Everything is relative

8 mins read.

This pandemic has been driving people crazy, and not least because we’re not able to move about much and let go of grasping at the place we’re in, so it feels real or absolute.

Continuing from this article, Perspective is everything. 

Back up that mountain …

It can be helpful to get in a car if you have access to one, drive to a trailhead, walk up a mountain, and look back at your now-tiny city. However, to change our perspective it is not necessary to physically GO up a hill; which is just as well if you’re still in lockdown or live in Florida. Nothing is really out there — everything is a dream-like projection of our mind. There is no real coming and going and we can travel up a mountain in our mind if we want to. 

No coming and going

Clouds (and rainbows) only appear in the sky due to a bunch of atmospheric causes and conditions coming together – clouds are not these causes and conditions, but take any one of them away and the clouds cannot form. Clouds therefore have no power to exist on their own, in and of themselves, self-contained, from their own side. They exist only in relation to other things, indeed AS relation to other things. Talking about the emptiness of the so-called “eight extremes”, which includes coming and going, Geshe Kelsang says:

The same is true for mountains, planets, bodies, minds, and all other produced phenomena. Because they depend on factors outside themselves for their existence, they are empty of inherent or independent existence and are mere imputations of the mind. ~ Modern Buddhism

Geshe Kelsang has said that things “barely exist”. Although they appear and function, they are no more substantial than objects that appear and function in a dream. That includes mountains! And Denver! And my body! And me! 

So instead of having to go to places and return from places, we can realize that everything is simply popping up in our mind due to multiple causes and conditions – not the least of which is our karma or previous mental intentions.

Whenever we go anywhere we develop the thought, “I am going,” and grasp at an inherently existent act of going. In a similar way, when someone comes to visit us we think, “they are coming,” and we grasp at an inherently existent act of coming…. However, the coming and going of people is like the appearance and disappearance of a rainbow in the sky. When the causes and conditions for a rainbow to appear are assembled, a rainbow appears; and when the causes and conditions for the continued appearance of the rainbow disperse, the rainbow disappears; but the rainbow does not come anywhere, nor does it go anywhere.

We seem to be moving around all the time — walking our legs, waving our arms — everything is constantly coming and going. Or is it?! When we drive along in a car, are we really moving? Or are the rapidly changing scenes and other sensory experiences simply unfurling moment by moment as mere appearances of mind in dependence upon causes and conditions, including ripening karmic seeds?! Space and time are relative, as Albert Einstein would say. 

Why does this matter, you may be wondering? Because if things are relative or dependent-related, we can disappear them by changing our viewpoint or mental angle. If the observer moves, the rainbow moves or disappears. For example, if we view someone who is unkind to us as a kind teacher of something we need to learn, (s)he is no longer an enemy but a friend.

If things are absolute, that is, not dependent on other things, then they are fixed and therefore there is nothing we can do to change them. Also, there is a real or absolute me over here and a real or absolute world over there and never the twain shall meet. With self-grasping ignorance there is necessarily a gap between me and everything else, which turns out to be quite exhausting because we tend to relate to that world with delusions, such as the pull of attachment or the push of aversion. As Gen-la Dekyong said the other day:

Stop tinkering with this impure world. We don’t have time! There is nothing we can do externally to change it.

Where is the center of everything?

Related to this, another thing I find helpful to contemplate from a mountain rock is how each of the millions of people moving about in the city below feels themselves to be the center of it. Wherever they are, wherever they go, everything seems to be revolving around that fixed or moving point. And when I am in the city, it’s the same for me – everything is revolving around me. If I am driving down Sixth Avenue, for example, Denver seems to exist in a centrifugal ring around me; and that illusion persists even if I turn down another street.

Even if we are motivated to help others, while we remain with self-grasping ignorance we naturally have the sense that the world revolves around us. That is how it appears and we assent to that appearance. However, how can a real world be revolving around me and around you and around everyone else at the same time?!

Each one of us Denverites is only one of, say, two million, if we count only the humans. (Though right now there’s a strong argument for also counting the six kittens who are running around my feet like crazy people). From a distance, it’s particularly absurd to say that any one of those two million+ living beings is central, that the city revolves around any one of them, including me. And when I am back in the city, I can remember that – I am just one of millions, no more central than anyone else. We are all equal. We all equally exist only in dependence upon each other, like cells in the body of life. We are indisputably nothing without others.

This was almost literally a “this mountain that mountain” enactment – I drove down the mountain of self and up the mountain of other. Looking back at my previous self and everything to do with that self, I got it into perspective. 

There is only one way to free ourselves and that is to get over ourselves. In truth there is no real or most important me to cherish because that self we normally see doesn’t exist. The more often we dissolve it away by looking for and not finding it, the better. This is emptiness or selflessness. As someone said on Facebook today:  

No self, nothing to cherish. This is so obvious so why doesn’t it permeate my entire being, providing constant peace? More time on the cushion for me till a stable realisation is attained.

Taking this perspective back down the mountain

We need a sense of proportion because it makes it a lot easier to help without becoming overwhelmed and burning out. Because of course there is horrible suffering in Denver – people are freezing sometimes even to death on the streets, a pandemic is raging, businesses are shuttered, and pretty much every single person you talk to has problems of one sort or another. Including me. But with a large viewpoint we don’t get so overpowered. Seeing the big picture, we can develop the big minds – universal love and the compassion that wants everyone to be free not just from today’s problems but from all their problems forever.

Sooner or later we have to get back down off that mountain! (Unless you are on retreat in a snowy cave. Tempting.) With those big minds, we can return to the middle of the city and help in practical ways. The bigger our mind, the smaller our problems, and the more capacity we have to serve others.

If we find we’re getting overwhelmed, it’s worth pointing out that our mind doesn’t have to get off the mountain. We don’t even have to physically go up a mountain in the first place! That’s what meditation is for, gaining perspective, seeing the relativity of all things. And everyone can learn to do this – regardless of where we happen to be living at the moment, or whether or not we have a car. There is truthfully far more space inside all of us than outside. We can close our eyes, do a bit of breathing meditation to get into our heart, contemplate the space in and around everything, and then get back to work. 

Whether or not we understand selflessness and dependent relationship perfectly yet, one immediate thing we can do is appreciate the people around us for giving us the opportunity to practice improving ourselves and helping others, in both obvious and less obvious ways. Given that nothing (including all living beings) exists in any absolute fixed way but is entirely relative and the nature of our mind, we can set ourselves up in relationship with others however we decide; and perhaps the best way to relate to them is in the aspect of kindness. From seeming almost inanimate at times, everyone springs to life when we think about their kindness to us; and Buddhism gives us so many different practical ways to do that. 

A mountain in the city

Last but not least, our Buddhist meditation centers in Denver and elsewhere will hopefully be opening up again before too long to provide a physical get-away for this kind of teaching and reflection. For example, a friend who now lives in Colorado was talking about KMC London in Kensington the other day: “That place itself is an oasis and, if we did something similar here, people would get the top of the mountain feel in the city.”

Thank you for reading! Would love to see your feedback and comments below.

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Perspective is everything

7.5 mins read.

One advantage of living in a mountainous region is that you can walk up a mountain and look back at the huge city in which you live. And now it’s tiny. You can hold it in the palm of your hand. You can hold everyone in it in the palm of your hand. You can hold all their innumerable problems in the palm of your hand. I did that today. I instantly felt a weight off.

Denver is tiny from the distance. And it is also hundreds of miles from the next large city, so it is a tiny city surrounded by a vast expanse of largely empty land. I was picturing all the huge cities criss-crossing the globe, all even tinier than Denver from where I was looking.

It’s really good to get out of our lives from time to time. When we get some distance, we can see how much we have been investing in what seems so real. When we’re all wrapped up in it, there seems to be such a real solid city full of real worrying problems – loads of problems, far more problems than there are people. Even my teeny-tiny house that I can’t even begin to see from here, or the teeny tiny building where I work, or the even teeny tinier co-workers, can and sometimes do preoccupy me fully. There seem to be endless things that need sorting out when we are right in the thick of it, surrounded in all directions. But when we get out of that perspective and get some space, we can see that we have been too caught up in the details and we are all in our feelings, as a wise friend of mine talks about here

  

Space solves problems

An old friend, the first administrative director at Geshe Kelsang’s first Centre (Madhyamaka Centre in North Yorkshire), would make sure he walked up the hill behind it at least once a week. This way he could see it in the distance and put his job and life back into perspective, as well as appreciate the beauty of the building again. This created space in his mind such that he could recalibrate his motivation and get back to work happily without grasping at it so tightly.

Nothing is as solid, real, or even important as it seems when we are all completely caught up in it with no space, our moods going up and down like a yo yo depending on the slightest vagaries or off-handed comments:

Such fluctuations of mood arise because we are too closely involved in the external situation. We are like a child making a sandcastle who is excited when it is first made, but who becomes upset when it is destroyed by the incoming tide. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Vasten the mind

Buddha encourages us to aim for large spacious universal minds, such as love for all beings without exception and omniscient wisdom!

We can come to understand that everything is mere appearance arising in the mind like a rainbow in an empty sky. In the Isolated Body chapter of Tantric Grounds and Paths, Geshe Kelsang helps us with this: 

Whenever a form appears to us, we need complete conviction that this form is a manifestation of emptiness, and that, apart from its emptiness, there is no form existing from its own side.

He gives the example of a wristwatch:

We can hold a wristwatch in our hands but, if we examine it more closely to find the “real” watch, we cannot find anything at all. When we try to point to the watch, all we can ever point to are parts of the watch. The parts of the watch are not the watch itself, but, besides these parts, there is no watch.

You can try this for yourself – imagine the parts of the watch disappear. What happens to the watch?

By the way, from a distance, as I said, we can also hold Denver in our hands. And the same applies as for the watch – if we examine it more closely to find the “real” Denver, we cannot find anything at all. As Geshe-la says:

This very unfindability is the real nature of the watch…. The real nature of the watch is just its emptiness, but this very emptiness appears to us in the aspect of a watch.

Same for Denver and for wherever you live.

Holding Denver and its innumerable problems in the palm of my hand gives me that sense that they are empty, that they will be easier to solve and dissolve if I realize I can’t find them anywhere.

Up the mountain looking at Denver, I couldn’t point to anything that was actually Denver. It was clear that I was just thinking or labelling “Denver” on those far-away buildings and people. Later as I drove back into the city and more and more of its parts or details appeared, it became even harder to point to anything that could be called “Denver.” Everything I pointed to was in fact NOT Denver – such as the buildings, sidewalks, pedestrians, or cars. These are just buildings, sidewalks, pedestrians and cars, not “Denver”. And if you put them all together you still have just a collection of things that are not Denver. (As explained more here.) Denver cannot be found existing in and of itself. Far from being solid or real, it is mere imputation of mind, created by conceptual thought. Which is why every person has a different Denver.

