Ten ways to be happier

Who doesn’t want to be happier? That, and wanting to be free from suffering, are the two basic wishes of all living beings, from world leaders to the smallest gnat. Generally, however, as Shantideva says:

Although living beings wish to be free from suffering,
They run straight towards the causes of suffering;
And although they wish for happiness,
Out of ignorance they destroy it like a foe. ~ Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

Someone at work posted an article called Ten Simple Science-Based Ways to be Happier Today, perhaps not surprisingly one of the most read leadership articles of 2013, and it inspired me to give a Buddhist version.

1.      Exercise more

As it explains in the article, exercise helps prevent depression, helps us relax, increases our brain power, is good for our physical health and weight, etc, etc. This we all know, really.

exercizeMy teacher Geshe Kelsang encourages people to stay healthy through exercise and good diet. Although our mind goes on forever and so we need to put most of our effort into keeping our mind healthy and increasingly strong, we also have to look after this meaty body despite its limited shelf life. At the moment we have a precious human life with which to help ourselves and everyone else, so we need to take care of this body as our vehicle, rather as an ambulance driver takes good care of her ambulance so she can drive around helping people. Those with a Tantric empowerment even have a commitment to take care of their body, not needlessly weaken it, let alone destroy it.

Prostrations are recommended if we want to combine our exercise directly with a spiritual practice. I think with a little mindfulness it is also possible to transform any exercise into the spiritual path – for example, when I get a chance to swim laps, I enjoy thinking Dharma thoughts, and bathing in water-like blessings and/or prostrating to an ocean of compassion, etc. Maybe some of you do some creative things, care to share?

See # 5 below too.

2.      Sleep more

“Sleep-deprived people fail to recall pleasant memories, yet recall gloomy memories just fine.”

For those who have not gained control over their deeper levels of consciousness, sleep may come from dullness and its imprints — but we still need it!!

For ordinary beings sleep helps to restore the energy of the body and to bring the elements of the body into harmony, thereby making the body comfortable and prolonging life. ~ How to Understand the Mind page 166

The book also says:

Sleep is also the basis of the development of all the things we experience in dreams.

remember you are dreamingI think this refers to the fact that the appearances in dreams actually arise from the dreaming mind, are perceptions of the dreaming mind. This is no different to when we are awake — our mind is the basis for the perceptions of our waking world too. There is nothing outside the mind. So dreaming can really help us to understand this, to increase our wisdom.

Also the yoga of sleeping taught in Tantra is incredibly helpful and time-saving – better than spending almost a third of this precious, hard-to-attain human life zonked out. Sleep doesn’t have to be a waste of time. We can actually learn to use our sleeping mind to meditate if we train in the six stages of Mahamudra Tantra.

At least it is a good idea last thing each night to let go of and purify the bad parts of the day, not entering our dream world with a deluded, upset, anxious mind. There is nothing to stop us turning our mind in a positive direction as we lay down, and we can ask the Buddhas and the Dakinis to bless our minds while we sleep. They will.

Trijang Rinpoche, Geshe Kelsang’s own root Spiritual Guide, even recommends a nap if we are feeling negative or anxious during the day. You can find out more about the yoga of sleeping in your free ebook Modern Buddhism.

3.      Move closer to work

‘Or as Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert put it, “Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day.”’

Although I do travel quite a lot, I’m lucky in that my daily commute at the moment is a rather delightful bike ride through the streets of Denver. But if we have no choice, we can remember that everything is transformable. Actually being stuck in traffic can give us the opportunity to listen to teachings, develop a happy mind, practice patience, remember the kindness of the people in the cars around (for without them, there would be no road), and so on. We don’t actually have to be “stuck”. Those moments of pause throughout our day — eg, at red lights, when our computer spends an age booting up, waiting for an appointment at the doctor’s office, last in the long line at Starbucks — are a perfect chance to check in with our mind to see if it is peaceful and positive.

4.      Spend times with friends and family

“The only thing that really matters in life is your relationships to other people.”

A study published in the Journal of Socio-Economics states that our relationships are worth more than $100,000! Not sure how they got that figure … but we do all know that money doesn’t buy us happiness, don’t we?! Nor does status etc. At least theoretically we know this, though this recent New York Times article shows that people still chase after more and more money and prestige … we chain ourselves to our own desks.

