Learning to let go

letting go 2

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

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

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

Stop grasping at this life

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

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

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

Stop grasping at samsara

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

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

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

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

Stop grasping at me

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

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

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

Stop grasping at real me and real everything else

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

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

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

Stop grasping at ordinariness

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

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

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

What will happen if we let go?

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

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

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

What is success?

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

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

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

Stop grasping

letting go 5

letting go 5To me the spiritual path seems largely a process of letting go – first of the expectations that this life is the be all and end all of existence, then of the expectations of samsara working out, then of the expectations that our happiness comes first, then of the expectations that everything is as really happening as it appears, then of the expectations that everything is as ordinary and impure as it appears.

If we want to feel free, it is time to let go. Stop elaborating. Stop grasping. And when I think these thoughts, I feel tremendously relieved as I don’t have to make something unworkable work, and can instead abide in the beautiful, relaxing Dharma minds of love, compassion, wisdom, bliss and emptiness, Tantric pure view, hanging out with holy beings who are already here day and night. This is what refuge really means to me.

One of life’s little challenges

stuck at airportHowever, I wrote this first bit after a peaceful meditation, and now my plane to Heathrow has been delayed indefinitely, possibly even cancelled — so I need urgently to think it out in the field as well…

For right now I am feeling rather attached to the happiness of this life wherein planes are supposed to go on time, in which case this delay is very annoying.

I am attached to samsara working out  – “All those other lucky people whose planes are not delayed, ‘Zones 1, 2, and 3 now boarding for Salt Lake City!’, they must be feeling great around about now, life is working for them, why not for me, why didn’t those airplane people figure out they needed this part earlier?!”

I am attached to my own happiness over and above the happiness of the people waiting (surprisingly patiently) around me, who didn’t even seem to raise an eyebrow when the announcement was made, whereas I was thinking, “Oh b****** hell, poor old me!”

I am attached to the idea of a real plane missing a real part that is being flown in on another real plane from a real city called San Francisco, and then real people have to replace this real part in monotonous real time, all of which real time I am really having to wait around, not able to just rest and be, really wanting to leave this crowded airport and go to real England NOW.

Plus, this place is grimy, it is not a blissful Pure Land at all – full of fast food, tired looking people, stuffy air, screaming kids, grubby carpets, and no Tantric Deities or celestial mansions in sight.

stuck at airport 2

I’ll let you know if and how I turn this around in the next several hours. I know I can and will probably have to because it is no fun being stuck here otherwise. That’s the whole point. The grasping is what is causing the pain, not the situation, which has no existence from its own side. Only the grasping is the problem.

Refuge is deep, deep relaxation. We can let the Three Jewels take over. We can surrender to Dharma experiences that are guaranteed to lift the mind and make us happy; to omniscient, blissful, unchangingly supportive friends, the Buddhas; and to Sangha, many of whom have already figured these things out and would be very cheerful waiting here in the airport.

Two hours later: Thoughts so far …

As I was walking around this ever-changing, dreamlike terminal, I remembered that this is all coming from my own karmic seeds and doesn’t exist outside my mind; there is instant relief in that thought. Why would I expect anything different, I created the causes for these appearances to my mind, no one else did. Also, whatever they are, they are not inherently any more good or bad than any other appearances, it just depends what I make of them.

stuck at airport 3And I’m already getting thought aid from suspected emanations functioning as Sangha Jewels. A couple of tweens have been hogging 3 out of the 4 precious plugs for the last 3 hours playing a mindless video game so I was in danger of (a) running out of computer juice and (b) getting annoyed with them, also not conducive to the happiness of this life. But then a charming young couple offered me one of their chairs and their plug, “That’s got to give you some peace of mind, right!”, and we have all just agreed that “it is what it is”, and, as the bloke said, “There is no point grumping about it, it won’t change anything. And there’s definitely no point getting angry with those poor guys at the counter.” A kid just said, “Dad, I’m bored”, and his dad replied, “Things go wrong, you have to get used to it.”  A South American Catholic nun was asking me what had been said in the announcement and she looked serenely full of patience when I told her, even though she is now going to miss her connecting flight. A lot of people are finding solace in their gadgets, some in their books, one guy chuckling opposite me at a comedy show, others chatting and joking around – the kindness of others keeping them entertained. Maybe this is the best hangout in town!?

