Making the most of time

7 mins read

Do you ever have that feeling when you go back to a familiar place that you never left? Even if months or even years have seemingly gone by?

alpacasI think this is because there is no time outside of impermanent things. Time is not like a soup or something, in which things bob about, like lumps of potato. Time is simply a characteristic of each impermanent phenomenon, their own cause and effect. The past and the future are just parts of the present moment, as Ven Geshe Kelsang explains in Ocean of Nectar. For example, this moment I have a past and I have a future. And the same will be true in the next moment, and the next …

If the past and future are just parts of the present moment, does it not follow that if we change the present we also change the past and the future?!

There is nothing inherently linear about time because it is momentary, as described in this last article. And Buddha pointed out that things don’t even last a moment 

I happen to be writing this on a train in Switzerland, to which I paid an unexpected visit this week. There is no past stretching out like the train tracks behind me or future stretching out like the train tracks in front of me. There is only now, only this moment. All functioning things are present. Everything is a momentary appearance, whether the stillness of Lake Geneva through the window (not too shabby) or the French kids jumping around in this carriage. moving scenery

There is no time outside of the mind. Time is mere appearance; we merely impute a continuum on cause and effect. Take a movie as an example. A movie is made up of many stills, but it has the illusion of movement, why? This is an illusion created by our own conceptual minds as we string the stills together through imputation.

Or indeed the moving scenery outside of my window … there is nothing actually moving out there.

Of course we then believe time is really out there, existing from its own side, because that is just what we do with everything when we have self-grasping ignorance.

church bell

Talking about Switzerland, I found the juxtaposition of ageless mountains and the (loud) ringing of the village church bell quite interesting … is the idea that being reminded of the time every 15 minutes helps us control it somehow? Slow it down?! Divide life into neat, tidy, and perhaps more manageable portions?! “So there, big old everlasting mountains! You can’t outwit me!” As if there is real time out there, being marked out by bell chimes …

Even when we know better, we can still get trapped in the illusion. For example, movies … even though we know there is nothing actually there, or really happening, they still have the power to freak us out as we get caught up in them.

Now and then

There is no real gap between being in a familiar place now and “back then” — it is just a continuation of karma ripening.

I feel it’s like we are having lots of different dreams popping up from different karmic potentials in our mind, each one arising fully and all at once with its spatial and temporal coordinates intact. Just like last night’s dream, and just as when we arose into the dream of this life.

TorbelThis January I had this experience in NYC when I returned there for a month – it was like I’d never left it since the previous January. Yet I know I had a pretty full 12 months in-between! But all that in-between time was like lots of dreams popping up from different karmic potentials in my mind. Nothing linear about it. When I looked in the restroom mirror, I could see that my body had seemingly aged a year! But that was because (a) my body had undergone some cause and effect, including one or two too many doughnuts, and (2) the new dream with the new me involved someone who was a year older.

I had the same appearance whenever I visit my parents in their flat in London, like now for example – it is like I have never left. Same for when I go back to Manjushri KMC, such as for the beautiful Summer Festival we have just had. It is another dream, with many of the same people, just all of us appearing older in the context of this new dream. I have many such experiences every year. There is nothing linear about my life or yours.

IMG_4369We often mark our lives with milestones, a wedding, getting ahead in our career, falling in love again, playing with our grandkids, or simply the chiming of a church bell – but in reality this advance through an inherently existent life is just an hallucination. The past and future are just projections of our minds. There is only now. We have to make it count.

Milestones on the way to what?

Plus, these kinds of milestones just light the way to dusty death. There are no “happy endings” in samsara, as Buddha said:

All our dreams are broken in the end.

IMG_4403

That’s the thing about dreams. They are fleeting. They are momentary appearances to mind. They fall apart. And “all phenomena are like dreams”, said Buddha. The law of entropy is an example of how every impermanent phenomenon is spinning away from everything else all the time, even on a molecular level. That is time. The only thing that stays the same, as the saying goes, is change.

