Learning to let go

letting go 2

letting go 2A dear friend emailed me during my rather paltry adventure in Denver airport. She is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer at the moment, and this is what she said:

Struggles are spiritual adventures with a vision. That is how I am trying to see my whole journey through this cancer thing. It’s a spiritual adventure.

So, inspired by her, I’m continuing the subject of stopping grasping, finding real relief and refuge, and going places we have never been … all the time letting go and relaxing like we’ve never relaxed before.

Stop grasping at this life

The first helpful thing to remember is that this life is just one and very short, so why sweat it. It is not the be all and end all of existence, more like one stitch in the tapestry of time. Future lives are very many and long by comparison. This life is like one bead of a mala/rosary, other lives are like the other beads. Or, as I heard just yesterday in a Summer Festival teaching, they are like grains of rice in a mandala kit or bag of rice. And these are just analogies or visual aids, because past and future lives are countless. But even compared with 107 other beads, of what importance is just one? As Geshe Kelsang said last October in Portugal:

Tmala beadshe happiness and freedom of future lives are more important than those of this life because this present life is only one single life and if we die today it will end today, but our future lives are countless and endless. There is no doubt that our future lives are more important than this life.

(Geshe Kelsang went onto explain that we can understand the existence of future lives by understanding the nature and function of consciousness, and you can read about this in How to Understand the Mind.)

Stop grasping at samsara

We are attached to the places, enjoyments, and bodies (people) of samsara, which keeps us heavily stuck like an elephant in mud. But attachment, or uncontrolled desire, exaggerates the power of these things to make us happy. If something is a real cause of happiness, as attachment believes, then should it not always give rise to happiness? But it is not hard to see that the supposed causes of our happiness are also the causes of our problems.

For example, when you first fall for someone, they seem to be the source of great joy and happiness – from their own side, out there coming at you. But then you have your first argument and, before you know it, they are the source of your pain and problems. What happened!? How can they be a real cause of happiness if they are now causing you pain? In which case, how could they ever have been a real cause of happiness to begin with? elephant stuck in mud

So the mind of attachment is thoroughly deceptive, illogical, thinking that the source of happiness is out there; and its object is thoroughly deceptive too as it is simply not capable of delivering the goods. If we let go of grasping at the object of attachment as being a real source of pleasure, we will no longer be disappointed that they are now seemingly causing us so much pain. And we can also see that they are not the actual cause of that pain, our delusions are – our delusions give them the power to hurt us.

Thinking this through, we can let go of the pain of attachment and aversion, dismantling the habits that trap us in samsara. (We can also take it a step further — see them as helping us to do that by serving as a mirror, and thus transform them from an object of attachment/aversion into an object of gratitude and love! Eh voilà.)

Stop grasping at me

Then we can stop grasping at our own happiness as being more important than others’ happiness, when this is palpably untrue as there are sooooo many more of them. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Solve Our Human Problems p.42, a few unpleasant feelings in the mind of one person are no great shakes:

perspectiveWe are just one person among countless living beings, and a few moments of unpleasant feeling arising in the mind of just one person is no great catastrophe.

So we don’t need to take our problems so seriously, we can let them go.

Stop grasping at real me and real everything else

We can also learn to stop grasping at ourself as real at all, and stop grasping at the past, the future, the 10 directions, what’s “really” going on, eg, where you live, your job, everything. This is profound letting go, profound relaxation. The Dharma of emptiness is the real refuge. All we see and think about is just labels, conceptual imputations, held by thought with no existence beyond that. Seeing no sense in grasping at hallucinations, we can start to let all these conceptual thoughts and their objects dissolve into the clarity of our root mind.

Here is one of my favorite quotes (Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life p. 180) just to whet the appetite for this extraordinary subject:

When examined in this way,
Who is living and who is it who will die?
What is the future and what is the past?
Who are our friends and who are our relatives?

Stop grasping at ordinariness

With the help of Tantra, we can stop grasping at being an ordinary person — particularly if that person is limited, and particularly if that person is melancholy or sad. We can identify with being peaceful and free, nay, with being blissful. We can stop agreeing with ourself that we are an unhappy person – I sometimes wish I had a dollar for every time someone said, “I’m not a super happy person”, or “I’m generally a sad person.” If we keep defaulting to that, it’s a really good idea to stop it. We can learn to default to happiness, to bliss, instead, seeing as that is our Buddha nature and who we actually are.

We can learn to identify with our fully realized Buddha nature too, arising as a Tantric Buddha, and then spreading that love around. Others will gradually relate to us as happy and blissful, and we can think, as the prayer says (Meaningful to Behold, p. 121):

When others encounter me, may it always prove meaningful and beneficial for them. Whether a person has anger or faith towards me, may his wishes be fulfilled.

What will happen if we let go?

What I think is that once we have let go of it all, we can almost effortlessly enter Buddha’s mandala (or Pure Land) and stay there, for we are no longer grasping at being anywhere else. And then we can drop into the central channel and stay there.clear light 1

The Guru, Yidam, Dakinis, and Protector will make sure that we attain enlightenment — we just have to let go of this life, samsara, self-cherishing, self-grasping, and ordinariness. Nothing compares with getting the winds into the central channel and realizing the union of bliss and emptiness. Seriously, nothing. This seems to me the real meaning of the verse:

Having rejected the supreme joy of the sacred Dharma
That is an endless source of delight,
Why am I distracted by the causes of pain,
Why do I enjoy frivolous amusements and the like?

What is success?

I don’t think it matters so much what job etc. we do in our daily life or whether we are “successful” at it or not – real success comes from changing beginningless stale habits and becoming kinder, wiser, and a Buddha. From that, everything else falls into place.

And in the quest to stop grasping, suffering becomes a mirror, a test, so very helpful – we can be challenged every day by people’s bad behavior, the boredom of our job, not liking where we are living, loneliness, etc., and see where the problem is really coming from, ie, delusions and ordinary conceptions. We will become a strong person as a result, who is permanently free from attachment and grasping. Then we’ll feel very grateful to everyone who got us here, however seemingly badly behaved they were!

(Of course, I have barely touched on these subjects and they are a lifetime’s practice. But I do think it can be helpful to consider them in the light of letting go. You can find a vast treasury of teachings on each one in these books.)

Enjoying life

photo 1 (4)

This continues from these articles on overcoming loneliness.

Samsara’s enjoyments 

photo 1 (4)Attachment to anything seems to aggravate our sense of isolation. Someone told me that they feel especially lonely when they’re looking for someone to share their samsaric enjoyments with, and not lonely while they’re enjoying Dharma. “I wish they were holding my hand in this movie” is a more likely craving than “I wish they were sitting next to me generating compassion and renunciation.” When I am meditating, for example, I never feel as if I am all on my ownsome, even if it may look like that from the outside.

