A sliver of life, finger food for thought

Rousseau, Buddhism
I just went out to buy a collar for Rousseau* at a local supermarket, as he managed to lose his during his nocturnal ramblings. I got him a pink one this time – embarrassing for a Real He Man Cat but, I figured, more visible.

The 30-something Salvation Army guy outside had appointed himself as guardian of my bike. He praised me for taking the exercize and volunteered that he had just put on 30 pounds in two months. The way he spoke about it, it was like as if something had happened TO him, without him even noticing. “I used to exercise but for the last two months I was just laid about on the couch after work.” “Did you have an injury?” “Oh no, I just felt like laying around. And I ate a lot. In fact, I noticed that I had drunk a crate of sodas in the last two weeks. Weighed myself on that scale in there today, 30 pounds! Bit of a shock! Yeah, when I come to think of it, my clothes don’t fit so good neither.” If he lost that 30 pounds, he’d be a very decent weight, so how did he not notice that the pounds had been creeping on? He just didn’t. He sort of answered a question I have about people who put on a lot of weight without seeming to notice; the way he was talking, it was as if it was an unfortunate accident. Perhaps it was. (Perhaps it is time for me to weigh myself again, something I usually studiously avoid, weighing yourselfpreferring to rely on the scientific method of how tight my trousers feel.)

He was a nice guy, and I was thinking that although this was curious and a little disappointing for him, far worse is our inability to notice when our mind is becoming incrementally more heavy or sad, without our taking early or preventative steps to exercise it with positive thinking or feed it with the healthy food of meditation. In any event, we agreed that if he didn’t buy any more sodas he’d not be inclined to drink them, and that if he took up exercise again he’d be 30 pounds lighter when I next saw him. I hope so. (Though I think dieting can be harder work than training our mind…? Or, to put it more encouragingly, training the mind can be easier than dieting… What do you reckon?)

A few minutes later I found myself caught up in a small military parade of infantry men who had definitely kept themselves together physically. They were marching right where I normally bike home, for some unknown reason, and I ended up having to follow them. They were crisply dressed in their deep blue uniforms with yellow piping, their pressed trousers ending just above their shiny black shoes, in exactly the same point on the ankle. They were holding sleek but intimidating rifles with bayonets and they walked in step beautifully, effortlessly throwing the bayonet from one hand to the other. I found myself thinking: “I hope they have as much control over their minds as they do over their bodies.”

On the home stretch, my bike chain came unstuck and I got my hands all oily fixing it.

Rousseau the cat and Buddhism Then, remember that pink collar I just bought?! Well, when I got home, I noticed something blue and shiny dangling from my postbox. Much to Rousseau’s relief, some kind stranger had returned his manly collar.

This errand took all of half an hour from beginning to end. Just a normal slice of life, taking its unexpected small (in this case) twists and turns. But it was another reminder that the appearances of life, whether good or bad, are always changeable and unpredictable.

Although we like to feel we have tabs on the general narrative of our lives, we have really no idea who or what we are going to meet from one minute to the next, let alone from one year to the next, and forget about from one lifetime to the food for thought and meditationnext!

The only thing we can learn to control is our mind; and seen in that context every one of our encounters is food for thought, with a potential to nourish our compassion and/or wisdom.

*(I wrote this article six months ago. Nowadays, I’ve given up on collars for Rousseau, manly or otherwise.)

Your turn: which encounters have fed you the most food for thought recently?


What do animals think?

For many years now, when things go wrong in my life — e.g., losing a home, losing good friends, losing a job, being criticized, etc., that kind of thing — my first port of call is usually to cherish whoever happens to be right around me. I don’t want to fall into self-pity or depression given my great good fortune to have this precious human life. I don’t trust any unhappy minds because I know they are reflecting a distorted reality. And I know that all this dream-like appearance comes from the ignorance of self-grasping and self-cherishing, every bit of it. So, in meditation I tend to meditate on emptiness to dissolve away self-grasping’s deceptions, and in the field I apply the immediate antidote to self-cherishing, which is to cherish someone near me more than I cherish myself.

