Live life lightly, live it well

What does it mean to you to take, or seize, the essence of your human life?

Denver Cheesman Park
View from Cheesman Park

I was just walking through my new leafy neighborhood, Capitol Hill, and into Cheesman Park, and once again the Colorado sky is wall to wall blue, a canopy of blue. It appears blue. It is blue? I can see blue very clearly up there. But if I try to reach out and grasp it, I will grasp at air; and if I try to push it away, my palm will meet no resistance.

This is true of everything in my life. Buddha said that all phenomena are mere appearance. They are like the blue of the sky. As Geshe Kelsang says in his section on the four profundities in The New Heart of Wisdom:

From an empty sky, blue manifests. Similarly, from the emptiness of form, form manifests. In the same way, all phenomena are manifestations of their emptiness.

Probably one of the best ways to seize the essence of our human life is to realize that there is nothing there to seize, there is nothing there to grasp at.  If we do that, we not only live lightly in this life, but we can pull the rug out from all our own and others’ suffering, destroying our self-grasping ignorance and all the pulling and pushing that go along with it. The only depth is emptiness.

Doorways in the minddoorway in mind

Many years ago a friend had a waking epiphany, or maybe it was a dream, I don’t remember. He was in a field and there was a doorway opening in the sky to the most exquisite, blissful place he had ever seen. Through that door he could see all the Buddhas and Dakinis beckoning him, including his Spiritual Guide. They were saying, “Come on through! What are you waiting for? There is nothing for you in that muddy field and you should know, you’ve been there long enough. Realize emptiness and fulfill the purpose of your human life, enter the door to total freedom and bliss and bring everyone along with you.”

My friend was ecstatic and motivated. But when he started walking toward that door, he noticed something unnerving.

The door was slowly closing.

He sent a description of this vision to Geshe Kelsang, who, somewhat to his surprise, was absolutely delighted. Geshe Kelsang asked for it to go in the next edition of Full Moon, which was a magazine produced by the New Kadampa Tradition at that time of news, views, and practitioner interviews of how they applied Kadampa Buddhism to their lives (long before the days of the Internet, Facebook, websites, blogs, etc.)

This vision has always helped me with two important Lamrim (stages of the path) meditations, which, because they motivate us to pursue the remaining stages of the path, are the first two meditations of the cycle – precious human life and death & impermanence. We have everything we need right now to enter that doorway, but we are also running out of time.

The first Lamrim meditation

These last two weeks I’ve been meditating on the Lamrim cycle of meditations, as Kadampa Centers traditionally give over the month of January to meditation retreat. It has always been my favorite time of year. Vide Kadampa has been recording his daily Lamrim meditations for over two years, in fact he has written, astonishingly enough, over 1,000 articles! I can’t recommend his blog, Daily Lamrim, highly enough. But nonetheless, if he doesn’t mind, I’m going to try my hand at writing down some of my thoughts on the 21 Lamrim meditations too.

I used Geshe Kelsang’s new book How to Understand the Mind for many of my meditations this year. I loved it.

The purpose of the precious human life meditation is to encourage ourself to take the real meaning of our human life and not to waste it in meaningless activities. 

birth and death“Meaningless activities” like pulling daisies out from that muddy field and making daisy chains? Unless perhaps we are doing it out of love, not losing sight of that closing doorway, and recognizing that the daisies are not as real as they appear (for example)! In other words, it is not what we do but why we do it that makes our activities either meaningful or meaningless.  We all have to do things, after all; we can’t just sit around all day twiddling our thumbs. But external developments, however promising or enticing, never end up being the be all and end all of our lives.

As Geshe Kelsang says also in How to Solve Our Human Problems:

Anyone who has even an inkling of how far the mind can be developed will never be satisfied with insubstantial attainments.

We can’t buy (lasting) happiness, as the saying goes, and we can’t buy lasting meaning either. If we could, someone would have done it by now.

What happened?!

