How to have a productive day

6.5 mins read.

According to some surveys, the world is the angriest it’s ever been. We do seem to be non-hatredliving in a time of escalating tension, polarization, and discord; but at the same time people are still good at heart, and no one presumably is enjoying this? Recognizing we may have an anger problem is the first step to doing something about it, starting with ourselves. And the advice Buddha gave transcends all politics.

Carrying straight on from this article on the three objects, three poisons, and three virtuous roots.

Transforming objects of hatred into objects of non-hatred

Whenever we encounter undesirable situations or people, instead of getting angry or annoyed we can intensify our patience or compassion. This is called non-hatred. (By the way, hatred is quite a strong word, but it includes all variations of aversion from mild irritation to genocidal rage.)

Most of us probably have several opportunities to try this out most days! This may seem especially the case in a polarized world but, even if we were surrounded by perfect saints, provided we still had the habits of anger in our minds we would still be bumping into objects of anger. People will seem difficult and annoying wherever we go if we have a mind to be annoyed; that’s pretty much guaranteed.

Of course, not giving into our tendency to blame others is easier said than done; but what’s the alternative? If we keep becoming irritated and upset by even the smallest things, we spoil our lives. Buddha’s method works very well for staying calm, if we want it enough. It can help our world enormously. transforming anger

A friend of mine texted me 20 minutes ago to say that her jeep had been broken into and thieves took her keys, credit cards, health insurance, and social security card (not to mention her lucky green sweater).

And this was supposed to be my b’day outing 🤦🏻‍♀️

However, after a bit of time to think this through, she just texted again to say how this is karma and giving her the chance to practice patience, purification, and giving, and “that makes me happy actually 🙅🏻”; plus she also feels grateful to her bank for acting swiftly to cancel her cards. She has to sort out the boring practicalities of course, but she is laughing again: “🤣”

I was soooo grumpy before and now I feel better. 🙏🏼🙏🏼

When people don’t cooperate …

lake 1It’s not just when people don’t cooperate with our own wishes — non-hatred can also come in handy when the people we care about are not cooperating with our wishes to help them (or is that just me?!) Instead of getting annoyed or discouraged, we can use their recalcitrance to increase our humility and supreme good heart, motivating us to attain enlightenment even more quickly for their sake.

The three nons

These “three nons” — as I shall henceforth refer to non-attachment, non-hatred, and non-ignorance — are a huge practice. They are the direct antidote to our three principal delusions, the “three poisons”; and, as all delusions stem from these three, they are indirectly an antidote to all that ails us.

And this practice is very important because it means that no day, however impossible, need ever be wasted – in fact the more bombarded we are with distractions and/or upsetting people, the more opportunity we have to solve our actual inner problems. Every day brings us a sense of achievement.

Transforming objects of ignorance into objects of non-ignorance

lake 6Here with the third: whenever we encounter objects of ignorance, instead of assenting to the appearance of things as fixed, real, and outside our mind, we let these seemingly solid objects remind us that in fact everything is dreamlike or like a reflection in a lake, not outside our mind. This is called non-ignorance. How great it would be if we and everyone else could live in the deep mental peace that comes from wisdom!

Applying non-ignorance to our own fixed self-image

Just a quick example of how we can practice non-ignorance when it comes to self-loathing (because I was talking about that a lot recently.) We can learn to see every manifestation of an unlikeable self as an incentive to practice both patient acceptance with ourself as described in these articles AND to practice wisdom.

Whenever that painful limited fixed ME rears its ugly head, we can think, “Great! Now I’ve got you where I can see you. And that means I can see that you are a fake self, not me at all, and I am going to let you go.”

lake 4The other day someone accused me of not liking her. Considering I do like her very much, and 95% of the time she knows this, this said far more about her own self-image than about me. Moreover, as expected, as soon as her bad mood lifted we were friends again.

In those instances, even if at that moment we feel so sure of something, it is still worth checking: What version of my self am I relating to right now? (Ans: An unlikeable one.) And does it even exist? (Ans: No.) We can dissolve that limited self away and identify with our potential. Only then can we say we are clear about what is going on.

Where are the reflections in a lake?

If things are empty and cannot be found when we search for them with wisdom (as described here for example), how do they exist? As mere appearance to mind, as the nature of mind, like things in a dream or reflections in a lake. As it says in the Mahamudra teachings:

All appearances are the nature of mind.

lake 2A lake doesn’t have to go out to its objects; and in truth there are no objects for our mind to go out to either. I was thinking about this just two days ago, while sitting on this bench next to this rather nice lake.

Just to go back to the definition of mind for a moment. Our mind is clarity, which means that it is something that is empty like space, can never possess form, and is the basis for perceiving objects. Our mind or awareness is like a medium that is clearer than the clearest thing ever, clear enough to know objects, to hold them. And an object is just that which is “known by mind”.

Do look at this lake for a moment … can you separate out the clouds from the lake? The clouds appear, and they have shape and color and so on; but lake 3they are just the nature of the lake. In the same way, objects appear with form and so on, but they are just the nature of formless awareness, clarity.

Two approaches to understanding reality

There are two ways to approach this understanding of the actual relationship between our awareness and its objects and to gain deep personal experience of it. One way is through meditating on our own mind, as explained so clearly for example in The Oral Instructions of the MahamudraAs Venerable Geshe Kelsang said in his Mahamudra teachings in 2000:

Using the root mind as our object of meditation — always trying to perceive the general image of our mind – means that we realize the subject mind very well, and understand the relationship between mind and its objects. The huge mistaken understanding that objects are there and the subject mind is here – that between them there is a large gap – will cease, and we will gain the correct understanding of how things really exist. If we clearly understand the real nature and function of mind, then we also understand how things really exist.

The second way is through searching with wisdom for objects outside the mind. This is a bit like looking for reflections outside of the lake — they cannot be found. Which brings us back to a deeper understanding that they must be the nature of the mind, mere appearances of mind.

I think that some people find their way into reality primarily through meditating on their mind, and some find their way into it primarily through meditating on emptiness – at least at first. However, we end up at the same place and using both methods – which are two sides of the same coin and constantly deepening one another.

International Fall Festival

templeThis week, people from all around the world will be converging on the brand new temple for world peace near the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Many are on their way as we speak — safe travels if you are one of them! One reason Kadampa Buddhist Festivals are really inspiring, I find, is because they are a living demonstration of what happens when thousands of people are practicing Buddha’s teachings both in and out of the meditation sessions. It’s hard to describe, actually, so I won’t. But perhaps I’ll see some of you there.

One more article on this subject of the three nons coming up soon. Meantime, over to you for your feedback, please, on how you like to practice them.

Related articles

Buddhism in daily life

Reflections in a clear lake 

Experience and reality 

Buddhism in daily life

8 mins read.

Sometimes I find the world’s problems so scary-messy that I puzzle where & how on earth well meaning people are supposed to start unravelling them!!? And how can one person without worldly power make a difference anyway? This kind of doubt can lead people (me) to discouragement and inaction, switching channels to watch a comedy instead. world peace puzzle

However, in the four noble truths Buddha explains how all inner and outer problems stem from a handful of delusions in the minds of living beings, along with the negative actions these spawn. That is why the book How to Solve our Human Problems only has about 100 pages! If we solved our delusion problem, and our actions were motivated by wisdom, compassion, skill, self-confidence, and other positive minds, all other problems would have no choice but to slink away. And as we start mastering our own minds, we’ll find we have more and more will and power to help others.

