The movie Unstoppable is based on the true 2001 story of a runaway train. The “real life” CSX 8888 train in Ohio was holding some toxic materials, whereas the movie train 777 in Pennsylvania was full of highly combustible molten phenol that could have blown up a huge area. It had to be stopped before it reached Stanton.
To begin with, the train company thought it was a “coaster” – not ideal to have it loose on the main line, but far better than it running on its own power. It was still manageable at a speed of between 10 and 20 miles per hour, giving someone time to hop on board and take control.
Then they discovered that due to “human error” and “bad luck”, the throttle had in fact jumped from idle to full power. The train was speeding away at over 70 miles per hour. It quickly burnt through its independent brakes.
Movie spoiler: As you might expect, after lots of drama, corporate pride and greed, and false moves, our heroes in the aspect of Denzel Washington and Chris Pine risked their lives for others and saved the day. They rode the train into town almost unscathed, to be greeted by relieved, happy hugs and kisses all around.
Well, this movie got me thinking about our thoughts and how out of control they can be. In the old days, Buddha Shakyamuni often likened the uncontrolled mind to a powerful, wild elephant that could trample an entire grass village and everyone in it. We don’t have too many elephants around where I live, and our houses are made of wood and concrete, so I have been finding the run-away train full of explosives analogy to be a good updated substitute.
(The stages of the path (Lamrim) teachings encourage us to deepen our meditative insights with the use of our own and others’ experience, stories, and analogies. I bet Buddha Shakyamuni, Shantideva, and others would have used cars and trains and planes etc as analogies too if they’d been invented at the time, seeing how much time we all spend in them…)
These are the main ways I’ve been applying the analogy of the train to help me understand how our own uncontrolled thoughts arise, and how we can get back into the driver’s seat.
Human error – the hapless “driver” who switched the wrong lever and then left the cab was being ignorant, careless, and lazy. Like us most days. We switch on anger instead of patience, for example, either because we are ignorant of our options, or because we are being careless with our options as we reckon it doesn’t matter too much, or because we can’t be bothered to apply the right option if it seems like hard work.
Like the train, while our negative thoughts are coasting along slowly they are easier to control and divert than when they have built up powerful momentum and a life of their own due to inappropriate attention.
Like the train crisis arising from many causes and conditions, including bad luck, so our thoughts arise from many different causes and conditions, including bad karma or bad luck. We have also developed karmic tendencies for negative thoughts by thinking them repeatedly in the past.
Like the train with no driver in control, at the moment our thoughts are driving us. We need to drive them. Also, this driverlessness reminds me that although our thoughts are pre-programmed to wreak havoc due to beginningless conditioning to our delusions, they are still ownerless or empty of inherent existence. Therefore they are unfixed, such that all habitual momentum can be reversed.
Like the train, our thoughts are carrying toxic explosive substances – potentially dangerous and fatal to ourselves and others.
Like the train, our negative thoughts need to be stopped as soon as possible – and we’ll need all the courage and ingenuity at our disposal to stop them. Pride, greed, fatalism, and over-caution won’t stop them. Only skill, energy, compassion, and wisdom will.
Like the train, when our thoughts are under control we can ride them safely and peacefully and go wherever we want to go.
Like the train arriving home, everyone is very relieved and happy when we finally manage to get our minds under control.
Your turn: in the comments, please share any modern analogies or stories that you have found helpful for increasing your insights.
What (or who) do we see when we look at strangers? Do we mainly see their bodies? Their minds, after all, are formless and therefore invisible. Are we evaluating them based mainly on their bodies and on what we imagine must be their external lifestyle and background (e.g. jobs, family, income, possessions, politics, sexuality, choice of entertainment) as opposed to their vast, indeed infinite, spiritual potential?!
