Love, the great Protector

10 mins read.

Once upon a time, about 3 weeks ago, when human beings roamed freely upon the Earth, two neighbors brushed right past each other without so much as a smile.

Screen Shot 2020-04-03 at 3.28.18 PMAll that changed in early 2020. These are indeed more surreal times than most of us can probably remember, and immensely challenging for just about everybody; but a lot of people are being amazing and brave when it comes right down to it. Despite the physical distancing, they are finding ways to connect with one another and to support their families and neighbors in this time of crisis, with kind gestures being made across the world to combat the dislocation, isolation, and potential insanity being brought on by the COVID-19 lockdown.

As I mentioned in this last article, people’s Buddha nature is shining. Not only do we owe a huge debt to the beautiful people on the frontlines of this battle, but people everywhere are trying hard to make a difference. Volunteers are making free deliveries. Sewing experts have been cranking out medical masks. Restaurants have been giving away food to employees, passers by, and the elderly. Individuals, including some children, are raising huge amounts of money for those in need and volunteering to run errands for high-risk people. Some are breaking into spontaneous song to cheer each other up from balconies, or making music on the Internet, including this beautiful offering: 

Even from beyond the grave, poignantly, an 88-year-old man in North Manchester who died of the virus has asked friends and family to carry out acts of kindness in his memory rather than offer flowers.

If there is any silver lining to this crisis, it is that people are experiencing more empathy at the moment because we all perhaps realize, for a change, that we are in the same boat. For example, I read this:

“This is the first time lots of us have looked at shelves and thought actually I need something and I can’t have it, and so we’re better able to relate to people living in poverty who feel like that quite a lot of the time.”

A friend just texted me:

“The neighbors have been quite enjoyable lately … very kind and compassionate, offering whatever needed to get by, coming together, communal.”

Stories have been appearing of people currently embracing the values of kindness, cooperation, self-sacrifice, and patience over materialistic values where every man or woman is out for themselves. People are finding plenty of free ways to spread love and cheer, such as costumes, parodies, front-lawn jam sessions, and this chalked sign I just walked past on the sidewalk.

we're in this togetherMoney, reputation, and so on clearly do not buy happiness because external conditions can never be the true source of happiness, or meaning for that matter. They never have been and never will be; and, at times like this, it is more obvious.

Of course we need basic human conditions because we are human beings …

as Venerable Geshe Kelsang puts it in The New Meditation Handbook,

… but external conditions can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful.

Cells in the same body of life

Peace and love are not some utopian fantasy, nor optional extras in our pursuit of happiness — they ARE our happiness.

Starting with a deeply encouraging understanding of our true nature, our potentially boundless good heart, Buddha revealed 84,000 methods that allow us to embrace and fully realize our Buddha nature. I plan on sharing a few of these to help us change our fundamental way of seeing ourselves and others, whether we are safe at home in lockdown or in the midst of the frightening overcrowded chaos of the hospitals. These simple considerations can help us become more loving, wise, and selfless, making both ourselves and others more peaceful and happy in the process.

Screen Shot 2020-03-26 at 12.27.39 AMWe don’t always see so clearly how we are all completely interdependent like cells in the same body of life — distinct yet intimately bound up with others. There are two ways to understand this, both of which help us to develop empathy and love. One is that we are interconnected in a web of kindness from which it is impossible to separate ourselves, and the other is that in all the ways that count we are exactly the same.

Our interconnectedness

We depend upon others for everything – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life (available as a free eBook here):

All the time our day-to-day needs are provided through the kindness of others. We brought nothing with us from our former life, yet as soon as we were born, we were given a home, food, clothes, and everything we needed – all provided through the kindness of others.

And nothing in that sense has changed since the day of our birth — all our day-to-day needs are still provided through the kindness of others. When we wander through aisles empty of toilet paper in the grocery store, we complain – but when those aisles are full, how often do we consider the incredible amount of people involved in inventing toilet paper, manufacturing it, transporting it, and stocking the shelves?

That is one small comfort of life, among others too numerous to count – so what about the plumbing, for a start, something we also take for granted until the plumber is too sick with the virus to sort out the blocked pipes. What about our life and health themselves – if this pandemic is showing us anything, it is the enormous debt we owe to those who have trained so long and work so hard to look after us when we are not well. Plus all the people who support them. Plus all the people who support them. And so on.

kindness of front linesWhen the infrastructure starts to crumble, as it is rapidly doing — when health workers and computer specialists and food manufacturers and school teachers are not able to do their work — it is not hard to see how much we have been taking them for granted. Ask any parent! Even WordPress has been acting up since this all started, making me appreciate how much I depend on it (100%) to get these articles out.

Through the meditation on the kindness of others, we see how we are in every way completely bound up with other living beings – none of us can separate ourselves out.

Our sense that we are an island, an independent, self-sufficient individual, bears no relation to reality. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Trying to split ourselves off from others is not realistic and so it doesn’t work:

It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. We cannot exist without others, and they in turn are affected by everything we do. The idea that it is possible to secure our own welfare while neglecting that of others, or even at the expense of others, is completely unrealistic.

If we sit with this image for a while and let it touch our heart, we naturally wish for the health and happiness of the entire body. All the other cells of this body make up our very infrastructure. If we started to hand back everything others have given us, within seconds there will be literally nothing left of us. Try doing it and see.

Every gesture connects us to the entire world

Every gesture we make and every step we take is evidence that we are all cells in the same body of life. If I lean over to pick up this glass of water, how many people are involved in that one gesture alone? The arm comes from my parents, for a start, plus all the food that comes from others. I had nothing to do with the invention, manufacturing, or delivery of that glass, yet without it the water would be all over the table. Only there wouldn’t be a table without others. Or water, for that matter.

I read a great book called “Thanks a Thousand”, where the author “decided to thank every single person involved in producing his morning cup of coffee. The resulting journey takes him across the globe, transforms his life, and reveals secrets about how gratitude can make us all happier, more generous, and more connected.” Well worth a read – far more uplifting than an hour of the news.

Thanks a thousandOthers matter. That is what cherishing others mean – we think they matter, and that their happiness and freedom are important. So we try to make them happy and we try to do nothing to harm them because why would we harm the body of which we are a part?

The role of animals

This is also a really good time to remember not just our human but our billions of animal neighbors with whom we share this planet, who are also cells of this same body of life. We hate being made to stay inside even our own home – but we have been keeping animals trapped inside in alien cages in despicable conditions for decades for our own purposes with scant regard to how they feel.

As I read in an email about factory farming:

The COVID-19 crisis is concrete evidence of our interdependence. Our health and wellbeing is impacted by the health and wellbeing of others, including the animals who are raised for food.

Virtually every other recent pandemic threat—like swine flu H1N1 or bird flu H5N1—has been directly linked to factory farms. This is arguably why, while we are on the subject:

There is no other public health measure that could so dramatically reduce the risk of another pandemic virus emerging as reforming industrial animal agriculture.

factory farmPublic health measures start with a change of heart, and I hope that one thing this crisis might bring about is a more widespread understanding of how harming animals is really harming us human beings as well. This is both in the short term because it gives rise to a profoundly unhealthy way of life, as well as in the long term because of the awful karmic causes we are creating to experience similar conditions ourselves. It makes perfect sense for all of us to overcome both our selfish desires that harm animals and our senseless human exceptionalism.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were as responsive to being told to stop abusing animals for our own and others’ good as we are to being told to stay inside for our own and others’ good?

The health of this body

In a body, the health and happiness of one cell depends upon the health and happiness of the whole body and vice versa. It is never just about little old me. Putting ourselves first doesn’t help us or anyone else. If one rogue cell decides out of egotistical selfishness to do its own thing, maybe co-opting others to its selfish aims in return for favors … what would we call that?!

Cancer. Which in the process of destroying the body also destroys itself. No one wins.

Grasping at an independent self who is more important than all the others selves or Me’s leads to disaster for that self and for everyone else sooner or later. Self-cherishing both creates our suffering by leading to delusions and negative karma, and is the basis for our suffering because it makes our mind deluded and unpeaceful. And we can see why it doesn’t work if we understand that we are all equally cells in the body of life and therefore the welfare of the collective matters.

kindness of othersBy caring for the whole, we are caring for the parts. By caring for all the parts, we are caring for the whole, which includes us. If we care for others our needs will sooner or later be met through creating the right karmic causes and keeping a peaceful, positive mind despite any difficulties. Everybody wins.

