Love in the Time of Corona

8 mins read.

How are you all coping with these uncertain and surreal times? I hope you’re able to resist binge-watching the news, and are taking at least some time out to relax your mind and feel the peace you have at your core. (Try this calming meditation for example.) As a friend put it:

The news should be 15 minutes information, 45 minutes prayer and meditation.

love in the time of coronaThis person just called me from lockdown in Brooklyn. He says it is very noisy as the walls and ceilings are paper thin, but rather than focusing on the grass being greener elsewhere he has put on his noise-cancelling headphones and is appreciating his time alone. He did however spend 4 days depressed last week because his neighbor told him he should be feeling more freaked out, prompting him to check out every piece of news on the pandemic that he could find. Finally he concluded, “This isn’t helping anyone”, whereupon he decided to keep washing his hands, staying at home, and not hugging anyone, but also to keep relaxed and to keep working on his ideas for helping others. As a result, he’s been feeling “inspired and productive” all week, coming up with great ideas for his new TV show.

One day at a time

Personally, I am taking this one day at a time – it doesn’t help to rewind to how much easier and more innocent life seemed in the past (ie, 3 weeks ago) or fast forward to a possibly even grimmer dystopian future. Buddha’s wise teachings on impermanence are very helpful right now. Today, apart from washing my hands and staying at home, I can control one thing — and that is my mind and whether or not I choose to stay calm and care about others more than myself, including those risking themselves for the rest of us.

The new normal and the old normal

We may be feeling more than usually overwhelmed with dread, but this panicked state only complicates everything, including our relationships with the people around us – which is a problem if we are stuck inside the house with them!

Screen Shot 2020-04-03 at 10.23.35 AMIt is worth bearing in mind that if we are in this cycle of impure life called “samsara,” we have been vulnerable to physical and mental sufferings of some form or another pretty much every day since beginningless time, and that we will be forever if we don’t do something radical and deep about it. It is just a bit more obvious for a lot of us at the moment, as if we have woken from a fairly comfortable dream to realize that things are not quite so fine after all.

This understanding of our existential predicament, far from freaking us out further, ironically helps us to find some mental balance and calm perspective. We are able to develop a light and peaceful wish for true and lasting mental freedom — a wish called “renunciation” — which we have always needed but don’t usually have. More on that here if you’re interested.

I read this today: “Massive swarms of locusts, one of which occupied an area more than three times the size of New York City, have devoured crops across the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, leaving an estimated 20 million people at risk of famine.”

Yes, 20 million people could starve, and more locusts could be on their way. And there is such helplessness: “Farmers attempt to drive them away by clanging pots and pans.” Why is this only on page 16 of Time magazine?

I will quote Kadam Morten from NYC at this point:

“There have been many pandemics in the past and there will be in the future. The potential for this was always there because we are in contaminated life. The real problem is not this virus. The real problem is the self-grasping and self-cherishing that are the underlying causes producing an environment that will produce viruses, that will produce oppression, injustice, violence, war, and all that has been going on since beginningless time. Use this visceral feeling of aversion to contamination to develop insight into these precious minds [renunciation, compassion, and wisdom] that will enable us to liberate ourselves and others.”

And here is another calm quiet voice of reason:

As Geshe Kelsang said, there is no point dwelling on our own suffering unless we want to develop the liberating mind of renunciation or use it as an example of the suffering of others so that we can develop empathy and compassion.

So I want to keep sharing one or two Buddhist pieces of advice about how we can keep a calm mind and a loving heart in the time of COVID-19. Starting with love – for love is the great Protector, said Buddha.

Feeling overwhelmed?

With self-cherishing or selfishness we assume we’re more important than everyone else (despite all evidence to the contrary), hence dwelling in an exaggerated way on our own stuff, including all potential catastrophes. This is, to be honest, what overwhelms us, not the external situation, and definitely not our wisdom and love.

safe at homeCheck out this article for the difference between inner and outer problems, helpful to know right now. Talking of which, here is a quick purification practice for you. It doubles up as a video on how to wash our groceries properly to stop us getting COVID-19 😁 Yes, it takes a tedious while to wash them well, but the tedium is removed if we also use this time to solve not just the outer problem but the inner problem by purifying our mind. For example, we can think:

Just as I clean these items, may my mind be cleansed of all delusions, negativity, and suffering.

Shining the light

There are some astonishingly kind people out there.

I know I am not alone in feeling awed by those who are working in increasingly uncomfortable environments, risking their health and their lives for our sakes. Who are these incredible people and would I do that? I like to think I would, but would I?! We’ve been hearing some bad stories about the conditions of nurses and other hospital workers on the front lines without inadequate protection – overworked, overtired, hungry, and unsupported – even here in the wealthiest country in the world (where our complacent lack of preparedness hasn’t helped), let alone in other parts of the world. These heroes and heroines keep going because they care more about their patients than themselves – why else would they keep going? Why else wouldn’t they just go home and sit on the sofa, safe inside with their families, like the rest of us?

