Get Up to Speed and Out the Door

6.5 mins read

Where on earth is there no suffering?world peace

From just a cursory look at CNN’s daily Five things you need to know to Get Up to Speed and Out the Door, which drops into my inbox each morning: The recent bombings of children in Syria, where “words are no longer sufficient to describe the horror, terror, and suffering.” The leader of the free world calling to congratulate a “dictator on winning a sham election.” The 17-year old who tried to murder his classmates, now numbingly routine. The vigil for those crushed under a Miami bridge. The abysmal life of pigs who are kept in cruel iron cages no bigger than their bodies. And the “good” news that some of the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram have been released. (However, most have not; and what kind of shape are these girls in now?) And so on. These all help my renunciation and compassion – I like to call it Five things you need to know to Get Up to Speed and Out of Samsara.

Manifest suffering

There are three types of suffering that we want to get rid of by being in refuge, which include all the sufferings endemic to samsara. The first is the suffering of manifest pain. We know this one all too well – it refers to any unpleasant bodily or mental feeling. Toothache, heartache, CNN’s five things, etc. This manifest pain is what we normally think of as suffering — we think suffering refers to when something hurts.

Carrying on from this article.

Manifest suffering is obviously horrible. It is the easiest-to-understand suffering. We don’t need to be taught about the suffering of manifest pain – we’re all well aware of what it is, how much we dislike it, and how we’d like to find refuge from it and help others do the same. We try hard day and night to get rid of our own manifest pain, and many people try hard day and night to help others get rid of theirs.

And it’s not just five things of course – there are countless painful reasons to Get Up to Speed and Out of Samsara. It’s not just me — everyone around me is experiencing some variety of discomfort at any given moment.CNN five things

A random example: As I was walking to my seat just now, on this evening flight to Chicago, I wondered in passing why a woman was hiding behind huge dark glasses.

Turns out she is in the seat in front of me, 25F, and I can hear her talking into her phone before take-off:

“Oh, honey I’m a wreck. I could pass as the twin of the Terminator. I can’t take these glasses off. And, honey, if you could see my arms and legs — I am covered with hives!”

She is doing her best, as many of us are:

“Anyway, I love you. See you soon.”

But whatever improvements we are able to make in our own and others’ lives, that is not the end of the story. There are two other types of suffering in samsara, which underpin and cause this manifest pain; and we need more wisdom to identify these. If we don’t identify changing suffering and pervasive suffering, we cannot bring an end to all suffering. We will have to carry on experiencing both physical and mental pain endlessly, however much and often we try to patch it up.

Changing suffering

The second type of suffering is called “changing suffering”. In the big yellow book called Joyful Path of Good Fortune — which contains all of Buddha’s teachings if you get a chance to read it, sort of like the Buddhist bible — there’s a section on how the three sufferings of samsara pervade our experience, including our worldly pleasures:

For samsaric beings, every experience of happiness or pleasure that arises from samsara’s enjoyments is called changing suffering.

beer drinking

This experience of pleasure is called “changing” suffering (or “suffering of change”) because it’s a kind of changeover or switchover point between manifest pain and more manifest pain. It is those brief feelings of relief.

Now, a few weeks later, I am on the tube from Heathrow to North London, my journey colliding with the morning commute. And the expression on many people’s faces, or rather the studied lack of expression, brings to my mind the word “heaviness”. People seem weighed down. One bloke ten years younger than me I reckon, but with heavy creases in his brow, speaks into his phone, “Hey, mate, just got in, you alright?” A pause, then, louder, “What? he did what? That’s just what I told him not to do! Idiot.” He stared dejectedly at the ground. “Look, mate, let’s meet up in about an hour. I need a pint.”

People’s lives are difficult everywhere. And over the course of a lifetime, many people are struggling to muddle through their lives without things going too badly wrong, catching excitement, release, and pints of beer wherever we can.

Changing suffering is pleasant feelings. It feels like a kind of happiness. Buddha called it changing suffering not because it feels like suffering, but because it is not real happiness, it is just relief. This experience is contaminated by delusions and ignorance, and actually has the nature of suffering. Geshe Kelsang also calls it “artificial happiness”.

We may sense that things are not quite right even when they are going well, but we need to know exactly why this is in order to fix it. And we need not fear that this knowledge will depress us further, for it is this knowledge that in fact will finally set us free.

In Joyful Path it says:

We need to meditate repeatedly on this point because it’s not obvious to us that our worldly pleasures are worldly suffering. We can gain a better understanding by considering the following analogy. If we have a very painful illness and our doctor prescribes painkillers we take these and for a while we stop feeling the pain. At that time we actually experience a feeling that is merely the reduction of pain, but because the strong painful feeling has gone we feel happy and experience pleasure. This pleasant feeling is changing suffering.