This has always worked. Even if I feel a bit discombobulated first thing in the morning when I wake up to my new reality, it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t last, because, if I’m focusing on someone else, my own dark cloud moods are not so important and they quickly lift.

do animals think according to Buddhism
Rihanna and Oscar

This Survive and Advance Strategy may be why, after one of life’s hiccups, I now seem to be fostering three kittens aged 5 weeks, weight approx. 1lb.* On Saturday, I went on the spur of the moment to volunteer with adoptions in PetSmart, as it felt like the right thing to do at the time. It was a quiet day, so after chief volunteer Jack had showed me the ropes, I swung back home by the Suncoast Animal League HQ just to have a look, and ended up coming home with Rihanna, Oscar, and Sidney.

do animals think according to Buddha

As I write this, they are wrestling each other and me on the sofa in an absurdly photogenic way, adding extra spaces to this document by jumping on the keyboard, and attempting to electrocute themselves by chewing through the wire. After three days, they think I am their mom. (Pretty brave and trusting, seeing as I’m a giant and don’t look much like a cat.) Their actual furry mom was hit by a car when she was pregnant. Happily she survived, had surgery on her jaw, and is now adopted.

(Now, by the end of this short paragraph, they have fallen over asleep – it is as if they have an on/off switch.)

do cats have delusions such as jealousy
Unimpressed Rousseau

One interesting thing about fostering so far (apart from the number of people trying to make me nervous with their “Oh, I adopted Hannah/Daisy/my four dogs and six cats X number of years ago, I’m a foster failure” stories), is that my own cat Rousseau is very jealous. He hisses, growls, and swats at them, and although the kittens themselves are unfazed (do they not realize he is 13 times their size?!), I am not, so I now keep them in a separate room while Rousseau is in the house, and the Russian tenants are (more than) happy to have them at night. Rousseau arrived here insecure and bitey, and it’s taken months for him to really feel at home and in charge, so this is not nice for him. I won’t feel mothering guilt though, there is infinite love to go around, something that a jealous cat doesn’t understand but, according to the online experts, there are ways to help him see that. I’m trying them all.

So, why is this interesting? Because Rousseau’s jealousy is no different to mine, or yours, or anyone else’s. It comes from the same place – insecurity; feeling unloved or deprived as a child perhaps; wanting to be in control of an uncontrollable environment, including the amount of love coming his way; attachment to his human; dislike of his perceived rivals … In other words, Rousseau is having a delusion. Who has delusions? A person has delusions. Ergo, Rousseau is, like you and me, also a person, a being, a self, an I (all synonyms according to Buddhism). “I, Rousseau, am very cross with these others, these intruders, and am going to take it out on you by sulking, hissing, swatting, and glaring at you with huge scary dilated-pupil eyes in the middle of the night, that is if I deign to look at you at all.” “I am a sentient being, I feel these things deeply, and am scared of these new people (I don’t let their miniature size deceive me!)” “I, myself, am feeling all lonely and insecure over here because it looks like she prefers other people now (and I don’t let her extra attention deceive me either!)”

Rousseau is clearly thinking something… to develop a delusion he has to have inappropriate attention, exaggerating something, and that is a process of thought. Animals think. Animals feel. Animals have thoughts and emotions. It is hard to insist that they don’t, though plenty of people try.

do animals feel

It matters not a jot that his delusion may be less sophisticated than a human being’s delusion – but as I write this, I find I am hard put to think of which ways in which it is less sophisticated. His growling and swatting at me is no different to a friend, lover, or child being upset and yelling at me if I spend time with someone else. His dislike of and rivalry with the kittens is the same motivating force behind an astonishing amount of dubious human behavior. His love of giving and receiving love, and his craving for attention and validation, is an emotional drive for most of us. And so on. Really, what is the difference? If you can think of any differences, please share them in the comments. I’m serious. I’m not sure if delusions are ever very sophisticated, even though they can certainly be elaborate. After all, they are all based on a gut ignorance.