Ignorance makes us believe things and people are real and exist from their own side. That there is a fixed world outside of our mind. The illusion is persistent. Because we tend to get so overwhelmed by appearances — always have done since beginningless time — we readily believe in the truth of everything we see. But I can from time to time at least imagine that I am back up that mountain, looking at all these seemingly solid insurmountable details from afar.

What exactly is a job?

I like my job in Denver very much, but it is as unreal as the rest of Denver, nothing behind the label. Lately it’s been occurring to me a lot, what else is my job other than an opportunity to help others? Who else are my coworkers other than people giving me an opportunity to help others? Beyond that, what need is there to hold onto all this and build it up with mental elaborations as some solid findable thing? When it isn’t?

This gets me thinking that wherever we go, providing we are trying to remember a Bodhisattva’s motivation, our lives will always have areas in which we can serve others. As Nagarjuna says:

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

Given that compassion increases our opportunities to help, it seems we don’t need to get too attached to our current circumstances, however nice they are or even however helpful we feel we are able to be. For wherever we are, and whether things are going well or badly, with the right mind-set don’t we always have an opportunity to improve ourselves and help others? We don’t need to buy into being a success or a failure because it is who we are each day rather than what we do that is most important; and that is something we have control over.

If we are motivated by genuine concern for others we’re going to be doing helpful things mentally, verbally, and physically; and if we’re not, it doesn’t really matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, our help is going to be more limited. Geshe Kelsang has told me twice now:

Your main job is to practice Dharma. Everything else will follow naturally from that.

If you’re still here …

If we know that everything is merely imputed by conceptual thought, not other than its emptiness, then it is not hard to see that if we purify our thoughts, we purify our world.

AND … if we realize this true nature of all phenomena with the mind of great bliss, then we see everything not just as a manifestation of its emptiness but of great bliss and emptiness. Which gives rise to even more bliss. As Venerable Geshe-la explains about Tantric Yogis in Tantric Grounds and Paths:

Because they have a deep recognition of emptiness and their mind of bliss as the same nature, they can view all phenomena that appear to their mind as manifestations of their bliss, and this special way of looking at phenomena causes them greatly to increase their experience of bliss, just as a fire will increase if more fuel is added to it.

If you like the sound of this, do read that chapter when you get a chance. It is a very clear explanation of a Yogi’s actual experience (and of OUR actual experience one day). 

I promised someone the other day that I’d make my articles shorter and more frequent again (as opposed to longer and rarer), lol. So I’ll put the second half up soon. Meantime, over to you, I would love to hear your comments in the box below.

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Can you find anything?

Living Buddha

10 mins read.

Like a lot of people I’ve had trouble falling asleep a few times in the last year, and also like a lot of people it was probably from unwisely looking at news headlines just before heading to bed, then lying awake wondering how on earth to solve my own problems, my family and friends’ problems, the world’s problems.

Refuge

If we’re not careful, inappropriate attention kicks in – we think this is all real, we exaggerate the problems – and the next thing we know we’re in a state of anxiety, even panic. Each time, I went for refuge to Dharma and my Spiritual Guide and ended up feeling fine again. It is a question of getting the Dharma from our heads into our hearts at times like this so that we see everything entirely differently – whether through the lens of refuge, compassion, wisdom or whatever.

If we can remember refuge, that all the countless Buddhas are rooting for us and see us as already pure, already ok, already enough, we start feeling more peaceful.

In the midst of our own anxiety, if we can get past ourselves to empathize with others’ often far worse worries, already our mind starts to lighten.

Or, going deeper still, rather than wrestle with a real world that isn’t actually there, we can let the seemingly solid intractable problems dissolve away into their emptiness — their absence of intrinsic existence, their unfindability — and reboot from there.

Whatever Dharma we turn to, it’s always worth remembering what we have understood so far about the world not being fixed, static, or real. When we go for refuge in Dharma and see things differently, we are not just seeing something objectively out there in a different way so that we can somehow better cope with it. As a mere appearance or reflection in our mind, everything depends 100% upon our perspective; therefore, as soon as we change our mind, the world itself changes — just as a reflection in a lake changes along with every ripple of the water. That’s why Dharma can solve problems permanently.

One simple example: if I get upset with someone for not agreeing with me, I am holding them to be intrinsically annoying. But if I change those thoughts of annoyance into thoughts of compassion and concern for them, for example by remembering their good qualities or kindness, I may still disagree with their point of view and tell them so, but I no longer have a problem with them. 

If we can remember any Dharma at all, we can restore our equilibrium. One measurement of having trained our minds is:

One is trained if one is able to do the practice even when distracted. ~ Training the Mind in Seven Points 

If we keep wanting to help people despite our own overwhelming problems, that’s deep, that shows we have what it takes. I’ve been spending some time recently with people who are helping the unhoused and/or who are unhoused. There are some incredible stories of dedication and kindness, such as the story of Bear who helped people up to his final days despite his own serious health problems. Or the mother who is simply concerned about her children and how she is going to be able to keep home-schooling them during a pandemic when she no longer has a kitchen table. This is because she lost both her jobs in the pandemic and no longer has a kitchen. Not to mention a roof. These are two of anywhere between 600,000 and 1.5 million people estimated to be without shelter in the United States, a number that is steadily growing.

Teacher of wisdom

Talking of refuge, I want to carry on from these articles about relying on a Spiritual Guide. In the Summer Festival teachings on Advice from Atisha’s Heart, Gen-la Jampa said: 

“There’s so much suffering in this world. People need wisdom. We have so much intelligence. It seems like we could make anything, and then we just keep improving it, because we’re never satisfied. Our technology just keeps increasing. Our material development keeps increasing. But there is not a corresponding increase in human happiness. In fact, it’s the opposite. Our world is becoming more problematic, more dangerous. So this shows us something very important. We must learn from this appearance. We are intelligent people but we have used our intelligence mainly to improve material conditions and we have never fulfilled our deepest wishes for happiness and freedom — in fact, the opposite. And then a teacher of wisdom appears in our modern world, who is in the lineage of Je Tsongkhapa, Atisha, Buddha Shakyamuni – the same nature. He appears in our modern world and he gives us the instruction of Lamrim and shows us how we can integrate it into our modern busy life. He doesn’t deny our modern life. He respects us and so he gives us Dharma that we can use, that is suitable for us, acceptable, that fits with our modern way of life. We have met a teacher of wisdom, a Kadampa master of modern times, who is giving us the most precious Lamrim instructions.”He is talking about Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, who is also my Spiritual Guide. As I talk about here, our Spiritual Guide can be anyone. It doesn’t matter who they are as long as they are able to guide us along the spiritual path because they’ve been there themselves, always showing us an inspiring example of what is possible. That is our Spiritual Guide, that person. We have complete choice over that – everyone in Buddhism always chooses their own Spiritual Guide, that’s how it works.

Practicing Lamrim, which is all the stages of the path to enlightenment, is the way we can go for refuge to Dharma and solve our problems. We need to get our Lamrim instructions from someone who knows them inside out and has complete realizations of all of them. A book alone does not have that living lineage.

One’s own living Buddha

Would it be pretty amazing to have our very own living Buddha to ourselves?! Someone who wants to lead us all the way to enlightenment? Someone who looks reassuringly normal on one level — whom we can see, communicate with, and learn from directly — but who is at heart an enlightened being who comes bearing the blessings and teachings of all enlightened beings? 

What do you reckon, if a Buddha was to tap you on the shoulder right now, or appear in front of you and say “Hello!”, would you see him or her? 

In The Mirror of Dharma, Geshe Kelsang says: 

All Buddhas attained enlightenment with the sole intention of leading all living beings along the stages of the path to enlightenment through their emanations.

And the point is, all those enlightened beings are still around, everywhere, pervading reality. So, Geshe-la goes on to ask: 

Who is the emanation who is leading us along the stages of the path to enlightenment?

This is not intended to be a rhetorical question, we have to really think about who that person is. Probably we’ll conclude that the most likely candidate is: 

our present Spiritual Teacher, who is sincerely and correctly leading us along the paths of renunciation, bodhichitta, and the correct view of emptiness by giving these teachings and showing a practical example for others to follow.

Who else could it be? (Answers on a postcard.)

You have no problems! 

Human problems are not difficult to solve but people are not listening to enlightened advice.  ~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

One thing that is so interesting is how little Venerable Geshe-la buys into the details of our virtual reality of mistaken appearances. Of course he is sympathetic, but he knows that if we change our minds we can get rid not just of today’s glitches but all our sufferings; and so he simply keeps bringing us back to this. His view of us is sourced by blissful compassion and wisdom, and he is always relating to our potential and even seeing it actualized. 

In Portugal in 2009, he said he saw and respected us all as Heroes and Heroines (aka Tantric Buddhas). Which means he never gives up on any of us, never loses hope or faith in any of us, no matter what manner of calamities we think are going on in our lives. Like Marpa didn’t give up on Milarepa, even though Milarepa had murdered 30 people – and, whatever else you’ve done, I doubt you’re a mass murderer? (don’t tell me). Or like Buddha Shakyamuni didn’t give up on Angulimala or Lam Chung, or any of the other seemingly hopeless cases. Scripture abounds with these stories.  

Decades ago, when I was still a wee lass, I went to see Geshe-la with a long list of problems I really needed his help with solving. I was standing outside his room for a moment, silently remembering what these were so I could ask him, when he threw the door open, started laughing, and said, “You have no problems!”

He was right — the moment he said it I realized he was right. My list must have dissolved into emptiness because I couldn’t remember a single item on it. I started laughing too. 

I have never forgotten this and it has helped me immeasurably at all the hardest times of my life. If something is wrong, I know I can take it to any Buddha and they’ll think it is no real problem at all. It’s a relief knowing that.

Think about if this wasn’t the case. If something goes wrong in your life and Guru Tara, for example, is like, “Oh no, don’t tell me that! That’s a real catastrophe! How on earth are we going to be able to help you with THAT?! You’re doomed!” that would be somewhat discouraging, would it not. 

I am always with you

Geshe Kelsang is pretty cool, is all I’m trying to say. He has bought us centuries of wisdom, he has brought us unconditional love, he has brought us eternal hope. He is the real deal. I’ve never seen or experienced anything that indicates he is anything other than the real deal. And any of his numerous disciples would likely tell you the same thing. The more you get to know him and his teachings, the more you realize that this person is exceptional in so many ways. And utterly dedicated to us. He said not long ago “I am always with you.” And he is. 

