Feeling stuck?

Continuing the subject of overcoming discouragement.

Motivation, the first step

woman meditatingHere’s a little five minute meditation. With our eyes closed, we can first identify with our potential so we feel peaceful and can get some space from the delusions we are about to observe.

Then we can bring to mind the main areas in our mind where we feel a bit stuck, certain tendencies we may have that cause us problems — we wish to be free of them and yet we find ourselves stuck there. Perhaps there’s a tendency towards anxiety, depression, frustration, guilt, or unhappiness with ourselves or other specific people. Our life seems to lack meaning even though we know it could be so meaningful and one part of us suspects what we are capable of. Something in us is holding us back. To begin with we just have to identify this (though not with it.)

We also need to actively think about how wonderful it would be if we could unblock this area, if we could let go of it and move forward to actualize our potential. We can imagine doing this. We have to let this wish to change arise and then stay with it in our heart for as long as we can.

To bring about this transformation we need to train our mind. The problem lies in the mind, and the solution lies in changing the mind. So we need to aspire to this.

We need to do this not just for our own sake but for everyone’s sake. How many people in this world are caught in compulsive patterns of behavior that are just causing suffering, trapped in painful thoughts, painful habits, and painful addictions? Feeling trapped in their minds, thus feeling trapped in their situations? Our friends, colleagues, family — are they actualizing their extraordinary potential or remaining stuck? Even whole cultures, whole nations, trapped in cycles of behavior which accomplish precisely the opposite of what they wish for … ?

We can think: “I no longer wish to participate in this creation of unhappiness. Instead I am going to change my mind, train my mind, so that I can help others do the same. I need increasing mental freedom and enlightenment so that I can help everyone else.”

This great motivation is part of our aspiration or wishes, and without aspiration there is no way we are ever going to develop joyful effort – we do what we want to do, always, unless coerced. With a big motivation, we’ll have big effort.

Are you fixed or not?

what self-cherishing seesOne major reason we feel discouraged when it comes to thinking about changing our mind is because we perceive ourselves as being fixed, as being someone who can’t really change, or not that much anyway. Easier to switch on the TV or go to bed.

When we think of ourselves we actually have a mind of ignorance. This delusion currently accompanies all our perceptions, including our self-perception. This ignorance believes us to exist in the way in which we appear. And right now we appear to have a whole selection of negative qualities. We may appear to ourselves to be a depressed person. Or an anxious person. A fearful person. An angry person. A loser. A victim. An unloveable person. An ordinary person. And so on. That is how we appear to ourselves, and our mind of ignorance basically assents to that appearance. It believes it’s the truth. This is the truth – I am this! I am angry, I am faulty, I am anxious, I am incompetent, I am no good … We are holding ourselves in this fixed way and thinking it’s the truth.

So then we try to practice meditation and Buddhism on top of that … ?! For example, we hear or read something that inspires us and it’s like a breath of fresh air, “Oooh that feels so good, I CAN change!” But then we walk back out on the street or into work, and we take a look at ourselves, and we are looking at somebody who can’t change. On the one hand we get it, “I can change!”, but on a deeper level there is an inner perception, “I’m fixed in this way, I can’t change.” We are actually grasping at ourselves as someone who can’t change.

overcoming the laziness of discouragementSo guess what happens if we don’t address that? We don’t change. We can’t change because we are holding ourselves as being fixed. That is our real meditation, what we are really familiarizing ourselves with – we might spend 5 minutes developing the aspiration to change as in the meditation above, and the remaining 23 hours and 55 minutes familiarizing ourselves with being a depressed loser, holding onto ourselves as being a FIXED person with nothing to offer. “You probably don’t even want this unloveable person loving you, right?”

If we are trying to change based on this strong self-grasping ignorance, this self-fixing mind, it is no wonder that we fail, and it is no wonder that we get discouraged. Then it can get even weirder because, in a strange sort of way, it becomes comforting to us that we can’t change. Simply because we think it’s the truth, I am a loser, I am a fixed person, an anxious person, etc – that’s who I am! It’s not a happy place but it feels like a secure place, it’s what we know, it’s where we feel comfortable. Then the idea of changing is unsettling because at least I know this. It’s like asking the person clinging onto the side of the burning building to jump into the net far below – they don’t want to, better the devil you know.

overcoming self-sabotage through meditationSo self-sabotage kicks in. Consciously, we set out to change – subconsciously we undermine ourselves because we don’t want to change. In fact, we are setting out to prove we can’t change. Like the example of someone who is always late given in the previous article on discouragement, or, another common example, someone who is trying to lose weight but they just keep snacking … And there is a comfort in that moment as we open the fridge door, isn’t there?! It’s like ‘You see, I can’t do it … I can’t do it … so then I don’t have to!!!’