We can feel disgruntled because we try so hard to find all the meaning in things that sooner or later just let us down – including our youth, beauty, jobs, marriages, health, vigor, ambition, careers, possessions, offspring, and so on. At Christmas I went home to my parents in London, who decided for some reason to hold a party for me, inviting all their local friends to meet me even though I’ve met all of them already. Anyway, I wasn’t complaining, and had some good conversations with a diverse, intelligent group of people, most of them now retired after quite illustrious or interesting careers. And, perhaps knowing that I have been into meditation for so long, a few of them shared with me how flat and disconcertingly anxious they felt now as they were ageing, with a dwindling sense of purpose, all their best times seemingly in the past, retired from useful work, their offspring all off doing their own thing. Several had already lost their spouses to death, and none of them felt as healthy or energetic as they used to. They were not being self-pitying – like people everywhere, they were just wondering at what happened, and how quickly too; and what next?

chapters
This life: just one chapter in the book of our travels from life to life

There is nothing wrong of course with raising a family, making money, having a job, etc. We have a saying in the Kadampa Tradition, “Remain natural while changing your aspiration”, which means we keep doing what we were doing before, but change our reasons and motivations for doing it. Traversing human life’s regular milestones is in any case generally inevitable given that we are human beings. But trying to grasp at these external things, trying to hang onto them, trying to give them inherent meaning or value, is like trying to scoop up the blue of the sky — we come up empty.

Ten reasons to be cheerful

Reason one: We are still alive. Buddha listed eight freedoms and ten endowments that make a human life precious from a spiritual point of view, which you can find in the stages of the path teachings, for example in Joyful Path – we can check if we have them all. We can also itemize other ways in which we are in fact very lucky that we might otherwise be taking for granted — eg, friends, family, roof over our head, food in our stomach, clothes on our back, ability to read, still breathing — to counteract the “I’m so unlucky” state of mind that mulls over everything that is wrong with our life and then, not unsurprisingly, ends up depressed, anxious, and discouraged. We can write them down if we are in danger of forgetting them! We could even do one of those Pros and Cons lists (you know the ones, with a ruler line down the middle of the page?!), listing out all the Pros of My Current Existence and Cons of My Current Existence!! Why not? See what happens.

You can even try closing your eyes and thinking of anyone you love and anyone who loves you. Appreciate them. Then spread that feeling further and further. Life can quickly become colorful and rich again with a bit of love thrown in the mix, whatever age we are.

So what is the “real meaning” of human life?!

Maybe I better save what Buddha had to say about that for the next article as I’m running out of space and you are probably running out of coffee break. Plus, who doesn’t like a good cliff hanger …

Over to you: Please share any insights you have had into the meaning of life 🙂

Postscript: Cranky Old Man

I found this on Facebook and it is moving and relevant so I thought I’d share it here.

When an old man died in the geriatric ward of a nursing home in an Australian country town, it was believed that he had nothing left of any value. Later, when the nurses were going through his meager possessions, they found this poem. Its quality and content so impressed the staff that copies were made and distributed to every nurse in the hospital, and made their way into magazines around the country. It is now winging its way across the Internet.

Cranky Old Man

What do you see nurses? . . .. . .What do you see?
What are you thinking .. . when you’re looking at me?
A cranky old man, . . . . . . not very wise,
Uncertain of habit .. . . . . . . .. with faraway eyes?
Who dribbles his food .. . … . . and makes no reply.
When you say in a loud voice . .’I do wish you’d try!’
Who seems not to notice . . . the things that you do.
And forever is losing . . . . . .. . . A sock or shoe?
Who, resisting or not . . . … lets you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding . . . . The long day to fill?
Is that what you’re thinking?. . Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse . you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am . . . . .. As I sit here so still,
As I do at your bidding, .. . . . as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of Ten . .with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters .. . . .. . who love one another
A young boy of Sixteen . . . .. with wings on his feet
Dreaming that soon now . . .. . . a lover he’ll meet.
A groom soon at Twenty . . . ..my heart gives a leap.
Remembering, the vows .. .. .that I promised to keep.
At Twenty-Five, now . . . . .I have young of my own.
Who need me to guide . . . And a secure happy home.
A man of Thirty . .. . . . . My young now grown fast,
Bound to each other . . .. With ties that should last.
At Forty, my young sons .. .have grown and are gone,
But my woman is beside me . . to see I don’t mourn.
At Fifty, once more, .. …Babies play ’round my knee,
Again, we know children . . . . My loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me . . . . My wife is now dead.
I look at the future … . . . . I shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing .. . . young of their own.
And I think of the years . . . And the love that I’ve known.
I’m now an old man . . . . . . .. and nature is cruel.
It’s jest to make old age . . . . . . . look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles .. .. . grace and vigour, depart.
There is now a stone . . . where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass . A young man still dwells,
And now and again . . . . . my battered heart swells
I remember the joys . . . . .. . I remember the pain.
And I’m loving and living . . . . . . . life over again.
I think of the years, all too few . . .. gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact . . . that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, people .. . . . .. . . open and see.
Not a cranky old man .
Look closer . . . . see .. .. . .. …. . ME!!

