Rewriting the story of my life

Vajrayogini face

One day in mid-February 2010, a friend, H, shot himself after his car was repossessed. He had also recently emerged from a messy divorce, but his financial woes pushed him over the edge that day. However, he also had many close friends who loved him and thought he was larger than life, who were shocked and devastated at his surprising self-harm.

self-image in BuddhismIt seems to me that H must have had an abysmally out of whack self-image if he hated himself enough to blow his own head off. The demon self-cherishing –  exaggerated disappointment at my wishes not being fulfilled, seeing them as the most important thing in the world – contributed to that sad, needless tragedy. Certainly it was not love or wisdom. Self-grasping ignorance and attachment caused him to create and believe a mental fiction about who he was, ie, a failure, someone whose life was not worth living. Yet all his friends knew that he was a lovely sweet engaging man and had everything to live for — he could have been a Bodhisattva if that was the story he had told himself instead on that day in February. There was a lesson in this for all of us who knew him. We have to be wise about who we believe we are and what we need, or, one way or another, slowly or quickly, we will self-destruct.

Dealing with a broken heart

When painful feelings arise, it is wise not to resist them – what you resist persists – but see them as passing bad weather in the mind without repressing or indulging them. Further to this I have thought: (a) my thoughts don’t have to be that scary, they are bubbles arising from the root mind, they won’t kill me if I don’t buy into them and they disappear if I stop thinking them, and (b) those feelings and thoughts are empty — even within them is a non-conceptual wisdom and peace if I allow myself to experience it. A very wise person once gave me this advice to cure my broken heart:

Vajrayogini faceWhen bad feelings come, and the whole body and mind ache, instead of resisting it, it is good to let the suffering arise in the mind, become one with it, and look at it so closely – it dissolves into emptiness and beyond this there is nothing. Where is it, what, why? It dissolves into emptiness. Don’t be afraid of the feeling of suffering. It is just imputation, just label.  See that there is nothing there, only the mind of clear light, which is bliss and emptiness. Then feel love for everyone. Be Vajrayogini.

A friend told me that when she was once suffering from heavy and unrequited attachment, her perennially down to earth mother told her that it is like trying to quit smoking – the cravings come and the cravings also go. Which got me thinking about how to relate to ourselves in such a way that we are able to give up attachment – all forms of dependency and heavy sadness. How if H had related to himself differently, none of the above would have happened, and today we could all be having a laugh with him. I had had a lovely conversation with him the previous summer at Madhyamaka Center – he had Tantric empowerments, he was really loving his Vajrayogini retreat. So why didn’t he keep believing he was a blissful, wise, free enlightened being instead of the ordinary dead-end fiction of being a lonely, financially incompetent, rejected man? In truth, both are fictions, both are mere thought or labels, but so is everything; and there is a world of infinite possibilities in the clear light of our limitless Buddha nature, the seed of enlightenment, the seed of the Dharmakaya.

When we try to give up smoking, we have to identify with being a non-smoker who occasionally has manageable cravings (which can even be a useful teacher) as opposed to a smoker who unnaturally has to give up something that is part of them and is ending up in a state of need and loss. No one will live like that for long, in need and loss – we would sooner cave in to the attachment. But in the invisible world of our boundlessly creative mind, especially moment by moment, if we think wisely we can see that we need nothing more, we have lost nothing, we have nothing to fear from the future.

Mental fictions and self-image

planets 1We tell ourselves stories about ourselves and what we need all the time. They are all mental fictions. There is no reality behind those hallucinatory empty thoughts. We can think anything we want in the invisible world, the world of the mind, of which this manifest physical world is simply like a mirror reflection. Mind is formless. Mind is invisible (also we can’t hear it, smell it etc.). Working at the level of our subtlest mind, dropping our awareness from our head into our root mind at our heart chakra, is far more effective too; and we can do that through belief to begin with. Close your eyes, drop into your heart, and think about who you are, where you are, what you are. This world of the mind – of experience, of feelings, even of physical sensations – is the only world there actually is. Can you point to any world or body or self outside of your experience of it? (And even the mind is empty of existing from its own side, dependent on its reflections or perceptions to exist.) Close our eyes, and we can think that we are jumping from planet to planet. Someone told me that when she closes her eyes she can think that she can walk — and she has always been in a wheelchair. Someone else told me that in her mind, and her experience, she thinks she is whole, even though a truck left her unable to stand up straight without feeling compression and pain.

We can think we are a smoker, dependent on cigarettes for our happiness. Or we can think we are a non-smoker. When the craving arises, it is just some habit we got into, and we are not a smoker, so it is natural to not seek the cigarette and just see that habit as a temporary cloud in the vast expanse of sky. One of my favorite Geshe Kelsang quotes is:

We should not let our habits dominate our behavior or act as if we were sleepwalking. ~ Meaningful to Behold, p. 190

When we are attached to someone, we can and often do make up this mental fiction: “I am dependent on them for my happiness. I need them. I am weak without them. If they seem uninterested, I behave like a bumbling idiot around them to get their attention. I am in a state of loss when they are not in my life or when they reject me. I miss them, they are missing. The future is empty without them. Only they understand me, really. To give them up will leave me in a state of lacking, it will leave me incomplete, needing something I no longer have. Even if I know I have to give them up, or they have died, it is unnatural, as it is going to cause me to be shadow of my former self, and the life they breathed into me will be gone.” Etc etc.

live in the momentIf we check, this is not a pleasant self-image and does not give rise to any genuine feelings of joy, only relief on the occasions that they call us and say, “Everything is alright, I love you, marry me, I’m not really dead”, etc. Until the relief passes, as by nature relief does. Relief is so-called changing suffering, only a temporary release of, or distraction from, underlying need and want and suffering, like scratching an itch according to Nagarjuna. Also, we hold on tightly to the supposed source of our wholeness, which is perceived as out there not within, and get rope burn as the rope must inevitably slide through our fingers due to impermanence. We condense the whole universe into one person so that it must crumble when they disappear.

