This too shall pass

Our guest author is a single parent and a professional based in London, UK.

this too shall pass

When my husband and I first met we had a lot in common — mutual friends, common interests, same sense of humour, we laughed all the time at the silliest of things — but I clearly remember the moment when we really connected, like I had never connected with anyone before. It was when we both admitted that we had often in our lives seriously contemplated suicide.

If any of our mutual friends had been present at that conversation they would undoubtedly have been deeply shocked, as externally neither he nor I showed any signs of having such thoughts. It was at this point that our relationship moved on to a much more committed level, as though we had shared our darkest secret and still been accepted by the other. Not long afterwards we were married, and soon there was a baby on the way.

You see we were not without hope, we still thought we could ‘get it right’; but at times we just couldn’t work out what the purpose was in life and why we couldn’t make life turn out the way we wanted. I think we both had a sense that we were somehow ‘owed’ happiness but someone ‘up there’ didn’t seem to have got that memo; instead our lives had been complicated and painful, very painful.

When we married, the UK was in the middle of the economic crisis of the late 80s. As mortgage rates soared, my husband’s business disintegrated and finally collapsed, and we faced a mountain of debts as well as the understanding we would have to move out of our lovely home. One night, having gone to bed before my husband after what I thought had been a positive discussion of plans for our future, I was woken by a continuous ringing on our doorbell.

The two policemen informed me that my husband had been killed by a train — a train that he was kneeling in front of as it came around the corner. Our daughter was seventeen months old.

crunkled manThis story is shocking I know, but not unusual. All those statistics about suicide are about people like you and me. All those deaths devastate the lives of the people left behind, people like you and me.

I thought I had known pain before, but it was nothing like this — so powerful that my mind would turn to stone to protect me, or I would find myself gasping for breath, feeling that the pain would, in fact, kill me.

Everything changes

The recovery was very long, many years, with good times when everyone thought I was ‘over it’, followed by deep, dark troughs of grief and confusion. But significant things happened along the way. The first came two weeks after his death when I took my daughter to the park on a beautiful, sunny, spring morning. She laughed, the sun shone, the crocus bulbs bloomed, and I realised he would never see any of these things again: no changes in the seasons, no child growing into the beautiful young woman she is now, no opportunity for the sadness and confusion to heal and happiness to arise again.

In that moment I realised that ‘everything changes’ and that, no matter how terrible things may seem, they will change. ‘This too shall pass.’ In that moment I decided that no matter how bad things seemed I would stay for my daughter, that I no longer had the choice my husband had taken, that she needed me and I would live my life for her. crocuses in snow

People would say to me, ‘It must be so much harder for you with a child to look after,’ and I would think, ‘She is what keeps me putting one foot in front of the other.’ This is how compassion and love work. By thinking of her and wanting her to be happy, by wanting to protect her, I was no longer paralysed by my grief. My love for her took me away from my pain.

Wherever you go, there you are

I am sorry if the next few paragraphs are a bit ‘out there’ for some of you. I am in general a very practical Dharma practitioner, not ‘airy fairy’. I believe Buddha’s teachings are scientific; if you create the causes the effects will happen, and Buddha teaches us how to create the best possible effects. However, the following ‘out there’ things did happen, and I am telling you about them in the hope it will help others.

A couple of years after my husband died I was fortunate enough to be offered a teaching job in the Bahamas (I know!). Such idyllic conditions for myself and my daughter, good friends, great job, beautiful beaches with white sand and sapphire seas, and an incredible social life with millionaires and rock stars. And yet one day I found myself sitting on a beach feeling the familiar crushing sense of despair. I just couldn’t find what I was looking for. Apart from the joy of my daughter, I could not find a happiness that wasn’t superficial and short lived; everything led me back to pain.

BahamasI was sitting on the silky, white sand, looking at the jewel-like sea, knowing I couldn’t die but not knowing how I could find the energy, or wish, to go on. Then, as clearly as if the person was standing right over me, I heard:

‘I will always take care of you.’

I quickly turned but there was no one there. I even stood up to look all around — no one. I just knew in my heart that what they said was true, that I would be alright; and I went home and booked us on a flight back to England.

A reunion

Over the coming years I found myself moving quite a lot and not finding what I was looking for – difference being that I now had a sense that there was something to look for. I wanted to find the source of the voice. I ended up in Brighton, and in the local paper I saw a photo of the teacher at the newly opened Bodhisattva Centre. I knew nothing about Buddhism, but immediately had an overwhelming sense that I knew this teacher very well, that I loved him dearly. It was like finding a long-lost brother. I had to go to the class. The feeling of knowing him never left me but, out of shyness, I never spoke to him. It seems like he was one of the lamps to the path.