I am sitting at an airport café writing this, and enjoying the loud laughter, almost hysterical laughter, coming from a group of Bosnian friends sitting at a table close to me. They are having a blast! Love is where it’s at. If spending time with friends and family brings out our love, it’ll definitely make us happy. If it brings out our frustration, dislike, and attachment — not so much.Pope and little girl

Everyone can be a friend. To a Bodhisattva, a so called “friend of the world”, who has trained in universal love and compassion, everyone is a friend. I liked the recent footage of Pope Francis jumping out of his Fiat 500 every few feet, or so it seemed, to hug random strangers!

However, I think we also need time alone, and to learn to love being on our own, happy with ourselves, both in general and if we are interested in pursuing a spiritual path. I have spent many, maybe most, of my happiest hours alone. There are numerous benefits to solitude explained in the scriptures and experienced by past and present spiritual practitioners.attachment 3

Alone or surrounded, it all depends on what we are doing with our mind. If we have love, we can be on a retreat in the middle of nowhere and feel very connected and happy. If we don’t, we can be sitting in the midst of family and friends and feel left out and lonely.

The most reliable friends, if you ask me, are enlightened beings, holy beings — those who’ve perfected their love, compassion, and wisdom, whether Buddhist or otherwise. They unrelentingly see the good in us, looking beyond our faults to our pure nature, and are always there for us. We could do a lot worse than getting used to hanging out with them on a daily basis, sharing with them our good and our bad times.

5.      Go outside

I love going outside, personally, enjoying the elements. So, it seems, does everyone else around here (Colorado) who work so they can play – I sometimes wonder if a love of the great outdoors has supplanted the work ethic I’ve found everywhere else in America …

I’ve read various studies that say getting into nature is very helpful, and one thing I enjoy doing when I am walking around is the Tantric self-generation practice of remembering that the 4 elements of water, wind, fire (heat), and earth are the four Dakinis – Dakini, Lama, and Khandarohi, and Rupini. This blissful practice gets the inner elements into balance – good for both the mind and the body. You can check this out in The New Guide to Dakini Land.staunton state park 2

I think a wonderful practice while outside is to offer the flowers, sky, and other delights to the Buddhas around you and at your heart, with the wish that everyone enjoy a Pure Land.

6.      Help others

“To make yourself feel happier, you should help others.”

“We scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.” ~ Martin Seligman

Cherishing others is the way to solve our problems. And we can help others practically in so many ways, it is the Bodhisattva’s way of life – Bodhisattvas promise two things, to get enlightened and to help others practically. Some of the moral disciplines of helping others in the Bodhisattva vow include, for example, going to the assistance of those in need, relieving the distress of others, and giving wealth to others. The article notes that spending money on other people, called “prosocial spending,” also boosts happiness. In Buddhism, generosity is taught to be a major source of happiness – the Bodhisattva feels amazing joy just at the word “Give”!

If you’re not sure practically how you’re supposed to help more people, Nagarjuna’s advice on the subject can be very helpful:

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 

The article also says:

“Volunteering is rewarding in terms of higher life satisfaction.”

And as you may have noticed already, there are often plenty of opportunities to volunteer at your local Buddhist Center 🙂 Or animal shelter. Or wherever.

Of course part of all this is avoiding the opposite, harming others.

7.      Practice smiling

I have sometimes wondered if I’d look more cool if I smiled less and scowled more. I have concluded that this may well be the case, but overall I’d rather be happy than cool.fake smile

Of course, you gotta mean it – fake smiles don’t count.

Interestingly:

“Smiling can improve our attention and help us perform better on cognitive tasks.”

This list doesn’t mention laughing at the ridiculousness of samsara/sense of humor, but perhaps that can be snuck in here.

8.      Plan a trip but don’t take one

I had to think about this one 🙂 Then I thought about the power of imagination. We don’t ever really go anywhere anyhow.

9.      Meditate
all you need is inside youNo list on becoming happier would be anywhere near complete without this. In fact, the things on this list can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful, and the function of meditation is to make our mind peaceful.

Buddha explained that due to ignorance we do a lot of hallucinating. On the most basic level, we hallucinate that happiness comes from outside ourselves. We almost always assume that it is to be found out there somewhere – if I can get the right partner, the right job, the right car, the right pair of shoes, etc I’ll be just fine! And until I have them, I won’t.

This is not true. What we need to be happy is mental freedom.

