What’s YOUR problem?! :-)

Beware of Whinging PomsA recent survey discovered that people in the UK “feel fully fit and well only 61 days of the year”. Some Australian commentators apparently reacted to this report as typical of the “whinging Poms”, but the fact is that other studies show that this level of health worry is just about normal throughout the Western world (including the land of giant deadly insects and combative kangaroos).

And these are not the seriously ill or dying people who are in hospital, say, but people who are out and about. Based on this survey, people claim to be suffering 304 days a year from colds, backaches, bitten tongues, cricked necks, headaches, heartburn, old sporting injuries, ear infections – you name it, and we’ve got it.

Our bodies are pain machines. Sometimes I see people on the jogging trail outside my window in Liverpool run past with an incredible spring in their step, smoothly and effortlessly, and I like it; but this level of fitness and health seems to be the exception. Sometimes the body cooperates, sometimes you just feel you have to lug it around with you — you know that thought when running, I’m sure it is not just me, “Please, can I stop now?!” Most of us have aches, pains, and a lack of energy a lot of the time. Have you ever met anyone who can say that they always feel comfortable in their bodies? I sometimes marvel at how well the body functions at all, given that it is made of meat, bones, skin, fat, and a bunch of weird organs squashed really tightly together. (I used to think there was loads of space inside me, between, eg, my kidneys and my heart, but that was before I went to the Body Worlds exhibition about 15 years ago – quite the wake-up call.) discover the mysteries

I work at editing and project-managing medical magazines, which daily reveals to me bizarre symptoms it is apparently possible for humans to get, some of them exceedingly awful. I try not to look at my Dorland’s medical dictionary too much – a fat tome full of all the things that can go dreadfully wrong, many in body parts I’ve never heard of! This week I was editing a dermatology article on a rare autoimmune blistering disease affecting the subepidermis called bullous pemphigoid, and musing how I had never met anyone with this, which is perhaps just as well as it sounds really nasty. But then today I just happened to visit a poorly bed-ridden friend of my parents who has been itching like crazy for months… her husband said no one has ever heard of what she’s got, so I said “try me”, and guess what. Maybe it’s just me, but the sheer unexpectedness of having things go horribly wrong in layers of skin you never even knew you had (and your painful condition possessing a daft, no-one’s-ever-heard-of-it name like bullous pemphigoid) strikes me as a tad, oh I don’t know, unreasonable …?

Buddha pointed out that greater or lesser suffering is normal in a contaminated body (that arises from ignorance and delusions, and the karma created by these). The 4 “great rivers” of suffering are birth, ageing, sickness, and death, and we’re constantly being tossed around in their cruel waters. And this is not even taking into account the mental pain and agitation we feel every day as a result of our uncontrolled, oversensitive minds!

The point of looking at this physical and mental suffering head on is to decide we don’t want any of it anymore and to ask the question, “What can we do about it?”

Samsara

Sailboat on the Ocean in a Storm

The seventh Dalai Lama, who lived in 18th century Tibet, said:

Whoever I behold, of high position or low, ordained or lay, male or female, they differ only in appearance, dress, behavior and status. In essence they are all equal. They all experience problems in their lives.

Buddha identified 7 categories of suffering for every human in what he called “samsara“: birth, ageing, sickness, death, having to part with what we like, having to encounter what we do not like, and failing to satisfy our desires.

Our problems are neither unusual nor special, but part of a monotonous pattern.

If I were to ask you: “Have you had any problems today?”, I’m almost prepared to bet that you’ll say yes. If you don’t mind, could you recall today’s problem for a moment…

Does this problem fall into any of the 7 categories described by Buddha – does it have anything to do with sickness, say? Or ageing? Or failing to satisfy your desires? Or losing something you liked?

Or is your problem in a category all of its own? Such as “bullous pemphigoid” perhaps? Nope, even bullous pemphigoid is part of sickness. complaint

Again, I’m prepared to bet that any problem you care to name can be placed in one or more of these 7 categories.

Normally we labor intensively to solve one problem at a time – thinking “If only I didn’t have this splitting headache, I’d be so happy! Look at all those lucky people without headaches, they must be sooo happy!” (Are they?) Or “There is no way I can relax with all these money problems — I have to have more money so I can finally stop worrying!” (Would you?)

