Injoyment

9 mins read.

You are unique. There is no one quite like you in this world. And as Fred Rogers would say:

I like you just the way you are.

But, as per this last article, it is helpful to contemplate that we are all also basically the same — unique but none more special — one reason being that our varieties of mind are the same. This includes both negative and positive minds, both unhappiness and happiness.

Tala 1In this human realm we have a lot more worldly pleasure aka changing suffering than beings in the hell and hungry spirit realms because living beings there are rarely, if ever, free from the painful feelings of manifest suffering. This is almost too ghastly to contemplate, thought contemplate it we must if we are to develop universal compassion.

But whenever we are experiencing changing suffering it feels the same as other people’s.

My African adventure took a new turn when we decided on the spur of the moment to go say hello to the animals at the Tala game reserve. I was not expecting to spend the day hanging out on the wide open plain with rhinos, zebras, ostriches, wildebeest, monkeys, and giraffes, but there you go, another reminder to always expect the unexpected. It was a bit like the opening scenes of the Lion King, which I seem to be watching on this final airplane lap back to America.

Ok, so here’s a question. We saw this giraffe, like some mesmeric prehistoric creature, lumbering across the road in front of our truck to nibble on the green leaves on the top of a new tree. She seemed happy, she probably was happy, why not. And what was that? Was it not changing suffering? The same kind of comparative pleasure we all experience from worldly pleasures?  

Tala 4Back in the Observatory where I was staying in Cape Town, a frail old woman was sleeping outside in the same spot every night because it has a makeshift tarpaulin roof; but Sangkyong discovered that in the rainy months she was pushed out of that prime spot by two youths, only allowed to return in the dry season. If someone finds a tarpaulin, there is happiness, just as if someone buys a mansion, there is happiness. How much subjective difference is there in those pleasant feelings?

From life in luxury to life on the edge, is there any qualitative difference in our happiness when we get something we want? The giraffe is happy to find his green leaves, a millionaire is happy to purchase some new novelty like a yacht, and a handout of 100 Rands might make the day of someone hustling to survive. It is all relative – the suffering of change is by nature relative, the crossover point between some manifest pain and its temporary relief. Scratching an itch, as it were. Like receiving the all clear from a doctor, which is a pleasurable relief, but only for someone who thought they might have cancer. Better than, “It’s not good news I’m afraid,” but still not good enough.

Wayne the local guardian
Wayne who watches over KMC Tushita

By the way, none of these types of relief holds a candle to the relief we experience when we are able to drop into our peaceful heart-mind and let go of our problems through breathing meditation, much less when we start grasping less at our self through the wisdom realizing there is no self.

What is happiness?

Happiness is a loaded word, of course, which may be why Geshe Kelsang explains two types, fake and real.

According to The Week, in the mid-17th century Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, cast the word “happiness” (which hitherto had meant “lucky”) as an unending process of accumulating objects of desire, redefining it as a subjective, shifting feeling, predicated on our desires:

The felicity of this life,” wrote Hobbes in 1651, “consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such finis ultimus (utmost aim) nor summum bonum (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.

He believed that happiness had a slippery and fleeting nature and must be continually sought after, which I think is a good description for the fake happiness of changing suffering. Or as Don Draper, the advertising exec, puts it in Mad Men:

What is happiness? It’s the moment before you need more happiness.

In some ways, the itch of fake happiness becomes more itchy the more stuff we acquire because luxuries become necessities and we find ourselves more and more distracted from the source of real happiness within. External wealth is nowhere near as meaningful or satisfying as internal wealth, not even close.

wealthOnce the basic necessities of food, clothing, medicine, and housing are met, more contentment would seem to bring more peace of mind. Trust me, I have thought about this, and I am not saying I’d prefer to be poverty stricken — day to day life is grueling with few resources and I’m way too accustomed to comfort and, basically, a wimp. But I think the feeling of pleasure we get from externals, once the basic needs are met, may not be that different.

I saw a lot of laughter in Alexandra, arguably more than in the neighboring Sandton with its fancy mansions behind electric fences. Jampel in Durban told me a story about visiting Eshowe in the Bodhisattva Patti days and seeing little boys playing with string and tin cans “squealing with joy, for hours on end” – a pleasure he reckoned was just as great as the pleasure of the little Sandton boy stuck into his video game, quick to boredom, maybe greater.

happiness

Therefore, as Buddha explains, the pleasure of temporary liberation from particular sufferings –although a great deal preferable to endless manifest pain — is nevertheless never going to be good enough for any of us, rich or poor – we all need permanent liberation from all suffering. This, then, is Buddha Shakyamuni’s intention– to free all living beings permanently from all their suffering. It is the reason he attained enlightenment and taught everyone else how to go about it.

I read this the other day about the apparently greatly misunderstood Epicurus (also in The Week):

As Epicurus saw it, happiness is merely the lack of aponia—physical pain—and ataraxia—mental disturbance. It was not about the pursuit of material gain, or notching up gratifying experiences, but instead was a happiness that lent itself to a constant gratefulness.

Buddhism would agree that when our delusions have subsided, and/or when we experience gratitude or other positive minds, our mind is naturally peaceful and therewith happy; and would also add that we can exponentially deepen that peace and happiness through increasing our positive minds until they last forever.

I was thinking today about why get out of bed in the morning? Why do anything? Why slog away at work, feed the cat, put up the offerings, answer the texts, talk to the coworkers, sort out the paperwork, go for a walk, surf the internet, give away a dollar, go to the doctor, watch TV, water the flowers, etc etc. I know from the times I’ve tried it that if we can have the same intention as Buddha — that is, wanting ourself and all living beings to be free permanently from all sufferings — our whole day becomes extraordinary, even as practically speaking we work just temporarily to liberate ourself and others’ from particular sufferings. With practice, we can get better and better at doing both these at the same time.

Curating our life feeds

impermanenceWhat is true or real happiness? Nowadays a lot of people famously curate their Facebook or Instagram feeds to give the impression that their lives are perfect and to avoid appearing unhappy — just one peak experience after another, one exotically located selfie after another — leaving everyone else grimacing or with FOMO. This constant pretending takes a toll and probably, though I haven’t Googled this to check, undermines friendships rather than strengthens them. If our lives were actually perfect and we were always happy, we probably wouldn’t bother telling everyone. I haven’t seen Venerable Geshe-la post any selfies recently, for example. It’s hard to get him to talk about his own life or his achievements or his non-stop great bliss at all.

It is not just on social media that we are jostling for reputation and position like this, I think it just shows up there because we spend so much time on it. One of the social workers in Alex township, who has to deal with so much real crazy sh** every day, was nonetheless more preoccupied by a male friend who was so proud of his new car that he was making everyone around him “feel small”. Apparently there is a lot of jostling for status in the townships, that’s what they told me; and perhaps it’s not so surprising in a community that was kept down for so long.

Facebook fakeryWhen I brought up Shantideva’s analysis of how we categorize people into (1) those who are inferior to us in some way so we feel pride, (2) equal to us in some way so we feel competitive, or (3) superior to us in some way so we feel jealous, there was a vigorous nodding of heads. I was surprised one early morning to see the domestic, Ama, arrive at work where I was staying all dressed in her very finest togs as if she was going to a wedding or something. When I started looking, I could see that a lot of commuters were beautifully dressed on their way to and from work, apparently to keep up appearances in the communal taxi, and changing quickly into their scruffy clothes once no longer amongst their peers. Just Instagram in 3D.