Happiness from the inside out

Escape to reality

People often decide they’ll learn to meditate once they see the connection between inner peace and feeling good or happy.rainbow in clouds

But sometimes people misunderstand “happiness depends on inner peace” to mean that, when they meditate, Buddhists and so on are just trying to find some peace by escaping from reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. We use meditation to become fully engaged both with our reality and with others’ reality. Peace is not just about switching off and ignoring whatever is going on. It’s about waking up to reality. Therefore, peaceful minds are peaceful, but they’re also meaningful.

Where do you look for happiness?

When we go to Buddhist meditation classes, or read some books, it is not too long before we discover that Buddha taught that happiness comes from within. And we nod our heads in agreement and perhaps even tell others about it. But if we examine where we put all our time and energy, where we try to find happiness, this’ll give us a good indication of what we really believe about where our happiness comes from, regardless of the words coming out of our mouth. And it could well be that we still believe that it is to be found out there, somewhere. “If I get this right I’ll be happy” – if I just get this piece of pizza, this promotion, this pay raise, this boyfriend, this GPS…

directionally challengedActually, when I was given my first GPS, a Magellan, back in San Francisco where I was based about 8 years ago, I confess that for a while there I thought I might finally have stumbled upon the one thing in the entire universe that was capable of making me happy. That navigator revolutionized my entire existence! For years I had been saying to people that happiness didn’t depend on externals, and now I was realizing that it did! After years of being directionally challenged, to put it mildly, more like directionally demented, I drove around San Francisco like some crazy woman, and found my way everywhere with absolutely no difficulty whatsoever.

At the time I had to think quite hard about why Lady Magellan wasn’t a source of happiness from her own side – the only lame thing I could come up with was that although she got me places, she didn’t guarantee I enjoyed those places once I was there. (Admittedly, this was before she started to become a bit perverse and peevish and send me on some very odd detours, once even suggesting I drive off a cliff.)

Why am I fessing up to this? It’s because sometimes (often!) I do have to think hard about why someone or something is not capable from their own side of giving me happiness. If I dig deeper, I can see how this is the case, but it is not always immediately obvious, which is why I fall for external sources of happiness over and over again.

Have you found anything that from its own side is capable of giving you happiness, without its depending on the mind?

Where do you look for inner peace?

value of somethingWhereas we do often think that the causes of happiness lie outside the mind, when it comes to peace I think we have more of a sense that peace is an inner state of mind, and we have to work on our mind to get it. “If I want to be peaceful, my mind has to be peaceful.” I never thought, for example, that Lady Magellan could give rise to inner peace. I think it makes more sense to us to think of cultivating peace of mind, whereas when we use the word “pursuing happiness” it seems to suggest more about rearranging things externally. Just a little more Mozzarella on the pizza, or if only my kitten would stop throwing up, I’ll be happy. Happiness is out there and so we have to go out there and get it.

Joining the dots… happiness comes from inner peace, nowhere else

So it is very helpful to understand the relationship between peace and happiness – it helps us join the dots and change priorities. If we knew for sure that happiness depends on inner peace as opposed to external sources, we would find the energy to train in it. With inner peace, we can be happy all the time, no matter what is going on in our world. Without it, if our mind is troubled, we cannot find a moment’s happiness, even if we are magically transported to a fabulous tropical paradise surrounded by all our dearest friends. External conditions can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful.

Happiness come from the inside out, not the outside in.

Japanese-Tea-Garden-San-FranciscoFor example, San Francisco is a very beautiful city. I know, because I drove around it like a crazy woman and saw lots of touristy things, like the Japanese Tea Garden. But it is still going to entirely depend on our frame of mind whether we’re going to enjoy that Japanese Garden or find it, “Boooring! I’m hungry. Where’s my lunch?” If our mind is elsewhere, nothing takes: “I wish my boss would give me a break”, or “I’m so stressed out about that stupid deadline”, then a brief, “Oh, nice Bonsai tree”, then “I can’t believe what that woman said to me…” If our mind is churning and unpeaceful, we can be in one of the most beautiful corners of this planet and it can still be just “Bleahh!”, not making us happier at all. Many of us do live in a beautiful corner of this planet, but are we happy all the time? There are literally countless examples like this.