In London last summer a friend and I stopped for a pizza in London’s Gloucester Road and did some people watching, all the fashionistas wandering around looking cool, or not, as the case may be. Back in the sweltering NY summer, likewise, I caught myself looking at the sharply dressed men and the women in pretty summer dresses, as well as many older and more shambling people (whom younger people assume have let themselves go); and having superficial, lazy and rather useless discriminations about them. And on a beach not too long ago, I found myself making up stories about all the families I was seeing around me, who was who and what was what, and these stories were also rather one-dimensional or fixed – at least they didn’t take into account the huge variety of thoughts, experiences, relationships and potentials that each of them has been experiencing since beginningless time. I think I sometimes do the same thing in airports! The exceptions are when I’m not being lazy and I’m remembering Dharma, when the world feels very vast and interconnected.*
“The common eye sees only the outside of things, and judges by that, but the seeing eye pierces through and reads the heart and soul, finding there capacities which the outside didn’t indicate or promise, and which the other kind couldn’t detect.” ~ Mark Twain
It struck me that if we’re (I’m) not careful it is very easy to mindlessly judge everyone by various superficial criteria. “Oh he’s gorgeous! Oh, she could really do with a haircut!” etc. We impute people on their body, their form aggregate, and this is terribly restrictive. People are not their bodies. They have bodies, but they also have minds, and frankly their minds are infinitely more interesting. In fact, their minds are as vast as space, and have the potential for unbelievable wisdom, compassion, love and bliss.
Just try this experiment with me for one day. Ignore people’s bodies and think about their minds. Impute or label people not on their fleshy bodies with their limited shelf life but instead on their boundless formless minds, and particularly on the potential their minds have to do anything at all, including attaining full enlightenment and becoming omniscient Buddhas. Please let me know in the comments if it makes a difference and, if so, what…
*If I’m remembering Dharma quickly, my thoughts watching a stranger in a waiting room or elsewhere may go something like this: I’ve had every conceivable relationship with them since beginningless time; they’ve even been my kind mother and dependent child; they want to be happy just as much as I do; their happiness is more important because they are other; so I’ll put myself in their shoes; now I want them to be very happy and free; they’re not; so I better attain enlightenment quickly for their sake. I find this potted Lamrim, or variation on that theme, works every time on humans and animals, and makes waiting or sitting around vastly more productive and blissful.
Your turn: what do you see when you look at a stranger?
The main reason why thinking of others’ suffering hurts is due to our self-cherishing. This is not always obvious. In fact it’s quite subtle.
A dumb but destructive mind
Self-cherishing believes that our self that we normally see (an inherently existent me) is supremely important, and that its happiness and freedom are supremely important. That inherently existent I is in fact non-existent, so self-cherishing is a really idiotic mind, which has nonetheless managed to pull the wool over our eyes since beginningless time! For us, self-grasping ignorance and self-cherishing are almost the same, as Geshe Kelsang said in Summer Festival 2009. They are both aspects of our ignorance and, as such, the root of all our misfortune and suffering. To be clear, self-cherishing is not the same as caring for ourselves.
How can I bear this?
In Modern Buddhism, page 78, Geshe Kelsang explains how with self-cherishing we find our own problems unbearable, and this makes us suffer, and how with cherishing others we find others’ suffering unbearable.
Why, one may wonder, would I then try to cherish others – it is bad enough cherishing just one person, me! Surely if I cherish others and then find their suffering unbearable too, I’ll just collapse in an agonized heap?
No. The interesting and profound thing about it is that if we don’t have self-cherishing, we don’t experience any mental pain. Ever. Cherishing others, we find their suffering unbearable, but it doesn’t hurt! It is compassion, which is by nature a peaceful, positive mind and leads to the everlasting happiness of enlightenment. Geshe Kelsang explained this in 2009, pointing out that we can see from this that it is self-cherishing alone that is making us unhappy. (Implicitly this seems to suggest that it is not contemplating others’ suffering, or even our own, that in itself makes us unhappy.)
Exchanging myself with others
If this is true, it has far-reaching consequences because it really does mean that all we need to do is change our views and intentions by removing self-cherishing from our minds and cherishing others instead (also known as exchanging self with others). According to Kadam Lamrim, this is the actual way to become a Buddha, and it is devastatingly simple – anyone can do it through the force of determination and meditation. It may take a while at first to get going with it, like anything, and we’ll have to review the reasons a lot more than once; but with familiarity it becomes easy. If we believe this, we will gradually lose all resistance to contemplating others’ suffering and generate compassion, enabling us to attain the bliss of enlightenment.
Does it really work?