This virus is showing us our profound interconnectedness and requisite social obligations by in some ways forcing us to adopt ways of thinking and behaviors that transcend the individual and help everyone collectively, including us. Once it is all over, let’s hope these lessons remain learned and our society becomes far healthier and happier as a result.

Out of time for now, I will conclude this topic in the next article. Meantime, please share how are you are doing under lockdown, including anything you have found helpful.

Related articles

The kindness of mother beings 

Others are the gift that keeps on giving 

A Buddhist take on factory farming 

Love in the Time of Corona

8 mins read.

How are you all coping with these uncertain and surreal times? I hope you’re able to resist binge-watching the news, and are taking at least some time out to relax your mind and feel the peace you have at your core. (Try this calming meditation for example.) As a friend put it:

The news should be 15 minutes information, 45 minutes prayer and meditation.

love in the time of coronaThis person just called me from lockdown in Brooklyn. He says it is very noisy as the walls and ceilings are paper thin, but rather than focusing on the grass being greener elsewhere he has put on his noise-cancelling headphones and is appreciating his time alone. He did however spend 4 days depressed last week because his neighbor told him he should be feeling more freaked out, prompting him to check out every piece of news on the pandemic that he could find. Finally he concluded, “This isn’t helping anyone”, whereupon he decided to keep washing his hands, staying at home, and not hugging anyone, but also to keep relaxed and to keep working on his ideas for helping others. As a result, he’s been feeling “inspired and productive” all week, coming up with great ideas for his new TV show.

One day at a time

Personally, I am taking this one day at a time – it doesn’t help to rewind to how much easier and more innocent life seemed in the past (ie, 3 weeks ago) or fast forward to a possibly even grimmer dystopian future. Buddha’s wise teachings on impermanence are very helpful right now. Today, apart from washing my hands and staying at home, I can control one thing — and that is my mind and whether or not I choose to stay calm and care about others more than myself, including those risking themselves for the rest of us.

The new normal and the old normal

We may be feeling more than usually overwhelmed with dread, but this panicked state only complicates everything, including our relationships with the people around us – which is a problem if we are stuck inside the house with them!

Screen Shot 2020-04-03 at 10.23.35 AMIt is worth bearing in mind that if we are in this cycle of impure life called “samsara,” we have been vulnerable to physical and mental sufferings of some form or another pretty much every day since beginningless time, and that we will be forever if we don’t do something radical and deep about it. It is just a bit more obvious for a lot of us at the moment, as if we have woken from a fairly comfortable dream to realize that things are not quite so fine after all.

This understanding of our existential predicament, far from freaking us out further, ironically helps us to find some mental balance and calm perspective. We are able to develop a light and peaceful wish for true and lasting mental freedom — a wish called “renunciation” — which we have always needed but don’t usually have. More on that here if you’re interested.

I read this today: “Massive swarms of locusts, one of which occupied an area more than three times the size of New York City, have devoured crops across the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, leaving an estimated 20 million people at risk of famine.”

Yes, 20 million people could starve, and more locusts could be on their way. And there is such helplessness: “Farmers attempt to drive them away by clanging pots and pans.” Why is this only on page 16 of Time magazine?

I will quote Kadam Morten from NYC at this point:

“There have been many pandemics in the past and there will be in the future. The potential for this was always there because we are in contaminated life. The real problem is not this virus. The real problem is the self-grasping and self-cherishing that are the underlying causes producing an environment that will produce viruses, that will produce oppression, injustice, violence, war, and all that has been going on since beginningless time. Use this visceral feeling of aversion to contamination to develop insight into these precious minds [renunciation, compassion, and wisdom] that will enable us to liberate ourselves and others.”

And here is another calm quiet voice of reason:

As Geshe Kelsang said, there is no point dwelling on our own suffering unless we want to develop the liberating mind of renunciation or use it as an example of the suffering of others so that we can develop empathy and compassion.

So I want to keep sharing one or two Buddhist pieces of advice about how we can keep a calm mind and a loving heart in the time of COVID-19. Starting with love – for love is the great Protector, said Buddha.

Feeling overwhelmed?

With self-cherishing or selfishness we assume we’re more important than everyone else (despite all evidence to the contrary), hence dwelling in an exaggerated way on our own stuff, including all potential catastrophes. This is, to be honest, what overwhelms us, not the external situation, and definitely not our wisdom and love.

safe at homeCheck out this article for the difference between inner and outer problems, helpful to know right now. Talking of which, here is a quick purification practice for you. It doubles up as a video on how to wash our groceries properly to stop us getting COVID-19 😁 Yes, it takes a tedious while to wash them well, but the tedium is removed if we also use this time to solve not just the outer problem but the inner problem by purifying our mind. For example, we can think:

Just as I clean these items, may my mind be cleansed of all delusions, negativity, and suffering.

Shining the light

There are some astonishingly kind people out there.

I know I am not alone in feeling awed by those who are working in increasingly uncomfortable environments, risking their health and their lives for our sakes. Who are these incredible people and would I do that? I like to think I would, but would I?! We’ve been hearing some bad stories about the conditions of nurses and other hospital workers on the front lines without inadequate protection – overworked, overtired, hungry, and unsupported – even here in the wealthiest country in the world (where our complacent lack of preparedness hasn’t helped), let alone in other parts of the world. These heroes and heroines keep going because they care more about their patients than themselves – why else would they keep going? Why else wouldn’t they just go home and sit on the sofa, safe inside with their families, like the rest of us?

Some of them have made the ultimate sacrifice. Due to the lack of medical staff to assist such a large number of patients, an Iranian doctor with the virus called Dr Shirin Rouhani, who was on IV, kept treating patients until her own last breath. Iranian doctor on IV

Pretty humbling. We all have Buddha nature – the potential for universal love, universal compassion – putting others before ourselves — and omniscient wisdom. Like a gold nugget encased in dirt, this innate good heart can never be sullied, even by the most egregious of our delusions (such as greed and selfishness). Every now and then our Buddha nature shines out strongly, and I think we are seeing that in many ways at the moment. It seems to me that there is more concern for fellow human beings, with less than the usual amount of discrimination, pettiness, and self-entitlement. I hope this lasts well beyond the pandemic.

I am not in Britain at the moment, but I read that since February 28, even Brexit — which was all anyone could think about for years — no longer looms so large. The battle lines drawn between the younger, metropolitan Britons on the one side versus the oldies on the other are now an anachronism. Elderly people are most at risk, and those of working age, in the NHS and other key professions, are there to try and save them. Everyone is in this together.

As I talk about here, for as long as reality exists, compassion and wisdom will always be the response; which means that it is impossible to destroy this gold nugget inside us. Anger, on the other hand, is a response to exaggerating others’ faults. I saw someone on Facebook going off on a diatribe about the toilet paper hoarders, for example, with the self-righteousness of anger – but people are not inherently evil toilet paper hoarders, they are just panicking.

“But people really are deluded!” — you may be protesting. “Look how crazily and selfishly some people are reacting!” True, some people’s behaviors are idiotic and dangerous. We can just as easily focus on that but, if we do, we should at least remember that people are not their delusions. As it says in the book Universal Compassion:

Buddhas never abandon, condemn, or get angry with living beings but, realizing that they are controlled by their deluded minds, feel only compassion for them. Cultivating the same attitude when someone becomes angry with us is one of the most profound ways of gaining peace for ourself and others.

Buddha’s advice is to relate persistently to the gold nugget in ourselves and in others. It is far easier to get rid of the dirt of our delusions if we are identified with being the gold nugget, and almost impossible if we are identified with the dirt. And if we identify others with their potential, we will bring out the best in each other. cat in house

More coming soon.

Meantime, I would love your feedback and suggestions in the comments below, including for any useful online resources you have found for keeping your meditation practice going at home.

Talking of which, here is one from Tharpa Publications (which has a streaming video embedded.) Don’t forget to tune into the increasing number of live-streaming classes and meditation prayers available from your nearest Center. And check out this worldwide streamed talk from Gen-la Dekyong on April 4th.