Whereas we can make up any fiction we want anytime. And we can believe it, if it is helpful, while knowing that it is empty of inherent reality. Our self-image changes all the time anyway, and we can change it ourselves far more easily than we might have thought possible. In the invisible world, there are infinite possibilities (whether you want to look at this spiritually or quantumly or both). Everything begins in the mind, in the imagination. What will happen if instead of thinking I have lost everything I held dear, I think instead: “I have everything I need for my happiness right here and now. This moment is perfect. I am strong. I am able to experience love, compassion, renunciation, faith, wisdom, joy and bliss. I am a Bodhisattva. I am a Yogini in a charnel ground, fearful of nothing and no one, transforming everything, surrounded by the corpses of my own and others’ fake suffering self-images. I am a Buddha.”

We don’t need to think “I want to be Buddha” or “I will be Buddha in the future”. Wanting or hoping creates a gap between who we think we are now (some deluded being with big problems) and who we might be in some la la land future. And how will we bridge that gap?  If we can’t bridge it today, why will we be able to tomorrow? Instead, we already ARE, and we relate to that and happily create all the causes for it in the here and now – meditations on love and compassion, the six perfections, bliss and emptiness, the central channel, and so on. Or, simply put, we can start with a thought like, “I am a loving person who has everything I need”, and let our belief in our good qualities get bigger and bigger over time, as our imagination and wisdom appreciating the nature of these good qualities improves.

If there are infinite possibilities and no constraint on thought, if I can be anything, why not be a Buddha? The previous holy beings have paved the way for this and shown the best possible self-image in their Tantric revelations. How could we possibly come up with something this deep, sophisticated, or blissful without their input?! Therefore, “I am a Buddha, such as Avalokiteshvara or Tara, or Heruka and Vajrayogini, manifesting all the infinite bounty and good qualities of the Dharmakaya in every moment and leading all living beings to that state.” Also: “I can accept any unpleasant feelings/emotions/sensations — they are just clouds drifting in the endless blissful expanse of my mind, useful for teaching me about renunciation and compassion and wisdom. Like pleasant feelings, they are also just manifestations of the empty sky of the basic Dharmakaya. I can welcome and embrace them, and in doing so they miraculously have no more power to hurt. They also dissolve away, as all thoughts do sooner or later, because nothing lasts even a moment.” space goer

Well, who is there to contradict that? It is just as real or unreal as “I am useless without you.” Who says? Also, when we think of others looking at us pityingly, “Poor thing, she is useless without him”, (a) it is unlikely that they are in fact wasting much time thinking that – people tend to relate to us as far more of a whole individual than we do ourselves when we’re suffering heartache; and (b) when we change our view of ourselves, people will follow suit, sooner or later. With love and compassion, we don’t care or take seriously what people project on us in any case, we mainly want to help them – there is no need for their approval of us, we are more interested in their view of themselves.

Of course it is more “realistic” as in closer to reality to view ourselves as whole, as complete, as loving, as a Buddha, because our real nature is our Buddha nature. Our wisdom understanding that nothing is fixed is what enables us to change into whatever we want to change into, to transform; and that wisdom is the ground of our new experience. This is as opposed to our self-grasping ignorance, which is the ground of our attachment and aversion to real things and people, including our own depressing self-image. “It must be real because it appears to me that way!!! I’m not moving until the reflection in the mirror moves!”

Telling ourselves the same old stories and clichés about our own and others’ lives will never liberate us from suffering. We will simply live the clichés again and again and again — birth, ageing, sickness, death, disappointment, lack of fulfillment, dissatisfaction, birth, ageing, etc. Cyclic existence (Skt. samsara) just is one big cliché. The other day when I was complaining about getting older and uglier, looking I think for sympathy or reassurance, my friend effectively shut me up by saying this instead:

“The story of samsara has no answer.”

How long do we need?

