Living in a virtual world

8.5 mins read + a cool video.

Learning meditation is important because there is nothing inherently stuck about us – we are not just material beings but spiritual beings with a deep inner life and indeed infinite capacity for freedom.

No one likes suffering, and my heart goes out to everyone right now because no one seems unaffected by this disconcerting new “normal”, whatever normal ever meant or will mean again. Yet suffering can be motivating — and perhaps it sometimes takes something like a seemingly inescapable stifling pandemic to think about how we can become happy and free from the inside out instead of continuing to pursue happiness and freedom from the outside in. Screen Shot 2020-04-27 at 7.09.12 PM

The reason we have this potential for enlightenment is that we have minds, and these are formless, not physical, and endlessly creative. We can learn to do anything with our minds, and when we change our mind we really do change our world. Meanwhile, our bodies are physical and very limited. If I want to go to London, I have to fly there on an airplane, if they’ll even let me these days. But today I was talking to my parents in London as if we were in the same room. Our bodies were thousands of miles apart but our minds were still meeting. You are probably finding that a lot yourself these days, now that the whole world has gone virtual and we are visiting people in all sorts of places while sitting on our sofa.

A few weeks ago Gen-la Dekyong talked to over 5,000 people tuning in through their computers and phones. Talking to audiences across the world, her mind was no doubt partly in the Temple with the recording equipment and partly in a bunch of other countries and partly who knows where else, maybe the Pure Land. And those of us who listened to her were both in our rooms and in England, were we not? Or did our minds meet half-way, in the middle of an ocean?!

This teaching also showed the emptiness of time because many of us heard the teaching later in the day and yet it still felt totally present, again a meeting of minds.

Even as you read this our minds are meeting in some manner, are they not? We are together somewhere — the question is, Where?! How? When?! Where and what exactly is this concrete physical reality of time and space that we keep trying to grasp at even whilst our formless minds are commingling?

Virtual-WorldWe are so caught up in material, spatial, and temporal coordinates, just like we fall for these in a dream; but they are all projections of our mind, not objective reality. If Gen-la Dekyong was in England and you were in Australia, what time was it when your minds met? What time is it when our minds meet now?

We can’t find anything when we look for it — “Everything is like space,” as Shantideva says. If you’re ever in doubt about how we are grasping at concrete independent things that are not actually there, take a look at this video:

The point is that everything depends upon its parts and upon imputation by our mind. The wonderful promise of this is that when we finally get around to realizing it for ourself, we can deliberately and completely change our experiences and our world for the better, enjoying the great bliss and emptiness of reality.

Where we all live

People are still managing to meet, all over the place, every day. This virtual reality that we seem to be inhabiting is a useful doorway into thinking about how our formless awareness is not obstructed by matter and can go anywhere. If we think about the moon, there we go – in fact, let’s go! It is quite cool up here, don’t you think?! Let’s have a party, eat some cheese. Our minds go where our thoughts go, even to London, even to the moon. Our mind is not in any way circumscribed by space or even time – it is non-local, it can go anywhere. It can even go to liberation and enlightenment.

What obstructs our mind is not what obstructs our body, such as walls and miles; it is delusions and their imprints. These two obstructions obstruct our potential to be everywhere and love everyone. We have dualistic appearance and believe there is a world outside the mind, an objective real world — when there isn’t.

Two men try to reach across the divideAs I mentioned in this article, Aligning with reality, where is the world outside my experience or my mind? I’m supposedly in lockdown in Denver, but where is Denver, for example?

We seek our happiness though seemingly solid material stuff that ends up being more fleeting than we realized and also nowhere near as important. What ends up being most important is the quality of our thoughts, our consciousness – whether we are feeling happy and free or anxious and depressed, for example. Our mind determines everything.

Our mind is formless awareness, it has no physical properties. We cannot see, hear, or smell our mind, nor sit on it or photograph it — we can only know our mind by looking within with mental awareness. We cannot find our mind anywhere in the physical world – it is as if it is everywhere and nowhere.

And our mind is tremendously powerful, the most creative force in the universe — with our thoughts we create our world. Our world arises from our subjective mind. The world or life we experience depends on our experience, of course, one hundred percent.

Let’s say you’re having a meeting on Zoom. There is certainly a meeting going on, important things being discussed. Co-workers are beaming in from all over the world, and some of them also have crazy virtual reality backgrounds like beaches or temples or planets (I don’t know how anyone manages to concentrate, I know I can’t.) Question is, where is this meeting taking place? Where is it? Let’s find it. Where would you start looking? Is it the camera on my computer? No, most people cannot see my camera. Is it a co-worker’s couch? Is it that virtual reality temple? Is it another co-worker’s home office? Is it the words coming out of people’s mouths? Or the satellites beaming those words through the speakers? I could go on and on.virtual meeting

Wherever we look, we’ll never be able to point to this meeting, “Ah, there it is!” The more we try to pinpoint it, the more it disappears like a mirage. It is impossible to find this meeting outside of our mental experience of this meeting, both collective and individual. Collectively we agree we are in the same meeting, so there is some conventional reality functioning and we’re able to communicate on some level; but my individual experience of this meeting is also probably quite different to that of my co-workers, perhaps because I am seeing different appearances all around me and am in a different mood.

Immersive reality

It is easier to see how a virtual meeting cannot be found objectively, outside the mind — and I think we may as well explore this now while we’re having all these Zoom meetings. So what about when our bodies, including our eyes and ears, meet again one day in the same physical room — where is the meeting then? We might agree that we are surrounded by the same walls and the same people, and it is easy to grasp more tightly at the colors, shapes, sounds, shapes, and tactile objects that are appearing to our sense awarenesses as being an objective reality. It is the same when we put on virtual reality glasses – the world of our senses is so immersive that it is easy to fall into the hallucination that it is really happening.

