What is there to grasp at?

letting go 3If something doesn’t remain for even a moment — if it is gone as soon as it arises — then what is there to hold onto??! (Carrying on from this article.) For example, we meet someone we like – but if they’re gone the moment we meet them, what is there to get attached to? If we go out for a meal with some friends, and each moment is gone as soon as it arises, what is there to grasp at? If someone unfriends you on Facebook, who is there to get upset with? They’re already gone. A new car or iPad — gone as soon as we’ve got it — what is there to get attached to? We can enjoy people and things moment by moment, but as nothing remains for the tiniest moment there is nothing to get stuck to with attachment. And however unfairly people behave, we can avoid the futility of holding hurt in our heart.

We don’t have to cover everyone and everything with the superglue of permanent grasping so that they cannot change and/or so that we cannot see them differently.

Key insight of Buddha

friend or enemyThis is the heart of Buddha’s key insight into why there is suffering in the world. Suffering doesn’t come because we are bad, it is not inflicted on us by some creator, it doesn’t come randomly out of nowhere – it all comes because we grasp. We grasp at something being there when in reality it isn’t. Grasping at my friend/enemy being there is grasping at an illusion, a rainbow. He cannot be found. And this simple act of grasping is the cause of all our suffering because if we like the thing we are grasping, we develop craving because we think there is something there. If we don’t like it, we develop anger or the wish to destroy it.

What do babies do?

Gen Samten shared a tale of his school days learning about the instincts of new-born babies — sucking and grasping. It apparently has no control even over its eyes. It also has a third instinct, which is yelling! Yelling, sucking, and grasping. The baby grasps: if it likes it, it sucks; and if it doesn’t, it yells. This seems to indicate the existence of past lives — the moment we pop out we carry on from where we left off. Then we grow up. And what is the definition of growing up? Learning to pretend to be a rational, thinking human being while still grasping, sucking, and yelling?! And we wonder why we suffer!baby yelling

Subtle impermanence cuts through all that because it teaches us there is nothing to grasp at. As soon as something has arisen, it has gone. We can ask ourselves, if we are attached to a person: “This person went the moment they arose. What am I getting attached to?”

Perhaps this makes us nervous, particularly if we really like someone, “I don’t like this!” As soon as we realize that we ourselves, for example, are gone the moment we arise, just gone, we want there to be something we can hold onto and say “me”; but there isn’t. Gone. Gone again. Gone again. As soon as I try to hold onto something it is not there anymore.

Pure states of mind instead of grasping

But when we can let go, we open up to experiencing pure states of mind such as love and compassion. Grasping always gets in the way of these. For example, if we grasp at someone, how can we love them? For if they are pleasant we develop attachment, if unpleasant, anger. The only way for our love to be pure is to love them without grasping at them as being there to love.

“But how can I love someone who’s not there?” we may protest.

One answer I think is that positive minds are always in the present moment. With love, we want that person to be happy now, wherever they are. With compassion we want them to be free from suffering. With patience we accept whole-heartedly whatever is arising in the present moment. With wisdom we go with the flow of life and deathfleeting appearances to mind. Delusions on the other hand always seem to be ranging over the past and future. This tells me something else about why it is a good idea to learn to live in the moment, and that it goes both ways — we are also able to live more in the moment when we cultivate these positive minds.

Also, in Ocean of Nectar page 28 Geshe-la explains compassion observing phenomena, which observes living beings who are realized as impermanent and wishes to protect them from suffering:

Because living beings are impermanent they are transient like the moon reflected in rippling water.

This is a deeper compassion because we realize that one profound reason why living beings suffer is because they are transient, imputing themselves on a fleeting (and entropic) body and mind, but, not realizing this, they experience permanent grasping.

Also, most people enjoy rainbows. And we can’t find them – that is one of the loveliest things about them.

I would like to hear your examples in the comments section as to how understanding subtle impermanence has enabled you to let go of grasping and other delusions and been a catalyst for positive minds such as love.

Surfing analogy

Has anyone here ever gone surfing? Our ability to surf doesn’t depend upon grasping but upon letting go. We have to go with that wave — and if we grasp and want to find security by freezing time, it won’t work. We know everything is changing, not remaining even for a moment; so the only way to surf that is to move with it. And that is part of the joy of surfing.

Life is like a wave, it doesn’t stay put even for a moment. So surf it. The daily situations in our life are different waves — am I surfing this wave or trying to freeze it to find security?

Old photosbasis of imputation changes naturally

Thanks to the kindness of some friends, my stuff recently arrived in a truck from Florida, including statues, clothes, and photos. When I look at these, especially the photos, although I recognize them, they now look subtly (and not so subtly) different — they are brand new old photos. Life events and relationships between now and when I last saw these photos a few years ago have totally changed, and so has their meaning, their existence.

Final installment is here!

