What is life according to Buddha?

samsara's ocean

samsara's oceanWe can start the meditation on the mind, as mentioned here, just by watching the cloud-like thoughts come and go within the clear sky-like mind, without reacting or intruding or indeed thinking them through. Our mind may not seem much like a clear sky to begin with – it may indeed feel totally overcast, with no glimpses of clarity – but we just watch the clouds scud by. Then we can come to observe what is beneath those scudding thoughts, asking, “Where is each thought coming from? Where is it going to? What is it? Where is it? What is that space between the end of one thought and the beginning of the next?”

(I am carrying on from this article.)

Once we are through to the clarity of our mind at the level of our heart, we think that we are meditating on our root mind, our deepest level of consciousness, also known as our “very subtle mind”.

No matter how good or not we are at this meditation, we can always create very special causes by thinking that we are meditating on our root mind itself. As Geshe Kelsang said in 2000 (and it also comes up in his new ear-whispered Oral Instructions of Mahamudra):

We don’t need to expect quick results. Whenever we train in using our root mind as our object of meditation, it causes our realization of the very subtle mind to ripen. We will get closer and closer. In reality this is like the preparation for the Highest Yoga Tantra practice of clear light. It is very special.heart chakra 2

If you get a chance to sit down with the chapter on “The Gross, Subtle and Very Subtle Minds” in How to Understand the Mind, please do, as it is quite — for want of a better word — mind-blowing. As for our very subtle mind, also descriptively known as our “continuously residing mind”, Geshe Kelsang says in this book:

Without the very subtle mind we would have no life because our gross and subtle minds cannot hold our life. This is because they are only temporary minds, and very unstable.

They are like the waves on the ocean, where the root mind is the ocean itself. Or like the clouds in the sky, where the root mind is the sky itself.

Therefore only our very subtle mind holds our life continuously throughout the day and night, and in life after life until we become an enlightened Buddha. ~ How to Understand the Mind

“Almost mind”

There is more philosophical stuff coming up in this and future articles, but really the meditation on the mind should be done in the spirit of relaxed experimentation. We’re not pushing for a result or an insight, but allowing our own simple observation of our thoughts and what is appearing to those thoughts to improve our understanding of the nature of the mind and its objects.

So in this meditation we are meditating on the conventional nature of the mind, but also indirectly gaining a deeper insight into ultimate truth, emptiness, by seeing the interdependence of perceiver and perceived; that we can’t have one without the other. Thoughts and their objects are not identical, but they depend on each other, and you cannot separate them out.

The clarity of mind is the basis for perceptions AND their objects. A mountain, for example, is form, not clarity itself; but it is also not other than that clarity.
elephant in dreamTake dreaming. We know that an elephant in a dream is not the mind, or clarity, itself, as it is grey and big whereas the mind is colorless and shapeless. However, it is also not other than clarity. It is not outside the mind. It is mere aspect of clarity, mere appearance of mind.

One way we can know this is because when the dreaming mind dreaming the elephant ceases, so does the elephant. That’s the only reason the elephant ceases, according to Geshe Kelsang in How to Understand the Mind. Only mind has that power.

In the same way, waking objects are all mere aspects of the minds that perceive them. Although forms and so on are not mind itself, they are “almost mind”, Geshe Kelsang has taught.

Karmic movie

When we did the meditation mentioned at the beginning of this article, we began by watching our thoughts. This is rather as if we are watching a karmic movie – wave after wave of appearance arising from the winds of karma blowing on the ocean of the root mind. Through this simple observation, it looks like we are already improving our wisdom.

Once we have a feeling of watching the karmic movie, we move to the clarity. We don’t force it or hold onto a dry, intellectual image, but observe that it is our actual mind that is clarity.

If we allow all our wave-like thoughts to dissolve into the clarity of our mind, all the objects of those thoughts also disappear. They have no life of their own, they cannot exist without being apprehended. When we develop deep concentration on the clarity of our mind, everything dissolves away into it.

The ocean analogy can really help this happen – wave-like thoughts arise from the root mind and they also dissolve back, we can actually observe this. We get a feeling for the waves returning to their source, rather than trying to hold a hard generic, or mental, image of a clear mind.

Appearances don’t obstruct the clarity because they are aspects of clarity. For example, the sound of a bird appearing to the clarity of ear awareness is not other than clarity itself. It is not outside it.

A wave is just the ocean making itself known.

By the end of our meditation on the mind, all appearances have settled into our root mind like waves settling into the ocean, and we focus on the clarity, which is the main object of meditation.

Inner luminosity

Instead of staying endlessly preoccupied with the most superficial of appearances, in this meditation on the mind we can learn to recognize instead the inner luminosity that allows us to experience everything, which is always present and always accessible. Only our mind is “clear enough to perceive objects”, as Geshe Kelsang has said. It is animation itself. It is life.

(And, mind-boggling as it may seem to us at the moment, once this mind is no longer obstructed by delusions and their imprints through the practice of Dharma, we will know everything simultaneously and directly; we will be omniscient.)

life after deathAs mentioned, whenever there is an appearance – eg, a memory, or a feeling, or a physical sensation — there is a mind to which it is appearing that is the same nature as that appearance. We try to see that the mind itself is the cognizer; we are aware of the cognizer. We can see ourselves how it is formless. Experientially, it is observed to be rather like an inner empty space with the power to perceive.

This is proof enough that the mind is not the body and, indeed, as a formless continuum it will go to future lives – we don’t need to debate whether or not the mind is the brain as it clearly is not. It’s enough to gain at least some understanding of past and future lives. As Geshe-la says in How to Understand the Mind page 6:

Through understanding the nature and function of the mind correctly, we can understand that our mind is completely different from our body, and this proves that, after our death, although our body will cease the mind will not.

Life continues through and after the death of our meaty body, as life is mind. So, if our body ends today, where will our mind and all its experiences be tomorrow? Today might be a good day to think about this, before that tomorrow is upon us!

Looking back at this life


We will all be dead soon, waking up in our next life. This’ll happen within a few hundred months at most, or maybe even next year, or next month, or next week, or tomorrow, or even today. All that’s going with me is my mind, more or less purified and controlled, and the karmic potentials from the actions I have done.

Trish, a friend of mine aged around 55, once asked me with great interest: “What would you do if you had only two months left to live?” This wasn’t just a theoretical question — she had just been diagnosed with cancer and deathdied two months later. And if you think about it, this never is just a theoretical question, for we have no idea how long we have left in this life.

A very helpful practice, I find, for instantly getting perspective on what is valuable today is to think that I’m already in my next life looking back on this life, which is now my past life, and seeing whether I am satisfied with what I did in this life? Would I thank myself?! Would I have done anything differently? What is important?

(You know those interviews where people describe, for example, “52 things I wish I could tell my younger self”?! It’s a bit like that, only on a more cosmic scale.)

This makes me appreciate what a precious human life I have now, and how, as Buddha said, this world is not my permanent home, I am just a traveler passing through.

Life is suffering, of course, while we remain in samsara, and we have many challenges. Lots of horrible, sad things happen, including the loss of everything we like sooner or later, having to encounter things we don’t like on pretty much a daily basis, and so on. However, a characteristic of a precious human life, such as the one you have now, is that we are not so overwhelmed by our sufferings that we can do nothing about them.

