Meditation versus action … more from our social worker

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

In this article, he is asking significant questions about the relationship between Buddhism and social action, important to address, especially in our modern age.  Please share your understanding in the comments box below, particularly if you work in any of the caring professions!

Continuing on my reflections on working for a mental health charity as a student social worker, I found that being mentally prepared for the work I did was essential.

Meditation on compassion

I tried to make universal compassion my main practice throughout these months, making sure I started the day with a meditation on compassion or at least incorporating compassion into my meditation e.g. having a compassionate motivation/intention at the beginning of the meditation and a compassionate dedication at the end.

I always dedicate my meditations for the enlightenment of each and every living being, but I feel it is ok to include people you know who have a particular suffering (which could include service users) and pray (without attachment) for their liberation from their present suffering.   In fact this makes my meditations and virtue more personal and more powerful.

At work, most of the time I was able to remain unnerved and at ease with service users, with love and compassion (being relatively free from my own self-cherishing) protecting my mind from any negativity in the working environment.

Tackling stigma and leading by example

Another aspect of working for a mental health charity can be tackling the stigma and discrimination there is against people with mental health distress. It has been encouraging to discover this year that mental health charities are beginning to make progress in this area, but there is still a long way to go.  I found that talking openly about my own past and present mental health distress has helped service users and their families considerably.  It can be so beneficial to open up and talk about your difficulties and, once you do, and there is some acknowledgement, difficulties can be shared and reduced, and as a society we can all become more aware of mental health distress.  You do have to check, however, how much you can self-disclose and such practice is more accepted in social work than it is in healthcare.

This placement experience reminded me that it was my own stress, anxiety and depression that led me to Buddhist meditation; and it is this medicine for the mind that I keep on taking several times a day for the rest of my life, gradually improving each year.  People can be relieved and less frightened too when they realise that you are human and experience similar difficulties.  They become more open to your help.

Meditation v. action

Trying to lead by example is the main way I help people, but there are times in social work where you have to act as an advocate, representing a group of people or to politicise a little.  You can become very passionate about this and feel justified in becoming angry.  On my course at university I was a student rep as I felt sorry for the younger students struggling with the course.  It felt good and beneficial to encourage them to stand up for themselves, but I struggled with representing groups of people who were angry or upset; and I realised that the Buddhist belief in personal responsibility doesn’t mix with trade unionism.

These are areas where I can have difficulties, and I am interested in what any of you have to say.  Are your own meditation, prayers and example enough, or could we do more for our society? Could the products that Kadampa Buddhism offers such as the meditation CD’s, teaching in schools, chaplaincy and any other act of public service be more offered and marketed to areas of our society that need it?

I often found that in the academic training in social work, my use of my knowledge and experience of Buddhism wasn’t appreciated, and perhaps there is danger of mixing Dharma too much into our worldly work life and that it is best to quietly lead by our own example? What do you think? If I was to train as some kind of mental health practitioner I would have to study practices that are similar but different to Buddhism.  Could and should Kadampa Buddhism offer more to the care industries in our societies?

Perhaps you would be willing to help me by letting me know what you think below.

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No more nervous Nellie

Tomorrow’s another day

There have been some great comments on the previous no worry articles, including this one from DhiDakini: “In a meditation class, someone asked the teacher about the emotion of anxiety. I remember that he said in answer:

“Doesn’t it seem strange and so interesting that we sit in a pleasant moment and worry about things that AREN’T happening right now…?”

 It seemed so pithy and yet so staggeringly deep in that moment for me – made me wonder “WHY would I every worry again?’ Ha! (Then I started worrying about worrying too much…)”

Less of the me, me, me

Do any of these adjectives describe you: Nervous, agitated, anxious, apprehensive, tense, edgy, excitable, fearful, fidgety, flustered, hesitant, highly strung, hyper? What is the leitmotif of all of these states of mind? “Me”. We need to work on less of Me. If we are in the habit of worrying about ourself or those we are attached to, the smallest thing can fill our mind, crowding out all other perspectives, so we become rigid, blinkered and myopic. I give one example here.

Worrying is a huge distraction. It may pretend to be helpful in getting things done, but in truth it distracts us from helping others. Worry saps our joy and does nothing to fix a situation – we can solve problems more energetically and effectively with a light mind of patience. You can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time. Worry is actually very tiring. And when we are tense, people can catch it from us (unless they are protected by the mind of love or  wisdom), and so things go backward in that sense too.

Fiona Layton says: “Habit yes it is, like all delusions. Worry comes from fear, which comes from self-cherishing, especially the part that needs to control the outcomes for myself and others.”

Taking and giving

We can be pretty sure that everyone worries a lot if they don’t have control over their mind. So, when you worry, it’s a good time to do taking and giving for everyone, especially those who are having a similar worry to yourself. How many people have to take care of sick cats or, even harder, sick children? We can take on their suffering and give them relief and everything else they need. Get the self out of the way and the worry goes but the compassion and love increase.

Quick explanation of how to do taking and giving

For those who are not familiar with the so-called “magical practice of taking and giving”, you can find it in this free eBook by Geshe Kelsang, Modern Buddhism, pages 95ff. You can also find it in Vide Kadampa’s Daily Lamrim blog.

Just in brief, for taking, with a mind of compassion we imagine we are taking on all the sufferings of others individually or collectively in the aspect of thick smoke, which dissolves into our self-cherishing at our heart and blows it up. We feel joy at having removed others’ suffering and destroyed our own worst enemy, self-cherishing, and meditate on this for as long as we can.

For giving, with the love wishing others to be happy we imagine that our body transforms into a wishfulfilling jewel, from which light rays radiate to touch all living beings, giving them whatever they need or wish for. As a result they experience a lasting and perfect joy and happiness. We too feel joy and meditate on this for as long as possible.