Along with study, contemplation, and meditation, there’s no reason not to do the actions we are already doing to attempt to solve the world’s problems – I just voted in the local elections, for example;* and people everywhere are coming up with visionary, creative, active ideas all the time. I love reading about some of these solutions, including new technology for combatting climate change; but I still feel that if we are not at the same time solving these uncontrolled negative states of mind and behaviors we won’t be able to escape their suffering results — regardless what outer measures we take.

(*Ah, well, since I wrote that the election results came back, showing that only one item I voted for got through, lol. See my point?! Some civic involvement may be useful but clearly not enough to get others to agree with us, let alone to transform our troubled world.)

Maybe I should just give up?

Watching what’s going on around the world, it can appear that the easy choice is to cave in to delusions such as greed, moral corruption, arrogance, and intolerance. People seem to be getting away with this left, right, and center whilst those who are trying to Don't give uplead a good life and help others are left high and dry. But — talking to myself here — it is not the easy choice because, regardless of any seeming short-term benefits, it leads not just other people but ourselves to more suffering and pain. Sometimes I think we just have to trust that if we are making our best effort to overcome our ignorance and selfishness and to be steadfastly kind, moral, and ethical in accordance with the law of karma, things will work out.

Transforming daily life

There’s a beautiful section in the mind-training (Tib. Lojong) teachings that shows how, instead of feeling sad and defeated, we can transform literally everything that happens to us into the journey to freedom and the growing ability to help everyone.

The three poisons, three objects, and three virtuous roots
Are the brief instruction for the subsequent attainment. ~ Universal Compassion

“Subsequent attainment” means the periods between meditation sessions, ie, our daily life, the vast majority of our time; so it’s kind of important.

This is the whole point about modern Buddhism or Kadampa Buddhism – bit by bit we take all Buddha’s teachings as personal advice and put them into practice in our lives, whatever we’re up to. It’s why it is proving so perfect for busy contemporary people with full lives, jobs, careers, kids, families, relationships, social engagements, who travel, etc etc. Whether our own and others’ conditions are good or bad, whether we’re all having a transform your life quote 5good time or are beset with difficulties, we learn that there is always something we can do to stay peaceful, positive, and helpful, to stay part of the solution.

It’s a work in progress, but eventually we find we are integrating our life into Dharma, rather than integrating Dharma into our life.

Transforming objects of attachment into objects of non-attachment

Whenever we encounter objects of desire, instead of responding with the poison of attachment, we intensify our wish (“virtuous root”) to experience the real happiness that comes from inner peace and eventually culminates in the bliss of permanent freedom. Then we can enjoy them (or lay them aside, either way) without exaggerating or getting sucked into them. This is called non-attachment.

just when i thought i was out.GIF
Trying to escape attachment

Seems to me as if practically everyone is running all day long after objects of attachment to get happy, or the “wrong objects” as Geshe Kelsang calls them. We can check what we are doing all day long to see if that includes us. Or for that matter talking about all day long, including even our most innocent conversations.  Just now I was listening to one woman sigh to another, “I prefer these pine trees to the ones we saw over there – I really wish they’d plant more of them.” (Yes, I’m in Colorado). And I was thinking, perhaps uncharitably, how no amount of pine trees would be capable of making this woman happy.

transform your life quote 3Ok, that’s a strangely mild example of attachment leading to mild frustration, and a first-world problem for sure; but we can extrapolate how, as attachment strengthens, so does frustration. No amount of relationships, money, drugs, TV, fame, sex, vacations, or pine trees can make us happy – finding real happiness in transient illusory objects outside of our mind is impossible. As Shantideva puts it, quite powerfully:

If we consider all the hardships we have endured since beginningless time
In pursuing meaningless worldly pleasures
We could have attained the state of a Buddha
For a fraction of the difficulty! ~ Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

Funny thing about attachment is how it promises pleasure but delivers bondage. The stronger our attachment, the more we chain and bind ourselves to objects, situations, people, places – believing they have the power to make us happy when only we have that power, and then becoming so sad and confused when things don’t “work out”. Our partner, for example, cannot make us happy. Check out this video by Will Smith, who says some wise things on this subject.

And if you know how to make yourself happy, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in a relationship or not — either works.

Perhaps this seems counter-intuitive at first, but I have found out over the years that non-attachment or non-clinging is what actually allows me to enjoy everything and everyone a lot more. You feel so free. It is the crucial foundation for being able to transform all objects of enjoyment into the bliss of the spiritual path. It dissolves away huge amounts of distraction, confusion, and unsettled feelings, opening up the space in the mind needed to sustain stable love, compassion, concentration, faith, bliss, and wisdom. Without it, I can see clearly how I have one foot on the path to freedom and one foot on the hamster wheel of samsara, which not unsurprisingly encumbers my spiritual progress. As Geshe Kelsang puts it in Meaningful to Behold:

Although the objects  of our attachment are transitory, they nevertheless have the power to obstruct our path to freedom.

How lazy, or not, am I?!

One of the biggest obstacles to our spiritual practice is laziness, and there are 3 types, which, I don’t know about you, but in my experience form a vicious circle. The first type is the laziness of attachment, as just described. Then there is the laziness of procrastination – which of course is fairly inevitable if we have the first type, because why practice today what we could put off tomorrow, particularly when there is lazinessso much entertainment to be had?! Then, when we don’t experience any deepening inner peace because we’re not actually trying to, we develop the laziness of discouragement, “Man, I can’t do this!” or “This meditation stuff doesn’t work.” So we may as well just watch TV or drink beer instead, back to type 1.

The bliss of the yogis and yoginis

As it says in Meaningful to Behold:

Without a doubt yogis like Milarepa experience bliss that is a thousand times greater than anything we ever experience. Their unsurpassed happiness is due to their inner calm and their complete lack of attachment to external objects, while our suffering and dissatisfaction is due to our complete submersion in attitudes of attachment and aversion for external objects.

While I’m bringing up this wonderful book, have you read the Concentration chapter in Meaningful to Behold lately? I turn to that whenever I need an attachment corrective – whether that is attachment to people, places, fame, fortune, or whatever. It is powerful medicine, but not for the faint-hearted, lol. I have needed this chapter many times over the years and am seriously grateful it exists.

Bit of advice too for when we read these kinds of strong teachings by Shantideva and other Buddhist teachers who don’t mince their words: It is a good idea to start by feeling some peace inside (eg, through allowing your mind to settle in breathing meditation, clarity of mind, or absorption of cessation), identifying with your boundless depth, and remembering your sane wish for real freedom and bliss. Otherwise, if we are not feeling any alternative to attachment, reading about its faults can freak us out, even feel there is nothing worth living for.

Going back to the beginning of this article, what’s all this advice about non-attachment got to do with solving the world’s problems, you may be asking? A lot, as it turns out. Attachment is our biggest distraction to doing anything significant about other people’s suffering and its causes.

Okay, we seem to be out of time. I will carry on with this subject of transforming daily life soon.

Over to you …. I’d love to hear how you transform objects of attachment into objects of non-attachment.

Related articles

A closer look at attachment 

The heart wants what the heart wants

Stepping off the hedonic treadmill

 

Evil monkeys

Of course we homo sapiens are not inherently monkeys, much less evil monkeys; but there is some validity in saying we are hairless primates rather than some superior life form, and that as a species we have managed to couple our creative imaginations with increasing greed and selfishness to entrap, torture, and exterminate millions of fellow living beings (including previous varieties of human).

monkey 1.gif

Carrying on from this article, No Buddhism.

(I called this article “Evil monkeys” because it was quicker than “psychopathic narcissistic genocidal self-important monkeys”).