The other day I was strolling in Denver Botanical Gardens, which just happens to be close to where I am living, very lucky me – and the flowers were breaking through after the winter splashing gorgeous color everywhere.* I was on my own, as is often the case, and I was loving being in the moment; but then I found myself wanting to show these exquisite flowers to my man friend and my parents all the way over in England, as if that would mean that they were there with me too. So I whipped out my handy Smartphone camera to endeavor to capture a paltry fraction of what was going on, and was about to send the photos over via Viber, when the following thought occurred: “This is so precarious and distracting – they are seven hours ahead, they are probably not online, plus the Martian for some reason cannot see the (to me, blindingly obvious) point of texting back and forth all day long, and my dear mother, smart as she is, is not the world’s most technically able individual and will likely send me back a blank email. This could end up being frustrating, and even exacerbate my sense of being alone!”photo 2 (4)

(As an aside, what about the wonders of modern technology! The distractions of modern technology!? The feeling that Smartphone gives us of being so close and yet paradoxically so far!?)

Pure enjoyments

So, instead, I decided to simply imagine that they were here with me already, part of my heart-mind, seeing all this; and imagined their delight. There is no real separation in time or space. You cannot find, or point to, time or space anywhere existing from their own side. Time is simply a characteristic of impermanent objects — not existing over and above them, or around them, or even before and after them! Space and distance, however seemingly vast, are likewise imputed, appearances to mind, as in a dream. The mind can be at the moon in an instant, as Geshe Kelsang explains in How to Understand the Mind. Buddhas are everywhere and with everyone all the time; and we can be too just by putting our minds there.

Contemplating this, I found myself offering up all these gardens, plus much more, to the kind holy beings who have taught me this, who also abide in my heart and pervade space and time; as well as to the lovable strangers passing me on the path. This took away any hint of the loneliness of trying to enjoy myself “on my own”; and in fact the gardens no longer felt like deceptive samsaric pleasures held by my self-grasping ignorance to exist “out there”, at a remove.photo 3 (4)

Instead, I felt very blissful, which is the opposite of attachment, I find. Attachment is like a black hole that can never be satiated whatever you throw at it; whereas bliss is like the sun — complete, present, all pervasive, and radiant. These kinds of experiences show me that it is possible to enjoy without attachment and clinging, and in genuine communion with others. This is good, as we are aiming at having uncontaminated pleasant feelings full-time!

Lonely as a cloud?

At this point, since I have mentioned my mother, and today indeed it is Mother’s Day, I feel like mentioning her favorite poem by the natural mystic Wordsworth, as I think she’ll find it relevant to what I am saying here:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils …

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Being in the here and the now

Talking about attachment, and about time and space, I grew up on the classic British Benson & Hedges line:

“Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet.”

The famous commercials used an excerpt from a jazz rendition of Bach’s Air on the G String. A distinguished fellow would find himself in a variety of awkward situations and remedy them by lighting a cigar and smiling. (I can’t say it worked for me — whenever I tried a puff of my dad’s cigars I just felt sick …)photo 4 (3)

The moment we externalize happiness, as we do with attachment or uncontrolled desire – whether in another person, a house, a career, a reputation, or a cigar – we have instantly distanced ourselves from it. We may think, “To be happy I need to be on a Caribbean beach with a beautiful person, sipping a pink martini,” in which case our happiness is literally miles away. Or we may think, “To be happy I need to win this promotion and be free from my money worries,” in which case we are always separated from our happiness by the gulf of time.

Truly though, happiness is here within us right now. Remove all distorted, delusional states of mind and happiness will spontaneously flood into every part of our being, day and night. This has been the true-life experience of countless people who have trained their minds.

*ps. Denver is odd. Today, May 11th, winter is back already — five inches of snow smothering those poor spring flowers. It’s lucky I took these photos ;-)

 

How to mend a broken heart according to Buddhism

long queue at airport

This continues on from Why do I feel so lonely?

So close and yet so far

I have recently been in New York City for a week. People often say they feel lonelier in the middle of a huge city surrounded by long queue at airportmillions of people than in a rural area with hardly anyone around. A friend of mine who used to live in London said he always felt somewhat alone there. Then one weekend he did a Buddhist meditation retreat “in a field with a bunch of hairy men” and “never felt happier or more connected.” There was no turning back!

I think this is because, when we are surrounded by others, we are holding even more tightly to our own sense of personal space, trying to protect ourselves from uncomfortable intrusion by strange “others”, increasing that gap. It can be useful though — as mentioned in this article, in huge cities like NYC we have microseconds to connect to the waves of humanity walking past us, and if we pull it off it can feel wonderful.

Crammed like sardines on the Path train to New Jersey, trying to assert some sense of control over their environment, everyone was vigorously avoiding eye contact, even as we were forced to bump up against each other around every corner (the sense of powerlessness not helped by being diverted to Holboken where the doors wouldn’t open.) I found this a useful opportunity to connect to my fellow suffering commuters in my heart, the only place we can be in control of our experience and, ironically, feel we have enough space to relax.cherish others

Story of a broken heart

I am going to give an example now of an ill-fated romantic relationship; but problems, mental pain, and loneliness caused by self-grasping ignorance and attachment can arise in other relationships too, with friends, family, children, pets, etc.  And, as I said in the previous article, loneliness is not about whether or not we are in a relationship, or even about whether or not we find someone attractive; it is about whether or not we are controlling our ignorance and attachment. For any partnership, or friendship, to work, we need to reduce these, and increase our love. With a wise motivation and a heart full of love, it is possible to have strong, enjoyable, and helpful relationships.

Beginning:

Have you ever been having fun in a restaurant with friends when someone gorgeous walks in and, before you know it, your happiness dives out of your body, under the floorboards, and into them?! We were having a smooth, harmonious, warm time with our friends, not really fixating on ourselves, finding everyone interesting, feeling connected – and then what happened?! One minute we are enjoying everyone without grasping, the next minute we are clinging onto one person for dear life.

It is now up to them to make us happy and we have to get their name, phone number, lifelong devotion …

At the beginning of this love affair, we set ourselves up in need. We didn’t need them before, and they didn’t make us need them; that is all on us, or our mind of attachment. We are no longer the whole orange – we are half an orange and we need the other half to feel whole or complete. We give our power away – “There goes my happiness, it just walked out the restaurant door,” we give them the key.

give heart to you

“Oh, oh, you better be careful what you do with it!”

If we do manage to get it together with them, we then need to receive approximately 20 texts a day, (perhaps a few less if we’re from Mars), or we feel lonely. If happiness depends on a text or seeing them, then it’ll never be enough – there’s a brief relief if they call, and then the anxious waiting starts again.

