Harnessing our spiritual power for change

Guest article by British Kadampa Julie Stewart — filmmaker, theatre practitioner and actor living in Harlem NYC. 

Julie portrait

To begin with, we can gently allow our focus to be on our breath — on the sensation of the breath going in and out of our nostrils. If any thoughts arise in the mind we simply don’t follow them, and if it wanders we can bring our awareness back to our breathing. We can recognize that when we focus on the sensation of our breath, our mind automatically becomes more peaceful. Now we can gently open our eyes.

Today is June 19,  Juneteenth, commemorating the end of slavery in the US. It’s also known as “Freedom Day.” I have been thinking a lot today about freedom and how we all want it in one form or another. We all like the idea of freedom. And I’ve also been thinking how fortunate it is we’re here today with the freedom to learn these teachings; that we even have access to these amazing Buddhist practices that have the power to change our minds. How many people in this world right now don’t have access to these teachings, don’t even know that they exist?

Then I was thinking about another kind of freedom, freedom of mind. Do we feel that we are the masters of our own minds? Do we have control over our thoughts, our feelings, our reactions to external situations?

We all tell ourselves a story about who we think we are – we all have this inner monologue, which may be characterized by mistakes, shortcomings, perceptions of what other people say and think about us, and what we can and cannot achieve. This inner monologue may be very limited but it also goes on and on. What is your inner monologue? What’s your story that you keep telling yourself, “Who do I think I am?”

I can probably guarantee that whoever you think you are, it’s a very limited version of who you actually are, because if I asked you, “Do you think you have the capability to love all living beings, to have universal compassion, to possess the deep wisdom that understands the nature of reality?, you’re probably going to reply “No.” We’re believing this limited inner monologue but it is not who we are.

Love on the streeetIt is not who Buddha thinks we are, knows we are. Buddha says that within each and every one of us there is a seed that can grow into the limitless minds of love, wisdom, and compassion.

Each and every living being has within them the seed or potential to become a Buddha, a fully enlightened being. This is our Buddha nature. ~ How to Transform Your Life

This is what we’re being told. Now we need to ask ourselves, “Am I willing to change my story? Am I going to add this to the inner monologue of my life?” Or are we thinking to ourselves, “That’s not true” or “That’s not possible for me. It might be possible for everyone else, but not for me!”?

If we don’t think it’s possible, why is it we don’t believe Buddha but do believe our own limited monologue, including others’ perceptions of us? Why would we listen to those voices and not Buddha’s voice?

Buddha was a master of his own mind. He was a mental scientist. He revolutionized how people thought about their own reality. He wasn’t just a passive figure sitting calmly meditating – within that meditating was activity, he was experimenting, exploring the contents of his mind, examining it. Through this he conquered all the delusions in his own mind and has been able to inspire other people to do the same. Including us, that’s what Buddha’s asking us to do. That’s what we do with Buddhist practice.

Improv your life

We’re so familiar with telling ourselves the same story over and over again, and Buddha is saying, actually, No. There’s a malleability. There’s a flexibility of self that we haven’t even begun to explore. He’s inviting us to take the opportunity to look within our own mind and question that inner monologue so that we can smash it to pieces. And he’s able to do that because he did it himself.

In Buddha’s teachings we have found the best method to ripen this seed or potential. What we need to do now is to put these teachings into practice. ~ How to Transform Your Life

These profound Buddhist teachings are not just an intellectual exercise — we have to allow them to move our heart because an intellectual understanding alone does not motivate spiritual action. We have to do the work. It’s a two-way conversation.

Where do our delusions come from?

The reason we don’t experience the vast sky of the mind, the potential that resides within us, which is there all the time, is because of delusions. Delusions are  mistaken ways of looking at reality, and every time we have an unpleasant feeling, that’s a delusion at work. Our problem is that we’re so familiar with these unpleasant feelings that we think that these are just who we are.

But what Buddha is telling us is that delusions are simply bad mental habits. We all have bad habits that we want to break, whether that’s eating too much, smoking, taking drugs, or not doing enough exercise, but they are not who we are.

Why is it that when I hear a song on the radio that I don’t even like that I keep on singing it?! It’s because I keep on hearing it. I keep hearing it and hearing it so I start singing it and then I catch myself and say, “I don’t even like that song. Stop it.” And that’s what it’s like. you know, listening to these delusions or other people’s perceptions of us. We listen and take them to heart, and then we use them to define ourselves. It’s really quite crazy.