There is a lot of talk these days about “manifesting”, eg, The Secret, a Course in Miracles, so called ‘new thought’. From a Buddhist point of view, manifesting a favorable reality depends not only upon our way of perceiving reality but also upon the karmic appearances created by our good and kind intentions. And, from a Buddhist point of view, if we can manifest reality, we may as well skip the ordinary samsaric manifestations of wealth, companionship, sex, a good reputation etc. “Be careful what you wish for!”, as the saying goes, partly because a large number of our desires are contradictory eg, pizza and a great figure, excitement and security, a long life and eternal youth, etc. Instead, we can go for the blissful enlightened reality that will always help both ourselves and others. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. We can gradually come to identify with every pure, enlightened quality as explained in the Sutras and manifested in Technicolor in the Tantric Deities and mandalas, and progress will be swift – we can even gain enlightenment in one lifetime. Buddha

One lifetime?!?! You sure?! Well, given the infinite possibilities of the Dharmakaya, the extraordinary and fortunate reality that Buddha himself has appeared in our life and consciousness to introduce us to these, and the reality that all the methods exist and have always worked, why not?! Why would it take more than one lifetime if we really believe it? If we come to know that nothing is really out there, how long do we need to dismantle it? If we come to know that our thoughts are empty, invisible, with nothing really behind them, how long do we need to change them?

Moving from the head to the heart

Nathan Dorje and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

This is Part 2 of Is Heaven Real? based on last week’s Newsweek article Heaven is Real. 

Is heaven real, a Buddhist perspective In the last article I was mainly trying to organize some thoughts around the “object” side of things, what was appearing to Dr. Eben Alexander’s mind and whether it proves heaven or not. What about the “subject” side, the actual state of mind he was in?

Dr. A’s cortex was “offline” so where, we might ask, WAS that experience? “It’s all in his head”, some people grumble when they hear about trippy experiences like this one; only he wasn’t in his head.

Even if his cortex was “switched on”–as it has been in other people who have had similar experiences in their dreams or while awake–where in the brain can that all fit? The mind and body are different entities, different dimensions if you will. If anywhere, the seat of our consciousness is in our heart chakra, not our brain; nonetheless our mind is formless and therefore not constrained by matter. Not all our thoughts are in our head – one could argue that the most important ones are in our heart. (For an article on how the mind and the brain are not the same, see Buddha and the Brain, as well as the comments readers have left below it.)

Moving from our head to our heart 

For people who love to meditate, I think a real secret of their success is moving from their head to their heart. The more we center ourselves at our heart, the more concentrated and peaceful we feel, and the easier it is to meditate. When I experience even a little inner peace from even a short meditation, good thought, or blessing, I like to feel that peace at the level of my heart. It feels more moving from head to heart in meditationreliable and stable. I start every meditation there; in fact I try to stay in my heart as much as I can. It also helps me stay in the moment. We can also identify with this peaceful mind at our heart as our Buddha nature, our potential for limitless peace and happiness. I think this is creating causes to experience the non-dual mind of great bliss, when we can have “heavenly” experiences on tap.

The main thing this article did for me was to increase my determination to get from my head to my spiritual heart – to keep applying effort to gather my inner energy winds into the central channel in my heart chakra so that they can no longer support the development of gross conceptions of dualistic appearance. This is one of the main aims of spiritual practice, because with the resultant very blissful clear light mind, or very subtle mind, we can realize ultimate truth directly, or non-conceptually, and experience permanent freedom and inner peace. You can read all about this in Modern Buddhism, available free.

Nathan Dorje and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

Nathan Dorje and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

In transit in Washington DC, I read a Facebook update about my friend’s son Nathan Dorje, who is a handsome little boy with semi-lobar holoprosencephaly. He may not be able to do many of the things his brother and sister can do requiring complicated conceptual thoughts, but his infectious happiness and love are states of consciousness as “real” and significant as any others, and have brought a lot of joy and meaning into many people’s lives. I would bet that he feels these things at his heart.

When my grandmother was slipping into senility and upset at her brain’s deterioration and inability to remember the name of a tree we were looking at, I remember encouraging her to try and stay as much as she could in her heart where she could still feel love, peace, and purpose just like anyone else — these are what really count. She liked that. She asked for a Buddhist book, and Transform Your Life ~ A Blissful Journey followed her to her nursing home, even though she could no longer read.

Non-duality

I was interested less in the descriptions of fluffy clouds than in the sense of non-duality Dr. A felt, which I think is in common with all these kinds of experiences.

“It seemed that you could not look at or listen to anything in this world without becoming a part of it- without joining with it in some mysterious way. Again, from my present perspective, I would suggest that you couldn’t look at anything in that world at all, for the word “at” itself implies a separation that did not exist there. Everything was distinct, yet everything was also part of everything else.”

The subtler our mind, the less dualistic it is – the less pronounced the appearance of inherent existence, or things existing as findable entities, “out there” somewhere. Our deepest level of mind, called the very subtle mind or the mind of clear light, is naturally blissful and non-dualistic. Things do not appear “out there” to that mind.

interdependence connectionThe thing I like most about non-duality is that there is no sense of separation and therefore alienation from our surroundings or other people. There is no grasping in the mind at things we need or want because we already have everything. The wisdom of non-duality and compassion are two sides of the same coin. Instead of being trapped in the prison of self by our self-cherishing and self-grasping minds, as Dr. A’s account suggests we naturally connect with and identify with others as they no longer feel like “other”. We don’t have to think our way into it as we do with our grosser levels of mind. There is no basis for loneliness or selfishness. Love overflows everywhere, no longer constrained.

Given this, it is not hard to see why subtler levels of mind are also less distracted and more concentrated than grosser levels, so Dr. A experienced no distraction, or interruptions, from his vision. In his case, I couldn’t tell you which exact level of consciousness was functioning, but we know it was not his ordinary waking consciousness.