We can check out our sense of self when we are thinking, “You make ME happy”. There is a strong sense of me, “What about me”, which is isolated, and therefore vulnerable to separation anxiety.

These Lifehouse lyrics seem to sum it up quite nicely, as do a million other song lyrics:

Every time I see your face
My heart takes off on a high speed chase.
Don’t be scared it’s only love
Baby that we’re falling in.

I can’t wait ’till tomorrow
This feeling has swallowed me whole
And I know that I’ve lost control…

Won’t be easy, have my doubts too,
But it’s over without you, I’m just lost, incomplete
Yeah you feel like home, home to me.

Herein follows a few weeks or months of bliss (or days or hours, depending) … there is a lot of attachment but it is seemingly in synch in that neither of us can get enough of the other, though if you check there is already tension in the mind. Sooner or later, one person starts to pull away. And whether that affair flames out or develops into a long-term meaningful relationship depends on genuine love and respect.

Middle:

Attachment puts our life on hold – if we are not in the other person’s physical presence, life is what is happening while we wander around missing them, feeling alienated from our environment, homesick, wanting to be somewhere else. Even when you’re with them, the other person can never do enough, can never reassure us enough. Meanwhile, you may notice if you look around — no one else is bored out of their mind watching the clock, waiting on tenterhooks for the weekend, sulking and/or playing emotional games, or tapping feverishly into their smartphone; they are just getting on with their day.

wiFIHave you ever been a waiting mode, wanting badly for someone to call you, email you, or return a text? Hours, perhaps days, go by and … nothing?! And you feel increasingly powerless? That is attachment at work. Every day brings new ways in which we can torture ourselves – in the old days, we could at least have some time out with the mental excuse that they might have missed us on the phone while we were shopping (or, even further back, the horse was taking a few weeks with the letter); but now we are glued to our smartphones and there are a hundred ways they could, and yet are NOT, contacting us.

Here’s a word of advice:

Never invest your happiness in something you cannot control.

This clearly includes other people’s behavior. We can hardly control our own behavior, let alone anyone else’s. Attachment, or uncontrolled desire, is based on an hallucination that happiness comes from OUT THERE. So we want power and control over our external environment and other people, but the only power or control we have any hope of gaining is over our own mind.

There’s nothing wrong with finding someone attractive, even incredibly attractive — the mistake we make is when we grasp at them as inherently attractive!

With uncontrolled desire, we often defer our happiness, “I’ll be happy when they finally get here!”; or else we try and get back to what once was, “We had such a great time then, why can’t we be like that now?!” Love is always in the present moment. Attachment ranges over the past and the future, missing out on the real bliss of being fully here, now, connecting to our pure and peaceful nature, real union. We can make plans and even have desired outcomes, but as soon as our happiness depends on those plans, we’ve lost control of it.

Attachment is conditional and therefore vulnerable – I once heard a song lyric, “For as long as we’re together, I’ll love you forever.” Love is unconditional, we just want them to be happy regardless; and we get to choose who we love, so love can last.

heart breakAttachment makes us act oddly, like a bumbling idiot desperately seeking attention. Someone told me the other day: “I was so cool at first as I could tell she loved me. Then she showed interest in other things, her own life and friends, and I felt excluded, and started to act oddly to get her attention. It didn’t feel like me, but I couldn’t help it.” Through his insecurity and loneliness, he said, she felt less and less close to him, and the relationship ended. Who cannot relate to that? Who hasn’t either heard or said things like: “I can’t give you what you seem to want from me! I feel cornered by you! You seem to expect my undivided attention!”

“Why don’t you love me anymore?” soon becomes “You selfish b****.” A vicious circle ensues of one person trying to get more attention and the other person feeling claustrophobic, closing off, and pulling away. And as the rose-tinted attachment specs come off and the feelings of aversion and betrayal begin, what was quirky, fascinating, original, or cool in our partner becomes strange, peculiar, weird, and distant.

A friend showed me a joke in the New Yorker, a man talking to a woman:

“When, exactly, did all the stuff you love about me become all the stuff you hate about me?”

There are endless self-help videos on how to get and, even harder, how to keep your man or woman. Some of them are pretty amusing, especially when it comes to the differences between Martians and Venusians; but they don’t seem to be addressing the root cause of the difficulty, which is the self-isolation of ignorance and exaggeration of attachment.

Of course, addressing these delusions completely doesn’t happen overnight, but as soon as we get started, the better our relationships with others are going to become.

End:

heart break 1If our love affair ends due to attachment, our heart literally aches. Attachment is “sticky desire”, it is like peeling sticking plaster off a hairy arm. We were already lonely when we were in the relationship, and we are still lonely now that it is over. We can’t live with someone, but we can’t live without them either.

Union

Seeking union and connection is part of our Buddha nature. We are just going the wrong way about it, projecting and externalizing the source of our happiness while holding tightly to a sense of a real self and other. We need to seek union through love and wisdom, bliss and emptiness, not ignorance and attachment.

More next time, in Part 3! Meantime, your insights into this subject are welcome in the comments.

 

Why do I feel so lonely?

Loneliness 2

Can you remember the last time you felt lonely?

If you can, you are not alone!  Reminds me of that Billy Joel lyric from Piano Man:

They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness
But it’s better than drinking alone.

We crave companionship, closeness, union, but the irony is that we are not actually alone in the first place. To appreciate this, we first need to understand the actual reasons we feel so lonely.

Loneliness 2

Lonely, or in seventh heaven?!

It is not because we are on our own that we suffer from loneliness. We can be sitting on the same sofa as someone, been married to them for years, and still feel totally isolated. We can be standing next to someone feeling half a world away. Or … we can be half a world away feeling like we are not separated at all. My teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso spent 16 years strictly on his own in the Himalayas on retreat and didn’t feel a moment’s loneliness – had his compassion and teacher not prised him out so he could come help us, he’d probably still be blissfully there. I even spent the larger part of 3 years moreorless on my own doing retreat, and have never felt more connected or peaceful. Some of the happiest and friendliest people I know are monks and nuns.

Some days we can feel that we have an abundance of supportive friends and family, other days we can feel that there is not a single life form on this planet that really gets us.

Loneliness says far more about our world view or outlook on life than about who is or who is not around us. Whether we are in a relationship or not, whether we have many friends or only a few, we all need to learn the same things. Looking at loneliness is quite profound as it can teach us a lot about our existential situation, and understanding the illusion or hallucination behind it can help us attain liberation not just from loneliness but other delusions too.