We chain ourselves to external sources of happiness that cannot deliver the goods. I think that uncontrolled desire is a bit like playing the slot machines. Maybe we hit some kind of jackpot — someone returns our desire for a while until one or the other of us has had enough, or we enjoy our promotion until we realize it is too much like work – but by now we are addicted to trying again and again. A morbid fascination – maybe the oranges will all line up this time!! – distracts us from looking for happiness within. Sometimes it works due to some good karma, frankly more often it doesn’t – gambling addictbut until then we keep trying, bound to the machine in a dingy crypt full of fellow gambling addicts. We need to get out of here and into the sunshine: “I’m free!” Meditation does that for us.

Happiness is a state of mind, a feeling, and therefore its real causes lie within the mind. So of course meditation has to be on this list because with it we go direct to the source. Familiarizing our mind with positivity is the most direct, effective way to become happy. This in fact is what the article says:

“Meditation literally clears your mind and calms you down, it’s been often proven to be the single most effective way to live a happier life.”

This whole Kadampa Life blog is about meditation, but I’ll let the scientists conclude this section:

“… neuroimaging … concluded that after completing the course, parts of the participants’ brains associated with compassion and self-awareness grew, and parts associated with stress shrank.”

And

“Research even shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness.”

10.  Practice gratitude

“Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.”

Buddha had a lot to say about this. We do some beautiful meditations on cherishing others by remembering their kindness. We are grateful to living beings and we are grateful to enlightened beings, both. I wrote more about that here.

Thanks everyone for reading. I have only touched on a few things here. I’m sure you have a lot more ideas and it’d be great if you felt like sharing them in the comments.

Clear mind

The meditation on the nature of our own mind has many benefits, the first being that it pacifies distractions. If we understand what we are meditating on, we’ll see how that works. For perfect instructions, please consult Geshe Kelsang’s beautiful new book, The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra.

The nature and function of the mind

meditation at lakeIn Geshe Kelsang’s various books and oral teachings, he has used a one-word description to point out the object of meditation, the mind itself: “Clarity”. We meditate on clarity, and the implications of that term. In particular, two things are being implied:

  • The mind is clear in that it has no form. It is the only thing that always lacks form. It is a formless It has no physical properties whatsoever, it is not molecularly constituted. It has no shape, no size, no location. It has no color. You cannot touch it or squeeze it or look at it, and you cannot hear it. There’s already a lot there to contemplate. What does it mean for something to be not physical? We are looking for a non-physical thing. Or an inner empty space, as Venerable Geshe-la sometimes puts it.
  • The second implication of clarity is that it possesses power – the power to perceive, to know, to remember, to imagine, to create. The mind is like an inner empty space that is aware. It is awareness itself.

In 2000, Geshe-la said:

Mind is empty of physical form. It always lacks form. It has no color, no shape, nor any other kind of form. Yet it has so many powers. It has the power to recognize objects, to perceive objects, to understand objects, to remember objects, to perform actions. In fact everything – the world, beings, objects – is created by mind. There is no creator other than mind.

The location of the root mind

That is the pointing out instruction for this meditation. And we can also consider the location, at the heart. (This means our spiritual heart, our heart chakra, not our meaty beating heart.) This is because we are meditating on our root mind, and we experience this in our heart chakra, right in the center of our chest, halfway between the left and the right sides of our body, nearer our back than our front.

If our mind is formless, you may wonder, how can it have a location? In a way our mind is nowhere (and everywhere); but it is connected to certain energies or subtle winds in the body, and in particular our very subtle mind or root mind is connected unbreakably to the very subtle wind at the heart. (Check out Clear Light of Bliss if you want to know more.)

human conditionThis is why it can be helpful at the beginning of the meditation to drop from our head into our heart, or to do some breathing meditation to draw our awareness down into our heart, to feel we are meditating here. If we drop from our thinky head into our expansive, spacious heart, we will find it much easier already to overcome distractions; so it is good to try and do all our meditations here. It can take a bit of practice to get from the head into the heart because we are so used to being in our head — we are kind of disconnected from our hearts a lot of the time in our modern society, in exile from our hearts. This may be because we think way too much, heady stuff! But, and this is important, we mustn’t push it – we let our mind settle in the heart naturally instead.

When we hit that sweet spot, everything becomes vastly more spacious and open, less crunchy. And when we say the root mind is located in the heart, this does not mean that it is a tiny little thing in our heart. We feel we are in our heart meditating on our mind, but our mind is vast, dimensionless.

