Who wants an existential wake-up call?!

8 min read 

past-life-signsLast night I dreamt that my spiritual teacher showed me all my lifetimes so far. These were not at all vivid, but I got a sense of the non-stop and varied installments in this interminable story of my samsara; and this was powerful. I cannot get it out of my mind – and nor do I want to.

It made me realize that if I don’t get my spiritual act together in this short life I am set to experience infinitely more chapters in this cycle of existence. Why am I at all interested, still, in buying into all these dramas, especially now that I have tasted the alternative of wisdom?

Then I woke to a foster kitten jumping onto my bed, and the recognition that this purring creature now kneading me with his paws was in yet another installment of his own beginningless story as well. This time, a cat book, filled with cat chapters. And right now our story is overlapping for a few paragraphs, but we will soon be moving on. Forced to move on. And I felt very sad for him because he has no way of understanding what all this means or what is in store for him, much less any way of escaping. And his confusion and suffering have already been going on for far too long.

Loved and lost

And then I thought of some of the humans I have loved and lost in this life alone, and realized that our endless stories had also intersected for just a few pages. At the time, it seemed that those relationships were deeply significant, and maybe in some ways they were. But they were never permanent – just a few shared paragraphs in the never-ending tomes of samsara.

Talk about getting things into perspective …! I am sorry to sound existentially terrifying, but a more realistic perspective brings us some measure of peace, and this has.

23622102_10155844260527442_2370081359763870875_nNo difference between those loved & lost humans and this kitten, really – at least, the only difference being a very small matter of time. As the equanimity meditation shows, I have been as close to this kitten in the past as I ever was to them. And it is this kitten, not them, who is currently appearing directly to my senses in this latest story line, and who is the one I can show love to directly.

Fleeting narratives

So each lifetime is like a new book, and within each book, whether short or long, are the transient chapters of that life. Within the chapters are paragraphs, including sentences and words. These make up the narrative of our lives, and the narrative we have largely been telling ourselves all these eons. For there is nothing behind these tales, or even these characters, when we look. Everything is mere name.

The common denominator holding this narrative together life after life is grasping at ME. Even though that me is changing all the time, even day by day, we believe it it real, that it is there, not just a projection of our thoughts. And then our self-cherishing, attachment, aversion, and other delusions emanate from that grasping in life after life, like a spider weaving her web. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:

 We need to understand that the inherently existent I that we grasp at so firmly and continuously does not exist at all. It never has existed and never will. It is merely the fabrication of our self-grasping ignorance. ~ page 51.

Moreover, our stories with each other may have interwoven in extraordinary or mundane ways, but they have all been, thus far, entirely ephemeral. And pretty much entirely out of our control.

We don’t own others. We cannot begin to own them. We don’t even own ourselves.

Swept along

201306-orig-past-life-949x534Most of the time – maybe the whole of beginningless time — we have been swept along by each unfolding drama and its bardo interludes, believing in it as if was the be-all and end-all, as if there was something solid behind those mental projections. We have clung on for dear life to every appearance – trying to solve our problems and get happy through the use of ignorance, attachment, and aversion all trying to manipulate the objects outside our mind. We have not yet realized that all subject minds and object things co-arise and subside simultaneously, like waves from an infinitely deeper source, the ocean of our own root mind that goes from life to life.

You may have noticed — we cannot solve an attachment problem with the attachment that is in fact creating the problem in the first place. Same for aversion. We can’t force the objects of our attachment or aversion to behave better while at the same time allowing our attachment and aversion to stay put. We can’t solve any actual problems or unpleasant feelings outside of changing our thoughts. But we sure do try.

If we cannot gain control over our mind through wisdom, we will have no choice but to believe in and be carried along by its projections or mistaken appearances. As Je Tsongkhapa says, in a graphic depiction of our real predicament:

Swept along by the currents of the four powerful rivers,
Tightly bound by the chains of karma, so hard to release,
Ensnared within the iron net of self-grasping,
Completely enveloped by the pitch-black darkness of ignorance,

Taking rebirth after rebirth in boundless samsara,
And unceasingly tormented by the three sufferings —
Through contemplating the state of your mothers in conditions such as these,
Generate a supreme mind of bodhichitta. ~ The Three Principal Aspects of the Path  

The imperative to get enlightened

beyond-1157000_960_720How can we help others, really help them, if we are as helplessly carried along as they are, and incapable of staying with any of them for very long, much less forever? Even the people we love the dearest in this life, who have always been there for us, such as our parents – we cannot even hold onto them. My mom turns 80 in two short days, on December 24th. I have known her for over half a century, I think about her every single day, I feel like I have never not known her, but …

This all adds up to … we have to become enlightened. We need to be the clear light of omniscience itself, the wisdom of bliss and emptiness, and to allow all new books, chapters, paragraphs, and even commas to appear within that completely purified, transformed, and blissful mind.

