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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No Buddhism

9 mins read.

We are making all of this up as we go along. Always have been. Always will be.  everything depends on mind

That’s the thing I admire the most about Buddhism – it explains so clearly that the only truth is that nothing is really true. Nothing exists inherently. We are creating everything with our thoughts — there is nothing out there existing from its own side. Yet, at the same time, right here right now we have not just the potential but also the option to realize this—and, if we do that, we are finally free. It’s epic.

The phenomena that I normally see or perceive
Are deceptive – created by mistaken minds.
If I search for the reality of what I see,
There is nothing there that exists – I perceive only empty like space. ~ Request to the Lord of all Lineages

The things we normally see — inherently existent things or things outside the mind — do not exist at all. This applies not just to mental constructs such as shared myths, but to our biological reality such as our body or our physical reality such as radioactivity. If we go looking for anything with wisdom, as explained for example in this article about the emptiness of the body, we will find nothing. Emptiness, or ultimate truth, is the mere absence of the things we normally see. As Buddha pointed out in the shortest Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, called the Heart Sutra:

There is no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, not tactile object, no phenomenon.

Not only that, but there is no inherently existent suffering being, no samsara, no Buddhas, no liberation, no enlightenment.

There is no ignorance and no exhaustion of ignorance and so forth up to no ageing and death and no exhaustion of ageing and death. Likewise, there is no suffering, origin, cessation, or path; no exalted awareness, no attainment, and also no non-attainment. ~ Heart Sutra

That means, does it not, that there is even no Buddhism?!

Heart SutraEven emptiness doesn’t exist inherently, from its own side, outside of thought. There are no absolute truths — not even emptiness, not even awareness, not even Buddhas, not even the path to liberation itself.

Which doesn’t leave us with much of a leg to stand upon. But this turns out to be a very good thing, actually the most extraordinary thing, for, as I like to say:

Samsara sucks
Samsara sucks for everyone
But luckily samsara is not real.

Imagined orders

The things we see do not exist, and yet things hang together due to collective agreement or convention. According to Buddhism, everything, whether a corporation or a chair, exists only as mere appearance, via convention or collective agreement.

So corporations and money etc can function because we collectively allow them too. And because of the huge power of human imagination, we have invented all sorts of useful and not so useful things that, for example, have allowed our societies to grow in size and complexity. As it says in the book Sapiens by the Israeli historian Yuval Harari that I mentioned in this last article:

Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

The book gives some excellent examples of imaginary constructs – companies such as Peugeot, various world views over the millennia, the American declaration of independence, money, empires, even evolutionary biology itself. People invented all these systems and then got enough people to believe and participate in them for them to moreorless work.

superior imaginationWhen the agricultural Revolution opened opportunities for the creation of crowded cities and mighty empires, people invented stories about great gods, motherlands, and joint stock companies to provide the needed social links …. The human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation.

Everything from myth to religion to nations to moral codes to money are inter-subjective realities according to Harari. They have force for as long as people believe them, and cease to exist the moment people no longer believe them. This explains how people could cooperate in groups larger than 150, giving them a military and security advantage, and encouraging specialization which eventually gave them a technological advantage.

The term Harari uses is “inter-subjective;” and he distinguishes between “objective” and “inter-subjective”:

The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals … Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.

illusionHarari has a brilliant mind; but I don’t think he goes quite far enough. So I would just like to add, kinda crucially, that Buddha said nothing is objective. I think of the term “inter-subjective reality” as a synonym for existing by agreement or existing by convention. And everything is therefore inter-subjective, existing by convention, including radioactivity! But I agree with Harari on how things you cannot see or sit on have nonetheless had enormous impact on the world.

As it says in Lord of all Lineages:

When I search with my wisdom eye,
All the things that I normally see disappear
And only their mere name remains.

These numerous human narratives, myths, legends, religions, and evolutionary and scientific theories all tell a story, but only ever part of a story, and not an entirely true story. And whether a narrative succeeds in getting us all cooperating and communicating depends entirely on how many people can be persuaded to believe it and thus buy into it.

