Better together

Everything is being shaken up right now for almost everyone, one way or another. Business and activities as usual, including many of our distractions, are on hold. The future looks pretty cloudy and unsustainable based on our old ways of doing things; it would appear that something has to give.

Geshe-la meditating in his roomHopefully a lot of you, the relatively lucky ones who are forced to stay “safe at home”, have actually had a chance to rest and rejuvenate … you may have forgotten this, but in the “old days” we constantly complained of being too busy, stressed, even burned out. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say “I LOVE the idea of meditation!” but then never got around to it … (I’d be quite rich). If we use this time to deliberately reset our intentions and our hearts through meditation practices including loving-kindness, things will work out a lot better moving forward. Instead of giving ourselves over to anxiety (a “misuse of the imagination”) or aimlessly twiddling our thumbs, it makes us feel far more alive to take control of our days and hours.

Cells in the same body of life

We are all like cells in the body of life in two ways and there is nothing uniquely special about us in that respect.

To remind you of the first way, as explained in this last article Love the Great Protector — at the moment we may view ourself as being independent of everyone else – I am over here being me and you are over there being you — but that gap is not actually there. Where is that gap? When we meditate on the interconnectedness of self and others,  we realize that without others we’re literally nothing. We melt away like individual snowflakes. We don’t exist.

Buddha said that we are not wholes unto ourselves but part of a whole, only existing in dependence upon all the other parts. This is not just theoretical, it is reality. We need this deeper knowing so that we are not sucked into the illusion of loneliness every day.

Plus right now we can see that we are all on the same side fighting the same foe – we always are, it’s just clearer at the moment. We do have a common enemy and it is not each other – it is ignorance and delusions, suffering in general, and at this point in time the particular suffering arising from COVID-19.

We could recognize what needs to be done, practically speaking, without wasting time apportioning blame. Blaming each other with anger doesn’t really help, it generally makes things worse, and it tends to make us feel more powerless. We can stop blaming each other by recognizing that we are all in this together, that far from being each other’s enemies we are each other’s life support system.

better togetherWhen we really come to feel that we are cells in the same body of life, it’s not hard to appreciate that everything we do affects others and everything they do affects us. The parts affect the whole and the whole affects the parts. This is why our constant attempts to separate ourselves out backfire. When we go through life thinking “Me, me, me,” all day long (“What about me and my happiness, that’s what’s most important!”) — neglecting others and pursuing our own wishes at the expense of others — then we are not just harming others but harming ourselves. If everyone in the whole world is thinking “Me first!”… well, we can just look at the world to see how that is (not) working out.

Taking stock

It is a good time to take stock. Many societal fault-lines are being revealed even more glaringly during this crisis – for example what happens if we don’t care for everyone’s health without prejudice. As the now famous Fauci said yesterday: “These health disparities have long been prevalent in the African American community and that this pandemic is shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is. ”

There is no clearly good path or outcome based on how our species has been running full tilt toward wreckage due to our uncontrolled selfish desires. We need to turn this around, starting with ourselves. We can’t wait for everyone else to change – where would we be if Buddha had done that? It is extraordinary what even one person can do to help their community if they put their mind to it – people who deeply cherish others are like “magic crystals”.

Caring about others is the best intention. Because we are all cells in the same body of life, what is good for one person must be good for another; and if we are harming others, we are harming ourselves. We all impact each other in both life-threatening and life-saving ways. We need to wake up to this. Love helps us immediately and it helps us in the long term because the positive intentions that arise from love are congruent with our wish for good experiences in the future.

Equalizing self and others

Everyone matters and everyone matters equally. We are all exactly the same. The Shantideva quote never harm othersdifferent cells in a body play different functions, but they are all important and need to be healthy.

The second way in which we are all like cells in the same body of life is explained in the meditation called “Equalizing ourself and others”. This meditation opens our hearts to cherishing others as much as we currently cherish ourself because we are all exactly the same, equally necessary parts of the one whole.

Here is the key contemplation from The New Meditation Handbook:

Just as I wish to be free from suffering and experience only happiness, so do all other beings. In this respect, I am no different from any other being; we are all equal.

“All this happiness is driving me crazy!” said no one ever. And who wants to be unhappy!? Right, nobody.

We’ve been working non-stop forever to be happy and free from unhappiness, but something we are doing is not working. Buddha identified that as self-grasping and self-cherishing ignorance, putting our own happiness and freedom before others’, which has brought about “a painful situation,” as Geshe Kelsang says, in all our countless lives.

The starting point of this meditation is: “Everyone is exactly like me. We all have the same wishes. I know their hearts.” We can practice it with our friends first, even just one friend, and then extend our contemplation to encompass more and more living beings.

What is life like for this person? We put ourselves in their shoes. This is empathy. If we don’t rush it but sit with this meditation, we will notice our heart starts to open. The first time I did this meditation was for my paternal grandmother, as explained in this article. It led to the liberating discovery that I could choose whom I love. I could choose my thoughts about people. It is not up to them whom I love, it is up to me. And this affection always makes me feel happy.

Through this meditation on equalizing self and others we come to understand what it is like for everyone in their hearts because they are just like me — they are as 3-dimensional as I am and have just as strong wishes for happiness and freedom. Far from being extras in the movie in which I play a starring role, they are all lead actors themselves.

Buddha’s advice on equalizing might even help us survive our relationships and/or prevent us killing our kids (jk. It’s just that a news alert popped up when I was writing this sentence, “Can your marriage survive the coronavirus?”)

Same boat

What is the difference between me and anyone else, therefore? What makes me more worthy or deserving of freedom and happiness than anyone else in this house or anywhere else? Nothing. We are all exactly the same and completely and utterly equal. We all want the same things — to be happy and free. No one is better than anyone else. Putting ourselves first therefore doesn’t work because it is not based on a realistic vision. Something as dramatic as this pandemic can help us to see that.

I spoke to a nurse on the front lines who is not happy about the “non-compliant” or flippant people taking risks, not realizing they could bring this virus to others including their own friends and family – she told me that it feels like an insult to her sacrifices. This is why people are doing a good thing by staying at home and why we may as well make the most of it. We can start by reframing it as being “safe” at home and having the opportunity to rest, rejuvenate, and think deeply about where we want to go next individually and collectively.