Everyone wants to be happy all the time. I can’t remember the last time I woke up in the morning thinking, “I hope I have a really miserable day”… Yet, without choice, we often do have a miserable day. This is because happiness is just not going to happen if we are not peaceful inside, regardless of which external source we turn to. Happiness comes from the inside out. We’ve got that backwards at the moment. We’ve tried it from the outside in for a very long time – months, years, decades, possibly half a century or more. And we’ll go on like this until we realize that happiness is not coming from there. That we won’t find happiness out there because happiness is a state of mind and it depends on inner peace, peace of mind. And, in fact, there is nothing out there!

A clearly defined path to peace and happiness

happiness comes from withinMeditation redresses this issue. The Western word “happiness” comes from the Icelandic word “luck”. We are happy by chance, when things suddenly go our way or we receive a windfall; and then something goes wrong and we are randomly unhappy again. But according to Buddhism, by contrast, there’s a clearly defined path to happiness, and this involves training in improving our peaceful and positive minds.

Over to you: In the comments, let us know if you have managed to find a real external source of happiness, so we can all go out and buy one …

What am I so attached to?

emptiness take care of the housework
Fire of wisdom?!

Back in this article I was surmising that the reason we don’t go for a realization of emptiness more passionately seems to be because we are so attached to inherently existent things, particularly if they appear nice. That seems to me to be our deep laziness of attachment. There’s a contemplation I do to combat it, so I’ll share it here in case it is of some practical use to you.

(1)    First of all, I ask myself, “What or whom am I most attached to at the moment?” Then I ask myself, “Do I want this person or enjoyment to be real?”

For example, if you’ve fallen in love with someone, do you like the idea of them really being there, existing from their own side, ready at any moment to send you flowers and texts? Or really waiting there for you at the train station, really wanting to see you, really making plans with you, etc.? Or not?!

Sure, it is nice to meditate on the emptiness of difficult conditions like annoying co-workers and ageing bodies, but is it so nice to dissolve our loved ones away into emptiness, to realize they are mere projections of our own mind with no power from their own side to make us happy!? And what about that delicious pizza that’s just been delivered, or that show we’ve really been looking forward to watching  this weekend; what is so fun about those not existing from their own side?

And, in any case, what’s the alternative to inherently existent or real things?! If we get rid of those, what do we actually have left to enjoy?

Anyway, these are the kinds of questions we can ask ourselves. And if we’re honest, we might have to reply that we do want our objects of attachment to be at least a bit real.

(2)    So then I ask myself, what is so wrong with wanting nice things to be real? It seems innocuous enough.

Which is why we need renunciation, or non-attachment, from knowing the faults of attachment. Without this, we’ll never get around to realizing emptiness, even if we’re an intellectual giant.

What is wrong with attachment?

Attachment does not make us happy either now or in future lives. As Geshe Kelsang says in his new book How to Understand the Mind:

“It is important to contemplate repeatedly the faults of attachment and to recognize it as a delusion whose only function is to cause us harm.”

There are a gazillion things wrong with attachment to inherently existent things, and at this point in my meditation I think of some of these, specifically relating them to whatever is my current object of attachment. For example …

attachment vs loveReal nice things and people seem to be over there while real me seems to over here, trying desperately to pull them toward me, to keep them with me, to stop them from getting away. With attachment, we feel moreorless bereft or on the verge of being bereft in every moment. It is impossible to get enough of our objects of attachment – if they send us roses and say I love you one day, we’re happy for a moment, but then we wonder why they don’t do it again the next day, or even the next hour. Perhaps it’s because they no longer love us?! But we need them to! If we set ourselves up in need for reassurance, no one can ever possibly reassure us enough. Attachment causes our mind to become like a yo yo of excitement and nerves when it is reciprocated, and makes us feel like attention-seeking idiots when it is not. Attachment is a desperately insecure state of being. It gives us zero control over our mind. It burdens people the world over. It has done this since beginningless time. We have set ourselves up in need through our own deluded thought processes or inappropriate attention. We have given away the key to our own happiness — now dependent on the behaviors of others or the freshness of the cupcakes. Why we may wonder are serials or on-going TV shows now so much more popular than movies? Perhaps because we can never get enough of the storyline, we need it to go on and on, generally feeling cheated in the last episode.