What upsets us the most?
chickens scratching in dirt

Looking in the wrong place?!

I think it’s always worth remembering is that whenever we do not succumb to inappropriate attention, delusions cannot arise, and our mind remains peaceful and free. It remains peaceful and free because it is naturally peaceful and free. Our mind free from delusions is happy, content, and whole. We have everything we need. The ONLY thing that upsets our happiness and makes us experience mental pain is our delusions. The delusion of ignorance also make us believe that both solutions to this pain and ways to be happy are to be found outside the mind, so we waste our time scratching around; when in fact there is nothing there outside the mind.

However, the sooner we are convinced of the entirely creative power of our own minds, the sooner we will know that we can make ourselves happy; and that if we can gradually gain control over our thoughts and lives, the good times, no the best times, lie ahead, not behind, starting now. This is a proper relief. Looking back, I know I will appreciate the times I stopped myself following just my short-term preoccupations, and used my thoughts to fulfill my deepest wishes for happiness and freedom rather than subverting them. Instead of wasting valuable time thinking, for example, “Oh woe is me! I wish that person would talk to me! My life is going nowhere! My job is exhausting! My taxes are stressing me out!” I could be thinking “I’m so darned lucky, I have everything I need to make spiritual progress every single day and hour. I don’t care if that person talks to me or not, my happiness doesn’t actually depend on them but on love, and I can love them unconditionally whether they like it or not. My life is so going places because I’m training my mind. My job gives me a chance to help people, practice patience, remember other’s kindness, etc. Nothing will stress me out if I look at it the right way and I have that choice.”

Those are just examples, of course, off the top of my head – but whenever we notice ourselves experiencing any disgruntlement or mental pain whatsoever, it’s guaranteed that inappropriate attention is at work. We can learn to change our thoughts to take our minds and lives in another happier direction, on the path to liberation and enlightenment. Looking back, we’ll be very pleased that we did.

planet earth from spacePlus it’s a win-win because with the same positive thoughts we also enjoy ourselves now, in this life, as well as setting ourselves up for a great future – the same minds work for both.

Imagining ourselves as the person we’ll be in our next life and looking back at this one also helps us stop identifying so tightly with the self and hang-ups of this life – maybe a bit like someone in space looking back at Planet Earth. Space solves problems, grabbing on tightly does not.

Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha

Geshe-la meditating in his roomWhen I look back, what always strikes me the most is how lucky I am to have found my teacher, Geshe Kelsang. I feel like he’s been around me this entire life. His real nature is omniscient bliss and emptiness, and I consider him to be the kindest emanation of enlightened beings, who will take me wherever I want to go if I let him. I want to be sure that I never take this cosmic connection for granted, but to make it stronger in this life. I need for him to follow me into the next life and to stick around until I attain enlightenment. That is the one thing that is guaranteed to end my suffering and enable me to help others once and for all.

Looking back at this life from the next, I am quite amazed at this unprecedented opportunity to generate renunciation, love, compassion, wisdom, and Mahamudra realizations. These have the power to solve my problems both now – instantly – and in the future, and to make me and others totally happy. I have not found a problem yet that cannot be solved by applying the so-called “five seeds” of renunciation, bodhichitta, the wisdom realizing emptiness, generation stage Tantra, and completion stage Tantra. And I have access to all of these, maybe for the first time in aeons, if ever; as well as the companionship of tens of thousands of people also practicing this Dharma, including some spectacular friends. My life need be no different to the lives of the past Yogis, Mahasiddhas, and scholars whom I so much admire, who took advantage of their teacher and the Buddhist teachings. This includes of course Geshe-la himself, whose devotion to his own teacher Trijang Rinpoche I find inspiring.

If I look back and see that I have wasted my chance to gain deep realizations — to partake of this banquet of delight while it was all laid out before me — what would I say to my past self?

Forget the sideshows

side showWhat kind of relationships do we really want to have had with others, once we are looking back at these? Surely not sticky relationships that are built on the inappropriate attention of attachment? For not only do these end in pain, but in retrospect they seem like a massive waste of time, sideshows distracting us from the main attraction of this life.

An arresting (for me) verse in Geshe Kelsang’s new book The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra:

Like mistakenly  believing
A poisonous drink to be nectar,
Attachment with grasping at objects of desire
Is the cause of great danger.

I have been deeply attached to every single living being at one point or another over countless previous lives, I have suffered grievously on their behalf; and where exactly has that got me, or us? Also, because attachment undermines our interest in anyone other than our object of attachment, it thwarts our love and compassion too, it seems to me. It’s about time I gave up the attachment that has sabotaged all my previous lives, and cultivated bodhichitta in its place.

Kind people

speaking of kindnessI find it helpful to look at my connections of this life and see how I would have wanted these to go if I was looking back at them, especially perhaps for people who have been kind to me. Hindsight is 20/20 after all. Today, for example, thinking about my parents, I realized again that I could never have asked for better ones, I couldn’t have invented better ones. Half a century of unconditional love and support, and counting. Wonderful people, kind examples; and my life has been interesting and brilliant thanks to them. Even Geshe-la said, rubbing his heart, that they were “very spiritual”. Chances of having such good parents the next time around?! Very slim. Depends on creating a huge number of good causes. So, am I making the most of these ones? And am I doing as much for them as I can? Maybe I need to ask them – hey, anything more I can do for you, ma and pa?! (They are reading this, because they also support my blog ;-)  They are probably also embarrassed because they are modest and British. But, hey, life is short, and why wait to say stuff like this in the obituaries.)

I’d be interested to hear the perspective you gain when you look back at yourself in this life?

Experience and reality

The mirrormirror 2

Another example for helping us shift our perspective from the perceived to the perceiver in the meditation on our own mind is the mirror. When we look in a mirror, normally we are very interested in the spinach stuck in our teeth or whatever – but imagine if we shifted perspective from the object in the mirror to the mirror itself, from the reflected to the reflector. It is similar with this meditation – we shift focus from the object of awareness to the awareness itself. We are watching the watcher, or observing the observer. That awareness is clarity – formless awareness that has the actual power to perceive. Our mind understands, remembers, creates.

meeting hermit in mountainSpace

I recently did a retreat on Mahamudra in Rocky Mountain National Park. The air quality is amazing there, so clear, you can see for miles, you can reach out and touch the distant mountains. In fact according to the Denver Botannical Gardens science museum, Colorado has similar topography, air quality, and climate to Mongolia! I didn’t find it hard to see how the great Yogis and Yoginis of yore, including my teacher Geshe Kelsang, experienced blissful retreats in the Himalayas. Geshe-la was on solitary retreat there for 18 years.

Our minds are far clearer than the clearest sky. A whole different dimension of clear. Still, when we rise from this meditation, it can help while wandering from A to B to look at the sky, especially on a clear day. Also, rather than just honing in on objects, looking at the space between them can remind us of how clear our mind actually is.