It’s not that we don’t try to fix our problems and experience temporary reliefs. However, there is wisdom in recognizing that just trying to solve one external problem at a time is an endless process because as soon as one problem is solved another arises to take its place, like waves in an ocean. Even on a relatively good day we may get rid of our headache, only to find that someone at work says something annoying; then we deal with that problem, only to find ourselves stuck in traffic on the way home; and then we get home eventually, only to find that the Internet is down and we can’t go surfing. We may earn some more money for our family, which is a relief for a while, until the next big problem such as a major teenage rebellion comes along to occupy our thoughts. We may take a medication that fixes our itchiness for a while, but then our liver starts to play up from the toxicity. There is literally no end to problems in samsara. There is also no end to worries while we have a mind to worry. This is not even factoring in the really BIG wave-like sufferings of life, such as bereavement, terrorist attacks, and collapsing buildings, which can literally knock us flat.

Renunciation

According to Buddhism, we have to wake up to problems every day in life after life – many of them far more hideous than those we face now. The wave-like sufferings of samsara’s ocean can never stop rolling in; samsara has to stop first.

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang often says:

“Temporary liberation from a particular suffering is not good enough.”

Never a day goes by when we don’t want to be rid of our problems — big or small they fill our minds. As someone on Facebook posted the other day:

“I want more problems today!” said nobody ever.

We rarely if ever wake up and think, “Hey, bring it on! I want loads of things to worry about today!” If you think about it, this means that we actually want permanent freedom from problems.

giving ourselves permission to be happyFor this, it is not enough to tinker about with the various symptoms as they arise; we need to work to overcome the actual causes of all our problems, which lie within our mental continuum in the form of delusions and negative karma. Only then can we experience permanent liberation from every type of suffering, called in Buddhism “liberation” or “nirvana”.

Having studied and understood this, if we develop a wish for actual, permanent liberation from physical and mental suffering, we have “renunciation”. This is described in the scriptures as a “light and happy mind”. Not getting mentally stuck to one heavy problem after another is liberating in itself. With less attachment and aversion — kept at bay by our renunciation — our daily moods are happier. With this uplifting wish front and foremost, everything we think or do will take us in the direction of liberation – we will be working our way out of samsara even as we take a headache pill, lie ill in bed, cart the kids to school, sip our latte, or strive to drum up business on the Internet.

Bodhichitta

We can also know that everyone equally experiences these problems. Ask a room of people, “Did anyone have a problem today?” and the chances are that pretty much everyone will say “Oh, yes!” Whatever problem we are having, we can guarantee that everyone else also has to experience it sooner or later. We are all in this together. And, as Jim Morrison of The Doors said, “No one here gets out alive.” This understanding can lead to compassion and then “bodhichitta” and, with this empathetic, empowering, meaningful wish front and foremost, everything we do will be taking us in the direction of enlightenment.

Can we make sense of the senseless?

I wrote this on the occasion of the Boston bombings, but the technique for transforming senseless tragedy into spiritual insight applies to everything that is going on today as well.

“It was a beautiful, cool day when two bombs unleashed chaos and killed three people. Friends of those killed say they are devastated by the senseless deaths.” CNN

Much of the response to the Boston bombings this week has been, as always, the question “Why?”

I don’t know what motivated the two young brothers to do it, so I’m not even going to go there in this article, but I did meditate today on “making sense” of it from a spiritual point of view. As well as praying for those suffering so much today as a result of all this, I also wanted to find ways to think about it that could be helpful — otherwise this and all the other tragedies around the world are just piling misery onto misery with no seeming way out for any of us. Also, if there is no constructive way to think about suffering, the danger is that we disengage from it and look away, as opposed to connecting with others.

On the occasion of the 9/11 bombings, my teacher Geshe Kelsang prayed:

“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

Scanning meditation

“Apply meditation to whatever circumstances you meet”

is a Kadampa motto, so I used the Boston bombings as the example. There is a type of meditation you can do called “scanning meditation” where you spend just a few moments or minutes on each of the stages of the path meditations to get an overview – we do this, for example, when we recite Je Tsongkhapa’s Prayer of the Stages of the Path in Prayers for Meditation. The following are just my own first thoughts on the subject – there are clearly thousands of ways to think about each one.