For me that narrative of evolutionary biology only tells part of a story, yet it has been helpful. I have been feeling keenly that despite my usual pride of being a human being as opposed to, say, a chimpanzee or a squirrel, there is really nothing exceptional about me (or other humans) — we are all part and parcel of samsara, trapped in flesh and blood just like all the other animals.

What is so different about me?! How can I expect a better outcome than anyone else around here? How can I expect that for any of the other hairless monkeys I know? That is scary, as there is visibly infinite suffering in our world; so it has been helping me to develop deeper renunciation and compassion.

Yet at the same time my mind need not be that of an animal for I now have a brief window of opportunity to use my mental power to overcome self-grasping — to see that none of this suffering is really happening, that it is like a dream or a mirage. As I heard Lenny Kravitz sing earlier:

Wake up world before it is too late.

monkey 2.gif(I’ll just remind us all while I’m here of the Buddhist understanding of our minds as formless continuums of awareness that have passed from body to body since beginningless time. Therefore, this body we have right now is just one of countless we have appropriated. Evolutionary biology doesn’t take that continuum of consciousness into account as far as I can tell so, like I say, it only tells part of a story.)

Evil monkeys or enlightened Buddhas – our choice

Buddha is deeply radical in saying that all the things we normally perceive do not exist, and proving it in multiple ways.

Dream things such as dream mountains and dream houses
And the horses and elephants that are created by magicians
Are all mere appearance to the mind –
They do not actually exist.
In the same way, all living beings from gods to hell beings
And all phenomena that we normally see or perceive
Are also mere appearances to the mind –
They do not actually exist.” ~ Norsang Gyatso, quoted in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra 

This truth can come to be experienced, giving us actual mental freedom and lasting bliss. Which is what we all want. And all the other teachings of Buddhism — such as renunciation and compassion and even faith — are designed not as something to believe in “out there,” but as mere devices to lead us to the truth of emptiness.

The exercise yard of a bigger prison

The author Harari theorizes that we only ever escape one imagined order by inventing another. He gives some good examples, and funnily enough I just stumbled upon one myself while reading The Week — capitalism will go away if we all believe in socialism instead:

For 40 years, the corporate world has reverently knelt before libertarian economist Milton Friedman and his famed doctrine: “There is one and only one social responsibility of business,” Friedman said, and that is to “engage in activities designed to increase its profits.”

However, at this point in history, for various reasons I won’t get into:

… capitalism is clearly headed for a reckoning …. Real-world experience has undermined free marketeers’ near-theological belief that the unfettered pursuit of self-interest invariably produces the best outcomes for society itself.

We might be headed for “pure and unadulterated socialism” instead.stuck to prison lego

Be that as it may, and whether you think that would be an improvement or not, Harari concludes that replacing one system with another cannot actually free us:

There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.

Overall, I agree with him … BUT ONLY IF WE DON’T REALIZE EMPTINESS. This is the door through which we can finally escape the prison of samsara.

(Interestingly enough, and perhaps not surprisingly, Harari himself is a meditator.)

In the meantime we can still safely agree on some things

An understanding of emptiness allows for us to follow relative reality. We can all agree that this is a blog for example. We will neversapiens 5 find it anywhere if we look for it, so it is not an objective or absolute truth; but it still functions as a blog. That is conventional reality.

I explained here about how things like forests come into being – once the forest exists, insofar as we all agree there is a forest, it functions and we can burn it down and make lots of money.

But although things appear and perform a function, they never exist from their own side. They don’t have to exist from their own side to appear and function – in fact, if they did exist from their own side they could neither appear nor function.

Within that, some relative reality works very well, not least because it brings us inner peace and takes us in the direction of the wisdom realizing the way things are. Geshe-la calls this “beneficial believing”.

For example, developing love and compassion is beneficial believing because it gets us closer and closer to being able to benefit ourselves and others. It is also an expression of our pure, non-deluded nature. Identifying ourselves and others as our pure Buddha nature as opposed to our delusions is also beneficial believing.

Karma functions too. Virtuous actions that derive from a relatively realistic view of things, such as compassion, patience, or love, lead to good results; and actions that derive from delusions — non-virtuous actions (such as gouging out pigs’ eyes so they can’t run away) — lead to bad results. It’s not surprising really that this is the case.

There is relative truth. We want to be happy and free from suffering and some truths and states of mind, including faith, lead us closer toward that. As Voltaire said:

There is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night.

No narrative created by self-grasping can work that great, but some do work better than others. How? Because some bring about some temporary happiness and freedom for ourselves and others, such as those rooted in decency, empathy, kindness, and unselfishness. Others just entrap us more and more deeply in a vicious cycle of selfishness, fear, and pain.

So what can we do for our troubled planet?

We watch the news at record rates; everyone is interested in politics these days it seems. And the more we watch, the more we are in danger of buying into the various narratives we are being fed, and the more we become immersed in our own echo chambers, believing more and more what we’re told. It’s a bit dangerous, frankly. Another maybe slightly relevant quote:

It is impossible to raise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honor, motherland, manhood, or money.

I reckon we could all do with less feverish yet passive following of CNN, Fox news, or Twitter feeds, and spending more time proactively and responsibly working on transforming our own minds and actions.

monkey mindThe point is, we don’t really have much time left, whichever way you cut it. A year goes fast, and how many of those do we have before we die? A month goes even faster and how many of those do we have left – several hundred at most? What we choose to do with this remaining time is incredibly important because who knows whether we’ll have the freedom to choose what to do with our thoughts in our next life. Just ask the veal calf or one of the trillion tortured chickens.

Freedom from illusion

I found this passage from Sapiens somewhat thought-provoking, what do you think of it?

How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity*, democracy, or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature. People are unequal, not because Hammurabi said so, but because Enlil and Marduk decreed it. Free markets are the best economic system, not because Adam Smith said so, but because these are the immutable laws of nature.

But the point I suppose I am trying to make is that Buddha totally did admit that his teachings are imagined – because everything is. But there is incorrect and correct imagination, and Buddha’s clear and practical teachings are designed specifically to lead us to the realization that everything is imagined, and thus finally to freedom from the illusion.

*I don’t feel comfortable singling out any religion as not revealing the truth of emptiness – it seems very likely to me that enlightened beings (Skt. Buddhas) would do their best to appear and teach in all traditions to reveal this truth one way or another. I have read profound things in Christianity, for example; and I also remember Venerable Geshe-la saying how surprised he was to discover how rich was the English language and therefore how easy to translate profound concepts from Tibetan Buddhism — how it had the deep words “manifestation” and “emanation” for example, which come from the early Christian tradition. I think it is also helpful that we have the words “illusion” versus “reality,” for example, indicating that these ideas are not new. Emptiness doesn’t belong to Buddhism, obviously; it is the only truth for everyone. But Buddha did emphasize and explain it very clearly.

The graying of America

old ageTalking of aging, dying, and getting a move on, I was just reading an article called “The graying of America”, which includes all the dismal statistics and prognoses you can imagine. But the article then suggested optimistically that we could “copy or learn” from other countries in their approach to the problem. That sounded good, for a moment, or at least better than nothing, as I read about hacks for incentivizing old people to keep exercising.

But the good ideas then abruptly dried up, because this is what came next: “Japanese companies such as Sony and Soft Bank are marketing a line of robot puppies and baby seals as a balm for elderly loneliness.”

Whaaa? That’s supposed to reassure me — that I can look forward to a robot baby seal for company?! Yes, apparently: “Just looking at it makes people smile.” Grimly, I would hope, unless they’ve totally lost their marbles. And that’s not all – at the Shintomi nursing home in Tokyo you can now join in a sing-along led by a 4-foot-tall android named Pepper.