We were given a $19 voucher for food and, samsara’s pleasures being deceptive, that free money burned a hole in my pocket as I felt I had to spend it on a rather large pizza, the only place that was still open, and I really don’t need pizza right now, I already had potato wedges while waiting earlier. But in the line I met an enthusiastic British Airways plane technician who told me that last week the same thing happened and people were put in hotels for, get this, TWO days, while they waited for their aircraft to be fixed with a landing light. Our broken part is more complicated, something to do with the nose (not) going up; so he cheerily told me that he hoped it wasn’t even longer a wait this time as people are missing connecting flights, missing cruises, missing big events … and he is quite right. I can afford to “miss” two days in England, I can spend them in a hotel if needs be. I am not exactly in Iraq right now fleeing for my life from ISIS. Looking around, I can see an old man trying hard to get his head comfortable, and the woman opposite me said, “I wish he had a pillow.” My compassion is kicking in and that is protecting my mind.

Buddha nature goldAnd this is a perfect opportunity to practice that experiment explained here. In Eight Steps, it says that we can focus on the gold of people’s Buddha nature, their limitless potential, rather than their faults, which in any case are the faults of their delusions, not them (including those tweens! Their real nature is limitless compassion and freedom, not adolescent self-absorption!)

Buddha compared our Buddha nature to a gold nugget in dirt, because no matter how disgusting a person’s delusions may be, the real nature of their mind remains undefiled, like pure gold… Whenever we meet other people, instead of focusing on their delusions we should focus on the gold of their Buddha nature. This will not only enable us to regard them as special and unique but will also help bring out their good qualities. ~Eight Steps to Happiness p. 82

Not focusing on others’ faults for me also includes the faults of people seeming just ordinary. If we know about Tantra, we can see their Buddha nature as already actualized. I am therefore surrounded by very unordinary Heroes and Heroines, Tantric Buddhas, and am a Space Goer myself.

no baggage to claim

No baggage to claim!

Latest announcement (now shortly before midnight): the plane with the part has just left SF (just left?!!!) and will be here at 1am. Heigh ho. Then it has to be fixed. People actually chuckled — they must be Heroes and Heroines.

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.

How to handle things falling apart …

subatomic particles

subatomic particles

Quantum mechanics and laws of physics alone show that nothing stays the same, from the smallest to the biggest thing. Subatomic particles are whizzing about in your body and even the seemingly solid walls around you. The blood never stops rushing through your veins. The earth never stops journeying. Our galaxy is flying away from other galaxies at an inconceivable speed. Mentally, no moment of mind has the power to linger. Buddha explained this very clearly in his teachings on subtle impermanence. Blink and it’s a new world. 

Everything is momentarily impermanent, infinitely complex and interdependent. We may feel permanent, solid and independent, but that is one hell of an illusion. Especially if we go on assuming that we are not going to die anytime soon, including today.

galaxy

Normally we try to hold tightly onto the infrastructure of our lives – our relationships, our money, our car, our pets, our children, our house, our job, our career, our status, our power, our control. Much of our current self-image is based on these very concrete, solid, pretty much permanent things that seem to define us. The stronger we grasp at this chunky restrictive sense of self, the more attachment we will need to generate for all these things in order to keep the illusion alive, and the more fear we will have of losing them. Like trying to hang onto the deck furniture on the Titanic, or a sandcastle by the rising tide, our desires and efforts are doomed to failure. Every small loss of, say, a turret on our castle is disillusioning for us because we wanted it to be permanent and fixed, and it ended up being the opposite. Then when the whole lot gets swept away at death…

Does the idea of change frighten you? Losing everything you know? How can we learn not to be frightened of the inevitable?

I find this the most helpful consideration: we can understand that the pain and fear is not actually coming from what we must lose but from our mind that holds on.

