Living in the moment

Do you like the idea of living in the moment?

BodhisattvaHow can we do that — live in the moment, in the present, in the here and the now? Buddha had a lot to say on the subject, and in this age of distraction, depression, and worry there seems to be both great interest in and need for his advice. Personally, I have found Buddha’s teachings on impermanence really practical in solving a lot of otherwise seemingly intractable problems or unpleasant feelings; so I want to share some thoughts here.

How much energy do you put into the present?

First, a question to ask ourselves:

How much energy do I spend dwelling in the past or thinking about the future?

50%? 80%? 90%?!

Instead of being present and discovering the beauty and fullness of the moment, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time dwelling in the past (living in its shadow) or worrying about the future. Perhaps most of our energy? When we are on our commute, are we in our hearts focusing on the people around us in the here and now, developing love for example — or are we in our heads contemplating what a mess we made at work yesterday and/or worrying about all the things we have to get done this week? Even when we are out supposedly enjoying ourselves in a beautiful place, are we nostalgically missing the last time we came to this place with someone now gone and/or longing for a chance to show someone this place later?

We are constantly distracting ourselves from what is going on right under our noses! We don’t need the advertising industry to take us away from our enjoyment of life as it happens (“you’ll only be truly happy once you get this new car/perfume/iPad” ie, in the future) — we do it to ourselves all the time.

RoseanneI remember when I first came to America and was watching a Roseanne episode in a motel room. I had what seemed like about 4  minutes to get into it before the show broke for loud ads – that interruption was unwelcome enough (in England the ads were not quite as frequent or long-lasting), but then I noticed that the ads were for, guess what, the NEXT episode of Roseanne!! So, rather than just absorbing into the Roseanne in the here and now, I was distracted by the anticipation of the real enjoyment coming in tomorrow night’s no doubt more fulfilling episode.

To me, that postponement of joy to the endlessly receding horizons of future Roseanne episodes, even while I already had a show running right in front of me, illustrated the disconnection caused by our own distracted mind as we sleepwalk through the day wondering what is coming next.

Next question…

What would happen if all that 50%? 80%? 90% of energy was freed to focus on enjoying the present moment?! How alive could we become?

Living in the past or future is not really being alive because — bottom line  — there is no past or future to live in. When we learn to let go of the past and stop procrastinating into the future we connect to the depth and meaning of the present moment, the only moment there is.

Recreating the past in the present

Before we can live a life more centered in the present, we first have to learn to let go of the past. This doesn’t mean forgetting what has happened – it means letting go of the emotional baggage that we have accumulated in our many experiences. In a way our mind has been conditioned to think and act in a certain way, and we bring all of this into our life today. It is as if we allow our past to recreate itself in the present moment.back to the past

Let’s say for example that many years ago we had a relationship that came to a sad end (has anyone not been in this position?!) Maybe we still feel that pain today whenever that person appears to our mind, and — judging by how many sad songs, websites, and so on there are about broken hearts — maybe great pain. And the question comes, “Why, when that relationship ended so long ago and is past — it doesn’t exist anymore — do I still feel pain or anger or hurt or loss when I think of it?”

The reason is that we are recreating the past in the present. The problem isn’t what happened in the past but what is happening right now. Dragging the past into the present, reliving it as it were, is a bad habit we have, which will flavor our mind with sadness and condition other friendships. Holding on like this makes it very hard for us to do anything really new or fresh in our life, and it casts a shadow over our joy. baggage

Some years ago I remember asking an older friend about how long she thought it would take me to get over a break-up. She shrugged, “You never do completely.” As she had gotten divorced over 20 years previously, I was somewhat horrified to hear this; and it had the salutary effect of making me more determined than ever. This is because, as I said to her:

You never do completely?!!! Hmmmm. I intend to get over this completely. Otherwise grief will pile upon grief as life goes on, won’t it? Everyone will end up sadder at the end of their lives.

And this is when I got very interested in Buddha’s teachings on subtle impermanence as a powerful method to counteract these stale habits, replacing them with a day by day happiness to be alive.

Continued here 

How to feel less busy all the time

This continues directly from this article.

busy 1Time off?!

Also, if you actually itemize what many frenetically “busy” people do every week, my bet would be that they (we, you) have far more leisure time than they think, it is just that instead of using the time to unwind and recharge they just fill it up with more stuff and distractions, eg, surfing the internet, driving places, organized leisure activities, computer games, Netflix. Having fun on the outside, perhaps, but feeling preoccupied on the inside. So leisure time feels busy too.