One of the ways we can generate bodhichitta is to imagine what it will be like when we are enlightened, how we will be able to emanate as whatever people need, including teachers: 

Just as there is one moon shining in the sky whose reflections fill all the lakes and waters of the world, when I become enlightened my emanations will cover and protect every living being. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

I think that there is one Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, according to our collective karma, the one we see in person or photos etc, whose Buddhist commentaries we study on the programs. But the fact is that we all have our own Spiritual Guide. (Our own Geshe-la, if he is whom we have chosen.) Sometimes people think, “My Spiritual Guide is so far removed! He knows some of his students really well, but he doesn’t know me! There are so many of us – how can he even know I exist, let alone have enough time to pay attention to me?” 

All that is ordinary conception or view, right? So, per the moon example, have you ever had this experience … You are standing next to an ocean, the moon is shining, and the light is coming directly toward you. You turn to your neighbor two feet away and say, “Look, there is no light where you are, it is all coming directly to me. Take a look at that!” And they shake their heads, “No, you’re wrong, it is all coming toward me, the water is dark where you are.” And so on, all the way up the beach. 

Buddha’s emanations appear for us, for each of us. There are as many Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s, for example, as there are people with faith in him. If you have a different Spiritual Guide, it’s the same principle. Even if you are in a different tradition, I reckon!

Over to you! Still more to come on this subject. Meantime, though, a lot of people love stories about Geshe-la, so if you happen to have any from the past 40+ years or have heard any from others, please share them below. Alongside his far-reaching life and works, personal stories might end up being the closest we can come to a biography.

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Matters of life and death

11 mins read.

The law of entropy shows that despite all our best efforts to hold things together somehow, everything is being flung apart all the time – our relationships, our families, our friendships, our jobs, our figures, our skin, our peace, our comfort, our safety, our favorite hobbies, our passions, our life itself. None of these last.

I read this striking article on climate change the other day, and enjoyed the wisdom the author Roy Scranton has gained from his lived experience. 

“I’d been a soldier in Baghdad in 2003-2004, where I saw what happens when the texture of the everyday is ripped apart. I realized that what we call social life was like a vast and complex game, with imaginary rules we all agreed to follow, fictions we turned into fact through institutions, stories, and daily repetition. Some of the rules were old, deeply ingrained and resilient. Some were so tenuous they’d barely survive a hard wind.”

The fact of impermanence may be more obvious in war zones, refugee camps, and so on, but the texture of the everyday is being ripped apart all the time in more subtle ways as well. Things everywhere are changing fast all the time due to numerous causes and conditions, including, and especially, our intentions or karma. Everything is in fact coming in and out of existence every moment, nothing lasts for even a moment

Yikes!

When changes are so small that we cannot detect them, we call that subtle impermanence; and when changes are big enough to become apparent, that is gross impermanence. We are all subject to both. According to this article, for example, climate change is happening faster than the models predicted:

“Normal means more fires, more category 5 hurricanes, more flooding, more drought, millions upon millions more migrants fleeing famine and civil war, more crop failures, more storms, more extinctions, more record-breaking heat. Normal means the increasing likelihood of civil unrest and state collapse, of widespread agricultural failure and collapsing fisheries, of millions of people dying from thirst and hunger, of new diseases, old diseases spreading to new places and the havoc of war. Normal could well mean the end of global civilization as we know it.”

We may be extinct soon. Or we may not. I know a lot of people who don’t believe in climate change, and that is their freedom. But one way or another — climate change or no climate change — every single one of us is still going to die. The whole of samsara is a hoax.

The biggest hoax of all

“This world is definitely done, for sure,” a young friend said tonight in reply to me half-jokingly wondering if the human race would be extinct by the time he got to my age. Samsara is always done. We keep trying to make it work, but it can’t. It has never worked out for anyone. All our dreams are broken in the end. If pondering climate change gives us pause to ponder our impermanence and vulnerable position, and even develop a little healthy fear, that’s not a bad thing. It is better than pretending that everything is fine when in actual fact it is not. We all have to get our acts together.

“But sometimes those breaks are openings. Sometimes those breaks are opportunities to do things differently.”

The point is that we have an enormous part to play in creating our entire reality. Things change not only in dependence upon physical or external causes, such as recycling, but more significantly in dependence upon the internal causes of our karma. The intentions or mental actions we perform every minute of every day are continuously sowing the seeds for future experiences. You can read in Joyful Path of Good Fortune how our karma is responsible for our tendencies, our environments, our experiences, and even which world we are born into in the first place.

We can see how in our nightly dreams there seems to be an external causality — I say something to them, they say something back to me, and so on. Trees grow and people are born. But the substantial causes of the entire dream, including ourselves in the dream, are the karmic potentialities in the mind – our mind is the projector, the movie reel our karma. And this is just as true when we are awake – ripening karma results in our entire dream-like world.

Every change we experience, both individually and collectively, takes place in dependence on our karma. Until we realize this, and are in the process of mastering our minds and our actions, we remain intensely vulnerable. Our karma changes just like that. At any point we can be thrown into an entirely different situation in this life or into an entirely different life altogether. This is happening to us all the time and has been happening since beginningless time.

The fragility and transience of our collective existence

Although when we pause to think about it we can gather that things are changing all the time, our normal default is to grasp at everything as static and fixed. This is unless something like a pandemic or an article about accelerated climate change shocks us out of our comfort zone (which by the way is not that comfortable because living in denial never is.)

We live our lives as if everything is going to go on forever, instead of changing literally moment by moment in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions, including our karma. We cling onto this life as if it is our only life. We cling onto our friends as if they are our forever friends. We cling onto this body as if it is our real body. This is called permanent grasping, and we have a lot of it. Especially the sense that we are not going to die — that at some point this life will not be as over as last night’s dream, that this day could not possibly be our last! 

Larry King died last week, aged 87. Where is he now? Where did he go?! He gave 50,000 interviews in his career, which, at the time, probably felt like they were really happening. From Larry King’s point of view, where is all that now? Where has his very full life gone? If he was like anyone else, he was probably very invested in that life and believed it was the be-all and end-all of his existence: “I am Larry King and this is my life.” But now that sentient being is somewhere else entirely with zero recollection of this past life, unless he happens to have high spiritual realizations, who knows. But if he didn’t, he will have taken an uncontrolled death and now be in the intermediate state, waiting to take rebirth in a whole different life. He (or she) will have a different body, personality, job, and name. Everything that he spent 87 years building went away forever in just the time it took for him to die. All that has travelled with this sentient being is his mental continuum and the karma he created in this and previous lives, whether good or bad. 

Larry King felt like a solid person who was around for a long time, yet now he has disappeared. This is happening every day and eventually to every one. None of us can slow down the change. Within a few hundred months at most we will be dead – forced to leave this life and go to the next. The entire infrastructure of this life on which we have fully depended will dissolve away like a dream, or like virtual reality when the power is switched off. This could even happen this week, or tonight. We may feel right now like this world is the only world we have ever known, but in fact we have known countless worlds and had relationships with every single living being.

Fragile as kittens.

It is not just Larry King of course – this last year has been a massive shock for everyone:

“In March last year, watching an unknown plague stalk the land, I felt fear, but I also felt hope: the hope that this virus, as horrible as it might be, could also give us the chance to really understand and internalize the fragility and transience of our collective existence.”

It does seem that we generally have a bit more awareness of our fragility and transience than usual. And this doesn’t have to be a bad thing — it is in fact the dawning of spiritual awareness. Buddha said that of all animals it is the elephant who leaves the deepest footprint and, in a similar way, of all meditations it is meditation on death that leaves the deepest impression on our minds. Deep awareness (as opposed to a shallow intellectual understanding) of our impermanence and mortality changes us. It changes us for the better. As the author puts it:

“How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?”

Making meaningful choices

I looked at another article this author had written, and was even more inspired with how he dealt with this constant change and threat of dissolution while soldiering in Iraq:

“I found my way forward through an 18th-century Samurai manual, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s “Hagakure,” which commanded: “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.” Instead of fearing my end, I owned it. Every morning, after doing maintenance on my Humvee, I’d imagine getting blown up by an I.E.D., shot by a sniper, burned to death, run over by a tank, torn apart by dogs, captured and beheaded, and succumbing to dysentery. Then, before we rolled out through the gate, I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to worry, because I was already dead. The only thing that mattered was that I did my best to make sure everyone else came back alive. “If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead,” wrote Tsunetomo, “he gains freedom in the Way.” I got through my tour in Iraq one day at a time, meditating each morning on my inevitable end.” 

Being aware of impermanence and especially the inevitable disappearance of this world can in fact give us the freedom to change things the way we want to and become the person we want to be, including an enlightened being. I do something similar when I look back at this life from the point of view of being in my next life, as I explain here. What are the benefits of imagining that I have already died from this life and am in my next life?:

It makes me feel free to take each day as it comes, as if each day is a bonus, yet I have nothing to prove or gain because I’m already over it. I find less need to buy into each dream-like appearance or invest in the day-to-day drama because I have already left this life – the only reason for doing anything now is to keep journeying toward enlightenment and help others. There is naturally less attachment, aversion, and worldly concerns. Instead of being an avatar in a virtual reality who believes they are a real person in a real world, wandering around bumping into people and things with no real clue as to what is going on or what is around the corner, I can instead feel that the entire world is not outside my mind and therefore I can do whatever I want with it. Maybe that is what Tsunetomo means by, “If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body gains freedom in the Way.”

I’m not guaranteeing this works for everyone, but right now it’s working for me!

Tantric precedent

And most significantly, to me at least, is that there is a powerful precedent in Buddhism for living as if we have already died from this life. It is taught in Tantra. We do a practice called bringing the result into the path where we imagine dying from ordinary samsaric life and being born as a pure enlightened being. We imagine that all our gross and subtle minds dissolve away into emptiness, just as they do during the death process, and with them all the appearances of this life. This leaves us absorbed in the deepest level of awareness, the clear light mind, from which we go on to transform the intermediate state and rebirth.

We don’t need to come back to this life after the first bringing. There is nowhere in our self-generation sadhana that says, “Now you reappear as an ordinary being.” Also, as I explain in this article, once we have died from this life and arisen as a Buddha in a Pure Land, we have always been a Buddha. And providing we don’t forget that we engaged in the three bringings, we can live our life from that blissful place – in the world but not of it.

This is just to pique your curiosity. To learn the techniques for this profound practice of self-generation as a Buddha we need Highest Yoga Tantra empowerments and commentary – coming up in both this Summer and Fall Kadampa International Festivals

Okay, I am out of space but would love to hear your comments in the box below.