As Madonna said it (from her bathtub as it happens, but why not, anything goes these days):

We are all in the same boat. And if the ship goes down, we’re all going down together.

boat with hole in itShe talked about this pandemic being the great equalizer (hence the bathtub I guess). I was thinking about that too when I saw that some of the late night comedy hosts are doing their shows from their couch or porch, filmed by their partners. Without the glitz and glamor of the showbiz, without the studio audience and the band, it felt no different to a Skype call I could have had with any number of amusing friends. We are all exactly the same, and to their credit the late night hosts seem to agree.

The masks reveal who we really are

How as individuals and as a society have we been viewing and treating other human beings who may not look exactly like us, but who upon closer examination obviously are us? As Seneca put it:

We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.

I don’t often quote Seneca, in fact this is a first; but I just read that quote in a thoughtful article about how many people are coming together to help each other all over the world, in ways big and small. In it, the author talks about the equalizing effect of the masks we are all wearing:

masksThe mask also represents a world all in action at once, waves of the same sea, united against a common threat. When you put on a mask your features disappear, erasing the differences of skin color or face shape that trigger so many of our socially conditioned responses to the news. The masks work just as well whether you’re black, brown or white, Chinese, Italian, or Nigerian. What we are seeing now is something truly global in scale.

With equalizing, we recognize that everyone is a Me or an I. This includes every single human being. And, frankly, it also includes every single animal, who have just the same constant wish to be free from suffering and to be happy – as your cat will tell you loudly when you accidentally step on her tail. We would do well to recognize that all animals are part of our world, part of this whole, part of our body of life – and we depend on them as they do us. Do we usually pay much heed to their suffering? If we don’t, maybe we should.

panda in zooWe have to stop being cruel. Karmically our indifference, disdain, or cruelty is creating the causes for terrible times ahead. Word on the street is that pandemics come from our abuse of animals, and now, I’ve been thinking, here we are also locked in like billions of animals. What makes us so sure that these kinds of situations won’t deteriorate even more over time if we keep sowing careless and harmful intentions into our world?

Helping others makes us feel better

Would you say that deep in people’s core is the desire to be of service to others, to do something truly good from their hearts? Buddhists would say that the delusions get in the way, yet our hearts are naturally good. We are a bit like teenagers, or even children as Buddha would say, when it comes to selfless service to others. But the thing about children is that they have the potential to grow up. There is nothing wrong with any of us deep down, just a lack of knowledge and/or practice.

Good actions come from good intentions and lead to good outcomes. Many people, maybe all, find that helping others is deeply satisfying — far more so than just following our own selfish desires. As Shantideva succinctly puts it:

The childish work only for themselves,
Whereas the Buddhas work only for others.
Just look at the difference between them.

Helping others is where it’s at — this is what Buddha, Jesus, and all other great spiritual leaders have always said. It’s also an observable fact and we already kind of know it – we just don’t always act by it. But we feel better when we do, which makes sense when we understand we are all cells in the same body of life. Here are some “real-life” examples:

“It feels good to be able to do something,” D’Antonio (a maker of masks) said. “Because you feel helpless in this whole thing.” Despite the fear, anxiety and heartache, rather than the normal stress response of flight or fight, we can tap into a natural “tend and befriend” impulse, as one psychologist put it rather well:

“It can actually help us cultivate well-being in the midst of this pandemic. It also spreads hope. There’s so much we can’t control, but the one thing we can control is to help somebody or offer some kindness or compassion. That is what the virus hasn’t touched, these innate capacities we have as humans.”

One person shopping for the elderly put it: “I think it’s really important in times of crisis, when people are doing something positive it does make you feel a little bit calmer and more in control. It certainly does me. And another: “I do think the act of giving just makes us feel better. It feels as though we’re doing something, we’re part of a collective effort.” And another: “I think we just felt panic never solves anything, let’s focus some of that energy on really helping the people in our community.”

At a loss as to what to do practically to help?

Even if we can’t make any grand gestures to help others because we can’t think of any, we can keep our friends, family, and elderly neighbors in our thoughts and reach out to them by phone or on Facetime, especially those whom we know are more isolated than usual. Shelters are crying out for people to foster cats and dogs right now; and I know from caring for the two I have that they are a helpful reminder that, however bad we have it in the human realm, it is still far better than being an animal.

nailed it jigsawAnd even if for whatever reason we cannot do anything practical at all right now, we should know that our mental actions are very powerful, in a karmic sense even more powerful than physical and verbal actions, and that our prayers help. The practice known as “taking and giving” is also a massively useful and beautiful practice, always giving us a way to help others; and you can read up how to do it in this free ebook, in the chapter Taking and Giving.

Summary

To summarize these last 4 articles written for the age of Corona, we are all in this together.

We see the “me” in each other through equalizing self and others, because we see everyone is Me.

We see all the others in me when we meditate on how we are composed of others, rather like a wave arising in an ocean is composed directly or indirectly of all the other waves — without others we do not exist. We all need each other and no one is more important than anyone else.

This global appearance of the virus is bringing that home. The more we use this time at home to tune into this wisdom, the bigger our heart will grow and the more our problems will shrink.

there's more to life on the insideLast but not least, it’s immensely helpful to remember how everything is the same nature as our mind, like a dream or a reflection of a moon in a rippling lake. Through this we’ll see how, whenever we develop wisdom and compassion, we are already changing the make-up of our world because everything starts and ends in our minds. Avalokiteshvara, the Compassion Buddha, is known as “the most powerful one of all” because compassion is infinitely more powerful than the delusions of hate and attachment, it is an indestructible response to the way things are.

Here is a short meditation to conclude:

Short meditation

We can do some breathing meditation to get into our heart. 

We identify with the gold nugget of our Buddha nature, not the dirt of the delusions. If we do this, it is not hard to get rid of the dirt – but if we are trying to get rid of the dirt while identifying with the dirt, we will get nowhere. 

We identify also with our natural warmth (or our “instinctive compassion” as Queen Elizabeth referred to it the other day.)

We think that everyone is sitting around us – countless in number. Everyone wants to be happy and free from suffering just as I do. We can choose one person first, contemplate their life and wishes until our heart moves, and then expand this affection to others.

We understand that each one of them is exactly like us. It is only our delusions that are isolating us and cutting us off from others, as if we are a cell existing in a vacuum all on our own.