Understanding the illusion of loneliness

lonelinessOver the course of a few articles I thought it could be helpful to look at loneliness, starting with what causes the feeling of loneliness, namely self-grasping ignorance exacerbated by attachment. The feeling of being isolated is an illusion created by those delusions, especially as we are not in fact alone at all but entirely connected to everything and everyone. We don’t have to create relationships with others, those relationships are already there. Love and wisdom are a natural response to that recognition, and the very antidote to loneliness.

Some thought experiments

To help you go within and look at what’s going on, you can begin by sitting down to meditate — settling your mind with some kind of meditation on the breath or the clarity of the mind, and generating a good motivation wanting to get to the bottom of loneliness for your own and others’ sake.

Then you can do this:

(1)    Examine the last time you felt really lonely. What is loneliness? Who felt lonely? Answer: “Me”. Did you have a strong sense of self and other? Did you feel isolated, alienated? Did you feel like the only person in the universe, surrounded by other independent people all separate from you, going about their business? Did you feel you were over here and everyone else was over there, quite possibly having a whole lot of fun without you? Did you feel homesick, as if you were not in the place or with the people you wanted to be, as if your life was on some kind of hold? Did you feel a sense of lacking, of loss? Did you feel a yearning for connection to someone outside of yourself?

(2)    When did you experience this loneliness? Was it in a relationship or out of one? Or both?

(3)    What would it take to satisfy you so that you wouldn’t be lonely? When wouldn’t you be lonely?

All this is coming from a misconception of who we are and who others are, called “self-grasping ignorance”. We feel we are independent, existing solidly and from our own side, the only real me. Then other people feel really “other” and so apart from us — there is by necessity a gap between us. Then we develop attachment and craving to be close because we don’t want to be all alone in here.

In your meditation you can breathe out the ignorance, attachment, and loneliness, it is not who you are any more than clouds are the sky. Breathe in the blessings of wisdom and love understanding your profound and vast connectivity, riding these light rays into your heart where they join the inner light of your Buddha nature.

Based on this, perhaps some working description of loneliness might be: an unhappy feeling based on a feeling of isolation and a yearning to be with someone and/or elsewhere. 

Self-grasping ignorance

In Ocean of Nectar, a beautiful big book on the ultimate nature of things that is a commentary to Chandrakirti’s Guide to the Middle Way, there is a verse near the beginning:

I bow down to that compassion for living beings
Who from first conceiving “I” with respect to the self,
Then thinking ‘This is mine’ and generating attachment for things,
Are without self-control like the spinning of a well.

This is part of a motivational teaching on generating compassion for others – but we can also use it on ourselves because to have compassion for others we also need compassion for ourselves, namely renunciation, wishing for ourselves to be free from the actual root of suffering.

What is this root? Within our body and mind, yet also strangely independent of them, we apprehend an I that is us – solid, real, permanent — and we want the best for it. My possessions, my family, my views, my job etc are very important because they are MINE. I am the only real me – everyone else feels distinctly like “other”, regardless of what name they may call themselves. Who do you think of first when you wake up in the morning? And for the rest of the day?! This attention to self may seem just normal, but it is in fact it is entirely exaggerated and blinkered, and the cause of all our suffering.

i me mineDue to strong sense of I, me, and mine, we generate attachment to things we think can please us and aversion for the things that don’t.

A strong sense of self leads to a correspondingly strong sense of other, and we are immediately split off, isolated. Our nature is in truth whole, unified, blissful, in communion; but this feels ruptured by our self-grasping and attachment. These cause a black hole in our heart that nothing and no one can fill.

Attachment

We seek union, awakening and bliss, perhaps wanting to connect to the truth of our Buddha nature, and there is nothing wrong with this at all. What doesn’t work, however, is doing this with the mind of attachment, which, because it is based on real me and real you, can only reinforce our sense of a gap between us. Due to attachment we feel we are in opposition to others instead of in harmony and communication. We feel disconnected.

Society is a reflection of our attachment. Hollywood and match.com set us up to feel lonely as we believe that there is someone out there who will make us feel complete; therefore, loneliness is justified as Mr. or Ms. Right is waiting. There is no shortage of songs to support this view, eg, Neil Young’s “I am lonely but you can free me in the way you smile.” In NYC, London, Denver, and every other urban area, your soul mate is waiting — so we stay lonely as it is to do with finding someone.

Who is alone? I am. Attachment is a natural response to that and so it is not the root problem, though it aggravates it. We have to identify the self that is lonely — a limited, isolated self that is in a state of need. Attachment exaggerates that need by convincing us that happiness and togetherness really ARE to be found out there. It makes the situation far worse in the guise of trying to make it better.

Although Guide to the Middle Way is a profound philosophical treatise, there is nothing abstract or airy fairy about this verse or the commentary to it. Chandrakirti and Geshe Kelsang are describing the very building blocks of our suffering, saying “It is like this”; and, if you have ever felt really lonely, you’ll understand what they are talking about. You’ll know the truth of suffering and origins (the first two of  Buddha’s four noble truths).

If we understand these, we will also understand that there are many doorways to exit from suffering — paths leading to cessations (the second two noble truths). We will develop renunciation, or the wish for liberation, because we will understand our existential predicament as well as the way out of it. If we see what we are up against, we can then see how a real self and real other is a complete illusion.

Part 2 coming up soon :-)

Meantime, I would love to hear your comments.

What is the Meaning of Life?

meaning of life 42
meaning of life 42

Ermm …

Everyone reading this most likely has a precious human life at the moment. Even comparing ourselves with other human beings, we are really very lucky. Today, if the whole world were shrunk to a village of 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same, the demographics would apparently look something like this

  • 80 would live in substandard housing;
  • 67 would be unable to read;
  • 50 would be malnourished and 1 dying of starvation;
  • 33 would be without access to a safe water supply;
  • 39 would lack access to improved sanitation;
  • 24 would not have any electricity;
  • 7 people would have access to the Internet;
  • 1 would have a college education;
  • 1 would have HIV;
  • 2 would be near birth; 1 near death;
  • 5 would control 32% of the entire world’s wealth; all 5 would be from the US.

Where do you fit into all this? Also, in 2009, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life performed a study on religious freedom in the world. According to the results, nearly 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with heavy restrictions on religious freedom. But us? We can read spiritual books, go to meditation classes, go to church, go to the temple, go to yoga classes, practice at home… No one is stopping us from training our mind, fulfilling our true potential and becoming completely happy, except perhaps ourselves. That’s why this meditation on our precious human life comes first in the Lamrim cycle.

So, what is the meaning of life?!