With grasping and attachment we try so hard to hold onto things – our relatives, our environment, our job, our enjoyments. This strikes me as so sad because we cannot hold everything together however desperately we try. When I left London, my dad was sitting forlornly on the front steps as the taxi drove me away – of course my parents didn’t want me to go and I didn’t want to leave. But we are all travelers. We have to leave everyone. We are always on the move. Even the great larger than life Aretha Franklin died today. The only way to avoid being flung afar over and over again is (a) Skype and (b) to control our own minds, rather than trying in vain to control the fleeting appearances of our minds.

IMG_4401 2.JPGWe need to train in pure love. Love keeps our connections alive.

Eventually we need to attain enlightenment, when everyone will be a mere aspect of our blissful omniscience, never separated from us again.

And one more thing while I am on this train …

Where is this train headed?

Since sitting on this train, a 2.5 hour journey from Visp to Geneva Airport, I have lost track of the number of people getting on and off this carriage. Our time with each other is vanishingly brief. Same for life, really.

I have been thinking lately of the duty of care, and how to understand it in context of past and future lives. It is like we are all on a train to Auschwitz. It is all very well being IMG_4400 2nice to the other people on the carriage – finding time to spend with them, putting a blanket over their knees, trying to make them comfortable. But every moment in samsara we are getting closer and closer to catastrophe, all of us. So if I really want to help my fellow passengers, my real job is to derail the train.

The most responsible duty of care, if you ask me, is therefore to use our “time” to purify our mental continuum so that our dreams become joyful and meaningful for ourselves and others, and under our control. And the time to do this, ideally, is right now. Before we die, while we still have these wisdom teachings that enable us to do it.

(Meanwhile, about that church bell … it is said that the sound of the bell symbolizes emptiness, and that Dakinis follow the sound of the bell. Plus writing about Switzerland has now given me the excuse to put my photos in this article 😄)

Over to you. Comments welcome.

Related articles

Once a Buddha, always a Buddha

How to handle things falling apart

Various articles on subtle impermanence

 

 

Who wants an existential wake-up call?!

8 min read 

past-life-signsLast night I dreamt that my spiritual teacher showed me all my lifetimes so far. These were not at all vivid, but I got a sense of the non-stop and varied installments in this interminable story of my samsara; and this was powerful. I cannot get it out of my mind – and nor do I want to.

It made me realize that if I don’t get my spiritual act together in this short life I am set to experience infinitely more chapters in this cycle of existence. Why am I at all interested, still, in buying into all these dramas, especially now that I have tasted the alternative of wisdom?

Then I woke to a foster kitten jumping onto my bed, and the recognition that this purring creature now kneading me with his paws was in yet another installment of his own beginningless story as well. This time, a cat book, filled with cat chapters. And right now our story is overlapping for a few paragraphs, but we will soon be moving on. Forced to move on. And I felt very sad for him because he has no way of understanding what all this means or what is in store for him, much less any way of escaping. And his confusion and suffering have already been going on for far too long.

Loved and lost

And then I thought of some of the humans I have loved and lost in this life alone, and realized that our endless stories had also intersected for just a few pages. At the time, it seemed that those relationships were deeply significant, and maybe in some ways they were. But they were never permanent – just a few shared paragraphs in the never-ending tomes of samsara.

Talk about getting things into perspective …! I am sorry to sound existentially terrifying, but a more realistic perspective brings us some measure of peace, and this has.

23622102_10155844260527442_2370081359763870875_nNo difference between those loved & lost humans and this kitten, really – at least, the only difference being a very small matter of time. As the equanimity meditation shows, I have been as close to this kitten in the past as I ever was to them. And it is this kitten, not them, who is currently appearing directly to my senses in this latest story line, and who is the one I can show love to directly.

Fleeting narratives

So each lifetime is like a new book, and within each book, whether short or long, are the transient chapters of that life. Within the chapters are paragraphs, including sentences and words. These make up the narrative of our lives, and the narrative we have largely been telling ourselves all these eons. For there is nothing behind these tales, or even these characters, when we look. Everything is mere name.

