Taking things less personally

9 mins read.

Today finds me contemplating snow again. I am dog/cat/fish sitting in the mountains this week and, despite the 67-degree heat yesterday, woke this morning to a thick blanket of snow. Good thing I brought my snow shoes along with my tee-shirt.

Who are we?

Like snowflakes, every living being is unique. We are each a summation of a very very long history of previous karma, so however similar we may seem physically or even mentally, we are also unique.

Like snowflakes, too, we are all alike in that each of us has the same wish for happiness and freedom, sometimes via the satisfaction of immediate needs, sometimes via the existential question, “What does all this mean?! This has to mean something!”

I stood in line for my Moderna vaccination yesterday – the Denver Health nurses were, as always, kind and welcoming, but everyone seemed a little nervous about their own shot, wanting it to be over, even though we were each just one of millions in line worldwide. Will this give me flu? Will this help me or might it harm me? When is this awful pandemic even going to end? Will my life ever be normal again?

But when we got smiling and chatting a bit in the waiting room, we started to relax because we realized we’re all in this together. Switching our attention off “What about me?” and onto others —  even a little bit — lightens the mind. For my part, I was waving my vaccinated arm around and trying to convince a couple of other people to do the same. This is because I feel I have known my whole life that this is how to stop your arm getting stiff. I think my Mom probably told me this and I still believe it. My new friends did not seem quite so sure, but I still recommend it to you, dear reader 🙂

Like snowflakes, too, our body quickly perishes and we are 100 percent dependent on the other snowflakes – no one can make it on their own for even a second. How many people, for example, were involved in getting that potentially life-saving shot into my arm? (Thank you). Let alone have been responsible for all the other minutes of my life? 

Ego identities

But perhaps unlike snowflakes, each of us has infinite depth – countless lives and boundless potential.

The snow is thick now, despite it being almost April. After a very boisterous snow romp with the big dogs, the puppy is mercifully napping, aka letting me (and the cats) get on with things without being jumped on. Looking at the unique yet still indistinguishable snowflakes around me, I think about what it means to have a sense of self. It seems to me that we generally have a very small, limited, and personal view of self, confined to just one fleeting ego identity, just one life. It’s as if we think we are just one of these snowflakes, believing that this is all there is.

For one thing, if we don’t understand the continuum of mind, we don’t realize that who we really are is a traveler bound for future lives.

For another, with self-grasping and self-cherishing we think that the self or me we normally see is the only real and important me. Inhabiting this self is like inhabiting just one snowflake, in which case the feeling of self-importance is clearly an illusion of grandeur.

Enlightened beings have let go of this fake self by directly seeing that it cannot be found and doesn’t exist. Upon that basis they have been able to complete the exchange of self with others, imputing their sense of me on all the beings in the universe. Their sense of self is now vast – instead of identifying themselves as just one snowflake, they think “me” about all of them. As a result they have effortless love and compassion for everyone.

The self that we normally see is relatively small, poky, limited, and fragile. However, we are misidentifying ourselves because this self we are relating to doesn’t actually exist – I am not my body, not my mind, and not other than my body and mind.

 If we correctly identify our self as mere appearance not other than the emptiness of all phenomena, as Geshe Kelsang explains in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra, we are free to impute ourself on anything, to identify our self as anything or anyone. If we decide to broaden our sense of self to include all the snowflakes, to identify “Me” with all of them, and “My happiness” with all of their happiness, then what happens? What does that feel like?!

When we realize emptiness or selflessness, we take the inherently existent self out, at which point nothing is personal, everything is infinite. Person, being, self, and I are synonyms according to Buddhism, which means that Buddhas are people too. But they have a radically different sense of self than do samsaric beings. Not only is a Buddha a person imputed on all living beings, but they are also a person imputed upon the Truth Body of bliss and emptiness, which pervades all phenomena. Therefore, although an enlightened being is a being or a person or a self, this sense of self is NOTHING like the sense of self possessed by me or anyone else with self-grasping and self-cherishing.

Levels of mind

Watching water dripping from the snow on the roof, as the sun melts it away, I am thinking that this liquid in turn will soon evaporate back into the water vapor from which it came. This reminds me of the revolving levels of our consciousness, from our crunchy static snow-like gross minds to the dripping liquid-like subtle mind that has more movement (as in a dream), to the vaporous very subtle mind that can disperse everywhere.