And the thing is about delusions is how natural and familiar they can feel to us, such that we do not think we can get rid of them. Like anger. Or attachment, because we’re thinking, “That’s just who I am. I’ve got to base my happiness on wanting this thing. That’s what I always do.” But delusions are not who we are, they are just mental habits.

We should understand that although delusions are deeply ingrained, they are not an intrinsic part of our mind and so they can definitely be removed. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Life is shortWe can think about our own dominant delusion that we have – it could be anger, jealousy, pride. We can think about how it arises in certain situations – without us even having to think about it, it is just there in a finger snap.

What about anger?

What about anger, say? We can feel that it’s justified, but Buddha is saying that it’s a distorted way of viewing reality. And I know that this can be controversial because we think anger brings about change. We do. I’ve seen it. I’ve believed it. I’ve felt it, myself, in these last few weeks. Rage. Anger. And I’ve had to really examine that mind. I’ve had to ask myself a fundamental question that Buddha asks us to consider:

Is the anger coming from inside or outside of my mind?

In Buddhism we are always saying that happiness and suffering are states of mind. And what I have been experiencing a lot in these last challenging weeks is that we can’t be fifty/fifty. We either believe it or we don’t. There is no, “In this situation it applies, but in THIS situation it doesn’t.” We really have to examine this because what happens is we get confused. So, in these challenging times, and I’ll say it as a person of color: “Is the anger coming from inside or outside of my mind?”

Buddha is not giving me a “get out” clause, and he is not going to give you one either. So, your dominant delusion – is it coming from inside or outside of your mind?

We have to contemplate this deeply, so deeply. Because what happens when we have an angry mind – and I will just talk here about my own mind – is that it feels like energy. It is visceral – it feels like a fuel that will power me to communicate, to act. But the big question that I ask myself is “Could I have the same results with the mind of compassion? Better results, even?” Because we may not think that compassion has the same fuel, but it does. However, it is motivated by love, so then why not use compassion, because compassion is not a distorted mind. Compassion is based on reality. Why? Because it’s based on love and is the natural state of our mind. Anger isn’t.

The space of acceptance

The only magicWe have to experiment for ourself. If a mind of anger arises, that’s ok, Buddha said – we first just accept the delusion in terms of accepting that it is there. We don’t fight it – instead we welcome it wholeheartedly. Then we can transform it into a wisdom that can propel us into reality.

Once delusions have arisen in our mind, accepting them wholeheartedly means that we accept the fact they have arisen. We do this in the framework of asking ourself, “Is this coming from inside or outside of my mind?” Just by asking this question we are separating ourself from the delusion and can begin to examine how a delusion works instead of following it to its unfortunate conclusion.

For example when we get angry with our partner or our friend, how do we see them? We see them as intrinsically bad, don’t we? In that moment they seem to have no good qualities, and as a result we say some really horrible things. People get hurt; and then when the anger subsides we are full of regret and have to say things like, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it, I was really angry.”

So we don’t deny the delusion once it’s in our mind – we accept it and look at it from a place of space, knowing that it’s not an intrinsic part of our mind. It’s important to give ourself that space because we really don’t want to be repressing our anger – which means we are pretending not to feel the thing that we are feeling. That’s no good. It doesn’t help.

This anger is not who we are – it is just a mental habit arising in our mind and it cannot destroy our mind any more than a thunderstorm can destroy the sky. We don’t keep defining ourselves by our delusions, by saying, “I’m an angry person. I’m a depressed person. I’m a jealous person.” Let’s stop the inner monologue of limitations. Let’s just stop. It’s not helping us. It’s not helping us reach our full potential. We can learn to stop that limited monologue and replace it with  a limitless one.

What is true change?

A lot of people think that spiritual practice is passive, as if we’re not supposed to be doing anything to change things, that we are just sitting here – it can almost be used as an excuse not to do anything. But what would actually instigate change more than being in control of our own minds and using to instigate external change?

Buddhas says there are two types of problem — the internal problems of unpleasant feelings and the external problems such as what is going on in our world – and we get the two mixed up. What is going to govern the way we solve the external problem? The wisdom knowing that there’s an inner problem and an outer problem. With this, there is such flexibility – it’s a bit like Bruce Lee. If you’ve ever watched his films, he’s got like twenty people around him and he fights them all in a matter of minutes and then he’s done, finished, all his enemies down. How? Because he’s got flexibility of body – he knows where and how to move. We should have that same flexibility with our mind so that when delusions come for us we are not afraid – we are done, finished, we have defeated the real enemies.