Even though it is going directly against the fulfillment of our wishes, there is a strange relief there because it is affirming our limited view of self. “I’m stuck. I don’t like it here… but that’s the way it is.”

So, first thing to do is identify this problem. Then we can overcome it. More later. Meanwhile, do contribute to this discussion on overcoming discouragement — do you have any examples in your own experience of relating to a fixed, limited self, and/or how you overcome this?

A storm on Belleair Beach

When I first met Phyllis Kalinowski, she was already dead.

She had a hole above her left eye, where she had just been struck by lightning.

And, lightning notwithstanding, I had just been intending to stroll along that beach and swim in that ocean. Instead, I crouched by her and did transference of consciousness (powa) until the first responders arrived. Phyllis Kalinowski struck by lightning

This is a beach I have never been on before. It was several miles from where I normally swim. We only chanced upon it because there was a big storm. When we were walking onto our normal beach, everyone else was walking off it, even though it wasn’t raining yet; and two women warned us rather sternly: “Don’t go out there.” So we didn’t, as they seemed to us like Tara. But still we felt strangely impelled to drive around looking for another beach, and it looked a bit less dark and thunderous further south.

You can probably tell from my wandering around in a storm that I always assumed the whole “you can get struck by lightning” thing was grossly exaggerated. But, as one of the first responders told me:

“It happens all the time around here.”

The most dangerous time is before the rain starts – once you’re wet, the lightning apparently glances off you.

Nowhere is safe. Phyllis was feet away from the idyllic Gulf of Mexico where, like us, she clearly thought she could get away with a stroll. She wasn’t yet headed toward shelter – and she unfortunately happened to be the highest lightning conductor on the beach. She had fallen flat on her face. Her friend, finding her like that, turned her over onto her back. Then, I imagine, her friend screamed – and when we first saw her she was hurrying away as fast as she could, wailing. She was being comforted by an older stranger, and I was wondering at the incongruity of someone dressed in a swimsuit on a beautiful beach being this stricken. Why did she go to the beach in the first place if she was this distraught? And, if something had upset her since she got to the beach, what could it possibly have been? Seeing us approach, she said in an odd echo, “You don’t want to go down there!”, but then said not another word as the woman led her away.

We expected to see something as we walked over the sand bank, but we were not expecting Phyllis. Another stranger, a man, had offered to guard the body while waiting for the first responders. He looked very uncomfortable and stood at some distance away. Other than that, no one else was on the beach. I felt very sorry for Phyllis – her friend was hysterical and this man clearly didn’t want to be there. She needed some peace around her, so we went close to her to meditate and pray.

Her arms and hands were flung out, relaxed. Despite the big hole in it, her face did not look scared. It must have been instant death. Mysteriously, her sunglasses had not fallen off. This did not look like someone asleep though. Her consciousness had clearly departed, hopefully through her upper chakras, leaving just her flesh. There is literally all the difference in the world between a dead body and a live one. I could tell from her face that she was not much older than me. According to the news reports the following day, she was 51. Her body had strong tan lines so I assumed she was a Florida native – it turned out she came from Brandon and had gone to the beach that day with her old friend to shell and swim.

Phyllis 2
These guys came after the first responders to take the body away.

The flashing lights and sirens heralded the approach of the first responders. They felt her pulse, nothing. She was already cool to the touch. They opened her eyelids, and her eyes “looking” at me were hazel brown and quite, quite unseeing. They cut her swimsuit off, with a view to restarting her heart. This is nothing she was expecting when she woke up that morning. It was nothing she was expecting even twenty minutes earlier. The indignity of her flesh, cherished and guarded throughout her life, now laid bare; I looked away then. Their efforts did no good anyway, she was still dead. They covered her with a yellow plastic sheet. Professional, swift — they were used to dead bodies, this much was clear, though a couple of the younger paramedics couldn’t disguise a look of surprise when they first saw her wound. 

Karma strikes again

Phyllis and us had the karma to be on that beach at (almost) the same time. How did we come to this moment? We clearly had some connection with her—strange, fleeting, but hopefully helpful as it led to a transference of consciousness and many prayers being made. When and how did we meet in the past? How did she create the causes to have so many Buddhists praying for her?