kittens in Buddhism
Daka and Kini, off to their home in NY

So, if Rousseau is a person etc., so is every other animal by logical extension. And people deserve our love, protection, and respect. Here is what my favorite Christian saint has to say on the subject:

“Not to hurt our humble brethren is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission—to be of service to them wherever they require it.” ~ Saint Francis of Assissi

animals are sentient beings
Alex still needs a home

The other learning reinforcement I’ve had so far from these kittens is no surprise to me–that unconditional, in the moment love is the best antidote to pretty much anything unpleasant arising in the mind. They are distracting me in a positive way from thinking sad, futile, or fast-forwarding thoughts, indeed from thinking many thoughts at all 🙂 Except for good ones, like how much I want to make sure that I help them get a good forever home by loving them to bits and socializing them so they turn out secure and friendly (giving them a better start in life than Rousseau had, for example). And except especially for Dharma thoughts because my main wish–as it is for any pets I have, and any human beings I have too in fact–is that they are protected from all suffering not just in this life but always. When they look at me for love and protection, I find it unacceptable for them to remain in the deluded prison of samsara forever, endlessly experiencing wretched animal and other sufferings, and I am further motivated to do something about that by getting myself and them out of here. And they are also so kind to me, serving as immediate, visceral examples of all other animal beings, human beings, and other samsaric beings requiring swift release.

* I wrote this a few months ago and, since then, a lot of water has flown under the bridge, kitten-

do cats think
Do you want Danny?

wise and Dharma-wise. Two more joined the first three, all five got loving homes, and a friend in New York just this morning adopted two of my latest batch of five – they are flying out this weekend, Hurricane Isaac permitting.

(This article, of course, has just been one long glorified excuse to post some of my kitten pictures…)

Over to you: Do animals think? How do you know for sure?

Postscript: Someone just sent me this encouraging new article Prominent scientists sign declaration that animals have conscious awareness, just like us. An extract:

An international group of prominent scientists has signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in which they are proclaiming their support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are — a list of animals that includes all mammals, birds, and even the octopus.

And, several years later, March 2016, this has happened in New Zealand!!!


What is a day for?

“There is more to life than its speed.” ~ Gandhi

I’ve always liked this quote. Life is precious, and life is short. I don’t want it to go by in a blur. Everyone is pursuing happiness and freedom, and seemingly working harder and longer as times roll on, but how are we all feeling at the end of a day? Given the amount of motivation, education, effort, and time we throw at the task of feeling happy and getting rid of problems, 24/7, one would think that each day would be better than the one before.

That would mean that today is the best day of your life.

Is it?

If not, happiness and freedom are either impossible, or we’re going about them the wrong way. Buddha concluded the latter and helpfully explained where we were going wrong in his 84,000 teachings.

The perils of multi-tasking

the perils of multitaskingTime Magazine a few years ago did a magazine article on the “perils of multitasking”. It shared “The latest research on how to stay mentally sharp” in a complex (read “over busy”) world. The main conclusions I could glean were that we can drink more coffee to perk up our IQ! Or, if that fails, we can take Ritalin…

I do like a cup of coffee in the morning, but I think the mental sharpness it confers is rather limited and temporary compared to the magic of meditation, which makes our brain bigger in all the right places.

Apparently, multitasking, for all its seeming efficiency, exacts a heavy toll on the quality of our output (and life). The article gave the example of a film producer who was always doing five things at once, wherever she is — whether in the office, on the go, even in the elevator — from the moment she rises ‘til bedtime. She is “fidgety, demanding, chattering” and tied to her gadgets – on the phone, typing notes, glancing at incoming email, motioning signals to her assistant, firing off an instant message. While driving, she is talking, drinking coffee, and checking her Smartphone for a number. Most of us seem to be like that these days, to a greater or lesser degree. Huge amounts of time are now lost to distraction.