Related articles

A peaceful meditation to try out at home

Detoxing our daily life 

How to care for others without feeling overwhelmed 

 

NOPE

Hello everyone, I hope you’re all doing okay and not going too crazy.

I could start anywhere, so I am going to start by saying “Well done!” for getting this far, if you have. I think that a lot of you, maybe all of you, are dealing with this really well considering. I am noticing that our concern for others is at least occasionally kicking in to override the fears we have for ourselves.

Of course, there are some ludicrous manifestations of our fear and self-obsession, such as the Great COVID-19 Toilet Paper Stockpile of 2020 – toilet paperbut overall I think it’s impressive how quickly people have accepted our interdependence and mutual obligations now that these are staring us in the face. Politics and bickering partisanship are not sucking up all the oxygen, for a nice change. I read this earlier somewhere:

It’s sort of funny how at times the neighbors, including myself, get into petty squabbles about irrelevant topics. They certainly seem irrelevant now. But we so easily and smoothly become comrades! People are essentially GOOD! Just give them a chance to prove it.

Of  course this may get old and people may get mean, but right now a lot of Buddha nature is shining.

Literally ordered to stay at home!

I was allowed to drive out just now, despite Mayor Hancock’s brand new Stay at Home Order, because the kittens I am fostering need medication. (They, at least, seem contentedly oblivious to all of this.) Passing a nightclub called “Let’s Get Weird (this is Denver after all), instead of the OPEN sign this is what I saw:

NOPE

Nope indeed. The world is closed for business.

Thanks to said mayoral order forcing everyone to give up their “non-essential” jobs and stay inside (which, by the way, hardly raised an eyebrow – yet only a few weeks ago would have caused a riot), I also saw long queues of millennials lining up to stockpile the last of the marijuana before all non-medicinal dispensaries are shuttered for the That's the pointforeseeable.* Toilet paper is one thing, but running out of pot?! Poor under-25s, I can’t help thinking — all those Springtime hormones and nowhere to party. No, it is not as bad as being sent to war, obviously; but at that age it is still no fun to be stuck at home alone, or stuck at home with one’s parents! Not much fun for the parents either.

Let’s Get Weird

This is a very strange time for the two-legged people of Planet Earth. I already know samsara is crazy, but still I wake up and think, “Huh?!?!!? That wasn’t a dream?!!” (Of course, it kind of is a dream — that’s Buddha’s key point). Or you might be having conversations like this one, a snippet of an earlier text with a friend:

“It feels like a strange movie. It’s like none of this can be real.” “There’s no movie that could do justice to this.” “I know, I would switch it off because it would seem so far fetched.”

It is hard to think of anyone who is not affected by this surreal invisible enemy called COVID-19 — a tiny bundle of protein, 120 nanometers in diameter, carrying just eight kilobytes of genetic code. (By the way, I just had to add COVID to my spellcheck dictionary, which — like us only a few short weeks ago — hails from a more innocent age). Perhaps this pandemic isn’t making much difference to those who are already in such dire straits that today is just another crazy day – like people in Syria or Yemen or the 70 million displaced around the world. It also doesn’t make much difference I suppose to a lot of our animal friends – the millions of chickens, for example, who are still being kept in horrifying conditions and slaughtered en masse so that we can comfort ourselves with chewing their wings.

On the plus side, some people may be having a better time than usual right now due to different karma ripening, such as the dogs and cats who have their whole family stuck at home to entertain them, or the person I know who had happily and voluntarily entered a solitary meditation retreat just before any of this started. social distancing

But in general this social distancing is ironically bringing us humans closer because we are sensing that we are all in it together – our common enemy is clearly the virus, not each other. We understand a little better what other people are going through because we are going through it ourselves, not just at some point, but right now, at the same time.

Even for those of us who have it the best because we can work from home – that is, we actually have a home and a job that can be done at home or, to be honest, any job at all – these times are no doubt challenging. Most people are feeling at least occasionally insecure and panicky (especially if they’re binge-watching the news), not knowing where this is headed, scared of getting sick and not being able to breathe and dying. A lot of people are feeling isolated and restless and bored, and very worried about their finances and future.

COVID-19 got a bit more real for me yesterday when I was asked to pray for the husband of an old friend in England, who had just been rushed to hospital with lack of oxygen related to COVID-19. He is now getting better, I am happy to say, enough to send a message, ““Improving slowly. Breathing is much better with less shortage of breath. Oxygen levels higher now. Probably another day maybe two still in hospital. Very boring. Keep clear of this bastard illness. X”

Another text came in at the same time from a friend in Croatia, telling me about the badly-timed earthquake in Zagreb — people huddled in the streets, not able to shelter in place as their places were shelters no longer, more like death traps.

Everyone matters

If this virus is teaching us anything, it is that far from being isolated separated-out individuals, we are all parts of a whole – and therein we have some obligation to each other because everyone matters. No man is an island. The sanest place to start dealing with this crisis is with this heart of understanding for all these other living beings, including those millions of people whom we know for sure are considerably worse off.Cells in body quote and image of VG

It seems that wherever we look right now there are people in trouble. Practically where possible, and always in our hearts, it makes all the sense in the world right now to take care of our neighbors, family, friends, vulnerable members of our society, people on the frontlines, animals, everyone. And we can take care of our mind through applying the teachings, meditating, and praying so that we can be as strong, fearless, and peaceful as possible.

Let’s actually pray the virus doesn’t hit the refugee camps, for example, where washing your hands even once a day is a struggle. It is clearly concerning that we have such a huge homeless population who have nowhere to shelter in place except the “petri dishes” of understaffed and oversubscribed homeless shelters, as one of them put it. I dread the moment the first case hits the South African townships – as one South African put it, it is a privilege and luxury to be able to social distance.

And never was there a better time to share what resources we have with non-profits helping human beings and animals, responding in whatever way we can to those emails requesting help – because many of them risk closing down and leaving millions of vulnerable beings in very serious trouble. If you do have room in your home, now is not a bad time to consider helping out the overcrowded animal shelters by fostering some dogs or cats.

We are all in this together, cells of the same body of life. Obsessing about ourself will help no one and only drive us crazy. Love and concern for everyone else will help others and keep us sane — Buddha called love “the Great Protector”.

Four noble truths

I’ve been thinking about which Buddhist teachings might be most helpful for weathering this storm, and have concluded that EVERYTHING he said is tailor-made for dealing with a time like this.

In his very first teaching called the “four noble truths”, Buddha explained the first truth as “the truth of suffering” or “true sufferings”. He was referring to the endless and relentless suffering that comes from still hanging onto these impure minds and bodies, mistakenly thinking that they are “Me”. COVID-19 is the latest wave of the wave upon wave of suffering that inevitably arises from this ocean of self-grasping ignorance.

deathSome of the sufferings Buddha explained as samsara’s ongoing nature strike a stronger chord at the moment, now that we are feeling a little less sure of ourselves in the collapse of our normal narratives; but those sufferings have always been there, lurking beneath the surface of our distractions, complacency, and routines. These include but are not limited to being stuck in meaty bodies subject to sickness, ageing, death, and rebirth, dissatisfaction, loneliness, no real control or certainty, and constantly unpeaceful minds. We already have a very weird disease, for example – it is called ageing.

The second noble truth is “true origins,” meaning that this suffering has causes that are far deeper than we normally think about, namely self-grasping ignorance, other delusions, and the contaminated karma they spawn.

The third noble truth, “true cessations”, shows that it is in fact possible to have a suffering-free life that comes from a permanent cessation of ignorance and delusions.

The fourth noble truth, “true paths”, is where Buddha explained the practical path to that cessation, 84,000 teachings that bring peace and free the mind.

dog cartoonPoint is, Buddha’s whole intention has always been to help free everyone from difficulties and suffering, not just temporarily but permanently. He pointed all this suffering out, but he also came up with ways for us to deal with and ultimately transcend it. And these methods have been tried and tested and proved successful for at least 2500 years. Now is the time to use them.

Even CNN is encouraging people to take up a meditation practice:

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.

