Being a modern-day Bodhisattva

six perfections

This is the 3rd of 4 articles on our precious human life.

In Breathing for Peace Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:

six perfections

Everybody can be great… because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.

We could do something truly radical by using our life to become a friend of the world, a modern-day Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is anyone who, motivated by universal compassion, wants to help everyone without exception find lasting freedom and happiness. Compassion fuels their entire spiritual progress. They understand that the most far-reaching and satisfying way to help others is to keep increasing their own good qualities of generosity, moral discipline, patience, joyful effort, concentration, and wisdom – the so-called six perfections – until they become an enlightened Buddha able to help everyone all the time. This motivation is called bodhichitta, the mind of enlightenment.

A Bodhisattva is a rare being, a special person, an actual hero or heroine who gains victory over our real enemies of anger, greed, despair, discouragement and so on. Someone who wants to become enlightened for all living beings is uncommon, but just because it is rare doesn’t mean we can’t become one. There are people throughout the world working selflessly for others, in ways obvious or hidden. Sometimes we stumble across their stories and are inspired.  

Rick Chaboudy modernday Bodhisattva

Rick Chaboudy, modern-day Bodhisattva, savior of too many animals to count

If we decided we wanted to help others with surgical procedures, we would understand the need to train as a surgeon. We wouldn’t march around with a carving knife announcing, “Anyone care for some heart surgery? Or perhaps a little amputation?” Wanting to help everyone, a Bodhisattva knows they first need to improve their own motivation, skills and capacity. They have a way to make every single day meaningful and are a great role model for how to live in the world.

How can we live a meaningful life?

How does someone become a Bodhisattva? Simply through daily practice, one step at a time. You may be thinking, “Well this is a bit fanciful isn’t it?! I started reading this article just out of curiosity, and possibly to help me get through this stressful day without killing someone, and now you’re suggesting that I aspire to become a fully enlightened Buddha!” But it is far closer than we may think. We can tell that we already have the seed of bodhichitta because we already want to help others at least a bit more than we can right now, and we already want to improve ourselves at least a bit. Take both of these to their logical conclusion and we have bodhichitta – the wish to help everyone without exception by improving ourselves until there is no further room for improvement.

Modern Buddhism free book

We want our life to have some meaning, don’t we? Pleasure alone is not enough, it feels hollow, because it has no lasting value. True happiness and meaning go hand in hand. If we use our life to travel the spiritual path, we can be in the position of helping not just ourselves but infinite living beings. We can become real heroes.

Spreading a little happiness everyday

A friend of mine sent me this anecdote:

“Straight after university I spent a year working in television in London as a production runner for the Channel 4 comedy series The National Theatre of Brent. As a lot of my time was spent in gridlock, “driving” the company car on errands in London traffic, I had plenty of time to examine road rage. So frustrated by their lack of movement, drivers in front of me would honk their horns continuously, forcing their way into whatever gaps presented themselves. Yet an hour down the road, despite all their aggressive heart-attack—inducing attempts, I would see them again – a whole five cars further ahead!road rage

I decided to conduct an experiment. Whenever possible, I would allow a trapped car into the space ahead of me. When I did this, I was greeted by a smile and wave from the surprised driver, and that car would often play it forward, repeating the gesture of kindness to another car ahead of it. Traffic seemed to flow more easily as a result. My journeys did not take any longer, and they were a great deal more restful and entertaining. This is just a simple illustration. We have these kinds of opportunities to practice loving-kindness every day.”

By improving our love and compassion and the wish to improve ourselves for the sake of others, and by gradually engaging in the Bodhisattva’s way of life, our life approximates that of a Bodhisattva and we become more and more like one. With this good and big heart, even if we improve ourselves only a little bit each day by, for example, patiently resisting the temptation to get angry with someone, and even if we only slightly help one or two people each day, by, for example, helping a little old lady cross the street, every little bit counts a lot because right here and right now we are already making strides on a cosmic spiritual journey.

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!!

Happiness from the inside out

rainbow in clouds
Escape to reality

rainbow in cloudsPeople often decide they’ll learn to meditate once they see the connection between inner peace and feeling good or happy.

But sometimes people misunderstand “happiness depends on inner peace” to mean that, when they meditate, Buddhists and so on are just trying to find some peace by escaping from reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. We use meditation to become fully engaged both with our reality and with others’ reality. Peace is not just about switching off and ignoring whatever is going on. It’s about waking up to reality. Therefore, peaceful minds are peaceful, but they’re also meaningful.

Where do you look for happiness?

