Dislodging discrimination

Written by an African American Kadampa Buddhist.

8 mins read.

How do you feel about people who appear to be different to you? Someone with a different color skin. A different looking nose. Different looking hair. Someone from a different culture. Someone who likes different foods or music than you. Different sports. Someone who speaks a different language. Someone who wears different clothes. Someone in poverty. Someone with mental health issues. Someone who is angry. Someone who is visibly in pain. How do you feel?

Protestor

It’s complicated. It depends. Feelings are not solid but depend on so many things. Our upbringing and education, our friends and way of life, our karma from previous intentions and actions, our beliefs and values, and many more things besides. Our thoughts and feelings aren’t straightforward or easily categorized. Our mind changes like the wind, and we often feel differently on different days.

Why you all in your feelings?

How we feel is entirely subjective, but because we grasp at our feelings as solid and objective, they are deceiving us much of the time. Yet we are in our feelings so much. We allow ourselves to be in them, to dwell in them, to stew in them. We allow our feelings to control us and dictate our actions, which can and does cause so much suffering. Buddha himself highlights this fact, calling out our contaminated feelings as a main component of how we build our false sense of self or identity.

There’s a popular phrase these days “In your feelings.” Courtesy of Urban Dictionary:

  1. Kianna is over there pouting because Shaundra is trippin & snapped at Kianna for being in her way.

Kianna, why are you all in your feelings? You know how Shaundra be trippin.

  1. David is in a bad mood because his girl didn’t call him last night.

Bro, why you all in your feelings, you know you just met that girl last weekend.

I think Buddha would agree. Why you all in your feelings? It’s a great question to ask.Mirror

Our feelings often arise from ignorant causes and give rise to suffering results. Yet we feel so right to be in our feelings. Why? Because they are real! And because they are mine! (Turn on sad music. Or happy music.)

We often base our whole sense of self off of these fleeting insubstantial unfindable feelings. Happy feelings arise, we think “I am happy.” Disappointed feelings, “I am disappointed.” This goes for most of our ever-changing senses of self, totally identifying “Me” with whatever feelings happen to be arising in our mind. A happy self. A sad self. A conflicted me. An overwhelmed me. A romantic self. An angry self. The results of overly identifying with our feelings can be quite tragic – tragi-comic, melodramatic, or even full on Greek tragedy.

Don’t believe everything your mind is saying

As it says in the Buddhist scriptures:

Appearances are deceptive and our own opinions are unreliable.

“What?!? Excuse me?” The BIG I does not like to hear that our opinions are not to be trusted and that what our mind perceives or appears is fooling us.

The real fool is our own ignorance. It is never to be trusted. When we are under the influence of ignorance, what is appearing to our mind is an hallucination created by ignorance. Our opinions and how we feel based on those appearances are unreliable. What we then do, how we act, is also contaminated by ignorance.

Our mind under the influence of ignorance is out of control, which means we are out of control; and when we are out of control our actions are not helping.

This is what we Buddhists call samsara  — the cycle of contaminated, impure life, a life controlled by ignorance and other delusions. It’s not a pretty picture; and nowadays it seems that it’s getting clearer and clearer how ignorance is polluting our minds and society.

stop in the name of loveHowever, it is nothing new – we have been under the influence of ignorance since beginningless time. It would be good if we could enter a rehab facility of wisdom to detox our ignorance. Otherwise it’s just going to get worse for us and everyone else around us.

A personal mental survey

We need to do the work. Each one of us. We need to do the hard work of looking in the mirror of Dharma and asking, “How do I feel about…” Someone who is challenging me. Someone who appears different from me. A fundamentalist Christian. A far-right or far-left or straight-in-the-middle politician. A racist.

It’s not enough to say, “Oh I’m a Buddhist so (by definition) I love everyone. I have equanimity,” while at the same time feeling viscerally afraid of someone with darker skin. Or assuming that someone of a different background than ours isn’t interested in Buddha’s teachings. Or holding a great variety of assumptions and biases towards people of color for example. That can be any color by the way, including white. What are our stereotypes of any “type” of person?

Seeing discrimination in the Dharma mirror

Geshe Kelsang says:

We tend to project the faults or qualities of the few onto the many, and then develop hatred or attachment on the basis of, for example, race, religion, or country.

magnifying glassHow do we think about someone who appears differently than us? What are the faults we are seeing in them? How are we discriminating against them? Buddha also called out discrimination as another main building block of how we identify ourself. Discrimination is a functionality of our mind and we can’t think without it. Simply, it serves to identify something as this versus that.

We have to do the hard but rewarding work of examining our minds, our biases, our feelings — being so honest with ourself that we feel a little pain our heart when we see the truth of our own faulty discrimination. It’s not a pain that lasts, more like a needle holding a medicine that will cure our illness. Or like removing a splinter from our toe – it hurts a little, but it’s humbling and quite quickly feels good to be on the way to being free from the pain.