Where the rubber hits the road

Buddha brought suffering to our attention so that we could — and would — do something about it. Moreover, Buddhism in general and Kadampa Buddhism in particular is known for helping us practically to transform adverse conditions into the spiritual path by applying the teachings to whatever is coming up for us, not just in the abstract. Dealing with problems is where the rubber hits the road in Buddhism. In The New Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang says:

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.

Using these circumstances to deepen our inner peace, insight, and compassion means we could end up in a better place than we started, mentally speaking. From that point of view, although I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, this pandemic does give us a lot of opportunity if we decide to apply everything we have learned already or, alternatively, get interested in getting started.

Screen Shot 2020-03-23 at 7.42.21 PMTalking of which, before I go any further, I want to point out to those of you who don’t know that Kadampa Centers around the world are now streaming meditation classes to everyone in their local catchment area. This Buddhist TV is a wonderful addition – nay, antidote! – to all the other online channels you might have been binge-watching! There is great stuff going on all over the place that you can tune into. Click here if you want to know where you can find your local center, and then you can find their Facebook page or website and go from there.

“While you just stayed in your room”

The first port of call in weathering this storm is to learn how to calm down a bit and feel more peaceful and happy in our hearts. But who knows how far this burgeoning meditation habit might take us! If, like me, you are fortunate enough to be confined to your sofa (as opposed to heroically risking your own health to save the rest of us on the frontlines), now is the time to find out.

go insideThere is a whole world inside us, an extraordinary blissful inner landscape that remains largely unexplored because we are usually so busy wandering around in the outside world. Now is our chance to go within and, from there, re-emerge with very different experiences, in a dramatically improved world. Then we can help others do the same. This song came on Spotify while I was out driving for those kitty meds, most appropriate for these times I thought:

I pictured a rainbow
You held it in your hands
I had flashes
But you saw the plan
I wandered out in the world for years
While you just stayed in your room
I saw the crescent
You saw the whole of the moon
The whole of the moon.

Resources for meditating at home

Someone suggested on Facebook that it would be a great idea if I listed all the resources we have for reading and meditating at home.

I agree. And so I ask you in the comments to please list all the resources you have been finding helpful, as well as links to them where appropriate. I can then add them to the next article.

As well as the live-streaming mentioned above, for now, if you want to start reading a free Buddhist meditation eBook, click here.

If you want some tips and tricks to get you going in meditation, click here.

I will be back soon. I have a bunch of ideas up my sleeve that are relevant to COVID-19, and now seemingly endless weeks in which to explore them.

In fact, the next article is now out, here.

Meanwhile, here are some ideas for what you can do stuck at home …

(Or you could just learn to meditate … 🙂 )

(*That part of the mayoral order was rescinded before it even got started – all marijuana dispensaries and liquor stores will remain open for business. Other shops, not so much.)

Related reading

Get started with meditation 

A short meditation you can do at home to calm down 

Some articles on dealing with anxiety 

Love, the great Protector

Are you in the groove or a rut?

Sometimes human beings manage to get their lives pretty well organized – and end up going along for years or even decades in the familiar comforting grooves of family, relationship, careers, possessions, vacations, status, power … Why would comfortable people ever rock that boat by turning to meditation?

stuck rut.jpegOf course, despite good fortune, many people sense there may well be more to us than these external achievements – I call those our 3am questions. As Michael Pollen put it (in a book I’ll talk about later in this article):

“By the time I arrived safely in my fifties, life seemed to be running along a few deep but comfortable grooves: a long and happy marriage alongside an equally long and gratifying career. As we do, I had developed a set of fairly dependable mental algorithms for navigating whatever life threw at me, whether at home or at work. What was missing from my life?”

The question is whether people want to risk finding out. Some do. A lot don’t. I love this quote by the late Ram Dass:

In most of our human relationships, we spend much of our time reassuring one another that our costumes of identity are on straight.

Sometimes the costumes of our identity and life narratives show signs of unravelling – and at these times our failing health or other problems and uncertainties can do us a favor by giving us little choice but to look more deeply into what life actually is about and who we actually are. As Ram Dass put it:

Suffering is part of our training program for becoming wise.

But if we have spent decades of our life in comfortable grooves that are now turning out to be more like ruts, how are we supposed to hoist ourselves out of these? According to Michael Pollen’s new book, through psychedelics.

Psychedelics

psychedelic sky

I am bringing this up for two related reasons – one because I have been reading about Ram Dass, as you can probably tell; and the other because of a conversation I had with a 65-year-old man the other day.

Rodney (not his real name) has had a basically successful life but been depressed for the last few years since his wife died. He has been trying out meditation but it seems to be taking too long for his liking, so he told me the other day he is now trying out mushrooms as well. He reckons that at 65 he has nothing to lose, and he gave me that book by Michael Pollen with all this fantastic re-emerging research to show me how psychedelics (under supervision of course!) might be a valid path to enlightenment. Imagine how easy that would make everything!

I probably wasn’t as excited as Rodney would have liked. I tried to explain why I don’t think magic mushrooms can lead people to enlightenment. The conversation went something like this: “How do you know?” “I don’t, for sure. I just can’t think of anyone. Plus my own past experience has led to other conclusions.” “Well, though, you were just a teenage hippy — what about if you’d done it under the supervision of an expert?” “Erm, no thanks.” (I can’t think of anything more embarrassing, to be honest, than tripping while being watched and analyzed by a stranger, however “expert” they are; but maybe that’s just me.) I tried to explain that although drugs temporarily alter our consciousness, for sure, they are a quick fleeting fix rather than a path. That we need to change our minds using our own efforts, or our minds won’t stay changed. And so on. Rodney’s not really buying it.

I read some of the book just in case, hehe, and couldn’t help thinking also that Michael Pollen, talented and nice as he is, comes rather late to this particular party. Confession time: A previous me aged 15 or 16 probably would have applauded Rodney’s hallucinogenic attempts to blow his mind. If I’d been in charge back then, I would have required everyone between the ages of 30 and 65 to drop acid at least once. These dull middle-aged adults, they had no idea of anything, as far as I was concerned. They had no idea how closed were their doors of perception! That how much altering their consciousness would alter everything they’re looking at! That it would change their lives forever! I would have gone along with Pollen’s enthusiasm back then:

“Was it possible that a single psychedelic experience—something that turned on nothing more than the ingestion of a pill or square of blotter paper—could put a big dent in such a worldview? Shift how one thought about mortality? Actually change one’s mind in enduring ways?”

Coincidentally, it was only a couple of days after this conversation with Rodney that I came across some beautiful tributes to Ram Dass, who has just died. I don’t know all that much about him, but I know he experimented with psychedelics with Timothy Leary in the early days, and I know that he pretty much gave up the drugs once he discovered his Guru and the ability to develop cosmic love through his own efforts. So I did a bit more research (Google!) and report my findings below. He sounds amazing. He would have done a better job at persuading Rodney, I feel.

Ram Dass sun quote.jpg

While perhaps a little bit true that a lot of middle-aged people don’t have a clue about how far their consciousness can lead them, you might be happy to hear that I stepped down from my arrogant youthful stance on obligatory acid-dropping. Like Ram Dass, once I met my Spiritual Guide and a brilliant spiritual path, I realized what I had been looking for was within us all already and that drugs were not required to bring it out.

My enthusiasm didn’t last because I had honestly found something far more profound, meaningful, blissful, mind-boggling, and lasting. Something that explained clearly to me what consciousness is and how it changes, and how then to deliberately and permanently use that understanding to change it for the better. How to practically use universal compassion and non-dual wisdom to destroy the causes of suffering once and for all. Dharma goes so deep. Drugs come nowhere close IMHO.

It is not as if Ram Dass didn’t try to make drugs work over quite a long period of time. For example, “In an effort to avoid the disappointment of “coming down” from a drug experience, Ram Dass said he and five others locked themselves in a building at the estate for three weeks and took LSD every four hours. “What happened in those three weeks in that house no one would ever believe, including us,” he wrote in “Be Here Now,” but they were not able to avoid the inevitable return to reality.”