We can’t be happy with our objects of attachment out of the underlying anxiety that they’re about to end or leave us, and we can’t be happy without them as we miss them, feel hollow, out of sorts. In short, we can’t be happy with attachment at all.

With attachment, it is hard to stay in sync with another person for very long. It is love that puts us on the same wavelength, not attachment.

“Attachment is the principal cause of dissatisfaction. It never causes contentment, only restlessness and discontent.” ~ How to Understand the Mind

Attachment puts our life on hold. Look around at people not suffering from strong attachment right now who are just getting on with having lives, concentrating on whatever it is they are doing without having to watch the clock or feverishly tap into their smartphones every 10 minutes in hope for a sign of reassurance or affirmation from their beloved. Without attachment, and if they have love and wisdom, not only are they having a life, but they’re having a good life, even a great one. And we can too if we recognize that the pain or dissatisfaction or fragility or uncertainty we feel come not from a lover or a lack of a lover, a place/home or lack of one, a job/position or lack of one, etc, but only from our attachment to these. We don’t need it.

functioning adult attachment in BuddhismAnd our attachment, or uncontrolled desire, also causes us to act in odd, sometimes undignified ways that lead to future suffering too. We desperately seek to fulfill our wishes day after day, week after week, year after year, and life after life but, like the donkey chasing the carrot on the stick, we never quite succeed. And in the meantime we create a lot of bad karma, including the karma to continue to feel separated from beautiful things.

Moreover, we are not making any effort to escape while we are attached to the objects of self-grasping ignorance–inherently existent things. And, given that we’re attached to many nice real things, this is clearly sticking us down to samsara. Ignorance for sure is what traps us in the prison of samsara, but attachment is like the chains binding us to the wall.

Emptiness is naturally beautiful

Ironically, we think we want real things, but in fact what we are attached to are the hallucinations of our self-grasping ignorance. Inherently existent things don’t exist at all. How can being attached to an hallucination ever work out for us? It is, as Geshe Kelsang says, like chasing a mirage, desperate for its water. If we want reality, we need to understand that the true nature of all things is emptiness – that’s the only reality. And, as it says in Vajrayogini Tantra, emptiness is naturally beautiful.meditation and reality

Empty things and people seem to be naturally beautiful too. We can enjoy anything endlessly if we realize that it’s the nature of our own mind, mere name, mere imputation. That full satisfaction, union, or non-duality is infinitely preferable to the gulf that inevitably separates us from all those nice inherently existent things. Not always grasping, which is inevitably accompanied by some kind of tension in the mind – a tension we are sometimes not even aware of until we are not grasping and it blissfully disappears. And it feels so good to be in control of our own happiness, not dependent on the vagaries of hallucinations.

(3)    So, all that being said, I prefer to have non-attachment for inherently existent objects and the self-grasping ignorance that apprehends them. This non-attachment itself is renunciation. We are already relatively free.

(4)    So, how can I be completely free from self-grasping (and its deceptive objects)? By slicing it with the sword of the wisdom realizing the emptiness of inherent existence, which is its direct antidote. Therefore, I’m going to practice wisdom today and every day. Nothing exists from its own side. Enjoy without grasping.

(5)    I then try to come up with a practical plan to remember to practice wisdom in all the remaining hours of the day. And one of the most fruitful ways is to notice when attachment is arising, be aware of its painful nature, and let that remind me!

old machineryWe were at the Science Museum in London recently and saw a lot of huge industrial machinery down the ages, accompanied by tales of sweat, effort, and immensely hard labor. It was reminiscent for me that a lot of heavy cranking of metal is required to try and get real things to work for us. We toil very diligently to get the external world to cooperate, we spend most of our days doing that. But it seems that life becomes a whole lot less hard work if we can also remember that everything is mere projection of mind. Rather than get the results we seek by tinkering around with the projection, which is as much an exercise in futility as trying to move the frames around on a movie screen, we are better off fixing the projector itself.

Postscript: Nothing wrong with being in love

BTW, there is nothing wrong with being in love. It’d be nice to be in love with everyone! Love is great. Attachment is a delusion whose only function is to harm us, so don’t be alarmed that you’ll lose anything special by letting it go. We can transform our relationships through Buddha’s teachings on the stages of the path of Sutra and Tantra so that we can keep and increase the love, the passion, the bliss, and keep and transform even the desire … but jettison the attachment.

Over to you … What ideas do you have for doing this?