But why? What are we actually trying to accomplish? This woman admitted to the journalist that she has noticed some drawbacks to her multi-tasking, such as impatience, irritability, anger, snappishness, and inefficiency. She says she feels a constant state of anxiety, whether her inbox is empty or full. She has an action- and anxiety-packed work day.

Facebook screen suckerIf we are not careful, the gadgets to lighten our load ensnare us and disrupt our work and creativity. We may all be addicted to some degree – sucked in by our screens. Statistics are a little alarming – modern workers spend an average of 11 hours a day attached to some form of media. This means that the mind is never just sitting still. And it is a vicious circle, for the more we stimulate our mind, the less it can stay still, and so the more we need to stimulate it to keep it sufficiently entertained or occupied.

Apparently the last decade has seen a 10-fold rise in symptoms like ADD, where people feel more irritable and pressurized, less able to relax, and less organized. And the ability to prioritize starts to suffer, which again begs the question: “What is a day for?!” If you ask me, a day is for increasing our mental peace, not decreasing it. We can’t be happy if we’re not peaceful, and we all want to be happy – that’s why we’re multitasking in the first place! For mental peace, we need mental space and positivity. So a day is not for a lot of external activity for its own sake, but for controlling our mind. Prioritizing this is rather essential, starting with our motivation. And, when we don’t absolutely HAVE to be online, in our own time, we can switch the gadget off, sit somewhere comfortable, and pick up a meditation book… That habit can also become addictive, and it is a pleasant, uplifting habit to have.

relaxing, space, peaceI think a successful day depends not on what we got “done”, but on how positively we met with challenges, kept a happy, creative mind, overcame our faults, and cherished others. It doesn’t matter then whether we get a lot done externally or just a little — in both cases we can rest assured that we have done a good day’s work and moved in a good direction.

Do you agree, or not? Is this just a recipe for laziness? What do you think a day is for?

The six causes of our problems, according to Buddhism

Why do we do the crazy things we do? For our stupidest behavior, we blame bad genes and peer pressure; for the deeds we want to own, we credit a steely sense of purpose or even divine guidance. But a disturbing new force is emerging as a remote driver of our behavior … ~ The Week, March 9 2012

the six causes of our problems according to BuddhismIf we want to get into the driver’s seat and gain control over the direction our life and actions are taking us, it is exceedingly helpful to understand the actual causes of our unpeaceful, uncontrolled states of mind, or so-called delusions, introduced in the last two articles.  Buddha explained these causes to be: (1) the seed, (2) the object, (3) inappropriate attention, (4) familiarity, (5) distraction and being influenced by others, and (6) bad habits. Since these cause our delusions, they also are responsible for our suffering, because there is no suffering without delusions.

But what do we think really causes our delusions and suffering?

“… of our behavior: parasites.” ~ The Week

At the moment we tend to think that happiness comes from out there, and we also think that our problems come from out there. We will generally blame someone, something, anyone, anything, rather than our own states of mind. Even parasites!

what really causes our problems, parasites?A recent story in The Atlantic lays out the chilling case that a microbe called Toxoplasma gondii has infested the brains of as many as 20 per cent of Americans (and 55 per cent of  French people), refashioning neural connections to make us more fearless, more prone to schizophrenia, and – not incidentally – better disposed to cats, in whose guts the parasites reproduce. ~ The Week

Anything that makes 55 percent of my French relatives better disposed to cats is fine by me; however I am quoting this only to show how creative we are at finding new sources for all our woes.

Here’s a simple illustration of casting around outside for something on which to blame our own states of mind. We’re sitting here peacefully reading this article, but now someone walks into the room – someone we are finding a little irritating of late, or with whom we have a complicated relationship. They don’t do a single thing, but they ignore us, and we start to get annoyed. Then they go out again. Our mind starts to calm down.