Some of them have made the ultimate sacrifice. Due to the lack of medical staff to assist such a large number of patients, an Iranian doctor with the virus called Dr Shirin Rouhani, who was on IV, kept treating patients until her own last breath. Iranian doctor on IV

Pretty humbling. We all have Buddha nature – the potential for universal love, universal compassion – putting others before ourselves — and omniscient wisdom. Like a gold nugget encased in dirt, this innate good heart can never be sullied, even by the most egregious of our delusions (such as greed and selfishness). Every now and then our Buddha nature shines out strongly, and I think we are seeing that in many ways at the moment. It seems to me that there is more concern for fellow human beings, with less than the usual amount of discrimination, pettiness, and self-entitlement. I hope this lasts well beyond the pandemic.

I am not in Britain at the moment, but I read that since February 28, even Brexit — which was all anyone could think about for years — no longer looms so large. The battle lines drawn between the younger, metropolitan Britons on the one side versus the oldies on the other are now an anachronism. Elderly people are most at risk, and those of working age, in the NHS and other key professions, are there to try and save them. Everyone is in this together.

As I talk about here, for as long as reality exists, compassion and wisdom will always be the response; which means that it is impossible to destroy this gold nugget inside us. Anger, on the other hand, is a response to exaggerating others’ faults. I saw someone on Facebook going off on a diatribe about the toilet paper hoarders, for example, with the self-righteousness of anger – but people are not inherently evil toilet paper hoarders, they are just panicking.

“But people really are deluded!” — you may be protesting. “Look how crazily and selfishly some people are reacting!” True, some people’s behaviors are idiotic and dangerous. We can just as easily focus on that but, if we do, we should at least remember that people are not their delusions. As it says in the book Universal Compassion:

Buddhas never abandon, condemn, or get angry with living beings but, realizing that they are controlled by their deluded minds, feel only compassion for them. Cultivating the same attitude when someone becomes angry with us is one of the most profound ways of gaining peace for ourself and others.

Buddha’s advice is to relate persistently to the gold nugget in ourselves and in others. It is far easier to get rid of the dirt of our delusions if we are identified with being the gold nugget, and almost impossible if we are identified with the dirt. And if we identify others with their potential, we will bring out the best in each other. cat in house

More coming soon.

Meantime, I would love your feedback and suggestions in the comments below, including for any useful online resources you have found for keeping your meditation practice going at home.

Talking of which, here is one from Tharpa Publications (which has a streaming video embedded.) Don’t forget to tune into the increasing number of live-streaming classes and meditation prayers available from your nearest Center. And check out this worldwide streamed talk from Gen-la Dekyong on April 4th.

Related articles

A peaceful meditation to try out at home

Detoxing our daily life 

How to care for others without feeling overwhelmed 

 

NOPE

Hello everyone, I hope you’re all doing okay and not going too crazy.

I could start anywhere, so I am going to start by saying “Well done!” for getting this far, if you have. I think that a lot of you, maybe all of you, are dealing with this really well considering. I am noticing that our concern for others is at least occasionally kicking in to override the fears we have for ourselves.

Of course, there are some ludicrous manifestations of our fear and self-obsession, such as the Great COVID-19 Toilet Paper Stockpile of 2020 – toilet paperbut overall I think it’s impressive how quickly people have accepted our interdependence and mutual obligations now that these are staring us in the face. Politics and bickering partisanship are not sucking up all the oxygen, for a nice change. I read this earlier somewhere:

It’s sort of funny how at times the neighbors, including myself, get into petty squabbles about irrelevant topics. They certainly seem irrelevant now. But we so easily and smoothly become comrades! People are essentially GOOD! Just give them a chance to prove it.

Of  course this may get old and people may get mean, but right now a lot of Buddha nature is shining.

Literally ordered to stay at home!

I was allowed to drive out just now, despite Mayor Hancock’s brand new Stay at Home Order, because the kittens I am fostering need medication. (They, at least, seem contentedly oblivious to all of this.) Passing a nightclub called “Let’s Get Weird (this is Denver after all), instead of the OPEN sign this is what I saw:

NOPE

Nope indeed. The world is closed for business.

Thanks to said mayoral order forcing everyone to give up their “non-essential” jobs and stay inside (which, by the way, hardly raised an eyebrow – yet only a few weeks ago would have caused a riot), I also saw long queues of millennials lining up to stockpile the last of the marijuana before all non-medicinal dispensaries are shuttered for the That's the pointforeseeable.* Toilet paper is one thing, but running out of pot?! Poor under-25s, I can’t help thinking — all those Springtime hormones and nowhere to party. No, it is not as bad as being sent to war, obviously; but at that age it is still no fun to be stuck at home alone, or stuck at home with one’s parents! Not much fun for the parents either.