AvalokiteshvaraWe are all equally cells in body of life, all parts of the same whole. Everyone is equally important and equally deserving of happiness and freedom. In this way, we develop love, concern, and compassion for all living beings.

If we like, why not, we can finish off by putting a Buddha on everyone’s crown. We can think, for example, that the compassion of all enlightened beings is appearing as Avalokiteshvara on their crowns, pouring blessings into them, healing their body and mind.

Over to you – what have you been up to during these unusual times?!

Related articles 

Equalizing self and others

What’s the difference between us?

The courage to love

 

What’s the difference between us?

8.5 mins read.

You may know this already, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded, that people the world over are all the same in the ways that really count.

Observatory 1For one thing, samsara sucks for everyone. Birth, sickness, old age, and death – who is immune from these four great rivers or from having to watch loved ones helplessly tossed around upon them?

Carrying straight on from this article,where I started talking about transforming adverse conditions into the path.

The day I arrived in South Africa, I heard that my beloved cat Rousseau, the king of the neighborhood, had met his match. He was torn to death by a coyote.

No words, really. A nightmare for him. Despite his own murderous ways, he had a heart of sweetness under those terrible instincts, and he deserved so much better. Everybody does. I am so very grateful for the hundreds of prayers that many of you offered for him, and that Venerable Geshe-la enquired after him. As cats go, despite his terrifying and painful death, he was still blessed. Only a tiny fraction of wild animals get to die peacefully in their sleep, and infinitely fewer still have anyone paying any attention to them, let alone a great spiritual master. However, it still makes me ask, for the thousandth time — how do people cope with losses like this without Dharma?

RousseauOver a month later, the panther is still on my mind. But that is not him anymore. Where are you, my dear? Why can we never know where people have gone. A friend of mine once went missing in Florida – two agonizing weeks for everyone who loved her, the just not knowing. Then she was found drowned, her car having overshot a bridge in the middle of the night; and everyone was “Well, at least we know now.” But of course we don’t know; she is still missing. We have no clue where she is. That alone is reason enough to become a Buddha, if you ask me – so that we can keep eyes on everyone always, like Avalokiteshvara with his thousand arms and eyes, because they are now always mere aspects of our omniscient blissful mind.

Rousseau’s other mom Donna asked for my input into his gravestone and I chose a stone Buddha statue from Walmart. I hope through seeing Buddha that she and all the other humans and animals in his old stomping grounds will receive continuous blessings. Even the coyote.

Outer problems

Taxi in SA

Outer problems in South Africa can clearly be a good deal more challenging than my own usual first-world problems. For example, I don’t need the daily fear of a deadly crash in the crazy communal taxi I rely on to get to work.

These taxis are everywhere, sidling alongside your car in the same lane, viewing every gap in the road as an opportunity to get ahead because, at the end of the day, payment depends upon meeting impossible quotas. South African traffic is crazy!!! As my old friend Cas put it in his laconic way when I asked why people didn’t follow the road rules, “They are more like guidelines.” (Some of you know Cas as no-shoes John from the Festivals – and it may please you to know that he was the first Kadampa in South Africa, requesting the first teachings.) Or I could be living in a place with zero privacy, several family members in a noisy one-roomed house, or no electricity, or insufficient money for supper. And so on.

But life is not easy back here in the States either, despite it still being the richest country in the world. For example, a friend of mine, JW,  who is doing a study on senior homelessness often tells me stories of his clients’ wretched conditions in Oakland CA. This one just in:

senior homeless

Work today was nonstop. It was also a bit gloomy. I had an interview with a homeless gentleman who is in extremely poor health. He has a broken bone in his shoulder, another broken in his leg and has had countless falls in the past couple of months due to having problems with his balance. He is outside and the rains are beginning to fall. He is in serious need of help but is having a hard time finding it.

JW is not allowed to “interfere,” because this study is to reveal what senior homeless people need and so those results cannot be skewed. So:

All I could do for him was to give him a few large garbage bags to us as a poncho or for shelter. Sad.

Inner problems

As mentioned in this article, our role model in Mahayana Buddhism, called a “Bodhisattva”, works on solving both outer and inner problems — trying to come to the aid of those in need whenever the opportunity is there to do so.

But although outer problems vary from place to place and time to time, our inner problems do not — they come from our delusions grasping at me and mine, they distort our perceptions, they destroy our peace, and inside they feel the same. And these problems can only be finally solved for any of us when we get around to purifying and transforming our minds.

Our states of mind feel exactly the same – whether that be worry, irritation, or the pleasure of changing suffering. If you are really p***** off with George, does that not feel the same as someone else feeling really p****** off with Mary? Your grief or your annoyance or your depression or your attachment feels the same as mine, for example; only the object varies. we are all the same

We are funny really – all feeling like we are the center of the universe and somehow different and unique. We have so little real clue about the vast majority of the world’s population of humans, let alone animals; but I think we are safe in assuming that everyday life everywhere is a mixture of the same array of negative, neutral, and virtuous minds, just in varying ratios. That makes our stories and priorities similar, world over, regardless of our background or culture; and knowing that could help us to understand and empathize with each other.

If you want to check whether Buddha’s explanation of all living beings’ negative, neutral, and virtuous states of mind actually applies to you or not, I recommend you read How to Understand the Mind. Go see if he has left any of your thoughts out.

Mind-training

On the basis of allowing our delusions to subside temporarily through allowing the mind to settle even a little, for example with this meditation, connecting with some natural inner peace, we can then gradually learn strategies or ways of thinking to (a) pre-empt our future problems and/or (b) deal with them or transform them as they start to arise.

With the help of mind-training (Lojong) in particular, in which we learn to apply Buddha’s teachings directly to our difficulties, we can develop a huge repertoire of coping mechanisms.

Google skin cancerJust for starters, whatever problem we are having today, instead of thinking of it as inherently bad we can try labelling or imputing it as a useful teaching. For the sake of argument, let’s say that today you notice a strange lesion on your skin – you had been thinking it was a scratch but it’s been there 2 months and is now ominously growing. You send a photo to a friend, who sends it to a dermatologist, who texts back, “Skin cancer until proven otherwise.”

Meantime you have been chucked off Medicaid due to not filing the correct paperwork in time.