Bodhisattva Centre
Bodhisattva Centre, Brighton

I loved the statues in the Centre, the prayers, but I particularly loved the practical nature of the teachings. To be told that samsara was the nature of suffering but that a spiritual path could take us out of it was such a relief for me. After attending classes for a few years, I was persuaded to attend the Festival in Portugal for Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s last teachings. The best two weeks of my life, I spent most of it crying with joy. I was home.

A protector

While I was there I noticed a young mum with a little girl in the video link tent who seemed to be without help, so I offered to look after the child the next day so that she could go into the temple itself. The girl slept as I held her and, looking down at her, she seemed just the same as my daughter in the weeks after my husband’s death. The same warmth against my skin, the same weight in my arms, the same peaceful sleeping expression and soft curling hair — it was beautiful and painful at the same time.

Later I paused under an ancient tree in the park next to the temple, and the moment I sat and my hand touched the root of the tree, the last years of my life played across my mind like a film. The death, my daughter, the recovery, the beach, the voice, Bodhisattva Centre … all the way through to me sitting under the tree, next to the temple where Venerable Geshe-la was teaching. Then I knew, as clear as day, that Venerable Geshe-la was the source of that voice. He had been guiding me all the way along, gently and imperceptibly leading me to this moment, to this temple, back to him.

i will always be with youSomeone told me not long ago that when their girlfriend met Geshe-la for the first time, he took her hand and told her, ‘I have been taking care of you since you were a little girl.’

‘Yes,’ I thought when I heard that, ‘he was.’ He was looking after her, and me, and indeed all the people who end up meeting him through his centres, books, disciples, and so on. So that even when we thought we were alone and isolated in our suffering, he was blessing us and drawing us closer.

The way out

Now, through meeting him, I understand that in samsara no one is owed happiness and the only happiness we experience is temporary. That instead of seeking death what I was really seeking was renunciation, the desire to get out of samsara channelled in the right direction.

I pray often that people who are having suicidal thoughts and fantasies should come to know renunciation. They are correct that this contaminated life is the nature of suffering, that their own and other people’s suffering is sometimes too painful to bear. travel path to liberationIt’s just that the solution they think they have found is no solution. The escape from the suffering is not death – it is seeking permanent mental freedom for ourselves and others through liberation and enlightenment.

If you are suffering today, please remember that no matter how bad it appears to be now, everything changes. ‘This too shall pass.’ Remember that you are always being taken care of by spiritual guides such as Venerable Geshe-la — he is praying for us and our families. Remember that you will always find the solution if you go for refuge to the Three Jewels.

A request

I would be grateful if after reading this you would turn your thoughts and prayers to those affected by suicide.

I pray that my husband and all those who take their own life find the everlasting peace of enlightenment. May everyone be happy. May everyone be free from misery.

(Editor’s note: September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month).

Comments welcome.

Related articles

A Buddhist perspective on suicide

Reaching out — more Buddhist thoughts on suicide

Do you really want freedom? 

 

Making the most of time

7 mins read

Do you ever have that feeling when you go back to a familiar place that you never left? Even if months or even years have seemingly gone by?

alpacasI think this is because there is no time outside of impermanent things. Time is not like a soup or something, in which things bob about, like lumps of potato. Time is simply a characteristic of each impermanent phenomenon, their own cause and effect. The past and the future are just parts of the present moment, as Ven Geshe Kelsang explains in Ocean of Nectar. For example, this moment I have a past and I have a future. And the same will be true in the next moment, and the next …

If the past and future are just parts of the present moment, does it not follow that if we change the present we also change the past and the future?!

There is nothing inherently linear about time because it is momentary, as described in this last article. And Buddha pointed out that things don’t even last a moment 

I happen to be writing this on a train in Switzerland, to which I paid an unexpected visit this week. There is no past stretching out like the train tracks behind me or future stretching out like the train tracks in front of me. There is only now, only this moment. All functioning things are present. Everything is a momentary appearance, whether the stillness of Lake Geneva through the window (not too shabby) or the French kids jumping around in this carriage. moving scenery

There is no time outside of the mind. Time is mere appearance; we merely impute a continuum on cause and effect. Take a movie as an example. A movie is made up of many stills, but it has the illusion of movement, why? This is an illusion created by our own conceptual minds as we string the stills together through imputation.

Or indeed the moving scenery outside of my window … there is nothing actually moving out there.