Let’s Get Weird

This is a very strange time for the two-legged people of Planet Earth. I already know samsara is crazy, but still I wake up and think, “Huh?!?!!? That wasn’t a dream?!!” (Of course, it kind of is a dream — that’s Buddha’s key point). Or you might be having conversations like this one, a snippet of an earlier text with a friend:

“It feels like a strange movie. It’s like none of this can be real.” “There’s no movie that could do justice to this.” “I know, I would switch it off because it would seem so far fetched.”

It is hard to think of anyone who is not affected by this surreal invisible enemy called COVID-19 — a tiny bundle of protein, 120 nanometers in diameter, carrying just eight kilobytes of genetic code. (By the way, I just had to add COVID to my spellcheck dictionary, which — like us only a few short weeks ago — hails from a more innocent age). Perhaps this pandemic isn’t making much difference to those who are already in such dire straits that today is just another crazy day – like people in Syria or Yemen or the 70 million displaced around the world. It also doesn’t make much difference I suppose to a lot of our animal friends – the millions of chickens, for example, who are still being kept in horrifying conditions and slaughtered en masse so that we can comfort ourselves with chewing their wings.

On the plus side, some people may be having a better time than usual right now due to different karma ripening, such as the dogs and cats who have their whole family stuck at home to entertain them, or the person I know who had happily and voluntarily entered a solitary meditation retreat just before any of this started. social distancing

But in general this social distancing is ironically bringing us humans closer because we are sensing that we are all in it together – our common enemy is clearly the virus, not each other. We understand a little better what other people are going through because we are going through it ourselves, not just at some point, but right now, at the same time.

Even for those of us who have it the best because we can work from home – that is, we actually have a home and a job that can be done at home or, to be honest, any job at all – these times are no doubt challenging. Most people are feeling at least occasionally insecure and panicky (especially if they’re binge-watching the news), not knowing where this is headed, scared of getting sick and not being able to breathe and dying. A lot of people are feeling isolated and restless and bored, and very worried about their finances and future.

COVID-19 got a bit more real for me yesterday when I was asked to pray for the husband of an old friend in England, who had just been rushed to hospital with lack of oxygen related to COVID-19. He is now getting better, I am happy to say, enough to send a message, ““Improving slowly. Breathing is much better with less shortage of breath. Oxygen levels higher now. Probably another day maybe two still in hospital. Very boring. Keep clear of this bastard illness. X”

Another text came in at the same time from a friend in Croatia, telling me about the badly-timed earthquake in Zagreb — people huddled in the streets, not able to shelter in place as their places were shelters no longer, more like death traps.

Everyone matters

If this virus is teaching us anything, it is that far from being isolated separated-out individuals, we are all parts of a whole – and therein we have some obligation to each other because everyone matters. No man is an island. The sanest place to start dealing with this crisis is with this heart of understanding for all these other living beings, including those millions of people whom we know for sure are considerably worse off.Cells in body quote and image of VG

It seems that wherever we look right now there are people in trouble. Practically where possible, and always in our hearts, it makes all the sense in the world right now to take care of our neighbors, family, friends, vulnerable members of our society, people on the frontlines, animals, everyone. And we can take care of our mind through applying the teachings, meditating, and praying so that we can be as strong, fearless, and peaceful as possible.

Let’s actually pray the virus doesn’t hit the refugee camps, for example, where washing your hands even once a day is a struggle. It is clearly concerning that we have such a huge homeless population who have nowhere to shelter in place except the “petri dishes” of understaffed and oversubscribed homeless shelters, as one of them put it. I dread the moment the first case hits the South African townships – as one South African put it, it is a privilege and luxury to be able to social distance.

And never was there a better time to share what resources we have with non-profits helping human beings and animals, responding in whatever way we can to those emails requesting help – because many of them risk closing down and leaving millions of vulnerable beings in very serious trouble. If you do have room in your home, now is not a bad time to consider helping out the overcrowded animal shelters by fostering some dogs or cats.

We are all in this together, cells of the same body of life. Obsessing about ourself will help no one and only drive us crazy. Love and concern for everyone else will help others and keep us sane — Buddha called love “the Great Protector”.

Four noble truths

I’ve been thinking about which Buddhist teachings might be most helpful for weathering this storm, and have concluded that EVERYTHING he said is tailor-made for dealing with a time like this.