With this mere name I simply accept everything for the purpose of communicating with others.

Evil monkeys

sapiens 1Homo sapiens have been hands down the cruelest of species, entrapping and torturing and murdering vast numbers not just of other species but our own. We have used our extraordinary imaginations over millennia to become the dominant species on this planet, getting to the top of the food chain despite our relatively puny bodies, using ever more creative ways to indulge our self-cherishing and profit-driven attachment, even making virtues of them along the way.

But what has been our undoing — for example our own species now being on the verge of extinction on this planet — can also be our saving. Our imagination can be used for evil, but it can also be used to transcend.

Conspiracy theories are not helpful

I was talking to a conspiracy theorist the other day – for sure, these days everyone seems to be a bit of a conspiracy theorist, even me. These stories of victimhood and blame can be convincing and there may be some relative truth to them sometimes. However, these narratives often involve so much mental elaboration in pursuit of the deep perpetrator of all that ails us – and if not careful, far from becoming more free, people fall deeper and deeper down the rabbit holes of hallucination, paranoia, and blame.

we are all being played conspiracyThe only conspiracy a Buddhist really has to uncover and blame is that of our self-grasping, the one that underlies every other conspiracy there has ever been, that fabricates all deceptive appearances. If we had all the time in the world, maybe we could spend weeks and months contemplating other possible evil conspiracies as well. But we don’t have much time, so we need to focus. At least that is what I think, and probably some of you do too. Now we only need to persuade everyone else of that 😁

Until we rid our mind of self-grasping and other delusions, it remains impure. And it seems as if nothing we have created with our impure imaginations has ever had the power to make us happy, at least not for long – whether that be politics or technology or sports or even medicine. Something cannot be real happiness if its cause is not a real cause of happiness, can it? So because politics, science, medicine, and so on can also cause problems, they are not real causes of happiness, and therefore any happiness we derive from them is not real happiness.

Plus our grasping at all these things – including religions — as inherently existent (self-grasping ignorance) and as inherently existent sources of happiness (attachment) has led us to huge suffering. Real happiness comes only from real causes of happiness, inner peace and wisdom.

We have also been kept very busy at justifying our attachments. For example, as we domesticated more and more other species, it must have become convenient at some point to develop the belief that we were somehow of a different order of special (despite Sapiens 2our tail bone) and that animals were put on earth just for our benefit. Of course, therefore, we can treat them however we want.

The domestication of animals was founded on a series of brutal practices that only became crueler with the passing of the centuries.

To this day that exceptionalist world view lingers such that we feel our cruel treatment of animals is justified – but what reasonable justification do we have for this behavior, really?

It’s reasonable to assume, for example, that bulls prefer to spend their days wandering over open prairies in the company of other bulls and cows rather than pulling carts and ploughshares under the yoke of a whip-wielding ape.

And where has this subjugation of animals led us? To the burning of the Amazon and our own potential mass suicide, for one thing.

Not just another invention

Instead of inventing just another imagined order for us to believe in as if it really existed from its own side, outside of our minds, Buddha basically — right out of the door — said that this IS all imagination; that we are making it all up. Everything is emptiness, ie, the mere lack of inherent existence.

The whole methodology of the Buddhist faith is then designed to get us to that understanding so that we can walk through the door of emptiness to lasting freedom.

sapiens 3Everything in Buddhism starts with that — or sometimes with the other side of the same coin which is that everything depends upon thought. That is Buddhism 101. You’ll hear something along those lines the moment you walk in the door of a Buddhist Center. Geshe Kelsang for example has said that he has put emptiness teachings in all of his books in the hope that people will therefore find them; and that the main reason for his appearing in this world is to reveal emptiness to us.

Countless enlightened beings have appeared to say these things in countless world systems, leading countless people like you and me through that door to join them. There may be more enlightened beings than samsaric beings by now, for all we know.