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Keeping the hope alive

I was wondering recently if Dharma is what comes out when our Buddha nature is manifest. For example, when someone speaks directly from the heart and to the heart about love, compassion, equality, helping others, our mutual dependence and responsibility, and so on, or about our courage and ability to withstand discouragement and defeat, to me that sounds like Dharma.

On one level, Dharma or Buddhism is just profound common sense, and as such can be practiced by anyone at all who wants to practice it. Parts of it are already being practiced by people all over the world from different backgrounds, faiths, and traditions.

With respect to Kadampa Buddhism (Kadam Dharma), Venerable Geshe Kelsang says in Modern Buddhism:

Even without studying or listening to Dharma, some people often come to similar conclusions as those explained in Kadam Dharma teachings through looking at newspapers or television and understanding the world situation. This is because Kadam Dharma accords with people’s daily experience; it cannot be separated from daily life.

Take last Wednesday, January 20th, for example, the day of the inauguration. This was a hopeful and inspiring day for a lot of people, and a lot of amazing things were said, including that poem by Amanda Gorman. For example:

We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.

On one level that may seem obvious, that we are interdependent and so our collective well-being is completely undermined by grasping at our differences; yet still this sentiment has not been heard much of late in mainstream public discourse.

That poem was not about politics, was it? It was about all of us. I don’t use this blog to talk about politics because, regardless of our political persuasion, Buddhism works. It is open to everybody. Buddhists genuinely believe that every single living being has the exact same potential for compassion, wisdom, happiness, enlightenment. Therefore, Buddhism is open to everybody; and when we say “Everyone is welcome” — which we do on the doors and publicity of every Kadampa Center in the world — we really mean it.

Buddhism, or Dharma, is Buddha’s teachings and the experiences we get from practicing those teachings. It enables us to realize our truest potential or Buddha nature; and when someone talks from the heart about love and so on, it is as though that truest potential is shining through.

Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

And for Gorman, the light of her Buddha nature was shining through, which is why I think so many people were moved by her and why she has gone viral! (Along with Bernie Sanders memes, lol. Which, talking about our innate kindness, he capitalized on to make money for charity.) Gorman spoke from the heart and to the heart; and to me it sounded like Dharma words. This is true when anyone talks about the beautiful qualities of the human spirit.

Dharma provides the methods for bringing out and developing our Buddha nature – the good heart that every single person possesses, like a golden nugget, deep inside. When we learn Buddhism we are learning how to develop and increase all our innate qualities of tolerance, non-hatred, equanimity, and so on. We have a meditation, for example, called “equalizing self and others”, which, if everyone did it, would mean no more prejudice, racism, or bigotry – those faulty unpeaceful mental attitudes, or so-called delusions, would have to go away.  

As it says in Modern Buddhism:

The great Master Dromtonpa said, “Kadam Dharma is like a mala made of gold.” Just as everyone, even those who do not use a mala (or prayer beads) would be happy to accept a gift of a gold mala because it is made of gold, in a similar way everyone, even non-Buddhists, can receive benefit from Kadam Dharma. This is because there is no difference between Kadam Dharma and people’s everyday experiences….

… Everyone needs it to make their lives happy and meaningful, to temporarily solve their human problems, and to enable them ultimately to find pure and everlasting happiness through controlling their anger, attachment, jealousy, and especially ignorance.

In my job I meet people from all walks of life and political persuasions, and I love them all equally, why not, we’re all the same. With Dharma we can break down the divides, empathize, and bring out the best in each other because the best in all of us is the same. Democrat or Republican, no one has a monopoly on compassion. Or common sense, for that matter, or love. As this is the truth, we can work to become more unified by emphasizing these qualities.

Living beings are terribly misguided and confused a lot of the time — what we call in Buddhism “deluded”. When we speak or act out of anger, hatred, fear, or self-grasping ignorance, that’s coming not from our true nature but from our delusions, which are the real, albeit adventitious, common enemies of us all. Living beings are not our enemies, as Buddha kept pointing out. But we don’t have to stay deluded. And on a day like January 20th when everyone was making an effort, their better natures were shining through, showing that delusions are not an intrinsic part of our minds.

So while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe? Now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?

A quick look at today’s headlines shows that at least some of our collective absurdities have already crept back! Nonetheless, these are not permanent, nor whom we really are. The United States has some cool ideals as a country, equality, freedom, and justice for all – on one level I reckon all Americans love these ideals and the whole country was supposed to be founded on them. Of course it wasn’t and isn’t, and there has always been a struggle between these ideals and the reality; but nonetheless is there not a significant part of us that would like us all to live up to this? So these glimpses are important:

For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.

The hill we climb

“End of an error”, one wit put it the other day. But it is not an error to pin on others, just an error that we individually and collectively can rectify by trying to put behind us the things that have gone wrong — the division, the violence – to herald a new world of tolerance and kindness.

Buddha showed how we could be like this all the time, choosing to actualize this incredible potential for equality and freedom in our minds and in our society. It is what Buddhism is all about. By following Buddha’s advice, we do get kinder, wiser, and closer to other people, and we do let go of our intolerance, faulty discriminations, bigotry, and the rest of it.

That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare.

If we could only spend more than one day feeling hopeful and connected, if we can make an effort to keep this mutual respect and unity going day after day after day, to actively choose this way of thinking, one day we’ll find that we’ve climbed that hill once and for all. And what a view!

Over to you, please put a comment in the box below.

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What does the Pure Land mean to you?

7.5 mins read.

Sitting in my new PJs this bitterly cold December morning, about to start my meditation, I was wondering how can I imagine being all blissed out in the Pure Land of Heruka and Vajrayogini (Keajra) when my unhoused neighbors are freezing half to death outside on the streets and piglets are having their tails cut off while conscious?

Click on pic for January retreats online

The Pure Land cannot just be an extension of my privilege – that is, “I have a relatively comfy life and I’d like it to continue and improve in Keajra when I die, please!” We can’t get to Keajra out of attachment to the status quo. The Pure Land only arises from our utter distaste (as Geshe Kelsang puts it) for samsara’s evil dealings, and a heart broken into 1,000 pieces (like Avalokiteshvara 1,000 arms) from witnessing others’ suffering.   `

The bliss of the Pure Land doesn’t actually come from all those endless cool objects of enjoyment, but from being in the position to effortlessly free everyone from samsara because our mind just is bliss and emptiness. The enjoyments are simply a means to an end. Hence this verse from the Heruka sadhana:

I offer to you, synthesis of all Buddhas of the ten directions, all my daily enjoyments – eating, drinking and enjoying any other objects of desire.
May I quickly attain enlightenment and become like you so that I will effortlessly benefit all living beings.

On the cusp of Heruka and Vajrayogini month, which starts on January 3rd, I’d like to share a couple more vignettes on the subject.

Transforming our jobs

I have a friend here in Denver called Shala, who is still in the middle of (hands down, no competition) the toughest year of her life working as an ICU nurse with COVID patients. What is as terrible in some ways as the lonely choking deaths she has witnessed is her frustration at the administrators at all levels who cannot or will not do a decent job of supporting the frontline healthcare workers, leading not just to their exhaustion and lack of protection but to unnecessary sentinel patient events.

How does she get past this to carry on, month after month, I asked her. The answer is by remembering renunciation, focusing directly on the patients (trying to make them as peaceful and comfortable as she personally can), and constantly asking the Buddhas to bless the situation.

Shala has given me a lot to think about. In our day to day work lives (if we’re lucky enough to still have one of those), including running a meditation center or another non-profit (which some of you do), it’s easy for us to get annoyed with our co-workers or managers if we feel that we are dependent on them for success. To avoid this at work (or indeed wherever things are not working out), we need the fearlessness to look at our own actual painful situation — including our own frustrations and griefs and shame and trauma and rage — and sit with these long enough to develop renunciation

Samsara’s job is to make us suffer. We are not “wholeheartedly accepting” suffering (as in the necessary practice of patient acceptance) if we are at the same time brushing it off as quickly as we can. It doesn’t work to bypass samsara’s nature, saying “Oh yes, I know! Samsara is bad!” while being prepared to keep living with it and making it work — we have to detest it very deeply, have a lifelong grudge, if we are to muster sufficient activity to abolish it.

All this of course done within the framework of identifying ourselves with the vast sky of our limitless potential, not the dark clouds of our delusions and mistaken appearances. We’re the sky looking at the thunder, who knows full well that the sky is still alright, that no thunder can ever harm it.

We are not inherently impure or ordinary or even suffering! Holding to that is identifying ourself incorrectly, as Geshe Kelsang explains so clearly in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra (which would be a wonderful book to dust off and read this month). Which is just as well because it means that we can change. 

We also need always to keep our eye on the ball by staying directly and personally focused on the living beings we’re trying to help in our area, not on the faults of our team and/or others who are seemingly sabotaging our best efforts. This compassion and love will go a long way to protecting us from daily anger (not to mention self-pity).

And we are not talking just, “Oh that’s a shame!”, but about a compassion that finds the suffering of others unbearable and so will keep us going day after day for their sake, without becoming mentally side-tracked or full of inertia by taking everything personally.

Thirdly, we need to channel the frustration at things not going as well as we would like (eg, due to inefficiency, bad management, selfishness, prejudice, disharmony etc) into the determination to attain enlightenment as quickly as we possibly can. Because that way we can DIRECTLY help each and every living being every day through our blessings and emanations (bypassing all management, lol). Developing pure view and practicing being in the Pure Land — where there is “not even the name of mistaken impure appearance” — is a must if we are to do this skillfully.

Transforming our families

I am currently part of a family of six cats. Over two months ago, a mom arrived with five tiny new cats, and they’ve grown up mainly knowing the world of me and my apartment/jungle-playground. For a brief moment in their endless samsaric lives, and unlike the vast majority of other animals, they have the karma to be wanted. They have a devoted cat mom and sympathetic human relatives wanting to take care of them, offering them food, warmth, companionship, and love. They are even lined up for great homes in other families.

But as I was watching them this morning while they slumbered next to me, it struck me quite deeply that, even if they get to spend the next 16 or so years in relative comfort and security, these innocent trusting little folk are at some point going to become sick, old, and dead. And then what? Then where?

These few months are a snapshot in time, a vanishing moment given the endless suffering they’ve already been through and the endless suffering that awaits them. My heart was breaking when I looked not just at today’s challenges (for example, Kendrick feeling sad and hungry because he simply can’t abide cat food, and who can blame him), but the fact that this discomfort is NOTHING compared with the rest of it. And the fact that he doesn’t even know that, nor can do anything about it. Looking at me with that tilted kitten head, he doesn’t even know how to plead with me not to forget him, not to let him suffer — not now, not ever.*

Anyone want to take this Mom home?

It is bad enough just contemplating what lies in store for these six individuals, but that of course gets me thinking about all my family, blood related or otherwise, furry or fur-less. And everyone else in the six realms of samsara’s wasteland.