We are governed by the flexible power of compassion — and there is huge power in compassion. There is power in love. There is power in wisdom. These are not passive states of mind.

Holding up a mirror to our minds

Buddha says that everything is created by mind and nothing exists outside of our minds. In these last few challenging weeks I have been recollecting:

This is all a mirror to my own mind because nothing exists outside of my mind.

What is that mirror reflecting? What is that mirror telling me? It is teaching us to look at our minds of anger, rage, or trauma, or other things that I’ve heard people say, “shame”, “denial”. It’s a mirror for us to look at the things that are being brought up from inside our own minds.

Make no mistake, I am not saying that we don’t do anything to change external situations. Looking at the unpleasant feelings that are arising through causes and conditions, I’m gonna welcome them all wholeheartedly because I need to, me, it’s MY responsibility to get rid of the unpleasant feelings in my mind. Then I can look at the outer problem and deal with it in a completely different way – I can challenge it with wisdom.

Buddha Shakyamuni disrupted the caste system in India because what he said was that it doesn’t matter whether someone is low, middle, or high caste – everyone has the same Buddha nature. He also allowed women into the Buddhist order at a time it was unheard of. He even advised kings and queens how to use their power in the most beneficial way. And he accomplished all of this outer change out of compassion.

What do you really want?

I think we have to think really spread the worddeeply about what it is that we want. Do we want to follow our delusions or do we want to conquer our delusions and encouraged by an inner monologue of our limitless potential? This is after all who we really are. Our naturally peaceful mind is like a golden nugget encased in dirt. We need to identify with this indestructible potential, not the dirt around it.

When we’re embarking on any meditation, we need the confidence that knows we have a resource of inner peace available to us at any time. When we do even a simple breathing meditation, we get rid of all the distracting conceptual thoughts that fill our mind because normally we can’t see the wood for the trees. Beneath all this busy chaotic thinking is actually a source of peace to which we have access at any time. This is also a place of wisdom from which we can start to make good decisions, and a place of clarity where we are no longer defining ourselves by our limitations, shortcomings, or mistakes.

Try this short meditation

We can breathe out whatever is on our mind, allow our mind to stop thinking, to become still but relaxed. We can think that our mind is like a stone, or inanimate object, not thinking or feeling anything. Then, where our mind was full of thoughts, with the absence of thoughts there is now space; and we allow our awareness to absorb into that space, to be pervaded by it. Like a stone descending to the bottom of a clear lake, we can allow our spacious awareness to descend to our heart. We recognize that this space is the nature of peace, and that this peace is our Buddha nature. It has clarity and is as vast at the sky. We allow ourself to recognize this and rejoice in this recognition. “This is my natural source of peace at my heart. It is the source of my limitless compassion, wisdom, and love.”

Thank you for reading this! If you like, we can dedicate all the positive energy we have just gathered through this reading and contemplation to all living beings:

May everyone be free from suffering. May everyone experience a peaceful and happy mind all the time.

Over to you. Please leave comments or questions for the guest writer in the box below!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The power of humility and emotional honesty

A guest article. 

Who we really are is love. This is the essential indestructible nature of our mind — love. And if we’re going to solve our personal problems and the problems of our nation and our world, we need never to lose sight of this.

make people feel loved todayIn How to Transform Your Life, Geshe Kelsang says:

All the problems of human society, such as war, crime, pollution, drug addiction, poverty, injustice, and disharmony within families, are the result of self-cherishing.

With self-cherishing, we lack love. All the problems of human society stem from a lack of love, and because we haven’t identified ourself as love.

Geshe-la continues:

If everyone were to practice cherishing others, many of the major problems of the world would be solved in a few years.

With Buddha’s teachings we are learning how to identify ourself and others correctly, and to act from that vantage point — with the kindness that is the pure expression of our nature. This is beautiful. We all have this nature of love and it is indestructible. This means that it will never leave us. We will never lose it. Eventually, we’re all going to identify ourself correctly as love.

Imaginary friend

How do we not get stuck or trapped by our powerful emotions, but instead creatively transform them? At the core of our strong feelings is the sense of ‘I’ — and of course, in terms of how we identify ourself and others, there’s ‘I.’ We’re always thinking ‘I. I. I’ “I want. I need.” We have an imaginary friend called ‘self’ and we are talking and listening to them all day long. We need to look clearly at how we create this self, this identity.

imaginary-friendI think Geshe Kelsang’s phrase “identifying ourself and others correctly” is very contemporary, speaking right to the moment. We identify or create ourself based on so many shifting variables: our personal history, our family history, our culture, our race, our sexuality, our religion, and so forth.

