“Me me me me me me me me me me me me me me me”! (to the tune of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy)

rubber band 1

Self-cherishing — thinking that me and my happiness are the most important in the world  — is bad news for me and for everyone else. Very bad news.

Beaker unwittingly demonstrates some of the perils of self-cherishing in his rendition of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy:

Self-cherishing not only destroys our chances at any lasting peace or happiness (having already made our lives miserable since beginningless time), but it also directly prevents us from being able to help others have a less miserable life. And this is the case even if we are basically decent and would actually like to help others.

The rubber band of self-cherishing

While we remain tethered and bound by the demonic delusion of self-cherishing, our wishes and attempts to help others will always have an expiry date – we’ll do it for a while, perhaps, but there are obvious built-in limits. Try stretching a rubber band from your thumb as far as you can, and then letting go. Ow! In the same way, we may stretch ourselves with great effort and strain to help other people, but the moment our mindfulness slips our mind snaps back to self-cherishing.

For sure, we rarely admit to being at the center of the universe at polite dinner parties, but it is not hard to figure out that this is exactly how we feel. Who does it feel like the world revolves around, if not me? I and a bunch of strangers were swimming in the ocean the other day and I wondered what I’d think if a shark was approaching. Whose leg would I want the shark to bite off?! If I’m ravenous and there is just one piece of pie left, who gets to eat it? As my teacher says in Eight Steps to Happiness:

Our ordinary view is that we are the centre of the universe and that other people and things derive their significance principally from the way in which they affect us. Our car, for example, is important simply because it is ours, and our friends are important because they make us happy. Strangers, on the other hand, do not seem so important because they do not directly affect our happiness, and if a stranger’s car is damaged or stolen we are not that concerned….

Excuses, excuses

We are a little embarrassed by our self-cherishing in its naked form, so we clothe it in front of others and ourself with all sorts of justifications: “Look, I need my leg more than them because I’m a runner.” “Honestly, I should be the one who has that piece of pie because I’m bigger than everyone else and need the calories more.” Etc etc. You can check any number of everyday examples. Anytime we put ourself and our needs above others, what layer upon layer of excuses are we coming up with?!

When analyzed, my excuses for putting myself above others are exceedingly lame and superficial for they mask the actual truth – the reason I don’t want my leg bitten off is because it is my leg. The reason I want the last piece of pie is because my happiness and freedom from suffering are most important. It just is like that because I’m me.

Who is fighting whom?

self-cherishing v me

Yes, I have work to do! First thing is to realize who the actual enemy is and why, so I can stop being victimized. This very same attitude — nothing and no one else — has caused every single one of my problems while ingratiatingly pretending to be on my side. (You can find out all about its faults and oily, deceptive nature in Eight Steps to Happiness.) This recognition alone takes us an exceedingly long way in the right direction. It also brings us some instant peace of mind.

Geshe Kelsang says:

This self-centered view of the world is based on ignorance and does not correspond to reality.

The self we cherish is the inherently existent self that is apprehended by our self-grasping ignorance.

Important announcement: this self doesn’t exist!!

So what are we doing cherishing it?!!

Self-cherishing is a delusion, which means it is an unpeaceful, uncontrolled mind that arises from inappropriate attention. Its important to remember that self-cherishing, like all our delusions, may be a deep bad habit as we are so darned used to paying inappropriate attention to ourselves, but it is not an integral part of our make-up. It is like a big cloud – it may have swooped down like a black spaceship to block out the sun, but a delusion cloud is always temporary and adventitious, and can never destroy the clear sky of our Buddha nature.

Mother Tara

Cherishing others on the other hand arises naturally from a recognition of the truth – that others are kind, that we depend on them for everything, and that cherishing them has countless benefits. Because it is part of reality, it is also part of our Buddha nature. It is far more who we are than the self-deceptive distorted delusion of self-cherishing. We need to remember this or we think we’re fighting ourselves. We’re not. We’re fighting our enemy, and on our side in this battle we have not only our own pure potential but also every single enlightened being. Therefore, we are bound to win.

Do you think there is ever a time when we need self-cherishing? Your comments are most welcome. And please share this article if you like it.

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