(BTW, bit of terminology — when manifest in sleep, death, and deep meditation, the very subtle mind is known as the “clear light” mind.)

Everything is changing all the time, moment by moment — but sometimes things seem more solid and permanent. When we identify with our gross waking body and mind, believing that’s basically who we are, we are like a relatively static snowflake. When we dream, and things flit and move around more, we are like dripping or flowing water. When we stop grasping at our gross and subtle mind and body even temporarily during the death process, our vaporous very subtle mind travels to a whole new life. (If we stop this grasping once and for all through meditating on bliss and emptiness, our clear light mind can be everywhere all at once, a Buddha’s omniscient wisdom.)

Then just as water vapor coalesces back into liquid and then snow, so our very subtle mind coalesces into the subtle and gross minds of a new rebirth and we start to grasp again. In The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra, Geshe Kelsang says:

What does taking rebirth in samsara mean? It means that in each of our lives due to ignorance we grasp at our body or mind as our self, thinking, “I, I”, where there is no I, or self. Through this we experience the sufferings of this life and countless future lives as hallucinations endlessly,

Are we unique or the same?

Life after life our consciousness is cycling like this, yet in each life we keep believing that we are just that one snowflake and hence exaggerate its importance.

On this surface level our lives are often not that different – for example, we all have the same types of positive and negative minds, such as love and anxiety, varying just in degree or in their objects. My Air BnB hosts in Frisco (where I first started this article) were a sweet couple called Jim and Cyndi, who love Ireland (hence “The Snug” complete with fairyland) and are devoted to each other and their family. We all want security and relationships and adventures, and we all love our dog (Finnogan, who chewed my shoe) and think he’s the best dog ever. Which he is, of course, as are all other dogs.

We hold ourselves and our family and our life experiences to be unique, which on one level they are, yet are we not also all caught up in the monotonous repetitive patterns of samsaric living that involve some happiness, of course, but also the cliché of the seven sufferings? I overheardJim on the phone to his doctor, “I have pain in my lower abdomen”. Later he looked distracted and Cyndi looked drawn, trying to be polite but clearly worried. The Snug was a shrine to their love for their grandchildren and their Irish adventures, but how long can that particular identity last? They will soon be staring into the abyss; yet how can we find meaning there if we don’t understand what we are looking at? If all our lives we have invested only in the fleeting, unstable, and, according to Buddha, mistaken appearances of our gross waking minds?

I like to think about the infinite clear light mind that underlies everything – all minds and their objects arise from this root mind. Every being has it, which means that every snowflake-life and identity is just a temporary manifestation, and every being is in fact infinitely deep and infinitely connected.

Our very subtle mind is not even human.

At the level of clear light, how can you tell us apart? Tell me from you? You can only ever talk about “me and you” from a specific relative standpoint(the standpoint of snowflakes). Our true nature is empty like space, and we can only tell us apart via convention or point of view; just as we can only tell the space in empty bottles apart via the bottles.

What happens when we die

Talking about the abyss, people sometimes take up extreme sports or even criminal activity just to feel alive and transcend their fear and unease of the unknown. Even though they may face down death in these ways, it doesn’t in fact stop the terror when the time actually does come to die because the understanding is still not there.

However, Buddha explained what happens to our consciousness when we die; this doesn’t have to stay unknown, this is verifiable inner science. Many accounts from people with near-death experiences (NDEs) bear this out, as do stories of reincarnation, and many people’s direct experiences in meditation. Talking of which, a friend recently recommended a Netflix documentary called Surviving Death, especially Episode 1 ‘Near Death Experiences’ and Episode 6 ‘Reincarnation’. I just watched a little bit so far, but it looks like it’s going to give people food for thought.

Watching that show I was thinking, yes, it helps to have faith, this gives us some refuge in light of the unknown. But I think it helps more to have faith combined with a considerably greater understanding of consciousness. Death, rebirth, and liberation are not ineffable. What happens during them is verifiable from centuries of personal exploration and experience. If you want to know what happens to us subjectively during the death process, for example, you need reach no further than a copy of Clear Light of Bliss.