Flying recently, the moment we touched down almost every single person on that plane grabbed their phone. That withdrawal and addiction – it’s a bit like smoking, only smoking has been banned from public places whereas everyone can indulge their addiction for digital data. Scratching that itch – where is the happiness in that? We can’t live like that. Here’s an experiment: how long can you last without wanting to pick up your smartphone?! (I am talking to myself here.)

So technology, for all its uses, has not helped in this regard. The fleeting world is always-on — texts, tweets, emails, and status updates. (Also, on another subject, we are not really “connected” — we are isolated because we have no time to think deeply about each other or reality.) Now of course you can even get an Apple Watch that gives your wrist a little electric shock to announce all the wildly exciting alerts that cannot wait, even if you are actually trying to have an interesting conversation with someone. (It’s a bit like when servers interrupt deep, meaningful conversations at restaurants to ask if everything is ok?! Is it just me who gets bugged by that?!) That watch sounds like torture to me. Apparently the average video etc screen also changes every 7 to 11 seconds – now how does that not constitute over-stimulation?! There may be excitement in it, perhaps, but there is no real happiness if there is no real peace.busy 4

Froth and sparkles

Peace comes from concentration, being able to stay on one object. Single-tasking, not multi-tasking. If we are identifying entirely with the froth and sparkles on top of the ocean, oblivious to the vast stillness and peace beneath, there is not much peace in that.

I reckon we have plenty of time to meditate and get in touch with who we are, really, if we want to. Certainly enough time. Is there anyone who absolutely cannot find 20 minutes a day to meditate? Although we may complain at first that it is just another pressure on our to-do list, the reality is that it will open up the space and time we need for the rest of our day. The time to meditate is when you don’t have time for it.

In this way, we’ll have more freedom. Otherwise we are a bit like mindless automatons — the opposite of meditators. (What do you do first thing in the morning – reach for Facebook or absorb into your heart chakra?!) I read a study recently about what happened when people lost their iPhone – out of 100 people, 73 experienced panic, 8 experienced physical sickness, 7 felt nervous, and only 7 were cool with it.

“But I’m too busy to meditate!”

And, as mentioned, I would argue that we are not necessarily doing more, or getting more things done, not in the grand scheme of things — but just feeling busier. My teacher Geshe Kelsang, for example, has thousands of centers and students and a universal feeling of responsibility for others — if anyone has a right to feel under pressure, busy, or overextended it is him, but he is the most spacious, blissful, relaxed person you’ll ever meet.

Busy BusinessmanSo if we learn to increase our inner space and peace we can have a life full of things we want to do, but we don’t have to feel so busy, as if there’s never enough time, as if there’s always something else that needs doing, as if we’re running behind the bus. We don’t need that feeling. The feeling of being overwhelmed by all the things we need to do comes from uncontrolled thoughts, a bit like a dog with a bone, not able to stay in the moment and abide in space while still getting things done. We are not able to let go of distractions and enjoy a feeling of peace, the natural peace of our own settled mind. More than anything else, we need relief from the time pressure by setting aside time to meditate to access that peace. Not being too busy to take the medicine! The objection “But I am too busy to meditate!” is precisely why we need to meditate.

If you are new to meditation it is good to keep it short and sweet – 5, 10, or 15 minutes. Our mind is like an out of control elephant! (that’s what Buddha said). The mind is the most powerful force in the universe – for destruction or creativity. If we have no control over it, we have no control over our lives. When people start meditating they can often only manage about 3 minutes before they even forget they’re supposed to be meditating – so don’t worry if you feel like that, I wish I had a dollar for every time some says, “I am too distracted to meditate!” It gets better quickly, but you have to want to do it. For example, you manage to concentrate on your driving for considerably more than 3 minutes, presumably as you want to stay alive. You don’t text when you drive.

“You’re not that busy.”

Another tip for not feeling so overwhelmingly busy is to stop insisting to ourself that we’re overwhelmingly busy, because the truth is that we are all much less busy than we think we are. We can say to ourselves instead, “You’re not that busy”, or even “I have lots of time”, and then calmly do one thing after another. Living in the moment gives us all the time we need.swimming in bathtub

Swimming in a bathtub

Someone the other day put a good analogy on Facebook (that fount of all knowledge!) of swimming in the bathtub — splashing around hurting our limbs, and not really getting anywhere. Whereas the same strokes in a vast ocean feel blissful and expansive. So we can do the same daily activities either in the bathtub or in the ocean of the clarity and stillness of our own peaceful mind.