Okay. After the initial freakout — spending a panicky half hour looking at all the Google images for skin cancer and discovering that, yes, it could be benign, as your friend is trying to tell you, but on the other hand it could also be the worst possible most malignant melanoma and you have approximately 2 years left to live — you decide to slow down and, for the sake of your sanity, think about this from a Dharma point of view. Instead of grasping so tightly at me and mine, maybe you decide to let those thoughts dissolve into the peaceful clarity of your own mind, like  bubbles into water, going for refuge in the peace of your own Buddha nature and/or in holy beings.

Within the mental flexibility or freedom that opens up in that space, this small but very present skin lesion can now remind us of all sorts of things, such as:

  • I need more inner peace, in fact lasting inner peace; and I need to identify my self with this peace, not with this mental pain and possible physical suffering.
  • SadFamilyDoctorThis is what life is like for others, so it’s giving me a window into empathy – for example for people experiencing dread or fear when they receive bad news from a doctor. When we get over ourselves, we finally start to relax.
  • This is not inherently bad because it can make me stronger. Me myself, this lesion, and my experience of this lesion, far from being solid or fixed, all depend upon my thoughts. I can come to enjoy the challenge of transforming this problem into a solution! Why? Because I want to be a better person.

This is a true story that happened to someone I know, probably many people actually — and this way of thinking has worked for them, they feel peaceful again, inner problem solved for now. They are also dealing with the outer problem by getting on the phone to Medicaid and finding a doctor who can see them next week.

This also works for transforming other people’s problems. Someone in Joburg told me that all vegans are depressed, including her, because things are changing so slowly – and how can she transform that kind of stress? Again, heart-rending as it is when it comes to animals and other vulnerable people, we cannot immediately sort out all their outer problems, any more than one drowning person can save another drowning person, pighowever much they want to. But as well as doing the best we can, knowing that every little bit helps someone, we can use these situations to increase our compassion and our wish to become a Buddha as quickly as possible for their sake.

As we progressively free ourselves from depression, discouragement, and other delusions and as we increase our wisdom, patience, and good heart, we can become more skillful, creative, and full of the tireless courage we need if we are to free everybody.

Over to you. Comments please!

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Who wants an existential wake-up call?

What can we really know about anyone? 

Can too much bad news make us sick?

DSC_0134.NEFHow can we make a non-existent me happy?

How can we get rid of its suffering?!

Answer: we can’t.

Which is probably the main reason why it makes sense to get rid of our self-grasping and self-cherishing and cherish others instead.

As of now, self-cherishing hasn’t gotten us anywhere – any happiness and good fortune we are experiencing is coming about despite our self-cherishing, not because of it. Meanwhile, cherishing others gets us everywhere we need to be.

Any pain and problems you’ve had already today come from your self-cherishing. Do you believe that?!

For a few minutes this morning before I got out of bed, I was for some bizarre reason itemizing everything that didn’t seem to be working out properly – it was quite a long list, and I was beginning to feel a bit agitated.

Then I decided to do what I like to do, which is take the self out of the equation, cherish others instead, and see if I still had all those problems.

I didn’t.

Health problems

Rash on skin?! – nothing compared with a friend’s sister who has Behcet’s syndrome. Look it up. It is no fun and considerably more excruciating than my own red splodges. DSC_0170.NEFAnd I have been praying for said sister, so my own rash is in fact a very useful reminder, and now I want to do some taking and giving for her. Therefore, although my skin has problems, I do not.

Work problems

Meanwhile thinking about work, I was beginning to entertain this distasteful idea that people are not being as efficient or organized as I’d like. Heck, more importantly, that I was not being as efficient or organized as I’d like! Then I realized that anything less than being able to help countless living beings on any given day is never going to be quite enough for a Bodhisattva, while at the same time helping even one person is more than enough. So I need to remember to be a Bodhisattva and, indeed, a Buddha who has already made it; and work from there. Might seem like the same activities – but they become a lot more blessed and enjoyable, and far less about ME trying to get things done or prove something.

It is the motivation of bodhichitta that is important, and where that is taking me and how many people that allows me to help at least indirectly each day. How can I hope to be at DSC_0146maximum efficiency while I remain as a limited self-revolving being?

I was also thinking that instead of pondering what people are not doing, the fact that anyone is doing anything to help me and help others is incredible; and I focused on that instead so as to feel grateful instead of annoyed. It worked very well.

As did making one of my favorite requests to my Spiritual Guide, namely to help me help him help as many people as possible today. I hope that includes this article, because that is what I seem to be doing with this morning so far.

Relationship problems

A friend was supposed to meet me and bailed. I also don’t like that people I know are sick and I can’t do anything about it.

When we are focused on how friends are not doing what we want, or when we are feeling burdened by the illnesses of relatives, and so on, there is always a pronounced sense of ME. Even when we are supposedly trying to be there for these people in our lives, feeling let down or discouraged indicates that it is more about us than about them.

DSC_0183

Because … when we believe that they owe us nothing, when all we want is for them to be happy and free from suffering for their own sake, the mental pain goes away and we lighten up. This happens whenever we genuinely cherish them. If they’re not happy, we want to help them be happy, and if they are suffering we want to help them get rid of it – not because of us but because of them. It is as simple as that. There is nothing for us to lose, we just try and don’t worry, as Geshe Kelsang puts it. Unconditional love works every time. And it increases, as opposed to undermining, our compassion.

World problems

The day’s headlines, while also initially infuriating and problematic, reminded me of a report I just read about how over-exposure to bad news is making us sick: Too much bad news can make you sick.

There is a lot in that – one being that mindless consumption of the 24/7 news cycle is overwhelming and over-stimulating while also being deadening; another being that if we take all of this stuff personally we are going to be in a constant state of stress.

Things are not getting better despite all our external development. These are degenerate times. People’s minds and environments seem to be getting more and more out of control. As the article claims:

The United Nations’ disaster-monitoring system says that since 1970, the number of disasters worldwide has more than quadrupled, rising to about 400 per year.

It is true that, “Thanks to technology, exposure to traumatic events has rapidly increased over the past few decades”. However, I was thinking that if we are training in compassion and wisdom, we have a way of dealing with every bad appearance. Every news story is a reminder of our need to control and transform our minds.

DSC_0213.NEFAs one professor says in the article, we need “to learn effective ways to engage with reality without being consumed by it”; and compassion and wisdom help us with this, not least by helping us to understand what “reality” is in the first place.