Injoyment

That leads me to Buddha’s point about happiness coming from within — real happiness, that is, versus the fake happiness of changing suffering. The deepening pure unconditional happiness that arises from a growing inner peace, a pure intention, warm love, virtue, and wisdom. How does the pleasure from, say, eating some good food (however we construe that, from green leaves on top of a new tree to dining out on every continent) compare with the pleasure from say, developing the heartfelt wish for everyone to be unconditionally happy and permanently free from suffering?

pleasure from within

Happiness doesn’t come from working hard or pursuing and purchasing peak experiences. It is a natural by-product of peaceful and positive states of mind. Our first-world lifestyle and expectations can therefore backfire. To quote The Week again:

These days, we try to collect moments of happiness like shells at the beach, even as the waves wash them away. The pursuit is Sisyphean; it inevitably leads down a disappointing path.

Or, as Aldous Huxley wrote in 1956:

The right to the pursuit of happiness is nothing else than the right to disillusionment phrased in another way.

Also, in this kind of pursuit of happiness, we often think it also requires avoiding bad feelings at all cost — pretending they are not there and airbrushing them out of our feeds or daily commute, or distracting ourselves. But if we know how to be truly happy we are no longer scared of these thoughts and emotions because we know they are just weather in the mind with no power to do us harm, and not who we really are. (See these articles for more on that.)

And, like I said, we’re all the same

One last thing, just like our negative minds and our experiences of changing suffering described above, our virtuous minds also feel the same inside. We are not that original. Which turns out to be a good thing. For, if we are not so original or unique after all, it means the methods exist to fix us.

Thanks for sharing my adventures in South Africa. Over to you. Comments most welcome in the box below.

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What’s the difference between us?

8.5 mins read.

You may know this already, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded, that people the world over are all the same in the ways that really count.

Observatory 1For one thing, samsara sucks for everyone. Birth, sickness, old age, and death – who is immune from these four great rivers or from having to watch loved ones helplessly tossed around upon them?

Carrying straight on from this article,where I started talking about transforming adverse conditions into the path.

The day I arrived in South Africa, I heard that my beloved cat Rousseau, the king of the neighborhood, had met his match. He was torn to death by a coyote.

No words, really. A nightmare for him. Despite his own murderous ways, he had a heart of sweetness under those terrible instincts, and he deserved so much better. Everybody does. I am so very grateful for the hundreds of prayers that many of you offered for him, and that Venerable Geshe-la enquired after him. As cats go, despite his terrifying and painful death, he was still blessed. Only a tiny fraction of wild animals get to die peacefully in their sleep, and infinitely fewer still have anyone paying any attention to them, let alone a great spiritual master. However, it still makes me ask, for the thousandth time — how do people cope with losses like this without Dharma?

RousseauOver a month later, the panther is still on my mind. But that is not him anymore. Where are you, my dear? Why can we never know where people have gone. A friend of mine once went missing in Florida – two agonizing weeks for everyone who loved her, the just not knowing. Then she was found drowned, her car having overshot a bridge in the middle of the night; and everyone was “Well, at least we know now.” But of course we don’t know; she is still missing. We have no clue where she is. That alone is reason enough to become a Buddha, if you ask me – so that we can keep eyes on everyone always, like Avalokiteshvara with his thousand arms and eyes, because they are now always mere aspects of our omniscient blissful mind.

Rousseau’s other mom Donna asked for my input into his gravestone and I chose a stone Buddha statue from Walmart. I hope through seeing Buddha that she and all the other humans and animals in his old stomping grounds will receive continuous blessings. Even the coyote.

Outer problems

Taxi in SA

Outer problems in South Africa can clearly be a good deal more challenging than my own usual first-world problems. For example, I don’t need the daily fear of a deadly crash in the crazy communal taxi I rely on to get to work.

These taxis are everywhere, sidling alongside your car in the same lane, viewing every gap in the road as an opportunity to get ahead because, at the end of the day, payment depends upon meeting impossible quotas. South African traffic is crazy!!! As my old friend Cas put it in his laconic way when I asked why people didn’t follow the road rules, “They are more like guidelines.” (Some of you know Cas as no-shoes John from the Festivals – and it may please you to know that he was the first Kadampa in South Africa, requesting the first teachings.) Or I could be living in a place with zero privacy, several family members in a noisy one-roomed house, or no electricity, or insufficient money for supper. And so on.

But life is not easy back here in the States either, despite it still being the richest country in the world. For example, a friend of mine, JW,  who is doing a study on senior homelessness often tells me stories of his clients’ wretched conditions in Oakland CA. This one just in:

senior homeless

Work today was nonstop. It was also a bit gloomy. I had an interview with a homeless gentleman who is in extremely poor health. He has a broken bone in his shoulder, another broken in his leg and has had countless falls in the past couple of months due to having problems with his balance. He is outside and the rains are beginning to fall. He is in serious need of help but is having a hard time finding it.

JW is not allowed to “interfere,” because this study is to reveal what senior homeless people need and so those results cannot be skewed. So:

All I could do for him was to give him a few large garbage bags to us as a poncho or for shelter. Sad.

Inner problems

As mentioned in this article, our role model in Mahayana Buddhism, called a “Bodhisattva”, works on solving both outer and inner problems — trying to come to the aid of those in need whenever the opportunity is there to do so.

But although outer problems vary from place to place and time to time, our inner problems do not — they come from our delusions grasping at me and mine, they distort our perceptions, they destroy our peace, and inside they feel the same. And these problems can only be finally solved for any of us when we get around to purifying and transforming our minds.

Our states of mind feel exactly the same – whether that be worry, irritation, or the pleasure of changing suffering. If you are really p***** off with George, does that not feel the same as someone else feeling really p****** off with Mary? Your grief or your annoyance or your depression or your attachment feels the same as mine, for example; only the object varies. we are all the same

We are funny really – all feeling like we are the center of the universe and somehow different and unique. We have so little real clue about the vast majority of the world’s population of humans, let alone animals; but I think we are safe in assuming that everyday life everywhere is a mixture of the same array of negative, neutral, and virtuous minds, just in varying ratios. That makes our stories and priorities similar, world over, regardless of our background or culture; and knowing that could help us to understand and empathize with each other.

If you want to check whether Buddha’s explanation of all living beings’ negative, neutral, and virtuous states of mind actually applies to you or not, I recommend you read How to Understand the Mind. Go see if he has left any of your thoughts out.

Mind-training

On the basis of allowing our delusions to subside temporarily through allowing the mind to settle even a little, for example with this meditation, connecting with some natural inner peace, we can then gradually learn strategies or ways of thinking to (a) pre-empt our future problems and/or (b) deal with them or transform them as they start to arise.

With the help of mind-training (Lojong) in particular, in which we learn to apply Buddha’s teachings directly to our difficulties, we can develop a huge repertoire of coping mechanisms.

Google skin cancerJust for starters, whatever problem we are having today, instead of thinking of it as inherently bad we can try labelling or imputing it as a useful teaching. For the sake of argument, let’s say that today you notice a strange lesion on your skin – you had been thinking it was a scratch but it’s been there 2 months and is now ominously growing. You send a photo to a friend, who sends it to a dermatologist, who texts back, “Skin cancer until proven otherwise.”

Meantime you have been chucked off Medicaid due to not filing the correct paperwork in time.