Protestor 1The 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

So, how are we identifying ourself versus others? Of course our ignorance is always influencing the situation and so, if we’re honest, on some level or another we’re not identifying ourself and others correctly. For instance, we can discriminate cats as the most cute loveable animals, and on that basis create ourselves an identity as a cat-person. Raccoons? Hmmm. Not so much. Ooops. Just did it again. Mistakenly identifying ourself and others. It’s quite funny in some ways and then not so much in other ways.

This mistaken way of identifying ourself, and by extension others who seem inherently different to us, is the root of all suffering. So if we want to be free from suffering we have no choice but to do the real work. The honest work. The challenging work. The work of looking in the Dharma mirror at how we discriminate ourself and others, how we identify our self and others, how we feel about our self and others, and how ignorance is messing up this whole process of cognition. It’s messing with our reality. Right now it is not hard to see that it’s really, really messing things up.

The imprints of ignorance cause mistaken discriminations that apprehend an inherently existent self, even though such a self does not exist. Moreover, because of our familiarity with delusions we discriminate some people as our friends, some as enemies and some as strangers; but all these discriminations are mistaken. ~ How to Understand the Mind

mirror 1

For many of you reading this, I’m sure you could think of a number of ways in which Geshe Kelsang has explained how to correctly identify ourself and others. So it’s up to you (and me too) to do the work. To take the teachings deeper and try harder to get out of our hallucinatory discriminations and biased feelings by dislodging our deeply held grasping at both.

The way forward

If it weren’t for Buddha’s radical wisdom, we wouldn’t be able to understand much of this. We probably wouldn’t be able to even think or speak these things. Without Buddha we would be trapped in this mixed-up reality, literally forever.

In their compassion Buddhas feel no difference between their most bitter opponents and their own sons; they feel compassionate concern for everyone without any discrimination. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

11-Turning-the-Wheel-of-Dharma

Buddha has shown us the great example of deep compassion without discrimination. He’s shown us the freeing reality of ultimate truth. Due to his guidance we have the incomprehensibly good fortune to see the way out. Especially due to our kind visionaryteachers such as Je Tsongkhapa and Venerable Geshe Kelsang, we have crystal clear and practical teachings that anyone can follow. These wise beings are giving us the opportunity to clean up the mess of ignorance and walk out the door of samsara, only to return again and again for everyone else.

Persistence

When a runner trains, they train in intervals. There are periods of slower runs and faster runs, shorter and longer distances. Sometimes they push a little, sometimes they rest. It’s the same when training our mind. Sometimes we’ve got to push a bit harder to achieve a goal. Sometimes we’ve got to dig a bit deeper to find extra power.

I think now’s the time to dig deeper, to push a little harder, to challenge ourselves to go to the next level of our spiritual training. With the world going in the way it appears to be going, we must do this. We must and we can find a better way forward.

Over to you. Please leave your comments for the guest writer below.

 

 

Looking for happiness where it can be found

A guest article by a Kadampa Buddhist monk in Texas.

8 mins read.

crazy elephantWe can think less! Wouldn’t that be nice? Day in and day out our mind is like fizzy water with so many bubble-like thoughts – we find ourselves thinking annoyed thoughts, unkind thoughts, self-defeating thoughts, random thoughts, and a bunch of other thoughts that we really don’t want to think.

When our mind is scattered like this, our attention is blurred and our natural wisdom is out of focus. Thinking, thinking, thinking, especially about challenging things, we easily overcomplicate matters and find ourselves stuck in indecision or tied in emotional knots. With our thoughts out of our control, we feel kicked about like a pinball in a pinball machine. By reactively pressing the buttons of delusions, we constantly feel disturbed, unpeaceful, and scattered. It’s really not as much fun as we think.

One great meditation to help us settle all that mental movement is called absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thoughts. It’s a special name for the practice of learning not to think so much! Another is simple breathing meditation. As Geshe Kelsang explains in Joyful Path of Good Fortune:

Geshe-la in Dallas circa 2002
Geshe Kelsang in Dallas circa 2002

Inappropriate attention is conceptual thought, and breathing meditation temporarily removes all negative conceptual thoughts from our mind, making it calm like water that has become pure and still. Atisha says in Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment:

“Moreover the Blessed One has said: ‘The great ignorance of conceptualization causes us to fall into the ocean of samsara. [A mind] of non-conceptual concentration is free from conception and as clear as space.'”

Amidst all this static we are only trying to be happy! We are trying to be happy all the time. Which really isn’t a problem. Buddha doesn’t say, “Stop trying to be happy all the time! Just deal with it. Suck it up.” Can you imagine Buddha saying this?! I can’t. In fact, Buddha says the opposite.

He says this wish to be happy all the time is our real wish; so why not fulfill it? In reality we are never going to give up this wish. Temporary freedom from problems is too short lived. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang says in Modern Buddhism:

Temporary liberations from particular sufferings are not good enough.

Since this is the case, let’s find lasting happiness. Let’s learn to be happy all the time!

“But hang on”, we might think, “That’s childish!” or “It’s unrealistic to be happy all the time!” Adjusting our expectations, we settle for being unhappy and unfulfilled instead, thinking that’s all there is. We simply try to put up with things and catch some limited happiness where we can.

Where happiness is

Both objections do have some truth to them. But it’s good to ask, “What kind of happiness are we talking about?”