Of course we then believe time is really out there, existing from its own side, because that is just what we do with everything when we have self-grasping ignorance.

church bell

Talking about Switzerland, I found the juxtaposition of ageless mountains and the (loud) ringing of the village church bell quite interesting … is the idea that being reminded of the time every 15 minutes helps us control it somehow? Slow it down?! Divide life into neat, tidy, and perhaps more manageable portions?! “So there, big old everlasting mountains! You can’t outwit me!” As if there is real time out there, being marked out by bell chimes …

Even when we know better, we can still get trapped in the illusion. For example, movies … even though we know there is nothing actually there, or really happening, they still have the power to freak us out as we get caught up in them.

Now and then

There is no real gap between being in a familiar place now and “back then” — it is just a continuation of karma ripening.

I feel it’s like we are having lots of different dreams popping up from different karmic potentials in our mind, each one arising fully and all at once with its spatial and temporal coordinates intact. Just like last night’s dream, and just as when we arose into the dream of this life.

TorbelThis January I had this experience in NYC when I returned there for a month – it was like I’d never left it since the previous January. Yet I know I had a pretty full 12 months in-between! But all that in-between time was like lots of dreams popping up from different karmic potentials in my mind. Nothing linear about it. When I looked in the restroom mirror, I could see that my body had seemingly aged a year! But that was because (a) my body had undergone some cause and effect, including one or two too many doughnuts, and (2) the new dream with the new me involved someone who was a year older.

I had the same appearance whenever I visit my parents in their flat in London, like now for example – it is like I have never left. Same for when I go back to Manjushri KMC, such as for the beautiful Summer Festival we have just had. It is another dream, with many of the same people, just all of us appearing older in the context of this new dream. I have many such experiences every year. There is nothing linear about my life or yours.

IMG_4369We often mark our lives with milestones, a wedding, getting ahead in our career, falling in love again, playing with our grandkids, or simply the chiming of a church bell – but in reality this advance through an inherently existent life is just an hallucination. The past and future are just projections of our minds. There is only now. We have to make it count.

Milestones on the way to what?

Plus, these kinds of milestones just light the way to dusty death. There are no “happy endings” in samsara, as Buddha said:

All our dreams are broken in the end.

IMG_4403

That’s the thing about dreams. They are fleeting. They are momentary appearances to mind. They fall apart. And “all phenomena are like dreams”, said Buddha. The law of entropy is an example of how every impermanent phenomenon is spinning away from everything else all the time, even on a molecular level. That is time. The only thing that stays the same, as the saying goes, is change.

With grasping and attachment we try so hard to hold onto things – our relatives, our environment, our job, our enjoyments. This strikes me as so sad because we cannot hold everything together however desperately we try. When I left London, my dad was sitting forlornly on the front steps as the taxi drove me away – of course my parents didn’t want me to go and I didn’t want to leave. But we are all travelers. We have to leave everyone. We are always on the move. Even the great larger than life Aretha Franklin died today. The only way to avoid being flung afar over and over again is (a) Skype and (b) to control our own minds, rather than trying in vain to control the fleeting appearances of our minds.

IMG_4401 2.JPGWe need to train in pure love. Love keeps our connections alive.

Eventually we need to attain enlightenment, when everyone will be a mere aspect of our blissful omniscience, never separated from us again.

And one more thing while I am on this train …

Where is this train headed?

Since sitting on this train, a 2.5 hour journey from Visp to Geneva Airport, I have lost track of the number of people getting on and off this carriage. Our time with each other is vanishingly brief. Same for life, really.

I have been thinking lately of the duty of care, and how to understand it in context of past and future lives. It is like we are all on a train to Auschwitz. It is all very well being IMG_4400 2nice to the other people on the carriage – finding time to spend with them, putting a blanket over their knees, trying to make them comfortable. But every moment in samsara we are getting closer and closer to catastrophe, all of us. So if I really want to help my fellow passengers, my real job is to derail the train.

The most responsible duty of care, if you ask me, is therefore to use our “time” to purify our mental continuum so that our dreams become joyful and meaningful for ourselves and others, and under our control. And the time to do this, ideally, is right now. Before we die, while we still have these wisdom teachings that enable us to do it.

(Meanwhile, about that church bell … it is said that the sound of the bell symbolizes emptiness, and that Dakinis follow the sound of the bell. Plus writing about Switzerland has now given me the excuse to put my photos in this article 😄)

Over to you. Comments welcome.

Related articles

Once a Buddha, always a Buddha

How to handle things falling apart

Various articles on subtle impermanence

 

 

Right here right now

9 mins read

clear light of blissMeditation is now marketed as an antidote to everything from anxiety and depression to poor sleep and workplace inefficiency.

These are tangible benefits into which it is worth investing time and energy.

But why stop there? This is only the tip of the iceberg.