Levels of thinking

When we are falling asleep, or fainting and when we are dying, our sense awarenesses (associated with our eyes etc) first stop working. Then our gross thoughts, ideas, memories, and even our sense of self disappear. These may or may not have some association with our brain – and on one level it doesn’t matter to a meditator because we don’t meditate on our brain any more than we meditate on our eyeball in order to affect our state of mind, we meditate using the mind itself. You can read about the death process in detail in one of Geshe Kelsang’s first books Clear Light of Bliss. However, even during the death process our awareness itself never stops. It just becomes more subtle. Our thoughts become less “crunchy”, if you like, less solid and real, and, as mentioned, less dualistic.

Part Three of this article: “Relaxing in your heart”

Meantime, over to you!

Unstoppable ~ 8 ways in which our thoughts are like a run-away train

runaway train 2

delusions, runaway trainThe movie Unstoppable is based on the true 2001 story of a runaway train. The “real life” CSX 8888 train in Ohio was holding some toxic materials, whereas the movie train 777 in Pennsylvania was full of highly combustible molten phenol that could have blown up a huge area. It had to be stopped before it reached Stanton.

To begin with, the train company thought it was a “coaster” – not ideal to have it loose on the main line, but far better than it running on its own power. It was still manageable at a speed of between 10 and 20 miles per hour, giving someone time to hop on board and take control.

Then they discovered that due to “human error” and “bad luck”, the throttle had in fact jumped from idle to full power. The train was speeding away at over 70 miles per hour. It quickly burnt through its independent brakes.

Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, BuddhismMovie spoiler: As you might expect, after lots of drama, corporate pride and greed, and false moves, our heroes in the aspect of Denzel Washington and Chris Pine risked their lives for others and saved the day. They rode the train into town almost unscathed, to be greeted by relieved, happy hugs and kisses all around.

Well, this movie got me thinking about our thoughts and how out of control they can be. In the old days, Buddha Shakyamuni often likened the uncontrolled mind to a powerful, wild elephant that could trample an entire grass village and everyone in it. We don’t have too many elephants around where I live, and our houses are made of wood and concrete, so I have been finding the run-away train full of explosives analogy to be a good updated substitute. Buddha Shakyamuni said our mind is like a crazy elephant

(The stages of the path (Lamrim) teachings encourage us to deepen our meditative insights with the use of our own and others’ experience, stories, and analogies. I bet Buddha Shakyamuni, Shantideva, and others would have used cars and trains and planes etc as analogies too if they’d been invented at the time, seeing how much time we all spend in them…)

These are the main ways I’ve been applying the analogy of the train to help me understand how our own uncontrolled thoughts arise, and how we can get back into the driver’s seat.delusions are like a runaway train

  1. Human error – the hapless “driver” who switched the wrong lever and then left the cab was being ignorant, careless, and lazy. Like us most days. We switch on anger instead of patience, for example, either because we are ignorant of our options, or because we are being careless with our options as we reckon it doesn’t matter too much, or because we can’t be bothered to apply the right option if it seems like hard work.
  2. Like the train, while our negative thoughts are coasting along slowly they are easier to control and divert than when they have built up powerful momentum and a life of their own due to inappropriate attention.
  3. Like the train crisis arising from many causes and conditions, including bad luck, so our thoughts arise from many different causes and conditions, including bad karma or bad luck. We have also developed karmic tendencies for negative thoughts by thinking them repeatedly in the past.
  4. Like the train with no driver in control, at the moment our thoughts are driving us. We need to drive them. Also, this driverlessness reminds me that although our thoughts are pre-programmed to wreak havoc due to beginningless conditioning to our delusions, they are still ownerless or empty of inherent existence. Therefore they are unfixed, such that all habitual momentum can be reversed.
  5. Like the train, our thoughts are carrying toxic explosive substances – potentially dangerous and fatal to ourselves and others.
  6. Like the train, our negative thoughts need to be stopped as soon as possible – and we’ll need all the courage and ingenuity at our disposal to stop them. Pride, greed, fatalism, and over-caution won’t stop them. Only skill, energy, compassion, and wisdom will.
  7. Like the train, when our thoughts are under control we can ride them safely and peacefully and go wherever we want to go.Phew, no more delusions
  8. Like the train arriving home, everyone is very relieved and happy when we finally manage to get our minds under control. 

Your turn: in the comments, please share any modern analogies or stories that you have found helpful for increasing your insights.

What do you see when you look at a stranger?

people watching

What (or who) do we see when we look at strangers? Do we mainly see their bodies? Their minds, after all, are formless and therefore invisible. Are we evaluating them based mainly on their bodies and on what we imagine must be their external lifestyle and background (e.g. jobs, family, income, possessions, politics, sexuality, choice of entertainment) as opposed to their vast, indeed infinite, spiritual potential?!