The world has always been stressful, but experiencing acute events occurring thousands of miles away is a new and challenging phenomenon. On any given day, it feels like the world is falling apart.

This is true. And it has always been true – only now we get to see it close up through our screens without having to get out of our chairs. The report asks three rhetorical questions, which I’m going to answer 😉

“How can we brace for disaster and find the strength to withstand it?”

Understand that samsara has been forever thus … and the other realms are even worse. Far worse. Only Dharma is the truth — we need that refuge in Dharma to give us strength.

We also have to watch out for compassion fatigue:

Inundation of news and trauma can also lead to what is known as disaster fatigue, making us less concerned and more apathetic and feeling a diminished sense of urgency about the crisis at hand. Disaster fatigue occurs when prolonged exposure to news coverage of disasters causes potential donors or volunteers to lose motivation to address the problem.

DSC_0152Check out more on that in this article.

We can get strength by making an effort to rely on our community or Sangha, whoever they may be:

The research points to social connection as the bedrock of resilience and the best way to combat apathy. … The more that you are connected to others and you can call upon them, the more likely it is that your entire community will withstand.

Knowing the truth of suffering helps us all — everyone has indestructible compassion in them, and truly recognizing each other and what we have in common can bring this heroism out of us:

The most dire situations can lead people to be their best selves, serving others and coming together across difference.

And this is especially true for Bodhisattvas, who grow stronger from adversity, like peacocks thriving on the hemlock that harms other birds.

“How will we adapt to our greater exposure to trauma?”

By using everything to remind us to destroy our self-grasping and self-cherishing and help everyone else do the same. Those are the real causes of disaster, directly and indirectly; and luckily we can get rid of them.

The article says:

DSC_0190-EFFECTSIdeally, after the perceived threat is resolved, the body’s resting state of homeostasis should be regained.

Meditation — from the most simple breathing meditation to the subtle mind meditations of Tantra — can restore our homeostasis every time we are exposed to trauma. Trauma is “psychological injury”, and if we get rid of the real enemy of our ego minds we can’t be injured any further.

As it says in the article:

Self-care can seem indulgent, even selfish, in the face of destruction. … But in crisis, self-care is one of the most selfless actions. Practicing the ability to self-soothe and improve our nervous system’s response to stress will buffer the negative impacts of crisis and help us help others.

To go wide, i.e. to help everyone, we have to go deep. Carving some time out each day to meditate and experience the restorative nature of our own peaceful minds, even through a simple breathing meditation for example, is invaluable not just for ourselves but for everyone we want to help.

Unless we make some time every day to meditate, we will find it very difficult to maintain peaceful and positive minds in our daily life, and our spiritual practice as a whole will suffer. Since the real purpose of meditation is to increase our capacity to help others, taking time each day to meditate is not selfish. ~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

It is also important to pay attention to our states of mind through the day in general so we can “stop” self-cherishing and its delusions when we notice their grumblings. As the article says:

What is important is to pay attention to when you are overloaded, when you start to get stressed, when you feel numb and moody or irritated or feel other outward symptoms of a nervous system response. Whenever you feel like you’re ‘off,’ that is a signal. That is your signal that you need to stop.

“And will our mental health be sacrificed in the process?”

DSC_0155Not if we do the above … quite the opposite.

Both our compassion and our wisdom protect us from stress and suffering, while enabling us to increasingly do what we need to do to help our world, including realizing the union of appearance and emptiness so that we can end our own and others’ hallucinations once and for all.

A sample selection

So that is how I dealt with today’s problems so far by remembering to change the object of my cherishing from myself to others. No doubt I will have plenty more opportunities to practice this even before the day is out. The challenge is always interesting and, I find, uplifting and confidence-building whenever I bother to make the slightest effort to greet it 😄

DSC_0164Meanwhile, as it’s my day off, I get to go to the park and read the new Mirror of Dharma as my hard copy has now arrived. And pictures of foster kittens (and flowers) taken with my new camera can’t hurt either (let me know if you’re in the business for a cat).

I am going to let CNN have the last word ‘cos it’s nice:

We might not be able to predict the future, but we can prepare for it using these strategies — a future that might be filled with catastrophe but that is hopefully brighter and more beautiful than the present.

Over to you …  comments invited as always.

 

 

You are me

So, first off, we have this ignorant mind called self-grasping, where we grasp at a real self — the self that is the center of the universe, the self that is inherently me, the self that is really me. And even though logically we may know that everyone is a me and that from their point of view I am an other, still our mind of ignorance sees a real me and believes show me who you arewhat it sees.

But there is no real me. We are seeing and believing something that is NOT THERE.

Carrying on from this article.

Bit strange

Having that strong sense of me is a little bit strange, don’t you think, considering that no one else on the planet sees it? Other than you. Not one single other person shares your assumption that you are the real me. I hate to break it to you, I really do. Not even the person who loves you the most on this planet, whoever that is, whether that is your mom or someone else, even they do not see Me when they look at you. That Me you assume is so real and solid is a private idea or imputation that you have all to yourself.*

We are all doing this. “Me, me, me me …”, we go around all day thinking, “Me, my, mine, me, myself, I.” Do we not? No one else is seeing that. No one else can see that. Have you ever thought about how strange that might be?

Well, anyway, Buddha thought it was very strange and explained how it was the source of all our other mistaken notions, our other exaggerated and myopic ideas, our other — what we call in Buddhism — “delusions”.

How so?

DenverIn dependence on that ignorance, which projects or hallucinates a real me and then grasps at it, we develop self-cherishing because we naturally assume that Me is more important than Other. So we naturally put ourselves first — I want this, I need this, I don’t need this. It’s all revolving around a sense of protecting this real me, or serving this real me. And because of those two ego minds, all our other delusions arise.

A delusion has got a definition — an unpeaceful, uncontrolled state of mind that arises from inappropriate attention. And our delusions are states of mind like anger. If I don’t get my own way, what happens? If someone seems to be getting in the way of my happiness, or just in my way on the sidewalk, what am I going to do? I am going to develop irritation, anger, annoyance.