Can you remember a time long ago when you were so in love (or attachment) that the very thought of losing that person struck you with terror? But then the years passed and you both went your separate ways and now when you see that person they are middle-aged, like you, with a pot belly and no hair? And you wonder at the love (lust) you felt for them because it has now gone, all gone. But there is no pain in that. It doesn’t matter that it has all gone, because the attachment has also gone. It is only while we had attachment that we needed this person to try and fulfill attachment’s desires. There is, in fact, no loss at all. The mind is peaceful with respect to that person. The tension of holding on has all gone.

Meditation on death is like the elephant’s deepest footprint in terms of the impression it makes on our mind as we can finally see how futile it is to try and hold onto all this stuff that is right now, and constantly, slipping between our fingers. The other day in the shower I was trying to hold onto a bar of hard slippery soap, but it kept slipping through my fingers, and it  reminded me that the more tightly I hold onto stuff, the more quickly it seems to slip from my grasp. If we want to enjoy our life while we still have it, it makes sense to stop grasping with attachment and just go with the flow of reality, like gently letting the soap rest in our hands. Take it or leave it, it is all good.

The fact is, if we relinquish our attachment, it doesn’t mean we are going to suffer loss. The opposite is true. It is only if we keep our attachment that we will experience the pain of loss. And we don’t need it.

Getting rid of attachment is not the same as relinquishing desire. We need desires – to be authentically happy, to love others, to attain liberation and enlightenment, even to put on our socks, etc. We don’t become a detached automaton without attachment. In fact, attachment deadens and dulls us as it is always hankering after an idealized image of something that we feel we must have if we are to be happy, causing us to miss out on what is actually going on under our nose. Without attachment, quite the opposite of becoming detached or hopeless, we can become connected and fully alive to each present moment.

So we don’t need to fear or resist the meditation on impermanence and death because we have nothing to lose but our attachment, and it is attachment that has given rise to all the agony of loss we have experienced since beginningless time.

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No more nervous Nellie

nervous nellie

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Tomorrow’s another day

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

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

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

Less of the me, me, me

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

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

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

Taking and giving

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

Quick explanation of how to do taking and giving

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re not alone

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

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

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

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

Our job as a parent is to become irrelevant

child making a decision

Another guest article from our Kadampa working dad. The rest can be found here.

I believe our job as a parent is to become irrelevant!

What does every parent want for their children?  We want our children to become fully capable individuals that make wise decisions on their own.  A wise decision is one that leads to true happiness.  Everything we do as a parent should lead to this final result, and we should use this final result as a guide to know how to respond to every parenting challenge and as a litmus test to see whether what we have done as a parent is mistaken and needs to be corrected for.

When our children are born, they are incapable of anything and make all the wrong decisions (put your finger in an electrical socket, anyone?).  In the end, we want them to be capable of everything and to be able to make all the right decisions on their own.  So in the beginning, they need us for everything, but in the end we want them to need us for nothing – in short, we want to become irrelevant (or more precisely, no longer needed). 

So how does this work in practice?  There are no fixed rules, rather general principles we can follow as a parent.  When it comes to helping our children become fully capable, I try to use the following principles:

1 For things they are not yet capable of doing: don’t expect them to be able to do it.  I would say 90% of the problems we have as parents in the early years of our children’s life come from being upset when our children don’t live up to our expectations.  We expect them to already be able to do things, and then when they don’t, we become upset at them.  When we get upset at them for not doing something, we create serious obstacles to their ability to joyfully learn the new skill themselves.  They will reject what we have to say because for them it comes as a punishment and a control, not a helping hand.  For the things they are not yet capable of doing on their own, just do it for them with an excited attitude of “one day you will be able to do this all by yourself.”  Think potty training!  This attitude makes them want to do things on their own in the future.

2. For things they can learn to do:  help them learn how to do it on their own.  This takes tremendous patience.  Usually as parents we are very rushed.  We feel we don’t have time to indulge our kid in spilling the milk bottle 20 times so they can learn from their mistakes, rather we figure it is just quicker and easier to do it ourselves.  But why are we so rushed?  We are rushed because we have to do everything ourselves.  Why do we have to do everything?  Because our kids don’t know how to do anything yet!  So while it is true in the short-run that it takes more time to help our kids do things on their own than for us to just do it for them; in the long run, we are actually saving ourselves time by taking the time now to teach them how to do things on their own.  It is crucial at this stage to instill in them the excitement of “me do it”, where they want to do it on their own – how liberating for them to become capable of doing things for themselves.  If you get this attitude correct at this stage, you avoid the pitfalls of the next stage.