When we go to Buddhist meditation classes, or read some books, it is not too long before we discover that Buddha taught that happiness comes from within. And we nod our heads in agreement and perhaps even tell others about it. But if we examine where we put all our time and energy, where we try to find happiness, this’ll give us a good indication of what we really believe about where our happiness comes from, regardless of the words coming out of our mouth. And it could well be that we still believe that it is to be found out there, somewhere. “If I get this right I’ll be happy” – if I just get this piece of pizza, this promotion, this pay raise, this boyfriend, this GPS…

directionally challengedActually, when I was given my first GPS, a Magellan, back in San Francisco where I was based about 8 years ago, I confess that for a while there I thought I might finally have stumbled upon the one thing in the entire universe that was capable of making me happy. That navigator revolutionized my entire existence! For years I had been saying to people that happiness didn’t depend on externals, and now I was realizing that it did! After years of being directionally challenged, to put it mildly, more like directionally demented, I drove around San Francisco like some crazy woman, and found my way everywhere with absolutely no difficulty whatsoever.

At the time I had to think quite hard about why Lady Magellan wasn’t a source of happiness from her own side – the only lame thing I could come up with was that although she got me places, she didn’t guarantee I enjoyed those places once I was there. (Admittedly, this was before she started to become a bit perverse and peevish and send me on some very odd detours, once even suggesting I drive off a cliff.)

Why am I fessing up to this? It’s because sometimes (often!) I do have to think hard about why someone or something is not capable from their own side of giving me happiness. If I dig deeper, I can see how this is the case, but it is not always immediately obvious, which is why I fall for external sources of happiness over and over again.

Have you found anything that from its own side is capable of giving you happiness, without its depending on the mind?

Where do you look for inner peace?

value of somethingWhereas we do often think that the causes of happiness lie outside the mind, when it comes to peace I think we have more of a sense that peace is an inner state of mind, and we have to work on our mind to get it. “If I want to be peaceful, my mind has to be peaceful.” I never thought, for example, that Lady Magellan could give rise to inner peace. I think it makes more sense to us to think of cultivating peace of mind, whereas when we use the word “pursuing happiness” it seems to suggest more about rearranging things externally. Just a little more Mozzarella on the pizza, or if only my kitten would stop throwing up, I’ll be happy. Happiness is out there and so we have to go out there and get it.

Joining the dots… happiness comes from inner peace, nowhere else

So it is very helpful to understand the relationship between peace and happiness – it helps us join the dots and change priorities. If we knew for sure that happiness depends on inner peace as opposed to external sources, we would find the energy to train in it. With inner peace, we can be happy all the time, no matter what is going on in our world. Without it, if our mind is troubled, we cannot find a moment’s happiness, even if we are magically transported to a fabulous tropical paradise surrounded by all our dearest friends. External conditions can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful.

Happiness come from the inside out, not the outside in.

Japanese-Tea-Garden-San-FranciscoFor example, San Francisco is a very beautiful city. I know, because I drove around it like a crazy woman and saw lots of touristy things, like the Japanese Tea Garden. But it is still going to entirely depend on our frame of mind whether we’re going to enjoy that Japanese Garden or find it, “Boooring! I’m hungry. Where’s my lunch?” If our mind is elsewhere, nothing takes: “I wish my boss would give me a break”, or “I’m so stressed out about that stupid deadline”, then a brief, “Oh, nice Bonsai tree”, then “I can’t believe what that woman said to me…” If our mind is churning and unpeaceful, we can be in one of the most beautiful corners of this planet and it can still be just “Bleahh!”, not making us happier at all. Many of us do live in a beautiful corner of this planet, but are we happy all the time? There are literally countless examples like this.

Everyone wants to be happy all the time. I can’t remember the last time I woke up in the morning thinking, “I hope I have a really miserable day”… Yet, without choice, we often do have a miserable day. This is because happiness is just not going to happen if we are not peaceful inside, regardless of which external source we turn to. Happiness comes from the inside out. We’ve got that backwards at the moment. We’ve tried it from the outside in for a very long time – months, years, decades, possibly half a century or more. And we’ll go on like this until we realize that happiness is not coming from there. That we won’t find happiness out there because happiness is a state of mind and it depends on inner peace, peace of mind. And, in fact, there is nothing out there!

A clearly defined path to peace and happiness

happiness comes from withinMeditation redresses this issue. The Western word “happiness” comes from the Icelandic word “luck”. We are happy by chance, when things suddenly go our way or we receive a windfall; and then something goes wrong and we are randomly unhappy again. But according to Buddhism, by contrast, there’s a clearly defined path to happiness, and this involves training in improving our peaceful and positive minds.

Over to you: In the comments, let us know if you have managed to find a real external source of happiness, so we can all go out and buy one …

Learning to meditate in 2014

happy new year 2014

calvin and hobbes new year's resolutionDeciding to learn meditation is a really great new year’s resolution. Anyone can learn, if they want to.