The common denominator holding this narrative together life after life is grasping at ME. Even though that me is changing all the time, even day by day, we believe it it real, that it is there, not just a projection of our thoughts. And then our self-cherishing, attachment, aversion, and other delusions emanate from that grasping in life after life, like a spider weaving her web. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:

 We need to understand that the inherently existent I that we grasp at so firmly and continuously does not exist at all. It never has existed and never will. It is merely the fabrication of our self-grasping ignorance. ~ page 51.

Moreover, our stories with each other may have interwoven in extraordinary or mundane ways, but they have all been, thus far, entirely ephemeral. And pretty much entirely out of our control.

We don’t own others. We cannot begin to own them. We don’t even own ourselves.

Swept along

201306-orig-past-life-949x534Most of the time – maybe the whole of beginningless time — we have been swept along by each unfolding drama and its bardo interludes, believing in it as if was the be-all and end-all, as if there was something solid behind those mental projections. We have clung on for dear life to every appearance – trying to solve our problems and get happy through the use of ignorance, attachment, and aversion all trying to manipulate the objects outside our mind. We have not yet realized that all subject minds and object things co-arise and subside simultaneously, like waves from an infinitely deeper source, the ocean of our own root mind that goes from life to life.

You may have noticed — we cannot solve an attachment problem with the attachment that is in fact creating the problem in the first place. Same for aversion. We can’t force the objects of our attachment or aversion to behave better while at the same time allowing our attachment and aversion to stay put. We can’t solve any actual problems or unpleasant feelings outside of changing our thoughts. But we sure do try.

If we cannot gain control over our mind through wisdom, we will have no choice but to believe in and be carried along by its projections or mistaken appearances. As Je Tsongkhapa says, in a graphic depiction of our real predicament:

Swept along by the currents of the four powerful rivers,
Tightly bound by the chains of karma, so hard to release,
Ensnared within the iron net of self-grasping,
Completely enveloped by the pitch-black darkness of ignorance,

Taking rebirth after rebirth in boundless samsara,
And unceasingly tormented by the three sufferings —
Through contemplating the state of your mothers in conditions such as these,
Generate a supreme mind of bodhichitta. ~ The Three Principal Aspects of the Path  

The imperative to get enlightened

beyond-1157000_960_720How can we help others, really help them, if we are as helplessly carried along as they are, and incapable of staying with any of them for very long, much less forever? Even the people we love the dearest in this life, who have always been there for us, such as our parents – we cannot even hold onto them. My mom turns 80 in two short days, on December 24th. I have known her for over half a century, I think about her every single day, I feel like I have never not known her, but …

This all adds up to … we have to become enlightened. We need to be the clear light of omniscience itself, the wisdom of bliss and emptiness, and to allow all new books, chapters, paragraphs, and even commas to appear within that completely purified, transformed, and blissful mind.

Otherwise everything that appears to us (other than to our very subtle mind) is going to remain as the mistaken and often painful projection of self-grasping. We will keep trying to believe in it as the truth, but like any hallucination or mirage it will thus forever and always keep letting us down.

Buddha_sunBuddha is the “supreme unchanging friend”. Enlightened beings are brighter than the sun, constantly shining in our lives, in all our lives. They are more stable than the great earth. They are omniscient wisdom mixed with universal compassion that pervades all beings. They have pulled this off as they have directly realized the non-duality of subject and object. We are mere aspects of their completely purified mind already, even if we don’t realize it.

Through following Buddha’s teachings, eventually we too will attain the non-conceptual mind of great bliss. With this we have direct experience that there is only one truth – ultimate truth emptiness – and that all conventional truths, ie, all story lines without exception, are mere appearances not other than ultimate truth.

Start here

If we want to help other people a lot, we can’t keep losing them. We can’t settle with just throwing them temporary lifelines as they drift in and out of our range. And how can any lifeline be enough if we are floundering in the waves ourselves?