We simply can’t stay high that way. Not to mention the risk of bad trips and mental illness if we have unprocessed traumas, an addictive personality, etc. I do know that I would be terrified to die while under the influence of psychedelic drugs — way too risky — so that also tells me something. psychedelic skull

If we want to stay high, we have to put in our own efforts to understand and master ourselves, and to attain states of altered consciousness, selflessness, non-duality, love, wisdom, bliss, liberation, and enlightenment.

While Ram Dass credits drugs for awakening his spirituality, he ultimately found them unsatisfying. He found that after coming down from a high, he was depressed. As his tolerance to LSD increased, the thrill had diminished. And as the drug experience deteriorated, tensions between Mr. Leary and (the then) Mr. Alpert rose.

Searching for deeper meaning and a more permanent high, he embarked on a spiritual quest to India, where he met Maharaj-ji.

Ram Dass had taken a batch of LSD with him to India to share with holy men in order to get their opinion of it. At Maharaj-ji’s request, Ram Dass gave him a super-sized dose of LSD. However there was no discernible effect on him, nor again 3 years later when they repeated the experiment. He concluded that his Guru’s consciousness was already so awakened that drugs were powerless to alter it.

I am pretty sure that drugs would also have zero effect on Buddha Shakyamuni, Atisha, Je Tsongkhapa, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Trijang Rinpoche, or any of the other great Yogis and Mahasiddhas in the Buddhist tradition. If I thought Geshe-la was sitting around getting high, it would in fact undermine my faith. I am quite relived that none of these Buddha not under the influencegreat masters has advocated the taking of drugs, in fact rather the opposite, because it means I don’t have to figure out how to take them either to get their transcendent realizations. It seems like an easier example to follow, overall.

Through Maharaj-ji, Ram Dass found a spiritual love deeper than anything he had ever experienced. Drugs would no longer be a major factor in Ram Dass’s life. The old orthodoxies slipped away. He said he realized that his 400 LSD trips had not been nearly as enlightening as his drugless spiritual epiphanies — although, he said, he continued to take one or two drug trips a year for old time’s sake.

Cannabis?

What about cannabis, while we’re on the subject of drugs?! It is of course legal all over the US these days, starting in Colorado the same month I arrived just over six years ago. I don’t have strong opinions on whether or not it should be legal, nor whether it’s any better or worse overall than alcohol; but I do think we have to be careful not to kid ourselves that smoking pot helps us to meditate better. In my own past experience, I never found cannabis helped my concentration or my mindfulness very much – and that I had to wait to come down to be able to get on with anything much other than wandering around the countryside or listening to music. As a long-term and experienced meditator wryly remarked the other day: “No, it doesn’t help you meditate better! You might think it does, just like you might think you’re quite interesting when you’re stoned.”

Instead of doing drugs, this is what Ram Dass did instead:

I hang out with my guru in my heart. And I love every thing in the universe. That’s all I do all day.

This is pretty much all I want to do all day as well.

So, Rodney, if you don’t believe me, ask Ram Dass. He might tell you that meditation turns out to be infinitely more satisfying (and actually easier) than taking any number or type of drugs, and will also lead you on the most cosmic journey to deep peace and mental freedom. I’m sure Ram Dass is blissfully happy as we speak.

Undermining our refuge

For me, I suppose, as a Buddhist, one of the main problems with intoxicants such as drugs, tobacco, and alcohol is not so much the occasional use with one’s eyes open (although that can be a slippery slope); but that due to our attachment we slowly turn to them more and more for refuge without realizing we are doing it. How can we tell? Maybe if we feel depressed or nervous at the idea of not being able to use them?

And this undermines our efforts to take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and therewith our inner peace, making us have to try even harder to escape inner turmoil or boredom through these substances. It can become a vicious circle. This is addiction, not liberation.

These addictions do two bad things to us – they trap us in a cycle of dissatisfaction AND at the same time they detract from our real quest for freedom.

For those of us who are moreorless committed to the Buddhist path, there is another quite subtle point that may bear thinking about just in case. If we are attached to drugs and other substances, we may inadvertently be developing a sense that meditation on its own is not sufficient, that on some level Buddha didn’t get it quite right. This wrong view might have unintended consequences down the road, spiritually speaking, such as creating obstacles in our meditation practice. Recently in his Mirror of Dharma teachings Venerable Geshe Kelsang was emphasizing that one of the principal obstacles to our meditation practice, and one that we need to purify, comes from holding wrong views in our past lives. If we are developing a reliance on making ourselves happy and controlling our mind outside of just doing it, in the long run this might undermine our spiritual practice and our path. What do you think?drugs article meditator

Making samsara work

While I am on the subject of addiction, it is not just addiction to intoxicants that slows us down and distracts us from real joy. We keep trying to make samsara satisfying in other ways too, for example through social media or video games addiction.

Nowadays strong attachment to being always “on” is a serious problem for people who want to go deep and stay deep. If we’re not careful, not only can these addictions take us away from a guaranteed source of peace in terms of using up our time and interest, but we end up going for refuge to them, seeking relief in them instead of Dharma.

I know how I feel when I go for refuge to social media or entertainment rather than to the guaranteed peace, joy, and satisfaction I get whenever I bother to take Dharma to heart. And it’s not that nice, to be honest. How about you?

What to do?

freedom from suffering.jpgSo what do I do? What I have found is that it’s easier to overcome an addiction by figuring out first why I am attached to it – what positive experiences does this substance or activity give me that I think I don’t have already?

Having figured out what I’m actually searching for, when I find my mind turning to an object of attachment, instead of immediately denying myself and feeling sad and discouraged, I use it as a reminder to turn instead to an object of real refuge such as love or wisdom or clarity of mind.

A few examples. What do we want to get out of social media? Maybe we want to feel connected to stories or to feel love. In which case, learning how to meditate on love and taking a compassionate interest in others gets us there too, but without the huge time suck.

We may turn to drugs to alter our consciousness. For example, as Pollen put it: “The study demonstrated that a high dose of psilocybin could be used to safely and reliably “occasion” a mystical experience—typically described as the dissolution of one’s ego followed by a sense of merging with nature or the universe.” In which case, by becoming practiced at meditation we can have that on tap.

We may turn to binge-watching to seek entertainment, alleviate boredom, or reward ourselves after a hard day. However, nothing is more entertaining and less boring than seeing life as the play of bliss and emptiness, Heruka’s mandala; and if we spend the day in the mandala, we don’t need further rewarding.

These alternatives take practice, of course, but they do the job. Please feel free to add other examples in the comments.

springboard to freedomIf you are new to Buddhism and meditation, please know that even the simplest breathing meditation makes us feel better if we give ourselves a few minutes to do it — just letting our thoughts dissolve away for a bit in the natural peace of our consciousness like waves dissolving into a clear ocean. Cravings don’t last all that long, anyway, apparently — just between 5 and 20 minutes for the most part.

Once we’ve given ourselves, say, 5 to 15 minutes to meditate on the breath or love or faith or wisdom or renunciation or whatever we like best about Dharma, we can then let ourselves have that original object of attachment if we still want it. We might still want it, but there again we might not. Even if we do, we won’t want it so desperately. Our habits and consciousness will already have started to change for good.

Thank you Ram Dass for a life of service, example, and inspiration for so many people.

 

 

Unplugged

6.5 mins read.

kids in Khayelitsha
Going home after meditation

My visit to South Africa made me grateful to my teacher Venerable Geshe Kelsang, to the resident teachers and warm-hearted community in the 3 South African Kadampa centres – ground-breaking hard-working pioneers, and to the tireless always-travelling Gen-las who have visited several times. It is inspiring to watch how things might unfurl here due to this patient networking, planting roots that in time will be popping up like grass all over and in unexpected places.

Carrying on from this article.

For sure, material poverty is no obstacle to gaining realizations of inner peace, compassion, and so on, to which Buddha Shakyamuni himself bore witness by wandering from place to place teaching everyone from kings to beggars. As Sangkyong put it, renunciation is also not so difficult here. Give it some time, sow some seeds, and who knows.

kids in kids in Khayelitsha

Go to where the people are, as Geshe Kelsang once told me; don’t wait for them to come to you. And, as he also said, we don’t need any agenda of making people into Buddhists or even using Dharma terminology — just give them “advice for a happy life”.