(1)    Precious human life: I just watched a very moving video of Krystle Campbell’s grandmother saying how her Krystle once told her that she liked to take each day as it came and loved life. Krystle “had a heart of gold. She was always smiling,” said her mother. She moved in with her grandmother to take care of her and was by all accounts a happy, compassionate person. I was thinking that she seemed to use her life, short as it was, to bring joy to others, and that it was a precious life while it lasted and even now. Krystle Campbell is second victim killed in Boston bombing

(2)    Death: You never know when or how you’re going to die. Really, never. None of us do. Best to start preparing today.

(3)    Dangers of the lower realms: Described in the media as: “The festive race into a hellish scene of confusion, horror and heroics.” The resembling physical hell realm at the bomb blast and the pure torture of the anger in human minds is like the tip of the iceberg, indicating the hells we are quite capable of creating for ourselves.

(4)    Refuge: Especially in Dharma on all its levels, including these 21 meditations. Our main refuge commitment with respect to Dharma is never to intentionally harm others. Or as the 8-year-old killed in the blast said earlier: no more hurting people

(5)    Karma: Don’t bomb other countries if you don’t want your own country to be bombed. This bull in a china shop option has no real subtlety or nuanced understanding of cause and effect. We have to stop perpetuating vicious cycles in our own lives and in the world at large.

(6)    Renunciation: While delusions rage in human minds, it will be forever thus. We need a radical solution, actual liberation from our real enemies, the delusions.

(7)    Equanimity: Agony as it is for the Bostonian victims, perpetrators, and their families, this scene is playing out all over the world and I think could benefit from our equal recognition.

(8)    All living beings are our mothers: If we realized this we could not harm them but, also, we could perhaps hope to start a process of forgiveness, understanding that people are not their delusions, even if they are currently controlled by them.

(9)    Remembering the kindness of living beings: People have been remarking that a lot of stories of heroism have come out of this, such as that guy in the cowboy hat. There has been an outpouring of kindness. Mr Rogers and the Boston bombing

(10) Equalizing self and others: Every single person in this scenario equally wants to be happy and free from suffering. That gives a lot of food for thought, stops it being so much about “us and them”. We realize we’re in this mess together and have to help each other get out of it.

(11) The disadvantages of self-cherishing: Where to start?

(12) The advantages of cherishing others: Any moment of happiness that has come out or will come out of this derives from the kindness of people helping and saving limbs, eg, the medical profession, the outpouring of love and prayers all over the world, and so on.

(13) Exchanging self with others: We can do this with both the victims and the perpetrators. Again, it gives a great deal of food for thought.

(14) Great compassion: This means compassion not just for obvious physical and mental pain, but for the causes of suffering, delusions and negative actions, or karma. In which case, there is no one in this scenario who is not a suitable object of our compassion. May everyone swiftly be freed from delusions and pain.  See Geshe Kelsang’s prayer.

(15) Taking: You could spend all day taking on the suffering of the victims, their families, the perpetrators, their families, and everyone else in similar circumstances around the world. A powerful day it would be, too.

(16) Wishing love: Love is the great Protector. With love in our hearts, there is room for everyone in this world. Without it…

Tara protecting living beings
May everyone  in Boston and elsewhere swiftly come under Buddha Tara’s loving protection.

(17) Giving: Act like a Buddha and send healing light rays giving relief and happiness to everyone involved. There is always something we can do 

(18) Bodhichitta: Seeing from this bombing the futility of trying to solve all the world’s problems without removing our own faults and delusions, and without having all the necessary qualities such as wisdom, compassion, and skill, it is imperative to become a Buddha as quickly as possible. And if I don’t, who will?

(19) Tranquil abiding/concentration: In short supply at the bomb site. If we have a chance to focus on controlling our own minds through concentration, we will be able to help others do the same as soon as the conditions are right. But life is crazy, so our time to train in concentration is now.