In London last summer a friend and I stopped for a pizza in London’s Gloucester Road and did some people watching, all the fashionistas wandering around looking cool, or not, as the case may be. Back in the sweltering NY summer, likewise, I caught myself looking at the sharply dressed men and the women in pretty summer dresses, as well as many older and more shambling people (whom younger people assume have let themselves go); and having superficial, lazy and rather useless discriminations about them. And on a beach not too long ago, I found myself making up stories about all the families I was seeing around me, who was who and what was what, and these stories were also rather one-dimensional or fixed – at least they didn’t take into account the huge variety of thoughts, experiences, relationships and potentials that each of them has been experiencing since beginningless time. I think I sometimes do the same thing in airports! The exceptions are when I’m not being lazy and I’m remembering Dharma, when the world feels very vast and interconnected.*

“The common eye sees only the outside of things, and judges by that, but the seeing eye pierces through and reads the heart and soul, finding there capacities which the outside didn’t indicate or promise, and which the other kind couldn’t detect.” ~ Mark Twain

It struck me that if we’re (I’m) not careful it is very easy to mindlessly judge everyone by various superficial criteria. “Oh he’s gorgeous! Oh, she could really do with a haircut!” etc. We impute people on their body, their form aggregate, and this is terribly restrictive. People are not their bodies. They have bodies, but they also have minds, and frankly their minds are infinitely more interesting. In fact, their minds are as vast as space, and have the potential for unbelievable wisdom, compassion, love and bliss.

One-day experiment

Just try this experiment with me for one day. Ignore people’s bodies and think about their minds. Impute or label people not on their fleshy bodies with their limited shelf life but instead on their boundless formless minds, and particularly on the potential their minds have to do anything at all, including attaining full enlightenment and becoming omniscient Buddhas. Please let me know in the comments if it makes a difference and, if so, what…

*If I’m remembering Dharma quickly, my thoughts watching a stranger in a waiting room or elsewhere may go something like this: I’ve had every conceivable relationship with them since beginningless time; they’ve even been my kind mother and dependent child; they want to be happy just as much as I do; their happiness is more important because they are other; so I’ll put myself in their shoes; now I want them to be very happy and free; they’re not; so I better attain enlightenment quickly for their sake. I find this potted Lamrim, or variation on that theme, works every time on humans and animals, and makes waiting or sitting around vastly more productive and blissful.

Your turn: what do you see when you look at a stranger?

What are blessings?

infinite possibilities
Everyone is blessed

Anyone can receive blessings any time. We just have to believe in, or tune into, or even actually mix with, the fount of blessings, however we may construe it, and blessings will always come streaming into us like sunshine into a darkened room.

Some of my Facebook friends posted beautiful comments in response to the question: “What exactly are blessings?” Here are some of them.

Eileen Quinn kicked it off with: “Good things that flow into your mind from the Buddhas…. I think of the sudden feelings of peace or happiness – out of the blue – as blessings.” Adam Head calls blessings “divine love/inspiration”. Debbie Howard describes them as: “Good healing energy zapping the negativity in our minds and filling them with positivity.” Victoria Kaya says: “It’s when you realise you’re not alone and you feel a peace that flows through you and emanates to others.”

MJ Weaver emailed me: “Francesca Fremantle wrote in her book Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead: “The Tibetan literally means ‘an engulfing wave or flood of splendor and power.’ I saw elsewhere that the Sanskrit word ‘adhisthana’ literally meant ‘uplift’. And they’ve been described as ‘waves of grace’, which certainly rings true for me.”

And there were more great comments that I’d like to share in future articles. Please add your own in the box below too!

Transformation through inspiration

Blessings, in Tibetan “jin gyi lob”, means “transformation through inspiration”. Our minds can mix with the minds of holy beings (however we construe them) and transform from sad to happy, dark to light, negative to positive, very smoothly. Not just my FB friends, but many people from all backgrounds around the world can attest to the power of blessings transforming their hearts and lives. If blessings don’t exist, then don’t you find it a coincidence how many millions of people over millennia have given such similar descriptions of what it is like to receive them?!

Once we’ve tasted blessings, it is obvious that they exist, even if we don’t immediately understand them or trust they are what they are. The trick is, how can we tune in more deliberately so that we can receive blessings whenever we want, on tap as it were? How can we deliberately throw open that window so the sunshine pours in?

Grandpa

Some years ago, when he was in his late nineties, I had a very interesting conversation with my mother’s father. A very bright doctor, scientist and religious skeptic his entire life, my extraordinary grandfather received an epiphany in his sixties, when everything dissolved away into “clear light” (his words) and he saw deeply how his mind was mixed with the mind of God (his words). He described this experience to me as “spontaneous great bliss”, which somewhat surprised me as that expression is used in Tantric Buddhism yet he had never come across Tantric Buddhism. He said that, much as he loved his family and had derived great joy from them, this blissful and connected experience transcended and surpassed everything he had ever known. He saw that everything, including his family, his career and his entire life, just arose like a reflection from the clear light of his mind mixed with God’s mind and had no existence separate from it. And that clear light was pervaded by love, a deep feeling for the interconnectedness of everything.

We then had a discussion about how everything is created by mind. Whether God’s mind or our own minds we left open to discussion, but in Buddhism there is a way to reconcile the two understandings. Buddhists don’t believe in a creator God as a person who is all-powerful and who creates us like a carpenter creates a table. But we do see how everything can be understood to manifest from the mind of omniscient wisdom and bliss that is not inherently different to our own very subtle clear light mind, even if our mind is at present obstructed by ignorance and mistaken appearance. (You can understand a lot more about this if you read Geshe Kelsang’s clear teachings in Mahamudra Tantra.)