In his very first teaching called the “four noble truths”, Buddha explained the first truth as “the truth of suffering” or “true sufferings”. He was referring to the endless and relentless suffering that comes from still hanging onto these impure minds and bodies, mistakenly thinking that they are “Me”. COVID-19 is the latest wave of the wave upon wave of suffering that inevitably arises from this ocean of self-grasping ignorance.

deathSome of the sufferings Buddha explained as samsara’s ongoing nature strike a stronger chord at the moment, now that we are feeling a little less sure of ourselves in the collapse of our normal narratives; but those sufferings have always been there, lurking beneath the surface of our distractions, complacency, and routines. These include but are not limited to being stuck in meaty bodies subject to sickness, ageing, death, and rebirth, dissatisfaction, loneliness, no real control or certainty, and constantly unpeaceful minds. We already have a very weird disease, for example – it is called ageing.

The second noble truth is “true origins,” meaning that this suffering has causes that are far deeper than we normally think about, namely self-grasping ignorance, other delusions, and the contaminated karma they spawn.

The third noble truth, “true cessations”, shows that it is in fact possible to have a suffering-free life that comes from a permanent cessation of ignorance and delusions.

The fourth noble truth, “true paths”, is where Buddha explained the practical path to that cessation, 84,000 teachings that bring peace and free the mind.

dog cartoonPoint is, Buddha’s whole intention has always been to help free everyone from difficulties and suffering, not just temporarily but permanently. He pointed all this suffering out, but he also came up with ways for us to deal with and ultimately transcend it. And these methods have been tried and tested and proved successful for at least 2500 years. Now is the time to use them.

Even CNN is encouraging people to take up a meditation practice:

So, you’re stuck at home. You’re stressed. Now is as good a time as ever to pick up a meditation practice. Scientific findings from an 18-year analysis on a Buddhist monk found that daily intensive meditation may significantly slow brain aging. There is a slew of other health benefits to the mindfulness and quiet peace that often accompanies meditation. And if you feel weird about getting zen with so much happening in the world, remember that even the World Health Organization warned people this week to take care of their mental health as well as their physical health.

Where the rubber hits the road

Buddha brought suffering to our attention so that we could — and would — do something about it. Moreover, Buddhism in general and Kadampa Buddhism in particular is known for helping us practically to transform adverse conditions into the spiritual path by applying the teachings to whatever is coming up for us, not just in the abstract. Dealing with problems is where the rubber hits the road in Buddhism. In The New Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang says:

By training our mind to recognize the spiritual lessons in all our experiences, we can come to view everyone and everything as our Spiritual Teachers, and we can turn any and every situation to our advantage.

Using these circumstances to deepen our inner peace, insight, and compassion means we could end up in a better place than we started, mentally speaking. From that point of view, although I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, this pandemic does give us a lot of opportunity if we decide to apply everything we have learned already or, alternatively, get interested in getting started.

Screen Shot 2020-03-23 at 7.42.21 PMTalking of which, before I go any further, I want to point out to those of you who don’t know that Kadampa Centers around the world are now streaming meditation classes to everyone in their local catchment area. This Buddhist TV is a wonderful addition – nay, antidote! – to all the other online channels you might have been binge-watching! There is great stuff going on all over the place that you can tune into. Click here if you want to know where you can find your local center, and then you can find their Facebook page or website and go from there.

“While you just stayed in your room”

The first port of call in weathering this storm is to learn how to calm down a bit and feel more peaceful and happy in our hearts. But who knows how far this burgeoning meditation habit might take us! If, like me, you are fortunate enough to be confined to your sofa (as opposed to heroically risking your own health to save the rest of us on the frontlines), now is the time to find out.

go insideThere is a whole world inside us, an extraordinary blissful inner landscape that remains largely unexplored because we are usually so busy wandering around in the outside world. Now is our chance to go within and, from there, re-emerge with very different experiences, in a dramatically improved world. Then we can help others do the same. This song came on Spotify while I was out driving for those kitty meds, most appropriate for these times I thought:

I pictured a rainbow
You held it in your hands
I had flashes
But you saw the plan
I wandered out in the world for years
While you just stayed in your room
I saw the crescent
You saw the whole of the moon
The whole of the moon.

Resources for meditating at home

Someone suggested on Facebook that it would be a great idea if I listed all the resources we have for reading and meditating at home.

I agree. And so I ask you in the comments to please list all the resources you have been finding helpful, as well as links to them where appropriate. I can then add them to the next article.

As well as the live-streaming mentioned above, for now, if you want to start reading a free Buddhist meditation eBook, click here.

If you want some tips and tricks to get you going in meditation, click here.

I will be back soon. I have a bunch of ideas up my sleeve that are relevant to COVID-19, and now seemingly endless weeks in which to explore them.

In fact, the next article is now out, here.

Meanwhile, here are some ideas for what you can do stuck at home …

(Or you could just learn to meditate … 🙂 )

(*That part of the mayoral order was rescinded before it even got started – all marijuana dispensaries and liquor stores will remain open for business. Other shops, not so much.)