In the townships, a lot of the teenage girls at COSAT High School, younger kids I met, and social workers seemed to have a naturally easier engagement and focus than a lot of people I’ve met back home. Addictive technology has done a number on us. I wouldn’t wish the hardship and dearth of opportunity on anyone, and pray for a steady improvement in South African society (maybe by swapping over black and white babies at birth?! Hehe. You know I’m kidding, right?! But you have to admit, it could speed equality up considerably … ) However, I don’t think people are missing too much by not having access/addiction to a screen and headphones 24/7. COSAT girls

My own African tech karma was such that the moment I set out for Heathrow my iPhone 5S started to overheat, become erratic, and increasingly cut out, and then once in Cape Town I dropped it on the floor so chunks of the screen fell off. As I stuck on the sellotape some days later in Durban, I said with zero sarcasm: “Hey, look, that’s much better!” to have my new friend Kelsang Jampel compliment me that I was becoming a real African now. It was surprisingly not annoying but refreshing to be cut loose from a smartphone in a place I had assumed I really needed one. (Postscript: My first-world karma re-ripened just before I left for London, with the unexpected offer of a barely used iPhone 7 from brand new friends. Thanks, G and S!)

Talking of freedom from pervasive technology – I was impressed by how much spontaneous enjoyment thousands of people were having on the Golden Mile, where no one I saw had their head stuck into a phone. I feel like I haven’t seen that kind of unplugged party since I was young, before the technology took over our lives – people were laughing in the streets and jumping over the waves for hours without getting bored. Just saying.

I am not suggesting that life in laid-back (apparently to a fault) Durban is perfect, obviously — the hugely overcrowded underfunded government hospitals looming grimly over parts of that same Durban beach are, according to a doctor I met, a nightmarish death trap for a start. But this friendly gathering of the healthy seemed like an improvement over the isolation and ever-diminishing eye contact of so many lives in thrall to the internet.  (I even got to swim in the ocean with this crowd, one of many highlights on this trip — like that party scene in the Matrix, oh, never mind …)

Maybe people were having more fun than usual because South Africa had just won the Rugby world cup; but from what I hear this is just how it is at weekends. Even on Mango Airlines between Durban and Jozi, my fellow passengers seemed far better at making the most of being on a plane, singing across the aisles. No one seems as addicted to their technology.

(By the way, to be fair, I was on Parliament Hill yesterday back in London, and for some reason found an unplugged happy pile of strangers up there as well, albeit wrapped up against the cold. One common denominator to having fun = put the phones down and pay attention to the people around us?!) Parliament Hill London

Buddhism 101 tells us that happiness depends on the mind. If we are in a good mood, it is all fun. If we are in a bad mood, it is no fun at all. As those sayings go, you can run but you can’t hide. Wherever you go, there you are … especially once the novelty has worn off.

How to get into a better mood

Meditation is about getting more peaceful inside and therefore, frankly, having more fun:

The only way to do this is by training our mind through spiritual practice—gradually reducing and eliminating our negative, disturbed states of mind and replacing them with positive, peaceful states. Eventually, through continuing to improve our inner peace we will experience permanent inner peace, or nirvana. Once we have attained nirvana we will be happy throughout our life, and in life after life. ~ Transform Your Life, p. 6-7

As I like to say, thoughts are free. We can learn to choose them. While it is clearly impossible to avoid all difficult situations and conditions, it turns out that through training the mind in Buddhist meditation we can upend those troubling situations and use them to our advantage. This practice of “transforming adverse conditions into the path” enables us to integrate everything we come across into our spiritual training. If we can learn to live more skillfully like this, our whole life becomes meaningful, creative, and, yes, fun.

Durban beach 3The first step to thinking differently is the patience which accepts that our negative disturbed thoughts are there without panicking. Otherwise, how are we supposed to be able to let them go?

Suppressing negative thoughts and feelings is not an option — that just makes them more intrusive, like a jack popping out from the box, and we have to work even harder to keep them at bay. However, we can bear in mind that our mind is like the wide spacious sky and our unpeaceful thoughts are just weather passing through. Our thoughts are really nowhere near as scary as they try to make out.

(By the way, a few people recently have asked me the difference between thoughts (as in discriminations) and feelings because they have the impression that they can train their thoughts but not their feelings. Not quite true. Discriminations and feelings are both so-called “all-accompanying mental factors”, which means they form part of every moment of mind and always share the same object. Change one, change the other. Maybe more on that another day — it is one of hundreds of unfinished articles. Meantime, pick up How to Understand the Mind Mango airlinesfor a perfect explanation.

Inner peace and space solve problems and make us happier. This is our sanity. So this is where we need to start. We can stop fighting our own thoughts because our mind is actually on our side – stop giving energy to our delusions and our mind naturally wants to settle into peace and sanity.

As I talk about here, right now it may seem as though our problems are getting in the way of our inner peace — but the only thing getting in the way is that we’re clutching onto our problems and determined to solve them all out there. Peace is destroyed when we feel an excessive need to do this because our mind is more and more shaken up with distorted thinking or so-called “inappropriate attention” – dwelling, exaggerating, conceptualizing, elaborating. Whether it’s our relationships, our politicians, our health, our work, our travel, our accommodations, our technology, we’re like a dog with a bone, we can’t let go.

Cape Town water

Even when we know this, we are in the bad habit of trying to solve our delusion problems with more delusions. And ironically the harder we try to do this the less and less in control we feel, because our mind IS less and less in control. It’s far more effective to unplug and sort out our outer problems from the sanity of inner peace, as suggested by this Kadampa motto by Geshe Chekhawa:

Always rely upon a happy mind alone.

More on this subject coming up soon. Meantime, I’d love your comments.

 

 

Advice for a happy life

7.5 mins read.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’d wager that pretty much everyone around you is having some sort of problem today. Which section of society is exempt?

flight over AfricaThis seems to be the case from London to Cape Town, from Phoenix to Johannesburg, from Durban to Denver. Hehe, I should know, as I have been to and from all these 6 cities in the past month, including a last minute trip to South Africa. These next couple of articles may end up being a bunch of vignettes with Buddhist thoughts blended in … or vice versa, let’s see. I have almost 20 hours of flying time on this Ethiopian airlines, with a long layover in Addis Ababa, so it is either this or watching 4 movies.

Here in South Africa I’ve been the recipient of an inordinate number of hugs and smiles from people I’ve only just met, and felt strangely at home. This includes two townships where I had the pleasure and privilege of sharing meditation and Buddhist ways of coping, hearing some stories of life on the edge.

A few days ago the Kadampa nun in Joburg (Gen Mila) and myself met a group of 40 social workers in Alexandra at an organization called Friends for Life — mostly women, two outnumbered men (one appropriately named “Gift”), whose main task is to help young people (aged 3 to 18) orphaned by AIDS. The things they have to see and cope with every day are very hard. One veteran of ten years told us, “Sometimes when I enter the room I want to cry. Sometimes I ask to go to the toilet so I can just cry.”

township(Talking of Gift, he is probably lucky he arrived in this world when his parents were in a good mood or he might have been named “Problem” instead, like one poor soul I met. “Enough” is not an uncommon name either, because that’s enough kids already. Just say what you mean, why not.)

Full disclosure: I should point out that Alexandra is a township that is home to 800,000 crammed-in souls, about 10 of whom, embarrassingly enough, could fit into the digs I was staying at — a Pure Land in the wealthy enclave of Sandton, Joburg. There were even white furry comic book rabbits surreally wandering around. Was I dreaming? Yes. And don’t go to South Africa if you don’t like really loud birds.

The Jacaranda trees in full bloom, spilling their vivid purple petals on the ground, were reminiscent of a childhood home, 28-29 Jacaranda Avenue. A lot about South Africa brought to mind my supposedly long-lost youth in Guyana, Ghana and other places, not to mention a history with SA itself, going to show that that karma never gets done ripening and circling. I was thinking that it’s always worth keeping an eye on what intentions/seeds we are sowing because everything is a mere karmic appearance of mind, not outside our mind; and anything can appear or reappear at any point, dream-like, entirely depending on our karma. Reminded like this that everything is the nature of my mind, however, may explain why I was feeling so relaxed my entire time in South Africa.