Menla in Dallas TexasIt is fair to say that it’s entirely unrealistic to expect to find lasting happiness if we are looking for it in the wrong place. But lasting happiness itself is not spiritual fantasy. Buddha says it can be so, and many have seen this to be the truth. Buddha is a realist. Buddhism is all about being real. It is about learning to live in accordance with the way things are — reality. And if we look for happiness where it can be found, we will find it.

This is so simple for something so beautiful that maybe we think it has to be harder or more complicated. We can even look at all the extraordinary teachings of Buddha and think that this lasting happiness business sounds pretty complicated and, hmmm, I’m not sure if I want anything more complicated! I agree, who needs more complicated issues in their life!

It’s as simple as this. If you need motor oil and you go to the smelly trees section of the auto parts store, you aren’t going to find motor oil. But that’s just what we do. Or we go over to the windshield wipers section and, exasperated, think, ‘This is ridiculous. No motor oil!” Then we think, “What kind of useless auto parts store is this!?” Frustrated and with a feeling of entitlement we find a store clerk and say, “Excuse me, I’ve been looking all over this store and I can’t find any motor oil anywhere.” They kindly reply, “Oh we have every kind you could need in Aisle 7. Did you look over there?” But we never looked there, even though that’s where it is.

Dallas
@KMC Texas

If we look in the right place we will find exactly what we are looking for and more. The thing is, our normal way of looking for happiness is to look outside of ourself. We think, “I’m going to be happy WHEN … I meet someone who makes me laugh. I find success in my career. I lose 20lbs and get a new wardrobe. I go to cool places and have an adventure.” We’re always postponing happiness to a later time, and so are never actually really happy because we’re still seeking it in Aisle #3 in the smelly trees section instead of Aisle #7 where it can be found.

In a way, we are giving over our own power to be happy to someone or something else. We often feel powerless or have a hollow feeling that we can’t quite fill. That happy feeling is elusive, like water in our hands slipping through our fingers. So why don’t we reclaim our power to be really happy? Instead of giving it away, why don’t we take it back? We can find this spiritual power to be happy and fulfilled, an inner power to heal our mind and body. Through meditation we can find it within, grow it, and allow it to shine out to others. We can find a radiant inner resilience, which is like shining armor in the face of conflict and difficulty.

This is not unrealistic or spiritual fantasy. It is clear, logical, and practical. Meditation is not about checking out of reality – it is about checking into the reality of pure happiness. This benefits us, our family, and everyone we meet — and it’s not unrealistic to say that eventually it benefits the entire universe. We are all like cells in the body. So what kind of cell are we going to be? 

New paradigm of happiness

quiet reflectionthink we need to change our paradigm of happiness. Instead of it being, “I’ll be happy when …,” it can be, “How can I be truly happy inside now?” This way of thinking is not selfish, it is wisdom. Through Buddha’s incredible practicality we can shift our search for happiness 180 degrees, from outside ourselves to inside ourselves. We can find it within our peaceful heart right now.

A simple example is making plans. There’s a lot of uncertainty right now, making it seemingly impossible to plan. But we still have our little daily plans, even if we can’t have the big ones – we plan to have a cup of tea and then a cookie. Yet if things change, even the little plans go out of the window.

That’s happened quite a lot for me recently, and at one point I found myself getting a bit irritated.

Menla and Shima
@Next door to KMC Texas

“Wait a minute!”, I thought. “Am I trying to find happiness through my plan?! But that’s not where happiness comes from!” Remembering to simply accept and go with the flow, the day turned out to be lovely. This was a helpful experience. I guess this 20 years’ of meditation is getting me somewhere.

Adjust on the fly

Meditation is not just about that quiet moment alone, but being able to adjust on the fly. It’s so important right now as all our plans have been smashed or temporarily interrupted at least. This has happened around the whole world.

A great question to ask is, “Why is my one plan more important than anyone else’s?” We’re all in this together –- as communities, cities, and countries. When we step back and gather perspective, for many of us it’s not too bad and it’s temporary. And as Venerable Geshe Kelsang says, “This is nothing, others far worse.’” Thinking like this we regain our inner peace, which is real happiness. We move into empathy and compassion, which are real protections or spiritual armor.

Meditation on the go is about this. Not getting stuck on what we think happiness is, looking for it where it can’t be found, but remembering in the moment where it really is — inside our peaceful and positive mind.

Re-examining and changing our paradigm of happiness is of great value during these unusual times, and is in fact always invaluable. Many people are naturally thinking about this these days, and understanding the value of contentment. Just because they are not able to do all the things they normally want to do, people are finding some more simplicity, being a bit more satisfied and happy with what is. This inner quality of contentment is something many people are finding naturally. It’s a form of non-attachment, which is central to Buddhism. It’s a form of letting go. Contentment is being happy whether our conditions are good or bad, not depending on those conditions for our happiness. flowers

At the core of our new paradigm is checking into the reality of happiness through meditation. Making meditation central to how we live our lives, not just as an adjunct or fancy addition, we find the reality of pure happiness. We grow in inner peace, contentment, and joy. This power of true happiness shines out to others, helping them find peace too. This shift is so simple yet so profound. And as we keep making these small shifts everyday, things really do change in unexpectedly good ways.

