Creating space in our minds

perspective and meditation
perspective and meditation

Depends how you look at things

Until Konstantin the Russian tenant showed up, my yard in America was overgrown with prickly thistles and ugly weeds. My ultimate plan was to get rid of the seeds and roots of those unwanted plants, but how was I supposed to dig those up if I couldn’t even get to them? I first needed to create space by weed-whacking (actually, I asked Konstantin to do it, but all analogies break down sooner or later…) In the same way, my ultimate spiritual plan is to dig out the seeds of my delusions by realizing emptiness, but at the same time I can be preventing delusions from growing wild in my mind by weed-whacking their other five causes, especially the object and inappropriate attention. (Sadly, neither Konstantin nor anyone else can do this job for me.)

For example, if I wrote something really annoying right here:

“Get off this computer and get a life, you loser.”

you might become angry with me. If so, this would be because you’ve still got the seed or potential for anger right now, even when your mind is peaceful, which means there is always the danger of anger arising. However, anger does not actually arise until the other causes of anger, such as a rude comment and inappropriate attention, come together.

Cause of delusion # 2, the object
a Lambanana in Liverpool

Is it a lamb or is it a banana?
(A Lambanana in Liverpool)

Delusions cannot arise without an object. Without perceiving an attractive object like Walker’s Salt and Vinegar Crisps, I cannot develop attachment, and without perceiving a disagreeable object like a dentist’s drill grinding into my teeth, I cannot develop aversion.

This means that the fewer objects of delusion I encounter, the fewer delusions I will develop. However, it is a tall order to never again run into another object of delusion. I need a replacement crown and two fillings, for example, no way of getting around that. When I wimpily asked the dentist whether it would be painful, he smirked at his assistant and said: “Not for us.” Adding insult to injury, I even have to pay for the pain. Moreover, anything can be a disagreeable object for us if we continue to keep our disagreeable states of mind.

art and meditation in Liverpool

An elevator crashed in Liverpool

However, conversely, nothing is a disagreeable object for us if we keep agreeable states of mind. I am in Liverpool at the moment. Two nights ago, a new friend called P, born and bred in the ‘pool, was walking down a street nearby when she was mugged for the first time in her fifty-something years. Someone grabbed her handbag containing all credit cards, iPhone, and cash, and ran off into the shadows. The nice policeman commiserated with her: “You must be very angry!” Friends sympathized with her: “You must feel violated! How awful for you.” But over lunch she was all smiles and told me that she was pleased to notice that she didn’t feel any anger. Indeed, she had no mental pain over the incident at all. And, most surprising of all to her, she found she had the entirely unironic thought, “That poor guy didn’t get away with very much cash!” She said she kept those thoughts to herself, or the policeman might have thought her quite mad.

P is not mad though, she has just been meditating on patience for twenty years, and so it kicked in when needed. Meantime, she was still able to do all the practical things like cancel the cards and put a stop on the phone.

P and I were having this conversation over the best vegetarian sausage I’ve ever tasted, in the Moon and Pea, Lark Lane. The café’s name reminds me of Buddha’s analogy for our spiritual potential – the amount of mind we are currently using compared to the amount of mind we could be using is like a pea compared to a planet.

Sefton Park Liverpool meditation

A friendly swan in Liverpool

So-called Foe Destroyers or Arhats (in Sanskrit) have destroyed all the inner foes of the delusions and their seeds through their direct realization of emptiness, which means that even if they are surrounded by objects of delusions, and even if they try to, it is impossible for them to develop a delusion. Such a person has attained so-called nirvana, or liberation. Their mind is completely at peace all the time, happy and free.

It is possible to accomplish these things because there is no such thing as an object of delusion that exists from its own side. If someone was an inherently disagreeable object of anger, then everyone who saw that person would get angry; but of course they don’t – it is not just Foe Destroyers, their pet dog also loves them to bits! So objects of delusion depend upon our deluded minds. If we have a mind to get deluded, we’re going to find an object of delusion with no difficulty. But if we overcome our delusions by developing patience, compassion, generosity, and so on, the object of delusion transforms into something entirely different – eg, from a thug into an unfortunate soul who really could do with that money.

That’s pretty cool, don’t you think?

(I need to practice it on the dentist next month. Tips welcome.)

Do liberals and conservatives share any common ground?

Tom Tom and Zia's new home

Someone commented on my last article that from the perspective of someone in the UK there is no difference between the two US presidential candidates. But I think that up closer there is a difference in candidates (and parties), not just in terms of their policies but in terms of the core values that motivate those policies.

In general, I think the best value of liberals is their wish for equality and fairness, helping each other based on an understanding of mutual dependence and that the health of the whole depends on the health of its parts.

I think the best value of conservatives is their emphasis on taking personal responsibility for their lives. They also believe in charity and community support on a private, individual, voluntary basis, and can be exceedingly generous. (And giving is the karmic cause of wealth.)

My theory is that these two world views are not contradictory and in fact are mutually supportive. We need both attitudes. You can’t actually have one working properly without the other. At their best, they are two attitudes of a Bodhisattva.

kitten finding forever home

See below for (ir)relevance of kitten photos.