Related reading

Get started with meditation 

A short meditation you can do at home to calm down 

Some articles on dealing with anxiety 

Love, the great Protector

Everyone wants to be seen: observations from a Buddhist Gerontologist

A guest article.

(Given that these strange COVID-19 times are making our elderly all around the world even more vulnerable, and that many are being kept behind closed doors for their own protection, I find this guest article in 2 parts a timely encouragement to see them and to care. ~ Ed.)

Being seen by others

I discovered my fascination with the elderly during coffee hours after Sunday services in the small town where I grew up. I also learned it was unusual for almost anyone, let alone a five-year-old, to be interested in them. Despite regular encouragement to go upstairs to play with the other children, I managed to finagle my way through the rooms of the parish house and into the company of the elderly parishioners, particularly the women.1960s-grandmother-in-chair-hugging-vintage-images (2)

They’d call me close and, peering out behind coke bottle glasses, ask me things. I don’t remember the detail of those early conversations, but they left me with a lasting impression. I thought,These people are so interested in others.” I felt special in their presence. Cherished. Safe. I felt seen.

Thus began a lifelong habit of seeking out the oldest person in the room. While the mantra of the mid-’60’s was, Don’t trust anyone over 30,” mine was “Don’t trust anyone under 50.” My most trusted companion was my paternal grandmother, a kind woman who lived in an old country house at the other end of town. She was one of my greatest teachers, teaching me one of the most important things I have learned in my sixty years on this planet – the power of unconditional love.

Learning to see others

The truth is that I viewed every elderly person as my teacher. In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso writes that the function of a person isTo perform actions and experience their results.” As an older friend once remarked, “You live long enough, you know stuff.” I reasoned that the older a person was, the more they knew, even if it was what not to do. They were time capsules of valuable karmic lessons, and from an early age I began looking to them for answers.

At some point I realized I was organizing what I was learning into my own mental filing cabinet. Some of it was social in nature — “European Immigration to the US in the Early 20th Century,” some of it technical — “Behavioral Patterns Exhibited by Those with Memory Loss,” and some of it just plain fun — “How to Sew, Crochet or Knit your own Wardrobe.”

I couldn’t help but note the physical changes that occur with age, as well. The thickening glasses. The hearing loss. The swelling in the ankles. The fading memory. The bandages on arms and heads. The skin. (Once I commented on a woman’s badly bruised skin. “Skin?!” she scoffed. “This isn’t skin. It’s tissue paper!”). The smells of ointments, tinctures, and sweet perfume. One by one I learned their stories. I listened. I studied. I watched. I saw.

This man’s search for meaning

Gerontology, the study of aging, emerged as a bonafide college degree in the late ‘70’s and I was one of the first to sign up. There I learned about the “Life Review,” an explanation as to why older people seem to like to reminisce. According to this theory they talk about their lives as a way of making sense of them. They are wrapping things up, getting ready to go.

Davis Funeral Home Edited

Learning that my elderly friends had an almost biological need to talk about their lives prompted me to deepen my line of inquiry. My motive was not entirely altruistic; I was desperate to find answers to some of life’s bigger questions.

Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I was being raised in a funeral home a few houses down from my church, but underpinning my early life was a nagging thought that everything was existentially pointless.

A story from Joyful Path of Good Fortune sums up my feelings at that time. A man is painstakingly carving a round stone into a square one with a feather. When a passerby asks why on earth he is doing this, he responds,

I am doing this so that I can leave the stone behind.

The story is referencing pointless efforts made in the accumulation of wealth, but to me everything was a variation of the same theme — be it a career, raising a family, or collecting tchotchkes. We will all die in the end, so why bother? I was sure one of my aged friends could provide me with the answer.

Over the decades I moved a lot, which put me in touch with thousands of elderly people in Rhode Island, Florida, New York, Ohio, Kansas, Indiana, North Carolina, California, and immigrants from around the world. When the moment seemed right, I’d ask my friends, the oldest of whom was 104, “What’s the point of all of this?” or “Why are we here?” Everyone seemed happy to offer an opinion, but I never did get a satisfying answer. What I did get, instead, was another list: “The Top Ten Meanings of Life.”

I don’t know if meaninglessness is the chicken and depression is the egg or the other way ‘round, but they are a killer combination. I knew this from my many years of working with people who were stripped mercilessly of the things that meant the world to them — their spouses, homes, cars, careers, reputations, health, wealth, families, and oldest friends. Some were left with nothing to fill the void, critically ill and deeply depressed, begging to die. But I knew of this deadly combination not just from witnessing it, but from experiencing it from the inside out. From a young age I began to experience a deep and inexplicable sadness.

As a young man I stumbled across a quote from the French philosopher Voltaire that struck me as so profound I committed it to memory. He said, “We throw ourselves in prison and stand as our own guard.” I knew on some level I played a role in my own torment, but at the same time I felt powerless to stop. And, as much as the quote impacted me, there was still no answer as to how to get out of this vicious cycle. Or if it was even possible.