More great advice coming soon from this same monk! Meanwhile, please leave your comments for him in the comments box below.

 

 

Online Kadampa Spring Festival 2020

I’m doing something a bit unusual in this blog article, which is simply encouraging anyone who is reading it and who is interested in Buddhism to tune into the International Kadampa Spring Festival if you haven’t done so already and can make the time …

(Here is this article in Spanish.)

Vajrapani
Buddha Vajrapani, the Buddha of power, who destroys diseases and delusions

This is because I’ve been finding it to be incredibly profound, clear, uplifting, and relevant to what’s going on right now. From what I am gleaning, it is helping people beyond measure, and it is definitely a huge shot in the arm for our troubled world.

I think it would be very powerful for everyone if loads and loads of people could hear these really clear Buddhist teachings on developing compassion and wisdom, receive the empowering blessings of Buddha Vajrapani, and do the inspiring meditations and retreat with these three close and immensely kind disciples of Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.

Tomorrow is technically the last day of the Festival — however, the links are available until June 3rd, which is still a week away. If you have not been able to listen in yet, or if you didn’t know this was happening, maybe you can think about registering today and making a plan to listen in over the next several days? Because you still have time. There are people all over the world who are still joining in, and I think a lot of people will in any case want to listen to a lot of the teachings and meditations twice before the links expire.

I would suggest starting with the first teaching and working your way systematically through the meditations, empowerment, teachings, and retreat in the order they are presented on the page, getting as far as you can according to what else you have going on over the next week! There is no need to join in for the Pujas at this point unless you have lots of time. Any questions, write them in the comments box below.

Here is the link to register: https://kadampabookings.org/frontend/?eventid=587

May all the inner and outer obstacles of all living beings swiftly be pacified.

 

The compassion cure

A guest article by a Buddhist gerontologist. 

Picture2I wrote Parts 1 and 2 of this blog while “coronavirus” was a new word appearing in a far-off land. Shrouded by an illusion of safety in my Brooklyn apartment, I assumed it would be like other diseases that popped up around the world in recent times, thankfully disappearing before spreading beyond localized areas. By the time Part 1 was published, the coronavirus had reached the West Coast of the United States and it was all anyone could talk about.

(This is Part 2 of Everyone Wants to be Seen: Observations from a Buddhist Gerontologist.)

Luna Kadampa, our editor, connected what I had written to the crisis by pointing to the impact it was having on our elderly:

Given that these strange COVID-19 times are making our elderly all around the world even more vulnerable, and that many are being kept behind closed doors for their own protection, I find this guest article in 2 parts a timely encouragement to see them and to care. ~ Ed.

In the mere weeks since that publication, the entire world has changed. Buddhists know everything is changing at every moment. Blink and it’s a whole new world. But we’re talking about a once-in-a-lifetime change. Tens of thousands have died. Millions have lost jobs. People are lonely. They are scared. I wondered if what I had written for Part 2 would still have relevance. And, given the cataclysmic scale of the pandemic, if any of it mattered.

What really matters?

What does matter when the world we normally see falls apart? How do we manage as we helplessly watch the pieces slip through our fingers? Without a spiritual path we might default to things that make the situation worse. We scroll news feeds for glimmers of hope or to justify our worry, look for someone to blame, take substances to numb the pain or indulge escapist thoughts on the one hand or hopeless ones on the other.

In Buddhism we take refuge in the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. They alone have the power to protect us from this calamity. Buddha is the wise physician who diagnoses our problem, Dharma, his teachings, is the medicine we need to get well, and Sangha is the community of kind nurses helping us to heal.

Our real refuge is buried deep within our own heart. It is our compassion, a wish for our self and others to be freed from suffering. Compassion has the power to vanquish all our anger, fear, and depression, and can lift others out of theirs, too. Which is what I discovered in the sixty years I spent with thousands of elderly people. It is the type of true refuge we all need in these unprecedented and perilous times. It is where I was headed with the second part of this blog when our entire world got turned upside-down.

The unseen friend of migrators

Picture 4In Part 1, I wrote about the decades I spent questioning anyone “of a certain age,” hoping they could make sense of a world that was nonsensical, contaminated, and oftentimes cruel. I was certain they could reveal some big meaning to life that eluded me. At a minimum, they could provide me with a reason to get up each morning.

While I never found a satisfying answer to all my questions, little did I realize how valuable those years would prove to be. In every connection with my elderly friends, listening and being heard, seeing and being seen, offering comfort and being comforted, I experienced an immensely important spiritual lesson. I just didn’t see it.

Lama Tayang (quoted in the book Universal Compassion) wrote:

Compassion is the unseen friend of migrators.

I think he meant this figuratively — that matters of the heart aren’t seen by our physical eyes. But for me it was literal. I couldn’t see that what was occurring within these interactions provided a large clue to the mystery I was trying to solve.