To believe it, I think we have to “suck it and see”, as they say. Does it really work? If I reduce my self-cherishing, and then contemplate my loved ones’ suffering, will it really not hurt my mind? I tried to apply this to one specific scenario, the swelling of Rousseau’s third eyelids. (I have of course many other scary examples I could use, such as friends with serious illnesses, but the same principles will apply.)
What is happening when I look at Rousseau’s eyes at the moment? His eyes appear unsightly and unpleasant to my mind and various things are going on if I’m honest:
The good bits:
(1) I love this cat, feel for him, and want him to be free from sore, itchy eyes and having to stay inside all day long, which he loathes.
(2) I will do anything it takes to make him feel better.
(1) Those swollen eyes mean expense at the vet. This is his second infection in three months and I cannot afford to keep paying for his treatments.
(2) Pushing and grasping – if his eyes aren’t completely better after 5 whole days, someone’s gotta do something! This is desperate. Panic.
(3) I am guilty that I allow him to roam free outside so he can pick up infections, even though I feel even more guilty keeping him cooped up inside in prison his entire life. I can’t win. It’s frustrating.
(4) It is more urgent to get rid of his suffering than that of all the other cats in the neighborhood, nay in the world.
(5) I feel woefully inadequate at protecting him from sickness and suffering even though he is my responsibility. I am a failure.
Yes, the good bits are all about him. And if I can stick to the good bits, no matter how much I consider his sickness, I feel no mental pain at all. I’ve been trying it, it is true. Good bit (1) is also a basis for wishing better things for him, like complete liberation from all sufferings, and good bit (2) is the basis for my determination to become a Buddha as quickly as possible to help him become one too. That is actually bodhichitta, a most blissful state of mind. I can even think: “What would a Buddha do in this situation?” and then approximate it. (For one thing, Buddha would be giving him mental peace through blessing his mind – something we can do somewhat ourselves already, especially if we identify with being a Buddha right now — perhaps a subject for another day. Meantime, see Joyful Path pages 60-61 and page 116 for how to self-generate as Buddha Shakyamuni out of bodhichitta, and bless others, even without an empowerment.)
The 5 not-so-good bits are all about me, and they are what are actually causing my pain and worry. They are also the basis for all inappropriate attention and getting stuck down grimy mental cul de sacs, such as (1) dwelling on his eyes in an unhelpful fashion, and then on how little money I have to fix him, and then moving on to all the things that can go wrong, requiring money; (2) not letting things run their karmic course but trying to force all the issues ahead of time, impatiently grasping at results, not seeing the mere (mistaken) appearance of the situation; (3) guilt, which is an entirely useless, cracked-record state of mind; (4) finding Rousseau’s suffering to be more important than the suffering of a gazillion other cats in the world, just because he is my cat, instead of having equanimity and universal compassion; and (5) identifying with my current limitations as opposed to figuring out that I need to, and I can, swiftly get into a position where I can help EVERYONE by practicing Kadam Dharma – going down the open road.
I have been reading both too much into Rousseau’s eyes (with inappropriate attention, causing worry) and too little (not recognizing them as a symptom of needing to get him and all of us out of samsara altogether).
“Question ourselves and give ourselves the answer”
You can try doing something similar with the person you are most worried about right now, including even your own child – what is going on in my mind, the good bits and the not-so-good bits. As Geshe Kelsang suggested in 2009 when analyzing whether or not self-cherishing is indeed the root of our suffering, we can “question ourselves” and “give ourselves the answer.” (No doubt we’ll have to do this a number of times before the answer sticks.) Please let us know in the comments what you discovered.
Jennifer, my neighbor, also loves Rousseau and often has him to visit, but she is not over-dwelling on his problems – she is not worried about him, and is simply efficiently helping me put in his eye drops, confident that he’ll feel better soon. And although we sometimes want other people to worry about our loved ones with us, for misery loves company, in fact it is far more uplifting when they are not worried, but simply care.
Finally, exchanging self with others is primarily a mental training — we change our thoughts, and our physical and verbal behavior naturally follows suit. Which leads me to a question I have for you, which I’ll ask soon.
Your turn: Do you think your self-cherishing is responsible for all your mental pain or not? Please share your experiences.
