I was just explaining to my 87-year-old dad (turning 88 on Sunday) that I hadn’t called him as promised with input into getting a new computer because I’ve been way too busy, so much to sort out! (Subtext: stop bugging me!) He quite reasonably replied that he understood, but that everyone has problems – UK family members are very worried about the raised interest rates impacting their ability to pay their mortgages, and “peace-loving Russians” are being sent off to fight people they don’t want to fight. Patricia has bad legs, although she still loves and cares so diligently for my mother. (Who incidentally managed to give my dad such a large smile this morning that it made him cry.)
To name but three problems. He’s right, problems are relentless. While we are seeking happiness and freedom outside of our minds, it is also impossible to solve them all, or even very many of them – there’ll be new things to worry about every single day. In his introduction to the Foundation Program many years ago, Venerable Geshe-la said:
There are always problems in samsara.
Just that. What do we expect? And he therefore encouraged us to keep on studying and practicing without discouragement, that this was “such a meaningful job.”
We need to be able to let go of the things we cannot control so that we can focus on the things we can. (To wit, our minds.) I think we need to be using everyday catastrophes and disappointments to increase our mental lightness, or sooner or later we will drown.
Finding our moral center
Having a moral compass was important to many of the most resilient people Charney studied over the years.
I reckon our moral center is determined by our purpose – what we consider to be the real meaning of our life – and who we think we are at core. I like to ask myself every day, ideally before I have been sucked into the endless to-do lists:
What is my life actually for? What is today for?
If we have a good motivation and a clear compass, and especially if we’re identifying with being a Yogi seeking liberation or a Bodhisattva or a Tantric Buddha, we won’t want to waste time going off in the wrong direction by doing the wrong thing.
As Mark Twain said, you can’t go wrong by doing the right thing.
With this so-called “sense of shame”, we can naturally avoid inappropriate or immoral actions.
Generally speaking, and of course depending on our familiarity with Buddhism, we probably don’t appear to ourself as a potential Buddha or Bodhisattva – it is not, I suspect, the first thought that occurs to us when we look in the mirror. What appears is more like that grumbly stuff, isn’t it? — not necessarily full blown existential despair – though it can be – but those Meh appearances coming from a not great state of mind. We can feel stuck and stagnant and flat. So, what to do?
Changing who we are at core
As explained here, whatever we do, moral or otherwise, depends on what we want. What we want depends on who we think we are. Who we think we are depends on our experiences. So, as I have mentioned numerous times, we need to connect as often as possible to the experience of our own peaceful heart – ideally doing this before we even get out of bed in the morning.
Connecting to a good or loving heart, or any pure and positive quality in the mind, we recognize: “I am experiencing a little peace or kindness here, and this is just a snapshot of my indestructible potential for limitless peace and kindness.”
On that basis, we give ourselves permission to identify with this potential, thus increasing these good qualities: “I am a person who is potentially always happy, liberated, or even enlightened.” This needs to happen not in an intellectual way, because then it doesn’t have much power — we need to give ourselves permission to actually experience it, to sit with it until we FEEL it. Like “Whoah!” (accompanied by a warm and happy feeling); because this is not how we normally conceive of ourselves, it is not our normal inadequate self-image.
Even if we’ve been practicing for a long time, this can take a bit of contemplation – we have to actively walk away from what our ordinary perceptions and conceptual thoughts are telling us. We need to redefine ourselves regularly, every day, ideally multiple times. It is very much worth the effort.
We all have various sets of appearances, and these are often associated with a lot of problems – annoyances or worries associated with our work, our health, our body, our money, our relationships, our future, the plumbing. Whatever it is, there’s always stuff – problematical appearances. These appear due to karma, and we make the mistake of believing them to be solid and true. This is ignorance. It believes that what we see is reality, when in truth the things we normally see do not exist at all.
Especially when it comes to ourselves – there seems to be an epidemic of low self-esteem. Some of the loveliest, kindest people I know are full of self-loathing, which blocks their huge capacity to help others. Why? Where is that inherently worthless person? We are just dreaming them. There also seems to be an epidemic of boredom these days, which is one reason we’re addicted to scrolling and swiping. Why are we identifying with being a bored person, wasting this precious life away, when there is more than enough to feel inspired by if we could just take a little time to remember?