Let’s analyze this

what causes my problems?Let’s analyze this. Who or what caused that mind of irritation? Usually we’ll say to ourselves something like: “So and so just walked into the room, ignored me, as usual, and then walked out again. He is always ignoring me! That is, when he’s not criticizing me. And he never puts out the garbage, it’s always left to me. What did I ever see in him?” There’s this fantasy playing out. We’ve managed to (re)write the whole history of this person in an astonishingly short period of time – they walked in with the record of past grievances stamped on their forehead.

Maybe they’re just coming into the room to get a pen, or something. Perhaps they’re not ignoring us, they are simply preoccupied with some pressing matter, or don’t want to disturb our peaceful reading. They could be thinking all sorts of things. But we don’t take any of that into account. They walk in, they’re irritating already, and then they ignore us again; and that gets added to the catalog of grievances that they’ve inflicted on us since time began. This person is suddenly Mr. Irritation Number One. We’ve labeled him.

Then, when they leave the room, and we settle back to our reading, the irritation starts to lift. We were happy, then they came in, then we got unhappy, then they left, then we calmed down again ~ isn’t this all proof that they are the source of irritation?! We may smile wryly reading this, but in the heat of the moment that’s what we think, isn’t it?

That’s what it feels like, and that’s why we get irritated with them. Mentally, and then the next time we see them, we cry: “You ignore me, you’re always ignoring me, and I hate you! You make my life miserable! You do! If you were out of my life I’d be happy and confident all the time.  Look at you, you walked out of the room and I became happy again.”

inappropriate attention and delusionsActually the source of our unhappiness is our own so-called inappropriate attention (the third of the six causes). We think of all of their faults and exaggerate them, and edit out any of their good qualities, until we can’t remember why we ever married them, and now we need a divorce. All of this is going on in our mind, and meanwhile our old friend just came in because he needed to write something down and didn’t see us.

We’re doing it all the time, aren’t we? We’re actually thinking the causes of our irritation do lie in other things or other people. And we think it’s perfectly okay, normal, and reasonable to assume that – that is what everybody else does. What’s wrong with it?


let go of what you think you knowWell, what’s wrong with it is that we’re utterly enfeebling ourselves. We’re giving the key to our happiness away to someone else. We’re saying, “My happiness actually depends on you. I need you to come into this room and be nice to me. If you’re not, I’m going to get irritated and mad.” We are surrendering our happiness to the whims, behavior, and attitudes of others. We are disempowering ourselves. We have lost control over our own peace of mind and therefore our own happiness due to misdiagnosing the causes of our own suffering, unhappiness, irritation, and delusion.

(Someone once asked me about another more extreme example — say a person came up to you and hit you, would you then have a legitimate reason to be upset? I replied that we could say that it was perfectly normal and reasonable to get upset, and so on and so forth, but the fact remains that by allowing ourselves to get upset, we compound the injury, whereas if we manage to stay peaceful, un-upset, in that instance where is the problem? You are still relinquishing control to the other person by letting them hurt you mentally. Of course we need to work our way up to being able to stay un-rattled in situations like this, but simply knowing that we are never really free whilst we feel entirely dependent on others’ behavior is a good starting point for practice.)

This is one major reason why we’re not as happy as we would like to be, why we continue to suffer, why we continue to experience unhappiness. It is because we’re not in control – we allow everything and everybody to get to us. But what is actually getting to us is our own delusions.

My parasites made me do it

Winston Churchill and his catTo James Graff of The Week’s credit, he didn’t seem to buy into the parasite thing either. I’ll let him have the last word:

The idea that the evolutionary drive of microbes can trump the human will is deeply depressing. Was that Winston Churchill standing up for Western civilization, or just parasites he caught from his ginger tabby, Jock? I say we just can’t go there. We have to draw a line in the cerebrum and lay claim to our own fates. “My parasites made me do it” is an even lamer excuse for foolishness than “I’m having a bad day.” So I hereby declare responsibility not only for my own actions, but for those of my entire biosystem. I urge you and all humanity to join me. Or should I say us? ~ The Week

Your turn: What causes your delusions (really)? Examples welcome!