We are not aiming impossibly high even when we aim for great or universal compassion — the wish to protect all living beings without exception from their suffering — because we already have all the ingredients within us. Compassion is our so-called Buddha seed or Buddha nature, the birthright of every living being. Have you ever felt overwhelming love for someone who is very sick, and the strong wish to scoop them up from suffering? For example a sick child, parent or pet? If you have, this is your Buddha seed at work. Even animals have it — there are umpteen inspiring stories on the Internet about animals unselfishly caring for human beings and each other.
With some understanding of samsara, we can deepen that compassion so that we wish to scoop them our dear friend up not just from this particular sickness, but from samsara in general. Then we can imagine feeling that for everyone, and this gives a wonderful glimpse of what a Buddha feels like, such as the Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara, with his 1000 arms reaching out to everyone.
However, there is some stuff in the way of our universal compassion at the moment, obstructing its growth. Geshe Kelsang says in Ocean of Nectar (p. 20):
“We all have some compassion, but the compassion we have for our friends and relatives is often mixed with attachment and so is not pure. The scriptures warn us not to mistake attachment for compassion. Pure compassion is unmixed with attachment.”
Compassion is necessarily a virtuous or positive mind, a peaceful, happy mind, and, when we gain Tantric realizations our compassion actually becomes bliss! If our compassion for others doesn’t feel very pleasant at the moment, let alone blissful, the chances are that some sort of attachment is at work. We need to see how the attachment is functioning so that we can root it out.
Attachment is an ignorant, self-centered mind that does not understand where happiness actually comes from and thinks that it is to be found outside the mind, in people or in objects, and so it desires or needs these things to make us happy.
Why do we worry so much more about our own cat or child than other people’s? Yes, love and a sense of responsibility are in the mix, but the worry is not coming from the love (or the compassion) but from the attachment. I think this is worth thinking about.
Attached to the status quo
In her youth, my friend and animal-lover Mal had a Hindu Guru and spent some time in India. The plight of the stray dogs broke her heart and she couldn’t stop worrying about them. One day her Guru told her: “You have too much attachment to those dogs; if you’re not careful you will come back as one.” He was a loving person, and she didn’t fully understand what he meant at the time. However, the meaning dawned on her over time, especially, she said, when she met Geshe Kelsang and his teachings.
This comment got me thinking too – what does it mean to be too attached to the animals or human beings we love and care about? How does that obstruct our ability to really help them, let alone cause us to worry unduly and uselessly?
I think part of it is that we are attached to that person in their current form. For example, today I went to the vet with Rousseau, who has inflamed third eyelids, and Dr Smith said: “He may be getting these infections due to having leukemia, caught from your other cat.” I waited ten agonizing minutes for the results, during which time I realized that I still want Rousseau to be beautiful Rousseau, just without inflamed third eyelids and leukemia. And when it comes to beloved children?!…. Parents sometimes say things like “I wish they could stay small forever!” — of course they don’t really mean it, but it perhaps indicates that we do have a wish for the things we like to stay the same.
This attachment to permanence and to impure, or samsaric, bodies results in our being attached to far too small and inferior results for our loved ones at the expense of seeing the larger picture. Spending all our mental energy in preoccupation with each individual suffering as it arises is a distraction if we are not seeing these in the grander scheme of things — as part of a pattern of samsaric suffering that they have been experiencing since begininngless time and will continue to experience if they don’t get out of their samsaric bodies. As I have often heard Geshe Kelsang Gyatso say:
“Temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough”.
It seems to me that we have to want far more for them than just the alleviation of the individual sufferings of this samsaric life as they arise – these sufferings are just some of the never-ending waves on the ocean of samsara. We want the whole ocean of suffering to dry up. We have to desire so strongly for our loved ones to have lasting liberation from all sufferings that each individual suffering motivates us to become a better person, even an enlightened being, so that we can bring this about. We have to keep an eye on their potential for lasting freedom and happiness at all times, even if they are just a small feral cat or a stray Indian dog.
Buddhist compassion works very well as it has within it the solution – even if this solution is big and radical. In fact it has huge implications as we basically want NONE OF IT. All solutions in samsara have to be seen as temporary.