Clarity is amazing

Your mind is hands down the most amazing thing in your life. The fact that someone can say or write words to you and you can understand them is incredible. The fact that we can see each other. The fact that this whole world is appearing. The fact that within our mind we have the capacity for peace, joy, transcendence, love etc, and that the deeper we go the better it gets. The fact that we can commune with enlightened beings. Plus our mind is naturally peaceful — indeed naturally blissful. It is all quite unbelievable, really, and we are walking around with this treasure all the time. But what do we use it for?! Live tweeting. A global expression of nonsense. “Yes, I’m really alive!”watching stupid shit

Only kidding, Twitter has its uses. However, it is too easy for us (me) to stay entirely occupied with the most superficial of appearances and neglect to step back and recognize that there is this inner light, inner luminosity, that is allowing us to experience all the various things we are experiencing, which is always present, always accessible.

I would rather live my life inside the experience of the actual nature of things, which are all the nature of the mind, and therefore experience everything in a non-dualistic fashion. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang said in his amazing Mahamudra teachings in 2000:

Using the root mind as our object of meditation — always trying to perceive the general image of our mind – means that we realize the subject mind very well, and understand the relationship between mind and its objects. The huge mistaken understanding that objects are there and the subject mind is here – that between them there is a large gap – will cease, and we will gain the correct understanding of how things really exist. If we clearly understand the real nature and function of mind, then we also understand how things really exist.

We are in fact deeply connected to everyone and everything. It is not my mind over here and everything else out there – the appearances are inside my mind, to my mind, of my mind.

Ocean and waves

oceanOne traditional example to help us understand that everything is the nature of the mind is the ocean and waves. Just as waves stirred up on an ocean by the wind are not separate from the ocean — we cannot draw a line between the ocean and its waves as it were — so all our thoughts and their objects such as forms, sounds, etc arise like waves from the ocean of the root mind. Which appearances and experiences arise like waves depends on which karmic potentialities are ripening. Everything is the nature of the mind; nothing exists outside the mind. As the Chittamatrins says in Ocean of Nectar page 228:

Just as waves arise from a great ocean
When it is stirred by the wind,
Likewise, because of it potentials a mere consciousness arises
From the seed of all, which is called ‘basis-of-all’.

(In the Tantric Prasangika view, it is also held that all objects are the nature of mind, arising simultaneously with the minds apprehending them from the same karmic potentialities on the root mind; except, unlike the Chittamatrins, they do not assert the mind is truly existent. However, I won’t get into that here.)

Geshe Kelsang said in his Mahamudra teachings in 2000:

The reality is that everything – our subject mind and all object things – came from this root consciousness. ‘Appearance’ means all objects such as the world, its beings, its environments, and all objects of enjoyment, including our body and our self. All the many different types of subject mind or conceptual thought to which things appear are like waves of an ocean, and our root consciousness is like the ocean itself. The waves of the ocean come from the ocean itself, and similarly the waves of appearance and all the different types of mind come from the ocean of our consciousness.

If we check, we can see that we cannot in fact separate out the objects of our thoughts from the thoughts or awarenesses holding them, any more than we can separate out a wave from an ocean or a reflection in a mirror from the mirror itself. There is no such thing as an object not known by mind, which is the definition of object, “known by mind”.

Can you even think of an object that is not known by mind? There is no world outside of our experience of the world. What is going on for you right now, for example, is your experience of what is going on – if you go looking, you cannot find anything going on out there. Your whole world cannot be separated out from your experience of the world – you cannot point to any world outside of your experience of it. As soon as you do, you’re experiencing it.

Waves are the nature of the ocean, not outside the ocean. Appearances are the nature of the mind, not outside the mind.

More about this on the way … meanwhile, your comments are most welcome.

Lamrim, Lojong, and Mahamudra

sky and clouds

sky and cloudsFirst I thought it’d be helpful to give some context for the clarity of mind meditation, and then share some thoughts on why it is so effective at pacifying our distractions.

The clarity of mind meditation is part of Sutra Mahamudra. And Mahamudra is the heart essence of the Kadampa tradition of Buddhism.

A Kadampa Buddhist is someone who:

takes all of Buddha’s teachings as personal advice and puts them into practice in their daily lives.

Buddha gave 84,000 teachings, so how do we pull that off?! By practicing Lamrim, a cycle of 21 meditations (or 14 meditations in How to Understand the Mind) that covers all the stages of the path to enlightenment. All the meditations we will ever learn in Buddhism fit somewhere in the Lamrim cycle!

Also, as Geshe Kelsang explains in Great Treasury of Merit (page 18), Lamrim and Lojong (lit. “training the mind”, a powerful method for developing bodhichitta extracted from Lamrim and given particular emphasis) are both preliminaries for Mahamudra.

Mahamudra, a Sanskrit word, means “great seal”. In Sutra it refers to emptiness, and in Tantra to the union of great bliss and emptiness:

Mahamudra Tantra is defined as a mind of fully qualified clear light that experiences great bliss and realizes emptiness directly. ~ Mahamudra Tantra page 55

All Kadampa Buddhist meditations are explicitly or implicitly aiming at this realization of bliss and emptiness, which, when perfected, becomes omniscient wisdom, enlightened reality. With practice, we can use deeper and deeper levels of awareness to meditate, and the deepest is our very subtle mind which, when manifest, is called clear light. This mind is naturally blissful. Inconceivably blissful. Ridiculously blissful. Think of the most blissful thing you can imagine and then multiply that by infinity. More blissful than that.

Buddha seed

sky and clouds 2It is also our Buddha nature or Buddha seed – this clear light mind itself will transform into a Buddha’s mind when it is fully purified and developed. So, best of all, we already have the very subtle mind! This means we don’t need to add anything to our mind to become enlightened. We have the seeds of love, compassion, bliss, wisdom etc. – it is all there. All we need to do is grow those seeds — not add to them but grow them. And remove the obstructions that get in their way. Buddhahood is not out there anywhere. The beginnings are already right here, in our heart chakra.

As Buddha said:

If you realize your own mind you will become a Buddha; you should not seek Buddhahood elsewhere. ~ Mahamudra Tantra page 100

If we recognize and realize our own root mind or very subtle mind directly, we will definitely become a Buddha in this life!

Geshe-la looking at Pure LandGeshe Kelsang is always saying that we can attain enlightenment in this life. Numerous past practitioners in the Kadampa Tradition have already done this; and at the moment we have, by some karmic marvel, exactly the same methods at our fingertips. Our problem is that we don’t believe him half the time (any of the time?!)

There are many reasons for this – one perhaps being that we are not identifying with this potential but instead with a severely circumscribed sense of self. So it’s no wonder we don’t make that great of an effort, meaning we don’t get a taste, meaning we don’t develop an appetite. This meditation on the clarity of the mind luckily can also help with that! (More in a later article.)

Get control

The only hurdle right now is that we cannot access our very subtle mind, it is too deep. It manifests naturally in deep sleep and as we die, and it is even blissful when it does; but we can’t recognize or use it because, let’s face it, we can barely use our grossest levels of mind, our everyday waking consciousness. We find it hard to stay out of trouble even for one day! Because we lack mindfulness and concentration our mind controls us at the moment, not the other way around. Still, through Buddhism in general we learn to control our gross levels of mind, our more obvious delusions; and through Tantra we learn to manifest our own very subtle mind and use that. Once we can meditate with our clear light mind, we are almost there. We are almost enlightened.

You can read about all of this properly in Mahamudra Tantra, an enlightening book in the real sense of the word.