Meditation means becoming familiar with positivity and wisdom, both on the meditation seat and off it in our normal daily lives; and it is a powerful way to become a happier, more fulfilled person. It also helps us to help others. Life is short, our time is passing, and meditation helps us get the most out of our remaining years, months, weeks, or days, as well as prepare for the future.

We can meditate anywhere and anytime, together with all our daily activities, as meditation simply means, for example, thinking kind thoughts instead of unkind ones, complimentary thoughts instead of snide, gossipy ones, peaceful thoughts instead of angry ones, generous thoughts instead of grasping ones, wise thoughts instead of blinkered ones – understanding that this is our choice and freedom. There are many accessible ways to think positive and stay positive if we want to. We can become a relaxed, kind person whom we like and respect. new year's resolution to meditate

And we can also meditate in so-called meditation sessions, where we can begin by sitting down and closing our eyes, gathering within, and doing some relaxing breathing meditation. We can let go of all troubling, neurotic, anxious, self-disliking thoughts and touch on, then dwell in, the peace and clarity that is the natural state of our mind.

“Are you sure my mind is naturally peaceful?!”

My aunt is over here from France at the moment, and yesterday she asked me how to meditate. When I explained something along the lines of what I just wrote above, she wanted to know why it is that our mind is naturally peaceful as opposed to naturally anxious and unpeaceful. It is a very good question.

get rid of delusions and find peaceWhenever we don’t have a delusion functioning, we can observe that our mind is naturally peaceful. When our mind is roiled by a bunch of negative, unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts and emotions, it is as if a vast, deep, boundless ocean is being churned up. We cannot see below the surface, below the huge, terrifying, disorientating waves, to the endless clarity and depth below. We are stuck on the surface just trying to stay afloat. We identify with that even, thinking that it is all that we and life are about. But whenever the waves die down, we can tell that the ocean is clear, vast, and very deep – this is the nature of an ocean. In a similar way, when our mind settles and those wave-like thoughts die down and disappear, we can sense immediately that our mind is vast, clear, and deep, and naturally peaceful. It is far better to identify with the natural peace of our mind (our Buddha nature) then with the adventitious neurotic unhappy thoughts that come and go and are not who we are.

ocean like clarity and peace of mindStress relief

How can you begin meditating? It is good to think about why you might want to do it. One of the main reasons people turn to meditation is to relieve stress. They want to find a way to turn off the anxiety and find a measure of calm and relaxation. They’re fed up with being fed up.

Stress kills happiness stone dead. I’ve recently met a hamster called Patch. He is the luckiest hamster I’ve ever met because instead of having just one or two plastic balls and connecting pipes to run around in, his kind mom has pretty much bought up the entire hamster shop for him. Still, although he is a relatively lucky little guy, as hamsters go, he is not without his problems, just like the rest of us. I was watching him running on his wheel the other day, trying to go fast enough to avoid falling off. When we’re stressed out, we’re a bit like that. No matter how hard we work to solve the stress-inducing problem, it never seems to get any better. We can reach the point where we are so burnt out that we cease functioning productively at all, spending our days pushing pencils across our desk. treadmill of life

Stress arrives at any income bracket. If we’re earning $200,000 a year but our overheads, including for example alimony and kids’ education, is costing us $300,000 a year, it can be just as stressful as earning $50 a day but having $75 a day in expenses.

When we feel stressed, we see the stress as something that is happening to us and not in any way as a reflection of our state of mind: “My situation is so stressful! That selfish person is causing me so much stress! The ghastly noise my neighbors make day in day out winds me up!” We feel stress is intrinsic in our situations, but stress is not out there, external to the mind – it is a troubled way of responding to what’s appearing to our mind. For example, two people can be in a traffic jam and one can be very calm not really minding at all, whilst another can be hugely upset. If we react every time in a troubled way, then stress builds up and leads to unhappiness, a growing inability to cope, and related physical problems. dealing with stress

According to CNN.com, 43% of adults suffer from stress-related problems or illnesses. Even children are increasingly stressed these days. Doctors say that for 90% of patients their conditions are either caused by or aggravated by stress. Stress has been implicated in six major killers, including heart disease, lung disease, cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. Alcoholism and addiction often arise from or are exacerbated by stress.