Nothing sticks around

We can understand subtle impermanence in two ways. (And I am once again unabashedly going to borrow Gen Samten’s explanations on the subject.)

  1. No carry over 

letting go 4The first we have looked at already, vis there is no carry over — no element of the past carries over, the present is completely new. Just to remind you: The building we walk past on the way to work each day is a completely different building each day – not the same building that has just changed a little bit. The building is a continuum of moments, causally related, each of which is different from the previous one. The second moment of the building is different to the first – or another way of putting it is that the building in the second moment is completely different to the building in the first moment.

Likewise, the friendship we have with someone today is not the one we had yesterday – it is not the same friendship that has changed a little, but a completely different friendship. When we go to work every day we don’t go to work in the same job we had yesterday – it is a new job every day.

This is even the case for the person we are today. You today are as different from yesterday’s you as I am different from you! There is that degree of difference. Yesterday’s you had to go out of existence for today’s you to arise.

So everything and everyone is completely different every moment – there is not even the slightest carry over from one moment to the next. Now is brand new.

  1. Nothing sticks around for even a moment

letting go 6Secondly, there is no such thing as abiding. Abiding exists at the level of gross impermanence, but not at the level of subtle impermanence. For example, the building is built, it remains, it is destroyed. We can identify three sequential stages – production, remaining (or abiding), and destruction (or cessation).

What about when we move from this gross level to a subtle level? Subtle impermanence is momentary change. Is it that the first moment arises, then there is a little bit of remaining, then there is destruction? No. There is no remaining. There is no abiding. According to Buddha’s teachings on subtle impermanence, production and cessation happen simultaneously. A moment doesn’t remain even for a moment. Think about that!

Sometimes we can define subtle impermanence as “momentary disintegration”. This is a good way of thinking about it for it means that every moment is a moment of disintegration. This body is one moment of disintegration after another.

Another way to define it is “simultaneous production and cessation” – in each moment of our body, for example, production and cessation occur at the same time. This means that as soon as it is there, it is gone!

Just a point about function. Things undergo gross impermanence when they stop performing their function. For example, an iPhone is arguably still an iPhone when we crack the screen (depending on how fussy we are); but if we drop it down the toilet and don’t scoop it out fast enough it can no longer perform its function, so we smashed iphonesay it has undergone gross impermanence and gone altogether. What is the function of each moment of subtle impermanence, you might ask? The function of one moment of the iPhone is to give rise to the next moment, which is also functioning to let you send texts, browse this article, etc. The point with subtle impermanence is not that each moment doesn’t perform a function, but that we cannot hold onto anything that is performing that function — for example an iPhone can take photos but there is nothing there to grasp onto. So you cannot get attached to your iPhone! And you won’t be upset when you drop it.

Wild, huh. Our permanent grasping mind can hardly compute, but it is well worth contemplating as it opens new doorways in the mind.

Fresh eyes

life is too shortLet’s apply this to a practical challenge. Suppose we’re a manager working with people. This involves trying to understand their strengths etc., something that is built up over time. So if we’re seeing someone with new eyes, can we not take their history into account? Do we have to start each day, each moment, with a clean slate?

You’re welcome to address this in the comments section. My answer would be yes and no. A habit or tendency someone shows today is related as an effect to a habit or tendency they had in the past, but it is not the same habit or tendency. So if they show a similar tendency to a strength or a weakness today, we can take it into account; but by remembering subtle impermanence we can also understand that nothing is fixed. We can see new potential in them by not seeing them through the eyes of yesterday. I think subtle impermanence helps us to respond better because it opens our mind to infinite possibilities about this person. There is a lot more to them. Things are less fixed, more changeable. Every time we look at someone, we can see them with fresh eyes.

Ninth (and penultimate) installment is here.

Blink, and it’s a new world

too much to do todayWhen we feel overwhelmed with busyness it is usually because all our activities are bleeding into each other. With thoughts of impermanence, they don’t. We can focus on the here and now. We have walls up (as described in this last article). We can still plan — put the things we need to do in a Google calendar or excel spreadsheet or regular to-do list — but then we don’t need to think much about it again until we need to do it. Tomorrow is plenty of time to take care of tomorrow’s business. We’ll have all day tomorrow to focus on tomorrow’s problems. We can be more like Charlie Brown:

I’ve developed a new philosophy… I only dread one day at a time.

So in the interactions we have today, we bring as much love and kindness into them as we can. We try to keep our mind peaceful, free from anger. We put our energy into these things as they are inside the wall. And because we are not spending so much time outside the wall, we have a lot more energy to do that, we’re a lot more successful. Living in the moment is very much to do with cultivating the habit in our mind of staying here, in the present, not going off.

I’m not getting angry ever again!?!

As Gen Samten puts it, what is harder, not getting angry for a lifetime, or not getting angry for a day? “I could never do the former!” we might think. But can we avoid anger today? Yes, probably, with a bit of effort. So that is all we have to do. Within this wall I’m not going to get angry.