Also, with attachment to samsara we try to patch it up, make it work. Samsara can never be made to work – we’ve been trying to improve it for countless lifetimes and still the waves of the seven sufferings roll in upon us without cease.
Bandaids are useful but they are also just temporary solutions for someone with a constantly erupting skin disease. We need to go deeper and uncover the causes of our loved ones’ suffering – delusions and karma – so we can really help them destroy these causes to bring an end to their suffering. As Kelsang Tsondru said on Facebook, “Hopeless compassion (i.e., which does not see an end to suffering) is a sad mind, whereas hopeful compassion (i.e., which understands the end of suffering) is a happy mind.”
(The same reasoning also goes for dwelling upon our own individual problems one by one, as opposed to using these as a motivator to escape entirely from this prison of samsara while we have the chance.)
Compassion and love are not the same as worry and relief
I know I feel relieved when I see, for example, that my cat’s eyelids have slightly improved. But relief comes from tension in the mind, and that is also what has got me thinking — actual compassion is free from tension etc, and love is therefore not that feeling of relief that comes from tension being released. There is nothing wrong at all, of course, with being happy to see others’ free from suffering, quite the opposite, but we can check to see what that happiness consists of and so improve on it. The happy feeling that Rousseau’s eyelids are slowly going back to normal may be partly due to my love wishing him happiness, but also due to changing suffering (arising from attachment) – that brief respite between anxiety about the swollen eyelids and relief about the non-swollen eyelids. This brief respite is only brief – to be replaced with some other worry sooner or later.
Next time, we’ll analyze how self-cherishing fits into all this.
Your turn: do you agree? Do you have any examples?
Compassion is the fuel of spiritual progress, but is it a sad or a happy state of mind? The Buddhist scriptures all say it is a peaceful, happy mind, but how does it feel in our own experience? How is it even possible to be happy or calm when caring about the horrible suffering of others? It seems crucial to know this if we are going to put any energy into contemplating suffering as opposed to digging our heads into the sand or switching channels.
I first decided to explore this subject when I was with Ralph the kitten. This is what I wrote down at the time.
After Ralph’s death:
Today, two days after his death, tears still spring to my eyes when my mind alights upon any details of his final hours. I even miss meditating with him (nothing like having a helpless kitten on your lap to help you meditate.) I managed to meditate for 30 years without him, but today I missed him all tucked up in my overalls.
But this sadness, though moving, is not unhappy, if you know what I mean. I am not averse to it. It is mixed with a sort of smile.
There is a part of me that misses him out of attachment, but I also know that this is looking backward rather than forward, and the past does not even exist. I am missing a non-existent kitten. There is no point in that. There is no point in even wanting him to still be a kitten, healthy or not. Better to think of him in the present, wishing him all happiness wherever he is, with any luck out of his limited cat body and in the Pure Land.
Two days earlier, in the ER waiting room:
I don’t know if I want any cats now. (I was planning on rescuing a couple in the Fall). Where is that coming from? A friend of mine lost her beloved cat recently in a nasty freak accident and it crushed her. Right now I understand why she said she didn’t ever want another cat. My mother always resisted our having pets and would say it was because her beloved guinea pigs were eaten by rats when she was a kid. (The more obvious reason was that we were continuously traveling around the world, but for some reason she’d usually play the guinea pig card). It slightly irked me when she did this, as I really wanted pets and had to make do with collecting ants and cocoons; but I understand her reluctance better now.
But cats still need homes. So do guinea pigs and other animals. American comedian George Carlin said that getting a pet is a tragedy waiting to happen, as they always “go away”, unless we are 80 and get a tortoise. But we do it anyway. And as they say:
“It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
Everyone “goes away” — we’ll have to watch all our loved ones go away, if we don’t go away first. I think we have to be brave enough right now to accept a certain amount of sadness when the people we know are suffering. This is part of our training. One day our compassion will be bliss, but even if it is now mixed with minds that cause some sadness – such as fear, worry, and attachment – it is still better not to shrink away from getting involved with others.
Back to today:
However, at the same time we can work on removing the sad and worried part and increasing the happy and blissful part, and, starting in this article, that’s what I want to look at (with more help from you and my Facebook friends!)