We can also combine the practice of taking and giving with our breathing, which really is one of the most fun and powerful methods for making our daily life meaningful. Not only does it reduce our worry, but it also improves our love and compassion, and creates potent causes for being actually able to bring happiness and freedom to others in the future. (If we understand emptiness, we’ll get the idea how everything begins (and ends!) in the imagination.) Taking and giving is taught in the books Universal Compassion and Eight Steps to Happiness.

On Facebook, Samuel Forbes beautifully explained how helpful taking and giving can be: “I suffer from intense anxiety (panic disorder) and I’ve found meditation on taking extremely helpful when panic sets in. In my experience, anxiety stems from self-cherishing, at least for me. When I’m anxious, I’m only worried about myself, not others. So, when meditating on taking, it helps me think of the fear others experience and I imagine taking it upon myself in the form of black smoke, ridding myself of self-grasping (the source of the fear) at my heart and developing compassion, purification and so forth all at once. Beautiful. With enough concentration and blessings it can work extremely quickly, sometimes in a matter of seconds, not only taking the fear away, but actually making the mind peaceful and happy. It is far more effective than any conventional medicine I’ve tried over the years.”

Victoria Kaya added: “My brother was diagnosed with cancer a year ago and most of my close family suffers from a rare heart condition. I know it can be difficult at that time not to worry; however the time I have spent in hospital I feel that the practice of taking and giving helped me to feel like I was able to do something for them and not feel helpless.”

You’re not alone

As explained in Ralph’s story, we can also turn our worries over through prayer, if we have faith. This method has worked pretty well for many people over the ages! As Sally Anne Atkinson says: “Hand it over :)” We obviously don’t have to be Buddhists to do this.

Mike Hume gives some personal examples: “When I look back at my life I can see many times when I have been in dangerous situations, several involving motorbikes. Once I fell in the river and was rescued and resuscitated, another time I was rescued from a large window falling on me, and there have been numerous less serious situations as well. Once I prayed very hard to Geshe Kelsang and Dorje Shugden [a so-called “Dharma Protector” who is the same as Wisdom Buddha Manjushri] to save my brother who was on life support when his vital signs were well below critical, and he survived; and I prayed in the same way when I was in a plane in a storm, when the captain announced, “A hole in the clouds has just appeared”. Fiona Layton says: “When I feel that I am not equipped to deal with certain situations, then I have forgotten my Spiritual Guide and Dorje Shugdan and all the other countless Buddhas who could bless my mind if I turned to them and instantly feel relaxed. This normally happens when I have skipped my prayers and Lamrim (must do it now actually!)” Maria Tonella says: “In reality for me there is not a worrying situation that cannot be softened by praying a mantra with faith.”

Have you found that any of the methods in this article have worked for you? Please share your experiences in the comments, and let others know of the article if it’s helpful.

One last article on worry in the pipeline! For all the no worry articles, see No worries.

Our job as a parent is to become irrelevant

Another guest article from our Kadampa working dad. The rest can be found here.

I believe our job as a parent is to become irrelevant!

What does every parent want for their children?  We want our children to become fully capable individuals that make wise decisions on their own.  A wise decision is one that leads to true happiness.  Everything we do as a parent should lead to this final result, and we should use this final result as a guide to know how to respond to every parenting challenge and as a litmus test to see whether what we have done as a parent is mistaken and needs to be corrected for.

When our children are born, they are incapable of anything and make all the wrong decisions (put your finger in an electrical socket, anyone?).  In the end, we want them to be capable of everything and to be able to make all the right decisions on their own.  So in the beginning, they need us for everything, but in the end we want them to need us for nothing – in short, we want to become irrelevant (or more precisely, no longer needed). 

So how does this work in practice?  There are no fixed rules, rather general principles we can follow as a parent.  When it comes to helping our children become fully capable, I try to use the following principles:

1 For things they are not yet capable of doing: don’t expect them to be able to do it.  I would say 90% of the problems we have as parents in the early years of our children’s life come from being upset when our children don’t live up to our expectations.  We expect them to already be able to do things, and then when they don’t, we become upset at them.  When we get upset at them for not doing something, we create serious obstacles to their ability to joyfully learn the new skill themselves.  They will reject what we have to say because for them it comes as a punishment and a control, not a helping hand.  For the things they are not yet capable of doing on their own, just do it for them with an excited attitude of “one day you will be able to do this all by yourself.”  Think potty training!  This attitude makes them want to do things on their own in the future.

2. For things they can learn to do:  help them learn how to do it on their own.  This takes tremendous patience.  Usually as parents we are very rushed.  We feel we don’t have time to indulge our kid in spilling the milk bottle 20 times so they can learn from their mistakes, rather we figure it is just quicker and easier to do it ourselves.  But why are we so rushed?  We are rushed because we have to do everything ourselves.  Why do we have to do everything?  Because our kids don’t know how to do anything yet!  So while it is true in the short-run that it takes more time to help our kids do things on their own than for us to just do it for them; in the long run, we are actually saving ourselves time by taking the time now to teach them how to do things on their own.  It is crucial at this stage to instill in them the excitement of “me do it”, where they want to do it on their own – how liberating for them to become capable of doing things for themselves.  If you get this attitude correct at this stage, you avoid the pitfalls of the next stage.

3 For things they are already capable of doing:  don’t do it for them.  It is very easy for the ‘compassionate parent’ to fall into the extreme of becoming their child’s slave.  While this may seem compassionate, there is no wisdom to such an approach.  Yes, we are supposed to serve others and all the rest, but we must do so with wisdom.  We are not helping our children by teaching them laziness and manipulation/exploitation of others.  So if something comes up that they are capable of doing on their own that they want you to do for them, just say “sorry, you are capable of doing that yourself.”  They will say you are being mean, but you will know you are being a wise parent.