According to all the papers and news shows, Phyllis was a great person. “She was just wonderful, she was so giving to everybody’. “Those who knew the wife and mother of two described her as an energetic, outgoing and compassionate woman.”

Do you ever wonder why we have chance meetings, and what is their meaning? How many people are there in our karmic circle, whom we share life with every day – 5, 10, 20, 100? How many family members, friends, and colleagues? Then how many millions of people do we meet for one minute or two minutes during the course of our lives, nodding at each other on the street, or having a momentary conversation about something that may or may not be meaningful to both of us? Yet at the same time we have entwined karma and a deep connection with each one of them, dating back lifetimes.

Our meetings, however brief, need never be superficial or insignificant. There is always something positive we can do with our mind when others cross our path. As P said on Tuesday, as we watched the people walk by in Liverpool One, “People-watching is so meaningful if you use Dharma!” There is a beautiful verse in Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

Therefore, in whatever I do,
I will never cause harm to others;
And whenever anyone encounters me,
May it never be meaningless for them.

I am so sad for Phyllis and her family and friends, but I am glad we were there that surreal day. She helped me deepen my experience of the truth of Dharma and I hope, thanks to the Buddhas and other friends, that I was of some use to her.

Brief encounters

A lot of people saw my Facebook posting about Phyllis and were praying for her even before her strange death hit the news the following morning.

Oscar the kitten in Kadampa LifeThat same evening, my first foster kitten Oscar died of FIP, just over a year old. I coincidentally had the chance to say goodbye to him when I arrived at Orlando airport a week earlier, as his mum and dad live nearby. Oscar was a beautiful little fellow inside and out and no cat could ever want a more perfect, loving home, so it was very sad. Oscar however created the causes for many Facebook friends to care and pray for him too. 

A few days later, Dianne Elliott also died, of a heart attack that was not unexpected given years of poor health, but sudden nonetheless. Dianne was a long-term Buddhist practitioner and a beloved woman, and her funeral (in Barrow last Wednesday) was by far the best one I have ever been to. Although she will be very missed, I think we all felt she had gone to the Pure Land, in keeping with her foremost and most constant wish:

At my deathtime may the Protectors, Heroes, Heroines, and so forth,
Bearing flowers, parasols, and victory banners,
And offering the sweet music of cymbals and so forth,
Lead me to the Land of the Dakinis. ~ Quick Path to Great Bliss

DianneI first met Dianne in Florida too, but we go back many years and share many experiences and good friends, and so the connection is clear. The day before her death, oddly enough, I had ridden her old bicycle and driven past her old apartment, and was thinking of her. I heard the news by text message, but most people heard about her death within hours of it being posted on Facebook, and powas and prayers were made for her worldwide.

A week later, little Losang Tenpa died. Although he had spent his whole short life in Nepal and India, there were hundreds of Westerners who loved him, rooted for him, and prayed for him. All this also through the collective karma of Facebook, where big Losang Tenpa posted moving accounts of the last few hopeful, heroic months and then his sudden, tragic passing. Good article about it here, on the Heart of Compassion blog. 

Collective karma

Facebook seems to have increased the number of daily encounters we can make — friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends, or the people (including animals) whom we are asked to help and pray for every day… (It seems everyone can have their fifteen minutes of fame thanks to Facebook…)

All in all I find that Facebook can be pretty meaningful–or as meaningful as I want it to be–if I log on to increase my love, Losang Tenpacompassion, and sense of connectedness with a wide world web of living beings. Though it can of course be a huge exercise in distraction, it seems in some ways to be the result of good collective speech karma. Dianne’s husband said he felt a bit strange about announcing his wife’s death on Facebook, but the fact is he knew it would do the trick. When I die, I hope to have the good karma to be posted on Facebook too. It is through Facebook, after all, that thousands of people were able to tune in and make strong prayers for Dianne, Phyllis, little Tenpa, and Oscar, within short days or even just hours of their unscheduled departures from this life.

Related articles

What do you see when you look at a stranger?

A temple for this place and time

Preparing for the Pure Land

All the world’s a stage…

Do you ever feel you’re being manipulated when you’re watching something? Like it’s staged to make you think and feel a certain way?

Of course, all plays and movies are! But sometimes for some reason you see right through it.