The trillion-dollar question, but one I think we really need to have some kind of answer to if we are to have a meaningful life. ‘Course, meaning depends also on what we want and what we think we can get out of life.

meditating BuddhaBuddha explained how our life can be precious in three ways: from a temporary point of view, from an ultimate point of view, and in every moment. All the things we like doing to experience pleasure and purpose are only possible because we were born as a human being, and we can create the cause for more human life in the future. Not only that, but human beings can make enormous spiritual progress. We can reduce and even totally abandon our delusions, and increase our love, compassion and wisdom as much as we want, if we learn the methods. According to Buddha, within this short life we could even develop all our good qualities to their highest level, enlightenment. From that ultimate point of view, we are also incredibly lucky. Also, right here and now, and in every moment, we can learn to enjoy everything, as well as create the causes for future happiness. You can read all about all of this in the big Lamrim book, Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

Enlightenment

In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang says:

When we attain enlightenment we will have fulfilled our own wishes, and we can fulfil the wishes of all other living beings; we will have liberated ourself permanently from the sufferings of this life and countless future lives, and we can directly benefit each and every living being every day.

I personally think that does sound impossible to beat. Plus, I believe it is entirely possible for you and me to attain enlightenment. So, I agree with my teacher:

The attainment of enlightenment is therefore the real meaning of human life.

Same actions, different outcomes

As mentioned in this article, we “remain natural while changing our aspiration.” We still do what we do as humans, and we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater by running off to live the rest of our life in a cave (if that were even possible). But at the same time we are using this life to journey to liberation and enlightenment by changing our view and intentions. In Kadampa Buddhism, we try to transform everything into the spiritual path. In How to Solve Our Human Problems, Geshe Kelsang says:

Buddha did not encourage us to abandon daily activities that provide necessary conditions for living, or that prevent poverty, environmental problems, particular diseases, and so forth. However, no matter how successful we are in these activities, we shall never achieve permanent cessation of such problems…. Therefore, we should not be satisfied with just temporary freedom from particular sufferings, but apply great effort to attain permanent freedom while we have this opportunity.

We can even keep enjoying the things we like enjoying, probably more if we can find a way to make them meaningful and not a cause of attachment and disappointment/aversion. I just watched my new team, the Denver Broncos, being crushed by the Seattle Seahawks. I don’t understand the game at all, but even I could see they were being massacred. I am now seriously having to consider going back to supporting the Tampa Bay Bucs. Or… Geshe Kelsang was once asked by a diehard football enthusiast how to transform watching football into the spiritual path. Geshe-la replied:

Rejoice for the winners, and have compassion for the losers.

Those are actually the two main practices of a Buddha — if we managed to do that, instead of staring sadly and disbelievingly at the telly, even watching the Super Bowl could be meaningful. Could be. Depends. (I am not in fact a football enthusiast myself, but was invited to a gathering near South Park in the snow-capped Rockies, and want to get to know my new neighbors; plus I do like the snacks. We left at half-time, full of compassion …)

A star in the midday sky

Not only is our current opportunity really precious, it is also exceedingly unusual – according to Buddha, as rare as a star seen in the midday sky.

rabbit in the moonIf we think about all the daily ways in which we can make our life meaningful, we’ll come to realize that we are very lucky – this deep experience stays with us all the time and changes everything. Have you ever seen the rabbit in the moon? Funnily enough, it was the rabbit I always saw as a kid, never the man in the moon. Years later I discovered that the Tibetans call the moon the “rabbit-bearer” because they also see the clear shape of a rabbit on its surface. You may have glanced up at the moon for many years and not seen it, perhaps because you’ve never heard of it. Then, one day, “Got it!” From that moment on you’ll always see the rabbit whenever you see the moon. I think realizations are rather like this. Once we have realized our good fortune we are uplifted – never separated from the happy mind that appreciates and wants to make the most of it.

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(This article is a continuation from this one … and your comments are very welcome.)

Live life lightly, live it well

photo_11.jpg

What does it mean to you to take, or seize, the essence of your human life?

Denver Cheesman Park

View from Cheesman Park

I was just walking through my new leafy neighborhood, Capitol Hill, and into Cheesman Park, and once again the Colorado sky is wall to wall blue, a canopy of blue. It appears blue. It is blue? I can see blue very clearly up there. But if I try to reach out and grasp it, I will grasp at air; and if I try to push it away, my palm will meet no resistance.

This is true of everything in my life. Buddha said that all phenomena are mere appearance. They are like the blue of the sky. As Geshe Kelsang says in his section on the four profundities in The New Heart of Wisdom:

From an empty sky, blue manifests. Similarly, from the emptiness of form, form manifests. In the same way, all phenomena are manifestations of their emptiness.

Probably one of the best way to seize the essence of our human life is to realize that there is nothing there to seize, there is nothing there to grasp at.  If we do that, we not only live lightly in this life, but we can pull the rug out from all our own and others’ suffering, destroying our self-grasping ignorance and all the pulling and pushing that go along with it. The only depth is emptiness.

Doorways in the minddoorway in mind

Many years ago a friend had a waking epiphany, or maybe it was a dream, I don’t remember. He was in a field and there was a doorway opening in the sky to the most exquisite, blissful place he had ever seen. Through that door he could see all the Buddhas and Dakinis beckoning him, including his Spiritual Guide. They were saying, “Come on through! What are you waiting for? There is nothing for you in that muddy field and you should know, you’ve been there long enough. Realize emptiness and fulfill the purpose of your human life, enter the door to total freedom and bliss and bring everyone along with you.”

My friend was ecstatic and motivated. But when he started walking toward that door, he noticed something unnerving.

The door was slowly closing.

He sent a description of this vision to Geshe Kelsang, who, somewhat to his surprise, was absolutely delighted. Geshe Kelsang asked for it to go in the next edition of Full Moon, which was a magazine produced by the New Kadampa Tradition at that time of news, views, and practitioner interviews of how they applied Kadampa Buddhism to their lives (long before the days of the Internet, Facebook, websites, blogs, etc.)

This vision has always helped me with two important Lamrim (stages of the path) meditations, which, because they motivate us to pursue the remaining stages of the path, are the first two meditations of the cycle – precious human life and death & impermanence. We have everything we need right now to enter that doorway, but we are also running out of time.

The first Lamrim meditation

These last two weeks I’ve been meditating on the Lamrim cycle of meditations, as Kadampa Centers traditionally give over the month of January to meditation retreat. It has always been my favorite time of year. Vide Kadampa has been recording his daily Lamrim meditations for over two years, in fact he has written, astonishingly enough, over 1,000 articles! I can’t recommend his blog, Daily Lamrim, highly enough. But nonetheless, if he doesn’t mind, I’m going to try my hand at writing down some of my thoughts on the 21 Lamrim meditations too.

I used Geshe Kelsang’s new book How to Understand the Mind for many of my meditations this year. I loved it.