If we check carefully, we will see that what we want as a parent for our children is exactly what a qualified Spiritual Guide wants for their disciples, the only difference is the scope of ‘capable’ and the extent of ‘wise decisions’ involved.  The Spiritual Guide wants us to become as capable as all the Buddhas and to develop an omniscient, compassionate wisdom.  As a parent, we would generally be happy with our children being able to get on in the world and to make good decisions in this life.  While much smaller in scope, it is a start and a prerequisite for the capacity and wisdom the Buddhas want for our children.  So we can view our job as a parent as preparing the ground to hand our children over to higher paths (if they so choose).

In the next part of this series, we will look at three key wisdom minds we should try help our children cultivate so that they can make “wise decisions” on their own!

Are you a parent? Have you tried these methods? Please share your ideas and experience in the comments box below.

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Buddhist advice for worrywarts

We probably all worry unduly sometimes, which makes us all worrywarts according to the dictionary. Here are some more practical solutions for this unpleasant state of mind.

Stop paying inappropriate attention

Drag your thoughts away from your troubles… by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it.  ~Mark Twain

You’re not inherently a nervous Nellie, no one is. As mentioned earlier, all habits are made to be broken. Delusions, including their inappropriate attention, are not intrinsic parts of mind, they are just thoughts that arise and have no ability to exist if we don’t think them. And they are certainly not us.

A lot of you may have come across this quote somewhere ‘cos it’s a good one:

An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies, & ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, & truth.” The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

If we are not careful, our thoughts think us rather than the other way round. Shirley Austin on Facebook says: “The first fault of delusion identified by Shantideva is “delusion give us no choice”. This is so true. Once we start to follow a delusion we become hooked and it is hard to let go of it. It is so juicy!” We need constructively to replace inappropriate attention with appropriate attention as soon as we notice we are beginning to dwell on our problems. Take away the oxygen of inappropriate attention, and worry (a type of delusion) will quickly expire. Adam Head agreed we need to be creative: “Move forward, make something new, make something happen! This creative/constructive energy doesn’t really tolerate worry and hand-wringing, where the mind can repeatedly chundle on and on about stuff without realising how futile it is.”

It is very helpful to understand how inappropriate attention is running the show. Look and see what you’re focusing on — I bet you are accentuating the negative and editing out the positive. Start doing the opposite, see what happens. Buddha said that with our thoughts we create our world. It is so true.

Feeling responsible for others without the guilt

Feeling solely responsible for another’s welfare makes us worry if we’re not careful, and as mentioned above can wrap us up in guilt, which is an even heavier mantle to remove. Superior intention is the noble, compassionate mind that feels entirely responsible for every living being throughout space and time, but the person who possesses it has no worry at all in their minds. So where are we going wrong?!

One reason I decided to write these articles is because of late I have felt more immediately or physically responsible for the life, health and safety of dependents than usual. Perhaps because I am out of practice at that, I find details strangely worrying when normally I never worry about much at all. This is proving useful because I thought I had the whole not worrying thing under control, but clearly I have more work to do! I enjoy the challenge of looking at what is going on in the mind when I worry and getting to the bottom of it once and for all. (This sort of reminds me of when I first got interested in Buddhism – after a few months I was quite sure I had equanimity down as I thought I liked everyone equally, “Hey, this is really EASY guys!!” Then a boyfriend materialized and I realized my attachment had just been on the back burner for a year.)

I’m finding this whole process of being responsible for various animals, starting with Ralph and Nelson, good training for being a Bodhisattva and even a Buddha. I can view each one of them as an example of all the animals and other living beings in the world who need help, and train in taking on the personal responsibility while freeing the mind from worry or guilt. I meditate on superior intention regularly, and now is my chance to apply it, without turning into an over-protective mommy while I’m at it! This situation is helping me see the difference between compassion and worry, and how compassion itself is not a sad mind, although worrying and guilt are horrible.

Parents of human children (especially in these challenging times), I take my hat off to you – you surely have worry and guilt licked to stay sane for even a day?!

Here is one random example of a run-away train of thought traveling from worry to guilt and back again. “What can I worry about today?! Oh, I know, Nelson’s bad cheek, it is more swollen than ever. Oh, so now that reminds me that I can worry (again) about how I’ve already brought his vet’s appointment forward by four days, but maybe he won’t be alright for another two whole days? It is Saturday morning and they are not open til Monday. Oh, that reminds me, I have to CATCH him! I’m dreading it, he will hate being in lock-down all night. Or maybe I won’t be able to catch him?! But I need to because of his cheek. And what is actually wrong with his cheek? It looks scary. Cancer? A mysterious abscess that might go to his brain?!” Then comes the guilt: “Oh I’m not doing enough for him! I’m so useless at this!” Then more variations on a theme — fraught scenarios complete with everything that could go wrong. etc

Just one illustration today amongst gazillions in the minds of living beings: trains of undesirable thoughts that we have inadvertently boarded, which are taking us from Worry Station right through to Panic Stations! We have to get off!!

Stop worrying right into the future

We allow our thoughts to run riot and way into the future. Chewing over the various possibilities of something that hasn’t even happened is the cause of much of our anxiety and stress.

You know, tomorrow really does take care of itself. We’ll have all day tomorrow to focus on tomorrow’s problems. We can be more like Charlie Brown:

I’ve developed a new philosophy… I only dread one day at a time.

He has a point. We worry far more if we worry ahead. John Newton (not sure who he is, but I like this quote) says:

We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it.  But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday’s burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it.

What were you worrying about a year ago today?! Can you even begin to remember?! Will you have the worry you have today a year hence? I find these thoughts useful too.