Selling ourselves short

I’ll just point out that Buddha is not saying don’t go to the doctor or take painkillers. This is subtle, trying to understand what Buddha is saying here. It’s not that we don’t enjoy or take care of things, but that we understand what’s going on. Then we don’t sell ourselves short.

sell yourself short

Because, extraordinarily enough, every person on that tube goes unfathomably deep. Everyone I saw racing along the pavements in the unusual spring snow-freeze and darting in and out of the crazy London traffic goes unfathomably deep. We are seeing a tiny fraction of who people are — a fleeting appearance, their body of this life, of this day, just a reflection or imputation of thought. Their real body and mind are indestructible and full of the potential for lasting mental freedom and bliss. As it says in The New Heart of Wisdom:

Each and every living being has their own body and mind, which are their subtle body and mind. These are called the “continuously residing body and mind,” and are his or her Buddha nature, the lineage of a future Buddha. Because they have this, when living beings meets Buddhadharma they will all finally attain the state of an enlightened Buddha.

However, at the moment impure appearances seem so real to us that we are perpetually overpowered and sucked into the daily drama of samsara. Most people of course don’t even know what they have inside them, nor the future that could be. We have been through countless lives already without finding this out.

(Not only are we selling ourselves short by not knowing who we really are and of what we are capable, we are also not even enjoying life’s pleasures a fraction as much as we could be. When we know about changing suffering and the dangers of its usual corollary, attachment, we have the impetus to transform these enjoyments into the spiritual path and make super speedy spiritual progress! But this can be the subject of other articles, such as this one.)

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Where is everything?

Unfindable, impermanent shapes — everything is like this!

Here is an (unusually) short but (hopefully) sweet article.

Everything is made of parts, including even the smallest part. And those parts are continually changing both individually and collectively.

Our body, for example, is changing all the time like this in dependence upon causes and conditions. So is every part of our body, as is every part of every starling.

Things may move at different paces, but move they do.

Atoms whizz around exceedingly fast, in fact, giving the illusion of solidity where there is none.

And absolutely everything changes moment by moment. Nothing lasts even a moment. Check out these articles on subtle impermanence to find more.

And, even more profoundly, everything is empty of existing from its own side.

We are attracted to the five sense objects and, like a moth to a flame, we get burned again and again. We need to learn to enjoy lightly without getting absorbed into everything, taken over and burned.

We get so attached to shapes — bodies, houses, art, carpets, mugs, and any number of other shapes, such that we think we can’t even live without them. Sometimes it seems that we are more attached to the shape of things than anything else?! Maybe the color too. This might be because our visual awareness is so important to us. In the old days, some meditators would even pray to be born blind! However, there is an easier way, which is to remember emptiness. Hence me posting this video as a visual reminder.

We think these shapes are actually there, solid and real. But if we go looking for the object of our attachment, such as our lover’s body, we’ll never be able to find it, any more than we can point to a shape in those birds. There is only emptiness. Every shape is mere appearance or mere name — nothing behind that. So what exactly are we so attached to?

(We like the smell, taste, sound, and touch of physical things too, of course, and they are all just as unfindable.)

The problem is not with attractive appearances, but with the belief that they are outside of our mind and hence outside of our control. Hence attachment, or “uncontrolled desire”. So we seek to own (or be owned). We seek to control (or be controlled).

Ideally, in the world of moths, there’d be a flame education program… “Listen guys when you next see that bright shiny thing, fly around it and not right into it. Discover how to enjoy its warmth and beauty from a safe distance and you’ll be happier – trust me!” Similarly, we can learn how to enjoy the mere appearance or mere name of beautiful things, such as we enjoy these starlings, without getting sucked into something that is not actually there.

On the basis of contentment (or renunciation), compassion, and wisdom, we can find out how to channel the desire energy aroused by attractive things into open-ended non-dual blissful wisdom, rather than falling into the flames of attachment and craving and experiencing suffering.

What do you reckon?


Mine. No touch.

This video moved me, and has helped me generate positive minds all day. So I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on it and invite you to contribute your own in the comments.

  1. The sentience — the sheer life — of animals. Indeed, how they are just like us, wanting to protect themselves and their young. They want to be happy and they don’t want to be hurt. Person, self, being, and I are synonyms according to Buddha. Animals are people. They are he’s and she’s, never its.
  2. Animals possess the same Buddha seeds of compassion and wisdom as we do — they are future Buddhas deserving of love and respect.
  3. How at our mercy animals are. The human in the video could easily take that puppy away and there is nothing the dog dad could do about it.
  4. Will this dad in fact get to keep his puppy? Where is the rest of the litter? Every day, millions and millions of children are taken away from their parents – calves, chicks, just this week more schoolgirls in Nigeria. Looking at these dogs, how can we bear that and allow it to go on? What right do we have to separate mothers and fathers from their babies? This illusory sense of ownership comes from ignorance, from the so-called view of the transitory collecting conceiving I and mine.
  5. Animals have ignorance conceiving I and mine, and attachment, just as we do. This dog may not be so protective of other puppies, for example, whom he doesn’t consider to be “mine”. There is a mixture going on of pure love wanting to protect his puppy and the ignorance of attachment. Exactly as there is with us human beings in most of our (good) relationships.
  6. Unlike us right now, animals are not able to cultivate their potential for enlightenment in this life. We could let this increase our compassion wanting to help them, rather than looking down on them. After all, there, but for the grace of Buddha and Dharma, or some good karma ripening, go we.
  7. For who would choose to be born as an animal? Samsara gives us no choice. We have been helpless animals like this countless times already, and have created the karma to be born helpless countless times again. One breath could be all that is keeping us from our next furry body.
  8. How are animals supposed to get out of there? And, if we fall into the animal realm, how on earth are we going to escape? As it says in the Buddhist scriptures: “It is said to be easier for human beings to attain enlightenment than it is for beings such as animals to attain a precious human rebirth.”
  9. This is motivation to make the most of this precious human life while we still have breath in our body. As Chandrakirti says in Guide to the Middle Way:

If when living in good conditions and acting with freedom
We do not act to hold ourselves back,
Once we have fallen into the abyss and lost our freedom,
How shall we raise ourselves from there in the future?

Over to you.


Transference of consciousness at the time of death

I want to tell you a story. Not one that I’ve told very often.

AvalokiteshvaraI moved to Florida in November 1999, into an apartment with N, my then partner. The same month a couple moved into the apartment next door, Cheryl and Bob, who hailed from the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. We didn’t seem to have anything in common, but for whatever reason we all liked each other. Bob called us “the beautiful people.” And one day as I was watching him drink at some kind of social event, a strong sense washed over me, “I am supposed to be protecting him.”

I assumed this meant that at some point he’d get into Buddhism or meditation. Seemed to me that this was going to take a very long time as he was not remotely interested. But, hey, I could be patient. And I started to keep him in my prayers.

One evening the four of us went to a movie, the Green Mile. Bob became very agitated at the (admittedly disturbing) execution scenes, and several times fled the auditorium to smoke in the foyer. He said afterwards he didn’t know why he found it all so terrifying, he was used enough to violent movies.

Two days later, around 7am, we found a note pushed under our door. It said, simply:

“It is 5am. Bob has had a brain hemorrhage. Please come to Sarasota Memorial Hospital. I don’t know where to turn.”

Our friend Losang was staying with us at the time, so all three of us rushed over there.

We arrived at intensive care to a surreal encounter – Cheryl was hastening towards us with a face blotchy and red from tears, but right behind her walked Bob, who seemed completely fine …

We must have looked startled, for she quickly said, “This isn’t Bob. This is his twin brother Rick.”

Rick, a long-distance truck driver, could not bear to be in the same room as his brother. So Losang sat and talked with him in the waiting room. He helped him a lot that day.

When N and I entered Bob’s room, he was lying in bed with a huge blown-out bandaged head. As I greeted him, to everyone’s surprise he raised up from the pillow in my direction, as if trying to hear me.

So I guessed that he must still be able to hear things, even though he was supposedly in a deep coma.

WhatWillYouExperienceN sat quietly by his bed meditating and praying, and I sat the other side talking to Bob about going to the Pure Land. I asked Cheryl if he believed in Jesus and, hearing that he did, I guided him through a visualization of Jesus sitting above him and how he was going to Jesus’s heart through the crown of his head. I talked about heaven and what it was going to be like for him there. I basically guided him in the Buddhist transference of consciousness to a Pure Land (Tibetan: powa) practice, but using Jesus instead of Compassion Buddha Avalokiteshvara.

Cheryl was listening but still deeply distraught. So, leaving N by Bob’s bedside, I accompanied her outside for her cigarette break to encourage her that this was Bob’s time and it was important he didn’t see her upset. She could help him enormously, but she had to be strong and peaceful. Her own time for grief could come later. I explained about transference of consciousness, even though we’d never had a spiritual conversation before in our life, and described how she could help him do it. I suggested she tell him how much love there was all around him from holy beings and from her, and that she describe heaven for him, including all the things he loved seeing and doing. He need have no fear because he was going straight to Jesus’s heart, and from now on would always be happy and safe.

Bless Cheryl, for she listened attentively, and then did exactly this, talking to Bob tirelessly and with deep love for all the remaining hours of his life. The three of us had to leave for work, but we left her there at Bob’s bedside, and eight hours later he peacefully passed away. By all accounts, the room felt utterly blessed.

Rick was distraught, but Cheryl felt strangely okay, as if Bob had not really left. One day she saw white light at the end of her bed. She often felt as though he was communicating with her and trying to let her know that he was alright. This presence went on for a few weeks until, one day, her curiosity drove her to consult a medium. She said this was a first for her, doing something like this, for she had not previously given a lot of thought to life after death. Though I suspect she was always a deep thinker.

The medium was told nothing about Bob’s death nor about me. But this is what happened.