Okay. After the initial freakout — spending a panicky half hour looking at all the Google images for skin cancer and discovering that, yes, it could be benign, as your friend is trying to tell you, but on the other hand it could also be the worst possible most malignant melanoma and you have approximately 2 years left to live — you decide to slow down and, for the sake of your sanity, think about this from a Dharma point of view. Instead of grasping so tightly at me and mine, maybe you decide to let those thoughts dissolve into the peaceful clarity of your own mind, like  bubbles into water, going for refuge in the peace of your own Buddha nature and/or in holy beings.

Within the mental flexibility or freedom that opens up in that space, this small but very present skin lesion can now remind us of all sorts of things, such as:

  • I need more inner peace, in fact lasting inner peace; and I need to identify my self with this peace, not with this mental pain and possible physical suffering.
  • SadFamilyDoctorThis is what life is like for others, so it’s giving me a window into empathy – for example for people experiencing dread or fear when they receive bad news from a doctor. When we get over ourselves, we finally start to relax.
  • This is not inherently bad because it can make me stronger. Me myself, this lesion, and my experience of this lesion, far from being solid or fixed, all depend upon my thoughts. I can come to enjoy the challenge of transforming this problem into a solution! Why? Because I want to be a better person.

This is a true story that happened to someone I know, probably many people actually — and this way of thinking has worked for them, they feel peaceful again, inner problem solved for now. They are also dealing with the outer problem by getting on the phone to Medicaid and finding a doctor who can see them next week.

This also works for transforming other people’s problems. Someone in Joburg told me that all vegans are depressed, including her, because things are changing so slowly – and how can she transform that kind of stress? Again, heart-rending as it is when it comes to animals and other vulnerable people, we cannot immediately sort out all their outer problems, any more than one drowning person can save another drowning person, pighowever much they want to. But as well as doing the best we can, knowing that every little bit helps someone, we can use these situations to increase our compassion and our wish to become a Buddha as quickly as possible for their sake.

As we progressively free ourselves from depression, discouragement, and other delusions and as we increase our wisdom, patience, and good heart, we can become more skillful, creative, and full of the tireless courage we need if we are to free everybody.

Over to you. Comments please!

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Unplugged

6.5 mins read.

kids in Khayelitsha
Going home after meditation

My visit to South Africa made me grateful to my teacher Venerable Geshe Kelsang, to the resident teachers and warm-hearted community in the 3 South African Kadampa centres – ground-breaking hard-working pioneers, and to the tireless always-travelling Gen-las who have visited several times. It is inspiring to watch how things might unfurl here due to this patient networking, planting roots that in time will be popping up like grass all over and in unexpected places.

Carrying on from this article.

For sure, material poverty is no obstacle to gaining realizations of inner peace, compassion, and so on, to which Buddha Shakyamuni himself bore witness by wandering from place to place teaching everyone from kings to beggars. As Sangkyong put it, renunciation is also not so difficult here. Give it some time, sow some seeds, and who knows.

kids in kids in Khayelitsha

Go to where the people are, as Geshe Kelsang once told me; don’t wait for them to come to you. And, as he also said, we don’t need any agenda of making people into Buddhists or even using Dharma terminology — just give them “advice for a happy life”.

In the townships, a lot of the teenage girls at COSAT High School, younger kids I met, and social workers seemed to have a naturally easier engagement and focus than a lot of people I’ve met back home. Addictive technology has done a number on us. I wouldn’t wish the hardship and dearth of opportunity on anyone, and pray for a steady improvement in South African society (maybe by swapping over black and white babies at birth?! Hehe. You know I’m kidding, right?! But you have to admit, it could speed equality up considerably … ) However, I don’t think people are missing too much by not having access/addiction to a screen and headphones 24/7. COSAT girls

My own African tech karma was such that the moment I set out for Heathrow my iPhone 5S started to overheat, become erratic, and increasingly cut out, and then once in Cape Town I dropped it on the floor so chunks of the screen fell off. As I stuck on the sellotape some days later in Durban, I said with zero sarcasm: “Hey, look, that’s much better!” to have my new friend Kelsang Jampel compliment me that I was becoming a real African now. It was surprisingly not annoying but refreshing to be cut loose from a smartphone in a place I had assumed I really needed one. (Postscript: My first-world karma re-ripened just before I left for London, with the unexpected offer of a barely used iPhone 7 from brand new friends. Thanks, G and S!)

Talking of freedom from pervasive technology – I was impressed by how much spontaneous enjoyment thousands of people were having on the Golden Mile, where no one I saw had their head stuck into a phone. I feel like I haven’t seen that kind of unplugged party since I was young, before the technology took over our lives – people were laughing in the streets and jumping over the waves for hours without getting bored. Just saying.

I am not suggesting that life in laid-back (apparently to a fault) Durban is perfect, obviously — the hugely overcrowded underfunded government hospitals looming grimly over parts of that same Durban beach are, according to a doctor I met, a nightmarish death trap for a start. But this friendly gathering of the healthy seemed like an improvement over the isolation and ever-diminishing eye contact of so many lives in thrall to the internet.  (I even got to swim in the ocean with this crowd, one of many highlights on this trip — like that party scene in the Matrix, oh, never mind …)

Maybe people were having more fun than usual because South Africa had just won the Rugby world cup; but from what I hear this is just how it is at weekends. Even on Mango Airlines between Durban and Jozi, my fellow passengers seemed far better at making the most of being on a plane, singing across the aisles. No one seems as addicted to their technology.

(By the way, to be fair, I was on Parliament Hill yesterday back in London, and for some reason found an unplugged happy pile of strangers up there as well, albeit wrapped up against the cold. One common denominator to having fun = put the phones down and pay attention to the people around us?!) Parliament Hill London

Buddhism 101 tells us that happiness depends on the mind. If we are in a good mood, it is all fun. If we are in a bad mood, it is no fun at all. As those sayings go, you can run but you can’t hide. Wherever you go, there you are … especially once the novelty has worn off.

How to get into a better mood

Meditation is about getting more peaceful inside and therefore, frankly, having more fun:

The only way to do this is by training our mind through spiritual practice—gradually reducing and eliminating our negative, disturbed states of mind and replacing them with positive, peaceful states. Eventually, through continuing to improve our inner peace we will experience permanent inner peace, or nirvana. Once we have attained nirvana we will be happy throughout our life, and in life after life. ~ Transform Your Life, p. 6-7

As I like to say, thoughts are free. We can learn to choose them. While it is clearly impossible to avoid all difficult situations and conditions, it turns out that through training the mind in Buddhist meditation we can upend those troubling situations and use them to our advantage. This practice of “transforming adverse conditions into the path” enables us to integrate everything we come across into our spiritual training. If we can learn to live more skillfully like this, our whole life becomes meaningful, creative, and, yes, fun.

Durban beach 3The first step to thinking differently is the patience which accepts that our negative disturbed thoughts are there without panicking. Otherwise, how are we supposed to be able to let them go?

Suppressing negative thoughts and feelings is not an option — that just makes them more intrusive, like a jack popping out from the box, and we have to work even harder to keep them at bay. However, we can bear in mind that our mind is like the wide spacious sky and our unpeaceful thoughts are just weather passing through. Our thoughts are really nowhere near as scary as they try to make out.

(By the way, a few people recently have asked me the difference between thoughts (as in discriminations) and feelings because they have the impression that they can train their thoughts but not their feelings. Not quite true. Discriminations and feelings are both so-called “all-accompanying mental factors”, which means they form part of every moment of mind and always share the same object. Change one, change the other. Maybe more on that another day — it is one of hundreds of unfinished articles. Meantime, pick up How to Understand the Mind Mango airlinesfor a perfect explanation.