However, even when we are meeting in the same room, where is that meeting really taking place? Is it the colors or shapes and so on of the carpet or the walls or the other people? No. Again, the more we try to pinpoint the meeting, the more it disappears like a mirage. The meeting only exists as conventional agreement or appearance or imputation, just like the seemingly real solid forest I talk about in this article, Mere karmic appearance of mind.

virtual reality glassesAll this is showing that our mind has the extraordinary ability to be seemingly everywhere and nowhere, or rather beyond everywhere and nowhere because it is formless, a different entity or dimension to the physical world.

We cannot point to the mind in the supposedly physical world NOR to any objects outside of it. The appearances of this world exist as reflections or projections held by mind, like a sky reflected in a lake or like a dream. If we dream a Zoom meeting, for example, the moment the dream mind ceases (because we wake up), the moment the meeting ends. It is the same for any Zoom meeting you have while you’re awake.

Experience on demand

One of the main features of virtual reality technology is that it gives us experience on demand. If we understand how our mind is projecting our reality even without the enhanced technology, we can change our reality on demand by changing our thoughts or experiences.

Here is a simple illustration – changing our thoughts into thoughts of love. How do we stop feeling bored with all the people we’ve been in lockdown with for months now and yearning for more interesting company elsewhere?! Through love.

animal Zoom
Zoom Meeting

Talking of Zoom meetings, apparently one highlight for people is seeing their co-workers’ pets. Which got me to thinking how cats and dogs and even children can be incredibly boring if we don’t love them, even irritating; but utterly fascinating if we do. And what do you think about this theory – the reason that human beings often love their cats and dogs so much is because they’ve given themselves permission to do so. They feel safe in loving them, and they are happy to keep increasing that love. They allow the love inside them to come out fully. What’s to stop us loving everyone around us that way too? I bet you’d find they become a LOT less boring if you do.

Love

I saw this lovely Rumi quote today on Facebook and will leave you with it:

Finally, talking of Buddha’s teachings now live-streaming all over the planet, this Spring Festival coming up is the first time ever that an International Kadampa Buddhist Festival is open to anyone around the world who has a computer. Unbelievable. And perhaps thousands of people will tune in and share this powerful experience with each other, I wouldn’t be surprised. Click here to find out more about it.

Okay, out of space, whatever that means. Part 2 on its way.

Over to you — please leave your virtual reality comments in the virtual reality box below.

A few relevant articles

Experience and reality

A practical paradigm shift

The non-thingyness of things

7 good reasons to learn how to meditate in a pandemic

(Scroll down for a simple 10-15 minute meditation you can do at home.)

As I don’t need to tell you, a lot of people around the world have been doing their best for several weeks now to practice social distancing — staying home, avoiding crowds, wearing masks, etc. Some projections have us doing some kind of social distancing for the next 12 months, possibly longer. Although living like this can be lonely, inconvenient, and even frightening, insofar as people are managing it is because they know it’s for the collective good. why we are staying home

This global pandemic has altered the very fabric of our existence, in one fell swoop shutting down everything we hold dear, from sports to movies to cafes to the very notion of human interaction. It’s uncomfortable to wake up each morning still under lockdown if we’re not used to it, and especially if we prefer being around people all day doing lots of stuff …

… BUT it doesn’t have to be all bad, especially if we can use the time to explore different ways to be happy and productive. Therefore, I’m going to share seven ways in which meditation can support our mental and emotional well-being during this time and indeed any time. I have basically stolen this whole list from a brilliant friend of mind who teaches meditation all over Ireland (with his permission, and his points are in blue). As Kadam Adam says:

By integrating some meditation practice into our daily routine, we will discover some of the benefits that meditators have experienced for thousands of years.

Just so you know, if you are coming upon this blog for the first time — you don’t need to be a Buddhist to learn Buddhist meditation and find peace, positivity, and joy in your life, whatever circumstances you find yourself in. Meditation basically means familiarizing and identifying ourselves with positive and happy ways of thinking, and breaking negative habits of mind that cause stress and unhappiness. It helps us a lot, and it helps us to become strong for others.

1. When we can’t go out, it gives us an opportunity to go in.

In meditation, we take a little time out each day to be alone, recover our strength, collect our thoughts, and see things in perspective.

Many of us usually have a habit of keeping ourselves mentally and physically busy, and almost exclusively oriented toward the never-ending externals of life. So now that we are stuck at home, I mean safe at home, with loads of time – as opposed to on the Cornteen cartoonfrontlines or suddenly having to homeschool the kids – is this not a perfect time to pick up those neglected meditation books and/or tune into a livestream channel (aka Buddhist TV) near us?!

Anyone can learn to meditate providing they have a mind to. I would argue that it is considerably more constructive and fun than being a media junkie using up all our new-found spare time to stay up to date with what dreadful stuff has happened in the past ten minutes. We can do nothing about the vast majority of headline news, after all; so all that happens after a bit of titillation is that we end up feeling more enervated or anxious.

This interruption in the routines of daily life can give us a chance to form a new habit—to turn inwards a little more often instead of habitually outwards. As Gen Rigpa, the Kadampa Buddhist teacher in Los Angeles, put it to his students:

“Free time can either lead to more movies, more eating, more drinking, more sleeping, more mindless diversions, more nervous energy, more boredom … or more enjoyment of your own mind through the magic of contemplation and meditation. See if you can learn to relax your mind more often and a little more deeply, and get more familiar with the richness and power of simple meditation practices. And remember, small changes and seemingly small decisions add up to massive differences in the long run. From one point of view you are the summation of your habits, and now is a great time to form some new ones, or strengthen the good ones you already have!”