(20) Superior seeing/wisdom: See Geshe Kelsang’s prayer. The interviewer asked Krystle’s grandmother, “Does this feel unreal?” Everyone is saying, as they always do when tragedy strikes: “This is a nightmare.” And it is. With wisdom realizing the true nature of things, we have the actual solution to this and every other problem – we can wake up.

(21) Relying upon a Spiritual Guide: We need experienced guides to steer us out of the madness of this hall of distorted, bomb-blasted mirrors, and into lasting peace and freedom.

Over to you: How do you make sense of the senseless?

Doped up on the 8 worldly concerns?!

This continues from this article, In praise of integrity. And talking of pedestals, a good friend of mine went to the same high school as John Cleese, and told me this tale about him. In front of the school is a tall pillar, on which Field Marshall Haig had stood for almost a hundred years, until parents and guests turned up to graduation one year to find footsteps leading from the pillar to the building and back again… Even famous commanders can’t live on a pedestal, but have to get down to use the restroom sooner or later.

The 8 worldly concerns (attached to receiving praise, pleasure, a good reputation, and gain, and aversion to their opposite) are insidious and very damaging. Practicing Buddhism, or Dharma, under their influence, with an impure motivation, is said to be like eating healthy food mixed with poison – we might derive some short-term benefit but in the long-term we’re going to be in pain. In his book Joyful Path, Geshe Kelsang says:

If we have been practicing Dharma for some time but cannot feel any of its benefits, the reason is that we are not yet practicing pure Dharma.impure motivation is like food laced with poison

What’s more, as the scriptures say, the higher we are in the tree of ambition, the thinner the branches, and the further we have to fall.

You do know this is not it?

“That was good, but you do know this is not it?” The words spoken by his friend to a prominent teacher in my Buddhist tradition, the New Kadampa Tradition, after he had just finished teaching at a large Festival. The teacher was telling me this, saying how glad he had friends around him to keep him real so that he did not become “doped up” on praise, love, or prostration mudras. Teaching success is no substitute for spiritual success.

We were also chatting about what happens when we become so unused to criticism by dint of a high position that, if we’re not careful, it becomes harder and harder to handle criticism when it does come our way  – clearly the opposite of what is supposed to happen for a Kadampa!

Praise etc doesn’t help us while we have it, and once we’re off our pedestal it quickly dries up as well. If we have come to depend on it we’re in trouble, and if it has become part of our self-image we’ll have to pretty much reinvent ourselves.

humility in BuddhismI believe that the 8 worldly concerns stop spiritual progress. It is easier to make progress when you feel normal, like everyone else, rather than special.  Lucky, yes, perhaps, but special, no. Pride drives a wedge between us and those we are trying to help, which is one reason there’s so much emphasis on humility for Bodhisattvas.

I like this Alanis Morrissette lyric as it speaks to me of genuinely spiritual people, such as a Bodhisattva, who are the only ones who really deserve to be on a pedestal, though you’ll never catch them up there:

And I am fascinated by the spiritual man;
I am humbled by his humble nature.

The main job

Always being in performance mode can be bad for one’s own practice. The Buddhas can take us wherever we want to go, but we don’t need to keep looking over our shoulder to see if others are watching us. I once visited Geshe Kelsang seeking advice on something, and just by way of preamble I stated what I thought was the obvious: “I know that my main job is to teach Dharma, but …”

I could not get another word out of my mouth as he interrupted me, quite forcibly:

overcoming the 8 worldly concerns

Your main job is practicing Dharma. Everything else will follow naturally from that.

That has been true for me on many levels, and it makes more sense to me with each passing year.  My main job is being a practitioner first and whatever else second.

If we feel that our job is inherently worthy, and feel carried along by it, this can make us lazy in training our minds and undermine our inner development by allowing worldly concerns to creep in. And the worst part? We might not even realize this is happening, while the precious years for practice pass us by.

There are numerous stories in the Buddhist scriptures of people being expelled or otherwise leaving their high or cushy positions in the monastery or society to go off on their ownsome to gain realizations, and to me these are an inspiring example of the need to let go of the eight worldly concerns even whilst we stay amongst others.