Jacaranda tree

In Sandton I took early morning walks in a gated neighborhood that could be in Palm Beach Florida or Palm Springs California, providing you ignore all the barbed wire, ADT warning systems, and armed patrols, the only indication that there’s a township just a mile down the road. Unlike an actual Pure Land, not everyone is welcome here.

A mere 25 years on from apartheid and SA, perhaps unsurprisingly, still has a long road to freedom.

At least the manager at the guest house, Beneeta, said she was so struck by my apparent peacefulness that she wants to learn to meditate — her first class is next week. I am rooting for her because she is, as I told her, a natural. Along with so many other people I have met here, to be honest, who are already in their hearts, or closer to. A little Dharma seems to go a long way here – whereas I sometimes feel like it has to be spelled out in 100 ways and 100 times to more heady, over-thinking, and spoiled-for-choice people like me before we’ll even attempt it.

On the subject of random encounters, on the trip over from London a young woman, M, kindly gave up her window seat for a mother and daughter, ending squished in the middle seat next to me. First she volunteered to sort out my headphones. Then we navigated Addis Ababa airport and its multiple security checkpoints, rewarding ourselves with a strong Ethiopian coffee. Then last night she came along to her first Kadampa meditation class in Cape Town 🙂 Point being, it can be worth saying hello to people we bump into “accidentally” – for we only bump into people we have some karma with.

Observatory 2In Cape Town I stayed at the stunning sanctuary of Tushita KMC with Kadampa monk Kelsang Sangkyong, who himself grew up in a township, along with pretty much all other black South Africans in the era of apartheid. He is in a good position to know what’s going on and how Buddha’s teachings might skillfully be shared where they might be needed, with no agenda to convert anyone to anything, just as tools for a happier life.

He was saying how it seems that rich people problems can often afford to be more emotional – whereas if you are hustling to stay alive, that preoccupies your search for happiness and freedom from suffering. Once you’ve managed to secure basic shelter, food, clothing, and medicine — necessities for humans, as Buddha pointed out — then the other mental problems become more dominant. Whether it’s for solving first-world or third-world problems, however, everyone, Buddhist or not, can find some practical benefit from Buddha’s advice on controlling the mind.

For regardless whether our problems are big or small, they fill our mind – we find it hard to think of much else, accustomed as we are to feeding them whether or not we want to. As mentioned in this article, the average number of uncontrolled thoughts is reportedly 9 out of 10; and so far in my own market research I have found this number to be the same everywhere from Hollywood to Alexandra. Is it then any wonder that we can feel helpless in the face of difficulties? We are doing our best to control externals, including helping other people; but that’s a stretch given that we cannot even control our own minds.

Meditation vs medication

woman with heartHow do people cope? We can medicate (drink, distract, etc) our way out of stress and problems and/or we can learn to meditate our way out of it. Anyone from any background or culture can learn to meditate in the sense of becoming more practiced and familiar with positive ways of thinking. We can all become a calmer and more peaceful person if that is what we decide to do.

Whoever I ask, they agree they experience glimpses of the peace available to us — sometimes out of the blue we feel happy inside, not a care in the world, connected to everyone, and we could stay there forever, we want to. Only we can’t, of course, because shortly some delusion comes along to destroy our peace again. But this we can remedy. We can grow our peace because it’s there already. It is our Buddha nature, our potential for enlightenment.

BE a peaceful person

After the meditation in Alex, one of the social workers summed up what had just happened better than I could have:

We have peace, we have choice, and we must go there everyday into our heart. We must BE a peaceful person.

They all nodded in agreement, adding things like:

Now we are so peaceful, now we are ready for our day. Now we know we can cope with today.

That feeling of BEING a peaceful person needs to become our default through familiarity, through checking in with it every single day – and even a short breathing meditation is enough to get us there. As the headmistress of a Montessori kindergarten in Joburg, who shares meditation with the kids, told me:

When it comes time for the kids to leave for their next school, I tell them they have learned to read and write here, which is very good. But, even more importantly, they have learned that they always have their breath. And this means that they can always experience inner peace.

Mila and childrenMy heart opened wider in Africa. I am remembering the tiny girls in one township staring at me curiously with huge eyes, the eyes that then closed in meditation, not opening again even when time was up. Ducks to water. Natural meditators.

At question time, one of the Soweto kids at the elementary school in Joburg asked “Are you coming back next week?” I am not but Gen Mila is, and the week after. Yes!

(Couple more installments on their way.)

Over to you. Comments are very welcome!

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Evil monkeys

Of course we homo sapiens are not inherently monkeys, much less evil monkeys; but there is some validity in saying we are hairless primates rather than some superior life form, and that as a species we have managed to couple our creative imaginations with increasing greed and selfishness to entrap, torture, and exterminate millions of fellow living beings (including previous varieties of human).

monkey 1.gif

Carrying on from this article, No Buddhism.

(I called this article “Evil monkeys” because it was quicker than “psychopathic narcissistic genocidal self-important monkeys”).

For me that narrative of evolutionary biology only tells part of a story, yet it has been helpful. I have been feeling keenly that despite my usual pride of being a human being as opposed to, say, a chimpanzee or a squirrel, there is really nothing exceptional about me (or other humans) — we are all part and parcel of samsara, trapped in flesh and blood just like all the other animals.

What is so different about me?! How can I expect a better outcome than anyone else around here? How can I expect that for any of the other hairless monkeys I know? That is scary, as there is visibly infinite suffering in our world; so it has been helping me to develop deeper renunciation and compassion.

Yet at the same time my mind need not be that of an animal for I now have a brief window of opportunity to use my mental power to overcome self-grasping — to see that none of this suffering is really happening, that it is like a dream or a mirage. As I heard Lenny Kravitz sing earlier:

Wake up world before it is too late.

monkey 2.gif(I’ll just remind us all while I’m here of the Buddhist understanding of our minds as formless continuums of awareness that have passed from body to body since beginningless time. Therefore, this body we have right now is just one of countless we have appropriated. Evolutionary biology doesn’t take that continuum of consciousness into account as far as I can tell so, like I say, it only tells part of a story.)

Evil monkeys or enlightened Buddhas – our choice

Buddha is deeply radical in saying that all the things we normally perceive do not exist, and proving it in multiple ways.

Dream things such as dream mountains and dream houses
And the horses and elephants that are created by magicians
Are all mere appearance to the mind –
They do not actually exist.
In the same way, all living beings from gods to hell beings
And all phenomena that we normally see or perceive
Are also mere appearances to the mind –
They do not actually exist.” ~ Norsang Gyatso, quoted in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra 

This truth can come to be experienced, giving us actual mental freedom and lasting bliss. Which is what we all want. And all the other teachings of Buddhism — such as renunciation and compassion and even faith — are designed not as something to believe in “out there,” but as mere devices to lead us to the truth of emptiness.

The exercise yard of a bigger prison

The author Harari theorizes that we only ever escape one imagined order by inventing another. He gives some good examples, and funnily enough I just stumbled upon one myself while reading The Week — capitalism will go away if we all believe in socialism instead:

For 40 years, the corporate world has reverently knelt before libertarian economist Milton Friedman and his famed doctrine: “There is one and only one social responsibility of business,” Friedman said, and that is to “engage in activities designed to increase its profits.”

However, at this point in history, for various reasons I won’t get into:

… capitalism is clearly headed for a reckoning …. Real-world experience has undermined free marketeers’ near-theological belief that the unfettered pursuit of self-interest invariably produces the best outcomes for society itself.

We might be headed for “pure and unadulterated socialism” instead.stuck to prison lego

Be that as it may, and whether you think that would be an improvement or not, Harari concludes that replacing one system with another cannot actually free us:

There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.

Overall, I agree with him … BUT ONLY IF WE DON’T REALIZE EMPTINESS. This is the door through which we can finally escape the prison of samsara.

(Interestingly enough, and perhaps not surprisingly, Harari himself is a meditator.)

In the meantime we can still safely agree on some things

An understanding of emptiness allows for us to follow relative reality. We can all agree that this is a blog for example. We will neversapiens 5 find it anywhere if we look for it, so it is not an objective or absolute truth; but it still functions as a blog. That is conventional reality.