2. Stay calm and cope

In meditation, we learn how to develop and maintain a calm, clear, and peaceful state of mind that helps us cope with the difficulties we face at this time, without feeling overwhelmed by them.

As Gen Rigpa said:

“During lockdown, it is easy for restlessness, anxiety, or boredom to creep in and take charge, but we can improve our response to this new combination of adversity and free time. Meditation practice is the one thing that can really protect us from the painful appearances we are always trying to escape.”

Buddha divided problems into two – outer problems (circumstances we find ourselves in such as weird pandemics) and inner problems (our unpeaceful uncontrolled feelings or mental reactions). These two types of problem have two types of solution, epitomized in keep calm and wash your handsthis COVID-19 sign: staying calm is dealing with our inner problems and washing our hands is dealing with our outer problems.

For example, if you try the breathing meditation helpfully offered by KA below, you might find that you relax and feel more peaceful and happy in your heart. Feeling peaceful is the opposite of feeling unpeaceful. Therefore, with this new experience we are directly antidoting the unhappiness, depression, worry, and so on that (1) cause our mental pain and (2) get in the way of our doing anything constructive with our outer problems.

Rather than “Freak out and wash your hands!”, solving these inner problems also helps us to solve our outer problems because when we are feeling peace and love at our heart we’re more likely and energized to do the right thing and be productive. As the saying goes, we can’t wring our hands and roll up our sleeves at the same time.

3. Feel happy inside, feel happy everywhere

We discover that the more we meditate the more peaceful our mind becomes, and the naturally happier we feel. In this way, we find we are at peace with, and simply happy to be where we are, even if that’s in self-isolation.

All meditations from simple breathing meditations to the most profound meditations on wisdom or Tantra have a common purpose, to make our mind calm and peaceful. As it happens, our mind is already naturally peaceful. As we experience and develop that peace by mastering our own thoughts through the application of Buddha’s practical teachings, or Dharma, it becomes richer and deeper, until one day we discover we can stay happy day and night. Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 2.57.35 PM 

One practical suggestion from me is to avoid binge-watching every single TV show and movie you can lay your eyes on, and instead get to bed and up again at a reasonable hour. First opportunity we get in the morning, we can grab ourselves a tea/coffee and a meditation book, and start the day anchored in happiness. As we prepare to get up from meditation, we can set our mental compass to caring for others and therewith more happiness throughout the day.

Back to Gen Rigpa:

“This way, rather than our mind getting hijacked by the relentless assault of the news and ordinary distractions, we can use these as fuel for our already primed and activated Dharma mindset. Make creating a Dharma experience within your mind the first priority of the day, then embrace the day from that space.”

4. Identify and let go of unhealthy feelings

We learn how to mindfully identify unhealthy feelings such as anxiety, fear, stress, and loneliness as they arise, without feeling overly identified with them. In this way, we can use meditation to let them go and deal with the difficulties we meet with a calm, peaceful and flexible mind.

When we learn about meditation, we come to understand that, far from being fixed and solid and real, our thoughts are as fleeting and insubstantial as clouds in the sky. By stepping back and identifying with our spacious sky-like mind rather than each passing cloud, we can see the bigger picture. Indeed we can step back and create the bigger picture.

This is because we get to choose our thoughts. We can learn to temporarily let go of all those mistaken distorted ways of thinking and seeing things, which make us unhappy, depressed, angry, worried, and so on; and then dig deeper with wisdom to eliminate them entirely. There is a lot about this essential spiritual practice of overcoming delusions in Kadampa Life, for example herescenic tree

5. Grow our innate good qualities

We learn how to cultivate the innate potential we all have for qualities such as loving- kindness, compassion, and wisdom. This helps us to feel increasingly at peace with ourselves, others, and our troubled world, as we develop healthier and wiser ways of relating to our current situation.

We have the choice to cultivate new ways of viewing ourselves, the world, and each other that make us feel more and more loving, connected, compassionate, and patient.

There is no limit to this process. Everyone with a mind has the potential to become an enlightened being – someone who has removed ALL their delusions, obstructions, and limitations and cultivated their love, compassion, and wisdom to perfection. Here is my favorite quote from William Blake:

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

In times of uncertainty, we can always trust our peaceful Buddha nature, our potential for enlightenment. This is who we really are. We have goodness and sanity at our core, we ARE goodness and sanity at our core — we simply need to learn how to go inside and access that. That is the practice of meditation.

6. A guaranteed way to help others

A little daily meditation can be the kindest thing we can do for everyone, at this time. The more at peace we are with ourselves, the more at peace we can be with others. This can be especially helpful if we are spending more time with our loved ones, than we are normally used to.

As I mentioned in this article, even the media is encouraging people to take up meditation:

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.

Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 2.59.19 PMIn the comments to that CNN article, someone wrote, “I feel guilty about doing this meditation practice when there is so much going on.” I have experienced this survivor’s guilt myself in the past, but now I understand that feeling bad about feeling good, as it were, is like one drowning person who wants to help another drowning person feeling guilty about making for dry land. We can’t help others if we are in no position to do so. Or another example is like one cell of the body of life feeling guilty because it is healthy when in fact its own health helps the health of those around it.

We can remember too that meditation doesn’t just mean sitting on a cushion (or couch), closing our eyes, and absorbing within. That is meditation, but meditation is also whenever we familiarize ourselves with wisdom, kindness, and other virtuous states of mind as antidotes to our delusions. Which means we can be practicing meditation all day long, it is a way of life.