It took Buddha Shakyamuni to dispel the darkness of my mind. In my first Buddhist class, Gen Kelsang Rigpa, the Resident Teacher of Kadampa Meditation Center Los Angeles, told everyone gathered how Buddha had explained that we are all searching for something. Naturally, I was hooked because by this time I’d spent half a century looking. The answer was so obvious it surprised me: “we all want to be happy”. Not just in the moment, but permanently — there is never a moment when we don’t want to be happy.

Picture3I wondered, “Could this be what I was seeking all those years?” It seemed so simple. Yet the moment I heard it, I knew it to be true. Gen Rigpa went on to explain that this wish is what drives all our actions, be it the pursuit of a career, a relationship, money, a reputation, or the myriad of other things we chase after. The problem, according to Buddha, is that these things don’t bring us the type of pure and lasting happiness we seek.

So if happiness doesn’t lie in these usual suspects, where can it be found? In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang writes:

In the Sutras, Buddha says: “The fully ripened effects of actions ripen not on soil or stones, but only on consciousness.” This is because only consciousness has feelings, and only with feelings can we experience the ripened effects of actions. Virtuous actions result in pleasant feelings, non-virtuous actions result in unpleasant feelings, and neutral actions in neutral feelings.

We find happiness by cultivating virtuous minds like love and compassion that ripen back on us as pleasant feelings. And this is where all my years with my elderly friends rained down like a million blessings.

Cherishing others is the key that unlocks the prison of self

As the years unfolded, I began to notice something interesting. I observed that even in my darkest hours, no matter how pointless everything seemed, being with my elderly friends often lifted me. Even opening the door of the nursing home on my way in to work in the morning made me feel better.

I experienced this pleasant sensation as a small boy being cherished by his grandmother. And over the decades I experienced it time and again with my elderly friends and clients. Maybe it wasn’t a permanent release from mental pain, but it was at least a temporary parole. And it appeared to help them, too. Even those in the depths of depression seemed better during our interactions than before. Why?  Picture1

I believe one of the reasons that compassion is our friend is that it protects us from ourselves. It has the power to instantly eject us from that dangerous and painful prison of self. Geshe-la describes self-cherishing as an “excessive concern for our own welfare.” This “concern” can manifest as self-criticism and hatred, jealousy, anxiety, attachment or any of the many other delusions. It whispers insidious lies, telling us how much worse off we are than others and that the way out of our predicament is to work solely for our own benefit. And it never happens.

However, when we focus on others with an affectionate, compassionate heart we have no mental space left to obsess over ourselves. Our mind is completely pacified. Geshe-la writes:

It is impossible for strong delusions to arise in a mind filled with compassion. If we do not develop delusions, external circumstances alone have no power to disturb us; so when our mind is governed by compassion it is always at peace.

Compassion also is our friend because it purifies our mind. Compassion removes the blinders covering our eyes to reveal a beautiful reality that has always been there, like the sun shining behind the clouds.

In several of his books, Geshe-la presents the well-loved story of Asanga, who entered a mountaintop retreat to come face-to-face with Buddha Maitreya. After twelve years with no success he abandoned his retreat because he was discouraged.

On the way down the mountain he came across an old dog lying in the middle of the path. Its body was covered in maggot-infested sores and it seemed close to death. This sight induced within Asanga an overwhelming feeling of compassion for all living beings trapped within samsara. As he was painstakingly removing the maggots from the dying dog, Buddha Maitreya suddenly appeared to him.

Buddha kindIt was Asanga’s extraordinary compassion that purified his mind so that he was able to see this Buddha of loving-kindness, who had in fact been there all the time. We have the same potential, we just need to rely on our friend, compassion. And doing so starts by opening our eyes to the truth — that everyone suffers.

Geshe-la says this awareness does not make us depressed, rather:

Compassion gives us tremendous energy to work for others and to complete the spiritual path for their sake. It shatters our complacency and makes it impossible to rest content with the superficial happiness of satisfying our worldly desires, yet in its place we will come to know a deep inner peace that cannot be disturbed by changing conditions.

For Kadampas, the spiritual path is our precious Lamrim, or stages of the path. When we combine these teachings with compassion, our mind gradually transforms into a state of joy beyond our wildest dreams. But to do this we first must believe in the power of compassion. Our faith grows by remembering moments of transcendence when we experienced pure, unconditional love and compassion. We know that if we can experience one moment of transcendence, we can experience more. We need only to train.

Our freedom grows by shifting the lens from self to others

To cultivate our virtuous minds of love and compassion, Geshe-la suggests we start with our karmic circle. For many people, this is their family or close friends. The hearts of some are naturally opened by being with animals, such as was the case with Asanga. For some it is children. And for some of us it is when we are with the elderly.

Oftentimes the suffering of the elderly is manifest. At every turn they are confronted by loss — the loss of physical appearance, possessions, health, friends, and lifelong partners. Anyone who has worked with the elderly, particularly employees of nursing homes or assisted living centers, knows this to be true. If we have the courage to face the truth of this suffering we will find our liberation. And more importantly, we will free others.