There is a Buddhist Lojong or training the mind meditation called equalizing self and others, where we understand how we are all exactly the same in the way it really means something, in our two main wishes in life – wanting to be happy and free from suffering.  If we value the equality of all living beings, this entails a fairness in our treatment of everyone else. But it doesn’t stop there. We are also entirely bound up in each other in mutual dependence – everything we have and everything we are depends entirely on others.  We are one body of life. And if one part of the body is suffering, say the foot has a thorn in it, the hand will want to pull it out even if not directly affected.

It is all very well not wanting people to take advantage of the system, but you cannot pull yourself up by your own bootstraps if someone didn’t make you those boots in the first place. Everyone needs boots made for them — ontologically speaking, there is no such thing as a self-made man. This is because without others we are, literally, nothing. We came into this world with nothing — not a silver spoon in our mouth, not even a plastic utensil. Rich or poor, we were given everything. All of us are entirely connected in a web of kindness. (For a description of this meditation, read Eight Steps to Happiness pages 54-57.) In that context, people with fewer resources are not undeserving of a helping hand, and they in turn can then pay it back or forward. The safety net can be like a trampoline, helping everyone have more success. (An insight into mutual dependence and karma also indicates that life is not a zero sum game, where some have to lose for others to win – that it can be a win win.) cat going to his forever home

Yet, at the same time, our mutual dependence is not an excuse for letting others pull us along like dead weight without making any effort according to our capacity, power, and ingenuity to help ourselves or others, becoming dependent in a, well, “dependent” way. Understanding our mutual dependence and what we owe to others on the contrary gives Bodhisattvas a strong sense of personal responsibility, called superior intention, where they promise to work continually until they have really freed themselves and all living beings from the ocean of suffering and actualized their full potential. They see this as their job and their obligation. It doesn’t matter what conditions they find themselves in, good or bad; they still take responsibility for their own progress and freedom.

I deliberately went over to watch the VP debate with a friend who happens to be a member of the other party, as a sort of experiment to see if we’d still like each other by the end of the evening (LOL), and during the debate I put myself in her shoes to see what that felt like. I still thought my own candidate “won”, but then so did she, which was in itself quite a teaching on relativity — we had been sitting in the same room eating the same popcorn watching the same screen but, even without watching the Spin afterward, we came to opposite conclusions! However, as a result of putting myself in her shoes, I had more sympathy for her position that I might otherwise have done.

My friend’s point was that she doesn’t like people “scrounging” off the state. I pointed out that in a way we all scrounge off the state and each other because we rely on the infrastructure of this country for everything and we paid for just a fraction of it. For example, to get to work, we all need to use roads or public transport, and even a yard of road would cost a great deal more money than I could afford – I wouldn’t get very far if I had to pay for/build the road myself. The things we use every single day cost billions of dollars, toward which we have contributed a minute fraction, whatever our tax bracket.

In fact (and she liked this point the best), the higher up we are in the world, and the more we have, the MORE we depend on others. I wrote all about that here.

Dependence is not a dirty word. It is a fact. Self-reliance is not a dirty word. We need it. Recognizing our mutual dependence is a strength, not a weakness, for it is in touch with the way things are and it also encourages us to take responsibility for ourselves and everyone else, understanding that no man is an island. Likewise, within that context it is desirable to encourage people to take responsibility for their own destiny, for although others can give us the boots, only we can pull ourselves up by the straps. So, where is the contradiction?

As pretty much half this country is Democrat and half Republican, and that is not going to change anytime soon, I think it’d be a relief if we could recognize what is good or even noble about the other party’s world view and try to embrace it. Otherwise at least half of us are in for a pretty annoying four years, starting Tuesday. We don’t have to like everything the other party is trying to do (like that is ever going to happen anyway!) Some politicians and activists do try to do this, start from respect and understanding rather than dislike; but these days many more seem to be entrenched in the “We’re inherently right, you’re inherently wrong” polarity. Mutual antipathy based on accentuating others’ faults is unrealistic and crippling at any time, as it is based on inappropriate attention. Throw out those attack ads, they demean everyone.  

On the whole, politics and religion have different goals because the former is concerned with this life and the latter with future lives. But we need to overcome our delusions and get along with others to gain peace and happiness in this life and in future lives, and we can find practical ways of doing so through Lojong.

So, for example, understanding how our values are not contradictory but mutually supportive might be a good way of engendering respect and even some affection, and on that basis it might be easier to work together? What do you think? (Now I’m ducking as I wait for some of you to throw eggs at me… This was my last foray into politics. But I still want my candidate to win on Tuesday, ha ha!!)

(By the way, two of my kittens just found a wonderful home, and I had to write this whole article with lonely big-eyed Alyona on my lap, so I blame her cuteness for any sentimental idealism or oxytocin-induced lapses of logic. That has given me an idea… I don’t know what other pictures to use, so I’m going to transform this into a feel-good article by sprinkling it with kittens in their new forever homes.)

What’s really changed?

what has really changed in our lives

I wanted to write something short and simple for this article, as my last few articles were the opposite.