My grandfather’s mystical experience was marvelous and life-changing, and he also had further experiences like it. But they were always random, he said. They would “descend” upon him when he was just in the garden tending his flowers, or playing the piano, or taking his long daily walk. Sometimes they came when he was in Guildford cathedral or his local church, more often when he was relaxed at home.

So I said to him: “You know, there is a method to tune into that experience of spacious loving bliss whenever you want.” Because there is. Blessings are blissings. If we know how to tune in, we can access this mystical experience by mixing our minds with the minds of all enlightened beings, who are always experiencing this clear light of bliss inseparable from the ultimate nature of all phenomena. Our mind, like a drop of water, can dissolve into their mind, which is like a boundless blissful ocean. The drop is then pervaded by the ocean.

Drop in an ocean. Ocean in a drop.

(I love this subject and have written loads more, so watch this space! And please leave your comments in the box below.)

How to meditate on the peaceful clarity of your own mind

water bubbles 1

In the last article on Buddha and the Brain, I quoted from Transform Your Life on how our body and mind are different entities. If this is true, it has huge implications on our lives: for one thing it allows for the continuum of past and future lives and karma. It also means that our mind has infinite potential for spiritual development, unlike our meaty body (including brain), which necessarily has a limited shelf life!

In the beautiful Buddhist Mahamudra teachings, we learn to actually meditate on the nature and function of our own mind, the formless continuum of our awareness. I was taught this meditation early on in my meditation life and it is popular amongst both old and new practitioners in the Kadampa Buddhist tradition. So I know from experience that even if you are new to meditation it is possible to get a feeling for the clarity of your own mind, which in turn will give you an experiential insight into what the mind is and how your thoughts and feelings arise.

This is useful because happiness and suffering both depend upon the mind, and so if we want to avoid suffering and find enduring happiness it makes sense to understand how the mind works and use that understanding to bring our mind under control. In this way we will improve the quality of our life, both now and in the future.

This meditation actually has infinite benefits – from calming our mind and helping us to dissolve away distractions, worry and delusions; to improving our concentration and mindfulness; to preparing us for a realization of the ultimate nature of things, their emptiness of existing from their own side; to increasing our bliss and the ability to realize directly our own very subtle mind; and, finally, to attaining actual enlightenment. As Buddha Shakyamuni said:

“If you realize your own mind you will become a Buddha; you should not seek Buddhahood elsewhere.”

I thought I would introduce this meditation practically and simply in the way that I have often done it with the hope that you’ll come to love it too, if you don’t already.

First a little background…

In Mahamudra Tantra Geshe Kelsang explains the location, nature and function of the mind so that we can meditate on these.

Our mind is principally located in the region of our heart channel wheel, or heart chakra. Its nature is clarity. This means that it is empty, like clear space, and that it is a formless continuum completely lacking shape and color, which possesses the actual power to perceive, understand and remember objects…The function of the mind is to perceive or cognize objects, to understand or impute objects.

The mind has the power to perceive objects. Geshe Kelsang has used “perceive” and “appear” interchangeably in many teachings, so the mind has the power to “appear” objects, or we can say to “project” them.

Nothing exists outside of our experience — to exist means to be known by mind. Mind’s function is to cognize. It knows, cognizes or apprehends the things it “appears”. (Our ignorance believes these objects are actually out there, like believing a movie is “out there” coming at our mind rather than the other way around). Everything is imputed by mind, even the mind itself.

In our meditation on the mind we stop the projector, so to speak, and let all these perceptions or appearances dissolve into the clarity of the mind. Its nature is still to appear or project/impute, but we’re looking at the mind itself now rather than the objects projected – this is also rather like looking in the mirror/reflector rather than at the reflections in the mirror.

The mind also has the power to create. Mind is the “creator of all” according to Buddha. This becomes clearer the more we understand how the world and its inhabitants are merely imputed by mind, and you can read more in Geshe Kelsang’s brilliant explanation in Mahamudra Tantra.

We meditate on our mind in the location of the heart chakra because that is where our root mind or very subtle mind is said to be “located”. This is because the inner energy winds that support or are associated with our very subtle mind are located here.

You can bear any of this in mind as you do the meditation, but do keep the meditation simple as in the guidelines below, especially if you are just starting out. In the meditation, we’ll dissolve all our thoughts away and meditate on the nature and function of the mind located at the heart.

There are lots of other ways to do this meditation too that you can find out from New Kadampa Tradition meditation teachers, including in Mahamudra Tantra pages 100ff. (Before you start, you might find it helpful to remind yourself of the instructions on seeking, finding, holding and remaining, including the advice on how to stay concentrated on your meditation object, outlined in How to soar in the space of meditation.)

You’ll need 15-30 minutes. I’ve left spaces where you can pause to follow the guidelines.

The meditation

Sit comfortably with a straight back, gently close your eyes, generate a loving motivation, and settle your mind with a few minutes breathing meditation. (There is a simple breathing meditation explained here.)

Once you have overcome strong distractions and your mind is relatively peaceful and stable, turn your attention from your breath to the continuous stream of feelings, thoughts, and images arising in your mind. Simply observe these, without trying to control or follow them.