As it says in The New Heart of Wisdom, a commentary to the Heart Sutra:

Although we need to strive to develop a new realization of emptiness, it is important to understand that emptiness itself is not a new development or creation. It is not a product of philosophical analysis or an invention of Buddha. Emptiness has been the actual nature of all phenomena from the very beginning. Our body, for example, has always been empty of inherent existence; there has never been a time when our body, or anything else, existed inherently. Although emptiness has always been the true nature of phenomena, we need to receive instructions to realize this; and for this reason Buddha taught the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra.

If you are interested in emptiness, and haven’t had a chance to read The New Heart of Wisdom yet, I strongly recommend it! I wouldn’t have a clue what I am talking about without reading  that book for the first time decades ago, and many times since.

Summary

Sapiens 4

I do hope I’m not confusing anyone – please go now read The New Heart of Wisdom if I am! But I suppose what I am trying to chat about in this long article is how Buddha came along and blasted all imagined realities, including religions and other belief systems, out of the water by saying that nothing is actually out there, our minds are making the whole thing up – always have been and always will be. Some imagined realities work better than others — some lead us to hellish suffering and some to the bliss of enlightenment — but everything is equally unfindable and illusion-like. That is what we need to realize.

I am going to let Buddha have the last word. In the Heart Sutra, he says:

Therefore, Shariputra, because there is no attainment, Bodhisattvas rely upon and abide in the perfection of wisdom; their minds have no obstructions and no fear. Passing utterly beyond perversity, they attain the final nirvana.

Over to you. What do you think about all this?!

There is another installment here, called Evil monkeys.

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Being kinder to ourselves and others

7.5 mins read.

I thought we’d start by looking at why we really need to do something sooner rather than later about this inner critic — or inner bully — which is always putting us down.

not way to relate to potential
Not the way to look at our potential.

Carrying straight on from Silencing the inner critic. 

As part of anger, it is a toxic inner poison, so no wonder it leads to so many problems. Anger is a distorted unrealistic mind, so how can it serve any useful purpose?

Destroying our confidence, self-dislike and over-critical self-judgment blocks our creativity and inspiration, and therewith can sabotage not just our careers but our spiritual practice.

It deadens our relationships – keeping us trapped in relationships where we might put up with the other person criticizing or abusing us, because we feel we “deserve” it.

A quick Google search shows that it leads to shame, sadness, self-doubt, fear, hopelessness, irritability, frustration, and learning and memory problems. We get depressed, suffer from lower energy, experience constant anxiety, and engage in self-destructive behaviors. For example, if we believe we are hopeless and cannot stick to a diet, we may just as well eat those six donuts – it’ll provide temporary relief at least!self-hatred like cancer

We become our own worst enemy, but it doesn’t stop there – it can make us criticize and complain about others as well, making enemies of them. This can be because, when we are feeling irritable, everything appears irritating. Then people don’t like us and we end up liking ourselves less too, in a negative spiral.

Constantly complaining about others or ourselves is bad for our mind and for our body (Google it!). Experiencing anger and frustration causes our body to release the stress hormone cortisol, which contributes to higher blood pressure and cholesterol, a weakened immune system, and the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Need I go on?!

Putting others down can also be an attempt to distract ourselves from our own perceived inadequacies, or an attempt to bolster our own self-esteem. If we liked and valued ourselves, would we really need to put others down to raise ourselves up? No self-respecting person actually feels the need to do that.

Toward a healthier society

Collectively, I would submit, a lack of self-respect and self-liking has led to a painful lack of respect and liking for others on a societal level. This incredible new documentary on PBS recently examines the century following America’s Civil War, and has affected me quite deeply. (If you live outside the United States, it is available for purchase on DVD here.)

Reconstruction

Among many other things, this 4-part series shows me how oppressing or dehumanizing other people to deal with our own feelings of inadequacy leads to frightening hypocrisy, self-deception, and societal problems; and how it is little wonder that so many African Americans experience not just less opportunity but also report to feelings of low self-esteem, given this nation’s long violent history of systemic racism. This documentary has given me a far clearer picture of the factors at play in many of the problems faced in America today.

In a section on overcoming self-cherishing in The New Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang says:

It is often so painful to admit that we have faults that we make all manner or excuse rather than alter our exalted view of ourselves. One of the most common ways of not facing up to our faults is to blame others.