Waves of worry
We worry about ourselves (and loved ones) all the time. Parents can worry about their children every single day. In samsara, worries are waves on an ocean – there is never an end of things we can worry about because everything can go wrong. We think short-term: “Oh it’ll be alright if he just gets a job! Or if his sickness is cured!”, but it still isn’t alright. Perhaps a brief respite, but then a new worry rolls onto the shore.
So we have to go deeper for both our own and others’ sake. We have to want us all to have real, lasting freedom. Where does this come from? Only from peaceful and controlled minds. If we wish that for them, in this wish we discover there is peace. There is also some peace to be had in accepting that we cannot control their minds for them, nor their karmic path.
I think realistically that our wish for them to have real freedom by overcoming the delusions and impure karma is more attainable than our wish for them to be free from one samsaric problem at a time! The waves of suffering cannot end until the ocean of samsara — created by delusions and impure karma — is dried up. Focusing on this doesn’t mean that we don’t take the cat to the vet, but it does mean we keep things in perspective, which helps a great deal.
A practical thing to do on a daily basis is to catch those worries as they start to roll in and transform them into bigger and better non-worries! For example, a friend of mine lost her job quite a while ago and is still finding it hard to get another, despite great efforts. I feel sad for her every time I think of how disappointed she feels. (And she is not alone, of course — finding someone who never has any financial concerns is almost impossible.) However, if I go deeper and wish for her to have complete freedom from this and all worries by drying up the entire ocean of samsara, immediately there is some mental peace. The same goes for worry about a loved one’s cancer results, or a cat’s infected eyes. “May they be free from ALL suffering and its causes. I will make this happen.” This wish galvanizes us and we have some control again.
More ideas coming in the next article.
Your turn: In your own experience, do you find compassion to be happy or sad?
Please share these articles if you find any of them helpful, on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever (there are some useful buttons for doing this below).
A year ago, on March 11, Japan suffered from a terrible earthquake and tsunami that left an estimated 19,000 people dead, and many more wounded and homeless. (I wrote an article about it here.)
It doesn’t seem like a year ago to me, but it probably feels like a decade to those who still have to live daily with the glacial rate of reconstruction and the other fall-out from this disaster. This includes the nuclear fall-out, which leaves hundreds of thousands of people in Fukishima and the surrounding area living in fear and anxiety. Yoshika Ota, for example,
“Keeps her windows shut. She never hangs her laundry outdoors. Fearful of birth defects, she warns her daughters: Never have children…. She’s so worried that she has broken out in hives.”
Reading this Huffington Post article, I couldn’t help but think it sounded like a description of living in samsara in general. This helped me relate more personally to the people of Fukishima, for although they are experiencing far more manifest suffering than me at this particular point in time, we are all in the same samsaric boat.
For example, samsara gives us no choice:
“It’s not really OK to live here,” Yoshika Ota says. “But we live here.”
Our unpeaceful, uncontrolled minds, the so-called delusions, are our main enemies, but they are states of mind and even more invisible to us than nuclear radiation:
“A sense of unease pervades the residents of Fukushima. Some have moved away. Everyone else knows they are living with an invisible enemy.”
We are never safe in samsara, but we never know the exact nature of the threat or what to expect next:
“People are scared to death,” says Wolfgang Weiss, chairman of the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, which is studying Fukushima. “They are thinking, ‘Tell me. Is it good or bad?’ We can’t tell them. … Life is risky.”
In Buddhism we talk about contaminated life, which is life contaminated by the inner poison of delusions and negative actions. For as long as we live with these, our life is like a contaminated ocean throwing up wave after unpredictable wave of fear, anxiety, sickness and pain.
“All most residents know is that their bodies are contaminated. What the numbers mean is unanswered.”
So it is not enough to wish them freedom just from these waves of suffering, terrible as they are – we all need to be freed from the entire samsaric ocean.
With more instructions on what we are up against, we can avoid giving in to useless fear and take responsibility for ourselves:
“Kunihiko Takeda, a nuclear and ecology expert who has been more outspoken about the dangers than many others, says people become less afraid after he explains the risks. ‘They are freed from the state of not knowing,’ says Takeda, who has a blog with instructions on how parents can protect their children from radiation. ‘They now know what to do and can make decisions on their own.’