3 For things they are already capable of doing:  don’t do it for them.  It is very easy for the ‘compassionate parent’ to fall into the extreme of becoming their child’s slave.  While this may seem compassionate, there is no wisdom to such an approach.  Yes, we are supposed to serve others and all the rest, but we must do so with wisdom.  We are not helping our children by teaching them laziness and manipulation/exploitation of others.  So if something comes up that they are capable of doing on their own that they want you to do for them, just say “sorry, you are capable of doing that yourself.”  They will say you are being mean, but you will know you are being a wise parent.

If we check carefully, we will see that what we want as a parent for our children is exactly what a qualified Spiritual Guide wants for their disciples, the only difference is the scope of ‘capable’ and the extent of ‘wise decisions’ involved.  The Spiritual Guide wants us to become as capable as all the Buddhas and to develop an omniscient, compassionate wisdom.  As a parent, we would generally be happy with our children being able to get on in the world and to make good decisions in this life.  While much smaller in scope, it is a start and a prerequisite for the capacity and wisdom the Buddhas want for our children.  So we can view our job as a parent as preparing the ground to hand our children over to higher paths (if they so choose).

In the next part of this series, we will look at three key wisdom minds we should try help our children cultivate so that they can make “wise decisions” on their own!

Are you a parent? Have you tried these methods? Please share your ideas and experience in the comments box below.

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Buddhist advice for worrywarts

choose your thoughts Seuss

We probably all worry unduly sometimes, which makes us all worrywarts according to the dictionary. Here are some more practical solutions for this unpleasant state of mind.

Stop paying inappropriate attention

Drag your thoughts away from your troubles… by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it.  ~Mark Twain

You’re not inherently a nervous Nellie, no one is. As mentioned earlier, all habits are made to be broken. Delusions, including their inappropriate attention, are not intrinsic parts of mind, they are just thoughts that arise and have no ability to exist if we don’t think them. And they are certainly not us.

A lot of you may have come across this quote somewhere ‘cos it’s a good one:

An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies, & ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, & truth.” The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

If we are not careful, our thoughts think us rather than the other way round. Shirley Austin on Facebook says: “The first fault of delusion identified by Shantideva is “delusion give us no choice”. This is so true. Once we start to follow a delusion we become hooked and it is hard to let go of it. It is so juicy!” We need constructively to replace inappropriate attention with appropriate attention as soon as we notice we are beginning to dwell on our problems. Take away the oxygen of inappropriate attention, and worry (a type of delusion) will quickly expire. Adam Head agreed we need to be creative: “Move forward, make something new, make something happen! This creative/constructive energy doesn’t really tolerate worry and hand-wringing, where the mind can repeatedly chundle on and on about stuff without realising how futile it is.”

It is very helpful to understand how inappropriate attention is running the show. Look and see what you’re focusing on — I bet you are accentuating the negative and editing out the positive. Start doing the opposite, see what happens. Buddha said that with our thoughts we create our world. It is so true.

Feeling responsible for others without the guilt

Feeling solely responsible for another’s welfare makes us worry if we’re not careful, and as mentioned above can wrap us up in guilt, which is an even heavier mantle to remove. Superior intention is the noble, compassionate mind that feels entirely responsible for every living being throughout space and time, but the person who possesses it has no worry at all in their minds. So where are we going wrong?!

One reason I decided to write these articles is because of late I have felt more immediately or physically responsible for the life, health and safety of dependents than usual. Perhaps because I am out of practice at that, I find details strangely worrying when normally I never worry about much at all. This is proving useful because I thought I had the whole not worrying thing under control, but clearly I have more work to do! I enjoy the challenge of looking at what is going on in the mind when I worry and getting to the bottom of it once and for all. (This sort of reminds me of when I first got interested in Buddhism – after a few months I was quite sure I had equanimity down as I thought I liked everyone equally, “Hey, this is really EASY guys!!” Then a boyfriend materialized and I realized my attachment had just been on the back burner for a year.)