Meditation is all about changing from within. Usually we’re busy trying to change things out there, but in meditation we go inward to look much deeper at the causes of happiness, suffering, sickness, and health. We learn to transform our own mind — cultivating causes of happiness and overcoming causes of suffering – and let our words, actions, and world be a reflection of that.

what has really changed in our lives

New gadgets, same old minds?!

We like change, don’t we? We think things like, “It would be nice if this was different. It would be really nice if you were different. And if I was in charge, I’d make the whole company/relationship/family/organization/country/world different, I tell you! It would not be like this!” We’re constantly trying to control the world in one way or another. But the interesting thing is that even though we’ve been doing this for an awfully long time, like mini-Mussolinis or something, control freaks, trying to control everything around us, we’re in just as much a mess as we ever were, both individually and collectively as a society. The world as a whole is still full of suffering and problems. We ourselves still have problems and suffering in our life. It looks like on the whole we’ve barely scraped the surface, if that, of finding solutions to everyday pain. Tell me I’m wrong! Buddha’s point is not that there is anything wrong with change per se – in fact, our potential for change is our ticket to get ourselves out of this mess. However, we have to figure out where happiness and suffering actually come from and then work to change our hearts and minds, not everyone else.

I was watching a TV show called “Rome” at a friend’s house the other day, and found myself thinking: “Really, nothing’s changed since ancient Rome! There’s still the greed and the attachment, there’s still the hatred and the annoyance, there’s still the scheming and the attachment to reputation. It’s all there. We haven’t changed much.” On the way home that evening how do we become better human beingsI saw a sticker on someone’s bumper: “EVOLVE!” “Good idea!” I thought. 

But we’re only going to evolve into better people if we get rid of our uncontrolled and unpeaceful minds. While they remain, we’re no better than the ancient Romans. We haven’t changed at all. Humans are still yelling at each other, still hurting each other, still scheming, still deceiving, still attached to possessions and position, still trying to find happiness outside of the mind, and still failing. Nothing’s changed in that department for hundreds or thousands of years. This is why we learn to meditate, because if we still have anger, jealousy, pride, greed, and ignorance in our minds, nothing is ever going to change much for the better. The furniture of our lives may look different, sandals and togos may go out of style and suits come in – but it’s the same old, same old, isn’t it? Rome and meditation

But if we change our minds, then we change our world, we actually start to inhabit a better world, a purer world, and help others do the same.

Over to you. Do you agree that internal change is most important, or do you think that this can be overstated and that, in terms of helping others, for example, external change is where it’s at?

Why can’t I be happy?! Buddha’s reply.

Buddha 1

We all want to be happy, isn’t that the truth?! In fact, we all want to be happy all the time; it’s the way living beings are wired. But are we happy all the time? And if not, given our wish and the 24/7 effort we put into it, why not? Buddha Shakyamuni and many meditators since him have taken this question pretty seriously and, luckily for us, come up with some answers.

What is our problem?

This article dealt with how self-cherishing ties itself in knots to cherish a real me that doesn’t even exist. This gives rise to all our problems, misfortunes and painful experiences.

How?

We all seem to have loads of problems all the time which obstruct our happiness. But what is a problem? What is our problem?!

Here’s just a mini illustration. Flying back from San Francisco late the other night, I tottered tiredly to the back of the plane to use the restroom and then entirely forgot where I was sitting – I thought it was 32E (like my previous flight) when in fact it was 28E. (I am a little directionally challenged at the best of times – once, while visiting a friend in his semi-detached house on a long street in South London, I went off to get his kids some sweets. I forgot to note his house number and spent the rest of the morning spying through every letter box in the neighborhood …) So I was peering through the gloom into Row 32, wondering who could have stolen my bag and who this stranger was with his feet up on my seat, and then looking down all the rows in the vicinity of 32, when I noticed that some of the other passengers were looking at me as if I was a mad woman. I felt self-conscious for a moment there, wondering what they were thinking. Later, safely back in seat 28E, the following thought occurred to me:  If someone looks at me in a funny way and I get embarrassed or unhappy, where’s the problem? I could reply: “Well, this is a horrible situation as they’re looking at me in a funny way. The atmosphere is really weird. I need to get out of here.” (Usually not an option at 37,000 feet). Generally we think the problem is out there. But if we check, our actual problem is the agitation in our mind. If I don’t care how they are looking at me, if I stay peaceful, I have no problem.

So where is that agitation coming from? I might still conclude, “Well, they’re making me agitated.” They’re not making me agitated, actually. No one can make me agitated unless I let them. If we can control our minds and stay peaceful, we’re not agitated, and we have no problem. They’re not causing our problem, we are.

Specifically, we become agitated and lose our happiness due to some unpeaceful, disturbed, uncontrolled state of mind. We call these in Buddhism, “delusions”. For example, any agitation in this case could be coming from attachment. We are very attached to our feelings, we want to feel good all the time, we don’t like people offending us, we’re attached to our reputation, we want people to like us, we have strong attachment to the way we think things should be. So maybe it’s coming from attachment. Or maybe it’s coming from aversion — we don’t like that person, they feel threatening to our happiness or sense of self in some way. Our mind is troubled because we have the unpeaceful, uncontrolled mind of anger.