Turning the pain into power

I have seen the promised land!

So said Martin Luther King Jr – and did he keep going, I was wondering, despite endless odds, through the power of his faith and imagination? Was he already in some sense in the Pure Land, with the courage and power to lead others to that state? Do we have to be seeing the world that we want to create? I would say, Yes, we do.

Great compassion will be the new normal.

So said Gen Losang in the Summer. The ONLY solution we really have to this year and to every other terrible year is to become a Buddha as quickly as possible for the sake of others. And the only way to do that is to practice being a Buddha in the Pure Land now, making sure that Kendrick and everyone else is a mere aspect of our mind of bliss and emptiness, never separated from us, never again forgotten. For once we are in the outer or inner Pure Land of Heruka, this can happen fast for all our friends:

Through the wheel of sharp weapons of the exalted wisdom of bliss and emptiness, 
Circling throughout the space of the minds of sentient beings until the end of the aeon,
Cutting away the demon of self-grasping, the root of samsara,
May definitive Heruka be victorious. ~ The New Essence of Vajrayana

Over to you. What does the Pure Land mean to you? How are you going to spend Heruka and Vajrayogini month?

*Postscript: Kendrick died at 3am on Christmas day after a rapid decline.💔

He provides another compelling reason why not to feel a moment’s survivor’s guilt about hanging out in the Pure Land, given that I can do almost nothing for him while identified as an ordinary being. However, prayers work, so please let’s pray for this small cat and all other animals, whether beloved companions or hitherto completely unwanted.

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What are we going to do about our short attention spans?!

10 mins read.

How’s your attention span? These days, people are complaining of being more scatter-brained than ever – some studies even suggest that we may have the attention span of your average guppy!

Having a short attention span affects everything from being able to get much done through to feelings of restlessness, lack of inner peace, AND boredom. 

I’ll talk more about this in the context of boredom because, as mentioned in Searching relief from tedium, boredom arises from diminished meaning and attention span. However, lengthening our attention span will be of huge benefit in most other areas of our life as well. So do read on … !

Got spare time?!

All this spare time! Finally I can read all those novels, or write my own! Or study Italian! Or meditate! Or sort out all my drawers! Or learn all about Buddhism!

Ironically, however, in these endless days of the Pandemic, people are reporting to getting even less done than usual. (Might explain why I started writing these boredom articles back in May …) With so many crises erupting — such as the headline today that almost one person a minute is now dying from COVID in the United States — nothing seems like nearly so much fun anymore. And in this context, it seems harder to get anything to hold our attention for long.

#3 cause of boredom: short attention span

We can only get things done if we can keep our focus. With all the fears and uncertainties floating around, a lot of people are finding it hard to concentrate.

From the article quoted here:

Multiply that experience across billions of people, and you’ll get a sense of how much boredom the world is facing right now. The problem is exacerbated for people with difficult home lives, people who have lost their jobs and can’t afford rent, and even for the swaths of Americans still showing up in person for work: the more stress we experience, the more at risk we are for losing our ability to focus and find meaning.

Even if we find something meaningful to do, we have to be able to focus on it to not feel bored or restless.

Pick up the phone syndrome

To take writing this blog as an example — although in theory I find it meaningful, have hundreds of ideas for it, and some times am focused and in flow, at other times I am too distracted to focus on writing sufficiently for it to hold my interest and I don’t really want to do it. To deal with this restlessness I distract myself further with, for example, non-essential tasks or, more pointless still, seeing what everyone has been up in the last 15 minutes according to Facebook or the news – “I will just take a quick break to check!” Of course that just undermines my attention span even more, and I end up feeling more restless, not less.

(I read today in one of these breaks that Dolly Parton gets up at 3am, prays and meditates, and then writes for 4 hours before making breakfast for herself and her husband. Impressive, eh?! Clearly it can be done …)

In this age of distraction, we can find almost infinite distractions when bored – however, what we are doing when we give in to restlessness is just strengthening that habit, becoming more restless. If we want to not feel bored we have to pay MORE attention, not less, so that we feel immersed and find what we are doing enjoyable and valuable.

Sometimes boredom arises because we bite off more than we can chew. If we find things too hard, we cannot engage with them so we can get fed up with them — like throwing a Rubik cube to one side, “This is boring!” We can make this mistake with Buddhism as well, if we launch with expectations into teachings we’re not ready for. Although identifying with our potential is always important, we also need to be skillful and start where we are, building up a repertoire of understanding and experience. So rather than immediately trying, say, to master Ocean of Nectar (600 pages of Madhyamika philosophy), we’d be better off immersing ourselves in an easier book and base our meditation practice on genuine experience, building up our wisdom over time.

If the teachings ever seem boring, it is generally because we don’t really understand them or are not practicing them. If you find yourself getting bored with Dharma, my suggestion is always to return to those aspects of Dharma that work for you, that got you interested in the first place – whatever those are, everyone is different. Get that back, re-engage, and, on that foundation, you can then go back to that difficult subject without getting bent out of shape if it’s hard. Dharma progress is based on feeling happy and confident, not feeling worried or inadequate because we don’t understand everything.

Valuable, interesting, enjoyable

Buddhism specializes in finding meaning in life AND increasing our attention span or ability to concentrate, therefore providing the perfect antidote to these two causes of boredom. If we can find meaning in what we are doing — find it valuable, interesting, and enjoyable as I explain here – it is not too hard to overcome our distractions. Focusing on it, the boredom will go away. Eventually we’ll be in the zone. 

We must understand that our creativity comes alive when we spend time alone focusing on our projects without distractions.

From a Buddhist technical point of view, to maintain interest and attention span requires what is called the “object-ascertaining mental factors.” A mental factor is a type or state of mind.

First we need “aspiration”, defined as “a mental factor that focuses on a desired object and takes an interest in it.” We can become interested in developing more love, for example, by meditating on the benefits of doing it and disadvantages of not doing it. Buddha explained the benefits of every meditation he taught, probably because he knows how our monkey minds need incentive. We can do something similar for tasks as well — if I bother to take a bit more time to think about why I am writing this blog, for example, that gets me in the mood.

Aspiration leads to firm apprehension, where we can hold our object firmly and understand it more deeply. This gives rise to mindfulness, which in turn gives rise to concentration. These mental factors will directly oppose our lack of attention span.

Moreover, concentration gives rise to wisdom, with which we can solve our problems permanently. You can read more about these five object-ascertaining mental factors in How to Understand the Mind.

Why the modern world is bad for your brain

Let me just add a little plug here for training in concentration – not only will it overcome boredom, it will also lead to a lot of other benefits. Check out this rather sobering but useful recent article in the media, as well as this incredibly helpful guest article partly inspired by it: Digital addiction and a plan for recovery

I won’t go too much into it here, except to say that completely unchecked distractions are what really destroy us. And it is concentration, not distraction, that brings us peace and joy. Here is a wonderful explanation of why, from Introduction to Buddhism:

When the mind is stilled by concentration, the delusions subside and the mind becomes extremely lucid. At the moment, our minds are intractable, refusing to cooperate with our virtuous intentions; but concentration melts the tension in our body and mind and makes them supple, comfortable and easy to work with.

See, it is concentration that melts the tension in our body and mind, not endless scrolling through our Instagram feeds! (with the exception of Gen Samten’s kadampa.turtles – that HELPS our concentration 😁)

We (at least I) get pulled in by our gadgets because we are addicted, but also in the mistaken assumption that they will help us relax — but do they, do they really?! And, even if they do in smaller quantities, and can sometimes be useful in smaller quantities, the sheer amount of time we are spending following our distractions is what characterizes our modern age perhaps more than anything else. An age that is leading to unprecedented amounts of anxiety, depression, and other mental ills. A bit more from Introduction to Buddhism

It is difficult for a distracted mind to become sufficiently acquainted with its object to induce spontaneous realizations, because it feels as if the mind is here and the object there.

Spontaneous realizations can be understood as having to make no effort – we gain effortless insights or mixing with our object, which might be love, for example, or impermanence, or any of the stages of the path to enlightenment. When we cannot mix our mind with its object, that sense of separation is actually what induces tension, because it causes dualistic pushing and grasping in the mind.

We may already have learned a lot of good objects to concentrate on that will make us so un-bored and so happy – from just our breath to love to the clarity of our mind to bliss & emptiness – but our mind won’t stabilize on them, even if we understand them intellectually, because we are too much in the habit of following our other thoughts. We all need to train in concentration if we want peace.

A concentrated mind, however, enters into its object and mixes with it, and, as a result, realizations of the stages of the path are quickly attained.

Notice the word “quickly”. As opposed to following all our distractions, on the other hand, when any mental development we manage to get around to is slow and arduous. Why would we want to stretch out our spiritual path unnecessarily? We can get the same results far more quickly and with far less hassle if we just bother to concentrate a bit more. And it is not as difficult as you may think – fact be told, it is hugely less painful and less tiring than continually chasing after distractions.

Normally our mind is moving all over the place. When we allow it to become still and stable by focusing single-pointedly on a meaningful object, it becomes peaceful, it becomes deep. This starts from our first meditations on the breath right through to being absorbed into the most profound mind of all, the clear light of bliss:

Through stabilizing this meditation the movement of my inner winds of conceptions will cease. 
Thus, I will perceive a fully qualified clear light. 
~ The Hundreds of Deities of the Joyful Land

If you put a glass down, it won’t move until you move it. Wouldn’t you like a mind like that, staying on whatever wise or blissful thought you want for as long as you want?! Eventually our mind of concentration becomes like Mount Meru, completely unmoved by the winds of conception.

Retreat season 2021

By the way, if this has inspired you to up your concentration game, it’s excellent timing because we are just around the corner from our traditional retreat month (January), and there are umpteen online retreats to choose from in January 2021. Never has it been easier!! I say more about retreat and list some of your options in this article: Doing meditation retreat.

Getting going 

If you are new or kind of new, check out these hopefully practical articles for ways in which to get started in training in concentration using the breath, the clarity of the mind, or turning the mind to wood. And there is a free talk on learning to meditate live-streaming on New Year’s Day. 

Over to you. Any questions? Please share anything you have found helpful in improving your attention span.

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Digital addiction and a plan for recovery

A guest article by Karen Childers  pinkjoystories.com

Two weeks ago, I sent the below message to 11 people. A way of holding myself accountable, taking personal responsibility, or looking to commiserate with my friends; my declaration wasn’t the first time I acknowledged that digital media was overtaking my life.

I’m writing this because I realize I have a digital addiction. I’ve had it for years and years, so it now seems like decades. I wrestle with the knowledge that I’m damaging my brain every time I multitask by picking up my phone to ‘see what’s happening.’