Watch your thoughts arising and falling away. Watch your feelings and sensations arising and falling away. Whatever comes up in the present moment and then disappears, watch this without reacting or intruding, clinging or pushing away.

Now ask yourself where these thoughts are coming from and where they go to. What is the space between the end of one thought and the beginning of the next?

You’ll notice that your thoughts, images, sensations and so on all arise from a deep formless clarity, like empty space, and that they also subside back into it.

Notice the clarity out of which thoughts arise and to which they return, like focusing on a mirror rather than on what is reflected in the mirror.

Drop your awareness from your head to your heart chakra so that you are experiencing this clarity or bare awareness at the level of your heart in the center of your chest. Meditate on your mind’s nature and function as described in Mahamudra Tantra:

“Its nature is clarity. This means that it is empty, like clear space, and that it is a formless continuum completely lacking shape and color, which possesses the actual power to perceive, understand and remember objects. Its function is to perceive or cognize objects, to understand or to impute objects.”

The mind also creates our reality through imputation by conceptual thought.

Simply put, meditate on the clarity of your mind free from all physical properties. Within that space you can recognize that it is awareness with the power to appear objects and know them, and that it is the creator of reality.

You can imagine that your mind is like a boundless clear ocean without shape, color or form. Gradually sink your awareness into this infinite ocean-like root mind at your heart chakra, and merge with it entirely. Think that it is peaceful and blissful.

Abide in this blissful space-like clarity for as long as possible. Any thoughts that still arise are just like bubbles arising in an ocean — pay them no heed, and they will naturally dissolve back into the ocean from whence they came. They are just mind themselves and have nowhere else to go.

Thoughts disappear if you don’t think them.

(When a thought arises you can also ask yourself “What is the mind? Where is the mind?” and you’ll find yourself meditating on the clarity of the mind. Geshe Kelsang taught this method a few years ago. You can even start your whole meditation like this.)

Know that you can return to this space whenever you want to. Know that you can dissolve any thought away, however troublesome. It only has the energy you give to it.

Before you arise from meditation, think: “I’ll bring this peace, serenity and clarity back with me into my daily life.”

You can finish by dedicating the vast good karma you have just created to the happiness of all.

For more on this meditation, Mahamudra Tantra has it all. If you want to find out more about the mind and its functions as explained in Buddha’s teachings, Understanding the Mind is a great book for that.

If you have been doing this meditation for a while and have some extra tips and tricks, please do share them here with us.

Buddha & the Brain

question of consciousness

(This is an article I wrote ten years ago for a New Kadampa Tradition website, and I thought I’d dust it off and share it here as not much has changed in this department!)

In May 2001, Newsweek ran the headline ‘God & the Brain’. The magazine featured a series of articles on the new ‘neurotheologists’ who are attempting to chart the connections between mystical experience and brain patterns, hoping to answer the ‘question of consciousness’.

One of the articles began:

“One Sunday morning in March 19 years ago, as Dr James Austin waited for a train in London, he glanced away from the tracks towards the river Thames. The neurologist — who was spending a sabbatical year in England — saw nothing out of the ordinary: the grimy Underground station, a few dingy buildings, some pale gray sky. He was thinking, a bit absent-mindedly, about a Buddhist meditation retreat he was headed toward.

And then Austin suddenly felt a sense of enlightenment unlike anything he had ever experienced. His sense of individual existence, of separateness from the physical world around him evaporated like morning mist in a bright dawn. He saw things ‘as they really are’, he recalls. The sense of ‘I, me, mine’ disappeared. ‘Time was not present,’ he says. ‘I had a sense of eternity. My old yearnings, loathings, fear of death, insinuations of self-hood vanished. I had been graced by a comprehension of the ultimate nature of things.’”

Sharon Begley’s article went on to state that scientists are beginning to use brain imaging to pinpoint the circuits within the brain that are active when people meditate or enter periods of deep prayer. Current scientific thinking has us experiencing a sense of ‘cosmic unity’ when the parietal lobes quiet down, manifesting ‘spiritual emotions… of joy and awe’ within our middle temporal lobe, and having our intense periods of concentration, such as in meditation, linked to our frontal lobes.

Notwithstanding the above, Buddha drew a clear distinction between our body and our mind. Although the two are related, he said, they are not the same thing. The mind is not the brain, and the brain is not the mind. The brain is physical, whereas the mind is formless and functions to know objects. In fact, Buddha explained how our deepest levels of consciousness do not depend upon the body at all.

Here we can consider some words from Geshe Kelsang’s book Transform Your Life – A Blissful Journey, published in August 2001. In the chapter What is the Mind? he writes:

Some people think that the mind is the brain or some other part or function of the body, but this is incorrect. The brain is a physical object that can be seen with the eyes and that can be photographed or operated on in surgery. The mind, on the other hand, is not a physical object. It cannot be seen with the eyes, nor can it be photographed or repaired by surgery. The brain therefore is not the mind but simply part of the body. There is nothing within the body that can be identified as being our mind because our body and mind are different entities. For example, sometimes when our body is relaxed and immobile our mind can be very busy, darting from one object to another. This indicates that our body and mind are not the same entity.