I’m finding this whole process of being responsible for various animals, starting with Ralph and Nelson, good training for being a Bodhisattva and even a Buddha. I can view each one of them as an example of all the animals and other living beings in the world who need help, and train in taking on the personal responsibility while freeing the mind from worry or guilt. I meditate on superior intention regularly, and now is my chance to apply it, without turning into an over-protective mommy while I’m at it! This situation is helping me see the difference between compassion and worry, and how compassion itself is not a sad mind, although worrying and guilt are horrible.

Parents of human children (especially in these challenging times), I take my hat off to you – you surely have worry and guilt licked to stay sane for even a day?!

Here is one random example of a run-away train of thought traveling from worry to guilt and back again. “What can I worry about today?! Oh, I know, Nelson’s bad cheek, it is more swollen than ever. Oh, so now that reminds me that I can worry (again) about how I’ve already brought his vet’s appointment forward by four days, but maybe he won’t be alright for another two whole days? It is Saturday morning and they are not open til Monday. Oh, that reminds me, I have to CATCH him! I’m dreading it, he will hate being in lock-down all night. Or maybe I won’t be able to catch him?! But I need to because of his cheek. And what is actually wrong with his cheek? It looks scary. Cancer? A mysterious abscess that might go to his brain?!” Then comes the guilt: “Oh I’m not doing enough for him! I’m so useless at this!” Then more variations on a theme — fraught scenarios complete with everything that could go wrong. etc

Just one illustration today amongst gazillions in the minds of living beings: trains of undesirable thoughts that we have inadvertently boarded, which are taking us from Worry Station right through to Panic Stations! We have to get off!!

Stop worrying right into the future

We allow our thoughts to run riot and way into the future. Chewing over the various possibilities of something that hasn’t even happened is the cause of much of our anxiety and stress.

You know, tomorrow really does take care of itself. We’ll have all day tomorrow to focus on tomorrow’s problems. We can be more like Charlie Brown:

I’ve developed a new philosophy… I only dread one day at a time.

He has a point. We worry far more if we worry ahead. John Newton (not sure who he is, but I like this quote) says:

We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it.  But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday’s burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it.

What were you worrying about a year ago today?! Can you even begin to remember?! Will you have the worry you have today a year hence? I find these thoughts useful too.

We can make a plan, for sure, for example to get the cat to the vet; but then, in the inimitable words of my brother, something can be time-consuming without being mind-consuming. Make a plan, be prepared to see it change, and meantime stop thinking about that plan and just live. The best is if we can keep our thoughts focused on today or even this hour or even just now, having the very best experience and creating the very best intention in every moment. Then the future tends to take care of itself!

I don’t know who he is either, but Oliver Wendell Holmes said, and I agree:

What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

But just to get a bit philosophical on you for a moment: actually, there are no past things and future things, only pasts of things and futures of things. That sense we have of linear time stretching behind and ahead like train tracks is an illusion. All (functioning) things are necessarily present. This means that “our past” and “our future” are entirely dependent on our present state of mind, rather as a rubber band being twisted in one spot alters the entire rubber band. Past, present and future are only imputed by mind and have no existence from their own side. We cannot point to where the past ends and the present begins. So we can take it moment by moment and go with the flow. I hope to write more on this, a favorite subject, in another article. See Ocean of Nectar for the explanation of the emptiness of time.

This is the fourth article in an occasional series on how to worry less using Buddhist techniques. The first three are Don’t worry, be happy, How to stop worrying about anything, everything and nothing and DON’T PANIC. (All of the anti-worry articles can now be found here, when you have a spare half hour or so to read them.)

It’s your turn. What methods have you used to overcome worry (especially about the future) and guilt? Please use the comments box below. And please share this article if you like it.

How to stop worrying about anything, everything, and nothing…

girl worry

This is part of an occasional series on how not to worry.  For the first one, click here. The methods will not be in any particular order, so you can jump about to whatever interests you most.

Click on image for free Buddhist eBook

In Modern Buddhism, Geshe Kelsang says there are two types of problem:

We should understand that our problems do not exist outside of ourself, but are part of our mind that experiences unpleasant feelings. When our car, for example, has a problem we usually say “I have a problem”, but in reality it is the car’s problem and not our problem. The car’s problem is an outer problem, and our problem, which is our own unpleasant feeling, is an inner problem. These two problems are completely different. We need to solve the car’s problem by repairing it, and we need to solve our own problem by controlling our attachment to the car.