Inner peace and space solve problems and make us happier. This is our sanity. So this is where we need to start. We can stop fighting our own thoughts because our mind is actually on our side – stop giving energy to our delusions and our mind naturally wants to settle into peace and sanity.

As I talk about here, right now it may seem as though our problems are getting in the way of our inner peace — but the only thing getting in the way is that we’re clutching onto our problems and determined to solve them all out there. Peace is destroyed when we feel an excessive need to do this because our mind is more and more shaken up with distorted thinking or so-called “inappropriate attention” – dwelling, exaggerating, conceptualizing, elaborating. Whether it’s our relationships, our politicians, our health, our work, our travel, our accommodations, our technology, we’re like a dog with a bone, we can’t let go.

Cape Town water

Even when we know this, we are in the bad habit of trying to solve our delusion problems with more delusions. And ironically the harder we try to do this the less and less in control we feel, because our mind IS less and less in control. It’s far more effective to unplug and sort out our outer problems from the sanity of inner peace, as suggested by this Kadampa motto by Geshe Chekhawa:

Always rely upon a happy mind alone.

More on this subject coming up soon. Meantime, I’d love your comments.

 

 

Advice for a happy life

7.5 mins read.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’d wager that pretty much everyone around you is having some sort of problem today. Which section of society is exempt?

flight over AfricaThis seems to be the case from London to Cape Town, from Phoenix to Johannesburg, from Durban to Denver. Hehe, I should know, as I have been to and from all these 6 cities in the past month, including a last minute trip to South Africa. These next couple of articles may end up being a bunch of vignettes with Buddhist thoughts blended in … or vice versa, let’s see. I have almost 20 hours of flying time on this Ethiopian airlines, with a long layover in Addis Ababa, so it is either this or watching 4 movies.

Here in South Africa I’ve been the recipient of an inordinate number of hugs and smiles from people I’ve only just met, and felt strangely at home. This includes two townships where I had the pleasure and privilege of sharing meditation and Buddhist ways of coping, hearing some stories of life on the edge.

A few days ago the Kadampa nun in Joburg (Gen Mila) and myself met a group of 40 social workers in Alexandra at an organization called Friends for Life — mostly women, two outnumbered men (one appropriately named “Gift”), whose main task is to help young people (aged 3 to 18) orphaned by AIDS. The things they have to see and cope with every day are very hard. One veteran of ten years told us, “Sometimes when I enter the room I want to cry. Sometimes I ask to go to the toilet so I can just cry.”

township(Talking of Gift, he is probably lucky he arrived in this world when his parents were in a good mood or he might have been named “Problem” instead, like one poor soul I met. “Enough” is not an uncommon name either, because that’s enough kids already. Just say what you mean, why not.)

Full disclosure: I should point out that Alexandra is a township that is home to 800,000 crammed-in souls, about 10 of whom, embarrassingly enough, could fit into the digs I was staying at — a Pure Land in the wealthy enclave of Sandton, Joburg. There were even white furry comic book rabbits surreally wandering around. Was I dreaming? Yes. And don’t go to South Africa if you don’t like really loud birds.

The Jacaranda trees in full bloom, spilling their vivid purple petals on the ground, were reminiscent of a childhood home, 28-29 Jacaranda Avenue. A lot about South Africa brought to mind my supposedly long-lost youth in Guyana, Ghana and other places, not to mention a history with SA itself, going to show that that karma never gets done ripening and circling. I was thinking that it’s always worth keeping an eye on what intentions/seeds we are sowing because everything is a mere karmic appearance of mind, not outside our mind; and anything can appear or reappear at any point, dream-like, entirely depending on our karma. Reminded like this that everything is the nature of my mind, however, may explain why I was feeling so relaxed my entire time in South Africa.

Jacaranda tree

In Sandton I took early morning walks in a gated neighborhood that could be in Palm Beach Florida or Palm Springs California, providing you ignore all the barbed wire, ADT warning systems, and armed patrols, the only indication that there’s a township just a mile down the road. Unlike an actual Pure Land, not everyone is welcome here.

A mere 25 years on from apartheid and SA, perhaps unsurprisingly, still has a long road to freedom.

At least the manager at the guest house, Beneeta, said she was so struck by my apparent peacefulness that she wants to learn to meditate — her first class is next week. I am rooting for her because she is, as I told her, a natural. Along with so many other people I have met here, to be honest, who are already in their hearts, or closer to. A little Dharma seems to go a long way here – whereas I sometimes feel like it has to be spelled out in 100 ways and 100 times to more heady, over-thinking, and spoiled-for-choice people like me before we’ll even attempt it.

On the subject of random encounters, on the trip over from London a young woman, M, kindly gave up her window seat for a mother and daughter, ending squished in the middle seat next to me. First she volunteered to sort out my headphones. Then we navigated Addis Ababa airport and its multiple security checkpoints, rewarding ourselves with a strong Ethiopian coffee. Then last night she came along to her first Kadampa meditation class in Cape Town 🙂 Point being, it can be worth saying hello to people we bump into “accidentally” – for we only bump into people we have some karma with.

Observatory 2In Cape Town I stayed at the stunning sanctuary of Tushita KMC with Kadampa monk Kelsang Sangkyong, who himself grew up in a township, along with pretty much all other black South Africans in the era of apartheid. He is in a good position to know what’s going on and how Buddha’s teachings might skillfully be shared where they might be needed, with no agenda to convert anyone to anything, just as tools for a happier life.

He was saying how it seems that rich people problems can often afford to be more emotional – whereas if you are hustling to stay alive, that preoccupies your search for happiness and freedom from suffering. Once you’ve managed to secure basic shelter, food, clothing, and medicine — necessities for humans, as Buddha pointed out — then the other mental problems become more dominant. Whether it’s for solving first-world or third-world problems, however, everyone, Buddhist or not, can find some practical benefit from Buddha’s advice on controlling the mind.

For regardless whether our problems are big or small, they fill our mind – we find it hard to think of much else, accustomed as we are to feeding them whether or not we want to. As mentioned in this article, the average number of uncontrolled thoughts is reportedly 9 out of 10; and so far in my own market research I have found this number to be the same everywhere from Hollywood to Alexandra. Is it then any wonder that we can feel helpless in the face of difficulties? We are doing our best to control externals, including helping other people; but that’s a stretch given that we cannot even control our own minds.

Meditation vs medication

woman with heartHow do people cope? We can medicate (drink, distract, etc) our way out of stress and problems and/or we can learn to meditate our way out of it. Anyone from any background or culture can learn to meditate in the sense of becoming more practiced and familiar with positive ways of thinking. We can all become a calmer and more peaceful person if that is what we decide to do.

Whoever I ask, they agree they experience glimpses of the peace available to us — sometimes out of the blue we feel happy inside, not a care in the world, connected to everyone, and we could stay there forever, we want to. Only we can’t, of course, because shortly some delusion comes along to destroy our peace again. But this we can remedy. We can grow our peace because it’s there already. It is our Buddha nature, our potential for enlightenment.

BE a peaceful person

After the meditation in Alex, one of the social workers summed up what had just happened better than I could have:

We have peace, we have choice, and we must go there everyday into our heart. We must BE a peaceful person.

They all nodded in agreement, adding things like:

Now we are so peaceful, now we are ready for our day. Now we know we can cope with today.