I explained here about how things like forests come into being – once the forest exists, insofar as we all agree there is a forest, it functions and we can burn it down and make lots of money.

But although things appear and perform a function, they never exist from their own side. They don’t have to exist from their own side to appear and function – in fact, if they did exist from their own side they could neither appear nor function.

Within that, some relative reality works very well, not least because it brings us inner peace and takes us in the direction of the wisdom realizing the way things are. Geshe-la calls this “beneficial believing”.

For example, developing love and compassion is beneficial believing because it gets us closer and closer to being able to benefit ourselves and others. It is also an expression of our pure, non-deluded nature. Identifying ourselves and others as our pure Buddha nature as opposed to our delusions is also beneficial believing.

Karma functions too. Virtuous actions that derive from a relatively realistic view of things, such as compassion, patience, or love, lead to good results; and actions that derive from delusions — non-virtuous actions (such as gouging out pigs’ eyes so they can’t run away) — lead to bad results. It’s not surprising really that this is the case.

There is relative truth. We want to be happy and free from suffering and some truths and states of mind, including faith, lead us closer toward that. As Voltaire said:

There is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night.

No narrative created by self-grasping can work that great, but some do work better than others. How? Because some bring about some temporary happiness and freedom for ourselves and others, such as those rooted in decency, empathy, kindness, and unselfishness. Others just entrap us more and more deeply in a vicious cycle of selfishness, fear, and pain.

So what can we do for our troubled planet?

We watch the news at record rates; everyone is interested in politics these days it seems. And the more we watch, the more we are in danger of buying into the various narratives we are being fed, and the more we become immersed in our own echo chambers, believing more and more what we’re told. It’s a bit dangerous, frankly. Another maybe slightly relevant quote:

It is impossible to raise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honor, motherland, manhood, or money.

I reckon we could all do with less feverish yet passive following of CNN, Fox news, or Twitter feeds, and spending more time proactively and responsibly working on transforming our own minds and actions.

monkey mindThe point is, we don’t really have much time left, whichever way you cut it. A year goes fast, and how many of those do we have before we die? A month goes even faster and how many of those do we have left – several hundred at most? What we choose to do with this remaining time is incredibly important because who knows whether we’ll have the freedom to choose what to do with our thoughts in our next life. Just ask the veal calf or one of the trillion tortured chickens.

Freedom from illusion

I found this passage from Sapiens somewhat thought-provoking, what do you think of it?

How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity*, democracy, or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature. People are unequal, not because Hammurabi said so, but because Enlil and Marduk decreed it. Free markets are the best economic system, not because Adam Smith said so, but because these are the immutable laws of nature.

But the point I suppose I am trying to make is that Buddha totally did admit that his teachings are imagined – because everything is. But there is incorrect and correct imagination, and Buddha’s clear and practical teachings are designed specifically to lead us to the realization that everything is imagined, and thus finally to freedom from the illusion.

*I don’t feel comfortable singling out any religion as not revealing the truth of emptiness – it seems very likely to me that enlightened beings (Skt. Buddhas) would do their best to appear and teach in all traditions to reveal this truth one way or another. I have read profound things in Christianity, for example; and I also remember Venerable Geshe-la saying how surprised he was to discover how rich was the English language and therefore how easy to translate profound concepts from Tibetan Buddhism — how it had the deep words “manifestation” and “emanation” for example, which come from the early Christian tradition. I think it is also helpful that we have the words “illusion” versus “reality,” for example, indicating that these ideas are not new. Emptiness doesn’t belong to Buddhism, obviously; it is the only truth for everyone. But Buddha did emphasize and explain it very clearly.

The graying of America

old ageTalking of aging, dying, and getting a move on, I was just reading an article called “The graying of America”, which includes all the dismal statistics and prognoses you can imagine. But the article then suggested optimistically that we could “copy or learn” from other countries in their approach to the problem. That sounded good, for a moment, or at least better than nothing, as I read about hacks for incentivizing old people to keep exercising.

But the good ideas then abruptly dried up, because this is what came next: “Japanese companies such as Sony and Soft Bank are marketing a line of robot puppies and baby seals as a balm for elderly loneliness.”

Whaaa? That’s supposed to reassure me — that I can look forward to a robot baby seal for company?! Yes, apparently: “Just looking at it makes people smile.” Grimly, I would hope, unless they’ve totally lost their marbles. And that’s not all – at the Shintomi nursing home in Tokyo you can now join in a sing-along led by a 4-foot-tall android named Pepper.

Forget the chronic shortage of social security, pensions, and doctors, the decline in GDP, the resetting of crosswalk timers throughout the land, or the epidemic of loneliness as millions of people find themselves trapped in their once comfortable suburban houses unable to walk or drive to the shops. The idea of spending my golden years with a literally mindless robot seal who can neither give nor receive an iota of love, and apparently enjoying it, is what horrifies me the most.

And in my case we’re only really talking a matter of 10-20 years at this point: all the more reason to focus my efforts and for-now-functioning marbles on getting into my heart and out of samsara.

Here is a great poem a friend sent me the other day; she knew it’d be right up my street!:

The Parade

BY BILLY COLLINS

How exhilarating it was to march
along the great boulevards
in the sun flash of trumpets
and under all the waving flags— 

the flag of ambition, the flag of love.
So many of us streaming along—
all of humanity, really—
moving in perfect step,
yet each lost in the room of a private dream. 

How stimulating the scenery of the world,
the rows of roadside trees,
the huge curtain of the sky. 

How endless it seemed until we veered
off the broad turnpike
into a pasture of high grass,
headed toward the dizzying cliffs of mortality. 

Generation after generation,
we keep shouldering forward
until we step off the lip into space.

And I should not have to remind you
that little time is given here
to rest on a wayside bench,
to stop and bend to the wildflowers,
or to study a bird on a branch— 

not when the young
are always shoving from behind,
not when the old keep tugging us forward,
pulling on our arms with all their feeble strength.

Wake up world

The other day I dreamed I was miles from where I needed to be and already late, but instead of getting a move on I was sluggishly trying to figure out something suitable to wear.

Whatever this random dream amongst millions of dreams may mean, far more important is what I noticed upon waking, which is how we just get caught up in our narratives.

Within those nightly parameters we feel we have to figure everything out, whereas all we really need to do to solve everything and get where we need to be is to wake up. Blessed relief. It is all well and good being nice to the people around us in our dream, and accepting their help and kindness and so on, and it makes the dream far more pleasant than fighting and arguing; but, either way, nothing is really going on, and we simply need to wake up. As it says in Request to the Lord of all Lineages:

All my appearances in my dreams teach me
That all my appearances when awake do not exist;
Thus for me all my dream appearances
Are the supreme instructions of my Guru.

Percy in graveyard

Rather than blindly following the crowd or people at work, like a sheep, we have to figure out what narrative or world view we are following and whether or not it is working for us; and use our considerable human ingenuity and will power to escape.

Percy and Jenny

Talking of sheep, I once lived in a huge Buddhist Centre called Madhyamaka Centre, at Kilnwick Percy Hall, way out in the Yorkshire countryside. Two sheep, only two, kept escaping from the neighboring field and hanging out in our rose gardens. We kept returning them, and they kept escaping, we never quite figured out how.

One Tuesday the farmer came to collect his flock for slaughter, and sure enough the two sheep once again sought refuge on our land. When the farmer realized they were missing and came to find them, our Admin Director Nick Gillespie decided on the spot to buy them off him instead.

Percy, the ringleader, was a surprisingly intelligent and personable sheep – one could imagine him reading The Times when no one was looking. Jenny was pretty dumb, but she adored Percy and followed him everywhere, and that was her saving grace. Within a few months, the beloved Percy died of yew poisoning and we all did a transference of consciousness for him. Due to his refusal to follow the other sheep, we like to think that he escaped not just a beastly death but more lives in the lower realms and/or samsara. Jenny escaped relatively due to her good idea to follow Percy – she lived to a ripe old age, along with a couple more lambs to keep her company. Hopefully she followed him to the Pure Land.

Percy and JennyIt takes a special sheep to be that persistent. It takes a special human to be that persistent too, but here we are, and we have to find freedom before the farmer gets here.

Over to you, love your comments.

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