Documented medical benefits of meditation

benefits of meditationMany medical studies now show how effective meditation is in combating both stress and sickness, including one by Dr. David Eisenberg and his colleagues at the Harvard Medical School that lists an increasing number of medical benefits from the practice of meditation:

  1. Reductions in heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, oxygen consumption, blood flow to skeletal muscles, perspiration and muscle tension, as well as improvement in immunity.
  2. Women with PMS (premenstrual syndrome) who meditate regularly reduce their symptoms by 58 percent. Women going through menopause could significantly reduce the intensity of hot flushes.
  3. In a study of a 10-week group program that included meditation (along with exercise and nutrition changes), women struggling with infertility had significantly less anxiety, depression, and fatigue, and 34-percent became pregnant within six months.
  4. New mothers who use meditation with images of milk flowing in their breasts can more than double their production of milk.
  5. Patients with coronary-artery disease who meditated daily for eight months had nearly a 15-percent increase in exercise tolerance.
  6. Patients with ischemic heart disease (in which the heart muscle receives an inadequate supply of blood) who practiced for four weeks had a significantly lower frequency of premature ventricular contractions (a type of irregular heartbeat).
  7. Angioplasty patients who used meditation had significantly less anxiety, pain and need for medication during and after the procedure.
  8. Patients having open-heart surgery who meditated regularly were able to reduce their incidence of postoperative supraventricular tachycardia (abnormally high heart rate).
  9. Medical students who meditated regularly during final exams had a higher percentage of “T-helper cells,” the immune cells that trigger the immune system into action.
  10. Nursing-home residents trained in meditation had increased activity of “natural-killer cells,” which kill bacteria and cancer cells. They also had reductions in the activity of viruses and of emotional distress.
  11. Patients with metastatic (spreading) cancer who meditated with imagery regularly for a year had significant increases in natural-killer cell activity.

Just recently, a study published in Psychiatry Research by Dr. Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, reports that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with stress stress was reduced and there was a noticeable increase in empathy and memory. The New York Times also wrote an article recently called “How meditation may change the brain.”

Our mind and body are closely connected. This mind-body connection is not so mysterious, we instinctively understand it. Why else would we say things like, “I worried myself sick,” or, “My head’s about to explode.” According to Dr. William Collinge, the WebMD on CNN.com, there is mounting medical evidence to support the role of mind/body medicine in promoting health:Buddha and meditation

At the heart of mind/body medicine lies the age-old practice of meditation, a quiet, simple technique that belies an almost extraordinary power to boost disease resistance and maintain overall health.

Two approaches to dealing with stress

As explained here, there are two types of problem. This means that there are two main approaches to dealing with stress: working to resolve the practical “outer” problems causing it as far as is possible, but, more importantly, keeping our mind positive to solve the actual problem, the “inner” problem. Maintaining a positive mind, even if it is challenging, will help us deal with our practical outer problems. Meditation overcomes stress by enabling us to cultivate relaxed, peaceful, happy states of mind.

happy new year 2014So, why not get started!? Learning to meditate is not as hard as you may think, and you’ll never regret learning. Wherever you go, whatever you do, meditation will become your own tool for discovering peace and happiness in 2014. You could resolve to meditate ten minutes a day, every day this year. You will be taking matters into your own hands, and feeling a great deal better for it.

Here is a recent article on breathing meditation that you may find helpful.

Please share this article with anyone you think might like to learn meditation this year.

Comments etc welcome.

Thank you for being there

noodles

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

kindness of others Buddhism

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

Mountain reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buddhism and meditation in the Rockies

Is anyone not kind to us?

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

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

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

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

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

Geshe Kelsang goes onto say:

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

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

Kind just because they’re therekindness of others in Buddhism

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

As Mark Twain put it:

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, in fact, to others.

Breathe out problems, breathe in love

giving meditation

The other day someone asked me: “I know we’re supposed to put others first – but I was taught that in the Girl Guides and its always just made me feel like a doormat.”Buddhism is not about being a doormat

Interestingly, someone else in a separate conversation on the same day also told me that they’d been taught that in the Girl Guides, but their take was different, they felt it was a Buddhist teaching for them in disguise, and they really liked it

What is the difference? The answer is what is going on in the mind. Putting others first has to come not from a sense of onerous, self-sacrificing duty but from a genuine cherishing of others, feeling that their happiness is important, even more important than our own. If we genuinely feel that way, we will naturally and happily want to put them first, there’ll be no self-flagellation involved. But that does not mean that our happiness becomes entirely unimportant. Happiness is our nature, our Buddha nature. It is not wrong to desire it. What is wrong, insofar as it doesn’t work, is seeking it outside when it is inside, and thinking that our happiness is more important than anyone else’s when it’s not.

Actually we need to learn to enjoy our own company a great deal, and it is no fun hanging out with a doormat! We have to like and respect ourselves, which means we have to have something good to like and respect about ourselves = and generally this is our positive and happy qualities, all of which come one way or another from cherishing others. Cherishing others is a win win for us and for others.

we are not the center of the universeThe great Indian Buddhist Shantideva famously said that all suffering in this world comes from self-cherishing and all happiness in this world comes from cherishing others. All of it. I’m not sure there is even an exception to this rule. What Shantideva says makes sense because self-cherishing is a delusion, an unrealistic mind – who else but your own self-cherishing attitude thinks you are the most important person in the world?! (Asked what he felt about death recently, an Australian comedian joked half-seriously that his main fear was who was going to take his place in the center of the universe.) Not even your own mum agrees with this assessment of your own importance, except maybe sometimes, and certainly none of the other 7 billion humans on the planet does — and don’t even think about all the animals who have no clue who you are and don’t care. When we are thinking and acting while taken in by an hallucination, it is no surprise when things don’t work out. Cherishing others, on the other hand, is entirely realistic because it understands that others actually are important, both to themselves and also to us. Others also think they are the only real ME, and we depend on them for everything.