That feeling of BEING a peaceful person needs to become our default through familiarity, through checking in with it every single day – and even a short breathing meditation is enough to get us there. As the headmistress of a Montessori kindergarten in Joburg, who shares meditation with the kids, told me:

When it comes time for the kids to leave for their next school, I tell them they have learned to read and write here, which is very good. But, even more importantly, they have learned that they always have their breath. And this means that they can always experience inner peace.

Mila and childrenMy heart opened wider in Africa. I am remembering the tiny girls in one township staring at me curiously with huge eyes, the eyes that then closed in meditation, not opening again even when time was up. Ducks to water. Natural meditators.

At question time, one of the Soweto kids at the elementary school in Joburg asked “Are you coming back next week?” I am not but Gen Mila is, and the week after. Yes!

(Couple more installments on their way.)

Over to you. Comments are very welcome!

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Getting by with a little help from our (enlightened) friends

3 mins read.

Buddha Shakyamuni 1
Buddha Shakyamuni

This article is based on a short unofficial introduction to Tara I shared with someone the other day – someone who is not exactly a Buddhist but who wanted an effective method for dealing with recurrent anxiety. It takes, like, five minutes! (Longer if you want).

In general, all meditations help us to feel less anxious and more peaceful; but Buddha Tara is the Buddha of fearlessness who turns up as swiftly as the wind whenever people need and ask for her help. People have relied upon her for centuries, if not longer, to allay all their inner and outer fears. Therefore this article is for him and for anyone else who gets worried, who likes the idea of real comfort and protection.

Step One: Sit somewhere comfortable and undisturbed. When you’re ready, imagine you drop from your head into your heart. Do one or two minutes’ breathing meditation, focusing on your breath as it enters and leaves your nostrils, letting your other thoughts float away. Feel you are peaceful in your heart.

Step Two: Believe that Buddha Shakyamuni and Buddha Tara are in front of you, surrounded by countless holy beings, however you imagine them. Feel you are actually in their company.

Buddha Tara
Buddha Tara

Step Three: Recite the following traditional prayers quietly or under your breath, contemplating their meaning:

Going for refuge

I and all sentient beings, until we achieve enlightenment,
Go for refuge to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. (3x)

Generating bodhichitta

Through the virtues I collect by giving and other perfections,
May I become a Buddha for the benefit of all. (3x)

(The six perfections are giving, moral discipline, patience, joyful effort, concentration, and wisdom.)

Four immeasurables

May everyone be happy.
May everyone be free from misery.
May no one ever be separated from their happiness.
May everyone have equanimity, free from hatred and attachment.

Buddha Tara’s mantra

Step Four: Ask Buddha Tara directly to remove whatever specific anxiety you are feeling, as well as all your own and others’ present and future fears and anxieties, by reciting her mantra 21 times or more:

OM TARE TUTTARE TURE SOHA

Receiving blessings

Step Five: Imagine that from the hearts of Buddha Tara and all the holy beings, streams of light and nectar, the nature of their enlightened wisdom and compassion, flow down through the crown of your head and fill your body and mind.

These blessings purify all your worries, problems, and negative thoughts. They fill you with peace, happiness, kindness, and fearlessness. Feel that you are fully protected and don’t have a care in the world.i-get-by-with-a-little-help-from-my-friends-21

If you like, imagine that these blessings are also flowing into the people you love, purifying and inspiring them as well.

Take a few moments to really bathe in this enlightened peace in your heart, taking refuge in it, knowing that it is always there and you can come back to it whenever you like.

Dedication

Step Six: Make a prayer that through this practice all your own and others’ anxieties and fears will one day be permanently gone. May everyone be happy and may our world be peaceful.

Through the virtues I have collected
By giving and other perfections
May I become a Buddha
For the benefit of all.

The rest of the day

Step Seven: When you start feeling anxious about anything, before it takes over, remember that Buddha Tara is everywhere and ask her directly for help. You can use the mantra to do this if you like.

To find out more about Buddha Tara and her traditional practice (including verses composed by Buddha Shakyamuni), please click here: Liberation from Sorrow.

(I want to add too that Tara practice is done once a month at Kadampa Centers around the world. Click here to find a Center near you if you ever want to join in.)

Feel free to leave any comments or questions in the box below.

 

Music, meditation, & mental health

This is the seventh article from a guest writer, Kadampa Buddhist, and social worker. The others can be found here.

About 10 years ago when I was training as a social worker I studied and practiced the therapy of examining your past, culture, and values to understand yourself and others more; and became aware that music is quite an important aspect in my life. I had been brought up on classical music — unlike other members of my family I wasn’t that good at playing music, but I always loved to listen to it, even as a small child, and when I discovered pop & rock music in the late 1970’s & early 1980’s, that was it, I was hooked. ShaptavajraShawaddywaddy, Abba, Queen, then all the early 80’s Ska, and synth pop: Soft Cell, The Human League, ABC, Heaven 17, Ultravox, OMD, and New Order, leading onto indie rock like The Smiths, Echo and The Bunnyman, The The, and The Cure. I began to get into heavy metal rock a bit too, such as Iron Maiden and Whitesnake, and progressive rock such as Pink Floyd and Marillion. 

Going under

However, I know now that some of the music I used to listen to contributed to a build up of feelings of despondency, which culminated in a relatively serious few months of depression for me in the early 1990’s, when I was aged 21.  This peaked during my final year degree course, where I needed a couple of weeks’ break from the course.  Thankfully I received some excellent student counselling and I completed the degree course.  During the depression I suffered with insomnia, cold sweats, anxiety (being prescribed medication for anxiety), migraines, occasional panic attacks, apathy & overeating. There were other social factors too that contributed to the depression, such as too much alcohol & cannabis, peer pressure, the shock of my first attempts at working life, living away from home for the first time, & the pressures of the final year degree course; but I feel that a lot of the music I was listening to was a major contribution. I would enjoy the music, but then later feel heaviness and sadness in my heart. A lyric from one song comes to mind:

It was a bite of a night gone wrong and the effect of listening to negative songs.

Who sang this & what song, answers on a postcard please? Another song that springs to mind is called ‘Going Under’, a charming little song about alcoholism:

Can you understand it’s the way I choose to be.  Everything seems so easy this way but I’m going under fast. Slipping away. Am I so crazy???

Listen to the voice of Buddha

The anxiety I experienced made me want to find out how to deeply relax. I investigated yoga and Buddhist meditation, discovering that there is a direct correlation between your breath and your state of mind, and so by learning to breathe deeply you can completely dissipate and even eradicate any feelings of fear and anxiety.

In The New Meditation Handbook there is an explanation of how to experience inner peace and contentment just through breathing meditation:

When the turbulence of distracting thoughts subsides, and our mind becomes still. A deep happiness and contentment naturally arise from within.

Perhaps the mental health distress I was experiencing in the early 1990’s was awakening me to a potential higher level of consciousness. The interest in meditation led me to Buddhism. I became fascinated with Buddha’s teachings on impermanence, karma, & emptiness (the nature of reality), then later his teachings on love and compassion.

For a while I stopped listening to music. In 1995, I sold my whole record collection at Darlington Market for £5. I missed out on most of the Britpop of the 90’s, not listening to music until the early 00’s, re-discovering Madonna, U2, the Chilli Peppers, and one of my favourites, World Party.

The 7 years or so where I stopped listening to music was one of the happiest periods of my life. Partly I believe due to me not listening to any music, but also partly to do with my enthusiasm at the time for my meditation practice and me living in a community of likeminded people. The happiest times of my life have been when I’ve been living with others, whether friends or family, and the unhappiest times have been when I have been more isolated, with little social contact.