“I am hearing from someone called Bob, do you know him?” Cheryl nodded yes. “He is telling me something that I don’t understand, something about a sister. Shall I just repeat what he’s saying?” Cheryl nodded yes again.

“When Bob was dying, you were with him in the hospital. And there was a woman there you were close to, was it a sister? You both were helping him, telling him what to do. And he wants you to know something …

It worked.”

Cheryl is not given to drama and hyperbole. When she told me this afterwards, it was plain as day that Bob had made it to the Pure Land. Bob also went onto say that we had done everything right, that he was in a pure beautiful place, happy, with no more suffering. He said Cheryl need never worry about him again, and he thanked us both.

Present day

book-Living-Meaningfully-Dying-Joyfully-frntCheryl has gotten even kinder and more spiritual over the years. And this month, February 2018, she has just helped another fiancé, Mike, through the death process. (Perhaps this is why I’m finally sharing Bob’s story.) She wrote to me today of her own memories of those last hours with Bob, which she says she understands better now:

“In hindsight, I came into acceptance of his pending death, which helped his soul complete his transition journey in a peaceful, loving way. I was happy for him to release his body to rebirth to pure spirit … I think we have to put our own grief or situation aside and remember that this can be a wondrous and beautiful time for them. You can choose to be a part of that journey in a loving and peaceful manner.”

As for Mike’s death, she says:

“I am much more present today than I was all those years ago with Bob. I will share what happened with you soon. When I am very low and grieving, I go back to that experience because there was no sadness during that time … only peace and pure unconditional love.”

Please pray for Mike. And for everyone else who is dying (all of us). When the time comes, may we all have someone who can leave their own grief aside and help us die peacefully. May everyone have powa done for them.

It makes all the difference.

Helping each other to die well

Ever since that day in 1999, not surprisingly, I have had a lot of faith both in the importance of helping someone die well if possible, and, regardless of how people die, in the astonishing power of powa practice. I hope this has increased your confidence in all this too, because, as my teacher Geshe Kelsang has said, there is nothing kinder we can do for humans or for animals than to help them reach the Pure Land when they die.

You can find out more about transference of consciousness — as well as other ways to understand and transform your own and others’ death — in the book Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully.


Decommissioning samsara


5.5 mins read

biocentrism 3What’s appearing to you right now?

In any event, it’s not so much what is appearing to you right now that’s the problem (if you have any problems), so much as your grasping at it as actually being there, solid and real.

This self-grasping ignorance gets us into all sorts of trouble and weighs us down. One example amongst countless (such as everything we’ve been upset about today) — if someone we like appears unfriendly, we can buy into that, dwell on it, make it more and more real, and get more and more unhappy.

As opposed to using wisdom to just let it go.

Breaking the illusion

We have this little window right now, with this precious human life, because we’ve met these teachings, and especially Buddha’s wisdom teaching on the illusory nature of reality, which is the ultimate Dharma Jewel and refuge.

Going back to the analogy in the last article on refuge, samsara is full of preprogrammed robots like me.

Moreover, everything we see is a 3D virtual reality projection that we are buying into, as if we were obliviously wearing those glasses and thinking that it’s really going on out there. From the perspective of those not seeing our particular hallucinations, we can look quite mad. And they can look quite mad to us for not following the rules of our 3D game.virtual reality glasses

Until we realize the fakery of samsara, we are wandering around thinking: “All this is real and out there. I’m really limited. I’m really suffering. Things really are difficult for me. My body really is a horrible mess. And I am basically an angry person — perhaps I can practice a bit of patience here and there, or maybe I can get a little bit kinder, but basically this is how I am, and I’m fixed, and I’m limited. And I am really deluded, and my life is full of suffering and problems, not to mention irritating people.”

This is when we’re buying into the reality of our samsara. Believing it. Believing what we see, all those appearances or projections, thinking that’s the way it actually is, this is who I am, that’s who all these annoying people are, the world’s a mess, everything’s real, everything’s solid.

But with Buddha’s wisdom teachings, it’s a bit like we suddenly worked out we are preprogrammed, realizing, “My life is not my own — I’m being propelled from one situation to the next by the software of delusions and karma!”  And we decide, “OK, I’m westworldgoing to change this, because, although everything is kind of fake, now that I’ve realized this, it means I can ditch this program and take off these glasses.”

“We have everything upside down”

Fact is, there’s nothing real or solid or fixed about any of this. There is nothing existing objectively. There is nothing independent of the mind. There is nothing outside the mind. Even some quantum scientists are beginning to say this kind of thing:

Consciousness is what gives rise to our sense of there being an “out there” when, in fact, the world we experience around us is actually created in our consciousness.

I might add that it is our gross and subtle consciousness that creates this dualistic sense of in here and out there – our very subtle mind has a non-dual experience of reality. Check out this article if you’re interested.

Victims of our thoughts?

If things were inherently or objectively existent, we might as well give up right now. There’s no point practicing Buddhism if everything is solid and fixed and real. There’s no point at all, if we can’t change it.