Pride in identity

Then, as Geshe-la says in How to Understand the Mind:

Since we regard our self or I as so very important, we exaggerate our own good qualities and develop an inflated view of ourself. Almost anything can serve as a basis for this arrogant mind, such as our looks, possessions, knowledge, experiences, or status.

This is hilarious. It’s a great caricature of the mind, but it’s our caricature. “I’m so clever. Look at me. I have so much information. I’m so worldly wise.” We develop a sense of I that’s important and very well-defined based on pretty much anything.

We also base our sense of self on the things we like. If we like cats, we think, “I’m a cat person” – and maybe we get a cat illustrated tote bag and stickers that we put all over our laptop. Maybe we go to a cat party with all our cat friends wearing our cat sweaters and hauling along our tote bag with a cat inside. However, maybe we don’t understand dogs, so we think, “I’m not a dog person” — now dog people are over there, and cat people are over here. We have developed pride based on some sense of identity, in turn based on something we like or are attached to. This is crazy. What are we doing?

racial-discriminationWe can create a self based on anything. Wine, beer, cats, dogs, sports. And yeah, it’s all in good fun, and so forth, but sometimes it’s not. When the mind and emotions get out of control, then fighting ensues – for example the soccer hooligans who deliberately cause brawls. This mistaken way of identifying ourself can be very toxic.

In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe-la gives an insightful and practical explanation of seven types of ordinary or deluded pride. We say that samsara is the cycle of harming and being harmed endlessly, in life after life after life. And all of this can be understood to have its origin in deluded pride. We must overcome this.

Humility in action

Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso is the most humble person I know. He’s an extraordinary being, an extraordinary monk and teacher. I think it’s really worth knowing a little bit about his life. He entered the monastery at the age of 8 – his mother sent him at his request, and also so he didn’t end up being a serf. Later, he had to flee from Tibet due to the invasion, when he became a refugee in India, experiencing Geshe-la in 1959immense poverty. After this, he emigrated to England, again not knowing the language or the customs. Still later, out of his fearlessness in wanting to preserve Kadampa Buddhism for the benefit of the modern world and break it away from feudal Tibetan politics, some of the institutions in which he was brought up in Tibet rejected him, tried to strip him of his degrees. He has experienced quite a lot of challenges, from a common understanding of his life.

Yet he loves all beings. And through his love for all beings, his extraordinary humility, and his conviction, he has brought ancient Kadampa Buddhism to the modern world.

He has often made jokes: “I don’t know how to use a computer. I don’t know how to do any of these things. You people helped me and together we have done this.” Humility is real power. Love is real power. We can see him as a great hero, as a role model, as an example. He’s been able to accomplish everything he’s accomplished in this world due to the purity of his intention. He said, “Whatever I’ve been able to accomplish, I’ve been able to accomplish because I respect everyone.” That’s a statement of truth and not a statement of deluded pride because he respects everyone.

With his humility, he has had the openness to understanding the ways of modern people. Through this beautiful display of love and humility, he’s actually transformed our world. He’s transformed my world. I think he’s transformed some of yours. Geshe-la at play

Pride in identity continued …

The fourth type of pride, pride in identity, is an inflated sense of self-importance based simply on our identity, such as being proud of being an English person, proud of being white, proud of being a man, or proud of being a Tantric meditator. ~ How to Understand the Mind

It’s very interesting what he points out here. And depending on who we think we are, we can say it other ways — proud of being an American person, proud of being Asian, proud of being a woman, proud of being a Christian. Or whatever. It goes all ways because, due to ignorance, we all do this.

This pride in identity is a real poison. This mistaken way of identifying ourself and therefore drawing distinctions between ourselves and others is a big problem. We do this within our mind.

Naming and labeling

There’s a very particular part of our mind called “discrimination.” And we know this word in general, right? We understand in general what it means to discriminate. We think, “I have fine discriminating taste because I’m a wine connoisseur and I can discern the tones of oak and cherry and chocolate,” or whatever. In How to Understand the Mind, we’re given a very interesting description:

The definition of discrimination is a mental factor (ie, part of our mind) that functions to apprehend the uncommon sign of an object.