Flavor of the month

don't need to be flavor of the month It really doesn’t matter whether or not we are flavor of the month. It does matter whether or not we stick to our principles of compassion and wisdom. And if these are our principles, rather than the 8 worldly concerns, this allows a lot of room for flexibility in accordance with the changing needs of others. For example, Geshe Kelsang has shown extraordinary month-by-month flexibility in adapting Buddhism from the reclusive monastic situation in Tibet to the connected, transparent modern world without sacrificing his principles and seemingly caring not a jot for the 8 worldly concerns.

Humility helps us remain flexible even as we stick to what we know is right, not just fashionable. Also, true change comes from inside, not from changing others; so we can be tolerant of others’ shortcomings whilst overcoming our own. As Atisha says, in what I regard as one of the most helpful all-time Buddhist quotes:

Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.

Don’t you think this means not just in general, but also on a rigorous daily basis, knowing what our mind is doing and taming our own delusions before we go trying to tame others?

Shrinking or expanding world?

The 8 worldly concerns shrink our world and I think can make us institutionalized if we take our small world a little too seriously — whether this is the world of our family and friends, our business or workplace, or even our place of worship. To expand our world again we can remember that we’ll be leaving this life soon; we have at most a few hundred months left before we find ourselves in our next life. Remembering death and impermanence is the antidote to the 8 worldly concerns.

Can you remember back to this time last year, what were your overriding concerns/anxieties/things you really wanted? Are they the same today? Fast forward to this time next year, will the concerns/anxieties/things you really want today still be the same then? If the answer is no, as it pretty generally is, I find this helps me let go of worrying about whatever I happen to be currently worrying about, for it seems a waste of mental energy! We can relax instead into what endures year after year, our spiritual journey.

Kadampa Buddha 2We can also broaden our horizons by developing bodhichitta, changing what we really want out of life by contemplating every day how wonderful it would actually be to have freedom from all mistaken, suffering appearances and the ability to help each and every living being. (With bodhichitta motivation, putting a crumb on a bird table is far more valuable and satisfying than giving a diamond out of attachment to the 8 worldly concerns. That example from Joyful Path shows how, if we change what we want, life can actually become simpler and deeper at the same time!)

Everything is deceptive, except for… 

Wisdom: Everything is moreorless deceptive while we have ignorance – things are never exactly as they appear, and when we have strong delusions or agitated minds, such as the 8 worldly concerns, we can be sure that what we are seeing has very little resemblance to what’s really going on. Therefore, we need to rely on the wisdom of emptiness to do away with the false appearance of inherent existence, understanding that the things we normally see do not exist.

Compassion: The other day, I mentioned to J on the stairs in passing: “Everything is deceptive except wisdom.” He looked at me with his big eyes and asked, “And love?” And he is right. Love itself doesn’t grasp at an inherently existent person, its object is simply wishing others happiness, which is the great protector against suffering for ourselves and the people around us. Compassion is our love focused on others’ suffering, wishing them to be freed from it. Our so-called “method” minds of renunciation, love, compassion, patience, and so on are entirely more trustworthy than our attachment and aversion, and they keep us sane and happy, hence the Kadampa motto:

integrityAlways rely upon a happy mind alone.

I count myself lucky to know people with lots of integrity, who’re trying their best to change for the better, every day. They are flexible, but not blown about by the changing winds of how things are done or not done this week, month, or year, at the expense of common sense or indeed basic human kindness; they are not sticklers for rules for rules’ own sake. They are more inspired by the enduring rules of wisdom and compassion.

We can always find our way if we stick to wisdom and compassion.

In praise of integrity

I recently re-read a good article on Heart of Compassion on honesty and keeping it real, well worth reading twice. It has also prodded me to finish writing down some thoughts on integrity that I’ve had up my sleeve for a while.

Integrity definitionThe dictionary definition of integrity is:

Adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.

One of the things I love most about the old Kadampas is their integrity. They seemed to practice Dharma as if no one was looking, totally for its own sake, with no side-tracking worldly concerns. (The 8 worldly concerns are attachment to praise, pleasure, a good reputation, and gain, and fear of or aversion to their opposite.)