Forget the chronic shortage of social security, pensions, and doctors, the decline in GDP, the resetting of crosswalk timers throughout the land, or the epidemic of loneliness as millions of people find themselves trapped in their once comfortable suburban houses unable to walk or drive to the shops. The idea of spending my golden years with a literally mindless robot seal who can neither give nor receive an iota of love, and apparently enjoying it, is what horrifies me the most.

And in my case we’re only really talking a matter of 10-20 years at this point: all the more reason to focus my efforts and for-now-functioning marbles on getting into my heart and out of samsara.

Here is a great poem a friend sent me the other day; she knew it’d be right up my street!:

The Parade

BY BILLY COLLINS

How exhilarating it was to march
along the great boulevards
in the sun flash of trumpets
and under all the waving flags— 

the flag of ambition, the flag of love.
So many of us streaming along—
all of humanity, really—
moving in perfect step,
yet each lost in the room of a private dream. 

How stimulating the scenery of the world,
the rows of roadside trees,
the huge curtain of the sky. 

How endless it seemed until we veered
off the broad turnpike
into a pasture of high grass,
headed toward the dizzying cliffs of mortality. 

Generation after generation,
we keep shouldering forward
until we step off the lip into space.

And I should not have to remind you
that little time is given here
to rest on a wayside bench,
to stop and bend to the wildflowers,
or to study a bird on a branch— 

not when the young
are always shoving from behind,
not when the old keep tugging us forward,
pulling on our arms with all their feeble strength.

Wake up world

The other day I dreamed I was miles from where I needed to be and already late, but instead of getting a move on I was sluggishly trying to figure out something suitable to wear.

Whatever this random dream amongst millions of dreams may mean, far more important is what I noticed upon waking, which is how we just get caught up in our narratives.

Within those nightly parameters we feel we have to figure everything out, whereas all we really need to do to solve everything and get where we need to be is to wake up. Blessed relief. It is all well and good being nice to the people around us in our dream, and accepting their help and kindness and so on, and it makes the dream far more pleasant than fighting and arguing; but, either way, nothing is really going on, and we simply need to wake up. As it says in Request to the Lord of all Lineages:

All my appearances in my dreams teach me
That all my appearances when awake do not exist;
Thus for me all my dream appearances
Are the supreme instructions of my Guru.

Percy in graveyard

Rather than blindly following the crowd or people at work, like a sheep, we have to figure out what narrative or world view we are following and whether or not it is working for us; and use our considerable human ingenuity and will power to escape.

Percy and Jenny

Talking of sheep, I once lived in a huge Buddhist Centre called Madhyamaka Centre, at Kilnwick Percy Hall, way out in the Yorkshire countryside. Two sheep, only two, kept escaping from the neighboring field and hanging out in our rose gardens. We kept returning them, and they kept escaping, we never quite figured out how.

One Tuesday the farmer came to collect his flock for slaughter, and sure enough the two sheep once again sought refuge on our land. When the farmer realized they were missing and came to find them, our Admin Director Nick Gillespie decided on the spot to buy them off him instead.

Percy, the ringleader, was a surprisingly intelligent and personable sheep – one could imagine him reading The Times when no one was looking. Jenny was pretty dumb, but she adored Percy and followed him everywhere, and that was her saving grace. Within a few months, the beloved Percy died of yew poisoning and we all did a transference of consciousness for him. Due to his refusal to follow the other sheep, we like to think that he escaped not just a beastly death but more lives in the lower realms and/or samsara. Jenny escaped relatively due to her good idea to follow Percy – she lived to a ripe old age, along with a couple more lambs to keep her company. Hopefully she followed him to the Pure Land.

Percy and JennyIt takes a special sheep to be that persistent. It takes a special human to be that persistent too, but here we are, and we have to find freedom before the farmer gets here.

Over to you, love your comments.

Related articles

How’s samsara working out for you?

Tired, yet, of living a cliche?

 

 

No Buddhism

9 mins read.

We are making all of this up as we go along. Always have been. Always will be.  everything depends on mind

That’s the thing I admire the most about Buddhism – it explains so clearly that the only truth is that nothing is really true. Nothing exists inherently. We are creating everything with our thoughts — there is nothing out there existing from its own side. Yet, at the same time, right here right now we have not just the potential but also the option to realize this—and, if we do that, we are finally free. It’s epic.

The phenomena that I normally see or perceive
Are deceptive – created by mistaken minds.
If I search for the reality of what I see,
There is nothing there that exists – I perceive only empty like space. ~ Request to the Lord of all Lineages

The things we normally see — inherently existent things or things outside the mind — do not exist at all. This applies not just to mental constructs such as shared myths, but to our biological reality such as our body or our physical reality such as radioactivity. If we go looking for anything with wisdom, as explained for example in this article about the emptiness of the body, we will find nothing. Emptiness, or ultimate truth, is the mere absence of the things we normally see. As Buddha pointed out in the shortest Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, called the Heart Sutra:

There is no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, not tactile object, no phenomenon.

Not only that, but there is no inherently existent suffering being, no samsara, no Buddhas, no liberation, no enlightenment.

There is no ignorance and no exhaustion of ignorance and so forth up to no ageing and death and no exhaustion of ageing and death. Likewise, there is no suffering, origin, cessation, or path; no exalted awareness, no attainment, and also no non-attainment. ~ Heart Sutra

That means, does it not, that there is even no Buddhism?!

Heart SutraEven emptiness doesn’t exist inherently, from its own side, outside of thought. There are no absolute truths — not even emptiness, not even awareness, not even Buddhas, not even the path to liberation itself.

Which doesn’t leave us with much of a leg to stand upon. But this turns out to be a very good thing, actually the most extraordinary thing, for, as I like to say:

Samsara sucks
Samsara sucks for everyone
But luckily samsara is not real.

Imagined orders

The things we see do not exist, and yet things hang together due to collective agreement or convention. According to Buddhism, everything, whether a corporation or a chair, exists only as mere appearance, via convention or collective agreement.

So corporations and money etc can function because we collectively allow them too. And because of the huge power of human imagination, we have invented all sorts of useful and not so useful things that, for example, have allowed our societies to grow in size and complexity. As it says in the book Sapiens by the Israeli historian Yuval Harari that I mentioned in this last article:

Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

The book gives some excellent examples of imaginary constructs – companies such as Peugeot, various world views over the millennia, the American declaration of independence, money, empires, even evolutionary biology itself. People invented all these systems and then got enough people to believe and participate in them for them to moreorless work.

superior imaginationWhen the agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands, and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links …. The human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation.

Everything from myth to religion to nations to moral codes to money are inter-subjective realities according to Harari. They have force for as long as people believe them, and cease to exist the moment people no longer believe them. This explains how people could cooperate in groups larger than 150, giving them a military and security advantage, and encouraging specialization which eventually gave them a technological advantage.

The term Harari uses is “inter-subjective;” and he distinguishes between “objective” and “inter-subjective”:

The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals … Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.

illusionHarari has a brilliant mind; but I don’t think he goes quite far enough. So I would just like to add, kinda crucially, that Buddha said nothing is objective. I think of the term “inter-subjective reality” as a synonym for existing by agreement or existing by convention. And everything is therefore inter-subjective, existing by convention, including radioactivity! But I agree with Harari on how things you cannot see or sit on have nonetheless had enormous impact on the world.

As it says in Lord of all Lineages:

When I search with my wisdom eye,
All the things that I normally see disappear
And only their mere name remains.