For example, when you’re practicing the patience of happily accepting suffering with something difficult coming up in your day, not yelling at someone, you know how this is very different from getting upset and annoyed? This is every bit as much meditation as when we are sitting with our eyes closed in single-pointed concentration.

For those of you wondering what meditation practices to do during this time, I would like to share this advice, courtesy once again of Gen Rigpa:

Newer practitioners may like to start with basic breathing meditations (like the one below).

“You can also create your own meditation practice by reading a paragraph or two from How to Transform Your Life, How to Solve Our Human Problems, Modern Buddhism, or any other favorite Buddhist book; and then close your eyes and think about what you have read until it “touches your heart”. Then just hold that special feeling gently in your mind for a few minutes so that you take it out of meditation and into your daily activities. In that way you transform your day into an expression of Dharma and everything becomes part of your spiritual path. [Ed: two of those books are free, see links on the right column of this blog.]

“In addition for more experienced practitioners, one practice you may like to emphasize at this time is the incredible meditation called Taking and Giving. Many of Venerable Geshe-la’s books teach this ancient healing practice (The New Eight Steps to Happiness, How to Transform Your Life, Universal Compassion, Modern Buddhism etc.), and it is the perfect way to transform adversity into spiritual realizations, meditating and dedicating for the sick, those who have died, the medical workers—for everyone around the world affected by this pandemic.”

7. Transform difficulties into personal growth

Finally we discover, if we can learn to respond to difficult situations — such as the one we are in — with a peaceful, positive state of mind, they don’t need to feel such a problem for us. Indeed, we may even come to regard them as challenges or opportunities for personal growth and development.

By training our mind in meditation we come to experience purer and purer forms of happiness — happiness that, because it comes from within, is unaffected by externals or conditional upon life going our way. Eventually we can be happy all the time, even in the most difficult circumstances. rainbow

My teacher Venerable Geshe Kelsang is for me a shining example of this ability to transform difficulties into the spiritual journey toward lasting freedom; and Kadampa Buddhism in particular specializes in this practice. In the 1950s, China invaded Tibet and he escaped in a hurry with just his robes and two texts. He had to leave the only country he had ever known, along with his language, monastery, family, and everything else, to go on an incredibly dangerous and difficult journey to India over the Himalayas. That, to put it mildly, would be a disruption to one’s routine.

Many years later at Madhyamaka Centre, where I first found Buddhism, I met some of the people who knew Geshe-la at the time. They told me that throughout this whole ordeal he stayed as beautifully calm, peaceful, and happy as he always was. Then he entered a long 16-year retreat and also practiced healing. Not once in this exile did he become unhappy or anxious – such is the power of a fully trained mind. Later, in his forties, he was able with compassion to bring all that wisdom he’d internalized through his challenging life to the West, and I and hundreds of thousands of his other students are testament to that power.

So when he says, as he does in The New Eight Steps To Happiness …

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.

… we can believe him. If he can do it, and I now have all the same methods he had, I can transform anything; and so too can you if you want.

Right now, the narratives of our lives are unsettled. In modern society, we’ve gotten used to a cliched set of plotlines; but these carefully constructed stories no longer apply in the same way. The future looks totally strange and uncertain for many people — obviously for those who have tragically died or lost loved ones or find themselves out of work, but also for those missing major milestones in their own lives such as graduation or marriage. All the things that normally interest us are not holding our attention as much, replaced by endless COVID-19 headlines that people can’t seem to get enough of. Even the usual “he-said, she-said” of political debate doesn’t seem to be fascinating people to the same extent. Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 3.01.30 PM

When exposed to harsh reality — such as sickness, ageing, and death – the well-trod narratives tend to collapse under the weight of their own contradictions. This is Buddha’s point about the fleeting, deceptive, and dream-like nature of samsara, the cycle of impure life. But in losing the plot we can now chart a new course.

Hopefully this article has helped you see how, if we can learn to stay peaceful and calm and increase our wisdom and compassion, we will become a strong reliable person, a source of refuge for others. This may not happen overnight, but is nonetheless entirely possible.

A simple 7-step breathing meditation practice to support mental and emotional well-being (10 to 15 minutes)
  1. Find a quiet place to sit (a chair is fine) that is free of distractions. Partially close your eyes. Back straight but relaxed. Hands resting in your lap. Breathe gently and naturally through the nostrils. Let go of focusing externally and gather your awareness inwards.
  2. Begin by generating a wish to use the meditation to improve your inner peace, happiness and good qualities, so that it will be of benefit to both yourself and others.
  3. Next, be aware — without judgement — where your mind is at, in this moment. Is it calm, clear and peaceful? Or, busy and distracted? To let go of agitation and distraction and center in a calm, clear and peaceful state of mind, focus – without distraction – on the sensation of breath as it enters and leaves through your nostrils.
  4. When you notice you are following thoughts and distractions, simply acknowledge and accept their presence, and let go of the urge to follow them. Then, relax and return to the breath, allowing your attention to draw closer and closer to the breath each time.
  5. Eventually your attention will rest on the breath and you will notice the distractions naturally dissolve, like waves returning to an ocean. You will feel a deepening sense of inner calm, clarity, and peace of mind.
  6. Just relax into this inner peace and identify with it as your potential to change, to find a deeper and longer lasting peace of mind and happiness. Thinking, if I can become a little more peaceful, a little happier through a little meditation, it follows I can become a lot more peaceful, a lot happier, through regular meditation.
  7. Conclude the meditation with a determination to maintain this inner calm and peace throughout your day, so that it naturally, and positively, influences everything you think, say and do.

Over to you. Please share with the rest of us what practices or resources you are finding most helpful during these unusual times.

(Images courtesy of scenes from my neighborhood and lame jokes found online.)