Test the teachings like gold

We don’t need to take Shantideva’s word for it though. In fact we should never take even Buddha’s word for anything, he said so himself – advising people to test everything he said as they’d assay gold to see if it was genuine. We test what we hear and read about Buddhism in the laboratory of our own mind, reasoning, and life experiences in order to come to our own conclusions and decisions, our own good ideas. However much we admire or trust someone, just taking on what they say without thinking it through and making it our own idea has limited benefit, for sooner or later we’ll fall back on our own habitual thoughts and behaviors again. That’s one reason why I think in Buddhism we talk about listening, contemplating, and meditating – we don’t just stop at listening.test Buddha's teachings like gold

So, in this instance, we can look at our own lives to see whether self-cherishing causes us problems or not, and whether cherishing others causes us happiness or not. A simple experiment to get us started is to think of a problem we’ve had recently, such as today. Any problem will do.

Okay, I’ll go first. I work as a project manager for a medical journal and sometimes one doctor or another can be a bit big for their boots. One was complaining about the imposition of only being paid $1,500 for a few hours’ work, and I found myself wondering briefly what planet he lived on. I was a little miffed at his rather rude and condescending email and felt discouraged for a few minutes. Then I got over it.

So, let’s analyze what was going on, and, specifically, who was I thinking of when I was feeling miffed…

Why, me, of course. “How dare he be so insensitive to ME!! Doesn’t he realize what my hourly rate of pay is?!” As my thoughts began to run away with themselves, I started to project this worry into the future as well… “Oh no, I have to work with this guy for a whole MONTH, what if I can’t do it …?”

Then, how did I get over it? By thinking about him and how he wants to be happy but, in this instance at least, doesn’t really know how to – if $1,500 for 3 hours work can’t make you happy, you may be relatively hard to satisfy. His own irritation was doubtless stressing him out. Plus, his dog probably loves him, he can’t be all bad. I genuinely wished him happiness and the problem magically disappeared.

Ok, your turn. Who were you thinking of while you were having your problem? ….

…. Now, if you imagine cherishing the other person or other people around you instead of yourself, what happens to your problem? ……

breathing out problemsDid the problem disappear? Poof…!

If it did, you can extrapolate that the same thing will happen to all your problems if you move away from the poky space of self to the vast space of others.

(This is not just the case for relatively small problems, such as having to work with an irritating client, but with seemingly insurmountable, existential ones. Loren Jay Shaw, for example, was in Super Max solitary confinement for 3 years, and it was cherishing ants that stopped him going quite literally insane.)

Combine your understanding with breathing meditation

Then, what you can do next, if you like, is think that this problem and all other problems caused by your self-cherishing appear in the form of dark clouds at the level of your heart, in the center of your chest. Think:

“I don’t need any of this – these thoughts are just bad habits, and they are not me.”

Then with this decision, breathe the dark clouds out through your nostrils so they disappear forever. Do that for a while, feeling your heart becoming lighter with every breath.

After a little while, imagine breathing in blissful, clear light – like the sky, only infinitely clearer. It enters your nostrils and descends to your heart, or heart chakra — your spiritual heart located in the center of your chest. It looks like light, but its nature is love, cherishing others. You can also think of it as all the love from throughout the universe, including that of all holy beings, blessings. With every breath, feel your heart become happier.

Than spend a few minutes combining the two, breathing out the last of the dark clouds and breathing in the blissful clear light.

Buddha peaceWe can identify with this peaceful, spacious feeling at our heart, thinking:

“This is my Buddha nature. This peace and love I am feeling, however slight, indicates my potential for limitless love. This is who I am.”

We are not the clouds of our delusions, we are the sky of our Buddha nature. We can hang out in this blissful clarity at our heart for as long as we like, feeling at home there, thinking “This is me.”

Then, for the extra icing on this meditation cake, we can think that everyone in the world has this same potential at their heart. How wonderful it would be if they could remove self-cherishing and its problems and identify with their pure love instead. Then we can dedicate all the good karma or good fortune we’ve created so that we and others quickly accomplish this.

Before we rise from meditation, we can think ahead briefly to how we are going to remember this love for the rest of the day. One excellent way is to use the Lojong (mind-training) motto with everyone we meet or think about:

“This person is important. Their happiness matters.”