In the early ‘90’s I was running a nursing home on the north coast of Ohio. One day we admitted a wealthy woman who instantly shattered our peace and harmony. I knew she was wealthy because she paid us to remove a bed from one of our rooms so she could have it all to herself. Barely an hour went by without a staff member stopping at my door to tell me of a new complaint: she didn’t like the food, the staff, the air conditioning, and on and on. I had an “open door” policy but given her socio-economic background I knew she wouldn’t visit me; I was expected to call on her.

A few days later I decided to pay her a visit. As I knocked on her door I realized I knew nothing of her medical condition. This wasn’t a big deal because I’d known people with every medical condition under-the-sun. Even so, I was surprised by what I saw when I opened the door.

“Come in,” a shrill voice called out. I took a deep breath and entered. I could tell she was tall because she stretched to the ends of the hospital bed and she was emaciated, couldn’t be more than ninety pounds. But what struck me was her body. She was stiff as a board. Her hands were contracted and curled against her chest and old age had cruelly driven her chin into her shoulder. She lifted her eyes and they locked on me as I crossed the room.

“Hello, I’m Mr. Williams.” I said. “You wanted to see me.” When she realized I was the administrator she’d been asking for she affected a tone stiffer than her body. “Mr. Williams…” and then she unleashed a barrage of complaints that I already knew, sounding rehearsed as if she were reading from a script.

I could tell this was a lifelong pattern. When this woman said “jump,” people either asked “how high?” or argued with her. So my response probably surprised her. I just stood there silently gazing into her eyes. All of a sudden, she became aware of me. “What are you looking at?!” she snapped.

“I’m just trying to understand you,” I said.

No sooner had the words left my mouth than her body went limp and she began to sob. It was as if the words, “I’m trying to understand you” had found their way to a secret linchpin that was binding her musculoskeletal system and involuntarily released her. I stood there stunned as she continued to cry. I’d seen extraordinary things in my career, but nothing quite like this. After a few minutes she composed herself and said bitterly, “You have no idea what it feels like to be me.”

I did wonder what it must be like being her. A prisoner in your own body, totally dependent on others for the basics like eating and toileting. She couldn’t even wipe away her own tears. What could I say as I gazed down at her, this healthy whippersnapper dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie there to solve all her problems? “You’re right,” I said. “I don’t have any idea what it’s like to be you. But I’d like to try.”

Opening our hearts to the elderly in the time of Coronavirus

The initial epicenter of the coronavirus in the United States was a nursing home in suburban Seattle. Tragically, many more nursing homes around the country and world have experienced outbreaks. To date, one-fourth of all deaths in the United States have been nursing home residents.

As I read the stories, my mind is flooded by memories of all the nursing home residents I’ve known over the years. These are the people I have in my mind as I write this blog. They helped to shape and form the good aspects of the person I am today. I remembered the jokes, the kindness, the insights, and the tender and intimate moments.

cape of compassionAnd my mind went to the staff, particularly the nursing assistants who are on the front line of the front line. To me, they are true Bodhisattvas. Oftentimes they were cheerful, single mothers, making not much more than minimum wage, with little formal education. But they could write the book on how to cherish others. I think about how unfair it is for them to be in this situation. And I think about the deaths of all the people they care about and how this must be affecting them.  

It seems no matter where in the country I worked, all caregivers held the same superstition. They believed residents died in threes. So when one died, they would brace themselves for the loss of the next two. At the time of completion of the second part of this blog, of the 120 residents of the suburban Seattle nursing home, a total of thirty-seven have died.

Every night at seven o’clock the people of New York City stop what they are doing to recognize essential workers. People in isolation open their windows wide. Church bells rings. Pots clang. People in the streets clap as they walk by. Some cheer. We unite in a collective inner wisdom that understands something profound is happening in the midst of all this suffering. We salute the courage of caregivers. We rejoice in compassion.

Over to you. Comments for this wonderful guest author are warmly invited in the comments box below. 

 

How to broaden your horizons while stuck inside

10 mins read.

A news alert just popped up on this screen to say “Need a vacation!? Here are 8 gorgeously located movies to watch on Netflix.” And if we watch them, our mind will go to those places, albeit leaving our physical body on the sofa munching homemade popcorn.

Carrying directly on from this article, Living in a virtual world.

mirror worldIt seems like our mind can go anywhere, so let’s go somewhere uplifting. If I can go to the Caribbean or London from home, why can I not also visit the Pure Land from home? As I explain a bit in this article:

Just as our ordinary mind can go to the moon just by thinking about it, so our un-ordinary mind Vajrayogini can go to the Pure Land just by thinking about it.

Buddha Maitreya said in Ornament for Clear Realization that because living beings’ minds are impure, their worlds are impure; and when they purify their minds, they will inhabit Pure Lands. Even if I dream I am in a Pure Land, it is no different from being there, even if for just a little while.

Once we get rid of all the obstructions from our mind, our body will also go where our mind goes because for a Buddha their body and mind are the same nature, not different like ours. One way to understand this is to think of a dream – if my dream mind dreams that I am swimming in an ocean, my dream body is also swimming in an ocean.