Screen Shot 2020-03-15 at 7.13.59 PM

Before becoming a Buddhist I believed a certain amount of suffering was natural, part of the human condition.” While I never dreamed it was feasible to completely end suffering, as taught by Buddha, I did believe it could be mitigated. So I did with my depression what I did with everything else. I took it to my elderly friends. Why is there so much suffering in the world?” I’d ask. Or, “Given all that humans must endure, only to die in the end, how can a person ever be happy?” When the moment seemed right, I’d be candid. “I’m depressed,” I’d say. “Do you have an idea of how I can shake it?”

Finding the path

After an exhaustive, nearly half-century search, it was at my first class at the Kadampa Meditation Center in Los Angeles that I began to find answers. The monk taught that my search for freedom from suffering was common. Aware of it or not, every sentient being, even babies and insects, carries the same basic wish to be free. It drives everything we do. And yes, Virginia, there is a way out.

The prison, I learned, is called samsara, a hellish and unending nightmare that is the experience of a self-centered and deluded mind. As Geshe Kelsang puts it,

Samsara is not an external prison; it is a prison made by our own mind.

The meaning of our lives is to be found in securing a permanent release from our jail cell and in helping everyone out of theirs. We do this not only to improve this life, but to secure our futures after we die. But how? As Geshe-la explains:

Although samsara resembles a prison, there is one door through which we can escape. That door is emptiness, the ultimate nature of phenomena. By realizing emptiness we can escape from samsara.

In the early days of my Buddhism, realizing this magic bullet of emptiness seemed a ways off; and, meanwhile, what’s a suffering sentient being to do?! I took refuge in the more easily accessible method practices as outlined in How to Transform Your Life, such as renunciation, compassion, and patience. Geshe-la writes that these minds help us to inch towards the prison door. Eventually

…by diligently practicing a pure spiritual path, and thereby eliminating our self-grasping and other delusions, we can bring our samsara to an end.

jail Blog

In Buddhism, delusions are described as those states of mind that create suffering and virtuous minds as those that result in happiness. Self-cherishing is a principal delusion, and compassion — our wish for others to be free from suffering — is a principal virtue. Something about this idea clicked for me. I even had a folder. There it was in the far recesses of my mind, dusty and overlooked, but chock-full of rich and valuable evidence to validate the truth of Buddha’s teachings.

I didn’t have the wisdom to know its value at the time but, once I learned what it contained, I reorganized my findings into two separate files and moved them to the forefront of my mind. Borrowing language from my new hero, the Buddhist Master Shantideva, I titled one, “Self-Cherishing — All the Suffering in this Worldand the other “Love and Compassion — All the Happiness in this World.”

In part 2 of this article I will expand on my observations of how seeing others and being seen by them inches us toward the door to our own liberation.

In the meantime, I would love to hear your comments.

(Postscript: There are many word choices to describe people of a certain age.” I’ve used them all in my career so as not to offend, but my personal preference is elderly.” To my mind the popular euphemism senior is a regression, sending us back to high school and in the process devaluing the trials, tribulations, and triumphs all of us experience if we are lucky enough to live that long. I know some people consider elderly an ugly word, but historically it was an honorific. As for me, at the ripe old age of sixty, considered young elderly by some classifications,” I’m not quite ready to let it go.)

A practical paradigm shift

Someone just sent me this gif, saying she has been trying this out in her meditation sessions on retreat, lol. Blaze the fire of wisdom, and it can consume all our delusions and suffering.

In Buddhism we rely on the realistic minds of wisdom and compassion, starting with a confidence that we can grow these because we have Buddha seed or Buddha nature. Literally whenever we have this Dharma experience functioning in our minds, we are free from feeling anxious, free from feeling tight or hemmed in by the day’s worries, free from feeling overwhelmed.

Therefore, rather than using our delusions to solve all our problems outside the mind, in the “real world”– which in chapter after chapter of our life is turning out to be a rather exhausting and futile venture — I think the sooner we can shift into that Dharma perspective the better. It is a good idea to visit that refuge zone every single morning when we wake up (instead of the caveman mentality that immediately casts around for things to worry about); until one day we discover we never have to leave it.

This will not only help ourselves, but transform us into a source of refuge and courage for others. We can’t solve our own or others’ problems if we stay confused and unhappy. refuge zone“There are too many unhappy people already,” as Geshe Kelsang once put it. For a practical guided meditation to start feeling that refuge, check out this article

This is by way of preamble as to why I’m talking about the cool science shown in this quantum video, here. Also, a friend sent me a great book called The Order of Time by physicist Carlo Rovelli, excellent bedtime reading. One thing he says is:

If the world were made of things, what would these things be? The atoms, which we have discovered to be made up in turn of smaller particles? The elementary particles, which, as we have discovered, are nothing other than the ephemeral agitations of a field? The quantum fields, which we have found to be little more than codes of a language with which to speak of interactions and events? We cannot think of the physical world as if it were made of things, of entities. It simply doesn’t work.