I wish everyone who feels existential dread or even just ordinary curiosity would investigate Buddha’s teachings because he was an extraordinarily deep thinker who went out of his way to address all of this. And what he discovered has been practiced with the same results for millennia.

Over to you. Would love to hear your comments.

 

A way through this

A guest article. A couple of friends have written to me in the last couple of days with their responses to the events in Atlanta, saying that I could share these with you.

The power of love ~ by Hannah Kim

Recently someone texted me about recent violence toward Asian Americans. Here is what seems to be coming out of me presently:

1. It seems to me that ignorance hurts everyone.
2. We can generate renunciation for ourselves and compassion for others in order to protect our minds.
3. And lastly we can remember that the best thing we can do right now is to practice loving kindness. It is the only appropriate response — loving kindness, compassion and wisdom. These are the only paths that will lead us out of the chaos, fear and darkness of our times.

This teaching comes from Gen-la Dekyong during the US Summer Festival 2020, which was concurrent with the George Floyd protests. She said that as American Kadampa Buddhists we need to practice loving kindness; and I believe this holds true right now as well.  

Especially if you are not a Buddhist, or even if you are a Buddhist, sometimes it feels as if suggesting the practice of loving kindness can sound very simple minded or perfunctory. After all how can simply loving people stop violence and hatred when what I really want to do
is break something or hit someone?! Or maybe as Buddhists we are just overly trying to be nice, or, worse, ‘virtuous’, or even high and mighty, idealistic.

But I’ve come to realize that Buddha is not saying practice loving kindness in some general, nebulous, though kind hearted way. He’s saying that in our moments of deepest pain, darkness, fear, or discouragement, we must generate affectionate love. True affectionate love will lift our hearts, minds and heads from the morass which is the pit of samsara. It functions as medicine to heal our own pain and the pain of others which can lead to such senseless and hurtful actions.

Geshe Kelsang once said:

Love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys our enemies.

He means this in a very specific and literal way. Specific because this is what we are supposed to be doing right now, every day, for every heartache and pain. Literal because we can be nice to people even if others are not nice to us. Ha!

We need to become people who practice loving kindness, compassion and wisdom in order to alter the course of our collective fate, our collective karma.

Lastly, because no one says it better, from Meaningful to Behold:

Nowadays, with the world in turmoil, there is a particular need for Westerners to cultivate bodhichitta. If we are to make it through these perilous times, true Bodhisattvas must appear in
the West.

The power of prayer ~ by Cai

This is my mom, Bây; she is Vietnamese. (I’m the baby in her arms.) We came to America when I was three years old. We endured racism in a small white town in Montana, where I spent most of my childhood. After all these years, I never thought I would again find myself concerned for my mom’s safety and well-being. I am heartbroken by the increasing violence against Asian Americans.

A few Asian American friends have asked me what I am doing to help as a Buddhist. Every day I wake up and make prayers for my mother and my AAPI elders, brothers, and sisters. I ask the divine to make my mother and others invisible to those who want to harm them. I also pray that those who wish to harm are blocked from having the opportunity to harm.

However, with loving-kindness I also pray for those who engage in acts of violence and who inspire violence through their hateful rhetoric. They are cruel and violent because they are profoundly ignorant and riddled with fear and insecurity, and often most likely possessed by or under the influence of demonic interferences. So every day I ask an assembly of wrathful compassionate Deities to remove interferences from the body, speech, and mind of those spewing hatred and engaging in acts of violence. I ask that ignorance be removed from their minds to create an opening in their hearts to be kinder, happier, and more peaceful. Peaceful people do not harm others.

I then finish my prayer by visualizing all those who would do harm experiencing a peaceful state of mind, causing them to see the truth that everyone is deserving of understanding, acceptance, and compassion.

If you want to donate to support the AAPI community — GOFUNDME.COM/AAPI

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Everybody sparkles

6.5 mins read.

It was a fine day for an adventure and, leaving the 6 kittens and their mom with Aunty Erica for a couple of nights, I drove into the mountains toward Five Peaked Mountain for my first getaway in a long while.