While meditation can certainly help enormously with all these things, if we stop there we are starving ourselves of the really best parts of Buddhist technology: the attainment of liberation and enlightenment.

When we engage in simple breathing meditation, we find that we are more peaceful and relaxed. This indicates that our mind is naturally peaceful, and is an important start. However, this only scratches the surface of the power of meditation and our potential to help ourselves and others.

In general, in the West, there’s a tendency to market an extraordinarily transcendent process, meditation, only as a solution for stress. Meditating to bring out our innate compassion and deep insight can sometimes get lost in translation. But traditional Buddhist meditation has these two main objectives — to develop universal compassion and gain insight into the true nature of reality — and by practicing these we can use this life to attain incredible joy and freedom.

From engaging in meditation we can increasingly understand that we all have within us a vast potential for peace and happiness, even if it isn’t fully manifest as of yet. We are infinitely transformable, and potentially infinitely peaceful, wise, and loving.

Step into reality

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Once we’ve fully realized this potential, we’ve attained enlightenment — the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance and whose function is to bestow blessings and mental peace upon each and every living being every day.

And the thing about enlightenment? …

Enlightenment is reality.

Everything else is mistaken appearance — it is unreality. And buying into it is why we are suffering.

Using Buddha’s teachings, we can understand that we are engaged in a process of practical contemplation and meditation that is drawing us closer to reality. Revealing reality.

Sometimes we think about enlightenment in the sense of a higher state of mind, a transcendent consciousness. And from one point of view that’s true. But the problem with this type of articulation is that enlightenment can sound difficult. It sounds like a good idea in general, but probably not for me because it feels unattainable.

Instead, it’s much more helpful to understand that enlightenment is just reality. Enlightenment is the only mind that that is IN reality, that is experiencing reality, and that, finally, IS reality.

So what does it mean if we’re not enlightened? It means we’re not in reality, which means we’re in an hallucination of mistaken appearances.

And this hallucination — because it’s not in reality — is producing suffering simply automatically. So whatever suffering is appearing in our life is coming about because we’re not enlightened.

welcome to reality

We can challenge our Western notions — just because it is common doesn’t mean that suffering is inevitable.

Reality cannot be destroyed

What or who is a Buddha? A person who has “awakened from the sleep of ignorance and seen things as they really are.”

We have the potential for no less than enlightenment. This is called our Buddha nature and every living being without exception has this extraordinary capacity to change, get rid of all their suffering, and cultivate all their good qualities to perfection.

The reason we have this indestructible potential is because it is not possible to destroy reality, only delusions.

This profound but simple wisdom — that enlightenment is reality — is weaved through all Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s books, both Sutra and Tantra. For example, in The New Eight Steps to Happiness, it says:

Because a Buddha’s mind is mixed with the ultimate nature of all phenomena and is free from the obstructions to omniscience, it pervades all phenomena …. From this we can understand that Buddhas are present everywhere and that there is no place where Buddha does not exist. Buddhas are like the sun and our ignorance is like the clouds that obscure the sun. When clouds disperse we see that in reality the sun has clouds and sunbeen shining all along; and, in a similar way, when we remove the clouds of ignorance from our mind we shall see that the Buddhas have always been present all around us.

To get a bit philosophical for a moment …

Emptiness is the real nature of all phenomena – always has been, always will be. But emptiness doesn’t exist from its own side, in isolation. It exists like everything else only through being known by mind. The mind that is permanently mixed with emptiness is the clear light of bliss. This is the very subtle mind that all of us have had since beginningless time, but purified of all obstructions.

So wherever emptiness is — ie, everywhere — there too is great bliss. Nice!

Here is a cool bit from Essence of Vajrayana:

Definitive Heruka is Buddha’s mind of great bliss mixed with emptiness. Since the ultimate nature of all phenomena is emptiness, definitive Heruka pervades all phenomena. In Tibetan Heruka is sometimes called “kyab dag” Heruka. “Kyab” means “pervasive” and “dag” means “nature”, so “kyab dag” means that all phenomena are pervaded by Heruka’s nature…. If we have deep understanding of this there is great hope that we shall be able to perceive whatever appears to our mind as Heruka.

Omniscient wisdom is possible because it simply knows reality, the union of bliss and emptiness. We don’t need to think of bliss and emptiness as too high for us to know or experience because it is right here, just obscured. Practicing the stages of the path of Sutra and Tantra gradually reveals it.

rubik cubeSometimes we see Buddhas or enlightened beings as separate from us, denizens of a distant world. But they are just enlightenment, or, strictly speaking, imputed on enlightenment.