Otherwise everything that appears to us (other than to our very subtle mind) is going to remain as the mistaken and often painful projection of self-grasping. We will keep trying to believe in it as the truth, but like any hallucination or mirage it will thus forever and always keep letting us down.

Buddha_sunBuddha is the “supreme unchanging friend”. Enlightened beings are brighter than the sun, constantly shining in our lives, in all our lives. They are more stable than the great earth. They are omniscient wisdom mixed with universal compassion that pervades all beings. They have pulled this off as they have directly realized the non-duality of subject and object. We are mere aspects of their completely purified mind already, even if we don’t realize it.

Through following Buddha’s teachings, eventually we too will attain the non-conceptual mind of great bliss. With this we have direct experience that there is only one truth – ultimate truth emptiness – and that all conventional truths, ie, all story lines without exception, are mere appearances not other than ultimate truth.

Start here

If we want to help other people a lot, we can’t keep losing them. We can’t settle with just throwing them temporary lifelines as they drift in and out of our range. And how can any lifeline be enough if we are floundering in the waves ourselves?

We need to have everyone in our story all the time — not outside our mind, nor we outside theirs — sharing our mandala now and for always.

Leonard CohenI know that this may sound a very long way off, but we can start straightaway. There is nothing to lose, and every step we take will make our existential situation better.

What is the first step? Trusting in our own inner peace. We can start with just one simple breath carrying us into our heart.

What’s step two? High-quality encounters day by day. Learning to love people unconditionally in the moment. If we hold and remember people with love, they will not feel wrenched from our mind even when appearances change. We need not feel separate from them. We are always losing people through attachment, let alone aversion, so we must learn to dissolve these deluded conceptual thoughts and their objects away. As William Blake said along these lines:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

We can practice day by day to increase our love and compassion within the understanding of impermanence and space-like emptiness, until, as a Buddha, we can hold everyone all the time.

This way we will become supreme unchanging friends for the people we already adore, and for everyone else we have forgotten we adored in the past.

This may not be the Christmassy article you were hoping for, sorry; but it’s what I’ve been thinking about since I woke up 😁 Blame my mother — I wouldn’t be typing this fast if she hadn’t forced me to do a typing course back in the day. Or if she hadn’t given me my fingers.

That said, please join me in wishing her the most pure and peaceful of birthdays and years ahead!

Related articles
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  2. Everything is appearance of mind 
  3. Are we hallucinating all this? 
  4. We cannot find anything behind appearances 
  5. Everything we need is inside us 



Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

16 thoughts on “Who wants an existential wake-up call?!”

  1. This is so important for me right now, thank you for resending. I am in Florida, with my grandfather, 95, his heart is not in good shape, I am only here a week, I am sad to lose him, every moment precious. I wish I had moved to Sarasota years ago to spend time with him and my grandmother, when you or Gen Demo were there, but that time seems to have passed. Regret is helpful, but can be a delusion if we linger in the past, can only go on from this moment. I am in shock how quick this life passes, feeling like a blip in the time space continuum.
    Life moves way too quickly, and we have o little time to achieve Enlightenment. So difficult to take advantage of our human life, the self is empty, but we such a responsibility to transform this life into something useful, this mind, this body, and the world now is so complex, with all our material items we are so spoiled, it can’t last, I worry for those around me.
    The distractions have become so elaborate, negotiating the path undistracted more difficult with friends, family, confused by all the distractions. Such great responsibility run a tight ship, to be of use, while trying to heal ourselves and others. I suppose it is all doable..
    May you and your mother be well, thoughts from Sarasota.

  2. This is such a powerful article! How amazing to have such a vivid, meaningful dream. I have much to learn about the Yoga of Sleep. Thank you for sharing the dream and your wisdom.