I’ve excused my overuse by rationalizing to myself that I do social media for work. I need to address emails and text messages ASAP to be ahead professionally. I’m just reading headlines and not commenting on OPPs (other people’s posts). I’m using social media to benefit others by engaging in the Buddhist prayer request group or sharing beautiful pictures or inspiring stories or expressing my support for a particular view or organization. I compare myself to others. If that teacher, person, or pet, can use social media responsibly, so can I. I have many ways I rationalize my overuse. But, finally, I know that my overuse is because I have an itch that needs scratching. I have some deep dissatisfaction in my mind. I have some pain that I’m trying to avoid. I need to be ‘liked,’ and at that moment, social media is the best place to fill that need. Wrong. 

My brain finds it difficult to focus on one thing at a time for very long. It takes me longer to complete tasks that should be quick. I find myself becoming distracted during conversations and have to remind myself to listen to the other person. I can barely read a short blog post all the way through without distraction. I fall asleep watching TV, or streaming, I should say, because we don’t own a TV; but, I wake up in the middle of the night unable to get back to sleep. My meditation practice is mostly distracted to non-existent.

My goal isn’t to quit using my devices completely. That’s not realistic in this day, where we depend on technology. It sounds like a faraway place. No Technology Land. A place I want to visit sometimes. A place I need to create for myself more often. Honestly, technology has improved my life in so many ways I can’t count. But, deleting and staying away from Facebook is a long term goal. I’ve tried a few times. I have hacks to get around the app not being on my phone. I’ve made declarations to myself when I first started waking up to the idea that digital addiction is real and that it is having profound effects on me and the people I love.

My goal is to use all forms of digital media intentionally. So, it’s not time wasted, but time rewarded.

Things I will STOP doing:

  • picking up my phone out of boredom
  • scrolling mindlessly into a void
  • making judgments because of what I see on my device
  • getting angry because of what I see on my device
  • reading comments that cause confusion and anger
  • picking up my device when I feel uncomfortable in a situation
  • feeling naked when I don’t have my device
  • picking up my device when I’m watching a movie or reading a book
  • making others feel less important because they don’t have my full attention
  • expecting to get a response to my post, text, email, tweet
  • feeling like a prisoner

Things I will START or continue doing:

  • being intentional about my use of my device
  • checking email for work during work hours
  • turn off notifications
  • no phone in the bedroom at night
  • no phone while eating a meal
  • no phone in the room when meditating
  • NO other tasks when having a conversation with someone
  • NO phone when driving in the car
  • when I think of a friend, I’ll call or email them; instead of quick exchanges, I’ll make a plan for a longer conversation
  • I’ll foster and nurture creativity
  • I’ll go outside every day
  • I’ll watch movies and read books and listen to albums, and pay attention
  • I’ll dance and move my body intentionally with yoga and pilates
  • I’ll experience the natural world and be captivated by IT
  • I’ll keep having conversations about the effects of digital addiction
  • I’ll keep sharing knowledge
What will I do in the meantime?

Will I stop taking pictures because my camera is on my phone? Will I excuse myself from group texts or delete my Facebook account? Will I stop using Twitter and Instagram? No. Quitting relationships or staying less informed isn’t the answer. My dad is on Facebook now, and we video chat, and he has a friend he talks to, and he sees my posts and photos. I know he enjoys this. I know it makes a huge difference in his life right now. My mother’s death, his sister’s death, COVID–he’s had a tough year. I’ve heard from friends that they love the photos of our adventures that I post. I maintain and nurture familial relationships and friendships, and friend groups through our text chats. These connections are essential to me.

So, I will monitor my usage. I will be more intentional. I will pay attention.

I knew digital addiction existed, and probably for me after I listened to the audiobook Irresistible.

I had some interest in How to Break Up with Your Phone but never carried it through. We are still in an abusive relationship.

I watched The Great Hack and The Social Dilemma and became terrified of the more significant implications of manipulation through social media.

I recently read Why the modern world is bad for your brain and connected the dots between my physical symptoms of brain fog, insomnia, and tension in my body– the results of decades-long screen captivation. Thank you to Lucy James for posting this on her Facebook profile today. It captivated me and inspired me to come out with this post.

There are many other films, books, and articles on this topic–I Googled it, of course.

I’ll also Google treatments and see where that takes me.

I wish anyone who reads this the best. Keep looking up!

If you would like to have a more extended conversation, I’m so ready.

Two weeks later …

After I hit send on that email message, I received a reply requesting a guest post on this blog. Here I am. I also received a text message praising the email and admitting they too could relate. Another friend exclaimed that it had gotten worse since COVID. Still, yet another agreed that it was a problem, but not ready to “come out.” 

One friend carefully crafted a longer response. She admitted that it had become a problem for her too. She has taken steps to curtail her overuse, implementing some strategies that speak volumes about who she is and our relationship. She mentioned that she does not pick up her phone in the morning before she talks to herself and God. This bit of advice would turn out to be the best. It translates for me as I go for Refuge, generate Bodhichitta, and self-generate. Making my intention for the day to benefit others and transform everything into the path. 

I started paying attention to my itches–the ones that begged to be scratched. The ones that propelled me to pick up my phone. I discovered some things that are helping me get over this compulsive behavior. 

Recognize, reduce, and abandon 

First, I must admit that making declarations like I’m not ever doing certain things again, and expecting that to stick, was a completely flawed approach. I realized that soon after I hit send on that email message. I checked emails and texts immediately after! Am I a failure? No. I’m flawed. I have delusions. I decided to adjust and take this on like any other bad habit. I need to recognize the problem first. Think deeply about where this bad habit is taking me, what are the benefits of letting it go, and make a plan to reduce and eventually abandon the action of habitually and mindlessly picking up my phone for a nice scroll through the newsfeed. 

When taking the ‘pick up my phone syndrome’ as far as I can, I see myself, on my deathbed, clenching my phone, scrolling into oblivion—wasting my chance—wasting my spiritual life. I think about the years of damage to my eyes and my brain. I think about my short attention span and how it will only get worse. I see how my monkey mind is scattered and can’t recall details without a device’s aid. Eventually, will I be able to produce thoughts on my own, without the device prompting me? I don’t want to find out. I use this line of thinking to increase my wish to reduce and abandon my overuse problem. Will I allow a bad habit that I can do something about to keep me trapped in a cycle of suffering? NO. 

Recognizing also includes the fact that a phone, Facebook, email, or any other form of digital media is not inherently bad. The problem lies in mindless overuse that is rife with delusion spurring obstacles. The problem is allowing myself to continue without making an explicit intention to use my phone, social media, or any other screen to benefit others. May everyone be happy. 

Side question, I ask myself:  

Facebook is not inherently bad, but do you want to use something created by a university computer geek named Mark Zuckerberg to rate girls, Hot or Not? 

Not. 

Now that my intentions are clear, I’ve made my declaration, and I’ve decided to tackle this as my project, I start paying attention. I received a notification on my phone that my screen time was down by 85%. This is encouraging. I feel motivated in my quest for a technology-free life. 

I see a tweet by Chrissy Teigen expressing how she is trying to find a screen life balance, too. I feel connected to Chrissy. And, like many other times, #DeleteFacebook is trending. I am not alone. I think most of the population is suffering from some form of screen captivation. 

I begin to understand the need for boundaries. Time limits and rules or guidelines are necessary when adopting a new behavior or letting go of an old one. I am constantly being interrupted because ads and irrelevant content lure my attention. That’s not ok with me anymore. My attention is precious.

I decided that I only need 5-10 minutes to visit with my device. How many times a day? That seems to be where the challenge is for me. I’m working through how I use my phone. I’m looking at what I think are the necessary applications. I’m not keeping distracting apps like games or social media around. While tracking apps and usage monitoring on my phone are useful now, I do not want to depend on software or another app to curb my enthusiasm for picking up my phone. 

Ask questions

I started considering questions like do you need another picture to add to the over 34,000 digital images your phone says you currently have?

Why do you want to post this picture? 

Are you expecting to see another email besides the one from Costco that you saw the past 100 times you looked? 

Do you need to confirm or seek out the answer to every random query that enters your mind? [insert Google or IMDB search]

Do you expect to read different headlines? Ones that are joyful and uplifting instead of depressing and anxiety-inducing?

What are you seeking?

I also pay attention to the kind of mind or situation that prompts me to pick up my phone. I notice that a super uncomfortable situation causes me to run to my phone so I can try to disappear into it in an attempt to hide from this painful discomfort. 

I decided to make a plan for my usage. I deleted more apps and turned off notifications. With lower expectations, I use my phone on my own time. I use it for limited activities. I will make a plan with family and friends for emergencies if I am unreachable. I will make an intention to be intentional about my usage. 

I started using a notebook again. I write down ideas or things I need to look up or add to a list — I use this notebook instead of my phone. I have considered buying a camera to replace the need to have my phone on picture-taking adventures. I do not want to buy another thing, though. My minimalist lifestyle is spilling over into my digital life. I am Marie Kondo-ing, my digital life. If it does not spark JOY, then it must go. Thank you for your service, bye-bye.

My most significant insight revealed itself. This device that professes productivity and relief from boredom kills my productivity and creates a lethargy that dulls my senses, like brain fog. I see myself in a thick fog, clutching my phone. 

Another rule or guideline I observe is: out of sight (or hand), out of mind. I do not hold my phone when I am not using it. I leave it across the room when I am working. It is not in the bedroom at night. I have text messages on my laptop, so I turn those off when I need to concentrate, which is always. 

What am I filling my time with now that I have increased productivity and I am not allowing myself to scroll and click into an internet hole? Things that nourish me and fill me up. I spend time watching the sunrise and set every day. I am studying Universal Compassion and enjoying my meditation practice again. I am getting through my reading list. The joy of cooking has inspired me. I brew kombucha. I exercise and enjoy nature. I listen to music–whole albums, the vinyl kind– instead of one song at a time or an internet playlist. I watch documentaries and select movies. I enjoy close relationships that I nurture. I observe the world around me instead of clicking my way into a digital hole of data points. Someone waved at me from the street for the first time the other day. I use these things to spark joy. 

Relationship questions arise

Relationships: How do I relate to them on social media? Do I use social media to communicate solely with anyone? Am I using social media to cultivate and nurture relationships? I think about Dunbar’s number and the idea that we can only be capable of a certain number of close relationships. Are my close relationships suffering from my overuse problem? 

I will continue to have video chats with Dad, family, and friends. I will examine my “friends list” and consider my personal Dunbar’s number. Which relationships am I going to focus on and nurture? I’ll start with the most important, my spiritual guide, my partner, my close sangha jewels, and my close friends. I’ve heard that you can love all living beings without exception, but you don’t have to have lunch with them. That eases the overwhelming feeling of wanting to be everything to everyone. 