But what Buddha is saying is that it is completely changeable because it’s not really there, at least not in the way we think it is. Everything is dreamlike and depends entirely upon our mind. We are projecting our world with our thoughts and then believing that it’s out there, coming at us, rather like a movie or an hallucination. But rather than remaining the victims of our own crummy thoughts without even realizing it, Buddha explained that we can transform our thoughts – which is the practice of Dharma – and therewith our reality.

Biocentrism 1It is not just a case of coping with the material, real world, by practicing a little bit of patience here with inherently annoying people, a little bit of contentment there with inherently attractive people. If we change our thoughts, we literally change our world. We change our reality from one of confusion and delusion to one of wisdom and positivity, with all the objects projected by our minds changing too, because they depend entirely one upon the other.

Buddha’s point is that we can do this because nothing is fixed, nothing is real. The ultimate Dharma Jewel IS those wisdom teachings, that nothing is real. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist at all, by the way – we’re all here reading this, Hello! But we’re not here in the way that we think we’re here. We’re not all separate, isolated individuals, for example. It’s not us over here, and everyone else over there, with this big gap between us. That duality is an optical illusion of our ignorance.

Ultimately we turn to wisdom, therefore, to get rid of our problems. In the mean time we also turn to the other Dharma jewels: compassion, love, patience, renunciation, faith, correct imagination, and so on. All these virtuous minds solve our problems — they solve our actual problems, such that those problems reduce straightaway and finally go away for good.

Inner being

As explained here, we have an habitual urge to solve our problems out there – “Should I contact him? What should I say to get his attention? To make him love me again?!” It doesn’t work, usually.

But we don’t have to keep scratching every itch, or any itch. If we change our thoughts, the itch simply goes away. For good.

projectionEven just allowing our mind to settle a bit relieves the pain of needing to go out there and fix the fixed or unfixable. Delusions such as attachment and aversion go outwards – we need to go inwards, where we’ll find all the peace, relief, satisfaction, and richness we’ve always wanted. Try this meditation to see for yourself.

On that basis, instead of developing anger, jealousy, disappointment, or unrequited attachment, we can learn to view others with genuine love. That way they are never separated from us and we feel a warmth of communion instead of the wrench of being torn asunder.

Everyone is a projection of our mind, so we can learn to project with love and wisdom rather than projecting people out there, nothing to do with us, fixed, who then won’t or can’t cooperate with what we think we need from them.

Over to you, would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

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Inner being


Love without pain

broken heart
You can still fly.

Have you ever had a broken heart?

If you could look around at everyone else reading this, you would likely discover that not one of them is replying No to this question. In fact, chances are they have each had no less than five broken hearts, depending on their age and whether my previous random market research (asking people) is anything to go by.

Our hearts are prone to breaking because we have attachment. Attachment doesn’t work. Love always works though, thankfully.

(This article is quite long, almost 10 minutes, as I figured people need all the antidotes to attachment they can get on Valentine’s Day 😆.)

A lovers’ tiff

hipsters breaking upThe other day I was quietly meditating in the park in the setting sun, when I found myself silent witness to a little play enacted in the space between me and the beautiful mountain backdrop.

It was a lovers’ tiff. He walks away with his skateboard, saying, “I don’t know what you effing want from me!”

Not too much it turns out. “I just want a conversation with someone who is not 30 feet away!”

He returns. The discussion continues. “For real?!?” she says, as he walks off again

(To be fair, I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop — they had plonked themselves down not 20 feet away …)

“All you effing care about is yourself! You show me no affection! You never give me a call!”

“What am I doing right now?”, he replies.

(I start to wonder if I am watching past scenes of my own life …)

There is a dog with them. I am thinking, admittedly quite randomly, that if that dog starts choking, their spat will quickly be over — for they will both be more concerned with someone else. Cherishing others always restores our perspective.

Ah, is this a happy ending anyway? He seems to be hugging her. I am wishing them and everyone else to be free from attachment and aversion. The dog, another silent witness to these antics, is trying to nuzzle her too. They will last another day. Except that now she is crying.

Troubles like this will be even more numerous today because expectations (aka “premeditated resentments”) are even higher than usual. Apparently both suicides and homicides increase on Valentine’s Day.

What is happiness?

happiness within 2We have been turning to attachment for our happiness since beginningless time. It is a bad old habit and, because it is associated with changing suffering, ie, fleeting pleasant feelings or, as Geshe Kelsang puts it “artificial happiness”, it is usually a harder habit to break than, say, anger, because anger is associated with unpleasant feelings, which we already know we don’t like.

To be convinced that attachment doesn’t work, we need our own deepening experience that happiness is a state of our mind, and that it doesn’t inhere in anything outside our mind. The more peaceful and positive our mind, and the less deluded it is, the happier we become. This is explained all over the place, including in this article.