These numerous human narratives, myths, legends, religions, and evolutionary and scientific theories all tell a story, but only ever part of a story, and not an entirely true story. And whether a narrative succeeds in getting us all cooperating and communicating depends entirely on how many people can be persuaded to believe it and thus buy into it.

With this mere name I simply accept everything for the purpose of communicating with others.

Evil monkeys

sapiens 1Homo sapiens have been hands down the cruelest of species, entrapping and torturing and murdering vast numbers not just of other species but our own. We have used our extraordinary imaginations over millennia to become the dominant species on this planet, getting to the top of the food chain despite our relatively puny bodies, using ever more creative ways to indulge our self-cherishing and profit-driven attachment, even making virtues of them along the way.

But what has been our undoing — for example our own species now being on the verge of extinction on this planet — can also be our saving. Our imagination can be used for evil, but it can also be used to transcend.

Conspiracy theories are not helpful

I was talking to a conspiracy theorist the other day – for sure, these days everyone seems to be a bit of a conspiracy theorist, even me. These stories of victimhood and blame can be convincing and there may be some relative truth to them sometimes. However, these narratives often involve so much mental elaboration in pursuit of the deep perpetrator of all that ails us – and if not careful, far from becoming more free, people fall deeper and deeper down the rabbit holes of hallucination, paranoia, and blame.

we are all being played conspiracyThe only conspiracy a Buddhist really has to uncover and blame is that of our self-grasping, the one that underlies every other conspiracy there has ever been, that fabricates all deceptive appearances. If we had all the time in the world, maybe we could spend weeks and months contemplating other possible evil conspiracies as well. But we don’t have much time, so we need to focus. At least that is what I think, and probably some of you do too. Now we only need to persuade everyone else of that 😁

Until we rid our mind of self-grasping and other delusions, it remains impure. And it seems as if nothing we have created with our impure imaginations has ever had the power to make us happy, at least not for long – whether that be politics or technology or sports or even medicine. Something cannot be real happiness if its cause is not a real cause of happiness, can it? So because politics, science, medicine, and so on can also cause problems, they are not real causes of happiness, and therefore any happiness we derive from them is not real happiness.

Plus our grasping at all these things – including religions — as inherently existent (self-grasping ignorance) and as inherently existent sources of happiness (attachment) has led us to huge suffering. Real happiness comes only from real causes of happiness, inner peace and wisdom.

We have also been kept very busy at justifying our attachments. For example, as we domesticated more and more other species, it must have become convenient at some point to develop the belief that we were somehow of a different order of special (despite Sapiens 2our tail bone) and that animals were put on earth just for our benefit. Of course, therefore, we can treat them however we want.

The domestication of animals was founded on a series of brutal practices that only became crueler with the passing of the centuries.

To this day that exceptionalist world view lingers such that we feel our cruel treatment of animals is justified – but what reasonable justification do we have for this behavior, really?

It’s reasonable to assume, for example, that bulls prefer to spend their days wandering over open prairies in the company of other bulls and cows rather than pulling carts and ploughshares under the yoke of a whip-wielding ape.

And where has this subjugation of animals led us? To the burning of the Amazon and our own potential mass suicide, for one thing.

Not just another invention

Instead of inventing just another imagined order for us to believe in as if it really existed from its own side, outside of our minds, Buddha basically — right out of the door — said that this IS all imagination; that we are making it all up. Everything is emptiness, ie, the mere lack of inherent existence.

The whole methodology of the Buddhist faith is then designed to get us to that understanding so that we can walk through the door of emptiness to lasting freedom.

sapiens 3Everything in Buddhism starts with that — or sometimes with the other side of the same coin which is that everything depends upon thought. That is Buddhism 101. You’ll hear something along those lines the moment you walk in the door of a Buddhist Center. Geshe Kelsang for example has said that he has put emptiness teachings in all of his books in the hope that people will therefore find them; and that the main reason for his appearing in this world is to reveal emptiness to us.

Countless enlightened beings have appeared to say these things in countless world systems, leading countless people like you and me through that door to join them. There may be more enlightened beings than samsaric beings by now, for all we know.

As it says in The New Heart of Wisdom, a commentary to the Heart Sutra:

Although we need to strive to develop a new realization of emptiness, it is important to understand that emptiness itself is not a new development or creation. It is not a product of philosophical analysis or an invention of Buddha. Emptiness has been the actual nature of all phenomena from the very beginning. Our body, for example, has always been empty of inherent existence; there has never been a time when our body, or anything else, existed inherently. Although emptiness has always been the true nature of phenomena, we need to receive instructions to realize this; and for this reason Buddha taught the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra.

If you are interested in emptiness, and haven’t had a chance to read The New Heart of Wisdom yet, I strongly recommend it! I wouldn’t have a clue what I am talking about without reading  that book for the first time decades ago, and many times since.

Summary

Sapiens 4

I do hope I’m not confusing anyone – please go now read The New Heart of Wisdom if I am! But I suppose what I am trying to chat about in this long article is how Buddha came along and blasted all imagined realities, including religions and other belief systems, out of the water by saying that nothing is actually out there, our minds are making the whole thing up – always have been and always will be. Some imagined realities work better than others — some lead us to hellish suffering and some to the bliss of enlightenment — but everything is equally unfindable and illusion-like. That is what we need to realize.

I am going to let Buddha have the last word. In the Heart Sutra, he says:

Therefore, Shariputra, because there is no attainment, Bodhisattvas rely upon and abide in the perfection of wisdom; their minds have no obstructions and no fear. Passing utterly beyond perversity, they attain the final nirvana.

Over to you. What do you think about all this?!

There is another installment here, called Evil monkeys.

Related articles

Will this make me happy? 

What can I believe?! 

There is nothing out there out there 

 

Will this make me happy?

I asked some people recently if they want to be happy all the time. I thought they’d all say yes, duh!, but some of them weren’t in fact quite sure. When I asked why, they come things that make me happyup with two classic observations (1) because they felt that without unhappiness they wouldn’t appreciate what happiness was, and also (2) how can you be happy when you get cancer or people die?! 

These seem like reasonable points. Made me remember that we have to understand what Buddhas might mean by happiness as opposed to what the rest of us usually mean by it. There are two types of happiness, which Geshe Kelsang has called artificial and real. Both are pleasant feelings, both feel good (even great), so what’s the difference?

Real happiness is not the pleasant feelings such as excitement that come from worldly enjoyments such as a new relationship or a new hairdo. That is worldly pleasure, and the reason it is not real happiness is because it doesn’t last and is simply the changeover point between unpleasant feelings and more unpleasant feelings (as is explained more here.)

mosquitos in Dallas Texas

Buddha called this type of happiness “changing suffering” —  not because it feels bad or because there’s anything wrong with it per se, but because it is not the pure or unconditional happiness of inner peace that arises from wisdom. It’s like the relative pleasure we get from scratching an itch (and I know about that, as I’ve just spent the weekend in Texas with about 1,234 mosquito friends). As it says in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra:

The mental peace that develops from worldly enjoyment is not real happiness but changing suffering.

So in response to the first observation, it is true that without unhappiness we wouldn’t know what this kind of happiness is, because it is just the temporary alleviation of unhappiness.

In response to their second observation, I would say that actual happiness is not the same as excitement or glee. It is not generally appropriate to jump around with joy when someone drops dead.

To get closer to what Buddha means by the real happiness that comes from wisdom, I decided to ask the same people a different question – did they want to be at peace all the time? This time, everyone said yes.