Related articles on dealing with COVID-19

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s suggestion

NOPE!

Love in the time of corona

Love the great Protector

Better together

Audio meditations to do at home

 

Better together

Everything is being shaken up right now for almost everyone, one way or another. Business and activities as usual, including many of our distractions, are on hold. The future looks pretty cloudy and unsustainable based on our old ways of doing things; it would appear that something has to give.

Geshe-la meditating in his roomHopefully a lot of you, the relatively lucky ones who are forced to stay “safe at home”, have actually had a chance to rest and rejuvenate … you may have forgotten this, but in the “old days” we constantly complained of being too busy, stressed, even burned out. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say “I LOVE the idea of meditation!” but then never got around to it … (I’d be quite rich). If we use this time to deliberately reset our intentions and our hearts through meditation practices including loving-kindness, things will work out a lot better moving forward. Instead of giving ourselves over to anxiety (a “misuse of the imagination”) or aimlessly twiddling our thumbs, it makes us feel far more alive to take control of our days and hours.

Cells in the same body of life

We are all like cells in the body of life in two ways and there is nothing uniquely special about us in that respect.

To remind you of the first way, as explained in this last article Love the Great Protector — at the moment we may view ourself as being independent of everyone else – I am over here being me and you are over there being you — but that gap is not actually there. Where is that gap? When we meditate on the interconnectedness of self and others,  we realize that without others we’re literally nothing. We melt away like individual snowflakes. We don’t exist.

Buddha said that we are not wholes unto ourselves but part of a whole, only existing in dependence upon all the other parts. This is not just theoretical, it is reality. We need this deeper knowing so that we are not sucked into the illusion of loneliness every day.

Plus right now we can see that we are all on the same side fighting the same foe – we always are, it’s just clearer at the moment. We do have a common enemy and it is not each other – it is ignorance and delusions, suffering in general, and at this point in time the particular suffering arising from COVID-19.

We could recognize what needs to be done, practically speaking, without wasting time apportioning blame. Blaming each other with anger doesn’t really help, it generally makes things worse, and it tends to make us feel more powerless. We can stop blaming each other by recognizing that we are all in this together, that far from being each other’s enemies we are each other’s life support system.

better togetherWhen we really come to feel that we are cells in the same body of life, it’s not hard to appreciate that everything we do affects others and everything they do affects us. The parts affect the whole and the whole affects the parts. This is why our constant attempts to separate ourselves out backfire. When we go through life thinking “Me, me, me,” all day long (“What about me and my happiness, that’s what’s most important!”) — neglecting others and pursuing our own wishes at the expense of others — then we are not just harming others but harming ourselves. If everyone in the whole world is thinking “Me first!”… well, we can just look at the world to see how that is (not) working out.

Taking stock

It is a good time to take stock. Many societal fault-lines are being revealed even more glaringly during this crisis – for example what happens if we don’t care for everyone’s health without prejudice. As the now famous Fauci said yesterday: “These health disparities have long been prevalent in the African American community and that this pandemic is shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is. ”

There is no clearly good path or outcome based on how our species has been running full tilt toward wreckage due to our uncontrolled selfish desires. We need to turn this around, starting with ourselves. We can’t wait for everyone else to change – where would we be if Buddha had done that? It is extraordinary what even one person can do to help their community if they put their mind to it – people who deeply cherish others are like “magic crystals”.

Caring about others is the best intention. Because we are all cells in the same body of life, what is good for one person must be good for another; and if we are harming others, we are harming ourselves. We all impact each other in both life-threatening and life-saving ways. We need to wake up to this. Love helps us immediately and it helps us in the long term because the positive intentions that arise from love are congruent with our wish for good experiences in the future.

Equalizing self and others

Everyone matters and everyone matters equally. We are all exactly the same. The Shantideva quote never harm othersdifferent cells in a body play different functions, but they are all important and need to be healthy.

The second way in which we are all like cells in the same body of life is explained in the meditation called “Equalizing ourself and others”. This meditation opens our hearts to cherishing others as much as we currently cherish ourself because we are all exactly the same, equally necessary parts of the one whole.

Here is the key contemplation from The New Meditation Handbook:

Just as I wish to be free from suffering and experience only happiness, so do all other beings. In this respect, I am no different from any other being; we are all equal.

“All this happiness is driving me crazy!” said no one ever. And who wants to be unhappy!? Right, nobody.

We’ve been working non-stop forever to be happy and free from unhappiness, but something we are doing is not working. Buddha identified that as self-grasping and self-cherishing ignorance, putting our own happiness and freedom before others’, which has brought about “a painful situation,” as Geshe Kelsang says, in all our countless lives.

The starting point of this meditation is: “Everyone is exactly like me. We all have the same wishes. I know their hearts.” We can practice it with our friends first, even just one friend, and then extend our contemplation to encompass more and more living beings.

What is life like for this person? We put ourselves in their shoes. This is empathy. If we don’t rush it but sit with this meditation, we will notice our heart starts to open. The first time I did this meditation was for my paternal grandmother, as explained in this article. It led to the liberating discovery that I could choose whom I love. I could choose my thoughts about people. It is not up to them whom I love, it is up to me. And this affection always makes me feel happy.

Through this meditation on equalizing self and others we come to understand what it is like for everyone in their hearts because they are just like me — they are as 3-dimensional as I am and have just as strong wishes for happiness and freedom. Far from being extras in the movie in which I play a starring role, they are all lead actors themselves.

Buddha’s advice on equalizing might even help us survive our relationships and/or prevent us killing our kids (jk. It’s just that a news alert popped up when I was writing this sentence, “Can your marriage survive the coronavirus?”)