Using the example of light

Normally we latch onto objects, fixing all our attention on the objects of which we’re aware, for example the objects in this room or the objects of our thoughts. Rarely, if ever, do we concern ourselves with, “What am I aware with?”

Here is a useful analogy. When we’re walking around, we see a lot of things because of light. When the sun isn’t shining, we don’t see anything. That light is all pervasive, everywhere. It is illuminating everything. But we don’t focus on it — what we focus on are the things being illuminated. “Oh, look at the light!” we say sometimes, eg, when walking through the dappled woods. But most of the time we don’t, we only notice it relative to things eg, shining on the leaves, or brightening clouds.

dappled leavesThis is similar to the mind. Mind is all pervasive, but we don’t focus on the mind itself, we focus on the things our mind is illuminating, the various things that our mind is perceiving, or appearing. It’s worth noting here that Geshe Kelsang uses “to appear” as an active word, with the same meaning as “to perceive.” Our mind perceives or “appears” things. Things appear from the mind from the inside out, as opposed to appearing to the mind from the outside in, as it were.

The point being that, normally, just as we are not aware of the light itself, just the things illuminated, so we are not aware of the mind itself, just the things we are aware of. In this meditation, we want to become aware of the mind.

What is it that is aware?

In brief, one way to gain insight into the nature of the mind is just to focus on clarity, not worrying whether or not it is crystal clear; and, when distracted, to keep asking, “What’s aware?”, seeing in our own experience that it is also clarity. We are not in any rush to gain some experience – we are just hanging out, checking it out.

By the way, when we meditate on the mind, and indeed whenever we meditate on anything, it is good to do so gently without expectation. We are not pushing for a result or a deep insight. “I forced myself to have an insight into clarity, to see that vast vivid inner empty space I’ve heard so much about. I put myself in a headlock, twisted my arm… waterboarding myself might help next time.”

Dealing with distractions

To begin with when we are meditating we are going to be hearing all sorts of sounds and having all sorts of thoughts and sooner or later our knee is going to hurt. If we are practicing with a combative attitude, then when someone coughs, our thought is, “I wish they’d shut up.” Or “Oh no, that episode is replaying itself in my mind.” Or, “I wonder what so and so is doing today? darn, wish I didn’t have to keep thinking about them.” And so forth. But rather than pushing away or rejecting these appearances, we can just ask: “What is it that is aware of these things?” And we’ll see that that awareness is also clarity, is also mind. Just as we can use the leaves to help us see the light, so, when focusing on our mind, if a distraction arises we can use it to bounce us right back into the mind by asking ourselves, “What is it that is aware?” Appearances remind us of the mind.

VajrayoginiThat’s why this meditation helps us to pacify distractions The appearances that pop up would normally distract us away from our object, eg the breath, but now it doesn’t matter, in fact they remind us of our meditation object – for example, we can enjoy the quality of the light even though there are all sorts of leaves around.

Or, to use another example, it’s like we’re enjoying the blue sky and then some clouds appear. We don’t think, “Well, that’s it then, I can’t enjoy the blue sky any more — that cloud is freaking me out!” The clouds will eventually disperse back into the clear sky, they have nowhere else to go. If we simply hang out enjoying the clarity, gradually the distractions will disperse into the clarity as they are themselves clarity; and we’ll absorb deeper.

Hopefully, these examples are showing how we can pacify distractions without fighting. If you like, you can try the short meditation outlined in this earlier article to see if it works.

More here.

Lamrim, Lojong, and Mahamudra

sky and cloudsFirst I thought it’d be helpful to give some context for the clarity of mind meditation, and then share some thoughts on why it is so effective at pacifying our distractions.

The clarity of mind meditation is part of Sutra Mahamudra. And Mahamudra is the heart essence of the Kadampa tradition of Buddhism.

A Kadampa Buddhist is someone who:

takes all of Buddha’s teachings as personal advice and puts them into practice in their daily lives.

Buddha gave 84,000 teachings, so how do we pull that off?! By practicing Lamrim, a cycle of 21 meditations (or 14 meditations in How to Understand the Mind) that covers all the stages of the path to enlightenment. Pretty much all the meditations we will ever learn in Buddhism fit somewhere in the Lamrim cycle!

Also, as Geshe Kelsang explains in Great Treasury of Merit (page 18), Lamrim and Lojong (lit. “training the mind”, a powerful method for developing bodhichitta extracted from Lamrim and given particular emphasis) are both preliminaries for Mahamudra.