The purpose of the precious human life meditation is to encourage ourself to take the real meaning of our human life and not to waste it in meaningless activities. 

birth and death“Meaningless activities” like pulling daisies out from that muddy field and making daisy chains? Unless perhaps we are doing it out of love, not losing sight of that closing doorway, and recognizing that the daisies are not as real as they appear (for example)! In other words, it is not what we do but why we do it that makes our activities either meaningful or meaningless.  We all have to do things, after all; we can’t just sit around all day twiddling our thumbs. But external developments, however promising or enticing, never end up being the be all and end all of our lives.

As Geshe Kelsang says also in How to Solve Our Human Problems:

Anyone who has even an inkling of how far the mind can be developed will never be satisfied with insubstantial attainments.

We can’t buy (lasting) happiness, as the saying goes, and we can’t buy lasting meaning either. If we could, someone would have done it by now.

What happened?!

We can feel disgruntled because we try so hard to find all the meaning in things that sooner or later just let us down – including our youth, beauty, jobs, marriages, health, vigor, ambition, careers, possessions, offspring, and so on. At Christmas I went home to my parents in London, who decided for some reason to hold a party for me, inviting all their local friends to meet me even though I’ve met all of them already. Anyway, I wasn’t complaining, and had some good conversations with a diverse, intelligent group of people, most of them now retired after quite illustrious or interesting careers. And, perhaps knowing that I have been into meditation for so long, a few of them shared with me how flat and disconcertingly anxious they felt now as they were ageing, with a dwindling sense of purpose, all their best times seemingly in the past, retired from useful work, their offspring all off doing their own thing. Several had already lost their spouses to death, and none of them felt as healthy or energetic as they used to. They were not being self-pitying – like people everywhere, they were just wondering at what happened, and how quickly too; and what next?

chapters

This life: just one chapter in the book of our travels from life to life

There is nothing wrong of course with raising a family, making money, having a job, etc. We have a saying in the Kadampa Tradition, “Remain natural while changing your aspiration”, which means we keep doing what we were doing before, but change our reasons and motivations for doing it. Traversing human life’s regular milestones is in any case generally inevitable given that we are human beings. But trying to grasp at these external things, trying to hang onto them, trying to give them inherent meaning or value, is like trying to scoop up the blue of the sky — we come up empty.

Ten reasons to be cheerful

Reason one: We are still alive. Buddha listed eight freedoms and ten endowments that make a human life precious from a spiritual point of view, which you can find in the stages of the path teachings, for example in Joyful Path – we can check if we have them all. We can also itemize other ways in which we are in fact very lucky that we might otherwise be taking for granted — eg, friends, family, roof over our head, food in our stomach, clothes on our back, ability to read, still breathing — to counteract the “I’m so unlucky” state of mind that mulls over everything that is wrong with our life and then, not unsurprisingly, ends up depressed, anxious, and discouraged. We can write them down if we are in danger of forgetting them! We could even do one of those Pros and Cons lists (you know the ones, with a ruler line down the middle of the page?!), listing out all the Pros of My Current Existence and Cons of My Current Existence!! Why not? See what happens.

You can even try closing your eyes and thinking of anyone you love and anyone who loves you. Appreciate them. Then spread that feeling further and further. Life can quickly become colorful and rich again with a bit of love thrown in the mix, whatever age we are.

So what is the “real meaning” of human life?!

Maybe I better save what Buddha had to say about that for the next article as I’m running out of space and you are probably running out of coffee break. Plus, who doesn’t like a good cliff hanger …

Over to you: Please share any insights you have had into the meaning of life :-)

Postscript: Cranky Old Man

I found this on Facebook and it is moving and relevant so I thought I’d share it here.

When an old man died in the geriatric ward of a nursing home in an Australian country town, it was believed that he had nothing left of any value. Later, when the nurses were going through his meager possessions, they found this poem. Its quality and content so impressed the staff that copies were made and distributed to every nurse in the hospital, and made their way into magazines around the country. It is now winging its way across the Internet.

Cranky Old Man

What do you see nurses? . . .. . .What do you see?
What are you thinking .. . when you’re looking at me?
A cranky old man, . . . . . . not very wise,
Uncertain of habit .. . . . . . . .. with faraway eyes?
Who dribbles his food .. . … . . and makes no reply.
When you say in a loud voice . .’I do wish you’d try!’
Who seems not to notice . . . the things that you do.
And forever is losing . . . . . .. . . A sock or shoe?
Who, resisting or not . . . … lets you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding . . . . The long day to fill?
Is that what you’re thinking?. . Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse . you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am . . . . .. As I sit here so still,
As I do at your bidding, .. . . . as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of Ten . .with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters .. . . .. . who love one another
A young boy of Sixteen . . . .. with wings on his feet
Dreaming that soon now . . .. . . a lover he’ll meet.
A groom soon at Twenty . . . ..my heart gives a leap.
Remembering, the vows .. .. .that I promised to keep.
At Twenty-Five, now . . . . .I have young of my own.
Who need me to guide . . . And a secure happy home.
A man of Thirty . .. . . . . My young now grown fast,
Bound to each other . . .. With ties that should last.
At Forty, my young sons .. .have grown and are gone,
But my woman is beside me . . to see I don’t mourn.
At Fifty, once more, .. …Babies play ’round my knee,
Again, we know children . . . . My loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me . . . . My wife is now dead.
I look at the future … . . . . I shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing .. . . young of their own.
And I think of the years . . . And the love that I’ve known.
I’m now an old man . . . . . . .. and nature is cruel.
It’s jest to make old age . . . . . . . look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles .. .. . grace and vigour, depart.
There is now a stone . . . where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass . A young man still dwells,
And now and again . . . . . my battered heart swells
I remember the joys . . . . .. . I remember the pain.
And I’m loving and living . . . . . . . life over again.
I think of the years, all too few . . .. gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact . . . that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, people .. . . . .. . . open and see.
Not a cranky old man .
Look closer . . . . see .. .. . .. …. . ME!!

What am I so attached to?

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

Fire of wisdom?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is wrong with attachment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emptiness is naturally beautiful

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript: Nothing wrong with being in love

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

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

Karma and us

Ice cream makes you happy

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

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

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

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

A few conclusions from this latest bike saga:

Everything has a cause

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

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

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

Bill Meyer put it this way:

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

Purification and accepting what is

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

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

“Leave the object alone. Change the mind.”

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

Whatever we think and feel depends on our karma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nice try, Wall’s!

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

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

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

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

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

 

How is your meditation going?

kadampa Buddha under Bodhi Tree

Kadampa BuddhaMeditation is the way to access our own pure potential for mental freedom and happiness, gain deep experience of Buddha’s teachings, and really change for the better.