Sutra Mahamudra

Within Sutra Mahamudra, the meditation on the nature of the mind is the access point to meditation on emptiness. We take it as our object of concentration and mindfulness. It leads us both into emptiness, and one day into the great bliss of our own clear light mind.

Even if you are a beginner, this is where this meditation is headed.  Geshe Kelsang said in 2000:

Whenever we train in using our root mind as our object of meditation, it causes our realization of the very subtle mind to ripen. In reality, this is like the preparation for the Highest Yoga Tantra practice of clear light. It is very special.

It’s good to know what Buddha’s mind is and what our mind is capable of. One day, every single one of us will attain enlightenment because everyone has the potential and sooner or later everyone will learn how to do it – and this is how.

I sometimes think that if we are going to get enlightened anyway one day, why not go for it now? Haven’t we been hanging out in samsara way, way, way too long already? What are we waiting for, exactly?

I think that is enough background for now.

Pacifying distractions

sky and clouds 3The meditation on the clarity of the mind, explained briefly here, has many benefits, “incredible power and benefit” as Geshe Kelsang said in 2000. Unbelievable supramundane phenomenal benefits. Maybe some of you are thinking, “Here we go again! I know I’ve got to do this meditation, I just need to sort out my real issues and/or get through six seasons of The Wire first.” That’s why we need to keep thinking about the benefits and the faults of not getting around to this meditation.

These benefits are very precise, describing what we will experience if we meditate on the nature of mind, the first being that it pacifies distractions. And that is even for us modern people who, let’s face it, are a little distracted. I will say just a little more about that in this admittedly long article before you all get distracted.

I sometimes think of distractions as all those thoughts we don’t want to think but can’t help thinking, like thoughts of sadness, or annoyance, or feeling our life is meaningless, or dissatisfaction, or longing, or fear of failure, or … you know the kind of thing. They distract us away from our natural peace of mind – yet we have no choice but to think them because our mind is so out of control. One of the things we learn in meditation is to let the delusions settle or temporarily disappear so that we can then more lastingly transform our mind. Different ways are taught to settle the mind, the most common being some kind of mindfulness of breathing. However, clarity of mind meditation is even more effective. It can take us all the way to enlightenment, but already at a basic beginners’ level it enables us to more easily let go of our distractions.

Have you ever felt that your meditation involves a struggle with your distractions? “I fought the distractions and the distractions won” kind of thing? This meditation helps us adjust our whole relationship with distractions. It no longer need be one of combat. We no longer need to feel besieged or overwhelmed. We no longer have to push our distractions away.

A distraction is defined as:

A deluded mental factor that wanders to any object of delusion.

sunset cloudsWe really need to know how to pacify our minds as there is always something that is troubling us. Does a day go past when it does not? There is always something. And we try to solve our problems day by day by trying to swat away this worry, then that worry; but those worries just keep on flying at us. We need to go straight to the source of that trouble, ie, unpeaceful, uncontrolled minds, without which we’d never experience another moment of pain. We need to learn the art of letting go, we need to learn how to drop our distractions.

To know how this meditation works to overcome distractions, we can look more at the object of meditation and how to approach it in a skillful way to reap this benefit. More coming in the next article; meanwhile your comments are welcome.

Postscript: about the illustrations in this article, an excuse for me to share my pictures of the Denver sky, thanks. We don’t need to fear our delusions and distractions – they are like clouds that cannot pollute, much less destroy, the clear sky of our root mind. We can learn to dissolve away our delusions by always identifying with our clear sky mind.

How to be a hero

compassion fatigue?!

One of the main things about compassion is that it makes us a kinder, more helpful person. A force of good in this world, for sure. But it also helps US. Why? Because it overcomes our own limitations and problems, as does love. If we understand this, we are less reluctant to develop it. (Carrying on from this last article.)

compassion fatigue?!

compassion fatigue?!

Certain things slow us down, one being a fear that contemplating the suffering of others will make us depressed and give us compassion fatigue. Maybe this is because we do have Buddha seed, the natural good heart of compassion, so when we perceive suffering we do take a kind of responsibility for it, thinking, “I have to do something about this. But I can’t; it is too big. So thinking about it will just make me unhappy, remind me of how useless I am.” If we think like this, we need to build up our confidence that compassion doesn’t cause us problems, instead it solves them. So we don’t have to be that ostrich with its head in the sand. Plus, if we have some understanding of where suffering is coming from, this also really helps us become confident and strong enough to focus on growing our compassion because we know there is a solution.

As Geshe Kelsang says:

Compassion causes us to experience happiness because once we generate it our disturbing minds such as pride, jealousy, anger, and attachment are pacified and our mind becomes very peaceful. It causes others to experience happiness because when we have great compassion we naturally care for others and try to help them whenever we can. ~ Ocean of Nectar page 21.

Brief compassion experiment

We can close our eyes and think of the last time we had strong compassion for someone we loved – our dog at the vet, or our disappointed child, or our parent suffering from a pain of old age, or our friend who lost their partner. Or a stranger whose plight has moved us. I don’t need to give you examples! Think of that person. Sadly we all have at least one.

DAMASCUS, SYRIA - JANUARY 31: In this handout provided by the United Nation Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Residents wait in line to receive food aid distributed in the Yarmouk refugee camp on January 31, 2014 in Damascus, Syria. The United Nations renewed calls for the Syria regime and rebels to allow food and medical aid into the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk. An estimated 18,000 people are besieged inside the camp as the conflict in Syria continues. (Photo by United Nation Relief and Works Agency via Getty Images)

DAMASCUS, SYRIA  (Photo by United Nation Relief and Works Agency via Getty Images)

We wished for them to be free from pain. We would have done anything to free them.

We can go back to that experience, when all we wanted was for them to be well again, free from suffering.  What was going on in our mind at that time? During this experience, who were we caring about—ourselves or them? Was this wish for them to be free actually painful or — with the ego temporarily out of the way and our focus exclusively on another — was it okay? We can look and see for ourselves.

Also at that time, we can see how other obstacles in our mind were pacified – for example, was there any irritation or impatience, any self-pity? No, because it wasn’t about us. All problems associated with thinking about ourself disappeared. If someone had said to us, while we were caught up with the needs of a suffering relative, “Look, I’m sorry, but the machine is out of cappuccino”, would we really have cared?

We can keep that experience of compassion vivid, and ask ourself, “Was this a peaceful mind or not? Within that mind was there some cessation of suffering because I wasn’t thinking about myself?” Although we wished for someone we loved to be free from suffering, this was not a painful feeling. It was dynamic, positive.

“You need to go and let him out, then”

Be a heroI don’t often share my dreams, except with the occasional long-suffering friend, and I don’t want to bore you, but this vivid one I had last night showed me how compassion can be both unbearable and a liberating force that makes everything else pale into insignificance.

A young man was trapped in a big glass box on an unknown pedestrian street, quite visible, by enemies he had crossed, and the  box was heated up to an unbearably hot temperature. He wouldn’t die, but his body was shriveling up, and he was clutching his hands together in pain, blinking. People were walking past, some curious, others ignoring him, but no one seeming inclined to do anything. I couldn’t bear it and got on the phone to an (unknown in my dream) assistant of my teacher Geshe Kelsang to tell him what was going on. The message got lost in translation as Geshe-la came out to meet me holding a large glass of water, and I had to explain that the man wasn’t just hot, but trapped in a boiling box. To which Geshe-la replied: “You need to go and let him out, then.”