For one thing, it is easier to see how being at peace is not just in contrast to being depressed — it is not part of that seesaw, but an underlying way of being. It is also easier to understand how we can learn to be at peace even when things go wrong. We are learning to maintain an internal locus of control, taking ownership of our lives.

The practice of meditation

And when we’re at peace, we’re happy, are we not? That’s the happiness we’re talking about, the happiness that we can grow more and more deeply by meditating, aka familiarizing our mind with wise positive thoughts both on our cushion and in our daily activities.

The Oral Instructions says:

This book principally presents the practice of meditation, through which we can develop and maintain a peaceful mind all the time. If our mind is peaceful all the time, we will be happy all the time.

As Gen-la Dekyong pointed out during this year’s Kadampa Summer Festival, there is a difference between these two questions:

Will this make me happy?

and

Will this make me happy all the time?

I’ve been finding this very helpful. For sure, as I’m about to take my first sip of this Costa cappuccino and have my first bite of muffin, if I ask myself the question “Will this make me happy?,” the answer is “Of course!” But will it make me happy all the time? No.

muffinOnly inner peace can do that. Therefore, I can get a lot more out of this cappuccino and cake by learning to enjoy it with inner peace. And I can recognize too that the happiness of those first few bites (before the worldly pleasure wears off) is in fact coming from the inner peace rather than from the muffin – if I remain in a miserable mood, for example, no muffin on earth has the power to make me happy from its own side.

What this means is that if I can keep the inner peace going, my enjoyment can go on! It’s like having my cake and eating it! But otherwise it can’t – the eating will just turn back into a sickly feeling and/or the need to lose 5 lbs.

Searching for happiness

Since beginningless time, in life after life, we have all been roving around in search of happiness. If we subscribe for just a moment to the narrative of evolutionary biology … in just this one world, Planet Earth, we can see how living beings — whether dinosaurs, marsupials, mammals, fish, or primates — have been trying nonstop to find happiness and get rid of suffering. Home sapiens (that’s us I’m afraid) have been uniquely cruel, koala bearsselfish, and destructive in our pursuit of happiness and profit, managing in the past few millennia as we roamed further and further afield to “domesticate” (ie, own and entrap) untold living beings while driving the majority of other species to extinction. And we’re obviously still at it (including Koala Bears!), justifying ourselves every step of the way.

Nothing exceptional about me

Self-grasping, thinking everything really is out there for the grabbing, is why we are in samsara experiencing one hallucination after another. That constant craving of uncontrolled desire — seeking happiness out there — then perpetuates samsara, keeps it rolling on and on, traveling everywhere but nowhere.

I’ve been reading the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s very thought-provoking – not least because it reminds me that the difference between me and a monkey is … yikes, monkey handsnot much! I am a primate!! So are you!!! There is only 1.2 percent genetic difference between me and a chimpanzee! Look at your hands … they’re designed for climbing trees!

I mean I went to school, so I knew that — but this book has brought it home to me and made me appreciate even more that I have to use this life to break free. It’s obvious. I cannot afford not to because there is nothing at all exceptional about me, especially my body. Feelings of human superiority are very deceptive. I am simply a part of this ancient scary endless horror movie, nature red in tooth and claw; and if I remain as such, how can I hope for anything other than disaster and pain to befall me sooner or later? It’s all very well fearing taking rebirth in the lower realms, such as the animal realm, in our next life – but it turns out we’re already in the animal realm according to this paradigm. We even have tail bones!

monkey babiesRight now, due to the power of a more creative imagination, I am finally able in this life — after countless lifetimes as monkeys, albatrosses, cockroaches, and dinosaurs etc in this and many other world systems — to use my mind to break free. This is due to some out of the blue good fortune whereby I have met enlightened beings who know that life does not equal samsaric suffering, that there is an alternative. They are explaining clearly how I can manifest and purify my very subtle continuously residing mind, the formless awareness that goes from life to life, in order to realize my potential for enlightenment. They are revealing that none of any of this is as it seems, that there is nothing beyond mere appearance, that everything depends 100% upon thought; which is what makes it possible, at long last, to break it all down.

I saw this video of a toddler last week – he wanders up to a mirror, looks curiously at his reflection, and then walks around the back of the mirror to find out where it’s coming from. We are, according to Buddha, childish ones – but we can learn through our own examination and experience that the things we normally see do not exist, that there is nothing behind mere appearance. And that truth will make us blissfully happy, forever.

This opportunity is what makes my current life a precious human life as opposed to an animal life with no freedom or endowments. I may have a primate’s body, complete with opposable thumbs; but there is nothing to stop me at the moment from developing a Bodhisattva’s and then a Buddha’s mind. Notwithstanding I have only a few hundred months left (at most) to get this done before I find myself in a new body, perhaps with an actual tail.

Luxuries become necessities

However, I do digress ever so slightly, because what I was planning on quoting from that Sapiens book is this (when the author is talking about when the human species started to domesticate their world):

One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it.

It’s like me with camping, or rather not camping. I camped at UK Kadampa Festivals for years, maybe even a decade or more! The tents did become larger as the years went by, I admit, and the thermoses, pillows, and so on became more and more fancy. But the point is that I didn’t much mind camping, and I might even have quite enjoyed it from time to time. Slowly but surely, however, I was invited to stay a night here or a night there on a Amelia tentsitting room floor by someone who took pity on me when it rained. These invitations grew over the years to being offered more nights inside, space in a caravan, a bed in a shared room, even my own room from time to time … Then some very generous  American friends said I could share a modest house with them in my own small room for the whole Festival! What luxury!!! However, sure enough, the moment I put down my suitcase and lay down on my soft bed, I had started to take this for granted. Fast forward several years, Summer Festival 2019, and I am writing this in a beautiful house that is a darn sight posher than my own apartment … and there is no place to go from here but down. I am already plotting neurotically how to maintain this level of luxury next summer.

So, what about this lasting happiness then?

In Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s teachings on developing love in 2009, he said:

Probably we think: If I have money I will be happy all the time. If I have a good friend, a boyfriend or girlfriend, I will be happy all the time. If I have a good reputation or a higher position, I will be happy all the time. This is wrong.

More on why “This is wrong” (ie, worldly enjoyments don’t make us happy all the time) is explained all over this blog, including here.

We need stuff, but we probably don’t need it quite as much as we think, and we definitely don’t need to grasp at it for happiness. As soon as we do that, it is like trying to drink water from a mirage, we will always come up thirsty. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:

It is as if we are continually chasing mirages, only to be disappointed when they do not give us the satisfaction for which we had hoped.

It doesn’t matter how hard we try, or how speedy, inventive, or efficient we become in the pursuit of pleasure. Talking about the transition from snail mail to emails etc., for hamster treadmillexample, Harari says:

We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.

To be happy all the time, we need to learn to enjoy mere appearance without the grasping – enjoy the mirage without grasping for the water, or enjoy the muffin or the hairdo or the relationship without grasping at something actually being there causing happiness. As it says in Oral Instructions:

When I search with my wisdom eye,
All the things that I normally see disappear
And only their mere name remains.

The point is that we can come to enjoy everything if our mind remains at peace thanks to wisdom, whether that be mirage-like muffins, relationships, or whatever. But not if it’s not. That’s the difference between liberation and samsara.

Tried and tested method for finding lasting happiness

As it says in Oral Instructions:

Meditation is a scientific method to transform human nature from bad to good. Everybody needs to be good-natured with a good heart.

Why do we need to be good? Why shouldn’t we all just stay like we are, each man out for himself, with occasional heroic flashes of selflessness (recorded on social media?)