This happened to me yesterday, as a matter of fact. A group of drunken men in downtown Denver hogged the entire sidewalk, leaving me and my friend to walk on the road. But I decided to walk back onto the sidewalk and directly into their path, making them get out of the way, because they were basically being racist and I confess I felt like challenging them. But my friend later told me that if he was to respond to the numerous micro aggressions he experiences every day with irritation, he’d never be peaceful and flowershe wouldn’t be able to sustain his work to change things for the better. And that’s the truth. He has had to learn to think bigger and better both about them and about himself.

Where does most of our anxiety come from?

If I am thinking about me all the time I am also going to get stressed out and worried and anxious. I am always going to be cultivating the inappropriate attention, “What about me, what about me, what about me?!”– building up anxious thoughts projecting forward into the future, “What if this happens to me, what if that happens to me?!”, chewing over all the things that could go wrong for poor old me, and meanwhile not giving a monkeys for the far greater sufferings of gazillions of other people. Not, in other words, having any reasonable perspective at all.

Four dead boars

One snapshot of us versus them, greed, callousness, and suffering stood out on my recent trip to San Francisco, particularly disappointing for a city that used to care a lot more. A friend, Michele, and I went into Four Barrels and were surprised to see four dead boar heads on the wall of this this yuppy coffee shop on Valencia, perhaps most surprised by the fact that no one else seemed to be noticing, let alone bothered.

Wfour boarse left to drink tea at Samovar instead, down the street, but then I was compelled to come back to ask “Why?” “It was a late night purchase on Ebay”, said the stressed out baristo by way of explanation, begging the question, “But why did someone buy them?” He was impatient with me, he didn’t know, and suggested it was good to embrace “others’ cultural norms”. But this was a coffee shop in gentle San Francisco, the once bastion of thoughtful values and compassion, not a hunting range in Redneck, Texas.

“Why would you ever want to stick people’s heads on a wall?” (I didn’t ask him, but could have.) “How would you like it if someone did that to you?”

The four boars seem to me to represent the desensitization that seems to be more prevalent now in this city and elsewhere: “Perhaps they’ll have four homeless people’s heads up there next time I visit,” I said to Michele.

An oasis in the city

temple 1I would like to qualify at this point that San Francisco still contains a lot of very compassionate people, even if they report to feeling somewhat more exercized these days. The Kadampa Buddhist temple I was visiting, for example, continues to be a bright guiding light, full of Bodhisattvas. I love that place. Please visit if you ever get a chance. It is Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s first center in the United States, and has been a refuge for over 25 years.

Okay, I was going to keep going, but it’ll have to wait as your coffee break is probably over … more next time. Over to you for comments!

*With the possible exception of those who have exchanged self with others, such as Bodhisattvas and Buddhas, because they do see Me when they look at you, just not a real me.

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What about me?!

Us and Them in Buddhism

As I was saying the other day, there are two main obstacles standing in the way of our spiritual growth. The first is the ignorant feeling that I am the real me, therefore you are real and secondary other, somewhat less important. Self-grasping ignorance apprehends a gap between me and everybody else, which means that when it comes to stretching love and compassion to another person I can only do it for a certain length of time and, generally and ideally, they need to have done me a favor, or be likely to do me a favor down the road, or something.

US-Them

Carrying on from this article.

Expiry date

The second obstacle is self-grasping’s inseparable mate self-cherishing, which wants to serve and protect our own self over others. We are not completely selfish, of course we are not, we have a lot of genuine compassion and love – these are our Buddha nature, who we really are. But our concern has an expiry date. We can love others, even unconditionally, for a while, until we get a headache or something else goes wrong in our life, when it’s like, “Uh, hang on, I will get back to you guys later.”

As is always pointed out, self-cherishing is not the same as liking ourselves, caring for ourselves, or even loving ourselves, ie, wanting to be happy. We need to do all these things – and indeed seeking liberation and enlightenment is the best way we can care for ourselves and fulfill our own purposes. No, self-cherishing is a mind that believes that this self, this me, is the real me and therefore its happiness comes first.

A day in San Francisco

SF airportThis “us and them” mentality is a horrible mind, responsible for all our callousness. I’m writing this in a shiny SFO, the flight to Denver delayed for an hour. San Francisco is as beautiful as ever on the surface, but its soul seems to have changed – the gulf between rich and poor, over-housed and homeless, being one of the largest in America now, which is saying something. And a widespread recognition that we are all in this together — fellow living beings who all want to be happy — seems to be sorely lacking.

A friend, JW, advocates for the homeless – he has been doing it for over a decade and told me today that there is nothing more important to him. He doesn’t get discouraged because his passion to tell their stories still motivates him; and he wants everyone to know that one of the worst problems these days is that the homeless population is rapidly ageing. It is bad enough being on the streets when you are relatively young and healthy, but there are now more seniors than ever before who are homeless for the first time, and they quickly age ten or twenty years. No one ever sees it coming, but seniors find themselves priced out or, along with low income populations, red-lined out of their neighborhoods by greedy developers putting up fancy apartments for people who have so much money they don’t know how to spend it all. homeless senior

As a local newspaper put it: “Most of San Francisco’s current homeless population is on the street not by choice, but because of skyrocketing rents. According to the city’s 2015 Homeless Count, 71 percent of SF’s homeless were city residents before they became homeless. Meanwhile, the number of homeless people having to stay outdoors has risen, from 28 percent in 2011 to 46 percent in 2017.”

(Pretty sure I read this somewhere …) Buddha said that although happiness depends on the mind, there are four basic things human beings need to be well: clothing, food, medicine, and shelter. Basic human well being starts with housing. As a senior, it is hard enough to get offered a job even if you are fit enough to work; but, at whatever age, there is only a slim chance of getting back on your feet if you are not housed. No job in this country = no money = insufficient food, medicine, and clothing.

Tekchog, a Buddhist monk, who has been working on Needle Exchange on Market Street for 15 years, concurred that if you cannot have a shower you’re not going to be aceing any job interviews. And that he has noticed that when someone comes to needle exchange who has been lucky enough to find housing, they look a hundred times healthier and happier. But although that Exchange has been there for decades, people who have just moved into one of the swanky new apartments routinely come over to complain that they object to having the needle exchange in THEIR neighborhood.

sit lie lawTents and tent cities rise up everywhere, but sooner or later the tents get “confiscated” and the tent inhabitants do not see it or any of their possessions again. How can it be viewed as any sort of civic virtue to rob from the destitute, to make them start all over again?

