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