We can make a plan, for sure, for example to get the cat to the vet; but then, in the inimitable words of my brother, something can be time-consuming without being mind-consuming. Make a plan, be prepared to see it change, and meantime stop thinking about that plan and just live. The best is if we can keep our thoughts focused on today or even this hour or even just now, having the very best experience and creating the very best intention in every moment. Then the future tends to take care of itself!

I don’t know who he is either, but Oliver Wendell Holmes said, and I agree:

What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

But just to get a bit philosophical on you for a moment: actually, there are no past things and future things, only pasts of things and futures of things. That sense we have of linear time stretching behind and ahead like train tracks is an illusion. All (functioning) things are necessarily present. This means that “our past” and “our future” are entirely dependent on our present state of mind, rather as a rubber band being twisted in one spot alters the entire rubber band. Past, present and future are only imputed by mind and have no existence from their own side. We cannot point to where the past ends and the present begins. So we can take it moment by moment and go with the flow. I hope to write more on this, a favorite subject, in another article. See Ocean of Nectar for the explanation of the emptiness of time.

This is the fourth article in an occasional series on how to worry less using Buddhist techniques. The first three are Don’t worry, be happy, How to stop worrying about anything, everything and nothing and DON’T PANIC. (All of the anti-worry articles can now be found here, when you have a spare half hour or so to read them.)

It’s your turn. What methods have you used to overcome worry (especially about the future) and guilt? Please use the comments box below. And please share this article if you like it.

DON’T PANIC

Shantideva

The great Indian Buddhist Master Shantideva is famous for his practical advice on dealing patiently with problems:

If something can be remedied
Why be unhappy about it?
And if there is no remedy for it,
There is still no point in being unhappy.

Here is a flow chart to illustrate this seemingly unarguable point (sorry, I don’t know who drew the original or I would credit them:)

don't worry be happy 1How can we do this in a simple way? By not immediately defaulting to: ‘Oh noooo’, with a mind of aversion, rejection, and worry, but getting in the habit of bringing it on: ‘Oh yessss’, and only then thinking: “Now what can I do about this?” If there is something I can do about it, why worry? And if there is nothing I can do about it, why worry? Instead, I can and will find another way to relate to this situation.

I confess that I used to have this following question, which I just shared on Facebook to receive what I think is a really good answer from the scientist Jon Dicks:

Luna: One quick question though, what do you do in the moments before deciding whether or not there is something we can do about it?!
Shirley Austin: Panic 🙂
Luna Kadampa: haha!! that’s what i thought.
Jon Dicks: @Luna, you do not need to panic in the moments before also, because it will be either one possibility or the other, so why worry. Like Schrodinger’s cat in its box there are only two possible states, dead or alive, so open the lid and find out which it is. Don’t get excited also in anticipation 🙂
Jon Dicks: (poor cat though).

Since I read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a teenager, I have found myself muttering “DON’T PANIC” if things seem to be going disastrously wrong, and then taking it from there. (The novel explains that “DON’T PANIC” was written in large, friendly letters on the cover partly as the device “looked insanely complicated” to operate and partly to keep intergalactic travelers from panicking.)

If we are attached to things going our way the whole time, we will experience aversion or impatience when things don’t go our way, and this is worry – a lack of acceptance of what is. Patient acceptance is therefore one major opponent to worry.

When we decide to stop worrying, we are in effect starting to practice patient acceptance. Shantideva suggests starting small to begin with, e.g. with insect bites (and it is all relative but buying a piano might also fall into that category!) So if you are a chronic worrier about anything that comes your way, you have plenty of opportunity to practice being laid back instead. (As my brother graphically put it: ‘You need to shovel shit all the time to grow roses.”)

Every time we succeed in not worrying by deliberately thinking differently about the situation, our habit of not worrying increases, and our mind becomes fresher, more confident and happier. Roseanne Brancatelli says: “The excitement in life is finding solutions for our problems. If there is no solution, there is acceptance — the solution for what can’t be resolved.” With this attitude, we make progress, whether you want to call it spiritual or not.

This is the third article in an occasional series on how to worry less using Buddhist techniques. The first two are Don’t worry, be happy and How to stop worrying about anything, everything and nothing. (All of the anti-worry articles can now be found here.)

It’s your turn. Has Shantideva’s advice worked for you? Please share your experience in the comments box below.

Life is but a dream

It might be helpful to read Am I dreaming? first. (For a full and inspiring explanation of the subject, you’re welcome to download Modern Buddhism for free and read the chapter Ultimate Truth.)

Appearances are deceptive
Is this really moving?! Or is it your mind moving?! Or both?!

We know from the experience of waking up each morning that our dreams are a moment by moment projection of mind, mere appearances to mind that are totally dependent on the minds that perceive them. However, as in our waking world, this is not how they appear and this is not what we think about them while we are still dreaming. When we dream, our 3D dream world is intact with all its geographical, spatial, and temporal coordinates. There is a sense of here and there, outside and inside, coming and going. There is a sense of past, present and future – if asked in our dream, we’d agree that the people we meet were born and will die, and the same goes for us.

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang says in Heart of Wisdom:

When we dream, we may have extremely vivid experiences. We may travel to colorful lands, meet beautiful or terrifying people, engage in various activities, and as a result experience great pleasure or suffering and pain. In our dream a whole world appears to us, functioning in its own way. This world may be similar to the world of our waking state or it may be quite bizarre, but in either case while we are dreaming it appears to be utterly real.

If we are capable of creating a whole world at night, we are certainly capable of creating one during the day!

Sometimes our waking life feels quite bizarre too, when unexpected things happen and we say things like “This feels so dream-like!” When we dream, our mind is more subtle and our mindfulness does not function very well (unless we have trained it), so it often appears as if everything is a little more chaotic or less predictable, just as it would if you were to lose your memory in waking life.