Same boat

What is the difference between me and anyone else, therefore? What makes me more worthy or deserving of freedom and happiness than anyone else in this house or anywhere else? Nothing. We are all exactly the same and completely and utterly equal. We all want the same things — to be happy and free. No one is better than anyone else. Putting ourselves first therefore doesn’t work because it is not based on a realistic vision. Something as dramatic as this pandemic can help us to see that.

I spoke to a nurse on the front lines who is not happy about the “non-compliant” or flippant people taking risks, not realizing they could bring this virus to others including their own friends and family – she told me that it feels like an insult to her sacrifices. This is why people are doing a good thing by staying at home and why we may as well make the most of it. We can start by reframing it as being “safe” at home and having the opportunity to rest, rejuvenate, and think deeply about where we want to go next individually and collectively.

As Madonna said it (from her bathtub as it happens, but why not, anything goes these days):

We are all in the same boat. And if the ship goes down, we’re all going down together.

boat with hole in itShe talked about this pandemic being the great equalizer (hence the bathtub I guess). I was thinking about that too when I saw that some of the late night comedy hosts are doing their shows from their couch or porch, filmed by their partners. Without the glitz and glamor of the showbiz, without the studio audience and the band, it felt no different to a Skype call I could have had with any number of amusing friends. We are all exactly the same, and to their credit the late night hosts seem to agree.

The masks reveal who we really are

How as individuals and as a society have we been viewing and treating other human beings who may not look exactly like us, but who upon closer examination obviously are us? As Seneca put it:

We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.

I don’t often quote Seneca, in fact this is a first; but I just read that quote in a thoughtful article about how many people are coming together to help each other all over the world, in ways big and small. In it, the author talks about the equalizing effect of the masks we are all wearing:

masksThe mask also represents a world all in action at once, waves of the same sea, united against a common threat. When you put on a mask your features disappear, erasing the differences of skin color or face shape that trigger so many of our socially conditioned responses to the news. The masks work just as well whether you’re black, brown or white, Chinese, Italian, or Nigerian. What we are seeing now is something truly global in scale.

With equalizing, we recognize that everyone is a Me or an I. This includes every single human being. And, frankly, it also includes every single animal, who have just the same constant wish to be free from suffering and to be happy – as your cat will tell you loudly when you accidentally step on her tail. We would do well to recognize that all animals are part of our world, part of this whole, part of our body of life – and we depend on them as they do us. Do we usually pay much heed to their suffering? If we don’t, maybe we should.

panda in zooWe have to stop being cruel. Karmically our indifference, disdain, or cruelty is creating the causes for terrible times ahead. Word on the street is that pandemics come from our abuse of animals, and now, I’ve been thinking, here we are also locked in like billions of animals. What makes us so sure that these kinds of situations won’t deteriorate even more over time if we keep sowing careless and harmful intentions into our world?

Helping others makes us feel better

Would you say that deep in people’s core is the desire to be of service to others, to do something truly good from their hearts? Buddhists would say that the delusions get in the way, yet our hearts are naturally good. We are a bit like teenagers, or even children as Buddha would say, when it comes to selfless service to others. But the thing about children is that they have the potential to grow up. There is nothing wrong with any of us deep down, just a lack of knowledge and/or practice.

Good actions come from good intentions and lead to good outcomes. Many people, maybe all, find that helping others is deeply satisfying — far more so than just following our own selfish desires. As Shantideva succinctly puts it:

The childish work only for themselves,
Whereas the Buddhas work only for others.
Just look at the difference between them.

Helping others is where it’s at — this is what Buddha, Jesus, and all other great spiritual leaders have always said. It’s also an observable fact and we already kind of know it – we just don’t always act by it. But we feel better when we do, which makes sense when we understand we are all cells in the same body of life. Here are some “real-life” examples:

“It feels good to be able to do something,” D’Antonio (a maker of masks) said. “Because you feel helpless in this whole thing.” Despite the fear, anxiety and heartache, rather than the normal stress response of flight or fight, we can tap into a natural “tend and befriend” impulse, as one psychologist put it rather well:

“It can actually help us cultivate well-being in the midst of this pandemic. It also spreads hope. There’s so much we can’t control, but the one thing we can control is to help somebody or offer some kindness or compassion. That is what the virus hasn’t touched, these innate capacities we have as humans.”

One person shopping for the elderly put it: “I think it’s really important in times of crisis, when people are doing something positive it does make you feel a little bit calmer and more in control. It certainly does me. And another: “I do think the act of giving just makes us feel better. It feels as though we’re doing something, we’re part of a collective effort.” And another: “I think we just felt panic never solves anything, let’s focus some of that energy on really helping the people in our community.”

At a loss as to what to do practically to help?

Even if we can’t make any grand gestures to help others because we can’t think of any, we can keep our friends, family, and elderly neighbors in our thoughts and reach out to them by phone or on Facetime, especially those whom we know are more isolated than usual. Shelters are crying out for people to foster cats and dogs right now; and I know from caring for the two I have that they are a helpful reminder that, however bad we have it in the human realm, it is still far better than being an animal.

nailed it jigsawAnd even if for whatever reason we cannot do anything practical at all right now, we should know that our mental actions are very powerful, in a karmic sense even more powerful than physical and verbal actions, and that our prayers help. The practice known as “taking and giving” is also a massively useful and beautiful practice, always giving us a way to help others; and you can read up how to do it in this free ebook, in the chapter Taking and Giving.

Summary

To summarize these last 4 articles written for the age of Corona, we are all in this together.

We see the “me” in each other through equalizing self and others, because we see everyone is Me.

We see all the others in me when we meditate on how we are composed of others, rather like a wave arising in an ocean is composed directly or indirectly of all the other waves — without others we do not exist. We all need each other and no one is more important than anyone else.