I hadn’t considered that a possibility, but I ran over there with my friend Morten, who managed to lift up a corner of the box and said, “Man, it is really hot in there.” I realized from this that it was possible to lift the entire side of the box up, so we did, and dragged the skinny man out. Then I told him, “We need to get out of here, we’re not safe yet, run with me.” Which he managed to do. We ran, stopping only for me to beg for some water for him from a passing vendor as I’d left my wallet and phone behind. We got away.

Moral of the tale
cape of compassion

cape of compassion

I got a few things from this dream: People suffer unbearably every day, including in hot, hellish states of existence that are out of our sight, but also plenty right under our nose, eg, the refugees trying so desperately hard to escape to Europe.

Until Geshe-la told me to let this man out, I hadn’t realized I could. Until I found Buddha’s teachings through Geshe-la, I didn’t realize liberating people from suffering was an option. I also had help from Sangha.

The main thing was the agony of seeing the man curled up in the box, and the sheer joy of helping him escape. Nothing would have distracted me at that point. The passion I had to save this person was stronger than any passion that comes from attachment, strong as that can be (remember Daniel Day Lewis and “I WILL find you?!” Stronger than that even!)

Pure compassion makes heroes of us all. A real hero or heroine, according to Buddhism, is someone who has beaten the foe of their selfish desires & other delusions and developed their compassion for others.

From these kinds of experiences, both in and out of dreams, I think it is not hard to see how, for Bodhisattvas motivated by compassion, nothing now will stop them from getting enlightened. By contrast to strong love and compassion, it is so so boring to be thinking about myself. If I never had to think about myself again out of self-centeredness, it would not be a day too soon.

The best way to have helped this man would have been to realize that I was dreaming, that the suffering was not real. The best way to help people is to wake ourselves and others up. More in a later article on how everything is the nature of the mind and so there are no inherently existent suffering beings. I’ll just leave you with a question: If everything is the nature of your mind, what is going to happen to everyone when you become an omniscient Buddha?

How to feel less busy all the time

busy 1

This continues directly from this article.

busy 1Time off?!

Also, if you actually itemize what many frenetically “busy” people do every week, my bet would be that they (we, you) have far more leisure time than they think, it is just that instead of using the time to unwind and recharge they just fill it up with more stuff and distractions, eg, surfing the internet, driving places, organized leisure activities, computer games, Netflix. Having fun on the outside, perhaps, but feeling preoccupied on the inside. So leisure time feels busy too.

Flying recently, the moment we touched down almost every single person on that plane grabbed their phone. That withdrawal and addiction – it’s a bit like smoking, only smoking has been banned from public places whereas everyone can indulge their addiction for digital data. Scratching that itch – where is the happiness in that? We can’t live like that. Here’s an experiment: how long can you last without wanting to pick up your smartphone?! (I am talking to myself here.)

So technology, for all its uses, has not helped in this regard. The fleeting world is always-on — texts, tweets, emails, and status updates. (Also, on another subject, we are not really “connected” — we are isolated because we have no time to think deeply about each other or reality.) Now of course you can even get an Apple Watch that gives your wrist a little electric shock to announce all the wildly exciting alerts that cannot wait, even if you are actually trying to have an interesting conversation with someone. (It’s a bit like when servers interrupt deep, meaningful conversations at restaurants to ask if everything is ok?! Is it just me who gets bugged by that?!) That watch sounds like torture to me. Apparently the average video etc screen also changes every 7 to 11 seconds – now how does that not constitute over-stimulation?! There may be excitement in it, perhaps, but there is no real happiness if there is no real peace.busy 4

Froth and sparkles

Peace comes from concentration, being able to stay on one object. Single-tasking, not multi-tasking. If we are identifying entirely with the froth and sparkles on top of the ocean, oblivious to the vast stillness and peace beneath, there is not much peace in that.

I reckon we have plenty of time to meditate and get in touch with who we are, really, if we want to. Certainly enough time. Is there anyone who absolutely cannot find 20 minutes a day to meditate? Although we may complain at first that it is just another pressure on our to-do list, the reality is that it will open up the space and time we need for the rest of our day. The time to meditate is when you don’t have time for it.

In this way, we’ll have more freedom. Otherwise we are a bit like mindless automatons — the opposite of meditators. (What do you do first thing in the morning – reach for Facebook or absorb into your heart chakra?!) I read a study recently about what happened when people lost their iPhone – out of 100 people, 73 experienced panic, 8 experienced physical sickness, 7 felt nervous, and only 7 were cool with it.

“But I’m too busy to meditate!”

And, as mentioned, I would argue that we are not necessarily doing more, or getting more things done, not in the grand scheme of things — but just feeling busier. My teacher Geshe Kelsang, for example, has thousands of centers and students and a universal feeling of responsibility for others — if anyone has a right to feel under pressure, busy, or overextended it is him, but he is the most spacious, blissful, relaxed person you’ll ever meet.

Busy BusinessmanSo if we learn to increase our inner space and peace we can have a life full of things we want to do, but we don’t have to feel so busy, as if there’s never enough time, as if there’s always something else that needs doing, as if we’re running behind the bus. We don’t need that feeling. The feeling of being overwhelmed by all the things we need to do comes from uncontrolled thoughts, a bit like a dog with a bone, not able to stay in the moment and abide in space while still getting things done. We are not able to let go of distractions and enjoy a feeling of peace, the natural peace of our own settled mind. More than anything else, we need relief from the time pressure by setting aside time to meditate to access that peace. Not being too busy to take the medicine! The objection “But I am too busy to meditate!” is precisely why we need to meditate.

If you are new to meditation it is good to keep it short and sweet – 5, 10, or 15 minutes. Our mind is like an out of control elephant! (that’s what Buddha said). The mind is the most powerful force in the universe – for destruction or creativity. If we have no control over it, we have no control over our lives. When people start meditating they can often only manage about 3 minutes before they even forget they’re supposed to be meditating – so don’t worry if you feel like that, I wish I had a dollar for every time some says, “I am too distracted to meditate!” It gets better quickly, but you have to want to do it. For example, you manage to concentrate on your driving for considerably more than 3 minutes, presumably as you want to stay alive. You don’t text when you drive.

“You’re not that busy.”

Another tip for not feeling so overwhelmingly busy is to stop insisting to ourself that we’re overwhelmingly busy, because the truth is that we are all much less busy than we think we are. We can say to ourselves instead, “You’re not that busy”, or even “I have lots of time”, and then calmly do one thing after another. Living in the moment gives us all the time we need.swimming in bathtub

Swimming in a bathtub

Someone the other day put a good analogy on Facebook (that fount of all knowledge!) of swimming in the bathtub — splashing around hurting our limbs, and not really getting anywhere. Whereas the same strokes in a vast ocean feel blissful and expansive. So we can do the same daily activities either in the bathtub or in the ocean of the clarity and stillness of our own peaceful mind.

In meditation, we can relax into the natural rhythm of the breath. We can experience a moment by moment presence of mind, or mindfulness. We can get in touch with the present moment by getting in touch with the clarity and peace of our own mind. So we can rest our mind in meditation, and then bring that peace with us into daily life. We don’t forget about it but keep tuning into it, and everything becomes lighter, easier, and less frantic.