If we test our dreams, say during a lucid dream, by tapping the table or asking people around us “Am I dreaming?”, the table will feel solid to our seemingly solid knuckles and the people will most likely look at us in surprise and say that of course we are not dreaming. I once did try pinching myself in a dream and had to conclude that it proved absolutely nothing! The only way to know for sure that we’ve been dreaming is to wake up. Similarly, if you now tap the table you are reading this on, or ask your neighbor “Am I dreaming?”, or even pinch yourself, see what happens!! The only way to know directly that this is not all out there, independent of our mind, and existing as it appears (i.e. true as opposed to deceptive) is to wake up from our ignorance of self-grasping that clings to everything as being out there, independent, and true. However, in the meantime we can still gain a very strong understanding and sense of it through study and meditation, which will enable us to stop grasping (and its attendant delusions) and profoundly relax.

Like the dream you had last night, this day that you are having right now is a mere appearance to your mind. But, as Geshe Kelsang says in Heart of Wisdom:

“Nevertheless our world functions, following its own apparent rules in accordance with the laws of cause and effect, just as our dream world functions in its own way.”

We can follow these apparent physical (e.g. gravity) and karmic rules as opposed to being entirely nihilistic and throwing ourselves off cliffs or engaging in negative actions, whilst at the same time treading very lightly and happily through life. Emptiness is not nothingness. Inherently existent things don’t exist, but things do exist, even if only apparently.

“This plot has nothing to do with me!” we may think, especially when our lives are unraveling or our delusions are strong. Oh, but it does. It has everything to do with us. And for as long as we have self-grasping and self-cherishing, the projections that our mind throws up will be in the nature of suffering, they will be our own samsara. When we have compassion and wisdom functioning, we will project a peaceful, pure and blissful world that we can recognize as being the nature of our own mind. Depending on the extent of our compassion and wisdom, this will be a world that we can moreorless create and control for our own and others’ benefit.

A Buddha or “Awakened One” is anyone who has completely woken up from the sleep of ignorance and sees all phenomena as they really are. He or she is never again separated from the knowledge and perception that everything is appearance to mind, like objects in a dream, and that nothing exists from its own side. The definition of enlightenment in Mahamudra Tantra is:

“An omniscient wisdom whose nature is the permanent cessation of mistaken appearance and whose function is to bestow mental peace on all living beings.”

Buddhas are omniscient and all-loving, and as a result can help each and every living being every day through the power of their blessings. The only restriction to their power is living beings’ karma and delusions.

Even a slight understanding of emptiness (lack of inherent or independent existence) will revolutionize our outlook and where we put all our energy. If we want to change a dream, do we try and move the dream objects around, or do we need some understanding that we are dreaming and mainly focus on changing our mind? In our waking world, we can and do move things around, for sure; but we’ll be far more effective if we do this while also focusing on the state of our mind and mental intentions or karma.

If we change our mind, we’ll change our world. If we purify our mind, we’ll purify our world. You know in dreams — for example, if you’re having a lucid dream, the monster’s chasing you, and suddenly you think, “This is just a dream”  — I don’t know if you’ve had this experience?! “Ah!  You’re not really a monster after all. Just an appearance to my mind!” You make friends with the monster — maybe the monster starts crying and says, “No one has ever understood me before!” I have a friend who was always dreaming of being chased by a terrifying monster until one day, having heard these teachings, she stopped in her tracks, swung around, stared at him, and declared: “You are just a dream!” He transformed into a peaceful Buddhist monk.

Slight digression: My grandfather used to read me Alice in Wonderland when I was a kid – that and Alice through the Looking Glass are kind of useful for introducing children to some of these ideas. I remember being so struck when Alice declared:

“You are nothing but a pack of cards!”

I heard it again recently at my niece’s musical. I still use that expression! (maybe not out loud).

Whenever we know we’re dreaming, we can change everything in our dreams. It is the same for our whole life. As Geshe Kelsang says in Understanding the Mind:

“If we think deeply about this we shall understand how all phenomena are mere appearances to our mind, just like objects in a dream. Then we shall realize that we can cause all the unpleasant things that we dislike to cease simply by abandoning impure states of mind, and we can cause all the good things that we desire to arise simply by developing a pure mind. In this way we shall be able to fulfill all our wishes.”

We can temporarily abandon the “unpleasant things we dislike” by reducing our anger, attachment and other delusions; and we can abandon them completely, once and for all, by waking up. How? By realizing emptiness directly. The Buddhas’ point is that if we wake up to the fact that we are basically in a waking dream — everything appears so real and yet it’s just an appearance to our mind, a projection of our mind — then our delusions will stop, they will cease, they’ll have no ground left to stand on.

There’ll be no basis for attachment because attachment arises for things that are out there, independent of our mind. If something or someone appears attractive to us, we immediately think that the attractiveness is an inherent part of that object or person, we don’t think that it comes from the side of our mind. We think that person is really desirable, desirable from their own side, and “I have to have you if I’m going to be happy!” Thus attachment is born and we mentally (and/or physically!) pull them toward us, the closer the better. (Of course, a gap between two inherently existent people can never be bridged, so frustration is part and parcel of attachment). Or we see something that appears unattractive to us, and we think the unattractiveness inheres within the object (exists from its own side, in other words) and thus anger is born. We push the object away from us, or try to.

The push and pull of all our delusions come from that grasping at things as being out there, independent of our mind, nothing to do with our perceiving awareness. If we understand how the world comes not from out there but from the side of our mind, just projection, then we can understand that if we want to change our world we have to change our mind. Our mind also depends upon its objects and lacks inherent existence, so we can change it. Emptiness gives us freedom, nothing is fixed. As the great Indian Buddhist Master Nagarjuna said:

For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.