This practical wisdom is an alpha and omega for dealing with worry. There is no point exploring how to solve every outer problem there is in the world, such as taking the car to the garage, as a method to overcome worry – we’re going to be here literally forever if we attempt that, plus we clearly don’t have a clue how to fix everything or it’d surely all be fixed by now! But if we can learn effective ways of thinking that remove our unpleasant feelings (a far simpler and less time-consuming process), we will have nothing more to worry about. The inner problems will have disappeared and the outer problems will no longer feel like problems, so they won’t be problems. Given that we normally think of problems as infinitely varied, and any bookstore will have shelf upon shelf of fix-it books, I always like how Geshe-la grandly named his shortest book How to Solve Our Human Problems! It seems to say it all, really.

As mentioned in the last article, the whole of Buddhism is methods to decrease worry, as it happens; but here are some practical immediate methods that anyone can try straightaway. It arises from inappropriate attention and is related to all three root delusions that afflict living beings. As Bliem Kern says: “Worry is an internal problem, not outside of us.” 

Worrying is a bad habit but we have a choice

 If things go wrong, don’t go with them.
~ Mark Twain

It is a terrible addiction, waking up and worrying about all the things that need to be done that day, or week, or year. We have to recognize that worrying is a chronic bad habit and decide we want to think differently about things. All habits can be broken; by definition they are not fixed, we can change any habit through familiarity. We need to know that we have a choice; that we can start to control how we think about things and people.

We probably all know this one: “I worry that whenever something good happens then bad will surely follow.”  Heather Davies. It doesn’t have to be like this. Buddhist or not, we can all learn to worry less and enjoy more. Even as a child, I discovered that I had more control over my mind than I thought. I had been a carefree child but when I was first sent to boarding school aged 12 (as my parents then lived in Turkey and had run out of English-speaking schools), I was homesick and started to worry about things for the first time. It felt strange at first but then I became used to worrying about just about anything. (I even ran away from the school, but after three hours of walking in circles in the scary woods in the dark with a suitcase, managed to wind up back by the kitchen door, where a nice cook made me some hot chocolate. I was pretty happy the day they invented the Saturn Nav!)

One day I woke up with my usual first thought ‘What is there to worry about today?’ I couldn’t think of anything, so then I started to get worried about that. What was I forgetting?! I actually realized at this point what a weird unhelpful habit I’d gotten into and decided consciously to watch my mind when I started to get worried about small things so as to decide first whether or not they were worth it. I became more carefree again and of course everything improved after that.

What can we actually control?

Related to the fact that we have a choice is the notion of what we can actually hope to control. No one has ever gained complete control over their external environment (not even close), but if we gain control over our mind and our actions, our world will then be a reflection of that. Shantideva puts this very succinctly: 

Where is there enough leather
To cover the surface of the Earth?
But just having leather on the soles of one’s feet
Is the same as covering the whole earth.

As Vide Kadampa says:  “We worry because we are not in control of what might happen. But the control we have is pretty illusory anyway. We may think that by working hard we will get rich – and we might. But that is not the actual cause of wealth – generosity is the cause of wealth. We are almost never in full control of external events, despite appearances. Our accumulated karma is what will decide our experiences. When we realise this, we can relax because we know there is no point in worrying about things. We can instead welcome whatever comes our way and use Lojong to transform it into the spiritual path.”

The remaining articles on overcoming worry can be found here. Your comments are welcome and please share this article if you like it.

Don’t worry, be happy

piano
Sarah, the piano, and the Italian vacation

We can get in the habit of worrying about small things incessantly if we are not careful. Of course, our worries never feel small because they fill our mind. There is no objective scale.

I was in England this summer visiting my family. We spent a delightful weekend in a family reunion in St. Albans, quite a well-to-do town just north of London, where my brother, sister-in-law and their children live, work, and play.