The uncommon sign is what is seemingly unique to that object, that differentiates it from other objects.

The function of discrimination is to distinguish an object from other objects and to identify the object as this and not that. With this we impute, we name, we label.

Race Discrimination in the WorkplaceAgain, this is so contemporary. We all know about naming, labeling, and so forth because we know that, by labeling, an identity is created or imposed. However, who a person is depends entirely upon our mind, how we identify them; and who we are as a person depends entirely upon our mind. Therefore, for every different person who’s perceiving us, including ourself, there is a different person that is created, named, labeled, and imputed.

It’s not surprising how hard it is to communicate because we’re all in our own “self” bubbles, totally viewing different selves, based on our karma, based on all manner of factors. We think there’s me, and there’s you, and there’s this, and there’s that, and everything is so solid and objective — but everything is subjective. Everything depends upon the mind. Buddha gave us this teaching so that we can break out of the jail cells of our mistaken identifications.

Defined by our good heart

When I first met Kadam Dharma, I was maybe 21. I thought a lot about identity, being a mixed-race person growing up in the American South. When you are in high school, you have all kinds of questions about your sexual identity and so forth; but when I met Buddha’s teachings and learned about ultimate truth emptiness, I realized that we didn’t have to be defined by anything other than our good heart, our Buddha nature.

I found that incredibly liberating. That is a correct way of identifying ourself. This is a way that we can choose to correctly discriminate, and if we identify ourself like this, then we can do so with others.

hands claspingGeshe-la says that we have choice how we discriminate, it is up to us. For example, we can choose to see those who are challenging for us as objects of our spiritual growth, such as patience, wisdom, and compassion. This is not necessarily easy, but if we can understand that everything depends upon the mind we will see that it is nevertheless our choice, and we can become more and more familiar with making this correct choice, in meditation, out of meditation, when we’re having challenging conversations or reading difficult things in the news.

If we hold onto this correct way of thinking of ourself and others as defined by Buddha nature, but being temporarily controlled by the enemies of the delusions, we can have a deep level of respect and compassion for others while also still righting wrongs. Actually, we’d be able to right wrongs far more effectively.

Emotional honesty

Buddha identified discriminations and feelings as two of our main bases for self-identification.

There’s a phrase these days, “Don’t be in your feelings. Why you all in your feelings?” which is really quite Buddhist. Why are we trapped by our feelings? Feeling is really important and now, perhaps for many of us, individually, collectively, we can see that we have powerful emotions. These are not a problem. Perhaps if we are a Buddhist, we sometimes think that they are a problem because we see strong emotions as the opposite of inner peace. I’m sure there’s some validity to that, but we must never deny, suppress, ignore, or intellectualize our feelings. Why? Because then we are not practicing Dharma.

What we are trying to get to is the realization of ultimate truth, but how are we going to get there if we don’t start with a realization of honesty? Being emotionally truthful. If we don’t start off from truth, we’re not going to get to truth. And this is where the hard work comes in of looking at our faults in the mirror of Dharma. I’m not equating faults with strong emotions, but just looking honestly in a spiritual mirror at how we feel.

This is why the Buddhist approach was founded in meditating because through meditating we watch our mind. Without the practice of meditating, we can’t watch our mind well. We can’t see what we’re thinking and believing in every action. Without going emptiness freedomdeep into the heart in meditation, we remain stuck in our intellectual realm. Thus, we need meditation to see what’s happening within our mind, to dislodge our mistaken discriminations, to be completely honest about how we feel. And then, to direct our mind along a positive path, not suppressing, denying, or ignoring, but honestly seeing.

The phrase that’s really helped me lately is ‘emotional honesty.’ Mental honesty. Looking in the mirror without judgment or criticism. And if we have strong and powerful emotions, just allowing them to be, to wash over us. They won’t remain. And maybe we cry. Maybe we feel rage, and so forth. Until we have really great mastery over our mind, we’re going to experience these things. And  that’s okay.

I think the measure of our Dharma practice is not about not experiencing these strong emotions, but how we practice with them.

For instance, we may have very strong anger, rage even. We want to blame. And within Buddha’s teachings, we say we can blame something. We can channel our anger. What can we blame? We can blame ignorance. We can blame delusion. But we never blame living beings. We never blame people, because people are not their delusions. People in some ways are already like enlightened beings. They are love. That is their nature, just as it is ours.

Over to you dear reader. Any comments for the guest writer are very welcome below.