In meditation, we can relax into the natural rhythm of the breath. We can experience a moment by moment presence of mind, or mindfulness. We can get in touch with the present moment by getting in touch with the clarity and peace of our own mind. So we can rest our mind in meditation, and then bring that peace with us into daily life. We don’t forget about it but keep tuning into it, and everything becomes lighter, easier, and less frantic.

Comments welcome! (If you have time.)

Are you busy?

“How are you?” I just asked someone. And she answered with a pained expression, “Busy!!!” “What are you up to?” I continued, and she replied that she had loads on at work and was also trying to organize her wedding, which was stressing her out. “I am too attached to the perfect wedding,” she said.

So often these days people reply, “I’m so busy!”. “Busy” seems to be the new “fine”. How often do you hear yourself saying things like this about your life: “hectic,” “whirlwind,” “consumed,” “crazy,” “it’s hard to keep up with it all,” “on the run,” “way too fast”? because apparently those words and expressions are on the rise. People are saying we have an epidemic of busy-ness in modern society.

busy 2
Four-armed …. ?!

But is it the case that we have so much more to do than in previous generations, or do we simply FEEL crazy busy because we cannot focus on one thing at a time, everything bleeds into everything else, and we cannot control our busy thoughts? Concentration and mindfulness actually make us feel peaceful, as if we have all the time in the world. So I wonder if we are in a concentration and mindfulness deficit rather than a deficit of time. I spoke to that friend again an hour later, after she’d done a meditation class, and she was smiling and chilled, thoughts of weddings and work pressures no longer overwhelming her.

Time for meditation 

Before we get started on the subject, let’s pause to relax, settle, and rest the mind by doing a short meditation to control our crazy mind and let go of the feelings of busyness.

We can first settle into a good posture with a straight back, etc, and focus on how we’re sitting, forget about everything else.

We feel we drop from our thinky head into the spaciousness of our root mind at our heart, where already some of our scattered thoughts dissolve away into space, like clouds into a vast, clear sky.

We can let go of all the tension in our body, like dropping heavy luggage, and let every muscle soften. Our body melts into light, we could pass our hand through it without obstruction, and it becomes as weightless as air. We can enjoy this deep physical relaxation for a little while.

lotus 2Then we can think that everything outside our body melts into light in all directions and disappears. This light then gathers towards us, leaving behind only empty space, like a mist lifting, until only our hollow body remains.

We can also think that everything up to this moment in time melts into light and disappears. It vanishes like last night’s dream. The past doesn’t exist anyway, it is being erased by the moment.

And everything after this moment also disappears – the future doesn’t exist either.

In this way we feel fully alive and alert in the present moment, the here and the now.

(As most of our feelings of busy-ness and being overwhelmed involve clinging to a past or worrying about a future, this simple contemplation alone can do wonders to help us relax and let go.)

And then we can, if we like, do some breathing meditation to let go of all remaining distractions and problems. We can think that these gather at the level of our heart in the form of thick heavy smoke, and then we let them go by breathing them out – they are just thoughts and we don’t need to keep thinking them. We feel our mind becoming lighter and purer with every out-breath.

We can think that our in-breath is the aspect of light, the most beautiful light you can imagine, and the nature of peace, and we ride this light deep into our heart, where it joins the inner light of our Buddha nature.

Finally, we can spend a few minutes identifying with this peace at our heart, enjoying it. We recognize it as the peaceful nature of our own mind and our potential for lasting peace and freedom. This is me! All that crazy busyness and worry is not.

As we arise from our meditation, we take this space into our busy daily lives so that it remains in the background of what we do. We can dip into it anytime, come into the present moment by simply sitting with and enjoying the peace of our own mind.

Busy is as busy does

(Actually I have no idea what that expression means …) Anyway, one definition of busy according to dictionary.com isbusy 3 “full of or characterized by activity”. So, there is nothing wrong with being busy per se (providing we are busy doing helpful things!) – but there is a problem if our busy-ness is consuming us and stressing us out, if we are feeling scattered, fragmented, or exhausted. However much we have to do, we want to be able to do it within a feeling of space and perspective.

Apparently people brag about being busy these days, as if it shows what a full life they are leading. Even dictionary.com says the antonym of busy is “indolent” or “unoccupied” and who wants to be that?! But being fully occupied doesn’t make us more glamorous. Being available 24/7 doesn’t make us the ideal worker. These are not marks of worth or social standing. We may think that having a huge amount of things to do makes us important or productive, but “There is more to life than its speed”, as Gandhi said, and if we are busy doing a lot of pointless things there is not much to feel proud about.