All Buddha’s teachings free us from suffering and problems to a greater or lesser extent but, of all his teachings, his teachings on ultimate reality — the emptiness of inherent existence — are the most completely liberating teachings of all. It’s through these wisdom teachings that countless people in the past have attained actual liberation and enlightenment.

Maybe it is our turn now.

A timeless Buddhist prayer for 9/11

“We pray that the people who die will find a good rebirth and we pray that the world leaders gain wisdom. For those who are suffering, we pray that they are swiftly released from their suffering and receive blessings from the Three Jewels. It is very clear that without compassion and wisdom there is no possibility of being released from this kind of tragedy. We should learn how Dharma is the truth.”

~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, 9/11/01

This prayer works for any tragedy, including all those in the 18 years since, and counting.

 

How to stop worrying about anything, everything, and nothing…

This is part of an occasional series on how not to worry.  For the first one, click here. The methods will not be in any particular order, so you can jump about to whatever interests you most.

Click on image for free Buddhist eBook

In Modern Buddhism, Geshe Kelsang says there are two types of problem:

We should understand that our problems do not exist outside of ourself, but are part of our mind that experiences unpleasant feelings. When our car, for example, has a problem we usually say “I have a problem”, but in reality it is the car’s problem and not our problem. The car’s problem is an outer problem, and our problem, which is our own unpleasant feeling, is an inner problem. These two problems are completely different. We need to solve the car’s problem by repairing it, and we need to solve our own problem by controlling our attachment to the car.

This practical wisdom is an alpha and omega for dealing with worry. There is no point exploring how to solve every outer problem there is in the world, such as taking the car to the garage, as a method to overcome worry – we’re going to be here literally forever if we attempt that, plus we clearly don’t have a clue how to fix everything or it’d surely all be fixed by now! But if we can learn effective ways of thinking that remove our unpleasant feelings (a far simpler and less time-consuming process), we will have nothing more to worry about. The inner problems will have disappeared and the outer problems will no longer feel like problems, so they won’t be problems. Given that we normally think of problems as infinitely varied, and any bookstore will have shelf upon shelf of fix-it books, I always like how Geshe-la grandly named his shortest book How to Solve Our Human Problems! It seems to say it all, really.

As mentioned in the last article, the whole of Buddhism is methods to decrease worry, as it happens; but here are some practical immediate methods that anyone can try straightaway. It arises from inappropriate attention and is related to all three root delusions that afflict living beings. As Bliem Kern says: “Worry is an internal problem, not outside of us.” 

Worrying is a bad habit but we have a choice

 If things go wrong, don’t go with them.
~ Mark Twain

It is a terrible addiction, waking up and worrying about all the things that need to be done that day, or week, or year. We have to recognize that worrying is a chronic bad habit and decide we want to think differently about things. All habits can be broken; by definition they are not fixed, we can change any habit through familiarity. We need to know that we have a choice; that we can start to control how we think about things and people.

We probably all know this one: “I worry that whenever something good happens then bad will surely follow.”  Heather Davies. It doesn’t have to be like this. Buddhist or not, we can all learn to worry less and enjoy more. Even as a child, I discovered that I had more control over my mind than I thought. I had been a carefree child but when I was first sent to boarding school aged 12 (as my parents then lived in Turkey and had run out of English-speaking schools), I was homesick and started to worry about things for the first time. It felt strange at first but then I became used to worrying about just about anything. (I even ran away from the school, but after three hours of walking in circles in the scary woods in the dark with a suitcase, managed to wind up back by the kitchen door, where a nice cook made me some hot chocolate. I was pretty happy the day they invented the Saturn Nav!)

One day I woke up with my usual first thought ‘What is there to worry about today?’ I couldn’t think of anything, so then I started to get worried about that. What was I forgetting?! I actually realized at this point what a weird unhelpful habit I’d gotten into and decided consciously to watch my mind when I started to get worried about small things so as to decide first whether or not they were worth it. I became more carefree again and of course everything improved after that.

What can we actually control?

Related to the fact that we have a choice is the notion of what we can actually hope to control. No one has ever gained complete control over their external environment (not even close), but if we gain control over our mind and our actions, our world will then be a reflection of that. Shantideva puts this very succinctly:

Where is there enough leather
To cover the surface of the Earth?
But just having leather on the soles of one’s feet
Is the same as covering the whole earth.

As Vide Kadampa says:  “We worry because we are not in control of what might happen. But the control we have is pretty illusory anyway. We may think that by working hard we will get rich – and we might. But that is not the actual cause of wealth – generosity is the cause of wealth. We are almost never in full control of external events, despite appearances. Our accumulated karma is what will decide our experiences. When we realise this, we can relax because we know there is no point in worrying about things. We can instead welcome whatever comes our way and use Lojong to transform it into the spiritual path.”

The remaining articles on overcoming worry can be found here. Your comments are welcome and please share this article if you like it.

Don’t worry, be happy

Sarah, the piano, and the Italian vacation

We can get in the habit of worrying about small things incessantly if we are not careful. Of course, our worries never feel small because they fill our mind. There is no objective scale.

I was in England this summer visiting my family. We spent a delightful weekend in a family reunion in St. Albans, quite a well-to-do town just north of London, where my brother, sister-in-law and their children live, work, and play.

As my sister-in-law and I dropped off my niece and nephew at their elementary school one morning, I noticed a mother hovering near us, looking ever so slightly tense. The moment we were done, she approached my sister-in-law, her friend, and, after feigning some interest at meeting me, started to spill the beans. She was really anxious and worried. Why, we asked? Because she had to buy a piano, was the first reason. The second? Because she had to plan a two-week holiday in Italy to celebrate her husband’s 50th birthday.