Losing our freedom

This attachment or anger is coming only from our self-cherishing. Geshe Kelsang says in Transform Your Life:

We often feel that it is someone else who is making us unhappy, and we can become quite resentful. If we look at the situation carefully, however, we shall find that it is always our own mental attitude that is responsible for our unhappiness. Another person’s actions make us unhappy only if we allow them to stimulate a negative response in us. Criticism, for example, has no power from its own side to hurt us. We are hurt only because of our self-cherishing. With self-cherishing, we are so dependent on the opinions and the approval of others that we lose our freedom to respond and act in the most constructive way.

We think things like, “He’s really upset me. I’m the victim here.” And in doing so we disempower ourselves, disengage from others, and thus lose the freedom to respond with patience, for example, or loving-kindness, or generosity.

Buddha’s answer in a nutshell

So, our happiness is constantly interrupted by problems, misfortunes and painful experiences. These come from our delusions; our delusions come from our self-cherishing; and, as explained in this article, our self-cherishing comes from thinking that our me is the only real me, namely self-grasping ignorance. (More on the dynamic of these two ego-minds in the next article.)

Start small

Clearly, we will not be able to remain happy in big horrible situations unless we practice first with mild examples like the one above. We can start to overcome our self-cherishing and other delusions gradually, starting with situations that we can transform, and working our way up to more challenging problems.

Over to you: Do you have any personal examples of restoring your happiness by overcoming a delusion?

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Surfing life’s waves

SurfingMonkNKTimage

The other day I saw a little dude with his surfboard looking disappointedly at the ocean – it was clearly his first day of vacation and his parents perhaps hadn’t warned him that the Gulf of Mexico is not known for its waves.

Lojong or mind-training practitioners are also a little disappointed when everything goes too smoothly because they have no exciting challenges to harness and transform into positive outcomes.

Transforming a sickness

My mother asked me how I found enough material to write about on my blog and, to give her an example of no shortage of subject matter when it came to applying meditation to daily life, I said I would write about my brother T as we had just been talking about him. Thanks for your permission, T, it is for a good cause ;-) (This is not the brother of this article, but after this I’ve run out of brothers to write about).

new life

T started life as a 7 pound baby and then a skinny boy. But by the time he reached his teens, he was starting to pack on the pounds, and he loved his food. He was also a brilliant and disciplined athlete who captained a whole bunch of school teams, scored 100 runs at Lords Cricket ground, can run fast, and is as strong as an ox (he can lift up my mother and me at the same time). But plump, and getting more so by the year. His Facebook picture is the Michelin man. I gave him the XXXL waistcoat (US vest) for Xmas and it barely zipped up around his big tum.

Early this year he was diagnosed with diabetes. My mother didn’t bother telling me for a month or so and, when she did get around to it, she sounded oddly cheerful. She even chuckled. I know she loves her first-born child, so what was that about?! Turns out it was because the apple of her eye is happy about his diagnosis! It has cheered him right up! I kid you not. He now says that he has to lose weight or die, and he is really relishing the incentive. He says having diabetes is making him lose the weight he could never have lost otherwise, it has given him the will power, and now he’ll live long and healthy and thin.

To give you some context here… people’ve been trying for YEARS, make that decades, to encourage him to lose weight. His two young daughters, his family, friends, his grandmother, everyone has veered between the extremes of nagging him and giving up and pretending the problem is not there. Naturally he has not been fond of all the interference and judgment, and in any case it didn’t make the blindest difference. His wife alone — who is so slim she disappears if you look at her sideways — accepted him the size he is. But the rest of us….

I saw him in the summer. He is a new person. At Xmas he was tired and listless and not as happy as he used to be. But the sparkle in his eyes is back, his energy levels are high, he is happy and engaging, and he has already lost 4 stone (56 pounds). His attitude to food has changed — he ate far less at lunch, for example, and didn’t seem to mind. He says he feels healthier than he has done in years. He intends to lick the disease through diet. If you saw what he ate before and how much, such bad habits over such a long period of time, you’d know what a huge step forward this is. And he can now fit into my Xmas gift with room to spare.

I complimented him on his discipline but he waved it off: “I’m not disciplined, I just had to do it. This was the greatest incentive.”

Suffering has good qualities

This is proof that diabetes is not inherently bad. You can’t call something inherently bad if it it is possible to transform it into something helpful. From a Buddhist point of view, we try to transform all our adversities into the spiritual path through renunciation (aiming for lasting freedom and happiness), compassion, bodhichitta (aiming for others  to have lasting freedom and happiness), wisdom… There is no such thing as a problem that cannot be solved with these methods. As Shantideva says:

Moreover, suffering has many good qualities.
Through experiencing it, we can dispel pride,
Develop compassion for those trapped in samsara,
Abandon non-virtue, and delight in virtue.

If we really in our heart of hearts know that suffering has good qualities and offers us unprecedented opportunities, as T spontaneously understands about his serious illness, would we not decide to make use of it, and slowly but surely take delight in doing so? As mentioned, ancient Kadampas would look forward to difficulties – they were almost disappointed when things were going their way (although we don’t need to worry, there are ways to transform good things too…;-) We can know for sure that it is possible to transform whatever difficulty arises into a solution, and then find out the best way to do that in each case – eventually it’ll become a habit. (If you want, you can start by picking up one of the Lojong or mind-training books – Eight Steps to Happiness or Universal Compassion for example. It’s all explained in there.) Like my brother T, we’ll end up healthier and happier and with thinner delusions.