I’ve now mentioned delusions umpteen times on Kadampa Life! So I’m soon going to write some articles on what delusions are.
But today my thoughts and prayers are with the Fukishima residents and thousands of others affected by the tsunami. May they quickly find release from the contamination of nuclear fall-out, and every other type of contamination arising from delusions.
“We couldn’t take the animals with us, so I stayed behind.”
Last but not least, here is a video of Naoto Matsumura who is the only one left in his radiated town within the exclusion zone. Why did he stay? To look after his animals. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas do not desert us to our fate either, but keep emanating to help us until samsara is over.
When I was in my early thirties, and looking moreorless good still, I recall complaining to my hair stylist that I was starting to go grey. He replied that many of his clients complained of ageing, as they sat there staring at themselves and him in the mirror, and he would reply:
“We are all going in the same direction at the same speed.”
Wise man. As far as most of us are concerned, even if we have managed to escape a serious illness up ‘til now, just getting older and uglier is calamitous on a personal level. We don’t like losing our looks, our muscle tone, our smooth skin, our shiny thick hair, etc. We don’t like the effects of gravity on our body. But, as Buddha taught and we can easily observe, getting older and uglier is also entirely universal – it happens to all of us who are lucky enough to remain enough years in a human body. So why are we so fussed just about ourselves? When it is this inevitable, why do we allow ourselves to get this fussed at all?
If I were any good at drawing graphs, I could draw one to represent the rise and fall of our looks that went something like this… the line would go up gradually starting at birth, peak in our late teens and twenties, go down slightly in our thirties, and then start to drop precipitously in our forties. From then on, it would all be downhill ‘til our body is disposed of entirely.
We might as well accept it happily. Otherwise, regardless of how much increased effort and money we put into looking good, we are in for decades of diminishing returns.
On a flight to San Francisco a few years ago, I was standing behind three teenage Californian girls on the walkway to the plane. This is what I overheard. The first girl remarked: “I saw your mom the other day. She looked good. How did she manage that?” The second girl replied: “She does Botox. Yeah, and she really works at keeping in shape, it’s like she thinks about it a lot.” The third girl asked: “How old is your mom?”, and the reply was “She’s like forty already!” There was a collective shudder as they took that in, then the first girl said: “I’m soooo going to have Botox if I get that old. It’ll be better then. I’ll never let myself go.” A pause as they thought ahead to the dismal day when they would turn forty and ugly. Then the third girl decided against it, to head nodding all around:
“I’m soooo not going to get old.”
I couldn’t help smiling, but I had to relate. I remember in my teens and early twenties thinking that middle-aged people had somehow just lazily let themselves go — how with just a little more attention to what they ate and a little more exercise (and how hard is that for goodness sake?!) they’d look far better and younger. The grey hair, the pot belly, the wrinkles — it all felt somehow optional. I figured I’d follow my own advice and thus escape the trap they’d fallen into, that I’d look very much the same at their age as I did now. But, guess what. I do eat pretty well and I do still exercise, but I look nothing like I did when I was nineteen. Those girls on the plane did not throw me a second glance – as far as they were concerned, I had clearly failed. One part of me wanted to butt in and say, “Just you wait…!” but of course I didn’t.
Which reminds me of another time after I first moved into Madhyamaka Centre in 1986. A bright, healthy, relatively shapely young twenty something, I was sauntering down the beautiful driveway and, it being a Sunday, there was a local couple up ahead of me, walking very, very slowly. As I got closer to them, I could see that they were both entirely old and decrepit, and I remember this ignoble thought popped into my head: “I’ll never let myself get like that!” At which point, the old man turned around, looked me straight in the eye, and said, not without kindness: “You think you’ll never be old like us. You think you’ll always be able to walk fast down this road. I thought that too when I was your age. But you wait.” I had to chalk that one up to an emanation of Buddha. Despite years of studying ageing, sickness and death already, even teaching about them in branches and on Foundation Programme, this old man’s simple words struck home.
And I didn’t have to wait long, at least before the process of ageing got well underway. Now it has got to that point when every peek in the mirror yields seemingly another wrinkle, grey hair, crevasse, or jowl. It would be scary if it wasn’t funny. (Or funny if it wasn’t scary, I’m not sure which.) Are you at that point yet when you cast around for photos that are several years old for your Facebook page, or at least photos that were shot in dim lighting?! Well, just you wait.