My Air BnB, “The Snug,” came complete with mountains on all sides and its very own fairy garden. I sat outside with my face in the sun drinking coffee and contemplating snow because there was an awful lot of it around.

When we meditate, we often imagine that we are surrounded by living beings — our family and so on sitting closest to us but nobody left out. Snow reminds me that I am surrounded by infinite living beings, each unique, each dependent on each other. And I am not a big human being surrounded by miniscule snowflakes – I am also just one of those snowflakes no more important than any other.

Because there was snow as far as the eye could see, so there were snowflakes as far as the eye could see – and living beings too really are countless. Even a few square feet is so packed full of snowflakes, and so too is a city, for example, so packed full of living beings. Yet this is just a tiny tiny portion of all the snow/living beings who are alive and feel important.

Given that, why would one snowflake ever consider itself more significant than any of these others, let alone all these others? Even if it happened to be in charge of the few million snowflakes immediately around it, in the grand scheme of things this is negligible. Not to mention that however powerful a snowflake may think it is, or however popular or talented, it is still 100 percent dependent on all the other snowflakes and cannot last for even a second without them. (Ever seen a snowflake on its own?) And soon of course it will melt just like everyone else. 

Caught by the light, snowflakes sparkle – move just a bit, though, and they stop sparkling while others sparkle instead. In the same way, over a period of countless aeons everybody has sparkled for us as our mother, our partner, our child, and so on, sometimes for a lifetime, sometimes for just a moment. And then they’ve gone dark again as we have moved on or moved away, mentally or physically, including at death.

Mountain misadventure

That same afternoon I went looking for Rainbow Lake. Google Maps had a red dot right in the middle of it, but my car got me only as far as a lay by some miles away.

I walked further than I realized along the rainbow trail – as I got higher, the sun got lower, and it started getting quite chilly. I was leaning against a wooden pole in a sunbeam when a woman on cross country skis passed me on her way down. I asked if the lake was just up there, and she said she didn’t think it was. Then she added that she would prefer it if I went back down the mountain rather than go up any further because it was going to get exceedingly cold and I wasn’t going to find my lake. You can’t find rainbows and, as it turns out, you can’t find rainbow lakes either.

I followed her advice, not least because she was wearing red from top to toe, and I was glad I did because I was the last one off that mountain. I saw no one on the way down, and if I’d carried on up the mountain in search of that Rainbow Lake I may not be writing this to you now.

However, I did then get a bit more of an adventure than I bargained for. Having walked for quite a distance, I realized I could not recognize a  thing. The sun was threatening to dip behind the mountains. I was lost.

I couldn’t retrace my steps too far because it was about to be very cold, not to mention pitch dark, and there wasn’t going to be any help forthcoming from that direction. I waded up a hillock in the thick snow to see if I could see anything promising on the horizon, but all that revealed was that the town lights were a rather alarmingly long way away.

A little worried, I kept walking until I was relieved to see a big building in the distance. Hurrying over to it, I called out loudly to a small figure in the parking lot, who told me that this was Summit Hospital and she was a nurse. She told me to keep walking on the trail for about a mile to access the emergency entrance of the hospital, go inside to avoid freezing, and figure out what to do from there. She couldn’t drive me anywhere, she said, because she was just on her quick break. Some break, talking to a foolish tourist! I love nurses.

A little later I was pondering how to get down the large bank of 3 to 4 feet snow and across a low wall to access the hospital below, and what I’d even do when I got there given that Uber wasn’t an option here and I didn’t know anyone in Frisco, when a couple walked past me, the only other people I had seen on the trail for well over an hour. I stopped them to explain my predicament, whereupon Jim said I needed to follow them, he thought he might know where my car was parked, but it was at least two miles away and did I mind walking fast? (It seemed like the opposite direction to me, but I wasn’t going to leave these people now!)

I fell into conversation with Julie, who commiserated with me for having a terrible sense of direction and told me that Jim and her took long hikes every day but were never out this late, she didn’t know how the day had gotten away from her. We were talking about how unbearable it must be to be truly stranded in these teeth-chattering, finger-throbbing temperatures without a house, like so many people in Denver. I was able to reach out to Julie or the hospital or even the police if it came to it, but who can unhoused people turn to for safety and warmth? In Denver, these human beings are not just ignored but constantly swept from place to place, their tents, sweeping bags, and other meager belongings trashed, even during these unlive-able temperatures. It just beggars belief.