Something needs to click

When we realize things with the force of certainty, it can be far easier for our behavior to change as we are no longer negotiating with ourselves over every detail or meal. It is as if T was sabotaging himself before — he knew he was eating badly and he didn’t feel good about it all, but even if he lost weight each January (due to his once-yearly diet) there was the swing back due to attachment, lack of conviction, or whatever. And he was able to live in denial.

We all have to overcome our self-sabotage, attachment and denial of what’s going on, and it is not always easy. We know on one level that we’re going to get old and sick and dead, and that this should be incentive enough to practice being positive all the time and prepare for the inevitable; but on another level we deny these things, ‘Oh, it won’t be that bad!’ Or we even romanticize them: ‘It’ll be cozy, I can wear my PJs and slippers all day, and then I’ll have a peaceful death. Maybe I’ll do Botox and look even better!’ But when the doctor was telling T directly that he’d have to shape up or face the consequences, something must have clicked. We all could do with those click moments. That is what meditation is for. These are realizations. Better to have them before we get too old, sick or dead to do anything about our bad habits.

I find this a great example of surfing life’s waves:

It’s your turn: If you have any examples of transforming adversity to share, please leave them in the comment box below, I’d love to hear them. Please share this article if you like it.

Master Potter ~ how blessings can help

dry seeds 2

“Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, when one only remembers to turn on the light.” ~ Albus Dumbledore, Prisoner of Azkaban

Making spiritual progress

dry seeds

In terms of making progress in our meditations and training our mind, what a difference blessings make! Without the water of blessings, our potentials for realizations are said to be like dry seeds that cannot sprout nor grow into a crop of experience. We can push as much as we like at meditation and other spiritual practices, but results will be slow and, quite likely, torturous if we are relying only on our own unblessed minds.

Once upon a time there was an old man called Mr. Donn, who attended classes at Geshe Kelsang’s first Centre, Madhyamaka Centre, right from the beginning. He had been the principal of the art college there in York, and he told us this story one day to illustrate the need for blessings. He was scheduled to visit some student sculptors to survey their work, but when he arrived, a whole two weeks after they’d started, they were still trying to knead the clay into something malleable enough to sculpt! But it was tough and dry and, try as they might, they could get not joy from the task. “Did no one tell you to add this liquid?”, he asked them in surprise. When they shook their heads, he produced a bottle, poured it over the clay, and then magically kneaded it and sculpted it into a beautiful vase. I’ll always remember how Mr. Donn likened that magical liquid that enables us to create whatever we want from the (otherwise intractable) clay to blessings that enable us to create whatever we want from our (otherwise intractable) minds. 

Downloading realizations

As mentioned, the traditional analogy for receiving blessings is watering dry seeds, without which they cannot grow, even in a fertilized ground (analogous to a mind rich in merit or good karma) that is free from stone-like obstructions (analogous to a purified mind). You can check out the preliminary practices section in Eight Steps to Happiness for more on creating merit and purifying the mind, now available as an eBook too. 

In his Medicine Buddha teachings in 2004, Geshe Kelsang said:

“Just pushing in meditation or contemplation, reading books, understanding or studying, these things alone are not good enough because we need to receive blessings from enlightened beings.”

For a 21st century analogy, Kadampa dad likes to talk about “downloading realizations” from our Spiritual Guide! Why not do it if we can, it certainly makes our spiritual practice and path far more effortless and enjoyable. Maybe he can explain more in the comments. 

Everyone is blessed

Even when we don’t try, we receive blessings, because that is a Buddha’s function or job. In his Medicine Buddha teachings in 2004, my teacher said:

We always want to be peaceful and happy. We try to keep our mind peaceful, but it doesn’t work. Generally we say “I should be happy!”, but in reality just wanting to be happy is not enough, happiness is not coming! But sometimes, without any reason, our mind is naturally peaceful, calm, and happy. Where does this come from? Through receiving the blessings of enlightened beings. Even animals such as dogs have this experience. Even when sometimes we go to sleep in anger or unhappiness, in the morning we can wake up peaceful and calm — we’ve changed.

As Shantideva says in the beginning of Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Buddha’s blessings are like lightning during a dark night, quickly illuminating the environment and so forth. Similarly, Buddha’s blessings suddenly illuminate our mind with positivity, peace, and calm. At that time we are happy.

As Robert Thomas suggests on Facebook (again rather beautifully): “I was thinking about the definition of a blessing being that which transforms the mind from a negative to a positive state and it occurred to me that blessings come in the guise of many forms. Of course there’s the classic invisible un-seen magical intervention, but often a blessing is felt or transmitted by our friends and family – it can be something they say or do, or just their constant love, perhaps a kind look in the eyes of a stranger, a sunset, a gentle breeze on a hot day. There are so many ways that Buddhas find to bestow their blessings – they come in many forms, in many ways and many places and pervade everything! Ha – i’d never thought of it like that before …”

If we do try, we can tune in and receive special blessings day and night. If “at that time we are happy”, then it follows we can be happy day and night! So, that’s another reason why making spiritual progress is accompanied by increasing happiness.