We need to have everyone in our story all the time — not outside our mind, nor we outside theirs — sharing our mandala now and for always.

Leonard CohenI know that this may sound a very long way off, but we can start straightaway. There is nothing to lose, and every step we take will make our existential situation better.

What is the first step? Trusting in our own inner peace. We can start with just one simple breath carrying us into our heart.

What’s step two? High-quality encounters day by day. Learning to love people unconditionally in the moment. If we hold and remember people with love, they will not feel wrenched from our mind even when appearances change. We need not feel separate from them. We are always losing people through attachment, let alone aversion, so we must learn to dissolve these deluded conceptual thoughts and their objects away. As William Blake said along these lines:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

We can practice day by day to increase our love and compassion within the understanding of impermanence and space-like emptiness, until, as a Buddha, we can hold everyone all the time.

This way we will become supreme unchanging friends for the people we already adore, and for everyone else we have forgotten we adored in the past.

This may not be the Christmassy article you were hoping for, sorry; but it’s what I’ve been thinking about since I woke up 😁 Blame my mother — I wouldn’t be typing this fast if she hadn’t forced me to do a typing course back in the day. Or if she hadn’t given me my fingers.

That said, please join me in wishing her the most pure and peaceful of birthdays and years ahead!

Related articles
  1. Articles on past and future lives 
  2. Everything is appearance of mind 
  3. Are we hallucinating all this? 
  4. We cannot find anything behind appearances 
  5. Everything we need is inside us 

 

 

Life is like a flash of lightning

Two ways of thinking about the same thing

Geshe Kelsang has said that “arising, abiding, and ceasing are justwalking in rainbows three different ways of thinking about the same event.” Even arising and ceasing (or cessation) are two different ways of thinking about the same thing. When we realize this, we begin to let go of grasping; and it is really a question of allowing ourselves to float into that space. (Carrying on from this article on subtle impermanence.)

How can arising and ceasing happen simultaneously? Well one question in return is how could they not? If something is the nature of change, how could it remain the same, even for an instant?

What is the option if arising really precedes cessation? Is there is a little bit in the middle where it has arisen but not ceased? In which case that moment has a degree of permanence there, and so there is going to be grasping at it. And where do you draw the line? A fraction or two fractions? It is only when you say completely there is NO remaining that it starts to make sense.

walking through doorwayI heard once that Native Americans call all objects “events” (though now I can’t find it on Google.) This I find helpful. Everything is fluid.

If arising and cessation are the same event that is distinguished differently just by thought, another helpful example I find is this. If someone is going through a doorway, are they entering or exiting? It depends on perspective, on mind. I think this is similar to arising and ceasing.

The only continuation is what we impute as continuation. For example, a rainbow arises and ceases newly moment by moment in dependence upon causes and conditions, and stringing its moments together is done entirely by our mind. It’s a bit like watching a movie of many stills.

By the way, why do things change?! Our mind changes, and different appearances arise due to karma, like waves arising from an ocean. We also impute all changes with our mind. For example, perhaps we fell in love with someone who was totally fantastic and then later, bewilderingly, they changed into someone who was a total (add your own description here). Where did the person we fell for go?! We feel deceived. But where did they go?! What actually changed? Did they change, did we change? A bit of both? I’ll leave you to answer that one for now.

The doorway to realizing emptinessflash of lightning 1

If we can wrap our minds around subtle impermanence, this will take us very close to Buddha’s teachings on the true nature of reality, emptiness. Understanding subtle impermanence is said to be the doorway to emptiness, and emptiness is said to be the doorway to liberation. Geshe Potowa said:

My main meditation on the middle way is meditation on subtle impermanence.

This indicated that, for him, meditating on subtle impermanence intuitively led him into emptiness.

What do the realizations of subtle impermanence and emptiness have in common? They both help us to stop grasping. Subtle impermanence weakens our tendency to grasp, and the wisdom realizing emptiness removes it completely.

Moment by moment things are gone. But they weren’t really there to begin with.