Mahamudra, a Sanskrit word, means “great seal”. In Sutra it refers to emptiness, and in Tantra to the union of great bliss and emptiness:

Mahamudra Tantra is defined as a mind of fully qualified clear light that experiences great bliss and realizes emptiness directly. ~ Mahamudra Tantra page 55

All Kadampa Buddhist meditations are explicitly or implicitly aiming at this realization of bliss and emptiness, which, when perfected, becomes omniscient wisdom, enlightened reality. With practice, we can use deeper and deeper levels of awareness to meditate, and the deepest is our very subtle mind which, when manifest, is called clear light. This mind is naturally blissful. Inconceivably blissful. Ridiculously blissful. Think of the most blissful thing you can imagine and then multiply that by infinity. More blissful than that.

Buddha seed

sky and clouds 2It is also our Buddha nature or Buddha seed – this clear light mind itself will transform into a Buddha’s mind when it is fully purified and developed. So, best of all, we already have the very subtle mind! This means we don’t need to add anything to our mind to become enlightened. We have the seeds of love, compassion, bliss, wisdom etc. – it is all there. All we need to do is grow those seeds — not add to them but grow them. And remove the obstructions that get in their way. Buddhahood is not out there anywhere. The beginnings are already right here, in our heart chakra.

As Buddha said:

If you realize your own mind you will become a Buddha; you should not seek Buddhahood elsewhere. ~ Mahamudra Tantra page 100

If we recognize and realize our own root mind or very subtle mind directly, we will definitely become a Buddha in this life!

Geshe-la looking at Pure LandGeshe Kelsang is always saying that we can attain enlightenment in this life. Numerous past practitioners in the Kadampa Tradition have already done this; and at the moment we have, by some karmic marvel, exactly the same methods at our fingertips. Our problem is that we don’t believe him half the time (any of the time?!)

There are many reasons for this – one perhaps being that we are not identifying with this potential but instead with a severely circumscribed sense of self. So it’s no wonder we don’t make that great of an effort, meaning we don’t get a taste, meaning we don’t develop an appetite. This meditation on the clarity of the mind luckily can also help with that! (More in a later article.)

Get control

The only hurdle right now is that we cannot access our very subtle mind, it is too deep. It manifests naturally in deep sleep and as we die, and it is even blissful when it does; but we can’t recognize or use it because, let’s face it, we can barely use our grossest levels of mind, our everyday waking consciousness. We find it hard to stay out of trouble even for one day! Because we lack mindfulness and concentration our mind controls us at the moment, not the other way around. Still, through Buddhism in general we learn to control our gross levels of mind, our more obvious delusions; and through Tantra we learn to manifest our own very subtle mind and use that. Once we can meditate with our clear light mind, we are almost there. We are almost enlightened.

You can read about all of this properly in Mahamudra Tantra, an enlightening book in the real sense of the word.

Sutra Mahamudra

Within Sutra Mahamudra, the meditation on the nature of the mind is the access point to meditation on emptiness. We take it as our object of concentration and mindfulness. It leads us both into emptiness, and one day into the great bliss of our own clear light mind.

Even if you are a beginner, this is where this meditation is headed.  Geshe Kelsang said in 2000:

Whenever we train in using our root mind as our object of meditation, it causes our realization of the very subtle mind to ripen. In reality, this is like the preparation for the Highest Yoga Tantra practice of clear light. It is very special.

It’s good to know what Buddha’s mind is and what our mind is capable of. One day, every single one of us will attain enlightenment because everyone has the potential and sooner or later everyone will learn how to do it – and this is how.

I sometimes think that if we are going to get enlightened anyway one day, why not go for it now? Haven’t we been hanging out in samsara way, way, way too long already? What are we waiting for, exactly?

I think that is enough background for now.

Pacifying distractions

sky and clouds 3The meditation on the clarity of the mind, explained briefly here, has many benefits, “incredible power and benefit” as Geshe Kelsang said in 2000. Unbelievable supramundane phenomenal benefits. Maybe some of you are thinking, “Here we go again! I know I’ve got to do this meditation, I just need to sort out my real issues and/or get through six seasons of The Wire first.” That’s why we need to keep thinking about the benefits and the faults of not getting around to this meditation.