We realize we can do a lot of spiritual practices that may have daunted us previously. “I could never have universal compassion for all living beings!” But could we contemplate universal compassion just today?! Yes, we could give it a try. It might take a little effort and work and by the end of the day we might feel tired — but good tired, not todaybad tired, because we have used our energy wisely. Then we can rest, and wake up in the morning – a new day, a new wall. If we screwed up, we start again.

Etch a sketch. Every moment, let alone every day, is brand new. Geshe Kelsang said that when we close our eyes and then open them again, everything has changed. Blink, and it’s a new world.

Shorter periods of time

In this way we can build up a really helpful mental habit – if we are determined to build this wall, we’ll do it. And we’ll find that this habit begins to apply to shorter and shorter periods of time. For example, if we’re having breakfast with our family and have a hard day at work ahead, we can think: “I’m not going to worry about work, it is outside the wall around breakfast”, and instead concentrate on having a good time with our family, bringing kindness and love into that. When we get to work, that’s a new situation, and one I will be involved in then.

This will overcome basically all our worry. The habit of worry is the habit of thinking about things outside the wall. By remembering subtle impermanence and that we may die today, we build a wall around today.

I’m going to add here what Tim Larcombe just said in the comments as I think this could be a very practical reminder throughout our day:

We can be reminded of “the wall” when people say “Have a good day” to us. And we can wish for them to be worry-free when we say it to them 🙂

Necessity vs meaning

Our emphasis begins to shift from what is meaningless to what is meaningful. If we just focus on things like career, wealth, a good social life, relationships, a hot body, etc, when we get to a certain age we experience a crisis. If we make these the compelling narrative of our life, sooner or later, and certainly by the end of our life, we’ll find them to be hollow. Sometimes people despair, they don’t know what they’ve done with their lives. There is even a delusion all of its own about this, called 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. ~ How to Understand the Mind p. 155

It’s a bit like trying to scoop the foam off an ocean, I think, and trying to make it last. And while we are preoccupied with doing that, we are ignoring the limitless potential of our mind for lasting happiness and freedom, and the vast and profound ocean of Dharma practices that will give us this.

time is running out 1Acquainting ourselves with the thought “I may die today” connects us with the real meaning of our life. It stops us focusing on things that are completely banal, unnecessary, even negative. If we spend the hours not already working surfing the internet or watching Netflix, for example, and it’s not so hard to do, does this bring any real happiness?

What about the things we do need eg, food, clothing, health insurance, etc? Buddha taught four necessities of life: food, clothing, medicine, and shelter. These may be necessary, but if make them the meaning of our life, we will neglect cultivating our inner qualities.

Our outer wealth is our possessions, friends, etc, and our inner wealth is our compassion, patience, and so on. Outer wealth may be a necessity of life, but it doesn’t enrich our life. It is our inner wealth that enriches our life. Without love, for example,  no matter how many possessions we have, we feel poor. But with a mind full of love, regardless of whether we have many or few possessions, we feel like the richest person in the world.

Magic pill

magic pillIf you have any problem at all, see what happens if you apply those four words: “I may die today”. If you are worried about something, try saying this to yourself for a couple of minutes – see how you are brought back into the present and recalibrate, focusing on what is meaningful again. If you’re getting angry, repeat these words, and think, “This may be the last time I ever speak to this person! I want it to be a good conversation.” When we are angry with someone, we are assuming on some level that they’re going to be there tomorrow. (Which is why we are angry!)

This thought is like a magic pill — we can use it many times each day whenever we’re unhappy, and find that we naturally come back to this peaceful feeling, centered in the present moment, on what is meaningful.

This magic pill is also very helpful for meditating. If our mind is distracted, we can think, “I may die today, I may die in this meditation”, and see what happens! We build boundaries around that meditation, keeping our thoughts inside the meditation, not outside. This mental habit can greatly improve our concentration.

Meditation

And here is a bit of meditation to bring this together.

We’ll think there is a wall around today and I’m not going to worry about anything outside that wall.

woman meditating under treeWe sit comfortably, and allow our mind to become centered through breathing meditation. We can drop from our head into our heart and feel the peace and potential of our Buddha nature.

We can contemplate the truth, “I may die today, I may die today.” As we do this, we can allow two things to happen. The first is that a boundary begins to form around today – we’ll begin to feel that since I may die today I don’t need to think about tomorrow, and I am not going to let my thoughts wonder outside of this boundary. And we can just enjoy the feeling of peace and happiness that comes from that.

And secondly we will begin to develop a strong determination to focus on what is meaningful, on what makes us truly human. To bring as much kindness, love, patience, and wisdom into all the situations that we encounter today.

Then we remember this for the rest of the day!

(Thank you again to Gen Samten for all his valuable input into this subject. Next installment is here …)