Everything is like a flash of lightning, and even that flash of lightning doesn’t exist from its own side.

real life permanent dreamsI also think that even if we have a good understanding of emptiness, contemplating subtle impermanence has very practical benefit. Perhaps we already “get” the dream-like nature of reality. But perhaps there is still some part of us that is grasping at our dreams as lasting and as abiding – sort of like permanent dreams!

This is one of the greatest gifts that subtle impermanence can give us – at the beginning it improves all aspects of our life by helping us naturally drop our attachment and aversion etc.; and eventually it leads us to the realization of emptiness.

Hope you enjoy this series of articles on subtle impermanence.

What is there to grasp at?

letting go 3If something doesn’t remain for even a moment — if it is gone as soon as it arises — then what is there to hold onto??! (Carrying on from this article.) For example, we meet someone we like – but if they’re gone the moment we meet them, what is there to get attached to? If we go out for a meal with some friends, and each moment is gone as soon as it arises, what is there to grasp at? If someone unfriends you on Facebook, who is there to get upset with? They’re already gone. A new car or iPad — gone as soon as we’ve got it — what is there to get attached to? We can enjoy people and things moment by moment, but as nothing remains for the tiniest moment there is nothing to get stuck to with attachment. And however unfairly people behave, we can avoid the futility of holding hurt in our heart.

We don’t have to cover everyone and everything with the superglue of permanent grasping so that they cannot change and/or so that we cannot see them differently.

Key insight of Buddha

friend or enemyThis is the heart of Buddha’s key insight into why there is suffering in the world. Suffering doesn’t come because we are bad, it is not inflicted on us by some creator, it doesn’t come randomly out of nowhere – it all comes because we grasp. We grasp at something being there when in reality it isn’t. Grasping at my friend/enemy being there is grasping at an illusion, a rainbow. He cannot be found. And this simple act of grasping is the cause of all our suffering because if we like the thing we are grasping, we develop craving because we think there is something there. If we don’t like it, we develop anger or the wish to destroy it.

What do babies do?

Gen Samten shared a tale of his school days learning about the instincts of new-born babies — sucking and grasping. It apparently has no control even over its eyes. It also has a third instinct, which is yelling! Yelling, sucking, and grasping. The baby grasps: if it likes it, it sucks; and if it doesn’t, it yells. This seems to indicate the existence of past lives — the moment we pop out we carry on from where we left off. Then we grow up. And what is the definition of growing up? Learning to pretend to be a rational, thinking human being while still grasping, sucking, and yelling?! And we wonder why we suffer!baby yelling

Subtle impermanence cuts through all that because it teaches us there is nothing to grasp at. As soon as something has arisen, it has gone. We can ask ourselves, if we are attached to a person: “This person went the moment they arose. What am I getting attached to?”

Perhaps this makes us nervous, particularly if we really like someone, “I don’t like this!” As soon as we realize that we ourselves, for example, are gone the moment we arise, just gone, we want there to be something we can hold onto and say “me”; but there isn’t. Gone. Gone again. Gone again. As soon as I try to hold onto something it is not there anymore.

Pure states of mind instead of grasping

But when we can let go, we open up to experiencing pure states of mind such as love and compassion. Grasping always gets in the way of these. For example, if we grasp at someone, how can we love them? For if they are pleasant we develop attachment, if unpleasant, anger. The only way for our love to be pure is to love them without grasping at them as being there to love.

“But how can I love someone who’s not there?” we may protest.

One answer I think is that positive minds are always in the present moment. With love, we want that person to be happy now, wherever they are. With compassion we want them to be free from suffering. With patience we accept whole-heartedly whatever is arising in the present moment. With wisdom we go with the flow of life and deathfleeting appearances to mind. Delusions on the other hand always seem to be ranging over the past and future. This tells me something else about why it is a good idea to learn to live in the moment, and that it goes both ways — we are also able to live more in the moment when we cultivate these positive minds.

Also, in Ocean of Nectar page 28 Geshe-la explains compassion observing phenomena, which observes living beings who are realized as impermanent and wishes to protect them from suffering:

Because living beings are impermanent they are transient like the moon reflected in rippling water.