As my sister-in-law and I dropped off my niece and nephew at their elementary school one morning, I noticed a mother hovering near us, looking ever so slightly tense. The moment we were done, she approached my sister-in-law, her friend, and, after feigning some interest at meeting me, started to spill the beans. She was really anxious and worried. Why, we asked? Because she had to buy a piano, was the first reason. The second? Because she had to plan a two-week holiday in Italy to celebrate her husband’s 50th birthday.

Ermm, these were problems?!?!

For the piano, it took a little while for C to reassure her that it’d all be ok and that she wouldn’t necessarily end up with an out-of-tune piano as she feared. As for the villa in Tuscany, half-way through reassuring her about this we ran out of time, which was not a bad thing.

Sarah is clearly a bit of a nervous Nellie. C said it is hard to imagine how she could ever not worry about something.

These middle-class worries reflected a skewed perspective – the headlines the very same day told of the new famine in the Horn of Africa. But she is not alone. We all get things out of proportion. Many of us worry at least some of the time about things that would clearly be considered luxuries by the rest of the planet. My own current worry concerns a cat, for example.

Are you ever a nervous Nellie or Nigel?

Over coffee my sister-in-law, brother and I discussed how to stop worrying, as C admits that she herself worries too much. For example, she was annoyed at having to waste an inordinate amount of time over the weekend on school politics. My niece, a gifted singer, was sharing the role of Alice in the school musical Alice in Wonderland. The mother of the other Alice wanted both Alices to wear a particular dress, but my niece hated the dress, and so who was going to back down? C said she worried about her daughter and how to resolve this situation all weekend, even in the midst of all the family jollity.

To digress slightly: worry can seem more justified when it is a mother bear defending her cub. It also becomes entwined with its best friend guilt, perhaps an even stickier delusion to shift. I had my first intimation of this not long ago — again being solely responsible for a wayward cat was the trigger — when I found myself guiltily thinking I wasn’t doing enough: “I am a terrible mother!” This was quite a new sensation for me, as it happens. I’ve never understood it before when perfectly saintly mothers say such things.

On this occasion, as always, C was very sensitive and diplomatic and actually did manage to sort it all out to everyone’s satisfaction, but she didn’t enjoy any of it, and she did still begrudge the whole event.

My brother is not a worrier. In a flash of inspiration, but in his typically laconic way, he suggested:

“A problem like this could have been time-consuming without being mind-consuming.”

He followed that by explaining she may have to deal with it, as life is like that, but that she didn’t have to take it personally, make it her problem, or worry about it at the same time. For effect he turned on his Billy Bass fish who sings the ‘Don’t worry be happy’ song.

(I noticed that he also has a ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster above his desk. There is a saying in Buddhism ‘Train in every activity by words’, and Billy Bass and a 1939 Ministry of Information poster seem to do the trick for him.)

They both inspired me to write some articles on the subject of worry as it seems to be a bit of an epidemic. The whole of Buddhism is methods to decrease worry, but with the help of my Facebook friends I’ll look at a few methods that might work straightaway. Anyone can have a go at applying these, regardless of background. After all, worry is universal and knows no boundaries of culture or geography – it arises from inappropriate attention and seems related to all or any of the three root delusions (attachment incl. expectations; aversion; ignorance). Your comments, as always, will be very welcome.

(The remaining articles on overcoming worry can be found here.)

Clearing out the clutter from our mind

wide open road

Yesterday I met Steve, recently evicted from his mobile home and locked out from his possessions for no longer earning enough money from eBay to pay his rent. Living in his car for two weeks, he has just been rescued by my old friend Iben who lives next to him and who decided to buy his home for the princely price of $5000 (plus $40,000 for shares in the park). This means that Steve can get back into his house and retrieve his possessions and, his dignity somewhat restored, my friend is letting him take his time.

Steve’s house was musty and full of, dare I say it, junk. Junk to me, anyway. Not so much to him, though in a way it seems as if the penny is dropping and he’s got different eyes to see this stuff now that he is obliged to move on with only what can fit in a rented truck. He told me he is now a little embarrassed about all “this mess” and strangely relieved to be leaving most of it behind forever as he sets off on his road trip via Mexico, ending up in the mid-west (whereabouts and with whom is not so certain). He had drink on his breath, but he is a thoughtful man, who is well read in history and counts several globes amongst his possessions.