The sit/lie law meantime means that homeless people cannot sit or lie down in public places, despite the lack of anywhere else to seek shelter. What are you supposed to do if you are forced to keep moving, if you cannot sit or lay down your head, yet you are old, or tired, or sick? There is a scarcity of public toilets because they have shut them down at the Bart stations, and just lately they have dismantled the handles from the water faucets so that you can no longer even quench your thirst.

That is a huge amount of suffering. I often ponder whether I could last a week outdoors, let alone the rest of my life; and many senior homeless people had the same thought once upon a time. If we could use our imagination, see that every homeless person is just as much Me as I am, and mentally exchange places with them, would this suffering be allowed to go on?

Vision needed

San FranciscoThere is hope, there is always hope, because there is nothing fixed and we have everything we need inside us to create a better future for everyone, spiritually and practically.

Being in SF made me more determined to destroy samsara by destroying the self-grasping and self-cherishing that perpetuate it. And we can concurrently do stuff to help others practically, like JW and Tekchog for example, knowing that this is also taking us closer to our ultimate goal. There are good people everywhere who are working day and night to change things practically and socially, driven to end human suffering. Regardless of the immediate outcome, every single time we do something to try and alleviate the suffering of others — motivated by compassion, inspired by vision, seeing everyone as Me — we are creating the causes for our own and others’ well being.

Over to you, comments & ideas most welcome.

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Love & affection according to Buddhism

If we too want to wake everyone up from their hallucinations, as explained here, we have to like them first, just as S has affectionate love for Murphy. This is the first step, and it is why the equalizing-3straightforward meditation on equalizing self with others is so helpful and why I’m going to write a bit more about it.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the bestest of us all?

I remember being quite excited when I read this in the American constitution shortly after I arrived here in 1999:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal …

We are all equal. In what way? Clearly not financially or politically or materially, and perhaps it will always be impossible for us all to be the same externally. But on a deeper and more basic level altogether, the mind level, the heart level, we are all exactly the same in wanting to experience happiness and avoid suffering. That’s true, isn’t it? I want to be happy and I want to avoid suffering, but so do you and so do you and so do you and so do you and so do you! Everybody does.

We are all sitting around having lots of ideas –schemes and memories and reflections, & likes and dislikes and opinions — but basically if you distill us all down to 2 essential wishes, they are, I want to be happy and I don’t want to suffer. That’s why we think all of our other thoughts, they back them up, they come from us trying to make ourselves happy and solve our problems.

And yet we manage to think, “I’m so special!” If I’m special, everybody’s special. And if you’re not special, well I’m not special either. Because at heart we’re the same.cherishing-others-is-not-so-difficult

This is quite a miracle meditation – it is based on the methods for equalizing and exchanging self with others taught by the Wisdom Buddha Manjushri via Shantideva, and it is like Manjushri’s sword cutting right through appearances and differences to the heart of the matter.

I wanted to make a tee-shirt with the slogan: “You’re nobody till you realize you’re nobody.” My friends laughed at the notion, but I don’t care, I like it. It reminds me of my teacher, Geshe Kelsang, who has no ego, which makes him a big Somebody when it comes to his ability to help people in this world.

Start with family and friends

Equalizing is one of the first meditations I did and it had such an impact that it became an instant favorite. Back in the day, about 100 years ago, when I started going to meditation classes in York, England, we were encouraged to remember just one person, put ourselves in their shoes, and then reflect how, at heart, we are the same – just as I long to be happy, so do they, and just as I long to be free from suffering, so do they. When that understanding arose in our mind, we were encouraged to hold it, and the feeling of affection that comes along with it.equalizing-2

I chose my grandmother, the lovely old mother of my dad, because I already liked her and it is good to make meditations easy to start with, to slip into some good feeling you already have and build on that. And, like I said, doing this easy-peasy, entirely reasonable contemplation had an impact. I felt close and warm toward her, a feeling that lasted for the remaining years of her life. In fact, I still feel it now when she comes to mind, wherever she may be. Hey Granny, I hope you are exceedingly well and happy.

If we have a sense of how one person is at heart just like us, then we can understand that this is equally true for everyone. All these people around me in the street or at work have the same heart as mine, so why focus on the differences when through recognizing our commonality a mind of love will naturally arise? Instead of being neurotically focused on what’s going on in our own irksome dream-like lives, we can ask ourselves, with genuine interest, “What is their life like? How do they feel? What do they want?” Moving away from the poky space of self to the vast space of others allows the heart to open and warm happiness to flow.

And we can gradually ask this question of all those too whom we find upsetting at the moment — it really helps us get over it and become centered, grounded, and peaceful.

Whose team are you on?

Did you watch the Broncos vs the Panthers in the Super Bowl this year? Which side did you root for? I think of all living beings as being on the same team, and our opponent is always the same: suffering and delusions. Competing with each other, not to mention deliberately getting in each others’ way, is as pointless as football players on the same team working against each other. The Broncos knew that. That’s why we won!!! 😉

equalizing-1Everyone is worthy of love. With this meditation we understand the heart of others. We understand what we have in common. We understand what unites us, and how much greater it is than what divides us.

In a way, the equanimity meditation is about how we see others. Now, with equalizing, we recognize how they see themselves. We develop empathy, put ourselves in their shoes, understand that “I” is the name of everyone. We are not uniquely “Me”. Which means we are not uniquely important. With familiarity we get used to thinking this way, and our life becomes big. And a lot more fun.

A mantra for the meditation break

If we get some familiarity with this in the meditation session — which can be just 10 minutes sitting on our sofa thinking this through with as little distraction as possible until our heart moves — then we can make the decision to carry this understanding into our daily life. It is helpful to have a quote or a mantra or a slogan to recall whenever we encounter anyone, and one recommended for this meditation is:

This person is important. Their happiness matters.may-i-constantly-cherish

This quote is a problem-solver par excellence as most of our problems come from thinking we are more important and significant than others. In the short term people will like us and we won’t develop problems from hatred, jealousy, and so on. In the longer term we will easily develop great compassion and bodhichitta.

Over to you. Have you had good results from this meditation?

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Equalizing self and others

 Equalizing self and others is cherishing others as much as we cherish ourselves.