  3. I know it’s not your mum’s birthday this month but I would still like to wish her happiness. I was thinking as a mother how incredibly proud I would be to have a daughter who has dedicated her life to helping others. Who spends her day caring for lost kittens and writing articles for lost people. There could not be a more meaningful way to use the precious human life she gave to you. This article is Shantideva like, direct and motivating. Thank you (and you have inspired me to renew my acquaintance with Blake) ❤️

  4. Adding to my other comment, having had experiences where I dreamed that my father was a cat, and then the cat showed up outside my condo, and the dream played itself out in reality, and then the same experience with my mother screaming detailed scenes over and over again and then played itself out in reality to find that my mom took rebirth a baby girl in my hometown in Pennsylvania, 11 years ago, all of this caused me to feel very shaken up, but eventually accepted it as a blessing. So once again I say I like the mantra determination not desperation. And I thank you Luna for reminding us of this determination. Even though initially it may stir up a little discomfort, maybe even a little desperation. ❤️

  5. When those thoughts would come over me myself on my own, after teaching on renunciation, thoughts about the fleeting nature of forms, and I think about all the people I love so much who have died and pets who have died, who were such a big part of my life…I would feel a desperate urgency to get out of samsara. I used to think this desperate feeling was uncomfortable, but now I cherish it, welcome it! It dissipates very quickly once I remind myself that I’m doing everything I can to reach and enlightenment and that I have a wonderful, caring, spiritual guide who is never separate from me, who is pulling me along with his blessings. Then I begin to feel so excited about enlightenment! For years I have been telling my cats, don’t worry you will get out of this limited form and we will be in the Pureland together helping all beings, I’m so excited for your future my precious babies. And it’s true, and I’m so excited for all of our futures, all of my precious babies and all of my moms!

    1. I agree. It is always very helpful to contemplate Buddha’s challenging but observable teachings on the continuum of consciousness, past and future lives, and especially the dreamlike nature of things. Instead of being endlessly tossed about on the changing waves, something that is truly uncomfortable, we can gain the deep confidence of renunciation and bodhichitta.

  6. Hi Luna. How wonderful that our teacher is appearing in dreams thank you for sharing 😊
    This article is perfect in its helpfulness for Christmas. Every year I find someone gone from the table, someone joins us, everybody older. This is what can make it such an emotional time. If I can hold them all in my heart like you say knowing they can stay there for ever – if I think like that everyone is at peace.
    Happy Christmas Luna and happy birthday to your wonderful mother ❤️

    1. I know exactly what you mean, i was having similar thoughts about the Christmas comings and goings. There seems to be a predictable pattern to the seasons, perhaps especially Christmas; but as we know there is nothing predictable about it at all.

  7. Thank you Luna
    There are no coincidences are there?
    I find my self as a lapsed Buddist with periods of returing interest but no sustained effort.
    This morning …waking early I found my self praying to Geshela…ok ..I give in ..I need you..where shall I start this time? I reached over to my over following book case and found
    Meaningful to behold. Always my favourite when I was a sincere pratitioner. I feel emotional now as I type this.
    Ok VGeshela…what chapter …what do I need now? I opened the book blindly….chapter 7
    Apply effort!
    Probably obvious but not to me who is like a person who goes to the shop and forgets what they went there for!
    From there to a few more prayers…mantra s and an inspiration to get involved with a local retreat in January…or even start one at home !Goodgrief !
    Effort is what I will kiss and not be content with what seemed to be acheived before. Sustained effort is my goal for the first day after the winters soltice.
    What a lovely present.
    Thank you for your sustained effort and love.
    Please keep the wheel of Dharma turning for us

    1. Haha, good grief indeed 😄 When I find myself getting sidetracked, I like to remember this verse from Universal Compassion:

      Having rejected the supreme joy of the sacred Dharma
      That is a boundless source of delight,
      Why am I distracted by the causes of pain?
      Why do I enjoy frivolous amusements and the like?

  8. Hi! I wanted to let you know that I also dreamt of Geshela last night. He asked me a question twice, since I did not quite understand his question and then he turned to YOU and whispered something in your ear. It was a bit like he wanted to let me know something but when he realised I did not understand he was going to tell you so you can explain it to me. I wish I understood more what this means but also wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your teachings. Lots of love.

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