I find it intriguing how relieved he feels to be getting away again after 8 years of accumulating stuff – to leave all that behind and get on the road again. He is looking forward to it, even though he has no idea where the road will take him. For years before he was evicted he was hunkered down, and his neighbors say he was taciturn and surly.  Now he is friendly and talkative, optimistic. You can tell a cloud has lifted. He’ll probably shave off that long straggly yellow beard.

Buddhas in NY Temple for World Peace

Whenever we de-clutter our mind, I think we have a similar type of relief. We are encouraged to clean our meditation room before meditating to clear our mind and make our place welcoming for holy beings and sentient beings. As my teacher Geshe Kelsang says in Eight Steps to Happiness:

We know from our own experience that dirty and untidy surroundings tend to bring our mind down and drain our energy, whereas a clean and tidy environment uplifts our mind, making it clear and vibrant… Having physically cleaned our room, we should imagine that our environment transforms into the Pure Land of a Buddha.

And then we spring-clean our mind by letting go of thoughts, for example by doing a simple breathing meditation.

We live with the same stale thoughts day by day. They are familiar; we are attached to the coconut monkey or the shiny lacquered fish on the wall that Steve caught when he was 14 (“I would never go fishing again”, yet “I have to take that fish with me”). Both of these have followed Steve around for decades, along with his musty books, pewter glasses, bits of lace, and shiny pieces of porcelain. How many baseballs will he take with him?—he used to volunteer at a baseball stadium and has boxes, some of them autographed (albeit by rookies). He has to decide.

We too have to decide whether we want to lug all our mental stuff around with us forever. Do we really need it? Do we need to keep thinking familiar sagging thoughts about trivial things that give our life no real essence? Do we need endless imaginary conversations with all the people we feel have let us down? We are so strangely attached to the minutiae of our lives and, indeed, of our thoughts – yet anyone else privy to these thoughts would quite possibly disregard them as so much junk! That conversation we had  with that person 15 years ago still rankles. That daydream we had for some kind of success or acknowledgment, as yet unfulfilled, is still popping up. Those painful assumptions that if we let go of this or that worry, such as about finances or relationships, we’ll suffer in the future – just as if we don’t hang onto sufficient baseballs we’ll miss them later.

We apparently talk to ourselves at a rate of 1300 words per minute. What are we ‘saying’ to ourselves and how many of these conversations are worth the time of day? Studies accord with Buddha’s analysis that a lot of our self-talk is negative and self-defeating, giving rise to anxiety, stress and depression – and in our own experience we can see how easily we can talk ourselves out of a good mood and back into another funk.

Quite soon, at death, we will be forced to leave behind all our objects of attachment and aversion, and all their associated mundane gross thoughts behind, just like Steve leaving his stuff. Without any control we’ll be back on the road again, who knows to where. It seems to me that through the practice of meditation we have the chance to let go now so we have time to enjoy and make use of the wonderful space and clarity that opens up in the mind, and feel as though we have the wide open road of the spiritual path stretching invitingly before us. In particular, with meditation we can replace our tired stale old delusions with the fresh flowers of dynamic positive minds such as love, compassion, renunciation, and wisdom.

Space solves problems, not holding onto things and constantly tussling with them like a dog with a bone. Interacting obsessively with their stuff on a daily basis, the pile getting higher as they accumulate more and more, hoarders are blinkered and demoralized by old musty memories. Similarly, interacting with our same old thoughts day in and day out, adding to the dusty pile as the day goes by without letting anything go or replacing old stuff with fresh positive thoughts like fresh flowers, is stale and demoralizing. It both restricts our outlook and weighs us down.

And others don’t enjoy it or enjoy us as much as they might – I liked Steve but I still couldn’t wait to get out of his sour-smelling old-feeling junk-filled house. It was a glorious sunny day but you would never know it in that place, things piled high in front of the windows – what a relief to emerge into the clear light.

Steve himself is sensing that at the moment he has a chance for freedom, a chance to let go of a lot of this; his intelligent blue eyes are gleaming. He told me with a big smile that he is looking forward to moving on and traveling the open road. Are we ready for that too?!

Please share this article if you like it. I look forward to reading your comments.

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