For the previous articles on this subject, see What are blessings?, Blissings and Blessings are not that mysterious.

Your turn: please share your understanding or experience in the comments box below :-)

Blissings

drop in an ocean

Answering the question “What exactly are blessings?” on Facebook, Robert Thomas wrote beautifully: “It’s that moment you feel the weight lift off your heart and you can’t say why (because nothing ‘out there’ really changed) but suddenly you see a way through a problem or a pain and you start to feel “It’s going to be ok”, and you know just what needs to be done. It’s also that moment where something you never understood suddenly makes sense. Or you see a thing you thought you knew in a whole new light, in a deeper way. Particularly with respect to Buddha’s teachings, but even everyday problems like solving something to keep your job! It’s also where you suddenly see into another person’s heart and ‘soul’ where all the barriers and differences between you and me or yours and mine dissolve. And you feel strong enough and inspired enough to do anything it takes for that or those other ones to feel real lasting joy. And so much more – like seeing and feeling an underlying purity and perfection in even the most terrible thing, and knowing that’s the real truth of everything. It’s being inspired, it’s finding a strength and patience and calm you never could imagine you might have. And and …. :-)) I think some people might call it grace. It’s a gift, it’s a blessing!”

Drop in an ocean. Ocean in a drop

I am carrying this on from a previous article, What are blessings? As mentioned then, whatever our spiritual background, providing we have some faith we can tune into blessings whenever we want. Our mind, like a drop of water, can dissolve into the mind of all enlightened beings, which is like a boundless blissful ocean. The drop is then pervaded by the ocean.

Taste reality

We can taste reality because we have never, ever, been separated from it. It is only our ignorance grasping at ourselves and everything else being independent, limited and ordinary, and the dualistic appearances we project, which are obscuring reality. Let them go for a moment through faith in the infinitely more powerful pervasive omniscient wisdom of holy beings, and anything can happen. Yes, I do believe that faith can move mountains. Mountains are mere appearance to mind like everything else.

The role of a Spiritual Guide

This is one big reason why in Buddhism the practice of relying on the Spiritual Guide is considered so very effective and important, because, due to our karmic connection, he or she is an obvious (to us) window open to receiving the blessings of all Buddhas at any given moment. (“Buddha” means “enlightened being”: anyone who has removed all ignorance and mistaken appearances from their mind permanently is a Buddha). If we consider our Spiritual Guide as the same nature as all the Buddhas, possessing their omniscient wisdom and bliss (pretty much disregarding how he or she may be appearing superficially to our temporary, mistaken minds), the Buddhas can effortlessly bless our minds through our karmic and faithful connection with him or her. Right now, NPR or some other station are beaming radio waves into your room, they’re dancing all around you. Are you picking them up? That depends on whether your radio receiver is switched on. Faith is like that radio receiver.

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang puts it:

“Because right now our mind is obstructed by the darkness of ignorance, we have no opportunity to communicate with enlightened beings directly. However, we will receive the blessings of enlightened beings through our Spiritual Guide.” ~ Teachings in Singapore 2007

Watering seeds of happiness

“Meditation” in Tibetan is “gom”, which literally means familiarity, and refers to familiarizing ourselves with positive thoughts, insights, feelings and so on. According to Buddhism, we take responsibility for training our minds in meditation, which we can do both on our meditation seat and around and about in our daily lives. Traditionally, meditation is said to be like sowing seeds, and receiving Buddha’s blessings is like watering those seeds so that the crops of spiritual realizations grow. Geshe Kelsang says:

“We know that in the summertime, through the sun shining on the snow mountain, water flows down. Similarly if we, from our side, shine the sun of our faith on the snow mountain of our Spiritual Guide, then from his or her side the water of blessings will flow down upon us continually. Through this we can easily make progress in our spiritual training, we can easily fulfil our spiritual wishes, and we can make our human life really meaningful.” ~ Teachings in Singapore 2007

Ask and you shall receive. As Genevieve Mancini puts it: “When I ask Geshe-la for blessings, my mind becomes happy.”

I believe mystics and the faithful in all spiritual traditions have had access to that window or snow mountain, one way or another, my grandfather certainly did, only he didn’t know how to access it on his own. So he and I talked about how he could do that through belief and faith, and he was very interested. It turned out to be my last long private conversation with him, so I might never know if he tried it or not.

Blessings are not that mysterious, it seems to me. More coming in the next article…

Please comment in the box below, and share this article if you like it.

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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.)

Five ways to deal with criticism, part 3

criticism 4

This is the final installment. For the first two installments, see Five ways to deal with criticism and Five ways to deal with criticism, part 2.

How about us criticizing others?

Most of you agreed that it is best avoided. This is because our criticism can hurt others and is often not that helpful. If we can’t take it (and even if we can), perhaps we need to avoid giving it, unless we are quite sure of our motivation :-) As Nicola Bear Davis said on Facebook: “I know how I feel when I’m criticized, so if tables are turned I will advise someone with enthusiasm and compassion.” We have to know who we are talking to and be free from delusions such as aversion or pride.