Comments welcome! (If you have time.)

Are you busy?

busy 3

“How are you?” I just asked someone. And she answered with a pained expression, “Busy!!!” “What are you up to?” I continued, and she replied that she had loads on at work and was also trying to organize her wedding, which was stressing her out. “I am too attached to the perfect wedding,” she said.

So often these days people reply, “I’m so busy!”. “Busy” seems to be the new “fine”. How often do you hear yourself saying things like this about your life: “hectic,” “whirlwind,” “consumed,” “crazy,” “it’s hard to keep up with it all,” “on the run,” “way too fast”? because apparently those words and expressions are on the rise. People are saying we have an epidemic of busy-ness in modern society.

busy 2

Four-armed …. ?!

But is it the case that we have so much more to do than in previous generations, or do we simply FEEL crazy busy because we cannot focus on one thing at a time, everything bleeds into everything else, and we cannot control our busy thoughts? Concentration and mindfulness actually make us feel peaceful, as if we have all the time in the world. So I wonder if we are in a concentration and mindfulness deficit rather than a deficit of time. I spoke to that friend again an hour later, after she’d done a meditation class, and she was smiling and chilled, thoughts of weddings and work pressures no longer overwhelming her.

Time for meditation 

Before we get started on the subject, let’s pause to relax, settle, and rest the mind by doing a short meditation to control our crazy mind and let go of the feelings of busyness.

We can first settle into a good posture with a straight back, etc, and focus on how we’re sitting, forget about everything else.

We feel we drop from our thinky head into the spaciousness of our root mind at our heart, where already some of our scattered thoughts dissolve away into space, like clouds into a vast, clear sky.

We can let go of all the tension in our body, like dropping heavy luggage, and let every muscle soften. Our body melts into light, we could pass our hand through it without obstruction, and it becomes as weightless as air. We can enjoy this deep physical relaxation for a little while.

lotus 2Then we can think that everything outside our body melts into light in all directions and disappears. This light then gathers towards us, leaving behind only empty space, like a mist lifting, until only our hollow body remains.

We can also think that everything up to this moment in time melts into light and disappears. It vanishes like last night’s dream. The past doesn’t exist anyway, it is being erased by the moment.

And everything after this moment also disappears – the future doesn’t exist either.

In this way we feel fully alive and alert in the present moment, the here and the now.

(As most of our feelings of busy-ness and being overwhelmed involve clinging to a past or worrying about a future, this simple contemplation alone can do wonders to help us relax and let go.)

And then we can, if we like, do some breathing meditation to let go of all remaining distractions and problems. We can think that these gather at the level of our heart in the form of thick heavy smoke, and then we let them go by breathing them out – they are just thoughts and we don’t need to keep thinking them. We feel our mind becoming lighter and purer with every out-breath.

We can think that our in-breath is the aspect of light, the most beautiful light you can imagine, and the nature of peace, and we ride this light deep into our heart, where it joins the inner light of our Buddha nature.

Finally, we can spend a few minutes identifying with this peace at our heart, enjoying it. We recognize it as the peaceful nature of our own mind and our potential for lasting peace and freedom. This is me! All that crazy busyness and worry is not.

As we arise from our meditation, we take this space into our busy daily lives so that it remains in the background of what we do. We can dip into it anytime, come into the present moment by simply sitting with and enjoying the peace of our own mind.

Busy is as busy does

(Actually I have no idea what that expression means …) Anyway, one definition of busy according to dictionary.com isbusy 3 “full of or characterized by activity”. So, there is nothing wrong with being busy per se (providing we are busy doing helpful things!) – but there is a problem if our busy-ness is consuming us and stressing us out, if we are feeling scattered, fragmented, or exhausted. However much we have to do, we want to be able to do it within a feeling of space and perspective.

Apparently people brag about being busy these days, as if it shows what a full life they are leading. Even dictionary.com says the antonym of busy is “indolent” or “unoccupied” and who wants to be that?! But being fully occupied doesn’t make us more glamorous. Being available 24/7 doesn’t make us the ideal worker. These are not marks of worth or social standing. We may think that having a huge amount of things to do makes us important or productive, but “There is more to life than its speed”, as Gandhi said, and if we are busy doing a lot of pointless things there is not much to feel proud about.

Laziness, according to Buddhism, can be slothful or indolent getting nowhere, but it can also be running around doing meaningless activities getting nowhere. Plus, over-busy 6extending ourselves doesn’t actually make us happy, just stressed out, so, given that happiness is what we really want, how successful is that? Our actual life can get lost in the flotsam and jetsam of our to-do lists, none of which will mean a thing when we are dying, or even, frankly, before that eg, when we retire, or next year. Our most precious non-renewable resource is time – we need to use it in the most meaningful way possible — and meaningful and busy are not synonyms.

The other day I had to do something new technologically at work and I wasn’t sure if I knew how to. In fact I knew I didn’t know how to. But I felt a little under pressure so I started thinking about it way ahead of the time I had my meeting scheduled with co-workers, and my thoughts ran away with themselves, “This is way too tricky! And I’m supposed to be able to sort this out but I can’t! My boss’ll think I’m incompetent. I’ll be fired! But I need the money!” Etc. So I felt under pressure, busy, not enough time, and then we had the meeting and it was all fine and we figured it out and even had a laugh while doing it. So what was all that inappropriate attention, or worry, for?!

I think we do this a lot in our society, wasting time worrying unnecessarily about ourselves and what we need to do, so we feel far busier than we actually are. We have all of tomorrow to do what needs to be done tomorrow – why worry about it today? We need a method to shut down the tape that runs in our minds about all that needs to be done that day, that week, that year.

More coming soon … it is already written, but I know you guys are way too busy to read it all in one sitting ;-)

What is compassion?

help everyone escape
help everyone escape

Have to help everyone escape 100%

Compassion fills our life with meaning. So, what is it? It is not just being nice, though it will lead us to being good people. If we have compassion, we want something for others. If a friend has tripped over a drain and broken their leg, we want them to be free from physical pain. If a friend is suicidal, we want to protect them from mental suffering.

We already have some compassion—it may be a bit limited and biased, it may come and go, but we do have it. It is our Buddha nature. And don’t you find that those times you have felt a deep genuine compassion for another person with no thought for yourself have been very precious? Something good happens to your perspective? You feel more in touch with the truth of things?

Actual compassion is defined as the mind wishing others to be free from suffering and its causes. It’s the other side of the coin from wishing love, wishing others to have happiness and its causes.

Feeling sad and bad about others?
dog helped by Bodhisattva

Click on this picture for a story about a very kind man.

Though compassion can be hard sometimes, it is still more than worth it. (Delusions such as selfishness and anger are always hard, and they are never worth it!) And compassion, unlike delusions, is not a painful feeling. At its most qualified, it is blissful. I tried to start explaining this already in this article. But for me, I find that this quote from Eight Steps to Happiness puts it most beautifully:

Pure compassion is a mind that finds the suffering of others unbearable, but it does not make us depressed. In fact it gives us tremendous energy to work for others and to complete the spiritual path for their sake. It shatters our complacency and makes it impossible to rest content with the superficial happiness of satisfying our worldly desires, yet in its place we shall come to know a deep inner peace that cannot be disturbed by changing conditions.