This global appearance of the virus is bringing that home. The more we use this time at home to tune into this wisdom, the bigger our heart will grow and the more our problems will shrink.

there's more to life on the insideLast but not least, it’s immensely helpful to remember how everything is the same nature as our mind, like a dream or a reflection of a moon in a rippling lake. Through this we’ll see how, whenever we develop wisdom and compassion, we are already changing the make-up of our world because everything starts and ends in our minds. Avalokiteshvara, the Compassion Buddha, is known as “the most powerful one of all” because compassion is infinitely more powerful than the delusions of hate and attachment, it is an indestructible response to the way things are.

Here is a short meditation to conclude:

Short meditation

We can do some breathing meditation to get into our heart. 

We identify with the gold nugget of our Buddha nature, not the dirt of the delusions. If we do this, it is not hard to get rid of the dirt – but if we are trying to get rid of the dirt while identifying with the dirt, we will get nowhere. 

We identify also with our natural warmth (or our “instinctive compassion” as Queen Elizabeth referred to it the other day.)

We think that everyone is sitting around us – countless in number. Everyone wants to be happy and free from suffering just as I do. We can choose one person first, contemplate their life and wishes until our heart moves, and then expand this affection to others.

We understand that each one of them is exactly like us. It is only our delusions that are isolating us and cutting us off from others, as if we are a cell existing in a vacuum all on our own.

AvalokiteshvaraWe are all equally cells in body of life, all parts of the same whole. Everyone is equally important and equally deserving of happiness and freedom. In this way, we develop love, concern, and compassion for all living beings.

If we like, why not, we can finish off by putting a Buddha on everyone’s crown. We can think, for example, that the compassion of all enlightened beings is appearing as Avalokiteshvara on their crowns, pouring blessings into them, healing their body and mind.

Over to you – what have you been up to during these unusual times?!

Related articles 

Equalizing self and others

What’s the difference between us?

The courage to love

 

Passing on a message …

Geshe-la messageDear Everybody,

Although we see an unusual situation which is causing people to be worried and to suffer, I would like to suggest that through using our wisdom we try to make ourself happy and everyone happy, which means we should stop worrying.

I will personally pray for you all and your families.

With much love and blessings

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

April 4th 2020

(As relayed by Gen-la Dekyong during her worldwide NKT Day Talk.)

Love, the great Protector

10 mins read.

Once upon a time, about 3 weeks ago, when human beings roamed freely upon the Earth, two neighbors brushed right past each other without so much as a smile.

Screen Shot 2020-04-03 at 3.28.18 PMAll that changed in early 2020. These are indeed more surreal times than most of us can probably remember, and immensely challenging for just about everybody; but a lot of people are being amazing and brave when it comes right down to it. Despite the physical distancing, they are finding ways to connect with one another and to support their families and neighbors in this time of crisis, with kind gestures being made across the world to combat the dislocation, isolation, and potential insanity being brought on by the COVID-19 lockdown.

As I mentioned in this last article, people’s Buddha nature is shining. Not only do we owe a huge debt to the beautiful people on the frontlines of this battle, but people everywhere are trying hard to make a difference. Volunteers are making free deliveries. Sewing experts have been cranking out medical masks. Restaurants have been giving away food to employees, passers by, and the elderly. Individuals, including some children, are raising huge amounts of money for those in need and volunteering to run errands for high-risk people. Some are breaking into spontaneous song to cheer each other up from balconies, or making music on the Internet, including this beautiful offering: 

Even from beyond the grave, poignantly, an 88-year-old man in North Manchester who died of the virus has asked friends and family to carry out acts of kindness in his memory rather than offer flowers.

If there is any silver lining to this crisis, it is that people are experiencing more empathy at the moment because we all perhaps realize, for a change, that we are in the same boat. For example, I read this:

“This is the first time lots of us have looked at shelves and thought actually I need something and I can’t have it, and so we’re better able to relate to people living in poverty who feel like that quite a lot of the time.”

A friend just texted me:

“The neighbors have been quite enjoyable lately … very kind and compassionate, offering whatever needed to get by, coming together, communal.”

Stories have been appearing of people currently embracing the values of kindness, cooperation, self-sacrifice, and patience over materialistic values where every man or woman is out for themselves. People are finding plenty of free ways to spread love and cheer, such as costumes, parodies, front-lawn jam sessions, and this chalked sign I just walked past on the sidewalk.

we're in this togetherMoney, reputation, and so on clearly do not buy happiness because external conditions can never be the true source of happiness, or meaning for that matter. They never have been and never will be; and, at times like this, it is more obvious.

Of course we need basic human conditions because we are human beings …

as Venerable Geshe Kelsang puts it in The New Meditation Handbook,

… but external conditions can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful.

Cells in the same body of life

Peace and love are not some utopian fantasy, nor optional extras in our pursuit of happiness — they ARE our happiness.

Starting with a deeply encouraging understanding of our true nature, our potentially boundless good heart, Buddha revealed 84,000 methods that allow us to embrace and fully realize our Buddha nature. I plan on sharing a few of these to help us change our fundamental way of seeing ourselves and others, whether we are safe at home in lockdown or in the midst of the frightening overcrowded chaos of the hospitals. These simple considerations can help us become more loving, wise, and selfless, making both ourselves and others more peaceful and happy in the process.

Screen Shot 2020-03-26 at 12.27.39 AMWe don’t always see so clearly how we are all completely interdependent like cells in the same body of life — distinct yet intimately bound up with others. There are two ways to understand this, both of which help us to develop empathy and love. One is that we are interconnected in a web of kindness from which it is impossible to separate ourselves, and the other is that in all the ways that count we are exactly the same.