These benefits are very precise, describing what we will experience if we meditate on the nature of mind, the first being that it pacifies distractions. And that is even for us modern people who, let’s face it, are a little distracted. I will say just a little more about that in this admittedly long article before you all get distracted.

I sometimes think of distractions as all those thoughts we don’t want to think but can’t help thinking, like thoughts of sadness, or annoyance, or feeling our life is meaningless, or dissatisfaction, or longing, or fear of failure, or … you know the kind of thing. They distract us away from our natural peace of mind – yet we have no choice but to think them because our mind is so out of control. One of the things we learn in meditation is to let the delusions settle or temporarily disappear so that we can then more lastingly transform our mind. Different ways are taught to settle the mind, the most common being some kind of mindfulness of breathing. However, clarity of mind meditation is even more effective. It can take us all the way to enlightenment, but already at a basic beginners’ level it enables us to more easily let go of our distractions.

Have you ever felt that your meditation involves a struggle with your distractions? “I fought the distractions and the distractions won” kind of thing? This meditation helps us adjust our whole relationship with distractions. It no longer need be one of combat. We no longer need to feel besieged or overwhelmed. We no longer have to push our distractions away.

A distraction is defined as:

A deluded mental factor that wanders to any object of delusion.

sunset cloudsWe really need to know how to pacify our minds as there is always something that is troubling us. Does a day go past when it does not? There is always something. And we try to solve our problems day by day by trying to swat away this worry, then that worry; but those worries just keep on flying at us. We need to go straight to the source of that trouble, ie, unpeaceful, uncontrolled minds, without which we’d never experience another moment of pain. We need to learn the art of letting go, we need to learn how to drop our distractions.

To know how this meditation works to overcome distractions, we can look more at the object of meditation and how to approach it in a skillful way to reap this benefit. Next installment is here. Your comments are welcome.

Postscript: about the illustrations in this article, an excuse for me to share my pictures of the Denver sky, thanks. We don’t need to fear our delusions and distractions – they are like clouds that cannot pollute, much less destroy, the clear sky of our root mind. We can learn to dissolve away our delusions by always identifying with our clear sky mind.

The end of collection is dispersion …

Clarity

I’m not claiming to be any expert, but I love the meditation on the clarity of the mind. So I thought I’d do some articles and invite your comments.

Here is a quick meditation we can do for starters:

Meditation

We breathe out whatever is on our mind, and all scattered thoughts, gently opening up a space in our awareness.

We enjoy our in-breath as light, drawing it into our heart, allowing our own awareness naturally to be drawn into the heart along with it. Its aspect is light, its nature is peace. We can ride the rays of light into our heart, where they join with the inner light of our pure potential, our natural good heart.

We can focus on a peaceful, light experience at our heart, not a care in the world, allowing our mind to settle here without pushing or expectation. Whatever level of peace we are experiencing, we enjoy ourselves.

We can add to this experience of peace by becoming aware of the mind itself. We simply recognize that we are experiencing our own mind. Clarity. Something that is empty like space, that can never possess form, and that is the basis for perceiving objects.

Our mind is like an inner empty space that has no shape, no color, no size, no physical properties. But that clarity has the power to perceive, to cognize, to remember, to imagine, and even to create reality. It is awareness. And if we get a sense of that clarity, then we gently abide with it, feel absorbed into it.

If we become aware of other thoughts or sounds, rather than rejecting them we simply ask, “What is it that is aware?” We are using the distraction or sound to bring us back to the clarity because the awareness of it is also clarity. And then again we gently abide there, moment by moment.

We allow all our thoughts in this way to dissolve back into the clarity, like waves settling into a still, clear ocean. And we stay there as long as we want, knowing we can always return here.

We always go for what we want

human life cycle 2This meditation, part of Mahamudra, has been practiced for centuries by Buddhists as the method to pacify all distractions, to gain single-pointed concentration and mindfulness, to understand the conventional and ultimate nature of the mind, and to become enlightened. It has so many benefits. If we think about some of these benefits, we may go for it, because we always go for what we want.