In time, I think I have matured, and now just take music for what it is; the music that I like being a simple pleasure to enjoy in the moment, which uplifts your spirits. There is a danger that any pleasure becomes meaningless or a big distraction, leading to strong minds of attachment to worldly pleasure; but I have found that with mindfulness and an uplifting of the mind, music is great! I have now realised the middle way between hedonism/pleasure and austerity/no pleasure. If it uplifts your mind and has no damaging side effects, then why not enjoy a little music to help you experience happiness from within.

This Strange Engine, called Marillion

I am grateful to have re-discovered Marillion, whose new singer Steve Hogarth put the soul back into rock music. Some of their songs are quite spiritual, with a whole album entitled ‘Happiness Is the Road’ mostly about staying happy in the moment. Then they have classic tracks such as ‘The Space’ and ‘This Strange Engine’, seemingly about the love and interconnectedness between our self and others. Their concept album ‘Brave’ is about a lady in mental health distress — suffering from epileptic seizures and contemplating suicide. That may sound heavy, but listening to it can be quite uplifting, perhaps cathartic, helping us release the negative emotions we can all get sometimes. Other songs include: ‘Gaza’ (about being a child caught up in a war torn country), ‘A Voice From The Past’ (about not having good sanitary conditions in the country where you live), and ‘El Dorado, (where there is empathy for people who have recently been caught up in the refugee crisis).

These songs have helped me increase my compassion, to move away from my own trivialities and selfish concerns, to be more aware of people in less fortunate situations than myself, and to do something about this. In the book Universal Compassion there is an explanation of how contemplating and meditating on compassion can help move our mind away from our own self-concern:

Instead of being concerned with our own problems, which serves only to make us depressed and unhappy, we should consider the difficulties of others. In this way, we will begin to feel sympathy for them. If we apply this to everyone we meet – friends, neighbours, strangers, rich or poor – we will find every ordinary being has problems.

While my empathy and compassion are increasing with this music, I am also reminded of ‘bliss’. As well as finding Marillion’s music meaningful, I find it blissful — the sounds of the guitar, the keyboards, the colourful lightshows during live gigs, all appearing to my mind and contributing to my bliss. The guitarist Steve Rothery plays many beautiful melodic guitar solos. and there are times when I just close my eyes, listen to the beauty of his music, and go into a small meditation, savouring each note that is being played.

There is a Buddhist practice of mentally offering beautiful things to your Spiritual Guide or Buddha, or of mentally giving away pleasant experiences, which has the effect of increasing and refining the enjoyment of bliss even more. Recalling a blissful experience in meditation can help you to concentrate in meditation. When not in meditation too, recalling a blissful experience can help you feel happy and focus on what you are doing.

Remember Stan ‘Your biggest fan’

Connecting with the singers and musicians can be a positive experience.  Fandom is an interesting concept. The whole set up at live gigs where the band are up on stage, at a higher level than you, and you can be singing and dancing, raising your arms up in the air etc, which can lead to us exaggerating our admiration of the singers and musicians we are enjoying, perhaps literally putting them on pedestals and idolising them. These days I either like to be at the very back of a live gig and observe everything that is taking place, or to stand a few rows from the front and take in and experience everything that is occurring. I see myself more of an observer of the music, taking a step back from it. I don’t totally immerse into the music and be one with it.

The singers and musicians themselves would probably say, don’t look up to me!? Mentioning no names, but many of the artists I mentioned at the beginning of this article have had issues with depression, drink & drug addiction, and relationship issues. Some of it I guess goes with the lifestyle, and some is just part of being human. Perhaps when I was younger there was a bit of transference taking place when listening to some of these people sing and play music in that there was a subconscious redirection of the feelings I had for the singer to feelings the singer has to the person they are singing about. Then, if they were unhappy feelings from the singer, I would subconsciously get unhappy. Today, I see pop & rock stars in a different light. They are very much human, like the rest of us; and some can be people that you can connect with and get to know. Despite similarities to us, they can have a very different lifestyle, the highs and lows of live shows and touring, the loneliness once back to normal life at home, fame & some fortune, big boosts to their egos, and clashes of personalities and disharmony when a band stagnate or split up. I now try and see musicians I like as fellow humans and encourage them to keep playing and performing, and to also try as much as possible to get on with each other, to keep on helping make their fans and themselves happy through the music they play. In the book Universal Compassion, it is said that:

If we sing a pleasant song to make others happy, so that they forget their worries even for a short time, this is also a virtuous verbal action.

In September 2018 I went to see Soft Cell play their farewell show, at The London O2. One song that surprised me was ‘Frustration’. It sounded as if they had stripped it down musically to its original version and added a few up to date topical lyrics:

I’m just an ordinary bloke, I wanna do so many things, I listen to my wife she’s nagging me, I listen to my kids they’re screaming. They want more things. They want iPads. They want mobile phones. I just can’t stand it anymore. I’m having a nervous breakdown.

It sounded so relevant to our lives and society today. I think Marc Almond identified at an early age how dissatisfied many of us can be in our normal, material, domestic lives. Such songs of suffering can raise awareness of the unsatisfactory nature of many aspects of our lives and contribute to dealing with the fear and stigma that still exists in our society towards mental health distress.

I have followed Marc Almond’s solo career a little over the years. Marc has been a ground breaker and pioneer in many ways. Having difficulties with a learning disability – autism I think — in his early life, receiving threats and beatings on stage at early Soft Cell gigs, and his example of being a confident gay man in our modern society has helped shape a better society. Those within the LGBT group, and vulnerable people such as those with learning disabilities and/or who have mental health difficulties, are more accepted and included in our society these days.

The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum

I work in social care with adults with learning disabilities and I have also worked in mental health services. I understand sociology a bit and that is why I am sharing this article — to contribute to a social change towards people who have mental health difficulties. I love watching old clips from the 1970’s and 1980’s of our society and the popular music back then. There were some top pop and rock bands with some quite apt and ground-breaking names. Madness, Soft Cell and Fun Boy Three with their song; ‘The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum.’ Mental health issues were just beginning to come to the forefront of societal view, and these bands and songs have played a part in raising awareness of the institutional care and abuse received by people with mental health problems. We now live in a slightly improved society in terms of both how we treat and view those with mental health distress, and hopefully this improvement will continue.

It’s great that today there is a societal shift towards people being more open about mental health difficulties. Fairly recent examples from the boxer Tyson Fury, Lady Gaga, and even Prince William and Prince Harry, about varying degrees of mental health distress they have experienced have been liberating for so many people. Maybe more and more people will also be able to find their ways toward meditation, mindfulness, and even Buddhism, which I think everyone can benefit from on some level.

I was in my early 20’s when I suffered with depression, and from documentaries I have recently seen about mental health it is not uncommon for the younger generation, say people in their 20’s, to go through some mental health difficulty. It is perhaps a phase many young people work through as they find their feet in life. However, mental ill health can happen to anyone! – young, old, male, female, rich, and poor. The mental health charity MIND says that:

Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year.