In other words, Buddhas are people, like us, but they are entirely unlike us in that our self or I is imputed on a contaminated body and mind whereas a Buddha, such as Buddha Heruka, is a self or I imputed on the bliss and emptiness that is the real nature of all phenomena, and is therefore everywhere, including right here right now.

Another way of putting this is that someone who has realized bliss and emptiness directly, and imputed themselves on this reality, is called a Buddha.

And since our I or self is not at all fixed, once we get rid of our ignorance and mistaken appearances we can become the Buddha we’ve always been destined to become. We too can be everywhere, helping everyone.

As I sometimes like to put it, enlightenment is just a trick of the mind away.

Or as a friend of mine put it the other day, “All we need to do is stop tripping.”

One way to get started …

In Highest Yoga Tantra, the essence practice is dissolving our Spiritual Guide into our heart, mixing our own mind with his/her mind of bliss and emptiness, and imagining we arise as a Buddha ourselves within that space.

If you haven’t got empowerments yet, you could perhaps get started by dissolving your Spiritual Guide, Buddha Shakyamuni, through your crown and into your heart and letting your mind mix with his like water mixing with water, feeling happy. Then impute yourself on that peaceful pure mind. There is a bit more about self-generation as Buddha Shakyamuni in Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

Not an ordinary life

In some ways, we can think that everything is already enlightenment, everything is Buddha. Which is why in Tantra the main obstacles to liberation and enlightenment are called “ordinary appearances and conceptions”, ie, the mistaken appearances of things as not being Buddha-like, and the mind that assents to those appearances as the truth.

As it says in Modern Buddhism (available for free here):

Suppose there is a Heruka practitioner called John. Normally he sees himself as John, and his environment, enjoyments, body, and mind as John’s. These appearances are ordinary appearances. The mind that assents to these ordinary appearances by holding them to be true is ordinary conception. Ordinary conceptions are obstructions to liberation and ordinary appearances are obstructions to omniscience.

We see everything not only as impure and suffering, but as ordinary as opposed to enlightened; and those perceptions are in fact a mistake, grasping at which is perpetuating our samsara.

grumpy cat in landscapeI, for example, am going around thinking, “I’m L. I have this boring old body and I have this neurotic personality and I live in this okay house in this problematic country surrounded by these other regular people, all of us doing all these regular activities.” It’s all just ordinary.

But this ordinariness is not really the truth, it is just ideas, mere imputations of an ordinary mentality. None of the things I normally see exists = reality. And, providing I have some understanding of what reality is, I could instead be thinking, “I am Buddha Vajrayogini. I have this incredible body of light and I have this winning personality and I live in this blissful Buddha Land surrounded by all these pure beings, helping everyone without exception!”

These are also just ideas, but they are far better ideas, and far closer to the truth. As we discover over time, as our wisdom of bliss and emptiness grows, our hallucinations die down, and eventually enlightenment becomes our own direct experience 24/7.

Revelation

lightbulb momentsOnce we have a feeling for how enlightenment just is reality, all Buddha’s teachings make a huge lot of sense. We have more of those light bulb moments. We can understand how right now we are not in reality. Which is why enlightenment is not an option, it’s the only place to be. And how through Buddhist meditation we can step into an enlightened perspective that has always been available to us, we just needed it to be pointed out (probably more than once!) That’s the real meaning of meeting a Spiritual Guide.

Therefore, enlightenment isn’t a philosophical talking point, or the goal of superhuman meditators, like climbing a distant mountain. If we are not in enlightenment, not in reality, we are necessarily trying to make unreality work. Everything is deceiving us more or less.

So when we go deeper in our meditations with the motivation to attain enlightenment, in addition to addressing our stress and other temporary problems we are also drawing every day closer to this blissful primordial reality. Two for the price of one!

To engage in Buddhist meditation is to understand that we all have within us this unlimited potential for the truth of bliss and emptiness, even if it isn’t fully manifest as of yet. So whenever we meditate, even if it is just a breathing meditation, we can try starting with this understanding and see what happens. (In this article on meditating backwards, I explain a bit about how I practically do this.) Even an intellectual understanding that enlightenment is reality is inspiring; and, if we can get a feeling for this in our heart, everything flows so much more effortlessly from there.

I find this immensely encouraging: we are not having to go anywhere strange and new, much less having to create something from scratch, or something that is not already in some sense there. What we are doing on the journey to enlightenment, the journey into the clear light of bliss at our heart, is gradually letting go of all mental elaborations so that we can at last directly enjoy what has always been.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

Related articles

On peace and omniscience

The path to enlightenment

Is enlightenment pie in the sky?

What is Buddha’s enlightenment?