Just as I wish to be free from suffering and experience only happiness, so do all other beings. In this respect, I am no different from any other being; we are all equal. ~ The New Meditation Handbook 

roquetailladeWhen we can stand in others’ shoes, we have a big world to walk around in – a world that is so much more interesting than being holed up in the fortress of self-absorption. With self-cherishing we have no choice but to ward off loneliness by pulling others obsessively across a narrow drawbridge, or to defend ourselves by slamming closed the gates.

Snowflakes

We are like a snowflake. Sure, no two snowflakes are exactly alike, but it is also pretty hard to tell them apart. In the ways that count most, they are practically indistinguishable – they are made of ice and air, they are bound to perish sooner or later, and on their own will perish even faster for they cannot survive on their own. In the same way, we pride ourselves on our uniqueness, and our own problems and suffering are just that much more interesting than everybody else’s; but when it comes right down to it we are far more similar to others than different. We are made of flesh and blood, we are bound to perish sooner or later, and we cannot survive on snowflake-1our own for even a minute.

Imagine one little snowflake putting up its hand and declaring, “Hey, look at me! I’m special! I look like intricate lace!” And another goes, “No, look at me, I look like a flower!” And a third chips in, “That’s nothing, I look like a pointy star!” In a white blanket of snowflakes, they are all equally important or unimportant. No objective judge is going to say that one snowflake is superior to another, or more unique, or more deserving of happiness.

In meditation I sometimes imagine an alien coming down to earth and seeing millions of people all with their hands up, “Hey, look at me! I’m special.” As far as the alien is concerned, we are all the same. Let alone the aliens, as far as everyone else is concerned we alone are not the real deal. It is only our own self-cherishing that thinks otherwise.

Everybody without exception wants to be happy – I mean look at this world, how many are we, six, seven billion?, anyway, lots, and that’s just the humans, there’s all the animals too. There are so many — countless — living beings, and if we look into the heart of every single one of them, whether they are the good guys or the bad guys, without exception they are all yearning for happiness. But basically, more or less without exception, they are NOT experiencing enough happiness! There is a lot of pain right now in this world, isn’t there? And I think it’s very clear that our ordinary methods of striving for happiness aren’t working particularly well – and if we can’t see that, then it could be because we’re not looking.

What is love?!

I think we are all definitely interested in love, and we have this idea that if I am to be happy, if I am to have fun and meaning, I need love. But generally speaking in the West we also have this idea that in order to have love you have to fall into it. Which involves a lot of dating in the hope that somewhere along the line we will fall into it, and then have it, and then as a consequence be happy. But there are problems with that perspective, as you may have guessed.snowflake 2.jpeg

One being that we don’t really understand what love is – “Oh, I’m feeling something, is it love?! I don’t know! What’s going on?! Love’s a mystery! Man, why does it have to hurt like this?” A backdrop to our scheming, indulging, and recovering, we play endless songs about “love”, trying to figure it out yet again as our heart is yanked up and down like a yo yo. So from a Buddhist perspective there is a basic confusion between love and attachment. Attachment is a delusion yanking our heart and causing pain, but love is a peaceful, positive, warm mind that opens our heart to greater and greater happiness and bliss. One of the kindest things Buddha did for us is point out the many differences between them.

Scratch my back

The affectionate love that comes from equalizing is not conditioned by what the other person looks like, what they say, snowflake-4what they do, because it is other-centered. At the moment, because so much of our love is mixed with desirous attachment, it’s very conditional – meaning that for as long as you look attractive to me I am going to like you but, Oops! you’re no longer attractive, so therefore I am not going to like you. Or for as long as you keep saying things that make me happy I’m going to like you, but now you’ve gone all weird and are saying things that aren’t making me happy any more, so I don’t like you. See what I mean? I’m scratching your back and you’re scratching mine = the best we can hope for. Doesn’t leave much room for maneuver. Very quickly dissatisfaction can set in ~ “I don’t want my back scratched this way, I want it scratched that way.”

In other words, it’s all about ME! I’m judging my reality and discriminating between people based on ME. That guy is a great guy, he makes me happy. That guy bores me silly, he’s a boring guy. It’s like we become a universal arbiter of reality: “You want to have the real load on reality, you come to me cos I say it straight – this is a good person and this is a bad person (or, ermm, at least this person was a good person until they became a bad person …) etc.” It is all based on ME. “What have you done for me lately?” This self-focus and self-concern and self-obsession is self-cherishing. It’s a pain. Thankfully it is totally undermined by equalizing self and others.

Everyone needs Dharma

equalizingIn an oral transmission on his latest book that he gave in London last summer to a representative group of Kadampas, Ven Geshe Kelsang reiterated what he has said many times, that our actual problems are our own unpleasant feelings, such as discouragement, depression, unhappiness, and other unpeaceful states of mind. Our mind becomes crazy with so many internal problems, and even if we live in a very quiet place with nothing interfering with us, still due to self-grasping or self-cherishing inside we are tightly holding. Which means there is no peace, we are experiencing discomfort day and night. To solve this, he says, everyone needs Dharma — religious or not, Buddhist or not — because Dharma is the way to solve our unpleasant feelings.

That is why Dharma means, literally, “protection”, ie, protection from suffering. And this Dharma of equalizing self and others, which anyone can try out, I believe always has the power to solve unpeaceful feelings, my actual problems. At least it seems to work whenever I bother to do it 😍

Over to you ~ do you have familiarity with this meditation? Do you have, or have you overcome, any difficulties in doing it?

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“Food is one part. Love is another part.”

I have just come across this inspiring example of equalizing self and others in action:

In the Kadampa Buddhist meditation called “equalizing self and others”, we deliberately cultivate a feeling of affection for others by remembering that they are no different to us. We may be unique but, in the ways that count, we are all exactly the same, like snowflakes.

Shantideva says in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

First, I should apply myself in meditation
On the equality of self and others.
Because we are all equal in wanting to experience happiness and avoid suffering,
I should cherish all beings as I do myself.

Narayanan Krishnan puts it this way:

“Everybody has got 5.5 liters of blood. I am just a human being. For me everybody the same.”

Because he has heartfelt genuine love arising from this experience of equalizing, he wishes to free others from their suffering:

“There are thousands and thousands and lots and lots of people suffering.”

And because he has this compassion, he has spontaneously given up working just for himself and instead gives food and love joyfully to many people:

“What is the ultimate purpose of life? Its to give. Start giving! See the joy of giving.”