It makes much better sense to focus on improving the beauty of our mind through developing love, compassion, patience, wisdom and so on. This beauty will never let us down either in this life or in any future lives.
Apparently Americans per capita spend more on skin care each year than they do on education. Yet someone I know working in the skin care industry told me the conventional wisdom is that even the best creams and surgical procedures will take only a few years off someone’s looks. Of course, if we try too hard, at some point it backfires — we end up looking unnatural and off-putting, the opposite of what we signed up and paid so much for.
We are attached to an image of ourselves, not accepting who we are and where we are at. Talking of this body image, though, have you noticed how on some days you think you look hot (still) and on others you can’t quite believe how much you’ve aged – yet a casual observer would not be able to tell the difference between these two you’s (and probably couldn’t care less if they could?!) It is all in our mind.
Have you ever seen those pictures of the most attractive people on our planet, the movie stars, when the Enquirer has got hold of them at an unguarded and un-photoshopped moment? Like those stars, we generally don’t allow that to happen. We approach our bathroom mirror deliberately and with certain preconceptions, and this usually determines what we see – “Look, I still look quite nice!” We add our own photo-shop: We angle our head in a certain complimentary way, perhaps smile seductively at ourselves, hold our stomach in, and stand up straight (don’t tell me this is just me!! I’ve seen you…) But how often have you heard someone relay how they were travelling up an escalator in a mall the other day when they caught sight of a middle-aged overweight grey-haired person with terrible posture in the mirror, only to realize with horror that it was their own reflection?! And you wonder what others see sometimes. The other day I wandered down to an open-air blues concert in my town and an ancient man (who was probably my age) tried to pick me up, as if he stood a chance! I felt I was way too young for him, but he probably thought I was just the same age.
When we’re young, we take it in our stride when someone says: “You’re gorgeous!” But the most we can hope for as we get older is: “You’re looking good for your age.” The Buddhist scriptures talk about “the mask of youth”. That smooth flawless skin must fall off sooner or later, even if we try to resist it like some kind of Dorian Gray making a pact with the devil of self-pre-occupation. We can be the opposite of Dorian Gray – becoming more beautiful on the inside, even as our face and body succumb to the years and gravity. (Of course I’m not suggesting we entirely neglect what we look like, just that we don’t exaggerate its importance.)
Why am I saying all this? Only to encourage everyone, or perhaps just myself, to not worry about getting uglier because it is inevitable, at least superficially at skin level. We can cut mold out of an orange, but it is still only a matter of time before the whole orange succumbs. And though there may be more oranges in the fruit bowl, we only have this one body, so our ageing is an indicator that it is time to get out of samsara, the cycle of impure life, by focusing on what we can control, our mind.
If you are beautiful inside, you’ll never be ugly. People will always find you attractive and want you around – that is one of the main benefits of patience, for example. So we could save ourselves a lot of time and heartache by taking Buddha’s advice on board. And sooner — learning to see it coming while we’re relatively young — rather than waiting until the last minute, when we really can kid ourselves no longer but have left ourselves little to fall back upon. Luckily, we are not our bodies so we don’t have to identify with them so desperately. There is a great deal more to us. Our body has a limited shelf life, but the continuum of our mind does not.
Finally, we don’t even have to focus on our bodily age if we are interested mainly in the inner life of our mind, for our mind is ageless. I always find it fascinating how, from a Buddhist perspective, all of us are the same age because our mental continuums have existed since beginningless time.
Over to you: Do you agree? And have you ever met anyone who is more beautiful as their body grows older? What is their secret?
p.s: Ageing happens to everyone who lives long enough, even George Clooney, who claims to be scared of getting old and dead. The London Times quoted him last week:
“There’s only a certain amount of time” (about 10 years he thinks)—“when you get the keys to the kingdom. I’m terrified of the moment when you’re the guy who goes to the studio and says, ‘I’ve got this idea,’ and they’re like, ‘Thanks for stopping by,’ and you walk out and they roll their eyes.”
Please share this article with all the old geezers you know, if you like it.