My tradition, the New Kadampa Tradition, is a meditator’s tradition – every sentence we hear in the teachings is intended to be an object of meditation, to be taken into the heart so that it becomes part of us. This Buddhist tradition stems from Buddha Shakyamuni, who clearly was the master of meditation. Later Je Tsongkhapa mastered all Buddha’s teachings of Sutra and Tantra, spent many years in meditation retreat, and taught immensely practical, experiential, and profound methods for gaining all the realizations of Lamrim, Lojong, and the union of bliss and emptiness (Mahamudra) revealed by Buddha. As a result of this, many of his disciples gained enlightenment in 3 years and 3 months.Je Tsongkhapa

The founder of the New Kadampa Tradition, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, has also spent about half of his life in meditation retreat on these same methods, much of it solitary, and has been meditating since he was a child. Many of Geshe Kelsang’s disciples are very proficient meditators too. We have no shortage of powerful examples showing how far meditation can take us.

Sometimes this tradition can be a bit talky – we talk a lot about the teachings but may not get round to meditating on them as much as perhaps we could. And over the years I have heard a number of people say that they find meditation hard and that they are not making as much progress in meditation as they’d like. They love the teachings, but find they can’t make them stick, and are sometimes discouraged to find they not really changing much. Some people even give up altogether.

Geshe-la meditating on a rock

I have thought about this quite a lot because I believe that we can make meditation harder than it needs to be even though, thanks to Buddha, Je Tsongkhapa, Geshe Kelsang, and their students, we, unbelievably, have access to the same liberating methods. I have always loved meditating, and I have already written a few things that I thought might be helpful here based on what I like to do (see end of article). But the other day in England, an old friend dating back to the early years of the NKT came to visit me. She told me that in the last couple of years her meditations had improved exponentially, and we discussed why. She volunteered all the things she had been doing “wrong” over the years and, with her permission, I thought I’d share this with you.

How not to meditate

(1)    Start by feeling inadequate, insecure, limited, perhaps even depressed, and think: “I really should meditate because I am so inadequate, insecure, limited, perhaps even depressed.” ie, identify with being a limited person from the outset, rather than identifying with your pure potential.

(2)    Do a few minutes half-hearted breathing meditation to try and settle the mind and get rid of at least a few of those strong distractions and delusions, but know really that it is a hopeless cause to try and get rid of all of them because, after all, I can’t meditate.

(3)    Perhaps do some prayers if we haven’t already done them distractedly at the beginning of the session – find it hard to stay focused on them as we’re not really in the zone, and thinking it doesn’t really matter as at least we’ll be creating some good karma.

(4)    Follow the guidelines for meditation – intellectually follow and repeat lines of reasoning that should lead us to our desired object, which is something we are not feeling at all at the moment; and, if we don’t get to our object, make it up. When the object fades, talk to ourselves some more. (Perhaps spend most of the meditation talking to ourselves and practically none of it absorbed.)

(5)    Push for blessings. I am inadequate etc and can’t meditate, but bless me anyway to get this object.

(6)    Feel slightly exhausted and make yourself a cup of coffee. Try and be good all day, but not from a natural place of deep inner peace and connectedness but because you know you’re supposed to be.

(7)    Result = no taste. Guilt. No fun. No progress. Commiserate with others experiencing the same thing. “I really can’t meditate!” “Don’t worry, nor can I!” Eventually stop trying at all.

Some solutions

My friend was not alone – she told me she found many people with whom to commiserate! Morten helped a lot of them when he led meditations in the new year at Manjushri Centre. As he and I have a long connection and practice in a very similar way, I thought I’d share some of these solutions. (Then please feel free to add your own ideas in the comments.) 

(1)    Tune in to what you have

Bear in car cute

Bear, recently died.

Relax into your meditation posture and then start where you are, allowing yourself to just sit there feeling positive and happy for a few minutes. Connect to any of the positive feelings you already have inside you, such as love for a cherished niece, compassion for a suffering animal you saw online, or a happy feeling you had when you understood that everything was dream-like. Enjoy that for a while. Don’t identify as a limited person and then take this into your meditation, “I am a terrible meditator, but here I am about to try and meditate”; this is self-defeating. Your good feeling is part of your Buddha nature, your endless capacity for kindness and improvement; you are going to meditate with this mind.

(2)    Settle the mind effectively

Start with one of the methods for overcoming distraction (see below), but to make this effective, recognize from the outset that you are just getting back to who and what you actually are. Your mind is naturally at rest and concentrated. Below your chattering thoughts, it is spontaneously pure, spacious, warm-hearted, vast, even blissful. But we don’t appreciate this. We are addicted to movement, skitting around on the surface of our minds with our constant inner chatter, babble, and anxieties, forgetting, if we ever knew it, who we really are and of what we are capable.

We are like droplets of water constantly thrown up on a vast, deep, boundless ocean, glinting and glittering and sometimes dancing around, but with no idea that they are water. We are so busy focusing outward that we forget or neglect the wellspring of happiness we already have inside. We have to remember this, our Buddha nature, if we are to allow ourselves to go deep and make progress. As Geshe Kelsang says in the chapter What is Meditation?:clear lake

“When the turbulence of distracting thoughts subsides and our mind becomes still, a deep happiness and contentment naturally arises from within…. We shall experience a calm, spacious feeling in the mind, and many of our usual problems will fall away. Difficult situations will become easier to deal with, we will naturally feel warm and well-disposed toward other people, and our relationships with others will gradually improve.” ~ Introduction to Buddhism

Notice the expressions “naturally” and “fall away” – there is no pushing here, you are just allowing those droplets of water to dissolve back into the profound stillness and clarity of your own root mind.

There are various methods to settle the mind, such as the different types of breathing meditation (eg, sensation of breath at nostrils, breathing smoke-like problems out and light-like blessings in, taking and giving, OM AH HUM), clarity of mind meditation, turning the mind to wood, transforming enjoyments. (More on the last two in future articles.) We can all experience relative peace of mind by just focusing on the breath for a few minutes and letting the mind come to rest — then we pay attention to this experience. This is your own inner peace, you don’t need to add anything.

(3)    Identify with who you are, not who your ignorance says you are

Identify with this peace and spaciousness at your heart, thinking:

“This is who I actually am. Any peace I have, however slight, is my potential for lasting peace and happiness.”

Buddha smileIt is the peaceful, happy mind we liberate, not the agitated mind. Our inner peace is our Buddha nature or Buddha seed. Give yourself permission to experience this inner peace. Then enjoy this mind and deepen the experience. (You don’t need to grasp at the experience of inner peace and get tense, or you’ll lose it. Just sit back and relax.)