Going forward 

I consider that when I die, the only thing that will be left is a set of data points and a box or apartment full of items that will disperse to friends, family, and the needy. What am I leaving behind? 

I’m going to continue Marie Kondo-ing my digital life. If it does not serve me or spark joy, I will release it from my grip. 

I will continue to extoll the benefits of cleaning up our digital lives. I know that Facebook isn’t a real representation of friendship. The people I want to talk to and be with right now aren’t here anymore. Not on Facebook or this Earth. I experience grief every day. 

I’m not alone. This problem isn’t going to be as difficult for me because I have support. I think about people who are alone and have a digital addiction. They use social media for their connection to the outside world. My advice for these people and anyone who knows people like this, please call each other. Have video chats, meet up (at a safe distance and wearing a mask as necessary), but make one on one, interpersonal connections. Have deep, meaningful conversations. Ask each other, “How are you doing?“. We all need more of this.

Kids these days need role models. They are fighting an unfair battle. Again. Tik-Toking their way through climate change, the kids have a challenging future ahead of them-like all generations, but these particular ones will need some extra-special attention. I want to model good digital behavior and responsibility regarding climate change, which is essential to me.

Information or what we learn in this life can increase our love, compassion, wisdom, and wish to help others.  Information can also be resigned to a collection of irrelevant data points.

Mindfulness

I set my intention for the day. How will I use my talents, how will I use my devices, and how will I use my time? 

I will generate joy and benefit others.

Our capacity for consuming and processing information is great, but our capacity for love is even greater.

How am I processing the information I receive daily via my digital devices? 

Am I nervous, anxious, depressed, and afraid? Am I angry or confused? Am I overwhelmed and feel like I can’t get my digital life organized? Too many emails to read? Too many pictures to catalog? Too many files to file, in folders, on desktops and home screens. 

I work in digital media. Now, I feel a bit like a tech-bro who doesn’t allow their kids to use social media or own an iPad. The insights I’ve been able to glean over the years have helped nonprofits, Buddhist centers, filmmakers, and friends. I hope to continue to help them inform, entertain, and love others.

In the immediate future, January is retreat month, a good time to disconnect, set boundaries, go inward, and experience the peace of a technology-free life. A life lived intentionally. 

Keep looking up!

Please leave your comments for our guest writer below to keep this important conversation going.

Searching relief from tedium?

9 mins read

Nine months into the pandemic, with at least 6 months to go before things return to whatever normal might mean by then, and life might be feeling a tad tedious – that is, marked by monotony and tiresomeness that is seemingly beyond our control. Luckily, although we can’t really hurry this thing along, there is something we can do about our boredom.  

Carrying on from this last article, Boredom in the time of COVID, I have divided the inner or actual causes of boredom into (1) ignorance (2) lack of meaning, (3) poor attention span. The root of boredom is ignorance, which takes awhile to get rid of altogether; but #2 and #3 are recognizable causes that we can do something about straightaway. I found this article gives a very helpful summary of them: 

Scientists measure boredom by looking across two axes: your ability to find meaning in a task, and your ability to pay attention to it. For a person to function normally—i.e. not be bored—both of these abilities must be intact. It’s easy enough to see how this pandemic would disrupt the meaning axis: With some of us now spending all of our time at home, whatever we leaned on in the Before Times for meaning—our friends, our work, the for-here mugs at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf—has teetered out of reach. But it’s just as likely that pandemic anxiety has been messing with the other axis, by shortening our attention spans.

Buddhism can help with both.

# 2 cause of boredom: lack of meaning

First, a question: Does feeling bored come from a sense of meaninglessness or a sense of meaninglessness come from feeling bored?

We have to find fun and meaning in new things, and it could be right now that many of those things are going to have to be less external than before.

With schedules and social lives disrupted, almost none of the sources of fulfillment we relied on two months ago are easily accessible. While some have reacted by recommending books, challenges, or stream-able Broadway shows to counter the new reality, these are only Band-Aids.

Without meaning, we don’t really feel that we have much agency over our lives. It feels that way to a lot of people right now because the normal things we reach out to for meaning are not available to us – whether that is our job, our friendships, travel, a new relationship. These external sources of meaning do not show signs of completely recovering for a while for many people.

There are a billion people around the world still largely in more isolated circumstances at the moment, especially in parts of the world where the days are shortening and there is less opportunity to be together outside. People are being thrown on their own resources for meaning. With far fewer entertainments or distractions, everyone is having to become a lot more self-contained.

And this is not necessarily all bad given that externals are fleeting and incapable of providing lasting meaning or satisfaction, as mentioned here. Wouldn’t it be good if we used this time to develop our power in other more enduring ways?

A lot of people are being more active than ever this year in addressing social causes, such as poverty and inequality. I have spoken during public comment on the City  Council twice myself, and written letters, urging the mayor and council members to practice compassion toward our unhoused neighbors, to stop sweeping them from block to block like garbage (only difference being that garbage has somewhere to go), especially during a pandemic. This has not only added my voice to something that I have always found concerning — people in the wealthiest country in the world without a roof over their heads — but also helped me feel more meaning and connection during these difficult times. 

Reframing our current situation

One immediate thing we can also do is reframe this current situation. We can give it meaning by remembering that there is still a good reason for us all to be doing this social distancing, it is still very beneficial to be protecting ourself and everyone else.

Talking to an ICU nurse here the other day, a Buddhist, I was very much reminded of the need to keep being as careful as possible for quite a long time yet, to hold out patiently till the vaccines arrive, and to keep praying for our frontline heroes:

“Unfortunately, the medical community is failing nurses and doctors right now. Every provider I interact with is having symptoms of compassion fatigue and burnout. Some of this is due to the sheer number of people we have seen die recently (in many cases providers have seen more deaths in the past few months than they expected to see in their entire careers).  This is within the context of many providers being shunned in public as well as the resistance of many people to perform simple actions to prevent harming or infecting others, and the strong tendency of people to have wrong views regarding Covid. Hospital administrators are completely out of touch with the urgent needs of bedside clinicians.  In every hospital in the world there is a philosophy of “do more with less”.  To try and fix the budget crisis, nurses are asked to do our jobs with inadequate resources and reduced staff. The unfortunate side effect of this is that nurses experience greater burnout, compassion fatigue, and trauma; and we are witnessing worse outcomes and sentinal events resulting in patient deaths due to inadequate staffing. This leads to an ultimate feeling of hopelessness and helplessness within the frontline provider community.”

The American press doesn’t show many images of all the actual sickness and death, such as the thousands of unknown bodies buried in identical wooden boxes in Potter’s Graveyard in NYC; and when I saw some of these scary pictures this also reminded me of why we are being careful. As did the fact that someone tested positive in my house – luckily the rest of us tested negative despite being around each other, which could be testament to the power of masks. (She has recovered, I’m happy to say.)

To me, my mask reminds me of love. I am wearing it around other people to help keep all of us safer. There are so many people around the world who don’t have this luxury, and it reminds me to root for and pray for everyone who is in fear and danger, including all the frontline workers. We can reframe it to think that we are being careful because we care.

If we keep that concern for others in our heart, it will help us to find the meaning in this; and if we find the meaning we are immediately going to be less restless, bored, or unhappy.

This different life doesn’t have to be so terrible if we understand it in the context of being all in it together. This pandemic is showing that we are all utterly and totally interconnected. This virus does not discriminate who it attacks, whether an unhoused neighbor or the most powerful man in the world. If someone has it somewhere, there is always going to be some risk of the rest of the us getting it. We all need to help and look out for one another – never has self-absorption been so pointless. 

We can remember how we are all cells in the same body of life, as I explained in this article, Better together. I am not an isolated separated out bored person but one cell in the body of life in which everyone is important and equally meaningful. We rise and fall together ultimately. The people we were cheering for are the essential workers –– the ones who will get the vaccination first because they after all, rather than the rich and famous, are the ones essential to our staying alive and well. We can develop a big heart of compassion for everyone who is sick and scared and in pain all over the world. Instead of thinking about our own boredom, we can let this situation feed our compassion, “I want to help all these other people. I want to be part of the solution.”

Benefits of solitude

How do you feel about quiet times? According to most if not all religions, times of solitude can bring us closer to the divine. Solitude can be our greatest treasure. A friend in NYC said he has realized how much time he has spent running around for the past 15 years, and this period of enforced isolation has been truly regenerating and eye-opening for him in terms of realizing the meaning of his life. I am sometimes reminded this year of the long period I spent in the 2010’s pretty much all on my own in retreat, voluntarily – they were in some respects the best years of my life.

Like anything, we can get used to more time with our own company and come to enjoy it more and more, especially if we are in the business of improving ourselves. Through this we can become more comfortable with uncertainty and far more self-contained — life lessons that will help us long after COVID-19 has finally gone away and left us alone.

Crisis of agency

Boredom is not just about not having enough to do. We can have too much to do and still feel bored if what we are doing is meaningless to us.

Studies have found that people who are working all the time and stressed are just as likely to experience boredom as those who don’t have enough to do. Under stimulation is not the problem.

We have to reframe our lives so that we feel we are someone who is always full of joy and possibilities, even enlightenment, whatever we are doing or not doing by way of external activities.

Telling a bored person to go read a book or watch a movie is like telling a drowning person to swim to shore. If they could, they would,” said John Eastwood, who heads the Boredom Lab at York University. “Boredom is a crisis of agency.

Boredom can be judged as a lack of imagination, but the truth is we don’t lack imagination, we just need the understanding, agency, and permission to employ our creative minds to our best ends, motivated by wisdom and compassion. We all have imagination – we are using it all the time to impute our reality.

When we are bored, we are allowing ourselves to be swept along by our own solidly boring universe, not taking the effort to see that it is not even there. We may not yet realize the huge part we play in creating our world and what extraordinary potential and opportunity we currently have, but when we do, we can take charge of our own narrative far more than we are doing at the moment. We need to take charge of our own narrative. We need agency in our lives, in our days.

Through meditation we start to change our sense of who we think we are from a fixed limited person at the mercy of every passing circumstance to the inspired architect of our own life and future. Our whole world is created by imagination. We create everything with our minds, including liberation and enlightenment themselves.

More coming up in the next article about the next culprit for feeling bored, poor attention span. Meanwhile, if this article got you thinking about anything, I’d love your comments in the box below!

Related articles

A Buddhist solution to boredom

Rewriting the story of my life

Better together

Looking back at this life

 

Boredom in the time of COVID

12 mins read.

Have you felt bored or restless lately?