This is a deeper compassion because we realize that one profound reason why living beings suffer is because they are transient, imputing themselves on a fleeting (and entropic) body and mind, but, not realizing this, they experience permanent grasping.

Also, most people enjoy rainbows. And we can’t find them – that is one of the loveliest things about them.

I would like to hear your examples in the comments section as to how understanding subtle impermanence has enabled you to let go of grasping and other delusions and been a catalyst for positive minds such as love.

Surfing analogy

Has anyone here ever gone surfing? Our ability to surf doesn’t depend upon grasping but upon letting go. We have to go with that wave — and if we grasp and want to find security by freezing time, it won’t work. We know everything is changing, not remaining even for a moment; so the only way to surf that is to move with it. And that is part of the joy of surfing.

Life is like a wave, it doesn’t stay put even for a moment. So surf it. The daily situations in our life are different waves — am I surfing this wave or trying to freeze it to find security?

Old photosbasis of imputation changes naturally

Thanks to the kindness of some friends, my stuff recently arrived in a truck from Florida, including statues, clothes, and photos. When I look at these, especially the photos, although I recognize them, they now look subtly (and not so subtly) different — they are brand new old photos. Life events and relationships between now and when I last saw these photos a few years ago have totally changed, and so has their meaning, their existence.

Final installment is here!

Nothing sticks around

We can understand subtle impermanence in two ways. (And I am once again unabashedly going to borrow Gen Samten’s explanations on the subject.)

  1. No carry over 

letting go 4The first we have looked at already, vis there is no carry over — no element of the past carries over, the present is completely new. Just to remind you: The building we walk past on the way to work each day is a completely different building each day – not the same building that has just changed a little bit. The building is a continuum of moments, causally related, each of which is different from the previous one. The second moment of the building is different to the first – or another way of putting it is that the building in the second moment is completely different to the building in the first moment.

Likewise, the friendship we have with someone today is not the one we had yesterday – it is not the same friendship that has changed a little, but a completely different friendship. When we go to work every day we don’t go to work in the same job we had yesterday – it is a new job every day.

This is even the case for the person we are today. You today are as different from yesterday’s you as I am different from you! There is that degree of difference. Yesterday’s you had to go out of existence for today’s you to arise.

So everything and everyone is completely different every moment – there is not even the slightest carry over from one moment to the next. Now is brand new.

  1. Nothing sticks around for even a moment

letting go 6Secondly, there is no such thing as abiding. Abiding exists at the level of gross impermanence, but not at the level of subtle impermanence. For example, the building is built, it remains, it is destroyed. We can identify three sequential stages – production, remaining (or abiding), and destruction (or cessation).

What about when we move from this gross level to a subtle level? Subtle impermanence is momentary change. Is it that the first moment arises, then there is a little bit of remaining, then there is destruction? No. There is no remaining. There is no abiding. According to Buddha’s teachings on subtle impermanence, production and cessation happen simultaneously. A moment doesn’t remain even for a moment. Think about that!

Sometimes we can define subtle impermanence as “momentary disintegration”. This is a good way of thinking about it for it means that every moment is a moment of disintegration. This body is one moment of disintegration after another.

Another way to define it is “simultaneous production and cessation” – in each moment of our body, for example, production and cessation occur at the same time. This means that as soon as it is there, it is gone!

Just a point about function. Things undergo gross impermanence when they stop performing their function. For example, an iPhone is arguably still an iPhone when we crack the screen (depending on how fussy we are); but if we drop it down the toilet and don’t scoop it out fast enough it can no longer perform its function, so we smashed iphonesay it has undergone gross impermanence and gone altogether. What is the function of each moment of subtle impermanence, you might ask? The function of one moment of the iPhone is to give rise to the next moment, which is also functioning to let you send texts, browse this article, etc. The point with subtle impermanence is not that each moment doesn’t perform a function, but that we cannot hold onto anything that is performing that function — for example an iPhone can take photos but there is nothing there to grasp onto. So you cannot get attached to your iPhone! And you won’t be upset when you drop it.