A few years ago, when I was about to go on quite a long retreat, a friend said: “You’ll be setting a great example!” I remember thinking, and replying, “I don’t want to set an example, though. I just want to practice as if no one is looking.” I don’t know if that thought was a cop-out or not, but I know at the time it helped me enjoy the retreat a great deal.

integrity and Understanding the Mind TharpaAlthough it can obviously be helpful to set a good example, it is counterproductive if there is pretension or concealment involved. (Perhaps it is better to be a good example than to set one?)  If I look to someone for inspiration or advice, for example, I am not worried about their faults per se because we all have those. What will destroy my confidence in their ability to help me is if they don’t seem to be doing anything about these faults, particularly if they don’t seem to believe or care that they have them, and even more so if they are trying to cover them up or being prideful. (Others probably evaluate our advice using similar criteria.)

A Bodhisattva promises to work for the welfare of all living beings without pretension or deceit. Here are some useful definitions from Understanding the Mind (where you can read all about them) that have helped me understand what integrity is and aspire to it, since it seems free from these faulty attitudes.

The definition of pretension is a deluded mental factor that, motivated by attachment to wealth or reputation, wishes to pretend that we possess qualities that we do not possess.

The definition of concealment is a deluded mental factor that, motivated by attachment to wealth or reputation, wishes to conceal our faults from others.

If we have wealth or reputation, we have to be particularly careful because we have the grounds for attachment to arise every day – trying to hold onto our wealth or popularity, fearing their loss. Our behavior will no longer have integrity if it is motivated by these concerns and results will not be as good as they could be, even if we are ostensibly helping a lot of people.

Here’s another good one, self-satisfaction:

The definition of self-satisfaction is a deluded mental factor that observes our own physical beauty, wealth, or other good qualities, and, being concerned only with these, has no interest in spiritual development.

If we count among our “other good qualities” the fact that everyone right now loves us, praises us, and does what we ask, we develop a spiritual smugness that means after years of supposed practice and example we have not taken an actual step forward toward liberation or enlightenment.

Crabs in a bucket

If you put a crab in a bucket and it can climb out of that bucket, it will climb out. But if you put two crabs in the bucket, when one of the crabs tries to climb out, the other will pull it back in. (Apparently. I’ve never tried this.) Neither will ever escape. It doesn’t matter that it is possible to escape; the crabs will hold each other back from doing so.

Atisha
Atisha, founder of Kadampa Buddhism

Sometimes we may not believe in the idea of our own limitless potential and instead have a jealous or insecure sense that someone else’s success somehow diminishes our own. With that mentality, even if we are not fully aware of it, if we see others improving we will naturally if unconsciously reach out to hold them back, or at least experience that most ignoble of  feelings, schadenfreude, when we see them fall back.

However, we don’t only hold each other back by criticizing each other, putting each other down, or rejoicing in their misfortune. Actually, I think we are more effectively held back in samsara when people shower us with praise, power, and gifts, especially if we take it seriously and buy into it. Words of fame and praise do nothing to advance us spiritually, especially if we become dependent on them for our self-image and self-esteem. As Venerable Atisha says in his quintessential Advice for all wannabe Kadampas:

Words of praise and fame serve only to beguile us, therefore blow them away as you would blow your nose.

Profit and respect are nooses of the maras, so brush them aside like stones on the path.

Geshe-la in Tibet
Geshe Kelsang in Tibet

I was once on a little pedestal by dint of my position – not a huge pedestal like Nelson’s in Trafalgar Square, more like one of those plastic pillars a foot high in a MacDonalds playground, but still not quite on the level playing field. When I was pushed off my pedestal (as we all are sooner or later), I took incredible inspiration from the old Kadampas, and still do. The real Kadampas would hide their best qualities in plain sight. On the outside they were a pure example by observing moral discipline motivated by non-attachment and contentment, on the inside they were motivated by a fiercely kind bodhichitta, and, even more deeply and secretly on the inside, they were relaxing in the bliss and emptiness of Tantra. 

It is not what you do but why you do it. There is no such thing as ordinary activity without an ordinary mind. With an ordinary mind, even seemingly pure activities will have ordinary results.

Part 2 of this subject is here. Meanwhile, over to you, do you agree with this or not?