I don’t know about you, but whatever I see in the news, in history, around me, or in my own life confirms that cutting ourselves off from others, being selfish and mean, doesn’t seem to be a remotely successful self-defeatingstrategy for finding lasting happiness or freedom, either individually or collectively.

Instead, the way to develop deeper and deeper happiness is by getting rid of our inner problems – our delusions – and cultivating our boundless potential for good qualities such as love, compassion, patience, and wisdom.

This is the real method to solve our own inner problems – problems of ignorance, depression, anger and so forth – and is also the real method to benefit others practically.

You’d think we’d know this by now! But we seem to have surprisingly short memories about what makes us really happy and what doesn’t.

Rather than just lumber around like great apes, we need to unleash our spiritual side. It is there, have no doubt – it has always been there inside you. As Buddha says in a Sutra:

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

When we manifest our very subtle clear light mind we can mix it directly with the true nature of all things, emptiness, the mere absence of all the things we normally see; and the mental peace that arises from this wisdom is real deep happiness, pure and lasting. As Ven Geshe Kelsang says:

So, if we really wish for ourself and others to be happy all the time, we must learn to practice meditation. Eventually, through practicing Mahamudra meditation we will be able to benefit each and every living being every day.

i myself must make myself happyThere is life with suffering and there is life without suffering. There is life without any real or lasting happiness, and there is life with real and lasting happiness. At some point we have to choose because it looks like we can’t have both.

Which brings me back to Gen-la Dekyong’s practical question that we can ask ourselves throughout the day:

Will this make me happy?
Will this make me happy all the time?!

Over to you. Comments are warmly invited.

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Meditation in the pursuit of happiness

Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive

Buddhism and the hedonic treadmill

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buddhist meditation: one of the world’s best-kept secrets?!

Scientists say they have evidence to show that Buddhists really are happier and calmer than other people.  ~ Reuters

For more than twenty years now, in the press — in the cracks between all the disasters erupting all over the world — there has been increasing talk about the scientific findings which indicate that meditation and mindfulness within or from the Buddhist tradition leads to genuine lasting happiness and mental freedom.

Over these years, I have seen articles with titles like “Buddhists Really are Happier”, “Buddhists Transcend Mental Reservations”, “Meditation Shown to Light Up Brains of Buddhists”, and “Buddhists Hold Key to Happiness”.

The quantum folks are famous for their research into the role of the observer in creating reality — but it is not just in quantum physics that people are getting to the bottom of why the benefits of meditation might be so mind- and life-changing. Other studies — including within the scientific disciplines of epigenetics, neuroscience, electromagnetism, psychoneuroimmunology, psychology, and even public health — are now coming into synchronicity with the ancient Eastern understanding about the unbreakable connection between mind and matter.

Numerous experiments are showing how our thoughts and intentions can literally rewire our brains in all the right places, change our brainwaves for the better, fill our brains with those feel-good hormones, heal our bodies, and delay ageing cells.

In other words, consciousness changes matter. Ideas become things. Everything starts in the imagination. With our thoughts we create our world.

Buddhists have been saying this kind of thing for at least 2500 years, but it was not so long ago in the West that pretty much all conventional wisdom held it to be entirely the other way around.

With a dualistic view of mind and matter, reductionists for example were unable to come up with a bridging mechanism between two — as they saw it — ontologically diverse realms of mind and matter. One of these realms had to go, so they did away with the “ghost in the  machine”. The only primary reality was seen to be physical, so everything was “reduced” to the material. Thus, consciousness was regarded as some kind of by-product of matter, secreted by the brain like the liver secretes enzymes for example — although that has always been hard to prove, let alone to reconcile with people’s own firsthand experience of thinking. People’s subjective awareness is not experienced as physical or material — hence 20th century Western philosophy’s ongoing perplexing “question of consciousness”, a question that cannot be answered within the paradigm of mind-matter duality.

The pervasive materialistic world view, seemingly unquestioned for decades, has led to a great number of problems, such as a preoccupation with material development at the expense of moral, mental, or spiritual development. The winner is the one who dies with the most toys. As it says in the Big Short:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

There has never needed to be any problem with asserting two primary realities, as I mention in this article – for they are not dualistic, competing, ontologically oppositional realms, but arise in synchronicity, as the same nature.

Anyway, all that philosophy and fancy adjectives aside, studies of meditators’ brains are showing conclusively that we are not, as once believed, hard-wired, but that our thoughts change our brain throughout our whole life.

(And yes, just to reiterate — it is our thoughts that change our brain, not our brain that changes our thoughts.)

This change can happen even really quite quickly, such as in the example of Dr. Graham Phillips whom I read about in this pretty fascinating book: Mind to Matter (being read as we speak downstairs by my dad).  This skeptical Australian astrophysicist underwent a battery of tests, including MRIs, both before and after starting an 8-week course of meditation, to find hard evidence of whether this “feel-good technique” actually could do anything for him. After just two weeks he reported that he “notices stress but doesn’t get sucked into it.” After 8 weeks, the key discoveries were:

  • A 22.8% increase in the volume of the part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation
  • Enhanced brain response time, better memory, increased cognitive powers, improved behavioral abilities
  • A more relaxed and energy-efficient brain
  • No drugs, surgery, supplements, or major life changes – just mindfulness

Here are some other quotes, and a Google search will surely deliver loads more…

(From Reuters:)

Scientists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison used new scanning techniques to examine brain activity in a group of Buddhists. They have discovered that certain areas of the brain light up constantly in Buddhists, which indicates positive emotions and good mood. This happens at times even when they are not meditating.

Researchers at University of California San Francisco Medical Center have found the practice can tame the amygdala, an area of the brain which is the hub of fear memory. They found that experienced Buddhists, who meditate regularly, were less likely to be shocked, flustered, surprised or as angry compared to other people.

(From The UK Independent:)

“Buddhists who meditate may be able to train their brains to feel genuine happiness and control aggressive instincts”, research has shown. According to Owen Flanagan, professor of philosophy at Duke University in North Carolina, Buddhists appear to be able to stimulate the left prefrontal lobe — an area just behind the forehead — which may be why they can generate positive emotions and a feeling of well being.

(From New Scientist:)

Writing in today’s New Scientist, Professor Flanagan cites early findings of a study by Richard Davidson, of the University of Wisconsin, who used scanners to analyse the active regions of a Buddhist’s brain. Professor Flanagan said the findings are “tantalising” because the left prefrontal lobes of Buddhist practitioners appear to “light up” consistently, rather than just during acts of meditation. “This is significant, because persistent activity in the left prefrontal lobes indicates positive emotions and good mood,” he writes. “The first Buddhist practitioner studied by Davidson showed more left prefrontal lobe activity than anyone he had ever studied before.”

There was a time in the Western world when meditation in general and certainly Buddhist meditation was considered somewhat weird, probably escapist, impractical, and most certainly “alternative”. When I got interested in Buddhist meditation over 37 years ago in the north of England, most people had barely heard of Buddhism or even meditation. Back then, unless asked directly, I rarely mentioned that I meditated, let alone that I was a Buddhist, because it would generally lead to blank stares and a quick change of subject. That still happens sometimes today, of course, but nothing compared to then.

Those days are going. With the explosion of interest in Buddhism and mindfulness (derived from Buddhism) throughout the Western world, taught even in schools, both meditation and Buddhism have now become mainstream words and concepts.