What exactly am I grasping at?! However, it is one thing to impress people with this kind of fact at parties, and quite another to use this knowledge to intentionally change ourselves and the world around us. We take it in on a superficial, “Wow,” level — like a great Matrix or What the Bleep! type movie, and then continue about our seemingly solid lives as if they’re real.

what the bleepWhy? Maybe it is because we haven’t brought this information into our hearts. We don’t have the wisdom, yet, actually — we can’t bring this information into our hearts because we don’t have the wisdom, only a superficial intellectual head-based knowledge. It is someone else’s idea — we haven’t developed our own experience of it so it’s not affecting the way we view ourselves or other people.

These cosmic ideas are not making a dent in that persistent illusion, an illusion we are not combatting because either we don’t want to or we don’t know how to. Which is where Buddha’s teachings are so immensely useful because he laid out, step by step, how we could understand the true nature of everything, parts of which the quantum physicists are figuring out now. And, more importantly, he explained why we would want to — because gaining a deep experience of this will destroy all our ignorance and suffering.

The Matrix

While we’re on the subject of The Matrix, let me get something off my chest quickly. It’s a thought-provoking movie, and I sometimes think I’m in it as I wander the streets of New York, especially when I wear my cool black coat. But when Neo et al take the red pill and get unplugged, they don’t end up in bliss but in a “real” world — and it frankly isn’t that enticing! It has its moments (dance scene), but otherwise it seems to alternate between dull and scary, not unlike any other ordinary, impure, seemingly inherently existent world. Doesn’t really surprise me that Cypher chose the blue pill of ignorance.

Matrix black coatHowever, according to Buddha, what will actually happen when we unplug from the matrix of our beginningless hallucinations, purifying our mind with wisdom and compassion, is that we will end up not in the samsaric Zion but in the Pure Land of great bliss, a world that we are free to create and play with as we choose. As Geshe Kelsang says in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra (page 20):

There is no such thing as a Pure Land that exists from the side of the object; the  Pure Land is merely an appearance to a pure mind. Equally, there is no such thing as an impure world that exists from its own side; an impure world is merely an appearance to an impure mind.

And what about the mind?

From my very beginnery understanding of modern science, it seems that scientists are saying that everything is illusory, in that it doesn’t exist and appear in the same way; and yet we are buying into the illusion.

However, there is still that “hard problem of consciousness.” The Guardian science section published this article:

“Why can’t the world’s greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?” … For example, how could the 1.4 kg lump of moist, pinkish-beige tissue inside your skull give rise to something as mysterious as the experience of being that pinkish-beige lump, and the body to which it is attached?

Buddhism may differ from much of modern science in stressing the importance of consciousness. Buddha specialized in psychology whereas scientists seem to be suggesting that they have a ways to go in this area. For example Carlo Rovelli says:

We understand biology by studying how living beings evolve and live. We understand psychology (a little, not much) by studying how we interact with each other, how we think.

Buddha Shakyamuni (BC 500) has arguably gone further than anyone else in known history in unveiling reality because not only has he explained the nature of apparently external reality, but he has also shared his deep wisdom and direct experience of the nature and function of non-physical consciousness, which is what is doing all this perceiving and hallucinating. (Nor was he the first Buddha or “Awakened One” to do this, countless came before him in countless world systems. What on earth makes us think this is the only universe?! It’s like an ant thinking there’s only one anthill. Anyway, that’s just a random thought I just had, definitely formless.)

Is there a mind-body problem or not?

The article says:

Critics point out, if this non-physical mental stuff did exist, how could it cause physical things to happen – as when the feeling of pain causes me to jerk my fingers away from the saucepan’s edge?

easy-and-hard-problems-of-consciousness-lThe dichotomy long held onto in the materialist or reductionist world view seems to be both contrived and false, for why should there be a “mind-body problem” — formless mind and “physical” reality can and do get along just fine. We don’t need to do away with subjective consciousness to make sense of jerking our fingers away from pain or making sense of creation in general.

If we accept that there can be two primary realities, or arguably that mind is the primary reality producing “material” or at least perceived reality, we can not only make far more sense of our existence but learn to transform it by changing our perceptions. If we can change our existence by changing our thoughts, which we can and do, then this in itself makes a pretty compelling case for the existence of non-physical mind, wouldn’t you say?

Again, from that article:

Yes, it may be true that most of us, in our daily lives, think of consciousness as something over and above our physical being – as if your mind were “a chauffeur inside your own body”, to quote the spiritual author Alan Watts. But to accept this as a scientific principle would mean rewriting the laws of physics.