Wild, huh. Our permanent grasping mind can hardly compute, but it is well worth contemplating as it opens new doorways in the mind.

Fresh eyes

life is too shortLet’s apply this to a practical challenge. Suppose we’re a manager working with people. This involves trying to understand their strengths etc., something that is built up over time. So if we’re seeing someone with new eyes, can we not take their history into account? Do we have to start each day, each moment, with a clean slate?

You’re welcome to address this in the comments section. My answer would be yes and no. A habit or tendency someone shows today is related as an effect to a habit or tendency they had in the past, but it is not the same habit or tendency. So if they show a similar tendency to a strength or a weakness today, we can take it into account; but by remembering subtle impermanence we can also understand that nothing is fixed. We can see new potential in them by not seeing them through the eyes of yesterday. I think subtle impermanence helps us to respond better because it opens our mind to infinite possibilities about this person. There is a lot more to them. Things are less fixed, more changeable. Every time we look at someone, we can see them with fresh eyes.

Ninth (and penultimate) installment is here.

Blink, and it’s a new world

too much to do todayWhen we feel overwhelmed with busyness it is usually because all our activities are bleeding into each other. With thoughts of impermanence, they don’t. We can focus on the here and now. We have walls up (as described in this last article). We can still plan — put the things we need to do in a Google calendar or excel spreadsheet or regular to-do list — but then we don’t need to think much about it again until we need to do it. Tomorrow is plenty of time to take care of tomorrow’s business. We’ll have all day tomorrow to focus on tomorrow’s problems. We can be more like Charlie Brown:

I’ve developed a new philosophy… I only dread one day at a time.

So in the interactions we have today, we bring as much love and kindness into them as we can. We try to keep our mind peaceful, free from anger. We put our energy into these things as they are inside the wall. And because we are not spending so much time outside the wall, we have a lot more energy to do that, we’re a lot more successful. Living in the moment is very much to do with cultivating the habit in our mind of staying here, in the present, not going off.

I’m not getting angry ever again!?!

As Gen Samten puts it, what is harder, not getting angry for a lifetime, or not getting angry for a day? “I could never do the former!” we might think. But can we avoid anger today? Yes, probably, with a bit of effort. So that is all we have to do. Within this wall I’m not going to get angry.

We realize we can do a lot of spiritual practices that may have daunted us previously. “I could never have universal compassion for all living beings!” But could we contemplate universal compassion just today?! Yes, we could give it a try. It might take a little effort and work and by the end of the day we might feel tired — but good tired, not todaybad tired, because we have used our energy wisely. Then we can rest, and wake up in the morning – a new day, a new wall. If we screwed up, we start again.

Etch a sketch. Every moment, let alone every day, is brand new. Geshe Kelsang said that when we close our eyes and then open them again, everything has changed. Blink, and it’s a new world.

Shorter periods of time

In this way we can build up a really helpful mental habit – if we are determined to build this wall, we’ll do it. And we’ll find that this habit begins to apply to shorter and shorter periods of time. For example, if we’re having breakfast with our family and have a hard day at work ahead, we can think: “I’m not going to worry about work, it is outside the wall around breakfast”, and instead concentrate on having a good time with our family, bringing kindness and love into that. When we get to work, that’s a new situation, and one I will be involved in then.

This will overcome basically all our worry. The habit of worry is the habit of thinking about things outside the wall. By remembering subtle impermanence and that we may die today, we build a wall around today.