America has a lot of amazing qualities and I love it, but I have been thinking how white-washing our history is not helping us to stop demonizing each other, let alone to love and respect one other; which we need to do if we are to have any hope of a fair and peaceful society. I was not brought up here so it may be less surprising that much of this documentary was news to me, but I watched it with an African American friend who told me that he learned very little of this history of slavery and its aftermath in school in Texas. Other American friends, black and white, old and even young, in the south and in the north, have also told me that the US educational system has been highly selective with its facts about the Civil War and Reconstruction, that they were fed a lot of propaganda. But until this history is widely explained and acknowledged, I can’t see how it can go away.

dirt under carpet

We need to acknowledge our delusions in order to overcome them, otherwise we are fooling ourselves, as it says in Eight Steps, …

… like pretending that there is no dirt in our house after sweeping it under the carpet.

I was struck in Berlin’s monuments of how owning the faults of the past has allowed people to learn what not to do moving forward, to claim back some self-respect as a society, to heal, and to move on. What’s to stop us doing something similar in America?

The past is like last night’s dream, it has gone. So I don’t see all this so much as sorting out a solid, real past so much as using the past as a mirror for recognizing the patterns of thinking and behaving that are still alive in us today, so we can deal with them in ourselves and in our society. If we look in the mirror and find there’s nothing to fix, that’s great; but I think there is value in looking. Or else, you know what they say about history repeating itself??!

In terms of making external improvements to our society, people come up with different ideas, political or otherwise, some more effective than others. If we use Buddha’s teachings, known as Dharma, to solve our inner problems – in this instance, solving the problem of self-hatred and low self-esteem – I reckon that this in turn will make our outer actions more successful and compassionate wherever we stand on politics. mirror to the past

Anyway, this is a deep subject to wade into, but, like I say, the documentary has been eye opening; so I just wanted to throw some of my thoughts out there to continue a conversation about how Buddha’s radical ideas can help society.

What’s the Buddhist solution to self-loathing, then?

It doesn’t work to push these self-critical thoughts away or suppress them any more than it works to squish a jack back into the box and expect him to stay down. We can’t just tell ourselves to shut up. So what can we do?

In a similar way to dealing with anger directed toward other people, we can follow this advice from How to Solve our Human Problems:

To solve the problem of anger, we first need to recognize the anger within our mind, acknowledge how it harms both ourself and others, and appreciate the benefits of being patient in the face of difficulties.

First off, of course, we need to become aware that those critical thoughts are there and that they are harming us and others, but without panicking. We are not our thoughts. We are like pure boundless sky. We can learn to patiently accept what is going on with our thoughts with a view to letting them go.

clouds in skyAs explained more in this article, we have thoughts, ideas, memories, etc; but we are not these. You’ve heard of all that mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy that’s around these days? It is based on Buddha’s wisdom that we are not our thoughts.

In Great Treasury of Merit, Geshe Kelsang explains about examining our thoughts as a precursor to meditation practice:

Sometimes the mere act of examining the mind, if it is done conscientiously, will pacify our distractions. At the beginning our mind is very much orientated towards external phenomena and we are preoccupied with worldly affairs, but by bringing our attention inwards to examine the mind it is possible that these conceptual distractions will cease.

It’s very interesting and revealing to turn our attention from outward to inward. Try it and see. It doesn’t take long to notice that, after all, we are not our thoughts. There is space there, space between us and them. I don’t have to follow them, I don’t have to be helplessly swept up by them, I don’t have to identify with them, I don’t even have to think them. How is it possible to let them go? Because they are just fleeting thoughts and they are not me. I can let them all go, for example using a breathing meditation or dissolving them back into the clarity of the mind from which they arose.

This is just the first step — there is more here about how, with this as a first step, we can develop a more empowered sense of self.

Over to you … there are 4 more articles in the pipeline already written, including this one; but I can incorporate your feedback if you leave it for me in the comments below.

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Fellow American

Sickened by political division and conflict, a filmmaker travels across the US in search of  a different story.
A love letter to a troubled nation, one face at a time.