Laziness, according to Buddhism, can be slothful or indolent getting nowhere, but it can also be running around doing meaningless activities getting nowhere. Plus, over-busy 6extending ourselves doesn’t actually make us happy, just stressed out, so, given that happiness is what we really want, how successful is that? Our actual life can get lost in the flotsam and jetsam of our to-do lists, none of which will mean a thing when we are dying, or even, frankly, before that eg, when we retire, or next year. Our most precious non-renewable resource is time – we need to use it in the most meaningful way possible — and meaningful and busy are not synonyms.

The other day I had to do something new technologically at work and I wasn’t sure if I knew how to. In fact I knew I didn’t know how to. But I felt a little under pressure so I started thinking about it way ahead of the time I had my meeting scheduled with co-workers, and my thoughts ran away with themselves, “This is way too tricky! And I’m supposed to be able to sort this out but I can’t! My boss’ll think I’m incompetent. I’ll be fired! But I need the money!” Etc. So I felt under pressure, busy, not enough time, and then we had the meeting and it was all fine and we figured it out and even had a laugh while doing it. So what was all that inappropriate attention, or worry, for?!

I think we do this a lot in our society, wasting time worrying unnecessarily about ourselves and what we need to do, so we feel far busier than we actually are. We have all of tomorrow to do what needs to be done tomorrow – why worry about it today? We need a method to shut down the tape that runs in our minds about all that needs to be done that day, that week, that year.

More coming soon … it is already written, but I know you guys are way too busy to read it all in one sitting 😉

What is compassion?

help everyone escape
Have to help everyone escape 100%

Compassion fills our life with meaning. So, what is it? It is not just being nice, though it will lead us to being good people. If we have compassion, we want something for others. If a friend has tripped over a drain and broken their leg, we want them to be free from physical pain. If a friend is suicidal, we want to protect them from mental suffering.

We already have some compassion—it may be a bit limited and biased, it may come and go, but we do have it. It is our Buddha nature. And don’t you find that those times you have felt a deep genuine compassion for another person with no thought for yourself have been very precious? Something good happens to your perspective? You feel more in touch with the truth of things?

Actual compassion is defined as the mind wishing others to be free from suffering and its causes. It’s the other side of the coin from wishing love, wishing others to have happiness and its causes.

Feeling sad and bad about others?
dog helped by Bodhisattva
Click on this picture for a story about a very kind man.

Though compassion can be hard sometimes, it is still more than worth it. (Delusions such as selfishness and anger are always hard, and they are never worth it!) And compassion, unlike delusions, is not a painful feeling. At its most qualified, it is blissful. I tried to start explaining this already in this article. But for me, I find that this quote from Eight Steps to Happiness puts it most beautifully:

Pure compassion is a mind that finds the suffering of others unbearable, but it does not make us depressed. In fact it gives us tremendous energy to work for others and to complete the spiritual path for their sake. It shatters our complacency and makes it impossible to rest content with the superficial happiness of satisfying our worldly desires, yet in its place we shall come to know a deep inner peace that cannot be disturbed by changing conditions.

One practical way to develop compassion starting here and now

It is good to keep it real, not abstract, by starting with our immediate circle. We can contemplate the situation of those under our noses at home or at work, for example, as opposed to a mass of unknown humanity living in China. We find a way in, and then draw more and more people into that orbit of love and compassion at our heart. Make meditation work, as my teacher Geshe Kelsang says.

I’ll give you a recent example of how I try to do this.

Dexton 2I was fostering a kitten recently called Dexton and we bonded like crazy. A woman had swerved to avoid him as he crossed the intersection on 53rd street and Pearl. She got out of the car to see him lying upside down with his paws thrown up above his head. “OMG,” she thought, “I’ve killed him!” But of course she hadn’t, that is just Dexton’s favorite posture, even, it seems, when he is in the middle of the highway. And she bought him into the shelter.

Given that it was already easy to love him, I found him a perfect candidate for compassion that I could then spread out to all the other cats and humans etc. But whenever I found myself worrying about him, for example how betrayed he would feel when I gave him away later, or when my friend P and I thought he’d jumped out of a second-storey window as we couldn’t find him anywhere (he was in a shoe), I found it very helpful to remember that it is not just that suffering I want him free from, but all wretched cat sufferings forever. And all other sufferings. And therefore all the causes of that suffering.