Jim had ran off ahead but, meeting up with him again 2.5 fast-walked miles later, we discovered that my car was not here after all. (Sort of a relief – my sense of direction was bad, but not that bad.) Jim was all for me calling the police at this point, but Julie had decided by now that she was not going to let this “young lady” (thanks Julie!) stick around any longer in the mountains in -9 degree temperatures. They called their son in law Chris, who bundled me and Julie in the car and drove us around Frisco until I recognized a road, from where we found my car. Then they waited until I drove safely away. I was very apologetic and thankful. Julie told me she believed in karma and that I would help her one day. How right she is.

Which just goes to illustrate my point about snowflakes. For the skier in red, the nurse in green, Julie, Chris, and Jim — strangers just hours ago — all sparkled brightly for me today.

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The dark blessing of chronic illness

A guest article by Gen Samten Kelsang.

(Find the article in Spanish here.)

It was Manjushri Centre in 1983. I had just moved in, and this was to be my first meeting with Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. I was 18 years old, fresh out of college, and trembling in earnest anticipation of meeting someone I believed would lead me to enlightenment. In that meeting he agreed to be my Spiritual Guide. In the following decades he became a father to me.

All my life I have suffered from epilepsy (drug-resistant). Also other neurological conditions — restless legs and ADHD. In the early days when I first met Geshe-la he gave me some treasured advice about how to approach epilepsy from a Dharma angle. I have never forgotten this, and would like to write about it now in the hope that it may help some people.

Geshe-la told me to regard my seizures as my teacher. This can be applied to any health conditions. I would now like to share what I have learnt from this priceless advice over the past 40 years.

Cultivate mental strength. Weakness is not an option.

I lived almost all of my life without hope of health. For a few short moments hope for a cure might arise, then it would swiftly be quenched. If you suffer from chronic illness you are probably intimately familiar with despair. Please turn to a deeper and true source of hope. You must. Your back is against the wall and you have no choice. Choose whatever it is in Buddha’s teachings that touches your heart. This is your source of hope. For me, it started out as emptiness but over several decades seemed to morph into compassion and bodhichitta. That becomes our true source of hope.

We cannot gain deep, experiential realization of our source of true hope through book-learning alone.

There is only one way — we have to suffer. We all have to suffer in order to develop the psychological depth to realize the liberating truth of Buddhadharma. You will be able to help people progress forward in their path of Dharma. You will lead people to the true happiness of liberation. And most importantly, you can protect people from suffering and pain, not just in this life but in life after life. Your illness and pain have spiritual meaning and purpose. Yes, I know how hard it can be, but it is your dark and painful blessing.

People whose minds are weak need hope from some worldly belief that their body of this life will get well again. Be strong. People need you.

Chronic illness cannot be argued with. In that psychological act of giving up there is great strength, if guided with wisdom. It makes you strong. But it is a strength the worldly cannot see. Standing up and trying to lead a normal life, whilst every atom of your disease wants you to give up. This battle gives you an immense yet hidden strength that most people cannot even perceive or comprehend.

Always remember emptiness during your daily activities

My advice on emptiness is threefold if we have chronic sickness:

1) Focus on the emptiness of your body
2) Focus on the emptiness of your self or ‘I’
3) Frequently recite The Heart Sutra

1) We need to meditate on the emptiness of our body because in emptiness there is no body. Therefore, there is no disease. During nights I have spent lying in bed unable to sleep due to the restlessness in my legs, meditating on the emptiness of my body has been a great soother. Emptiness and bodhichitta have been the only things that have helped.

2) We need to meditate on the emptiness of our self. Whether we have illness or not, we accumulate many painful memories around our sense of self. But illness strikes at the heart of one’s self-concept and inflicts a special sort of pain. It shapes you, creates you. We have to meditate on the emptiness of our self to discover the panacea of the peace of emptiness.

3) We need to recite and reflect on The Heart Sutra. This is one of the most powerful ways to improve our understanding of emptiness, yet so blessed, intuitive, and beyond my ability to explain.