Ermm, these were problems?!?!

For the piano, it took a little while for C to reassure her that it’d all be ok and that she wouldn’t necessarily end up with an out-of-tune piano as she feared. As for the villa in Tuscany, half-way through reassuring her about this we ran out of time, which was not a bad thing.

Sarah is clearly a bit of a nervous Nellie. C said it is hard to imagine how she could ever not worry about something.

These middle-class worries reflected a skewed perspective – the headlines the very same day told of the new famine in the Horn of Africa. But she is not alone. We all get things out of proportion. Many of us worry at least some of the time about things that would clearly be considered luxuries by the rest of the planet. My own current worry concerns a cat, for example.

Are you ever a nervous Nellie or Nigel?

Over coffee my sister-in-law, brother and I discussed how to stop worrying, as C admits that she herself worries too much. For example, she was annoyed at having to waste an inordinate amount of time over the weekend on school politics. My niece, a gifted singer, was sharing the role of Alice in the school musical Alice in Wonderland. The mother of the other Alice wanted both Alices to wear a particular dress, but my niece hated the dress, and so who was going to back down? C said she worried about her daughter and how to resolve this situation all weekend, even in the midst of all the family jollity.

To digress slightly: worry can seem more justified when it is a mother bear defending her cub. It also becomes entwined with its best friend guilt, perhaps an even stickier delusion to shift. I had my first intimation of this not long ago — again being solely responsible for a wayward cat was the trigger — when I found myself guiltily thinking I wasn’t doing enough: “I am a terrible mother!” This was quite a new sensation for me, as it happens. I’ve never understood it before when perfectly saintly mothers say such things.

On this occasion, as always, C was very sensitive and diplomatic and actually did manage to sort it all out to everyone’s satisfaction, but she didn’t enjoy any of it, and she did still begrudge the whole event.

My brother is not a worrier. In a flash of inspiration, but in his typically laconic way, he suggested:

“A problem like this could have been time-consuming without being mind-consuming.”

He followed that by explaining she may have to deal with it, as life is like that, but that she didn’t have to take it personally, make it her problem, or worry about it at the same time. For effect he turned on his Billy Bass fish who sings the ‘Don’t worry be happy’ song.

(I noticed that he also has a ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster above his desk. There is a saying in Buddhism ‘Train in every activity by words’, and Billy Bass and a 1939 Ministry of Information poster seem to do the trick for him.)

They both inspired me to write some articles on the subject of worry as it seems to be a bit of an epidemic. The whole of Buddhism is methods to decrease worry, but with the help of my Facebook friends I’ll look at a few methods that might work straightaway. Anyone can have a go at applying these, regardless of background. After all, worry is universal and knows no boundaries of culture or geography – it arises from inappropriate attention and seems related to all or any of the three root delusions (attachment incl. expectations; aversion; ignorance). Your comments, as always, will be very welcome.

(The remaining articles on overcoming worry can be found here.)

Trust v. personal responsibility

Trusting holy beings…

I recently renamed the feral cat Korska “Nelson”; I figure it might help him to be named after one of my great heroes, Nelson Mandela, who triumphed over adversity just as I want this little guy to do, in his own way.

Nelson is coming along, albeit very slowly and in fits and starts. Sometimes he is interested, sometimes he is standoffish and hissy, and sometimes he doesn’t show up at all. Currently he has an open sore on his forehead and a swollen right eye which concerns me, he is way too skinny still, and at some point I’ll have to freak him out by capturing him to neuter him and give him his shots. But I’m set on my course to make him as tame as possible, and will overcome the obstacles en route one way or another, taking any opportunity he gives me. I can see I’m going to need a lot of patience and a lot of persistence/effort, but he’s worth it.*

As it was pouring with rain at his breakfast time this morning, I managed to lure him into the kitchen for a few precious moments while he ate, and was even able to dab a blob of Neosporin on his forehead with a wooden spoon. He actually purred as he rubbed up against the door, and he sniffed my leg and reluctantly let me stroke his back while he was eating. But although he is lonely and clearly likes my company in a funny kind of way, after he’d eaten he still didn’t stick around in my nice dry kitchen, let alone avail himself of the comfortable sofa, soft carpet, squashy cushions and other cat-friendly offerings in this potential cat-palace that awaits him. Instead he curled himself up on some damp leaves under a few inches of shelter, which did nothing to stop the raindrops dripping on his tail. I was cajoling him, “Hey, Nelson, sweetheart, why don’t you stick around with me for a while in here, it is so much nicer than out there in the wilderness!! I will never hurt you – in fact I will make sure you reach your full cat potential and that you are as healthy and happy as possible, and I will not curb your freedom, you can still go outside whenever the urge takes you if you do decide to be tamed.”

And then it struck me. I sounded like the Buddhas, and especially our Spiritual Guides, trying to get through to us… The Tibetan word for disciple, “dul wa”, literally means “one to be tamed”. It is so obvious to the kind and wise holy beings what we need to do to be happy and safe, but, even if we intellectually know what they are after, it seems we don’t trust them enough to follow their suggestions, or at least we are in no hurry about it. Instead of gladly escaping into the heart of the Buddhas, including the Tantric mandala palace, we stubbornly, fearfully, and proudly insist on staying outside in the wilderness of samsara, subject to being attacked by wild animals, mange, bitey insects, loneliness, mental pain, physical discomfort and all manner of other sufferings.

No trust, no progress. (If you’re in another tradition and rely on God, Jesus, Mother Mary, etc, I imagine the same principle applies.)

At least Ralph was cooperative. Because he understood somehow that he needed help, he really bonded with me, which turned out to be the best move of his short life. I really would like Nelson to cooperate with me consistently, but all I can do is blast him with love until I get through, and try and be as patient and persistent with him as the Buddhas undoubtedly have to be with me.