For me, it is not that these articles have told me anything I don’t already know about how great meditation makes me feel, or how it keeps on changing my life for the better in pretty much every single area I can think of. Also, although curious, I’m not really bothered that my squidgy brain as a long-term meditator may look relatively impressive today compared with how it looked 37 years ago. 😁

However, what I do really like is that modern science is catching up to and even recording some of the very tangible benefits of meditation, benefits that anyone can gain if they just do it. I think it means that more people will gain the confidence to try it out and stick at it, and then they’ll get these great results.

One last quote from the New Scientist:

Buddhists are not born happy. It is not reasonable to suppose that Buddhists are born with a ‘happiness gene’. The most reasonable hypothesis is there is something about conscientious Buddhist practice that results in the kind of happiness we all seek. Antidepressants are currently the favored method for alleviating negative emotions, but no antidepressant makes a person happy. On the other hand, Buddhist meditation and mindfulness, which were developed 2,500 years before Prozac, can lead to profound happiness.

Meditation may not be a best-kept secret for much longer.

Over to you. Comments very welcome!

Related articles

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Buddha & the brain

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Permission to Relax

A Kadampa Buddhist practitioner for 25 years, this guest author is a self-employed, healthcare business owner who practices Asian Medicine in the rural American South. She claims that she can provide a stainless example of the trial and error of integrating Dharma into a busy modern life. Her disclaimer: “My observations are neither new nor unique, but I can sincerely share what it’s like to NOT use the power of rest and relaxation!”

This morning, I woke up aware (again) of a self that starts the day thinking, “TIME TO GET GOING!! SO MUCH TO DO! … Better HURRY!”

Picture1

Yeah, so maybe this is not necessarily a bad thing … IF the energy of these thoughts were used with positive spiritual intentions. They could be quite valuable to motivate and energize a self to get up out of bed.

But, usually, if you are anything like me, this starts up mental PUSHING.

The voice of this “I” or self has some strong belief that I need to push to “get through” the day.

And, the gaping agenda of any given day: the household chores, the email, the messages, the work tasks, ah, the ToDo List … and, not to mention, getting on the meditation cushion … I will have to push myself to get to it all. It can certainly feel like it’s not “okay” to relax my mind or my body. 

Picture 2However, what I have learned in over two decades as a Kadampa practitioner is that I have a strong identification with a uncomfortable limited self, one I have drolly named “Nagatha”.  She “nags” me on.  She schemes and plots, always pushing me — she is never satisfied.  Her list is never done and, although she “lets” me have some daily formal meditation, it is rare that she allows for much satisfaction for some inner peace.

Reading the more recent Kadampa Life posts HERE about self-hatred and being self-critical, I started thinking about how this very critical-nagging-Nagatha self takes a lot of license to keep pushing me around. Nagatha wants to keep me believing that I have to push for the energy to “get through” the day.  But, sadly, it’s never enough for Picture 3her. And the overall “I” or Self that gets reinforced is the one who believes she’s never been enough, she’s not enough now, and she never will be enough. 

How easy it is, then, to start to hate that self, to believe that “she” is a failure, day in and day out.  This further fuels Nagatha, of course, to keep on criticizing, nagging, and pushing.

I realize more and more that this is the very opposite of what the enlightened beings have long been saying to us.  Geshe Kelsang has spelled out in many places the importance and power of rest.  My Nagatha tends to stay busy overriding and drowning out his words.  She bullies me into believing that I will be able to rest my mind when (and only when) my ToDo List is finished. I call this the “Unfinished Business of Busyness” — which Nagatha is determined to make me DO.

When someone in my clinical treatment room looks at me wearily and elaborates on how exhausted they are, I usually find that they also picture 5don’t believe that they have permission to stop, to rest. Even the mention of making “time to meditate” seems like just a really cute little ideal. “Yeah, right, like I have any time to stop or sit still! … I can’t do THAT!” 

But there’s always much to do and many things to pay attention to (read: distractions). Our family, our culture, and our world all make for plenty of evidence.  However, no amount of evidence alters Buddha’s verdict. This inner battle we create — between our striving and pushing self and our wiser, more peaceful self — has never delivered lasting happiness. 

We continue to engage in a kind of inner ‘Warfare” instead of developing inner ‘Well-fare’. It doesn’t make for a healthy day — much less a healthy experience of the spiritual path.

Geshe-la says, actually, in How to Transform Your Life (free for download HERE), that we need to:

take care of ourself and look after our needs…otherwise we undermine our capacity to benefit others. … Moreover, others may conclude that we are imbalanced and consequently will not trust us or believe what we say … so we will not be able to help them. 

He also says that if we are

not happy with ourself or foolishly neglect our own well-being, we will have neither the confidence nor the energy to effect radical spiritual transformation.

picture 6Sounds to me that this masterful spiritual teacher of mine is directly highlighting something I have definitely experienced along the way: that if I am going to be self-critical or neglect my own need for rest and replenishment, it will set me up for failure. A failed self who wishes to be of benefit to others.  I won’t be able to provide authentic or lasting assistance (right again, thanks Nagatha!)

In the past I was able to override basic physical needs for much stopping or resting … and eventually it caught up. What was also terribly dispicture 7heartening to discover was that it began to  threaten and undermine my confidence in my potential — my Buddha nature — which is inexhaustible in its power to benefit others.

Nagatha’s pushing kept feeding the self I would normally see and then believe: the self who is never enough, doing enough, having enough, being enough.   

So, I had to check: Who IS this self or “I”? 

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And is this really the self I am going to ask for permission to relax and be happy?!

If I keep on asking Nagatha, can I really expect to be granted time to stop, reflect, regroup, or refuel for a positive, relaxed, much less joyful daily life?

I don’t know about you, but I found that I would rather find and listen to someone who has a bigger mind than I do. Who has seen and explained that rest itself is a power — it is one of the four essential powers of joyful effort. And, after all, Buddha seems pretty darned positive, relaxed, and joyful!

Geshe Kelsang explains very clearly in Joyful Path of Good Fortune that if

we relax at the right time we shall soon be able to apply new effort again. … Timely relaxation maintains the constancy of our practice. … If we neglect the need for rest we become  overtired and we are not able to apply effort again with joy.

I have seen over time that following the advice of the self I normally see makes not only my day, but my spiritual life path, a less than joyful one. Instead it can become all about pushing, hurrying, and busyness.  And the self who lives that life eventually gets really really tired.

picture 9Why is it that when we’re thirsty we get a drink and when we’re hungry we find some food, but when we’re tired we’re like: “What is WRONG with me?!”

Perhaps we can check in: “Do I need to find ways to rest more?” I am betting that if you’re like me, you will see that resting the body and the mind, even for a few more peaceful moments throughout the day, goes a lot further to fostering more heartfelt presence for others.

A more relaxed mind naturally has more space for kindness, love, and compassion. There’s more available energy to be satisfied and fulfilled in our own efforts.  If we ourselves can experience these inner resources, we will naturally be more able to resource others.

Do you permit yourself to take a rest, even a short break from pushing, or from your nagging self? 

How often do you make one of your own “ToDo” items Rest and Relaxation?  Do you give yourself that permission?

I spend my days at work offering these questions in the spirit of permission. (People actually PAY me to offer some room and time to rest and physically and mentally stop!) Surely this indicates a basic need — one that Geshe-la has always told us about. Not to mention, the enlightened beings themselves don’t seem to be busy hurrying around in a bustle of dissatisfaction!

Maybe, if you will, just think about it.  Maybe take a moment to stop and contemplate (dare I say ‘meditate’ on this?) … I am talking to myself here, as well as to those of you who have been self-professed meditators for a long time but are still feeling less than deeply relaxed.

Here are some simple instructions to start giving it a try — a short mental rest break. 

And here’s a Permission Slip: picture 10