How can a Bodhisattva ever feel less than passionate about others’ welfare, for example?! How can Heruka ever feel less than totally inspired and powerful?! Whenever we remember to identify with our potential and our moral center, who we are at core, everything literally changes straightaway, because everything depends on our mind.
The story is often told of the great yogi Milarepa, one of Tibet’s most famous saints. For many years he was totally obscure, nobody knew anything about him; but eventually he became a legendary teacher and a bit of a (pre-Tiktok) celebrity. At one point somebody asked him: “In which Pure Land did you achieve enlightenment?” and he pointed to his cave. For us a grim, dank, dark cave would be a very inhospitable environment, but for him it was a blissful Pure Land because he had a blissful pure mind. Hence Buddha Maitreya’s quote:
Because living beings minds are impure, their worlds are impure.
When living beings purify their minds, they will inhabit a Pure Land.
Positioning ourselves differently
Moreover, our moral core and resilience are strengthened by remembering that we are not just beings of one life but travellers bound for future lives. Whenever we identify ourself in the context of this life alone, it can immediately lead to an inadequate, neurotic, bored, or self-defensive sense of self, as well as all sorts of worldly concerns.
There’s no point trying to make this life work because we simply cannot. I don’t like feeling trapped in this current life story with its set history and boring future of ageing, decreased enjoyments, and death. I much prefer to scrap that dream by realizing it is just one of many. I am a being of many lives, not just one. And these past and future chapters are all just dreams, just illusions.
Positioning ourselves only in this life automatically makes things tighter and more stressful, even when we are only trying to help people. This is partly because it is impossible to help everybody or to help anybody enough. Sometimes I just have to accept that there are a lot of people I know in this life who I won’t be able to help directly in this life, even though I really want to. We could help a lot more people if they would just listen to us, lol. But they don’t or won’t. Sometimes other people obstruct our ability to help others, too, and sometimes the conditions to help them are just not there – this is a result of our karma, for one thing. However, once I’m a Buddha I’ll definitely be able to help them.
How to be there for people
Once upon a time, not long after I met him, I had to drop my beloved cat Rousseau off at a friend’s house because I was going away. While settling him in to the laundry room, which was to be his safe space, a dog came in and barked. To my surprise this stand-offish feral cat, who had never come anywhere near me before, turned to look at me with fear in his eyes and then ran into my lap. I had no idea he saw me as someone who could protect him, and I found it very humbling that he did.
But in November 2019, Rousseau was ripped to pieces by a coyote. And I was not there to protect him — I was on the other side of the world. If he was looking for me again, with terror in his eyes, I was nowhere to be seen. He was dragged 400 feet while struggling to escape, and I just wasn’t there.
This memory still brings me to tears. And it is not just Rousseau whom I couldn’t help in this life. It is almost everyone. So, we need a longer term approach. I will become a Buddha and help Rousseau and everyone, not just in this life but in the next life or the one after that. I will never let go of them. I will keep them in my mind and my heart until I attain enlightenment and beyond.
(I wrote these paragraphs a week or two before Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso passed away on September 17 2022. They now seem more true to me than ever:)
I sometimes get the feeling that my teacher Venerable Geshe Kelsang really doesn’t mind too much which life we’re talking about when it comes to helping us – just one of these lives will do. This life isn’t the be all and end all, we have plenty more of them; and he is not planning on letting go of us. A few months ago he wrote to me (in what turned out to be his last message to me): “I always hold you in my heart.” And it’s not just me. This is the attitude I want. I want to be a Buddha of all lives, like Geshe-la — catching people in their next lives if I cannot help them in this one. This helps everything become relaxed.
I believe that Geshe-la is capable of helping millions and millions of people with his wisdom – yet how many people are actually listening to him?! Just a handful compared with the world population. Therefore, he radiates blessings everywhere and makes a connection with everyone that way – like any enlightened being, he views them as the nature of his mind and never feels a moment’s separation. He knows that at some point, when they’re ready, he will be able to ripen them. Is this not the point? – we need to be patient and play the long game. We don’t need to throw our hands up in despair.
Thank you for reading! There are a couple more articles on resilience in the pipeline – till then, would love to see your comments below.