The inadequate, insecure, limited, perhaps even depressed you is not in fact you. This self is part of samsara, and is created by your ignorance. This self is just a thought, an hallucination, an idea – and a bad idea at that, so let it go. Don’t believe it. This is not the self that is going to become enlightened. Relate to yourself as inner peace and endless potential. Don’t relate to a limited self; you are limitless. You are not intrinsically a loser at meditation or anything else. Remember the lack of intrinsic characteristics, understanding that the only limitations you have are the ones you are creating.

(4)    Tune in to enlightened reality, blessings

Our peace and happiness are actually related to enlightened reality, its very seeds; and we naturally open ourselves to blessings if we understand this. Once you have realized your full potential you’ll become a Buddha, just like the Buddhas whom we can remember in front of us, around us, and/or inside us. Faith in the Buddhas necessitates faith in our own enlightened potential.

Also, others have this same potential and I want to help them realize it – you can remember that you are surrounded by living beings, those you’re already feeling connected to next to you, and tune into love and compassion.

As we’re in the presence of enlightened beings, we can think we are already in their vast, blissful, pure land, filled with offerings that we’re all enjoying. (This is included explicitly in the first 2 verses in Essence of Good Fortune, “May the whole ground become completely pure” and “May all of space be filled with offerings”.) If you do this, you’ll probably then have fun doing the prayers either verbally or mentally, and find it easy to focus on their meaning.

lotus reflectionIf you set your meditation up right, you will have no need to push for blessings because you’ll be receiving them naturally and can simply enjoy them. Your happy mind is a natural conduit for them. You can visualize them as lights and nectars if it’s helpful. Although Buddhas are blessing everyone all the time to bring them any measure of inner peace (it’s Buddha’s function), you can’t receive so-called “special” blessings to grow the seeds of your realizations if you’re holding tightly onto a limited sense of who you are and therefore feeling separate from them and miserable – trying vainly to feel the sun without opening up the shutters.

At any point in the meditation, right at the beginning even, as soon as it feels right and you’re ready, dissolve Guru Buddha into your heart, let your mind mix with his like a stream flowing into a vast, blissful ocean; and he can do the meditation with you.

(5)    Make it your own idea through contemplation and meditation

Feel you already have the object of meditation for a few moments, eg, “I think others are important and their happiness matters.” Pause to feel that. “Now I need to make this insight stronger and more stable.” We already have the seeds  for every single realization needed for enlightenment; through contemplation and meditation we are now watering these to grow them, not adding them from elsewhere to our mind.

Contemplate skillfully by asking yourself questions to make the meditations relevant to your own background, “Is this true for me? What examples do I have of this? Is today’s body really a result of others’ kindness?”, for example. Tune into your own experiences and build on those. Be creative in your meditations, use examples and analogies that move you. The idea is to make this your own idea, not just a good idea that someone else has had. Don’t dryly repeat things to yourself.

Although we know all our meditation objects through conceptual thought to begin with, this doesn’t mean that we have to over-think things or be exaggeratedly intellectual. When you want to protect your beloved dog, you are knowing him through a generic image; but that is not any kind of obstacle nor a dry intellectual thought — you still know him and love him viscerally, in your heart.

mirageA lot of our meditation objects are hidden in that they depend upon reasoning for us to discover them. So, let’s say you are meditating on emptiness, contemplating that all the things we normally perceive do not exist because they are analytically unfindable and whatever cannot be found cannot exist from its own side (and, if you like, throw in an example, like a mirage). We do gain our initial realizations of emptiness through correct beliefs and inferences, through such conceptual reasonings as this, but we still do realize our object and it does appear to us, and we need to stop thinking around it and just absorb into it.

For example, fire is a hidden object that we can know through the existence of smoke because we have reasoned correctly that wherever there is smoke there is fire. But let’s say you see smoke and know there is fire. Are you earnestly repeating to yourself: “Wherever there is smoke, there is fire; here there is smoke, therefore there is fire. Wherever there is smoke, there is fire; here there is smoke, therefore there is fire etc.”? No. You just know fire. You can stay with that knowledge; stop reminding yourself about how you came to know it. Also, its consequences are implicit, eg, you need to run get a hose! But in the case of emptiness, we don’t need at this point to run do anything, we can just sit with it and its extraordinary implications will sink in without the need for further analysis.

It is similar with all our meditations – as Geshe Kelsang says, for example, we start off by using the rounds of reasoning for realizing that death is definite and its time is uncertain, and we conclude: “I may die today, I may die today”, but then we concentrate on the feeling that it evokes. We stop repeating the reasoning and the words to ourselves and, like an eagle flying with barely a movement of its wings, we stay with the object in a spacious environment, identifying with it, enjoying it. Feel like you’re home. You’ve just arrived in your holiday cottage by the sea and can sit back and put your feet up. (And you’re not alone – the enlightened beings are right there on holiday with you.)

Bear in mind that it’s easy to generate any Lamrim mind when we are connected to our happiness and our potential. It is actually impossible to generate any Lamrim mind when we are identified with the self that we normally perceive, in other words when we are identifying with our limitations. See this article for examples.

(6)    Take your happiness for a walk

Charlie BrownIn the meditation break, keep connecting to that peaceful mind and insight so that when you return to your meditation seat you can quickly get back to it as there has been no real gap. Morten uses the analogy of walking a dog – take your happiness for a walk with you, remembering your happiness in and out of meditation. “Enjoy your mind”, he says, keep bringing the mind back to peace. Familiarize your mind with this source of happiness, then you’ll become a happy person. Don’t stamp on the small seedlings of peace/good experiences like a bad gardener stamping on tiny shoots of plants by identifying yourself with any delusions that arise. Protect your small seedlings of peace and happiness, go for refuge in them as your Dharma Jewel, and they will grow naturally.  As the Kadampa motto goes:

“Always rely upon a happy mind alone.”

If you understand that your happiness is your inner peace and you identify where it is and connect to it, and then you combine this knowledge with your constant, spontaneous wish to be happy, you will naturally go for refuge in your own inner peace both in and out of meditation.

I hope this helps. If we become good meditators, we can help others become good meditators too, and what a gift that will be.

Your turn: please share your own methods for being a happy, successful meditator. Or if you have any questions or doubts you want to clear up, please spell them out too.

Related articles

Want quicker results from your meditation? Start where you are. 

Meditation in the pursuit of happiness

How to avoid stress and burn out at work

Do you ever feel discouraged?  

What are blessings? 

What’s YOUR problem?! :-)

complaint

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samsara

Sailboat on the Ocean in a Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renunciation

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

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang often says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bodhichitta

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

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