Mad Men is a popular drama and several friends had recommended it to me so I watched some of it. Notwithstanding the intentionally annoying misogyny that pervades it, I enjoyed the fact that it was set not long before I was born but might as well have been made in the dark ages, so much has changed since then. Those telephones! I remember we had one as a child; it seemed perfectly fine back then, now it belongs in a museum. The whole way of life without cell phones and computers is entirely different. And yet this is only 50 years ago, and I was born pretty much into the tail end of it. This is the world of my parents. Mad Men and Buddhism

It also struck me that one reason there was no way out for these characters is because meditation hadn’t even arrived on the scene yet – they had to hit the bottle or the sack because they had no reliable sources of pleasure or satisfaction, especially as on the whole these were not church-going types and yet had few spiritual alternatives.

But for the purposes of this article I was interested in how much effort and how many causes and conditions were brought together to convince me, the viewer, that it was real. The telephones for sure, and all the design pieces. The Neanderthal attitudes, the drinking, the nervous reaching for a cigarette at times of the remotest stress or pleasure, the boredom, the futility… Thousands of people have engineered this reality for me, making it as real as possible, and a huge variety of causes and conditions have gone into it. Remove any of them – the hairstylist, the director, the camera man, the cigarettes, the clunky telephones, etc – and I may not have been as convinced.

A movie clearly depends completely on its causes and conditions. It is none of those causes and conditions either individually or collectively, yet take even one away and it disappears. It has no power to exist from its own side. The same is true of life.

When I was living in San Francisco I visited the set of Pixar with a friend, T., who was working on Ratatouille. My mind boggled at the number of causes and conditions going into producing a 90-minute animated movie – thousands of skilled people, several years, and seemingly never-ending still drawings and sculptures both traditional and computerized. In The Incredibles, there is a typical teenager called Violet, who is characterized by hiding behind a large fringe of hair, until she gains confidence (helped no doubt by saving the world with her superpowers) and the hair gets tucked back. During this whole eye-opening visit to Pixar, the thing that struck me most was learning that one of T’s friends had worked for three years on … get this… pretty much just Violet’s hair! Violet from the Incredibles and Kadampa Life

If we really examine it, we can see that our own hair has also risen and continues to arise in dependence upon numerous causes and conditions – both physical and karmic – going back a very long way. Even just one moment or freeze frame of our hair depends on genes coming from our parents and their parents etc, and karma we have created – and moment by moment these causes and conditions continue to evolve to produce moment after moment of hair (or hair loss).

Countless causes and conditions have also gone into the scene I am witnessing right now. I am sitting at my desk writing on a PC with a splendid cappuchino from the World Peace Cafe downstairs, looking out onto a park that is vividly green with flashes of rhodedendrom colour, half-sunshine/half clouds and a sky close enough to touch, magpies hopping about on the branches, goslings on the lake, and people kicking a football… Remove any one of these causes and conditions – the desk, the park, the sunshine, even the football — and the scene is a new one. If I was to look for anything really happening, from its own side, as in the movies, I would find nothing – none of the causes and conditions is this scene, but remove even just one of them and this particular scene dissolves.

goslings in Sefton Park Kadampa Meditation Centre Liverpool(In a few days, all the causes and conditions for my sitting here in Liverpool will have been used up. New causes and conditions will be kicking in to produce new effects as life unfurls … )

Everything is illusion-like according to the Buddhist Madhyamika view of reality. Even though it appears to, nothing exists inherently, from its own side. In Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva says:

Provided all the necessary conditions are assembled,
Even an illusion will come into being.

Illusions like movie characters appear in dependence upon causes and conditions, and so do we.

Different types of cause
Give rise to different types of illusion.

We take one rebirth after another in dependence upon particular causes and conditions, and Mad Men comes into being in dependence upon different causes and conditions. There is no single cause that can give rise to the infinite variety of different effects. A movie may not last as long as us, but this is no proof that we are more existent from our own side – or it would follow that a dream of long duration was more valid than one of shorter duration.

sowing seeds of love karmaI can tell I’m being manipulated by the acting in Mad Men — the fake smoking and the fake sex and the fake attitudes. Not that it isn’t well acted; it is just that sometimes you can’t help seeing through things, you can see they are staged. Just like a movie, all the causes and conditions of my life effect an appearance that I get sucked into as real, even though this reality is just a set-up, a projection of my ignorance. How great it will be to see through the seeming permanence of every scene in my life to see that it is changing moment by moment in dependence upon causes and conditions. How great it will be to see through the veneer of my current reality to see that it too is fake, artificial, Drapersmile-lg1appearances pretending to be something solid and “out there”. We already are the designers, producers, and directors of our own reality. Once we realize this, we can design, produce, and direct a life we actually want!