We must remember emptiness during those dark times when we need it most. This occurs not in the meditation session, but during our daily activities. This is when help is needed most, when we can be pushed to the utmost, and when the world can seem darkest. Please remember emptiness at these times. We do not have a choice. We need to deepen our understanding of emptiness now, while we have the opportunity. Alternatively, we can put emptiness off to another day. We will probably die before that day. It is always ‘today’ when we die, and ‘tomorrow’ is the day we put spiritual practice off to. We do not have a choice.

If it were not for the suffering and pain I endured through illness, I would not think of emptiness so much. This is the first dark, painful blessing that disease gave me.

Abandon fear and embrace death. Become a traveler.


Epilepsy is pervaded by fear. Fear and I are old friends. Whenever I walk into a room, I immediately look around for the presence of any piece of furniture that may cause injury. Nowadays I do this automatically and unconsciously. It happens without me choosing to do it. Sharp corners, hard edges, hot space-heaters, glass, the list goes on. Even familiar rooms. Fear of injury has been with me since I was 5 years old. Over the past 50 years, fear multiplied as I became more aware of how seizures affect all the other worldly things I care about — where I live, what I do, how it affects my physical and cognitive health. How the medication I take to prevent my seizures is rotting my brain and inner organs away. How every seizure devastates my brain. Fear is a part of epilepsy. Now the fear is gradually reducing as I dwell on my mortality and consider that the only reason for being alive is to help others.

I no longer fear death. For the worldly, fear of death is really fear of loss. We fear losing our friends, losing the places we are familiar with, losing the reassuring facade of security. During a long, painful, or traumatic chronic illness one comes to know loss intimately. There may come a time when illness makes us lose so much that we no longer fear loss. At that time we lose fear of death.

However, I do fear rebirth. Geshe Potowa said: 

It is not death I fear so much as rebirth. 

Rebirth in samsara. Rebirth as an insect. Rebirth in hell. Lifetime after lifetime, endlessly. Yes, this I fear.

It is only the understanding of death that begins to resolve the fear. When you have looked death in the face several times, that grim teacher will finally reveal that fear of death is about fear of loss. The loss of everything one holds dear.

I regard myself as a traveler passing through this life, and from life to life. When illness is severe it begins to teach us that we are just passing through, we will die soon. Buddha said: 

The end of meeting is parting.

I try to help people as best I can whilst loving them unconditionally, and being willing to leave them behind to move on to the next life. You will leave behind everybody you know, even the people you love most. Please understand this. A traveler loves people unconditionally because they know they will leave them behind.

Epilepsy taught me how to understand people’s suffering. How to melt this cold, hard heart. Selfish people need to learn to combine their chronic illness (if they are lucky enough to have one) with Dharma. Otherwise that cold, hard heart will remain frozen in a perpetual state of selfishness.

Make compassion your main practice

People discover compassion in many different ways. Mine was through chronic sickness. Yours might be another way. Put in the simplest terms, compassion is the wish to protect people from pain and suffering. If you are severely ill, please make compassion your main practice. Without compassion we are lifeless and dead. Don’t run from the suffering of your illness. Turn around and look it in the eye. Look carefully. Look closely. Over time, instead of seeing our own pain we start to see others’ pain, others’ sickness, others’ tears, others’ loss. Their suffering becomes our suffering. In this way, our Buddha nature starts to grow. But not without pain.

Please practice compassion. It is the most powerful method to transform your painful illness into something good. You cannot be free from physical sickness. As long as you have a body, that will be your burden, your pain, your tears, and your misery. However, compassion awakens your heart. We realize illness is not about us — there are millions of people out there with worse. When compassion blesses our mind it does not remove our chronic condition, but it helps us realize that our suffering is insignificant. In that realization we discover a purpose to our suffering. We discover meaning.

There are so many people out there in chronic pain. If we don’t help each other, then who will? 

The value of friends


I consider myself blessed to have had the supportive friends and family I have. The degree of kindness and help I have received has been enormous and deeply moving.