… while also taking responsibility for our own spiritual journey

There is an element of surrender in trust, so how does this square with taking personal responsibility? I put “v.” in the title, but it is not really trust versus personal responsibility, they get along just fine, and have a dynamic ever-deepening relationship. Genuine trust entails believing also in our own potential to progress and genuine personal responsibility entails understanding that we need to make progress, which involves trusting others who can lead us, just not trusting them blindly.

This seems to be borne out by the Lamrim teachings on refuge. Simple refuge is just the call for help. As our refuge progresses, we assume more and more responsibility for our own spiritual journey, and with Mahayana refuge we actually rely on Buddha, Dharma and Sangha to fulfill our greatest spiritual potential for the sake of everyone, which involves a rather huge amount of personal responsibility!

…And avoiding institutionalization

Meanwhile, upstairs with the Russian tenants lives Roberto the baby possum. They found him half-dead while I was away and have been feeding him up prior to his release. They love him!

He has doubled his size on Russian home-cooking!

They’ll be sad to see him go. And right now he shows the manner of being tamed (albeit slightly reluctantly) – unlike Nelson he does not object to being held, cuddled, stroked, and kept indoors. Yet in a way you can tell from his eyes that he is not tamed; he is just doing what he is told because he has little choice in the matter. It is certainly better than nothing; in fact it has saved his life. But in a week or so we must drive him to a large patch of woods and release him into the wild, at which point he will revert to his instinctive/habit-formed wild behavior to survive.

This has been reminding me that we can tame ourselves or even others physically by forcing ourselves to behave, but that won’t be enough. For example, we can follow the rules in a workplace, monastery or spiritual center not out of our own volition but just because we are told to, expected to, or scared not to — like children or baby possums. However, genuine moral discipline is based on our own discrimination of what to do and not to do, and our own resultant adult decision/intention. Just falling in with the crowd doesn’t guarantee that we are tamed on the inside or for very long, and when thrust back in the “outside world” we may just revert to our old wild samsaric habits.

It can be enormously supportive to have the external discipline provided by spiritual centers — and I would not have traded my 14 years living at Madhyamaka Centre for anything, nor the other decades I have spent closely associated with other centres. Also, check out this article about this nun leaving her monastery for the first time in 84 years to meet the Pope — look at her alert face at 103 years old! In the book, titled “What is a girl like you doing in a place like that”, she is quoted as saying:

‘Who can spend 84 years in a convent without being happy? Of course I’m happy.’

Look at that face! Aged 103

I believe her and think that she probably has a very rich inner life. If we are in a spiritual center but are not becoming genuinely happier and more open as the years go by, we can check to see if we are voluntarily taking responsibility for training our mind or whether we have fallen into institutional modes of thinking and behaving. We need integrity to avoid being like a leaf in the wind, carried away by whatever happen to be the current gusts of the institutional zeitgeist.

How do we know if we’ve become a bit institutionalized I wonder? Is it if the small world of our school, office, workplace or spiritual center seems to be the main place where it’s at? When we become preoccupied with concerns that would seem petty to anyone “outside”? When we are cowed by authority because we are too attached to, and fearful for, our position in the pecking order, or our job, or our status within the organization? How do we overcome it? Your suggestions are welcome.

In any event, whether we are currently inside or outside of an organization, Roberto is a reminder that we need to take responsibility for ourselves and change our minds, not just our behavior.

Faith v. fanaticism

(Here, the “v.” is justified.) Arguably blind faith is not faith at all but fanaticism as it possesses no degree of personal responsibility – what do you think? Blind faith can manifest as a childish wish to please a holy being in order to be rewarded, or fear of displeasing them in case we are punished; and that is abnegating responsibility. Also the outcome of our actions depends on our karma, not on any external law-maker or law-enforcer. Nor does blind faith really trust, because to really trust a holy being I think we have to know their actual nature — unconditional love.

Fanatics of all stripes notoriously end up acting in irresponsible, dangerous ways with respect to themselves and others, whereas actual faith is necessarily flexible, including the flexibility to doubt and question. I would argue that extreme fanatics such as suicide bombers have no actual faith at all but are simply holding false views as supreme, which is a type of ignorance.

Buddha taught that all virtuous minds are pervaded by faith. Faith can never be in contradiction, therefore, to love, compassion, wisdom or any other virtuous mind.

If you have any relevant experiences you’d like to share, please feel free to do so in the comments.

*Update Sept 2011: Nelson tested positive for both feline leukemia and feline AIDS, a double whammy. I recently got another rescue cat, Rousseau, and have to keep them separate to avoid infection; so I look after Nelson outside and on a friend’s porch next door. Ironically, since he was fixed and I obliged him to recuperate on that porch for a week — with us doing meditations and prayers together every morning — he has become a very friendly little guy who now follows me around and actually wants to come in the house!! Another of samsara’s sick little jokes.

*Update 2: Nov 2011, Nelson is currently doing really well, fattening up and becoming friendlier by the minute! I even let him inside when the other cat is outside… He loves to be cuddled. He has learned to trust 🙂

*Update 3: Feb 2012, Nelson is now the cuddliest, sweetest cat in the world and joins me for many of my meditation sessions. Who would have thunk it?! There is hope for us all.

Update 4: April 2012, Nelson has just been diagnosed with a large cancerous tumor in his stomach, along with anemia and some dehydration. He stopped eating a few days ago. Now I am focused on making sure he is as comfortable and blessed as possible for his remaining time in this cat body, and my main wish for him is that he has a wonderful rebirth, hopefully in the Pure Land. He totally deserves it. p.s. I adore this person.

Update 5: April 14 2012, Nelson died in my arms.