Attachment searches outside where happiness cannot be found. But peace connects us to our inner source of limitless happiness.

We don’t need attachment to be happy. Not at all. And all it does is block us from seeking the actual sources of happiness and freedom.

Where to put a sofa in a burning house?

sofa in a burning house

We also need the bigger context for understanding what’s wrong with attachment. Namely, the wisdom of renunciation, understanding that there can be no pure happiness to be found in an impure life — a life characterized by the impure minds of self-grasping, attachment, and other delusions. Without the larger picture of renunciation, which wishes for complete freedom, we will continually fall for samsara’s pleasures … “Yeah, I know samsara sucks overall, but this next relationship/vacation/drink/surf etc is going to be an exception to the rule, I just know it! … ”

Thinking of samsara as a pleasure garden, as opposed to a prison, it is very hard to stop trying to make attachments work. How can we stop getting caught up in that addictive cycle of dopamine hits for one object of attachment after another if we think that’s all there is on offer?

Kadam Morten once asked, “Where should we put a sofa in a burning house?” It is a brilliant illustration of trying to make samsara work. We cannot get our existential security from partners, friends, and family. It is not possible to make a real world work because a real world doesn’t exist (more on that below).

sofa in a burning house 2If we understand that happiness is an inside job, and that samsara will never work, we are ready for the essential practice of transforming our enjoyments into the quick path to enlightenment, as explained a bit here. In short, we mix the pleasure or bliss with the true nature of reality, and in this way destroy our attachment and all other delusions.

To transform enjoyments, we also need compassion – we can’t do it out of selfishness. I love the new verse in The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra on page 104. But I’ll talk more about that another day.

Virtual reality

To overcome attachment, we need to know what it is doing, ie, sucking us into a “real” world. Here is the definition of attachment:

A deluded mental factor that observes its contaminated object, regards it as a cause of happiness, and wishes for it. ~ How to Understand the Mind page 113

“Contaminated” means by ignorance, so the object appears real, existing from its own side; and because it appears attractive due to some karma ripening, we feel it causes happiness from its own side too. So it is no wonder we wish for it, get absorbed into it, like oil into cloth. (For a story line of how attachment develops, you could check out this article.)

virtual reality same game for a while
In the same game for a while.

We project people in a certain ideal or at least desirable (for us) way, and then want or even expect them to live up to that. We hold out that they’ll change in the direction we want them to, but this is not realistic.

Have you ever watched someone wandering around in those virtual reality glasses? To people who are not in the same game as them, they seem to be floundering around foolishly. This is analogous to having the mental projection of a GF or BF who is no longer in the same game as us, but we haven’t quite realized or accepted that. Vainly trying to get ovirtual realityur own projection to cooperate, to love us again, neither the ex nor anyone else really knows why we keep at it: “Get over it already! Take those glasses off!”

Can’t fix the fixed

If we get all confused when relationships don’t work out, it’s because we are relating to and/or trying to fix something inherently existent.

To our self-grasping minds, including attachment, things appear to be inherently existent, or independent – existing in and of themselves, findable — and we grasp at them as such. But inherently existent objects can never change, however much we want them to. If something changes, it means it is dependent on causes, not INdependent.

Fixing or changing someone at the same time as holding them to be inherently existent is therefore a contradiction. If we have attachment grasping at someone as inherently desirable but upsetting us, for example, then upsetting they will have to stay. That upset thought can never ever get rid of its inherently existent object. The only way to get rid of the upsetting person is to get rid of the upset thought itself. To move on, as they say, to other thoughts.


We can tell that things are not inherently existent sources of pleasure or suffering by thinking about how our perceptions and memories change entirely when the relationship ends. The scent that drove us crazy with desire now drives us crazy with heartache. The memory of the touch of skin that we so loved and fantasized about now torments us.

I had a conversation with someone recently who had just broken up with her boyfriend. She told me, “I thought he’d change, and we would go on proper dates and he’d cook for me as he had promised.” (Yep, more scenes from my own life.) “And that he wouldn’t just sit around and play video games and smoke weed. But he didn’t want to change. Five years later, I am out of here. I was also attached to the idea that I needed him for my spiritual practice. I feel real relief. Some sadness too, but it is motivating.”

Breakups can be so useful – they make us turn for refuge to an actual source of happiness. They also help us empathize with everyone else who is lugging around the heavy burden of attachment, engendering a genuine wish for them to find lasting happiness from within.

By the way, there is nothing wrong with relationships per se. Indeed, we are in relationship with everyone. We have different karmic connections and sometimes we find people attractive. Attachment is associated primarily with romantic relationships, maybe because we are in the habit of romanticizing or validating attachment in that context. However, attachment comes up in most of our relationships, eg, with friends and children and pets.

The problems are not outside our mind. The point is, as always, that we need Dharma whether we are in a relationship or not. Whether single or coupled up, we equally need to identify the attachments and aversions in our mind and transcend these. The grass won’t turn out to be greener anywhere else if we don’t have Dharma in our hearts.