One practical way to develop compassion starting here and now

It is good to keep it real, not abstract, by starting with our immediate circle. We can contemplate the situation of those under our noses at home or at work, for example, as opposed to a mass of unknown humanity living in China. We find a way in, and then draw more and more people into that orbit of love and compassion at our heart. Make meditation work, as my teacher Geshe Kelsang says.

I’ll give you a recent example of how I try to do this.

Dexton 2I was fostering a kitten recently called Dexton and we bonded like crazy. A woman had swerved to avoid him as he crossed the intersection on 53rd street and Pearl. She got out of the car to see him lying upside down with his paws thrown up above his head. “OMG,” she thought, “I’ve killed him!” But of course she hadn’t, that is just Dexton’s favorite posture, even, it seems, when he is in the middle of the highway. And she bought him into the shelter.

Given that it was already easy to love him, I found him a perfect candidate for compassion that I could then spread out to all the other cats and humans etc. But whenever I found myself worrying about him, for example how betrayed he would feel when I gave him away later, or when my friend P and I thought he’d jumped out of a second-storey window as we couldn’t find him anywhere (he was in a shoe), I found it very helpful to remember that it is not just that suffering I want him free from, but all wretched cat sufferings forever. And all other sufferings. And therefore all the causes of that suffering.

And then it was not too much of a stretch to remember that he is just one small furry person amongst countless others who need exactly what he does — complete freedom from suffering and its causes. It may seem counter-intuitive to our normal way of (avoiding) thinking about suffering, but worry starts to subside in the course of this contemplation, and an initial heartfelt concern for one kitten’s sore paw, for example, or a baby’s colic, or a friend’s heartbreak can be a trigger or way in for compassion wanting to remove everyone’s suffering and its causes. Because everyone is suffering and no one wants to.

Anyone can develop compassion for one suffering at a time – May this person be free from their migraine! May this family living in poverty receive a windfall! May this dying person consumed with anger quickly find peace! But only if we understand the actual origins of suffering – delusions and contaminated karma – can we develop genuine compassion wishing others to be free from all suffering and its causes.

How can I help everyone?!

kind BuddhaTo help everyone we have to become a Buddha first, but every day we can go in that direction by paying attention to suffering or “opening our eyes” as Geshe Kelsang has put it. Wishing, “May you be free”.

So, how does it work that a Buddha’s compassion has the power directly to protect others from suffering? The answer is profound, but this is one way to think about it. If you are experiencing some pain in the presence of someone, even an ordinary person, who genuinely and respectfully wants you to be free from that suffering, how does that make you feel? It’s at least a little bit better than being entirely neglected, is it not?! The Bodhisattva Vow describes Buddha Shakyamuni:

His purified mind abides eternally in the tranquil ocean of reality, seeing all phenomena as clearly as a jewel held in the hand, and suffused with an all-embracing compassion.

Buddha’s minds are everywhere, infinitely powerful, and a constant source of blessings.

The 2 ingredients of compassion

Are (1) love and (2) seeing suffering. Both wishing love (the wish for others to have happiness and its causes) and compassion come from cherishing love, thinking that others matter and that their happiness and freedom are important. If we don’t care about someone, we might think “Who cares” or even “Yeah!” when we see them suffering. But if we love our brother, say, and care for him, and see that he’s in pain, naturally we want that pain to go away. That will in turn lead to behaviors that help us help our brother – but compassion itself is what we are thinking, not what we do, it is a state of mind.

Compassion increases our opportunities to help
In the safe hands of the Bodhisattva who runs the shelter in Florida

In the safe hands of the Bodhisattva who runs the shelter I worked at

The more compassion we have, of course, the more likely it is that we are going to be kind, care for others, look after them, and protect them. But just the wish “May they be free” is compassion, and in itself is a powerful mind. So we don’t ever need feel inadequate, “Oh so and so is helping SO many more people than me, I’m useless …” Mental actions are more powerful than physical and verbal actions, according to Geshe Kelsang.

Not only are we good to be around when we have a heart filled with compassion, even without our having to lift a finger, but one encouraging thing is that if we do have the compassionate intention to help others, opportunities to help others will arise more and more. As the great teacher Nagarjuna explains in one of my favorite quotes:

Even if we are not able to help others directly
We should still try to develop a beneficial intention.
If we develop this intention more and more strongly,
We shall naturally find ways to help others. ~ Universal Compassion

Compassion increases our capacity to help

compassion 4Our capacity to help others will also increase because compassion purifies our mind and leads to many other good mental qualities, while at the same time decreasing our delusions. As it says in Eight Steps to Happiness:

It is impossible for strong delusions to arise in a mind filled with compassion. If we do not develop delusions, external circumstances alone have no power to disturb us; so when our mind is governed by compassion it is always at peace.

For example, if you really want someone to be free from their cancer, and you’re in their shoes, you’re not irritated with them at the same time, are you? You find quite a reservoir of patience! And in that way you can help more. Here is a short anecdote from an old friend of mine to illustrate this point.

To travel to South Africa for my gap year before university I had to earn money, so I took a job in a hospital’s geriatric ward as a “Domestic” with the uniquely British combined responsibilities of scrubbing toilets and making tea.

The ward felt like the asylum of lost hopes, where thrown-away people who had often led stellar lives were living out their end days lonely, lost and incapacitated. Several had amputated limbs, thus condemned to hospital life despite their active minds. And then there was the cheerful teenage me, about to go on a dazzling African adventure with my whole life still ahead, jovially offering them cups of tea. More than once they threw the tea on the floor, saying it was awful, deliberately trying to make my life difficult. Yet I was curious to note at the time that I never became annoyed with them. Why did their actions not upset me when the far less ornery behavior of people elsewhere irritated me all the time? It was because it made no sense to become angry when they were suffering so much; in fact the worse they behaved the more deeply I felt for them. My compassion for them was protecting my mind.

Over to you: More thoughts on compassion in the pipeline. Meantime, your feedback and comments are most welcome. How do you generate compassion?

How to be kind according to Buddhism

Buddha kind

Buddha kindWith consideration for others we determine to avoid negativity because we don’t want to hurt others. (This carries on from this article.) Non-harmfulness is the guiding principle in Buddhism. No one who deliberately harms others is a follower of Buddha ~ the chief refuge commitment he gave to be a Buddhist is:

Not to harm others.

So we develop love and compassion in our hearts, and then put our money where our mouth is, as it were, by developing the determination to avoid actions that would disturb or harm others. Our self-cherishing desires are like a black hole that can never be filled, so, as it says in Transform Your Life:

Before we act on a wish we should consider whether it will disturb or harm others, and if we think that it will we should not do it.

That’s a good rule of thumb.

Also we need to try and practice consideration whenever we are with other people, as Geshe Kelsang says – which means any other people! Not just a few people whom we want to impress. Buddhist moral discipline is practical, not abstract – there is no point developing compassion for all those people in China and then acting crazy around our co-workers. How we behave with the people under our nose, whether these are the people we’d choose to be with or not, is where the rubber hits the road, where we get to really manifest what is going on in our hearts in our verbal and physical actions. One of my favorite sayings is in Meaningful to Behold:

We should not act as if we are sleepwalking or allow our habits to dominate our behavior.