Please understand. People with chronic illness are incredibly stoic and strong, but there is still one bitter pain that is so hard to bear. When people disbelieve or doubt you are struggling with chronic illness, this pierces the heart. It makes you secretive about your ailment, angry, depressed, and eventually bitter and cynical. Even a little understanding helps enormously.

This article may seem heavy. I may talk about death too much, or other hard subjects. But this is the reality of someone with chronic and serious sickness. These dark heavy thoughts are what they wake up to. They live with this reality every day. It is a hard burden to endure — a heavy burden and a lonely one. Sometimes, the health issues (physical or mental aspects) have been too strong for me to endure alone. My mind is strong, but sometimes even that has not been enough. This is when the dark blessing of chronic illness teaches the value of wise friends and caring family. I have only made it this far in life because of the people who were willing to help me during the difficult times. If any of these people are reading this article, thank you — I owe you everything.

Even a little understanding from trusted friends is a ray of sunshine that can penetrate through the dark and ominous clouds of the heaviest painful thoughts that accompany sickness. Understanding from a sympathetic and knowledgeable friend helps bring back mental fortitude that was waning. When people show understanding, it brings hope and optimism into the suffering mind. And a will to live returns. We think understanding is just about knowledge. But understanding is also about love, and caring, and acceptance, and empathy. It is these qualities that gives our ability to understand sickness the power to start the healing process.

Over the past 40 or 50 years I have sometimes let a friend down. Maybe I didn’t consider that friend important enough, or maybe I was trying to follow the path of expediency. I now understand with crystal clarity that I would be dead if not for my friends. Friendship becomes something rare and sacred for anyone with chronic disease. It has become sacred to me. I will never harm a friend. Ever.

The only way to realistically commit to this ideal is to cultivate equanimity. This means cultivating a caring heart that is free from fickle and partial states of mind, and that embraces everyone with warmth and friendliness. This also comes from the dark and painful blessing of chronic illness.

The spiritual meaning and purpose of our life

I used to believe I was a meditator, a yogi. I have come to realize that I am not. My purpose in this life is not so much to meditate as to teach. It is teaching Dharma that gives me meaning and (I believe) maintains my life. I cannot explain how this happened but it is the dark and painful blessings of chronic illness that revealed to me what my vocation is and what it is not. At least in this lifetime. As long as there is purpose and meaning to my life, and vocation, then there is value in my living. Protecting other people from their suffering through helping them realize emptiness is the only reason I have for living. It is the only reason for me to have the privilege of being alive and drawing another breath.

We will have different conditions. Maybe bedbound, or exhausted with chronic fatigue, or tormented with extreme fibromyalgia. It may feel that we have nothing to lose because we have already lost everything. This is a good feeling and we must cultivate it. Having lost everything, we are free to be a Bodhisattva. 

Why do people practice Dharma for years with no real change? Because Buddhadharma is frightening to our selfishness and ego-grasping. Buddha’s teachings demand change, and our foolish, petty, selfish, egocentric mind is terrified of change. But when the dark, painful, blessings of chronic illness takes away everything, there is nothing left to lose. On a material level we may still have things. But psychologically everything is gone. Empty. Nothing. Then we can start to be the person Buddha wants us to be. A Bodhisattva.

Our only job is to protect others from suffering and pain. If we are very sick we need to be radical. Be more extreme than normal people. Give up selfish behaviors and ways of thinking. You have already lost everything anyway, and have nothing of worldly worth left to lose. Become a Bodhisattva and learn the 6 perfections. Hard times and illness — this alone is what makes life worthwhile. The world needs Bodhisattvas. The world needs us. You are strong, like a superhero. Please do not allow your sickness to simply strengthen your samsara or make you feel weak. We must become Bodhisattvas. There is no choice. People need us. 

When we become Bodhisattvas, we are inspired to make solemn and sacred vows about how we will benefit others when we become enlightened. For example, the 35 Confession Buddhas or 7 Medicine Buddhas have different and distinctive powers. I am far from being a Bodhisattva but I make this promise now: When I become a Buddha I will free those with neurological illnesses from their pain. This is not a sentiment, it is a promise.

We are Mahayana Buddhists. Soon we will die and lose our opportunity to develop bodhichitta. We need to understand others’ suffering now. We need to understand others’ sickness now. There is no time to wait. This is my message.