If so, you’re not alone. Not surprisingly, there are reports of a rapid spread of boredom across the world – the hours are going really slowly while the days are flying past. Cooped up in their homes, wrestling with their own helplessness or mortality, forced to wait out a scary virus, people everywhere are complaining of feeling not just anxious but restless and stir-crazy.

For example, a survey conducted of close to 3,500 adults living under national quarantine in Italy found that “boredom” beat out “loneliness” and “lack of fresh air” and trailed only “lack of freedom” as a source of misery.

So I thought this would be a good time to share a bit more about what Buddhism might have to say about boredom and how to deal with it. 

What is boredom?

Boredom is defined as a psychological state marked by a general lack of interest, excitement, or motivation, and experiencing one’s current situation as monotonous, tedious, or irrelevant. Boredom is the opposite of fascination. As indicated by another definition for boredom, “the state of being weary and restless through lack of interest,” boredom is associated with finding things meaningless. We don’t feel fully alive. As one boredom expert put it:

Boredom is a completely natural reaction to not being meaningfully engaged in the world. 

Some friends told me that they are incredulous that people have time to be bored when there is so much to do both practically and spiritually, but although in theory they may be right, I don’t think boredom works like that. People can be busy and bored too. Even if something is vital, such as the work in front of us, we can still feel weary and unmotivated. 

(It’s a bit like saying you’re incredulous that people can get angry when everyone is our kind mother, lol, or attached when samsara is a prison not a pleasure garden. Delusions, in other words, never make sense, yet still we have them.)

Boredom is also associated with a lack of ability to focus or pay attention. Even if something is interesting, such as a classic novel or even a Buddhist masterpiece, for some reason it is not holding our attention. We still feel restless and get up to see what’s in the fridge.

Buddhism can help with both the lack of interest and the lack of attention, as you’ll see if you keep reading.

Is life on hold for you?

Is boredom a serious problem, or a #firstworldproblem? Should we be concerned about being bored? How important is it to avoid it or deal with it? Is boredom a waste of time or can it serve a useful purpose?

These are not new questions but they are perhaps more pressing at the moment, with much of humanity social distancing and many of our fun and leisure activities on hold for the foreseeable future. Sure, thanks to Netflix, cable news, et al we still have an endless choice of things to watch, and thanks to social media we can still devote a considerable amount of our newly spare time to snooping on our high school friends or finding out what our friend’s cat had for breakfast; but what about the rest of the day?

A quick glance at social media during this period of lockdown reveals some crazy (if sometimes humorous) stuff going on in the name of boredom avoidance.

(A slight detour down memory lane … when I was first writing this article, around May, I was interrupted in this precise sentence by the sound of people howling, followed by singing loudly along to the song “Stayin alive”. I don’t know, it made me chuckle every night at 8 p.m. With the virus raging at even greater rates this Winter, yet fatigue and politics ruling the day, those Spring evenings now feel like innocent times, when everyone cheered on our beleaguered healthcare workers and agreed to keep each other safe. Back then, this quote spoke to me, from an article called “What if the virus can teach us to change?”:

Suddenly time has a different complexion: it registers differently. Everything that once seemed so vital—the need to get the train on time, the need to get the essay done—seems insignificant. Only the truly significant is significant: the phone call to a loved one, the medicine that needs to be taken, the need to stay alive and of course the need to keep others alive too.

Let’s keep seeing the need for us all to stay alive for a few more months yet! The vaccines are on their way … )

Boredom can lead to more food and substance abuse. I have noticed a fair few people complaining about putting on weight during this lockdown. It can also lead to anxiety and depression.

Boredom can famously make people reckless and self-centered at the best of times. As lockdown lifts, it could lead to a whole new surge of virus activity if, desperate for something to do, we throw caution and masks to the winds. (Wrote that last sentence back in May lockdown also and, well, you see my point …)

I can’t help feeling that boredom is at least somewhat to blame for the over-thinking and over-talking this year about subjects that don’t bear that much thinking about, eg, conspiracy theories, endless political shenanigans, and the faults of others.

Therefore, it does seem important to try and find a cure for this boredom. Is there a simple way, for example, to turn our boredom into its opposite – fascination and being in the zone? Or into productive meaningful activities that can make us feel good both about ourselves and about this strange period in our lives?

What causes boredom?

I will delve first into various causes of boredom to see if Buddhism has anything to offer by way of solutions – dividing these into outer (or more circumstantial) conditions and inner (or actual) causes.

Outer conditions

Not having enough to do, or having to do things we don’t want to do, can bring on boredom at any stage in our life, not just now or if you are a teenager. If we are literally unable to do the usual things we find interesting, of course that’s going to be a challenge. As someone said on Facebook:

You try to stay strong, but there’s only so much bread you can make or Tiger King you can watch on Netflix or jigsaws you can master before your head swims with the repetition and tedium of it all. 

Not only that, but wasting more time twiddling our thumbs trying to wait this thing out just makes the restlessness worse. As someone else wrote to me the other day:

I know so much pressure is on all of us to waste time and to just trivialize it. There is so much pressure on us to try to overcome boredom by spending time on frivolities.

Pretty much every “What to do in Lockdown” list I’ve see on the media has left me yawning or even shuddering at the suggested time suck. Boredom is also quite contagious – hanging out with other bored people can lead to more boredom. Moreover, there is a connection between addiction (to our gadgets etc etc) and boredom, they reinforce each other – umpteen articles about that, Google it.

In general, the less acquainted we are with self-contained contentment and the more we are normally attached or even addicted to excitement and drama, the more we are going to feel bored when nothing seems to be happening.

Intensity and excitement can be a way of life – sometimes people in recovery, for example, complain of being bored even as they start to feel so much better in other ways. A mother was telling me how her whole family, complete with three teenagers with learning or eating issues, have been addicted to drama for years – when things quieten down, it is only a matter of minutes before they all look at each other and say, “I’m bored!”

Life in general appears unfair and sometimes people simply don’t have the opportunity or means to do the things that other people take for granted, to pursue certain dreams, to make the most of themselves in terms of worldly achievements. This can lead to an existential ennui with a seemingly blank future. Fortunately, becoming enlightened is available for everyone.

Those are some of the external reasons I can think of for why we get bored – but please feel free to leave others in the comments. And sometimes we can work on these outer causes, trying to change our circumstances or our daily routines in creative ways to alleviate boredom if the opportunity is there, which it may or may not be at the moment.

Fulfillment’s desolate attic

Just bear in mind that pursuing outer interests alone is also never going to cut it. In 1971, psychologists Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell went so far as to coin a term for the pointless quest for more, more, more: “The hedonic treadmill.” The term stuck. If we keep insisting on looking for pleasure in things outside of ourself, we end up on that treadmill, which is really boring if you think about it, going round and round like a hamster reaching nowhere. Speeding it up just gets us nowhere faster. The more we achieve, the more we require to sustain our new levels of satisfaction. Our gratification from the new is fleeting; we adapt in spite of ourselves. You may as well chase your afternoon shadow. When searching happiness without, it always looms ahead. As these psychologists put it:

There may be no way to permanently increase the total of one’s pleasure except by getting off the hedonic treadmill entirely.

Worldly commitments, too, can be fragile and transient. Maybe less fragile and transient than the dopamine high of getting a paper published or falling in love. But fragile and transient nonetheless. Relationships end; jobs don’t work out. The bonds we often think of as ropes are really gossamer threads. It can be a very painful discovery to make, but nonetheless a useful one, leading us into a deeper exploration of what constitutes true creativity, satisfaction, and fascination.

Inner causes

So, if we only look at the outer or circumstantial causes of our boredom, we won’t really be able to figure out any lasting solutions to it. Given that, to solve the relentless inner problem of boredom, we need to look more at its actual causes. I will divide these into three, just because why not.

Number 1 cause of boredom: ignorance

As I mentioned in this previous article I wrote back in the day, the root of boredom is ignorance – and in the case of boredom this manifests as a lack of true understanding and engagement with our world:

Whether we can or cannot make innovative changes to our circumstances, given that the main cause of boredom is internal (ignorance), the main creative solution is also to be found within our own minds. If we dismiss this fact, we may soon enough find ourselves becoming bored by our new job, companions, trees, puzzles, or hobbies. After all, we’ve been trying to change the circumstances of our lives to solve our boredom since beginningless time, yet here we all are, still finding ourselves bored.

With ignorance, even though we are projecting the world with our own mind as in a dream, we still feel disconnected as if the world is outside our mind. Oblivious to our own act of creation, we feel a gap between me and the world — I am here and the world is out there. This is the crux of the matter for boredom and in fact every other delusion.

The world out there is no more findable than if we were walking around as an avatar in a virtual reality world. But we are so sucked in – first due to our confusion about its actual nature and then due to the ignorance grasping it as other than it is. The traditional analogy is stumbling across a snake at dusk, jumping back in fear, only to have our companion pick it up and tie a knot in it. Because it is dusk, we can’t make out the rope, and then we misinterpret it to be a snake, getting scared as a result.

Dusk symbolizes our confusion — we cannot see clearly the actual nature of things, their emptiness; and then our ignorance believes the things we are seeing are real. (You can read about these two types of ignorance in Joyful Path of Good Fortune.)

All delusions, fears, and sufferings come from this. Aversion sees those real things as inherently faulty and, believing what it sees, wants to push them away or destroy them. Attachment sees those real things as inherently desirable and wants to pull them towards us. With boredom, like I said, there is a sense of being disengaged. We are indifferent to these real things outside our mind, they are just sitting there being inherently uninteresting.

This can, sadly, include other living beings. The vast majority of living beings may be strangers to us right now, just “meh”, uninteresting and dull to us. (One antidote you can try out to boredom, therefore, if you are bored with the people around you, is the meditation on equanimity, where we head on tackle this indifference born of ignorance. More on that later.) 

With boredom there is a belief in an inherently boring world, one that exists outside the mind. Nothing and no one appears interesting to us, and we believe that appearance as if it were the truth. But we will never find an actually boring world or boring people if we go looking for them with wisdom. Quite the opposite. We can therefore dissolve the boring world away with the wisdom realizing emptiness and re-impute a fully alive and fascinating one, knowing it is the same nature as our mind. When I first discovered teachings on emptiness, I saw I no longer had a real excuse to be bored when my mind is creating my own reality in every moment of every day. Wisdom is the ultimate antidote to this delusion, as it is to all the other delusions.

I will look at the other two inner causes in the next article – already moreorless written, but I’m coming out with these four articles in installments so you don’t get bored … 

Over to you. I would love to hear what you think about all this and what you’ve been up to. I may be able to incorporate it into the next few articles too, which is helpful.

Related articles

A Buddhist solution to boredom 

Seven reasons to learn to mediate in a pandemic 

Equanimity