If you have some belief in karma, it’s worth remembering that harsh words (motivated by delusion) are one of the ten non-virtuous actions identified by Buddha Shakyamuni as being karmic pathways to immense future suffering. As Jas Varmana put it: “Minds being paths, do we choose the malicious speech path to suffering realms, or the loving-kindness path to higher rebirth? (Both when giving and receiving criticism?)”

A good time to remember karma is when we are on the the receiving end of hurtful criticism — we wouldn’t be hearing this if we hadn’t created the causes through previous criticism of our own. Time to catch the ping pong ball; it stops here.

Cindy Corey said: “I think most of us don’t quite have the skill or non-attachment that would allow non-harmful criticism. I would almost define criticism as trying to use negative feedback to get someone to do something our way and that’s a failure — as people are different and why should people do things our way? I was just doing some reading today with regards to happiness and better relationships and criticism was certainly in the list of 7 deadly habits that create more problems and unhappiness. I think we can help people see or discover what is not working for them through caring and encouraging dialogue, but our interior dialogue is so negative already that I don’t think judgments from others are helpful. In the end, what is important is the intention — to help someone or control them?” Eileen Quinn agrees: “Motivation is key, isn’t it? If someone is criticizing you through irritation/dislike/anger, you will be more likely to put up walls/dig your heels in/get angry etc. I remember a key incident now when this happened to me a few years ago, I didn’t react positively, well more with bemusement than anything, but then the criticizer’s words did seem to me to be from a position of personal dislike and irritation.” Maria Tonella chipped in: “How can you say ‘I don´t like the way you are doing something’ without hurting any feelings…?”

Most of us prefer criticism of us to be indirect (ideally prefaced by some praise?!), but some brave souls do prefer brutal honesty. JB Christy said: “I wish I would get more honest feedback. Mostly people seem to just stop talking to me rather than speaking honestly about what’s going on for them. If they’d talk to me I’d have a chance of doing better. As it is I have to guess what happened. I’m apparently a terrible guesser.” Eileen agreed: “I deal best with directness. If someone is indirect with me I can tell they’re ‘beating around the bush’ and find that kind of frustrating. I would rather someone honestly and straightforwardly said something to me.”

So, if we do decide we really must go ahead and give those invaluable words of advice out of a pure motivation, it seems we need the skill to know whom we are speaking to as well – some people might be okay with the direct approach, but others would prefer us to beat about the bush, giving constructive comments in an accepting context.

Follow the beautiful advice of the ancient Kadampas

The ancient Kadampas were experts when it came to criticism, flourishing on it as the peacock flourishes on hemlock. And luckily all their advice has survived to this day.

As Neil Toyota pointed out: “Remember Langri Tangpa’s Eight Verses of Training the Mind in Geshe-la’s Eight Steps to Happiness, which includes liberating methods to deal with criticism and view/cherish all living beings as spiritual guides.” Wong Tho Kong agreed: “All Vajrana Buddhism practices the Eight Verses of Training the Mind. Criticism is a welcome teacher. It depends on how much you are ready to let go.” And as Isabel Golla reminded us: “Remember Atisha’s advice: praise binds us to samsara so in order to overcome pride we don’t hold on to praise and instead practice non-attachment to reputation.”

Atisha and Geshe Langri Tangpa were old Kadampas and fully realized Lojong (training the mind) practitioners. I love reciting Eight Verses of Training the Mind regularly, including the verse:

When others out of jealousy
Harm me or insult me,
May I take defeat upon myself
And offer them the victory.

The Lojong teachings on exchanging self with others are probably the most powerful methods in existence for helping us to accept and even enjoy criticism, and thereby make rapid spiritual progress.

The emptiness of the self we normally see

When we are criticized it is a great time to check and see how our understanding of emptiness is doing — how sharp still is the pain of self-grasping? If we are still becoming angry or anxious in these situations, and blaming the other person and trying to get free from them, we can make a mental note that we need to improve our understanding of the object emptiness. These are signs that although we may have an intellectual understanding of emptiness we are not meditating on it.

The emptiness of the self we normally see every day is what we are trying to meditate on and realize. Being criticized gives us an enjoyable challenge — the bigger or closer the target, “How dare they criticize ME!!”, the easier and more fun it is to knock it down, and the deeper the understanding of emptiness and resultant joy. We can therefore use specific difficult situations that cause this inherently existent self to appear strongly to deepen our understanding of its utter non-existence. I find this the most blissful and liberating method of all, and it means no criticism (or problem) need ever go to waste!

Summary: Five ways to deal with criticism

To summarize what everyone has been saying:

(1) Ask yourself, “Is it true or not?” Follow Geshe Kelsang’s advice above.

(2) Identify with your pure potential, not your faults, and then you can accept and use criticism without feeling bad about yourself.

(3) Follow the beautiful advice of the ancient Kadampas, who were the experts.

(4) Use criticism to realize the non-existence of the self we normally grasp at, and destroy all your delusions once and for all.

And last but not least …

(5) Avoid criticizing others unless you really have to!

Your comments are welcome on any of these three criticism articles, and please share and rate (press the stars on) the articles if you find them helpful. Thank you.