Love is the answer

love v attachment(I read somewhere that women always expect men to change and men never expect women to change. Not sure if that is a Dharma sentiment, but does it have a ring of truth?!)

Reminds me of another anecdote – a conversation I had with two elder women around Christmas-time. One was asking me, “How can I have love for my husband?! He just sits around all day. He turns the TV on first thing in the morning, it is driving me mad. It was okay when we both went to work, but now he is really boring.” The other woman agreed, wryly observing that her similar situation was reminding her of the grumpy old man syndrome and a recent (rather cruel and no doubt out of context) headline: “Women are happier when their husbands have died.”

Kind of goes to show that even if we do manage to sustain a relatively long-lasting relationship, till death us do part, it is still not a guaranteed bed of roses.

Relationships per se are not a pain in the butt. After all, as mentioned, we are related to everyone one way or another. But attachment is.

snowflake sweaterI suggested (jokingly) that she bought her husband a Christmas sweater embroidered: “I am a snowflake”. (Maybe you had to be there …) But the idea was that it would remind her that she needs not to fixate on him/this situation, but instead spread her love wider to all living beings, who are each equally interconnected with us, fragile, impermanent, and precious. That perspective will reduce her attachment wanting her husband to be different AND her irritation that he is not.

For more on how love overcomes attachment, check out Choose love and Love, attachment, and desire according to Buddhism.

Contemplate the dream-like nature of your world

Rather than projecting stuff “out there” with our attachment and then falling victim to our own thoughts, it is immensely helpful to remember that everything is the nature of our mind, like a dream. As Geshe Kelsang explains in Joyful Path of Good Fortune:

biocentrismAlthough the objects and the minds that perceive them arise simultaneously, we have mistaken appearances of the objects as existing external to our mind, and we grasp them as existing in this way. Since we grasp at the objects as existing externally, we develop desirous attachment for those that seem attractive.

In this recent biocentrism article, the modern scientist Dr. Lanza seems to be catching up to Buddha’s 2500-year-old view:

Most people believe that there’s an independent physical universe “out there” that has nothing to do with our awareness of it.  This seeming truth persisted without much dissent until the birth of quantum mechanics. Only then did a credible science voice appear, which resonated with those who claimed that the universe does not seem to exist without a perceiver of that universe.

Another thing about dreams is that they come to an end. As Buddha put it,

In samsara, all our dreams are broken in the end.

Since beginningless time, we have been attached to everyone. I mean, literally, everyone. Countless dreams, all vanished. How do we decide which ones are worth holding onto?

We must learn to create our own pure dream, one that we have full control over. And this we can do, if we take advantage of Buddha’s Sutra and Tantra teachings.

Over to you – what has helped you the most to overcome strong attachments? Any stories to share?

Lots more Valentine’s Day reading 💝

Want better relationships?

How to mend a broken heart

Happiness is here right now

Love, attachment, and desire

Falling in love again

Love free from attachment 

The art of letting go


How’s samsara working out for you?

samsara7 mins read

One way we can understand the need for deeper refuge is by thinking about what ARE our problems, what are our sufferings, and whether our temporary sources of refuge are in fact good enough for us. If they are, fantastic. And if they’re not, then good to know, because we can then seek refuge in something more effective.

Carrying on from this refuge article.

If you’re suffering at all, chances are you’re in samsara. Samsara is what Buddha called this state of existence where we have delusions and (usually) meaty bodies. Basically, in samsara we’re suffering, one way or another. Even when we’re happy, we’re not as happy as we could be.

Samsara doesn’t come from the places and people outside us, our job or our politics, our weather or our entertainments. It is the creation and mirror of the delusions in our mind, especially our ignorance of self-grasping and self-cherishing. This is why we can run but we can’t hide.

Although there’s good bits in our mind, and nice experiences that we have, overall we’re trapped in a state of uncertainty, in a state of no satisfaction, in a state of suffering. We’re subject to physical illnesses, we’re subject to mental pain — every day, if we check. Perhaps every hour.

forsaleI’ve had a rotten cold these past 10 days for example, along with half of New York; and it’s been making me feel sad for the people I pass with no homes to go to. I find it painful even to walk for ten minutes to the subway in these frigid temperatures, the cold searing my lungs – but I have a cozy bed and warm tea to welcome me at the end of my journey, as opposed to cardboard and indifference.

There’s rarely a day goes by when a body doesn’t hurt in some way. Yours is probably already a little uncomfortable in some way as you sit reading this — you’re thinking it’s time to get up and move around. (Not that I want to put that idea in your head … hold on.)

The problem with these bodies

You could be sitting right now on a lovely comfy sofa – we try to make our body as comfortable as we can, but it is challenging given that it is a bag of bones with lots of nerve endings. Reminds me … I was so pleased with a new massage chair gifted to me that I bought a similar contraption for my father with the hope that it’d ease his aching muscles. What it actually did though was crunch his old bones and make him hurt for weeks.