I do believe that at least half the battle with mental ill health is sociological, in that as a society we need to acknowledge that we all have mental health distress e.g. stress, anger & grief, and that depression is very common. There does seem to be a more open attitude to mental health difficulties now.  Social media is playing a part in opening up these attitudes, with various support groups on Facebook and Twitter for people who suffer from specific mental health diagnoses.  Perhaps, though, there is a danger in getting stuck there, identifying with our mental health distress too much, and not looking for answers to help reduce and heal our distress?

clouds in skyI think half the battle is acknowledging that we can all get mental health distress, but I do believe we can all get better too! As stated, acknowledging our mental health distress is a first step, and eventually we can do this with every moment of our mind so that, as soon as any distress arises in our mind, we are mindful of it. When we do this, quite often the distress subsides. These are just thoughts. All thoughts and feelings are just temporary aspects of our mind. We can give our thoughts too much energy and, yes, some of them can be dark and scary; but they are just thoughts. My friend Marc in his recent live version of Soft Cell’s ‘Frustration’ sings about thoughts we may have towards our boss:

I could be a great dictator, Then I could, I could kill my boss, I have these thoughts, these dark thoughts, I wanna push them away, push them away.

This is the problem — we want to push our thoughts away, fight with them, suppress them, conceal them with something else, perhaps a sensory enjoyment, or some physical or verbal activity or distraction. In the book How to Understand the Mind it states that:

The true nature of our mind is clarity, which means it is something that is empty like space, always lacking form, shape and colour…. Our thoughts are only temporary minds, and very unstable. They suddenly arise and quickly disappear, like clouds in the sky.

If we could just learn to sit with our thoughts and feelings we would learn that they are just like clouds in a sky that come and go, and that underneath them is a clear mind, like the clear blue sky, the true nature of our mind, which is peace. Then if we learn to access this peace, which is inside all of us, we can learn how to stay happy & mentally strong all the time.

I find through observing my own mind that feelings of depression are like an inner anger inside us. Perhaps something we are annoyed about or unable to express, and therefore it stays inside us as we churn things over in our mind. It’s good to learn to express how we are feeling, and ‘get things off our chest’; but, also, meditation and mindfulness is another tool, and can help us become aware of any unhappy feelings in our mind, to try and let go of them and replace them with more positive feelings.

Nowhere Now?

Ward Thomas are two young sisters who mainly sing country songs, many of which they have written themselves. They’ve had a recent single called ‘No Filter’ which is about self-acceptance. They say themselves that it is about learning to accept who we are and to embrace every aspect of ourselves — in a world where we are tempted to cloak our lives in a filter online, with social media etc.

 

Buddhist contemplations on music

Music is everywhere, and is part of every culture, including Buddhist ones. There was one Buddhist meditation master in Tibet, called Milarepa, who used to sing all of his teachings. There is a story of Sadaprarudita told in The New Heart of Wisdom, and how his teacher Dharmodgata explained emptiness, the nature of reality, to him using sound as a basis. How is a musician able to produce their music? Where is it? Can you point to a part of the music, and say “there it is”? I love a good traditional rock band: singer, lead guitar, bass, drums, (& perhaps a keyboard) — and it takes all these parts and chemistry together to form the music of that band. There are many parts: the minds, intentions and memories of the individual members, the instruments they are using, and the collective chemistry and sounds coming from them as a whole. Not one of these individually is the music, and yet take even one of them away and the music of that band vanishes.

Where exactly can you say the sounds and music are? Where does each note come from? And where does each note go? What is that space between the notes? Where did one note end and the next begin? This is contemplation on the emptiness, or lack of inherent existence, of the music. The music is not ‘out there’ anywhere. There is no real coming or going. Each elaborate piece of music or song was imputed by our mind on a stream of sounds, each sound coming from nowhere and going nowhere in order for the next sound to arise, and our minds imputing some kind of continuum on that, to end up with the music we love.

The point is, we describe a ‘thing’ as if it were really out there being a thing, we try so hard to label it and itemise it and make it even more of a ‘thing’ — when in fact it came from nowhere and went nowhere, and is completely empty of existing out there or from its own side.

In the Buddhist story Dharmodgata asked Sadaprarudita:

Where does the sound of the lute come from and where does it go to? Does it come from the strings, from within the lute, from the fingers of the player, from his effort to play, or from elsewhere? And when the sound has stopped, where does it go?

Buddha in rainbowMusic depends on other things for its existence, which means it is empty of inherent, or independent, existence and is a mere imputation or projection of the mind. You cannot find it existing anywhere outside the mind, however hard you try. If you cannot find something existing outside the mind, or from its own side, you can know it doesn’t exist there. For example, we cannot find a dream existing outside the mind or from its own side, so we know it doesn’t exist there. So, where does a dream exist? Where does music exist? Where does anything exist? Everything depends upon the mind.

Although music is empty of inherent existence, it can still appear in dependence upon many causes and conditions and, when they cease, it can no longer appear. Therefore, there is nothing solid or objective about music – it is a manifestation of its emptiness, with no more concrete existence than a rainbow appearing from an empty sky.

Understanding this makes listening to music even more beautiful and blissful. And in general, the more blissful the mind, the more blissful the music becomes, proving again that the object depends on the mind. Test this out for yourself, please do an experiment if you can: next time you listen to music, see if you can find it, and report back. Any type of music, even heavy rock. Buddha would say: ‘it is all arising from empty like space.’

I love going to live gigs, but I always want the gig to last longer, maybe into the night. When it’s over, where has all that music gone? It’s finished, gone, now just a memory in our mind. So, when at a gig or when listening to music I try and savour every moment of the music, every note, relax and enjoy.

With a little help from my friends

Picture1.pngEverything in moderation. I’d recommend a good life outside of music too, good social contacts, loving relationships, a job, regular income, exercise, and especially spiritual meaning. Making music can be a way of offloading and expressing how you are feeling, but yes it can be quite negative for the listener if there is some transference of any negative feelings from the singer to the listener, and we can get really attached to music, it taking us to a completely different world where we can find ourselves too often, not dealing with the present people and challenges in our lives. Maybe though, through just accepting what music is, a simple enjoyable pleasure, and learning how to become mindful of every moment of our lives, we can enjoy music more, becoming mindful of every note and every sound.

I am grateful for all the music I have encountered in my life so far, even if some had a negative effect on me when I was younger. It’s brought me to where I am now, and I have learnt to listen to music in a different light. If I hadn’t gotten depressed when I was younger, I wouldn’t have found the answers to questions I was looking for, nor the techniques I have learnt to deal with and transform problems and difficulties.

Personally, I believe that whenever someone is having some mental health crisis in their lives, it’s almost like a spiritual or existential crisis. We are all very sensitive souls, and when we are getting way too sensitive to cope, this can be an indication that we need to try and get some help, talk with someone; and perhaps there could be a spiritual life of some sort available for you.

It’s great that people are now talking more about mental health in our society. Long may this continue! Please do seek help if your mental health distress is getting too much. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. We all have it. Find someone to talk to about it.

Over to you. Comments for the guest author and other readers are very welcome.

Detoxing our daily life

8 mins read.

Temple on Sept 25We talk a lot about toxic relationships, poisoned environments, and so on, but according to Buddha all outer poison comes from the three inner poisons of attachment, hatred (or aversion), and ignorance. I don’t think we have to look far to see the effects of actions fueled by unbridled greed, intolerance, indifference, and basic confusion. I could put a long list here, or you could just turn on the news.

Carrying on from this article on the three nons, which help us overcome our delusions on even our busiest day.