Unfettered

Not only is our mind not in any way restricted by physical objects or time, but it has this amazing potential for deep bliss, for love encompassing all living beings, for wisdom that sees all objects of knowledge fully and simultaneously, for being everywhere all at once. It is because we have this formless mind, which is not in any way fixed, that we have the potential for enlightenment, our so-called Buddha seed. You have this. dark clouds

When we attain enlightenment, our mind is universal compassion and omniscient wisdom — everyone is appearing to our mind and in our mind, like reflections in an unobstructed  mirror. Not separated from them by the illusion of dualistic appearances and conceptions, we can now help everyone every day.

A mirror with two cloths

Buddha gave his 84,000 teachings precisely because we have this potential – if we didn’t, there’d be literally no point in him explaining how to attain liberation and enlightenment.

Try wrapping your mind around this for a moment:

In Ornament for Clear Realization, Buddha Maitreya gives three reasons why Buddha’s mind knows all phenomena directly and simultaneously: (1) Buddhas directly realize the two truths of all phenomena because they have completed meditation on the two truths being one entity; (2) Buddhas have complete knowledge of all phenomena being of one taste in the state of emptiness; and (3) a Buddha’s mind is completely free from the two obstructions. ~ Ocean of Nectar page 379

Here is a hopefully helpful analogy to illustrate at least that third point. We can think of our mind as like a mirror that is capable of reflecting (or if you like, holding) every single object in the universe.

Right now, however, it is covered with two cloths – a thin veil just on top of it and a thick cloth on top of that.

mirror obstructedFrom our perspective we don’t know we are a mirror because all we see is darkness and confusion. We may get glimmers of light, but generally we blink out at a world narrowed by obscurations and, having no idea that we’re doing it, grasp onto this shrunken world as if it really existed. Like William Blake says in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

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.

Our deepest level of awareness, or root mind, can potentially be everywhere and love everyone all the time. However, we are normally confined to our small selfish ego capsules feeling ordinary, fixed, and limited. This self-grasping and our other delusions are like a thick cloth obscuring our vision and rendering us unaware of how extraordinary we can be. Through spiritual training we learn about these delusions — how they function, how they harm us, where they come from, and how to remove them both temporarily and ultimately.

One conclusion we can draw from this, as Geshe Kelsang teaches in How to Transform Your Life, is how it is possible to maintain kindness and respect for everyone (including ourselves) despite our delusions:

Just as we distinguish between a person and his or her ­delusions, so we should also remember that the delusions are only temporary, adventitious characteristics of that person’s mind and not its real nature. Delusions are distorted conceptual thoughts that arise within the mind, like waves on the ocean—just as it is possible for waves to die down without the ocean disappearing, so it is possible for our delusions to end without our mental continuum ceasing. It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the faults of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any sentient being.

When we remove the thick cloth of our delusions permanently through the wisdom realizing the true nature of things, already there is light and happiness and freedom shining through. However, our mind is not free from all obstructions yet – we are still like the mirror with a thin veil over it.

mirror unobstructed 2We are liberated from our own suffering once we remove the thick cloth of our delusion-obstructions, but we still need to do some more spiritual practice to remove the veil of obstructions to omniscience, which we do on the so-called “three pure grounds”. These cause things to appear to us as somewhat existing outside the mind, the so-called “mistaken appearance of true existence;” even though we no longer believe or buy into this. We know we’re dreaming now, we have control. Our own mind is pure and free, but with this dualistic appearance we are not able to  be everywhere all the time helping everyone.

A Bodhisattva on the eighth ground has abandoned all delusions and their seeds, but he still has the imprints of delusions in his mental continuum, rather as wet sand will retain a footprint even after the foot has moved on. These imprints of the delusions are obstructions to omniscience … Imprints of delusions are effects of delusions, but not causes of delusion. They are however, causes of mistaken appearance. ~ Ocean of Nectar page 431

On the final stage of our spiritual journey, wisdom pulls away the veil of mistaken appearance and reveals a Buddha’s omniscient mind, like a mirror that can reflect everything directly and simultaneously.

Only Buddhas are free from the imprints of delusions and the mistaken appearance of true existence to which they give rise.

A time of reckoning

Why am I telling you all this? Because when I look out of the window — as “stay at home” is morphing into “safe at home” here in Colorado — I can see that it is Spring; and Spring is all about new beginnings. We can become who we want to become, realize our fullest and most blissful potential. And this is a good time to do it, rather than sitting around feeling bored and powerless and sad. We have been projecting the causes of our pain outwards since beginningless time and look where that has gotten us. Now we could learn to do something different and really get rid of this pain once and for all.

quote about wisdomThis is a time of reckoning. I read a moving article the other day from a mother, here are some extracts:

The other night (or last night, or last month) I was putting my daughter to bed and she started to cry. “What’s wrong, baby?” I asked, and I meant it…. “What is all this even for?” she wailed. She didn’t mean the quarantine: “All of this, why are we even here? Why are we even alive?” I tried to put together a soothing platitude …

To her credit, she was having none of it. “I hate this, I hate everything that’s ever going to happen to me. Help me, Mama, please, please help me.” …..

Absent the scaffolding of the world as we know it, I’ve got nothing to say. So I did the only thing I could. I held her, and rocked her, and hoped my silence helped.