Making a determination is moral discipline, and it means we are awake due to mindfulness, not allowing ourselves to be dominated by our habitual delusions. Who else are we going to practice this with, if not the people we are presented with each day, whether friend, enemy, or total stranger?

Way to make friends

If we are considerate, Geshe Kelsang says, people will like and respect us. Makes sense – people like us generally based on the way we make them feel, as opposed to whether we are scintillatingly fascinating, witty, and gorgeous to look at (I’m talking about like as in affection, not attachment, here.) If the people around us think that we are basically trustworthy, that we are not out to get them, and that in fact we are interested in their welfare, they will probably like us. (Doesn’t mean we can’t be fascinating too …)

Genuinely goodgreatest test

Integrity is important – the same study showed that we try to get away with appearing better than we are, whereas would it not be more cool to appear good because we ARE good?! (Funny how the Sanskrit word for moral discipline, “shi la”, literally means “coolness”.)

Sense of shame and consideration help us overcome this disconnect, this hypocrisy, this pretension and deceit, and become genuinely good people. As it says in Transform Your Life:

Whether we are a good person or a bad person depends upon whether or not we have sense of shame and consideration for others.

No guilt though

Confession time. When I took Marty out one day, in the big “historic” January New York blizzard that never was, he pooped right in the middle of a wide and deep puddle. I had on shoes, not boots, and I tried to get to it, but the puddle was about 9 inches deep, so I gave up. I did notice that I had self-cherishing attachment to my dry feet over someone else’s stepping in poop, and it wasn’t pretty. But, having acknowledged that, I did not let myself feel too bad about it. Why?!clean up after dog

Because sense of shame is not guilt — perhaps it is the opposite as guilt holds onto the baggage and identifies with the negativity, “Oh, I’m such a horrible person! What’s the point!” We feel worthless and unmotivated. Whereas with sense of shame or consideration, when we do something less than stellar we don’t beat ourselves up but recognize we did it under the influence of our enemy, the delusions, and so we can purify and move on.

We are not fixed or inherently anything — in fact the me who didn’t pick up after my dog has already gone out of existence, thanks to impermanence, leaving me free to identify with my pure nature and re-impute or re-identify myself as a decent dog-owner once again, to greet the new moment and Marty’s new bowel movement. (Wish I could say I picked up another dog’s poop to make up for it, and to make me seem better than I am … but I didn’t ;-)  Ah well, at least I picked up all Marty’s poop after that, making sure I always had on my Wellies.)

You are your own witness

And others cannot police us; we have to just do this thing ourselves. I will leave you as I started in the last article, with another piece of memorable advice from Buddha: You are your own witness

What would a Buddhist do?

change mind

change mindWhen asked to sum up his lifetime’s teachings, Buddha managed with his typical genius to condense all 84,000 of them into one short verse:

Cease to do evil,
Learn to do good,
Control the mind.
This is the teaching of Buddha.

In Transform Your Life, in the section “A Daily Practice”, Geshe Kelsang explains how we can do this with 6 daily practices, 2 of them being sense of shame and consideration for others, which are both characterized by a determination to refrain from negative actions. These enable us to live a kind, ethical life.

Raising our standards ~ sense of shame

Sense of shame helps us avoid negative actions by appealing to our Jiminy Cricket-type conscience, avoiding inappropriate actions for reasons that concern ourself, eg, because we’re a dad, a Buddhist, a Christian, a teacher, etc. You know that old saying: “What would a [fill in the gap] do?!”

So what kind of conscience we have depends on whom we are identifying ourselves with. If we feel pretty worthless, we won’t care much about our behavior, there won’t seem to be much point – and some studies on poor prison sense of shamebehavior bear this out. If we identify with being a spiritual practitioner, for example, or a teacher, an adult, a doctor, a social worker, or even just a decent human being, we will care that our actions are in keeping with that.

As we are not fixed, we can identify with being what is most beneficial (without grasping at it.)

Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander

I read a study somewhere once on behavior around the water cooler at the office, where apparently 90% of the conversation revolves around other’s moral failings :-) “Ooh, guess what so and so did … left the lights on all night, don’t they care about global warming! Didn’t pick up after their dog, so gross and selfish. Ran off with someone else’s partner, how could they!” etc.

These double standards are interesting and utterly in keeping with our tendency to externalize all faults, many of them in fact just projections of our own faults. Do we love rummaging around in the garbage cans of others’ faults or strolling in the sweet-smelling meadows of their good qualities?! Without sense of shame, we might agree with the principles of ethical behavior and be quite happy to have others abide by them, yet, when we are tempted by attachment, we might also leave the lights on all night and think it doesn’t matter because we are some kind of exception and the planet won’t mind. We might not pick up after our dog if we are in a hurry because we have better things to do. We might run off with other people’s partners because this is true love. We stonesmight not, in other words, remove the plank from our own eyes before attempting to remove the mote from the eyes of others. As Atisha says in a well-known Buddhist saying:

Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.

The same goes for our behavior. Moral outrage is fine when we actually have a leg to stand on, so that is what we need to check — do we?! Why be judgmental, high and mighty, or goody two shoes? We need to be genuine and humble in our wish to be better. As it says in Advice from Atisha’s Heart (the whole text of which is available here!)

Do not look for the faults of others, but look for faults in yourself, and purge them like bad blood.

Do not contemplate your own good qualities, but contemplate the good qualities of others, and respect everyone as a servant would.

An ex’s father was fond of saying that he’d read a study which found that, when questioned, each member of a couple always said they did 70% of the housework. (And this is no different if you question anyone in any shared living arrangement, where people often complain that they are doing more than their fair share.) You gotta wonder why the math doesn’t add up — and the article said it is because we are keenly aware of all the work we do as we are with ourselves all the time, whereas we only see a fraction of what others are doing. Thinking of our own good qualities and others faults, perhaps, rather than the other way round …!?

Rationalizations, justifications …

moral ethicsWhen we are under the influence of delusions we rarely think we are wrong at the time — we can justify and rationalize almost any behavior. We almost always have the perfect excuse (even though no one else has any excuse.) This is why sense of shame comes in handy because all the time we are identified with being, for example, an adult, we’ll naturally not behave like a four-year old. While we are identified with being a doctor or social worker or a teacher — when that is our basis of imputation for our sense of self, when that is who we think we are — we’ll naturally avoid actions that seem out of keeping or inappropriate. While we are identified with being even just a decent human being, we are far less likely to do something un-decent, even if no one is watching us.

What goes around, comes around

MartyWith sense of shame, we also consider karma – we avoid a negative action because we don’t want to experience its negative result, a bad experience. If you are wondering what is with this mention of dog poop, I just looked after a big black Labrador called Marty for 3 weeks, and learned far more than I ever needed or wanted to know about dog poop on the streets of New York. So, for example, when  I’m about to leave the dog poop because it is inconvenient to wade through a foot of snow with the wrong shoes, and, besides, no one is looking, I can remember that I am creating the cause to tread in dog poop myself down the road. And because karma increases, if I don’t purify this action I could end up treading in dog poop, or worse, hundreds of times. So better just to pick up in the first place.

Next time, consideration for others.


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