Five ways to deal with criticism, part 2

This continues on from Five ways to deal with criticism.

How to deal with criticism and overcome our faults without feeling guilty or inadequate

If we have any self-cherishing, criticism will probably sting us to a greater or lesser extent. As Christopher Penny put it: “It depends on how high my self-cherishing dial is turned up!” But if we are cherishing others and also if we have a strong wish to improve, the criticism will not upset our mind, as Geshe Kelsang’s comments above indicate.

Self-confidence can handle criticism, whereas deluded pride (and/or feelings of unworthiness) cannot. (Check out the chapter on effort in the book Meaningful to Behold for the difference between these states of mind.)

Michael Hume said: “I hope I can develop to the point of taking direct comments as this is a much more powerful way to improve. We all need to know our faults, so anyone who criticises with any intention is in fact being very kind.” Rosanne Brancatelli added: “When we have love and compassion (even a little) it doesn’t sound like a criticism, it sounds more like an advice. If we have the determination to become a better human being (as the listener), we are more open to advice.” Someone else (sorry, lost your name!) put it this way: “I suppose the very strong Dharma practitioner would react positively and constructively no matter what the criticism seemed to be coming from, and that is a goal to keep in mind. Being objective in reaction as well, keeping the ego out of it — is it true? Yes — then change it. Is it not? Well don’t worry then! Just maybe try to calm the upset or pain of the criticiser.”

Venerable Atisha

The ancient Kadampas used to enjoy being criticized as it helped them see their faults more clearly. They aimed at getting to the point where they actively loved criticism, especially from their Spiritual Guide, as it was a direct assault on their worst enemy, self-cherishing. Seen in that light, we are in it together with our Spiritual Guides, teachers and friends when they criticize our limited, faulty, samsaric self because we agree with them that it has to go!

Over the years, I’ve gotten better and better at taking criticism from others, especially from my Spiritual Guide :-) I know when my teacher seems to disapprove that he is relating to my pure potential and not to my faults – it is as if he and the pure blissful actual me of my Buddha nature are ganging up on the limited faulty samsaric fake me apprehended by my self-grasping and self-cherishing. “She’s got to go”, we both agree.

It is incredibly helpful to have help from holy beings when identifying and overcoming our faults. If we can mix our mind with theirs, we can look at ourself from within that wide-open accepting and loving perspective. This is the best place to work on ourselves as it guarantees we will not identify with our faults and feel inadequate, unworthy or guilty.

This only works if we are clear on the difference between our pure potential and the limited, faulty self we identify with when we have any delusions. Clearly we don’t want to end up hating ourselves; that would be entirely missing the point.

Kelsang Chogma describes it well: “I think if we can stop identifying with our faults, then we can take criticism from others and it also stops us from feeling discouraged and overwhelmed when we notice our faults ourself. I think there’s a strong relationship between these two. If we feel that we are an inherently faulty, deluded, impure, degenerate person then we don’t like it when others can see this too. If we contemplate how we are not our delusions, this helps. Then we can honestly say, “yes I have faults and I’m trying to do something about them”. That’s what I’ve found helpful anyway.”

Wrathful blessings

The wrathful blessings of the Spiritual Guide were always considered to be the most powerful for removing obstructions from the mind. There are four so-called “siddhis” or attainments possessed by holy beings. Nowadays, our Spiritual Guide generally has to rely on the first three — peaceful, increasing and occasionally controlling attainments — for if he displays wrath, the chances are we’ll run a mile! Our Spiritual Guides would never get away with actually beating us as they did in the old days, when the old Mahasiddhas would view it as Yamantaka’s hand (see Great Treasury of Merit page 94)! But, occasionally, if we’re lucky, our Spiritual Guide may be pretty direct with us; and during these times we have an unprecedented opportunity to cleanse our negativities and change quickly for the better.

Maria Tonella agreed: “What about when you don’t even know you are doing something bad? Or you have incorrect instructions? Or when your Teacher points you out something you should change for the better..?” Jas Varmana said: “Yes, I was thinking how my teacher can be sharply critical but so clearly wants you to live up to your potential that it’s empowering rather than hurtful.”

The point is, if our Spiritual Guide criticizes us, it usually is for a good reason as he or she has no wish to make us feel bad just for the heck of it. He or she can help us face up to faults that we never knew we had and get rid of them. Certainly this has been true in my case.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread…

Sometimes we may be tempted to jump on the moral bandwagon when we see a peer being criticized or demoted by the powers that be, including our teachers, and decide it is okay for us to lay into them too! (This happens in all human societies, even in Buddhist ones, and I reckon it is often due to our own feelings of inadequacy and schadenfreude.) But the truth is that if we don’t actually possess any wrathful siddhis, we might not want to emulate our teachers in this respect ;-) Wrath is motivated by compassion alone; it possesses no trace of anger or pride. It’s important to have worked our way up through peaceful, increasing and controlling siddhis first! In fact, really it is safest to stick to entirely peaceful methods unless we can be absolutely sure we know what we are doing… Always be kind, not judgmental, is the Kadampa way. Related to that… (this article will be finished in part 3, coming shortly, and including us (not) criticizing others, the advice of the Kadampas, and emptiness….)

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