During this confusing global pandemic, instead of feeling trapped we can really think about who we want to be and what we want out of this life – which will depend on what we think we can get out of it. Even when we brave our first tentative steps out of our houses, we’ll be finding that there are fewer distractions from all those full gatherings, a lot of our entertainments will have dried up, external life is basically looking like it is going to be pretty tedious and full of masks and endless hand-washing yet for a while. But instead of feeling hemmed in and frustrated and anxious, “hating everything that is ever going to happen to me”, maybe we can use Buddha’s teachings to find agency and become free instead.

My daughter is saying out loud the questions that everyday life helps us forget. This quarantine feels like a time of reckoning, forcing us to look at ourselves as we really are. Maybe whatever world we build after this is over will be more honest about that reality.

Like that young seeker, we can take stock: Who am I? Where on earth (or elsewhere) did I come from? Where am I going? Who do I want to be? Who can I be? What do I want out of this life? What kind of world do I want to live in? How can I find lasting happiness and freedom? And how can I be part of creating that for others too?

These are important questions. Do I want to go back to the same life and world I had in the “old days” or do I want something better? Is that old life even sustainable? Where and who do I want to be in five years’ time, for example? If we just go back to doing the same old things, we won’t change; and if we don’t change, our world won’t change.

At the very least, this pandemic has shown us that it doesn’t work to ignore and neglect others given that we are all caught up in the same web of mutual dependence. The heroes these days, the people we are applauding at 8:00 pm, are the healthcare and other essential workers – essential to our lives and well-being, that is — rather than the glitzy millionaires. Who knows, perhaps this is long overdue.

I suspect this is not our last pandemic. Why would it be? And even without pandemics there is plenty of other pain in our world, not least the swarms of locusts in East Africa causing hardship and starvation to millions of human beings while barely making the news, and the trapped animals who are being chillingly “depopulated” in their millions due to the interruptions in the human food supply chains. Meanwhile all over the world people are still thinking to solve their problems using angry violence or selfish greed, simply setting themselves up for more.

Sherma in lockdownBuddha’s point is that the suffering will never end on its own or by us just by dealing with external causes, which is at best putting on a band-aid. This world, our whole world, is clearly suffering a whole lot of problems right now; and we can’t ignore it so much now that it is reaching everyone’s doorstep. When we have delusions and do negative actions we have no choice but to inhabit a world of suffering – sooner or later our karma bounces back on us. This world is a reflection of our mind and our karma. If we don’t change these, our experiences won’t change, and our world will just stay impure, unhealthy, and painful. In fact, it will get worse.

Be the change

We follow the crowd. We tend to follow what everyone else is up to. Right now we don’t really know what everyone is up to as we are not seeing them – so maybe we can think more independently? Or maybe not, I don’t know.

We are often waiting for other people to change – for example for the politicians to start behaving. Good luck with that. Vote for who you need to, but basically waiting for others to change is massively demoralizing because we have no control over them nor guarantees their motivation or behavior will magically improve. Please don’t misconstrue me as saying we don’t do practical things as well, as I talk about here – but you know what I mean.

Venerable Atisha said:

Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.

Sherma 2 in lockdownWe try to tame others’ minds, but that’s not how it works. If our mind is uncontrolled and polluted by delusions such as selfishness, we’re as much a part of the problem as anyone else; and there is no way we can control others’ minds or behavior.

I was wondering what would have happened if Buddha had waited for everyone else to change? Where would we be now? Prince Siddhartha figured samsara out when he left the palace and saw in turn a sick person, an old person, and a corpse. This is bad, he thought, I can see that this is bad. Life is based on a crumbling edifice of sickness, ageing, death, not getting what we want, getting what we don’t want, or feeling basically dissatisfied.

Rather than just putting his head back under his soft luxurious royal pillow or immersing himself in his palatial distractions, Prince Siddhartha decided to do something about this. He got rid of the two cloths from the mirror of his mind, and gave 84,000 teachings to show how we could do the same. The path to enlightenment is now all laid out for us in black and white.

It is not as if we don’t have the potential to follow this path, like countless people have done already:

Geshe-la prostrating to Buddha high resFrom this point of view sentient beings are like enlightened beings. Their root mind, their own mind, is completely pure. Their own mind is like a blue sky and their delusions and all other conceptions are like clouds that temporarily arise. From another point of view sentient beings mistakenly identify themselves and are harmed by delusions. They endlessly experience immense suffering as hallucinations. Therefore we need to develop compassion for them, and liberate them from their deep hallucination of mistaken appearance by showing them the real nature of things, which is the emptiness of all phenomena. ~ How to Transform Your Life

I don’t know what we are waiting for. We can complain as much as we like about other people, but it doesn’t help a single thing.

To conclude, we can use the creative role of our minds and actions to go beyond all suffering to the Pure Land of liberation and enlightenment, or we can ignore this potential and keep trying to stick band-aids on our gaping wounds, staying in the impure lands of samsara. It is our choice.

Okay, enough from me. Please leave comments.

Related articles

Seven good reasons to learn how to meditate in a pandemic

Better together

Love, the great Protector

 

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.)

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Audio meditations to do at home