Home is where the heart is

Rousseau lying on back

I have had the thought of late that I don’t think I’ll ever be completely, utterly happy until I realize I am everywhere. We all are, as there is no world outside our mind.

I suppose what has partly bought on this cosmic rather pleasing thought is the amount of times I’ve been asked in the last few months since I came to Liverpool from Florida:

“Really? That is a BIG change?!”

Whereas it is a surprisingly un-big change.

Plus, give me a dollar or a quid for the amount of solicitous comments I’ve received along the lines of whether I am feeling at home yet? (I am, thank you.) But the truth is I don’t feel I left home. Home is where the heart is, as they say. My home is in my heart. Luckily, my heart goes with me everywhere.

Rousseau lying on back Kadampa LifeFlorida was only ever dreamlike appearance to my mind, and I can still “be” there when I want to in my heart-mind. Same for everywhere. As Geshe-la points out, the mind can go anywhere – it’d take considerable effort and expense to lug my body to the moon, but my mind can go there in an instant just by thinking about it.

Beatles and meditation

“Love is all you need.”

Florida is empty of inherent existence and can be anything depending on my thoughts, so I like to imagine it as a Pure Land — I still enjoy offering it up to all enlightened beings and living beings, with all its pterodactyl pelicans, lapping turquoise seas, and gorgeous gargantuan tropical undergrowth. My hairdresser yesterday spent 10 minutes marveling aloud at the Armadillo she had once seen in Florida – I offer him up too, along with, now, the swans in Sefton Park, the miniature chirpy birds, and the timeless and Tara-green English countryside.

Be here, now. Be everywhere now.

It was EM Forster who said:

Only connect.

daffodils at Kadampa Meditation Centre Liverpool

Thank you, Flower Fairy!

Love is the great connector. With equanimity, we reduce our sticky attachment Velcro-ing us to our only (bring out the violins) loved ones, and love the ones we’re with as well as the ones we’re not currently with. (An anonymous flower fairy just left the first daffodils of spring outside my door with a message wishing me a joy-filled day — what’s not to love about Liverpudlians?!) [Remembering how everyone is our kind mother and that we depend on others for every atom of our being, we can feel at home anywhere. Love makes us feel entirely connected, settled, and supported – it stops loneliness and homesickness in their tracks.

I just this moment received this gracious reply from an old friend I wrote to in Florida, who is going through a hard time:

“You are so kind to have me on your mind with all the new frontiers you are forever moving through.”

That’s what I mean! Why wouldn’t I have her on my mind? Why would I be concerned for her over there but not over here?! To prove it, I’m now going to dedicate this article to her and Chuck.

Uncertainty

One of the six general sufferings of samsara, according to Buddha, is Uncertainty. Impermanence means that everything is unstable – our relationships, our locations, our enjoyments, our bodies. Unless we find a way to transform change, we are in for trouble – and not just in this life but in all our future lives.

how to handle things falling apartAs a child, we travelled, my parents and I. We lived in New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Guyana, Turkey, Ghana, and Singapore, and visited many other countries too. Though my parents adapted remarkably well to change on almost every continent, for them travel was rooted in, I think, a sense of Britishness. They were happy to come back and retire here; England is home for them. My older brother who started in England and was packed off to boarding school aged 7 told me at Christmas that if he could choose where on earth he would live, he too would live in England, just where he does live. For me, though, starting my life in New Zealand, paying occasional visits to the motherland, England never felt like my roots. My parents were my roots, and that was fine, as I never doubted that they’d look after me (I was lucky!) Every two or three years I’d be going to a new continent and meeting new people. One day, on the school bus waiting to drive off to another first day at another new school (nine in all), I felt an existential ennui at having to start all over again making new friends, and doubted that I’d have the energy or ability to do it. Just before the bus rolled away, my mother gave me this parting shot:

“If you want people to like you, like them first.”

When I asked how I could possibly like a whole bunch of strangers, she said:

“Get them to talk about themselves. And remember that everyone is beautiful when they smile.”

She doesn’t remember saying these things, but I do.

Madhyamaka Centre 1980s

Madhyamaka Centre 1980s

As an adult, I have continued to go from place to place – apart from a 14-year stint at Madhyamaka Centre, by far and away the longest period I’ve spent in one place, a veritable exception to the rule. (And on three separate occasions, months apart, after we all moved into Madhyamaka Centre in 1986, my teacher Geshe-la asked me the curious koan-like question: “Have you moved into Madhyamaka Centre yet?” knowing full well that I had [or thought I had!] Make of that what you will.)

Why am I telling you all this? Partly as I’m feeling chatty, and partly because it has been my karma so far in this life to move around a great deal, and this uncertainty has given me ample opportunities to contemplate the truth of Dharma. So, hopefully, if you’re perhaps in the midst of some big move or change, reading this might help a bit.