And then it was not too much of a stretch to remember that he is just one small furry person amongst countless others who need exactly what he does — complete freedom from suffering and its causes. It may seem counter-intuitive to our normal way of (avoiding) thinking about suffering, but worry starts to subside in the course of this contemplation, and an initial heartfelt concern for one kitten’s sore paw, for example, or a baby’s colic, or a friend’s heartbreak can be a trigger or way in for compassion wanting to remove everyone’s suffering and its causes. Because everyone is suffering and no one wants to.

Anyone can develop compassion for one suffering at a time – May this person be free from their migraine! May this family living in poverty receive a windfall! May this dying person consumed with anger quickly find peace! But only if we understand the actual origins of suffering – delusions and contaminated karma – can we develop genuine compassion wishing others to be free from all suffering and its causes.

How can I help everyone?!

kind BuddhaTo help everyone we have to become a Buddha first, but every day we can go in that direction by paying attention to suffering or “opening our eyes” as Geshe Kelsang has put it. Wishing, “May you be free”.

So, how does it work that a Buddha’s compassion has the power directly to protect others from suffering? The answer is profound, but this is one way to think about it. If you are experiencing some pain in the presence of someone, even an ordinary person, who genuinely and respectfully wants you to be free from that suffering, how does that make you feel? It’s at least a little bit better than being entirely neglected, is it not?! The Bodhisattva Vow describes Buddha Shakyamuni:

His purified mind abides eternally in the tranquil ocean of reality, seeing all phenomena as clearly as a jewel held in the hand, and suffused with an all-embracing compassion.

Buddha’s minds are everywhere, infinitely powerful, and a constant source of blessings.

The 2 ingredients of compassion

Are (1) love and (2) seeing suffering. Both wishing love (the wish for others to have happiness and its causes) and compassion come from cherishing love, thinking that others matter and that their happiness and freedom are important. If we don’t care about someone, we might think “Who cares” or even “Yeah!” when we see them suffering. But if we love our brother, say, and care for him, and see that he’s in pain, naturally we want that pain to go away. That will in turn lead to behaviors that help us help our brother – but compassion itself is what we are thinking, not what we do, it is a state of mind.

Compassion increases our opportunities to help
In the safe hands of the Bodhisattva who runs the shelter in Florida
In the safe hands of the Bodhisattva who runs the shelter I worked at

The more compassion we have, of course, the more likely it is that we are going to be kind, care for others, look after them, and protect them. But just the wish “May they be free” is compassion, and in itself is a powerful mind. So we don’t ever need feel inadequate, “Oh so and so is helping SO many more people than me, I’m useless …” Mental actions are more powerful than physical and verbal actions, according to Geshe Kelsang.

Not only are we good to be around when we have a heart filled with compassion, even without our having to lift a finger, but one encouraging thing is that if we do have the compassionate intention to help others, opportunities to help others will arise more and more. As the great teacher Nagarjuna explains in one of my favorite quotes:

Even if we are not able to help others directly
We should still try to develop a beneficial intention.
If we develop this intention more and more strongly,
We shall naturally find ways to help others. ~ Universal Compassion

Compassion increases our capacity to help

compassion 4Our capacity to help others will also increase because compassion purifies our mind and leads to many other good mental qualities, while at the same time decreasing our delusions. As it says in Eight Steps to Happiness:

It is impossible for strong delusions to arise in a mind filled with compassion. If we do not develop delusions, external circumstances alone have no power to disturb us; so when our mind is governed by compassion it is always at peace.

For example, if you really want someone to be free from their cancer, and you’re in their shoes, you’re not irritated with them at the same time, are you? You find quite a reservoir of patience! And in that way you can help more. Here is a short anecdote from an old friend of mine to illustrate this point.

To travel to South Africa for my gap year before university I had to earn money, so I took a job in a hospital’s geriatric ward as a “Domestic” with the uniquely British combined responsibilities of scrubbing toilets and making tea.

The ward felt like the asylum of lost hopes, where thrown-away people who had often led stellar lives were living out their end days lonely, lost and incapacitated. Several had amputated limbs, thus condemned to hospital life despite their active minds. And then there was the cheerful teenage me, about to go on a dazzling African adventure with my whole life still ahead, jovially offering them cups of tea. More than once they threw the tea on the floor, saying it was awful, deliberately trying to make my life difficult. Yet I was curious to note at the time that I never became annoyed with them. Why did their actions not upset me when the far less ornery behavior of people elsewhere irritated me all the time? It was because it made no sense to become angry when they were suffering so much; in fact the worse they behaved the more deeply I felt for them. My compassion for them was protecting my mind.

Over to you: More thoughts on compassion in the pipeline. Meantime, your feedback and comments are most welcome. How do you generate compassion?