I dunno, physics is evolving and being rewritten all the time, so I’m fine with that. Accepting our subjective experience is common sense. None of our internal thoughts, feelings, pleasure, pain, and so on are experienced as physical, yet we cannot deny that they are experienced – the author of that Guardian article uses the example of painfully stubbing his toe. I think we know full well what our states of mind feel like inside, even if we can’t see them, sit on them, or physically measure them. We are experiencing and using them non-stop, day and night. Our whole life is determined by them. And without conscious awareness, what, for example, are the scientists having their ideas about the non-existence of conscious awareness with?!

Inner scientists

Buddha and scienceFrom what I have read (admittedly not much), the “how’s” of existence are not explained yet in modern science, which hasn’t figured out what consciousness exactly is, nor the mechanisms by which it projects everything, nor its different levels; but they are explained in Buddhism in great detail and we can come to know what conscious awareness is in our own direct experience. In fact, Buddha Shakyamuni said:

If you realize your own mind you will become a Buddha; you should not seek Buddhahood elsewhere.

Buddha said we needed to become inner scientists, coming to know formless consciousness more and more deeply through observation with our formless consciousness. As soon as we even close our eyes, our conscious awareness is evident. Do check out this article if you like, for tips on how we can come to know it.

From that same Guardian article:

Why aren’t we just brilliant robots, capable of retaining information, of responding to noises and smells and hot saucepans, but dark inside, lacking an inner life?

I don’t know about you (well, I kinda do), but I am not a robot because I am a sentient being with, as it happens, an infinitely deep inner life. Just like you. We are conscious and that consciousness cannot be seen in the “material” world. The definition of mind is, simply, that which is clarity and cognizing. Buddha explains how our consciousness is an impermanent formless continuum that goes on forever. It cannot be detected by any of the five sense awarenesses nor their instruments, such as microscopes or particle accelerators, because it has no visual color or shape, sound, smell, taste, or tactile properties. It has zero atoms and molecules. But despite its lack of matter, it matters. Its function is to cognize, to experience, to perceive, to understand, and, in fact, to create.

Conscious awareness exists

Buddha explains in detail how our mind relates to a seemingly external reality beyond our thoughts. Although it created that physical world in the first place through conceptual imputation or naming, our self-grasping ignorance then believes it exists “out there”, independent of perception, as in a dream. It is not just in this life time – since beginningless time our conceptual mind has been over and again projecting an impure sensory and mental world that we then torturously try to live in as if it were real.

Not only that, but our formless mind itself is even not as real as it appears – it is also empty of existing from its own side.

How to Understand the MindIn his brilliantly intelligent but common-sensical way, Buddha explains the differences between the unpeaceful delusions that are based on that mistaken way of seeing things and the peaceful virtuous states of mind that are not; and how we can effectively train in overcoming the former and perfecting the latter, eventually attaining omniscient wisdom that knows how and when all phenomena exist.

Bottom line is that we can exist in the material world while also existing as spiritual beings, I don’t think there is any actual problem with that. If you want to find out a lot more about any of what I just mentioned, can I recommend you study How to Understand the Mind. It has it all.

What’s the point of all this?

Buddhism’s HUGE! IMHO it’s huger than anything yet discovered in quantum physics, and that’s saying something. Beginningless time, endless world systems, endless consciousness, countless sentient beings, infinite enlightened beings, universal compassion, omniscient wisdom — and all of it illusion-like and dream-like, completely empty of existing from its own side.

But who cares about gaining all this extraordinary understanding of reality if it’s not actually helping us to get rid of our unhappiness, bring us joy, or help people? That’s all any of us really want, deep down, isn’t it? Therefore, when Buddha gave his teachings, his whole motivation was to permanently end suffering – all of which comes directly and indirectly from grasping things as being real when they’re not. What our ignorance is doing is projecting things and people that are not there but also believing that they ARE there and then reacting to that; and this the core reason why all of us are suffering. So Buddha wanted to dispel that illusion to lead everyone, including you and me, to the lasting bliss of enlightenment – the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearances — which is mixed with and is reality. 

We can’t wake people up from a nightmare if we believe the nightmare is real.

liberation from sufferingIf we align with reality, like all the countless omniscient beings have done, there is no end to what we can do. The sky’s the limit, only there is no real sky. As it says in that sugar cube video:

There are no limits to your power when you align to a more truthful view of the world you live in. The love that you feel in your heart is an actual power that you have. It’s literally the most powerful force on earth. This is not a cliché — you’ve just been conditioned to believe that it has no real effect. But we’ve seen that its power is absolutely world-changing.

More coming up soon, including the power of our intentions to create our experiences.

 

Meantime, over to you, would love to hear your thoughts …

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