And we’ll also be more likely to put effort into this meditation if we compare these benefits with the samsaric alternative. I was reading that famous quote from the Vinaya Sutras recently, where Buddha talks simply and to the point about the sufferings of the cycle of impure life:

The end of collection is dispersion.
The end of rising is falling.
The end of meeting is parting.
The end of birth is death. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune page 285

How does thinking about this change the way we relate to our own life? For the first, for example, we can see that we popped out naked and gradually acquired stuff, maybe a lot – clothes, possessions, friends, a bank account, a mortgage, a garage full of clutter. But the end of collection is dispersion, so instead of thinking “These are mine forever” it is more realistic to think “I’m going to lose these.” Then we’ll naturally be less inclined to seek refuge in them, and more inclined to seek refuge in the happiness that comes from absorbing within to meditate on our own naturally peaceful mind.

death awareness 2At the end of their lives, people often understand pretty well that the end of rising is falling. Maybe we don’t start with much of a reputation, unless we are Prince Harry; but as life goes on it can be that we become better known, and our renown and position increases. Then we retire and shuffle around in our slippers. No one is that interested any more in what we have to say. The other day a friend wrote to me about the funeral of another friend’s father, a colorful bigwig in Fleet Street back in the day, but who, after a slow, painful decline, still ended up in a box:

B was a very big character and obviously widely loved. For me, as always with a death, there is that emotional incomprehension that someone can be there (in a box) and yet no longer there.

There are countless examples of positions gained and lost – the person coming to mind just now is the new Republican Presidential front runner (Ed: oops, spoke too soon 😦 ); but the fact is we are all bound for a fall however high we have risen. And that is not to mention all our future who da manlives, where we will continue to cycle around and around on a karmic wheel — migrators, Buddha called us, if not refugees. This is unless we can use our lives to train our minds, in which case the older we become, the better off we become; and at the end of our life and in future lives we have a wealth of happiness to help ourselves and others.

As for “the end of meeting is parting”, what effect does contemplating this have on our social life?! Buddha says “parting”, not “partying”!! It is more like, “Hi honey, great to meet you, did you know we were going to part?” How many of our friends do we really feel we are going to lose? Forever?! We say things like “I’m always going to be there for you,” but the fact is we’re not. For most of us, although intellectually we may know it, we feel that this friendship will last forever. It always seems like such a surprise or disappointment when a good friendship ends for whatever reason. But contemplating the truth of this, because I’m afraid it is true, we will naturally stop seeking security where it cannot be found and start to seek it in the clarity of our own root mind, from which all of this stuff comes anyway (more later). And if we do really want to be there for people, and not to lose them, we need to become enlightened as soon as possible.meeting and parting

As for the last line, “The end of birth is death”, not much more to say. Except that if you die today, where will you be tomorrow?

The appearances of this life, as it says in Heruka Tantra, are as fleeting as a flash of lightning. Perhaps we have a few hundred months left to get through the elusive doorway to liberation and enlightenment if we’re lucky. But if we do apply the effort to make that journey, what will it be like? Our mind will be the inner light of wisdom permanently free from mistaken appearances, utterly blissful, able to bless each and every living being every day, pervading all phenomena, and pervaded by universal love and compassion.

Or we could opt for the usual old birth, sickness, ageing, and death instead.

Next installment here. Your comments are welcome!

How to be a hero

One of the main things about compassion is that it makes us a kinder, more helpful person. A force of good in this world, for sure. But it also helps US. Why? Because it overcomes our own limitations and problems, as does love. If we understand this, we are less reluctant to develop it. (Carrying on from this last article.)

compassion fatigue?!
compassion fatigue?!

Certain things slow us down, one being a fear that contemplating the suffering of others will make us depressed and give us compassion fatigue. Maybe this is because we do have Buddha seed, the natural good heart of compassion, so when we perceive suffering we do take a kind of responsibility for it, thinking, “I have to do something about this. But I can’t; it is too big. So thinking about it will just make me unhappy, remind me of how useless I am.” If we think like this, we need to build up our confidence that compassion doesn’t cause us problems, instead it solves them. So we don’t have to be that ostrich with its head in the sand. Plus, if we have some understanding of where suffering is coming from, this also really helps us become confident and strong enough to focus on growing our compassion because we know there is a solution.

As Geshe Kelsang says:

Compassion causes us to experience happiness because once we generate it our disturbing minds such as pride, jealousy, anger, and attachment are pacified and our mind becomes very peaceful. It causes others to experience happiness because when we have great compassion we naturally care for others and try to help them whenever we can. ~ Ocean of Nectar page 21.

Brief compassion experiment

We can close our eyes and think of the last time we had strong compassion for someone we loved – our dog at the vet, or our disappointed child, or our parent suffering from a pain of old age, or our friend who lost their partner. Or a stranger whose plight has moved us. I don’t need to give you examples! Think of that person. Sadly we all have at least one.