Meanwhile, when not overtaken by these delusions, people everywhere are also doing extraordinarily brave and unselfish things for others, sometimes at the cost of their own comfort or even lives, such as those trying to put out fires in the Amazon or rescue tortured animals. It restores hope in humanity, seeing these welcome glimmers of clarity, sanity, and kindness that arise from our pure Buddha nature. They are reminders that no one is inherently evil, that we are all good at heart; but that we fall tragically victim to our unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts and bad karma. It is the delusions that have to go.

Glimpsing a pure land

I got a good feeling for what it’s like for thousands of people to practice being peaceful and considerate for several days in a row at the recent epic opening of the fifth Kadampa world peace temple and the International Fall Festival. It was magical, to be honest. Deeply inspiring. A lot of fun. You see the goodness at the heart of all of us, and how it is perfectly possible to bring it out of each other if that is what we decide to do. We don’t need to stay petty, or selfish, or vindictive, or addicted to the drama of attachment, pride, and other delusions – we do have a choice here. Back home, we can become examples for others rather than just join back in the fray.

Sometimes we can see the value of a state of mind by extrapolating it to include everyone – what would this world be like, for example, if we all tried to practice non-harmfulness, never deliberately causing pain to others? Where would be the wars, the pollution, the shootings, the inequitable distribution of resources, the starvation?

Even if that seems too much to hope for, knowing what a pure land this would create we can at least start by practicing non-harmfulness ourselves and sowing the karma for a kinder more peaceful world. This is not idealism – this is creating a new reality based on compassion and a wisdom that understands the power of our mind and takes Grand Canyon 3responsibility for our own thoughts, actions, and experiences. Rather than demonizing each other, thus remaining a victim of our own anger and frustration and very muchpart of the problem, it would help all of us a lot more to recognize the real demons that lurk within our own hearts — and turn this sorry situation around. That’s what Buddha basically said, anyway, and I agree.

Non-ignorance

(We’re on the third non, non-ignorance or wisdom.) Geshe Kelsang said in his 2000 Mahamudra teachings that all subject minds and object things arise simultaneously from karmic potentialities in the root mind, like waves from an ocean.

Mahamudra meditators therefore conclude that all the many appearances we perceive, such as the world, the environment, enjoyments, beings, our friends, and our bodies are all waves of the ocean of our consciousness. They do not exist from their own side at all. They exist as mere appearance to mind. This is very close to saying that they are mind, but they are not actual mind. They are not separate from mind. They are the nature of mind.

Everything appearing to you right now, including the words on this screen, is coming not from outside your mind but from inside. Truth! We know this if we take the time to do the analysis of looking for things with wisdom and get that insight into the mere absence of the things we normally perceive, the endless space-like emptiness of all that exists. Whatever it is we are currently grasping at, it’s not there! Grasping is as futile as trying to drink water from a mirage or grasp hold of a reflection.

This is one reason why objects of attachment such as handsome people keep slipping through our fingers; and the more we grasp the quicker that seems to happen.

temple in SeptemberIf things are not out there, yet they appear, then what else can they be other than mere aspects or appearance of our mind not other than their emptiness? As Venerable Geshe Kelsang says in his new book, The Mirror of Dharma:

When we see our body, in truth we see only the emptiness of our body because the real nature of our body is its emptiness. However, we do not understand this because of our ignorance.

Geshe Kelsang has said that “anything can appear due to karma”; and it seems that anything does appear! – our mind is constantly throwing up new appearances, day after day and life after life, like an ocean throwing up waves, some of it quite cool, most of it really crazy.

We manage to grasp at all of it, we are “deceived by grasping at things as they appear”, ie, they appear outside our mind, nothing to do with us. This means that if they’re attractive we want them (attachment) and if they’re not we want them gone (aversion). But if none of this exists outside our mind, these poisonous responses are a horrible and beginningless waste of time.

So much suffering we have had already since beginningless time, really way too much.

And so much more suffering awaits us all if we don’t stop doing this. I think it is good to keep remembering this every day until it sinks in and we commit to detoxifying our mind of the three poisons once and for all. These two verses from The Three Principal Aspects of the Path, transmitted to Je Tsonkghapa by the Wisdom Buddha Manjushri, provide a graphic and heart-wrenching contemplation of our existential predicament. Applied to oneself, this swiftly brings on renunciation, and applied to others, bodhichitta.

Swept along by the currents of the four powerful rivers [birth, ageing, sickness and death],
Tightly bound by the chains of karma, so hard to release,
Ensnared within the iron net of self-grasping,
Completely enveloped by the pitch-black darkness of ignorance,

Taking rebirth after rebirth in boundless samsara,
And unceasingly tormented by the three sufferings [painful feelings, changing suffering and pervasive suffering] –
Through contemplating the state of your mothers, all living beings, in conditions such as these,
Generate the supreme mind of bodhichitta.

Just as the moon’s reflection in a lake cannot be separated out from the reflecting lake, so nothing that appears to us can be separated out from our reflecting awareness. If there is nothing “out there”, what exactly are we grasping at? We have to stop. If not now, in this precious human life, then when?

Practice all three nons in this context

view from planeI think it’s helpful to practice all three nons in this context. When an attractive object appears, such as sweet potato fries or a beautiful Fall aspen tree or even the huge Rockies seen through the window of this airplane, I can understand that these are not out there, and enjoy them as a mere appearance or reflection. I can know that when I attain liberation by purifying my lake-like mind, I will be able to enjoy pure appearances forever, and infinitely better ones to boot! This is all non-attachment.

When an unattractive object appears, such as someone arguing with me about politics, I can accept it as simply a wave-like arising within my own mind, resulting from my own karma, and let it go, not getting caught up in it.

And whenever something feels even more solid, fixed, and real than usual, this appearance itself reminds me that it is not real at all — just as a moon appearing in a lake reminds me that it is just a reflection, not outside the lake. Change the lake-like mind, the reflection changes automatically.

Practicing this with Tantra

latest temple photoWe can practice the three nons within our Tantric practice too.

  1. Non-attachment: If I encounter an object of desire, instead of generating attachment I can remember the faults of attachment, as explained in this first article. I can remember that all samsaric enjoyments are changing suffering and paltry compared with the pure enjoyments of enlightenment. I can remember that my mind is mixed with Guru Heruka’s mind of bliss and emptiness, and is giving rise to the appearances of the four complete purities – the body, environments, enjoyments, and deeds of Buddha Heruka or Vajrayogini, like reflections in a completely pure lake. Since this Grand Canyon or handsome fellow etc is in fact the same nature as the bliss and emptiness of my mind, he/she/it gives rise to even more bliss. In other words, I can have my cake and eat it. (As opposed to the frustration of trying to hold onto it with attachment, wherein I can neither have my cake nor eat it.

2. Non-hatred: If I encounter an unpleasant person, I can remember that this person is not their delusions, in fact they are a future Buddha, in fact they ARE a Buddha. And, just as important, I want them to be a Buddha. Ideally right now. This is the highest form of love and compassion, and will remind and inspire me to be Buddha Heruka.

3. Non-ignorance: When things get too real, I can remember that this is showing me that things are NOT real, just like that reflection of the moon. Everything is mere name, a manifestation not just of emptiness but of the extraordinary non-dualistic clear light bliss of my mind; and I am more inspired to be Buddha Heruka.

You can read more about the three nons in Universal Compassion and How to Understand the Mind.

Over to you: I’d love to hear more from you in the Comments below on how you practice this instruction. It is such a vast and beneficial practice, given that it covers our three main delusions and all our waking hours! And there are so many different ways to go about it.

Related articles

More on non-attachment

More on non-hatred

There is nothing out there, out there

Reflections in a clear lake