A good friend of mine texted this morning from England, a yogi monk known as Rainbow to his oldest friends — been practicing Dharma as long as I have, and really meditating a lot. Anyway, he texted me this morning just to say, “How are you? I’m doing well considering I’m imputed on a bag of bones.” bodyworld

And that’s about as good as it gets in terms of physical comfort. Some days we’re relatively comfortable. Given that at the moment we identify so strongly with this bag of bones as “my body”, and even as me, it’s amazing we have any good days, really, because, and I don’t know if you have noticed?, these bodies are not set up for comfort. Everything in our body can hurt. Everything, except for maybe our hair. And even that, if someone pulls it …

There’s pretty much nothing about our bodies that can’t hurt, doesn’t hurt sooner or later. Like teeth. How many teeth do we have? 36? 2? 12? Anyway, it amazes me that every single tooth in our mouth is fine when it’s working, we don’t even think about it; but when it isn’t working, whoa, that hurts, that can ruin our day. And there’s 31 more where that came from.

And there’s nothing about our body that’s not potentially going to turn against us, either. We can get cancer all over our body, can’t we? (Maybe not in our fingernails.) And eventually the whole thing just gives out.

Incorrectly identifying ourselves

Samsara is basically when we impute ourselves on, or identify ourselves with, a meaty body and a deluded mind, thinking: “This is me, this is who I am, I’m this person, I’m a limited person. This is me, looking all ugly because of this cold. I’m capable of good things sometimes, but other times I hate myself. I’m inadequate, I’m unhappy, I’m irritated, I’m obsessed, I’m anxious, I’m sad, I’m sore, I’m hurting. Etc. etc.

pure potential

Whenever we think like that about ourselves, we’re identifying ourselves with our meaty body and/or impure states of mind. But the fact is that these are NOT who we are. We are not really (or inherently) anything. We could instead identify with our extraordinary pure potential, and, if we go for refuge to Dharma, we can completely transcend mental and physical suffering with this human life that we currently possess, traveling the entire path to liberation and enlightenment.

As Geshe Kelsang brilliantly points out in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra, since beginningless time our way of identifying our self has been mistaken:

What does taking rebirth in samsara mean? It means that in each of our lives due to ignorance we grasp our body or mind as our self, thinking, “I” “I”, where there is no I, or self. Through this we experience the sufferings of this life and countless future lives as hallucinations endlessly.


So, when we turn for refuge, that’s what we really want — protection from all the sufferings that come up within our samsara, understanding that samsara is just the experience of a deluded mind and a meaty body, wherever they may be. According to Buddhism we’ve had countless lives in these kinds of bodies. Often far worse bodies than the one we have now, and far more polluted or negative minds.

We’ve caught a bit of a break, according to Buddha, at the moment, in this precious human life. We have a little window to practice Dharma — our sufferings are not so crushing that there’s nothing we can do about them, but they’re enough to motivate us to do something about them. We can develop the ability to get to their root, to kind of deprogram or decommission our samsara, as it were.

robotDelusions remind me a little bit of preprograms that run in our minds. Maybe I’ve been thinking too much about artificial intelligence recently. It’s kind of like when robots run around all preprogrammed, our delusions are a bit like that. We’ve arrived with this horrible software from previous lives, and are being run around by it. So we need to reconfigure our software. In fact, we need to ditch it altogether, be free!

We need to be free. Our delusions don’t let us be free. They constrict us in so many different ways, and they cause us suffering in life after life. So we need to deprogram our minds by getting rid of our delusions while we’ve got this opportunity to do so, while someone is actually saying to us, “Hey, you can do this, and this is how.” Someone who is not part of this program, and understands exactly how it is set up and how we can dismantle it.

A Buddha has appeared in our life, extraordinarily, and, as we go about our daily lives — running around trying to find happiness here, there, and everywhere — he’s kind of striding along next to us, saying, “Hey, slow down a minute, look within. You’re preprogrammed. Just ditch the entire software, stop trying to make this work, it can’t.”

(Is this analogy working for anyone other than me?!)

I have quoted this before as it is one of my favorite Shantideva sayings:

We should not let our habits dominate our behavior or act as if we were sleepwalking.

matrixI think that’s exactly what we do — we let our deluded habits dominate our behavior, we DO act as if we’re kind of sleepwalking, we’re not wide awake. We’re conditioned or pre-programmed to act in certain ways. Conditioned by what? By our delusions and karma. And with our delusions we create our messy society, and this in turn conditions us further. It is endless mirror reflections.

So we’re trapped in this kind of Matrix hallucination. And Buddha really wants to unplug us all. He wants us to log out of this preprogrammed endless horror show of samsara.

Life without suffering is possible. But not samsaric life.

More later. Meanwhile, what do you think about all this?

Related articles

Dealing with samsaric suffering

Samsara is not real 

Rewriting the stories of our lives