DAMASCUS, SYRIA - JANUARY 31: In this handout provided by the United Nation Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Residents wait in line to receive food aid distributed in the Yarmouk refugee camp on January 31, 2014 in Damascus, Syria. The United Nations renewed calls for the Syria regime and rebels to allow food and medical aid into the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk. An estimated 18,000 people are besieged inside the camp as the conflict in Syria continues. (Photo by United Nation Relief and Works Agency via Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA  (Photo by United Nation Relief and Works Agency via Getty Images)

We wished for them to be free from pain. We would have done anything to free them.

We can go back to that experience, when all we wanted was for them to be well again, free from suffering.  What was going on in our mind at that time? During this experience, who were we caring about—ourselves or them? Was this wish for them to be free actually painful or — with the ego temporarily out of the way and our focus exclusively on another — was it okay? We can look and see for ourselves.

Also at that time, we can see how other obstacles in our mind were pacified – for example, was there any irritation or impatience, any self-pity? No, because it wasn’t about us. All problems associated with thinking about ourself disappeared. If someone had said to us, while we were caught up with the needs of a suffering relative, “Look, I’m sorry, but the machine is out of cappuccino”, would we really have cared?

We can keep that experience of compassion vivid, and ask ourself, “Was this a peaceful mind or not? Within that mind was there some cessation of suffering because I wasn’t thinking about myself?” Although we wished for someone we loved to be free from suffering, this was not a painful feeling. It was dynamic, positive.

“You need to go and let him out, then”

Be a heroI don’t often share my dreams, except with the occasional long-suffering friend, and I don’t want to bore you, but this vivid one I had last night showed me how compassion can be both unbearable and a liberating force that makes everything else pale into insignificance.

A young man was trapped in a big glass box on an unknown pedestrian street, quite visible, by enemies he had crossed, and the  box was heated up to an unbearably hot temperature. He wouldn’t die, but his body was shriveling up, and he was clutching his hands together in pain, blinking. People were walking past, some curious, others ignoring him, but no one seeming inclined to do anything. I couldn’t bear it and got on the phone to an (unknown in my dream) assistant of my teacher Geshe Kelsang to tell him what was going on. The message got lost in translation as Geshe-la came out to meet me holding a large glass of water, and I had to explain that the man wasn’t just hot, but trapped in a boiling box. To which Geshe-la replied: “You need to go and let him out, then.”

I hadn’t considered that a possibility, but I ran over there with my friend Morten, who managed to lift up a corner of the box and said, “Man, it is really hot in there.” I realized from this that it was possible to lift the entire side of the box up, so we did, and dragged the skinny man out. Then I told him, “We need to get out of here, we’re not safe yet, run with me.” Which he managed to do. We ran, stopping only for me to beg for some water for him from a passing vendor as I’d left my wallet and phone behind. We got away.

Moral of the tale
cape of compassion
cape of compassion

I got a few things from this dream: People suffer unbearably every day, including in hot, hellish states of existence that are out of our sight, but also plenty right under our nose, eg, the refugees trying so desperately hard to escape to Europe.

Until Geshe-la told me to let this man out, I hadn’t realized I could. Until I found Buddha’s teachings through Geshe-la, I didn’t realize liberating people from suffering was an option. I also had help from Sangha.

The main thing was the agony of seeing the man curled up in the box, and the sheer joy of helping him escape. Nothing would have distracted me at that point. The passion I had to save this person was stronger than any passion that comes from attachment, strong as that can be (remember Daniel Day Lewis and “I WILL find you?!” Stronger than that even!)

Pure compassion makes heroes of us all. A real hero or heroine, according to Buddhism, is someone who has beaten the foe of their selfish desires & other delusions and developed their compassion for others.

From these kinds of experiences, both in and out of dreams, I think it is not hard to see how, for Bodhisattvas motivated by compassion, nothing now will stop them from getting enlightened. By contrast to strong love and compassion, it is so so boring to be thinking about myself. If I never had to think about myself again out of self-centeredness, it would not be a day too soon.

The best way to have helped this man would have been to realize that I was dreaming, that the suffering was not real. The best way to help people is to wake ourselves and others up. More in a later article on how everything is the nature of the mind and so there are no inherently existent suffering beings. I’ll just leave you with a question: If everything is the nature of your mind, what is going to happen to everyone when you become an omniscient Buddha?