All this moving is nothing, obviously, not to mention luxury compared to the amount and type of upheaval experienced by refugees all over the world. It is also nothing compared to our constant travels from life to life. Other general sufferings of samsara are having to leave our body over and over again and having to take rebirth over and over again.

meditation in Puerto RicoChange is inevitable so if we can find a way to feel at home and to feel happy wherever we go — place to place and life to life — we are free. We have mental freedom. That’s what I want. Geshe Kelsang left Tibet with just his robes and 2 texts in the late 1950s, and then he had to leave India to come over to an alien West to try and bring peace to a bunch of materialistic, self-indulgent (speaking for myself) barbarians. Not only did he remain perfectly happy through all of these upheavals, but I am quite sure he has mastered the art of being everywhere at the same time, as well as never leaving home.

“You can only have 130 friends!”

That modern-day phenomenon, Facebook, is a connector too, in its own way. At its best, it helps people feel close across continents, in that locationless cyberspace that could be anything really, so make of it what you will. I was recently talking to a young teenage boy about Facebook in the World Peace Café downstairs, and he told me that Facebook doesn’t work because you can only really have 130 friends. I knew what he meant, but I still told him it wasn’t true – we can love as many people as we want, it is up to us, not up to them. A Bodhisattva is known as a friend of the world. Karmically a Bodhisattva may spend more time with some people than with others in any given day or year, but mentally they remember their deep connection to everyone in the universe. If we emulate this, then when we physically encounter old and/or new friends in this and future lives, on Facebook or anywhere else, we are ready for them!

The mandala of bliss and emptiness

Just to get a bit Tantric for a moment, the mandala universe is everywhere. The union of bliss and emptiness pervades all phenomena, is the “stuff” of all phenomena. As it says in The Root Tantra of Heruka and Vajrayogini:

“In the supreme secret of great bliss
Always gather the nature of all.”

The mandala and Deities are this bliss and emptiness appearing as completely pure form, pervading time and space. Bliss and emptiness are in our heart and they are simultaneously everywhere. Heruka and Vajrayogini are everywhere. Compassion and wisdom are everywhere. (At the least, I like to be in 24 places at a time …) You can find out more about Tantra in Geshe Kelsang’s books

Buddhism expands horizons

Expanding horizons

Buddhism does nothing if not expand our horizons. We think about limitless past and future lives, limitless worlds, beginningless and endless consciousness and time, how every single living being is our mother, how there is nothing really “out there” as everything is mere appearance to our mind… We can break out of our poky prison, so dingy we can hardly see past the end of our nose, with its bars of self-grasping ignorance and self-cherishing.  If I check my problems, I can see that they all stem from grasping at things as fixed and real and/or thinking my own happiness and problems are far more important than everyone else’s. Dharma expands us in space, time, awareness… til we feel connected to everything and everyone in a non-dual experience where prison walls have no place. Then we spring everyone else from this crushing prison as well, bringing them to an absurdly welcome and serene state, bringing them home.

Happy Valentine’s Day to Everyone

A good day to talk about love, I think. This is the annual “love day”. For most of us, our love is a mixture of two things – attachment, which is not in fact love at all, and love, which is.

I like Valentine’s Day in America. Everyone sends everyone Valentines. In England, Valentine’s Day is just about romantic love, or it was when I last lived there. You send a Valentine’s Day card to someone you are in love with or someone you’ve been admiring from afar. It is often mysterious, “from a secret admirer.”  But here you may get a card and flowers saying “love from Grandpa.”  In England, that would be very strange, you would be worried. When I first got over here I learned about this difference, and then entirely forgot what Valentine’s Day is like in England. I sent my Dad a Valentine’s Day card, and he was touched, but a bit mystified.

But, as I said, I like it. The multimillion dollar card industry may have it made in the States, but I’m with them on this one. So Happy Valentine’s Day, Dad, and everyone else!*

What is desirous attachment?

It is not the same as desire – we need desires, but we don’t need attachment. Attachment is “dö chag” in Tibetan, which literally means “sticky desire”. There is a stickiness, neediness, dependency, and self-centeredness associated with attachment. It’s “I need you to make ME happy”, as opposed to “I want to make YOU happy”, which is actual love. Attachment weakens us, and we give away the key to our happiness. Love strengthens us, and we stay in charge of our happiness.