Postscript 3 years later: Who thought Mad Men would end with Don Draper meditating?! There is hope for us all.

Do you like change?

This continues from the article “Do you ever feel discouraged?

making the most of changeIf someone were to ask you: “Do you want to be exactly the same person, in the same situation, in the same moods, in 5 years’ time or even 10 years’ time?”, chances are you’d think, “Heck, no!”, especially if you understand your potential for happiness and think about the number of irritants you currently have in your life.

So one part of us wants to change.

The other part of us hates the idea. “You’ve got to move.” “No, I don’t want to move.” Our partner starts changing, or our kids start changing, or our job changes, and it makes us nervous, it unsettles us. Not to mention our fear of death, our own and that of others close to us.

We want things to change and remain the same. So this ambivalence about change – wanting it and dreading it — can be a problem! Change makes us anxious, yet at the same time we know we need to change. Why? Because we’re not happy where we are, we are always wishing things were different at some level. We are rarely free from some level of dissatisfaction; even when we’re having a good time there is still some sense that we could make it even nicer or better, or else worrying, “Oh no, this is really good, but it’s about to be over!”

can't get no satisfactionThere is always a shifting going on, a wanting things to be different to get away from the basic dissatisfaction in our heart, but we can’t get no satisfaction. Mick Jagger got that one right. And we try, and we try. It doesn’t matter how much we shift around our external circumstances, the basic dissatisfaction in our heart remains, and that’s why we want change.

That’s why we want it, yet at the same time we dread it. Better the devil you know. Big changes tend to make us very insecure, even if they are not bad ones, because at least we feel we have a sort of handle on the current situation even if it sucks – “The new job, city, apartment looks better, but I don’t know… it’s a bit unsettling all this.” 

Arriving late

Here’s an example of wanting to change and not wanting to change. I have a good friend who always arrives late at places – sometimes so late that he misses the entire event! He arrived halfway through his own birthday party recently. To hear him tell it, there’s nothing he can do about it. But, and he is not alone in this, if you are a perpetual late arriver it is not because you can’t tell the time — you know exactly when you need to leave to arrive on time. Usually something like this happens: “Ok, time to go… oh, hold on, let me just do this and that, put my laundry in the drier, nip into this shop on the way, get some gas … Oh, I’m late again!” That is an act of self-sabotage because you’re wishing to arrive on time to blow out your own candles with your invited guests, and yet arranging it in such a way that you are not going to be there on time. It may seem to just sort of happen, but if we check, we are making a choice, as a result of which we’re going to be late.white_rabbit_arriving_late

This is an example of how on the surface we want to change, but subconsciously in the realm of deeper habits we don’t want to. And so we’re at odds with ourselves, which is tiring and discouraging. If we check our habits in meditation, especially the ones we don’t like, we can see what it is we are doing to feed that habit. When we step back and look at it, it’s a choice we’re making. It might be a weighted choice coming with a lot of habit behind it, but still it’s a choice.

Spiritual practice is all about change

So it seems we have an ambivalence – on the one hand we want change and on the other hand we are afraid of change and cling on to the same old things with attachment. And spiritual practice is all about change. It’s all about training our mind, letting go of attachment, moving our mind somewhere new. It’s all about identifying the internal causes of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, inner conflicts – the delusions – and getting rid of them. It is all about changing our lifelong habits of relating to others and to ourselves in unconstructive ways by increasing our positive minds such as love and wisdom. Meditation practice is a systemic process of transforming the mind. It requires effort. And effort requires aspiration – we have to WANT it. We have to therefore WANT to change our mind, deep down, without the ambivalence.

lotus 6

The four mental powers that help effort

The sign that we’re applying actual effort (as opposed to being lazy) is that we are changing. We’re becoming more peaceful, positive, flexible, kind-hearted, strong, free. Not necessarily day-by-day – monitoring it on a daily basis just sets us up for more grasping or impatience – but month by month, year by year. How do we apply effort in such a way that it is going to bring about these results? It has everything to do with our (1) deepest wishes and motivations, (2) steadfast confidence, (3) joyfulness, and (4) ability to relax and recharge. Shantideva teaches these 4 powers extensively in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (and further commentary is in Meaningful to Behold.)

These four powers are the way to increase our effort. It might be worth noting that effort is a state of mind, or so-called “mental factor”, unto itself, and it is by nature “virtuous”, ie, creating the cause of happiness. Therefore, the more we are enjoying any spiritual or virtuous practice, the more good karma we are creating! It seems to be a win win.

More here 

Over to you… comments welcome.