Our interconnectedness

We depend upon others for everything – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life (available as a free eBook here):

All the time our day-to-day needs are provided through the kindness of others. We brought nothing with us from our former life, yet as soon as we were born, we were given a home, food, clothes, and everything we needed – all provided through the kindness of others.

And nothing in that sense has changed since the day of our birth — all our day-to-day needs are still provided through the kindness of others. When we wander through aisles empty of toilet paper in the grocery store, we complain – but when those aisles are full, how often do we consider the incredible amount of people involved in inventing toilet paper, manufacturing it, transporting it, and stocking the shelves?

That is one small comfort of life, among others too numerous to count – so what about the plumbing, for a start, something we also take for granted until the plumber is too sick with the virus to sort out the blocked pipes. What about our life and health themselves – if this pandemic is showing us anything, it is the enormous debt we owe to those who have trained so long and work so hard to look after us when we are not well. Plus all the people who support them. Plus all the people who support them. And so on.

kindness of front linesWhen the infrastructure starts to crumble, as it is rapidly doing — when health workers and computer specialists and food manufacturers and school teachers are not able to do their work — it is not hard to see how much we have been taking them for granted. Ask any parent! Even WordPress has been acting up since this all started, making me appreciate how much I depend on it (100%) to get these articles out.

Through the meditation on the kindness of others, we see how we are in every way completely bound up with other living beings – none of us can separate ourselves out.

Our sense that we are an island, an independent, self-sufficient individual, bears no relation to reality. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Trying to split ourselves off from others is not realistic and so it doesn’t work:

It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. We cannot exist without others, and they in turn are affected by everything we do. The idea that it is possible to secure our own welfare while neglecting that of others, or even at the expense of others, is completely unrealistic.

If we sit with this image for a while and let it touch our heart, we naturally wish for the health and happiness of the entire body. All the other cells of this body make up our very infrastructure. If we started to hand back everything others have given us, within seconds there will be literally nothing left of us. Try doing it and see.

Every gesture connects us to the entire world

Every gesture we make and every step we take is evidence that we are all cells in the same body of life. If I lean over to pick up this glass of water, how many people are involved in that one gesture alone? The arm comes from my parents, for a start, plus all the food that comes from others. I had nothing to do with the invention, manufacturing, or delivery of that glass, yet without it the water would be all over the table. Only there wouldn’t be a table without others. Or water, for that matter.

I read a great book called “Thanks a Thousand”, where the author “decided to thank every single person involved in producing his morning cup of coffee. The resulting journey takes him across the globe, transforms his life, and reveals secrets about how gratitude can make us all happier, more generous, and more connected.” Well worth a read – far more uplifting than an hour of the news.

Thanks a thousandOthers matter. That is what cherishing others mean – we think they matter, and that their happiness and freedom are important. So we try to make them happy and we try to do nothing to harm them because why would we harm the body of which we are a part?

The role of animals

This is also a really good time to remember not just our human but our billions of animal neighbors with whom we share this planet, who are also cells of this same body of life. We hate being made to stay inside even our own home – but we have been keeping animals trapped inside in alien cages in despicable conditions for decades for our own purposes with scant regard to how they feel.

As I read in an email about factory farming:

The COVID-19 crisis is concrete evidence of our interdependence. Our health and wellbeing is impacted by the health and wellbeing of others, including the animals who are raised for food.

Virtually every other recent pandemic threat—like swine flu H1N1 or bird flu H5N1—has been directly linked to factory farms. This is arguably why, while we are on the subject:

There is no other public health measure that could so dramatically reduce the risk of another pandemic virus emerging as reforming industrial animal agriculture.

factory farmPublic health measures start with a change of heart, and I hope that one thing this crisis might bring about is a more widespread understanding of how harming animals is really harming us human beings as well. This is both in the short term because it gives rise to a profoundly unhealthy way of life, as well as in the long term because of the awful karmic causes we are creating to experience similar conditions ourselves. It makes perfect sense for all of us to overcome both our selfish desires that harm animals and our senseless human exceptionalism.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were as responsive to being told to stop abusing animals for our own and others’ good as we are to being told to stay inside for our own and others’ good?

The health of this body

In a body, the health and happiness of one cell depends upon the health and happiness of the whole body and vice versa. It is never just about little old me. Putting ourselves first doesn’t help us or anyone else. If one rogue cell decides out of egotistical selfishness to do its own thing, maybe co-opting others to its selfish aims in return for favors … what would we call that?!

Cancer. Which in the process of destroying the body also destroys itself. No one wins.

Grasping at an independent self who is more important than all the others selves or Me’s leads to disaster for that self and for everyone else sooner or later. Self-cherishing both creates our suffering by leading to delusions and negative karma, and is the basis for our suffering because it makes our mind deluded and unpeaceful. And we can see why it doesn’t work if we understand that we are all equally cells in the body of life and therefore the welfare of the collective matters.

kindness of othersBy caring for the whole, we are caring for the parts. By caring for all the parts, we are caring for the whole, which includes us. If we care for others our needs will sooner or later be met through creating the right karmic causes and keeping a peaceful, positive mind despite any difficulties. Everybody wins.

This virus is showing us our profound interconnectedness and requisite social obligations by in some ways forcing us to adopt ways of thinking and behaviors that transcend the individual and help everyone collectively, including us. Once it is all over, let’s hope these lessons remain learned and our society becomes far healthier and happier as a result.

Out of time for now, I will conclude this topic in the next article. Meantime, please share how are you are doing under lockdown, including anything you have found helpful.

Related articles

The kindness of mother beings 

Others are the gift that keeps on giving 

A Buddhist take on factory farming