Attachment is all about me and what I can get from you, and love is all about what I can give or do for you. There are three kinds or levels of love, affectionate love, cherishing love, and wishing love. Briefly, affectionate love is just liking people, having a warm, fuzzy feeling, the way our mom feels when she hasn’t seen us for awhile, just unconditionally delighted to see us without that needy, “I want YOU to do something for ME.” On the basis of affection, if we think about how kind someone is, we come to cherish them – we find them special, we want to take care of them, their happiness matters. So because we cherish this person, our question is “Are they happy?” The answer is usually, “Well, they could be a lot happier,” and we wish for them to have what they need, what they want, to be happy now and always. This is wishing love.

Attachment stands in horrible contrast to all types of love, but to begin with it can be quite hard for us to tell them apart as our relationships are so mixed up. It is one of Buddha’s great kindnesses that he distinguishes between them so clearly. It can save us from immense heartache. We can learn to reduce the attachment and increase the love in all our close friendships, which is guaranteed to bring us more meaning and joy.

Here is a definition from Understanding the Mind:

“Desirous attachment is a deluded mental factor that observes its contaminated object, regards it as a cause of happiness, and wishes for it.”

“Contaminated” means tainted by the ignorance of self-grasping, which makes it seem as though the object or person we are attached to is real, “out there”, independent of our mind, as if we are uninvolved in bringing it into being. Attachment externalizes happiness, thinking it inheres in things and people, as opposed to being part of a peaceful mind. It can be a cream donut or a person – neither one has anything to do with me. It seems to be capable from its own side of giving me the happiness I want. And because our happiness is out there, we need to go get it.

(In the case of attachment, the object or person seems to have the power to make me happy. In the case of anger, it seems to have the power to make me unhappy.)

Are you a spiritual person?!

Having strong attachment is the opposite to the spiritual life. If I ask you, “What is a spiritual person? Are you a spiritual person? Do you have to wear open-toed sandals to be spiritual? Do you have to wear robes? What do you have to do to be a spiritual person?” and then go ahead and answer my own question, I would say that a spiritual person is someone who knows where happiness and suffering come from. They know their source lies in the mind. They know they’re on a journey to happiness. They still can be doing the same things that everybody else does – they can have a job, raise a family, eat donuts — but where they seek happiness and fulfillment is on the inside, in the mind. Do you agree?!

Attachment is the opposite. That’s why Buddha called the rest of us “worldly people” – someone is worldly if they are always looking outside of themselves for their happiness, and don’t recognize that their happiness comes from within.

As mentioned, desirous attachment is not the same as desire. There are many non-deluded desires that it is suitable to cultivate, such as the wish to help others, to accomplish pure happiness, even to overcome desirous attachment! And there are neutral desires too, such as the wish to open the door. If we got rid of all desire, we would cease functioning at all. We need to work on what we desire.

How do we develop desirous attachment

Very simply put, attachment exaggerates the apparent qualities of an object until we feel we have to have it. Here is another definition from Understanding the Mind:

“First we perceive or remember a contaminated object and feel it to be attractive, then we focus our attention on its good qualities and exaggerate them. With an exaggerated sense of the attractiveness of the object we then hold it to be desirable and develop desire for it. Finally our desire attaches us to the object so that it feels as if we have become glued to it or absorbed into it. Only when all these stages are completed has desirous attachment occurred.”

This is quite unlike love, which does not distort its object but recognizes it for what it is, for example as kind or lovable. Our neutral minds also don’t distort the attractiveness of their object — you go to the sock drawer to decide what socks to wear today, but you don’t spend hours thinking about it, unless you’re a sad case. With attachment, there has to be an exaggeration of seeming desirable features going on in the mind.

We can exaggerate at the speed of light!  Exaggeration is like a top notch advertising agency in the mind. We just meet someone, “Oh, he’s got nice eyes… I bet he’d make a great husband. I wonder if he’ll marry me?” The whole advertising industry feeds into our attachment, they know us – think how glued people were to the commercials in last week’s Super Bowl. The producers didn’t spend a million dollars on them just to provide us with entertainment. They know they’ll work to make us buy stuff  because we have attachment that is all too ready to go along with a gross exaggeration of the apparent qualities of a product. “Oooh, if I buy this dream car …” 

I’ll take this subject of love and attachment up again in a few days — Valentine’s Day will be over, but I’m betting it’ll still be relevant :-) And here is that new article… Falling in love (again) according to Buddhism.

Over to you: what do you think about all this?!

*This article originally appeared as Love, attachment and desire according to Buddhism. I am currently in England and, as of 9.19 am, only one person has sent me a Valentine’s Card… I rest my case.

Being realistic

captain sparrow quote about problems

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

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

The advertising agency in our mind

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

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

things are not as they appear

Things are not as they appear

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

Unrealistic attention

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

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

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

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

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

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

An inch of space

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

Three good things

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

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

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

My choice

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

Living happy

why we get grumpy

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

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

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

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

“Old age is no place for sissies.”

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

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

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

And for you young things…

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

Happiness training

Happy Rd

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

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

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

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

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

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