In Buddhist scriptures our body is compared to a guest house and our mind to a guest dwelling within it. When we die our [deepest level of] mind leaves our body and goes to the next life, just like a guest leaving a guest house and going somewhere else. If the mind is not the brain, nor any other part of the body, what is it? It is a formless continuum that functions to perceive and understand objects. Because the mind is formless, or non-physical, by nature, it is not obstructed by physical objects. Thus, it is impossible for our body to go to the moon without traveling in a spaceship, but our mind can reach the moon in an instant just by thinking about it. Knowing and perceiving objects is a function that is unique to the mind. Although we say `I know such and such’, in reality it is our mind that knows. We know things only by using our mind.

I reckon we all know from our own common-sense experience of our own mind that mind and body are not the same. Here’s an experiment. Close your eyes and think about your mom. Ask yourself: “What does this thought feel like? What is it? Where is it? Does it feel like a chemical or neural impulse? Or the side-effect of heightened lobe activity? Etc.”

When I do this, consciousness of my mother (let alone any non-dual experience of anything transcendent such as the illusory nature of all phenomena or the experience of blessings) does not feel like anything physical at all. Thought exists in a different dimension altogether — the formless dimension beyond the physical, without shape, color, spatial boundaries, tactile properties. Invisible, but the creator of reality. Immaterial, but mattering a great deal.

Moreover, when we refer to ‘my body’, we do not feel as if we are talking about ‘my mind’, and vice versa, which clearly indicates that we know first-hand that they are not the same. We may have the figure of speech “My brain hurts”, but we also talk about our mind, feelings and experiences all the time, and I would argue that when we do we are not even casting a sideways glance at our brain. If you’re feeling depressed, do you have the notion “My brain is depressed”? If you really want something, does it feel like “My brain really wants that!”?

I personally think that we are not born with a belief that our mind is our brain. I think it is a so-called “intellectually-formed delusion” that we acquire due to incorrect reasoning and/or other people telling us. Often we don’t question this conventional wisdom and assume smart people know what they are talking about when they say the mind is the brain, even though it provides far more questions than answers.

I never thought about it much until one day, as a 14-year-old, I was dancing and suddenly felt a wave of bliss at my heart. I thought to myself: “This feeling is not in my brain! It is so much bigger than that. It is not physical!” And that for some reason got me thinking about an article I had read about a mother who had lost her child, and it seemed to me impossible that all that grief could be contained in a lump of grey matter in her head. Also, life just isn’t that meaningless – why do we worry about anything if all that is doing the worrying is a sponge-like organ or a bunch of chemicals? Who cares what happens to us or anyone else if it is only happening to a blob of meat in our skull? Anyway, I had practical thoughts like this before I met Buddhism, so when later I was introduced to Buddha’s experiential teachings on the mind it was a “no brainer” (sorry, couldn’t resist ;-))

In struggling to answer the ‘question of consciousness’ and how the mind relates to the body — which arose when the materialist view of Descartes and his followers took hold of Western philosophy — rather than simply accepting that mind and body are different natures and taking it from there, scientists have tried to answer the question by reducing consciousness to the purely physical. We are blinded by science: this reductionism obscures our own direct experience, based on the false premise that mind and body cannot be different natures. We are cheated out of an understanding of the formless continuum of our mind, with dire ramifications for our spiritual beliefs such as life after death, the existence of enlightened beings, and the possibility of infinite mental and spiritual development and bliss.

There is not and never will be a magical chemical concoction or brain operation that will lead living beings to full spiritual awakening. Finding a permanent way to quieten our parietal lobes is no guarantee of ‘cosmic unity’! And even if these things were possible, they would be pointless.

Geshe Kelsang's hands in meditation

Meditators, on the other hand, are scientists of the mind who spend their lives investigating the nature of consciousness from direct experience (something that can be done only by using mental awareness, not crude physical instruments) — and they have clearly understood that the mind is not anything physical. There may be some relationship between certain types of mental awareness and the brain, as there is between sense consciousness and our sense faculties (the eyeball, nose, etc); but the fact that two things have a relationship proves that they are two different things, not the same thing e.g. a driver affects his car, but is not the same as the car.

People tend to put their hands to their hearts, not their heads, to indicate deep feelings of love there. When we meditate deeply, our consciousness feels seated at our heart. In his Tantric teachings, Buddha explained that our mind is related to subtle inner energy winds that can be said to have locations within the body — we have conceptual thoughts related to the winds in our crown chakra (perhaps why we scratch our head when we’re confused!). Our minds of attachment are related to winds in our navel chakra (hence those butterflies!) We have love and wisdom related to winds in our heart chakra, which is also the seat of our deepest level of mind. Stories abound in Buddhism of great meditators, such as Geshe Kelsang’s Spiritual Guide Trijang Rinpoche, who remained warm and upright for days after their brain was dead, meditating on the clear light of bliss at their heart. You can find out more about all this in the Tantric books.

(Finally, there are stories of people who live with a tiny fraction of normal brain matter but still have an IQ of 100 or more. You can Google it.)

To gain experience of the nature and function of your own mind, you can try out this meditation: How to meditate on the peaceful clarity of your own mind.

Do you think it matters whether or not Westerners are taught that the mind is the brain? Have you had any experiences that convince you that it is not (or that it is!)? I look forward to your comments.

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