I’m going to add here what Tim Larcombe just said in the comments as I think this could be a very practical reminder throughout our day:

We can be reminded of “the wall” when people say “Have a good day” to us. And we can wish for them to be worry-free when we say it to them 🙂

Necessity vs meaning

Our emphasis begins to shift from what is meaningless to what is meaningful. If we just focus on things like career, wealth, a good social life, relationships, a hot body, etc, when we get to a certain age we experience a crisis. If we make these the compelling narrative of our life, sooner or later, and certainly by the end of our life, we’ll find them to be hollow. Sometimes people despair, they don’t know what they’ve done with their lives. There is even a delusion all of its own about this, called self-satisfaction:

The definition of self-satisfaction is a deluded mental factor that observes our own physical beauty, wealth or other good qualities, and, being concerned only with these, has no interest in spiritual development. ~ How to Understand the Mind p. 155

It’s a bit like trying to scoop the foam off an ocean, I think, and trying to make it last. And while we are preoccupied with doing that, we are ignoring the limitless potential of our mind for lasting happiness and freedom, and the vast and profound ocean of Dharma practices that will give us this.

time is running out 1Acquainting ourselves with the thought “I may die today” connects us with the real meaning of our life. It stops us focusing on things that are completely banal, unnecessary, even negative. If we spend the hours not already working surfing the internet or watching Netflix, for example, and it’s not so hard to do, does this bring any real happiness?

What about the things we do need eg, food, clothing, health insurance, etc? Buddha taught four necessities of life: food, clothing, medicine, and shelter. These may be necessary, but if make them the meaning of our life, we will neglect cultivating our inner qualities.

Our outer wealth is our possessions, friends, etc, and our inner wealth is our compassion, patience, and so on. Outer wealth may be a necessity of life, but it doesn’t enrich our life. It is our inner wealth that enriches our life. Without love, for example,  no matter how many possessions we have, we feel poor. But with a mind full of love, regardless of whether we have many or few possessions, we feel like the richest person in the world.

Magic pill

magic pillIf you have any problem at all, see what happens if you apply those four words: “I may die today”. If you are worried about something, try saying this to yourself for a couple of minutes – see how you are brought back into the present and recalibrate, focusing on what is meaningful again. If you’re getting angry, repeat these words, and think, “This may be the last time I ever speak to this person! I want it to be a good conversation.” When we are angry with someone, we are assuming on some level that they’re going to be there tomorrow. (Which is why we are angry!)

This thought is like a magic pill — we can use it many times each day whenever we’re unhappy, and find that we naturally come back to this peaceful feeling, centered in the present moment, on what is meaningful.

This magic pill is also very helpful for meditating. If our mind is distracted, we can think, “I may die today, I may die in this meditation”, and see what happens! We build boundaries around that meditation, keeping our thoughts inside the meditation, not outside. This mental habit can greatly improve our concentration.

Meditation

And here is a bit of meditation to bring this together.

We’ll think there is a wall around today and I’m not going to worry about anything outside that wall.

woman meditating under treeWe sit comfortably, and allow our mind to become centered through breathing meditation. We can drop from our head into our heart and feel the peace and potential of our Buddha nature.

We can contemplate the truth, “I may die today, I may die today.” As we do this, we can allow two things to happen. The first is that a boundary begins to form around today – we’ll begin to feel that since I may die today I don’t need to think about tomorrow, and I am not going to let my thoughts wonder outside of this boundary. And we can just enjoy the feeling of peace and happiness that comes from that.

And secondly we will begin to develop a strong determination to focus on what is meaningful, on what makes us truly human. To bring as much kindness, love, patience, and wisdom into all the situations that we encounter today.

Then we remember this for the rest of the day!

(Thank you again to Gen Samten for all his valuable input into this subject. Next installment is here …)

No time like the present

First, a little anecdote

stop and smell the rosesI wrote this about a dog and me a few years ago. “I am leaving today. Earlier, I was a little melancholy to think this was the last walk Mr. Frodo and I would be taking down to the bay, until it occurred to me that it wasn’t a last walk at all. It was a first walk. Due to subtle impermanence, nothing stays the same even for a moment, and every step we were taking was brand new and different. Every Olympian leap Frodo made into the air to catch the yellow tennis ball was a new leap. Every ripple on the water was a first ripple. My permanent grasping abated. Each moment was fun, full, and vibrant. One of the best walks of my life.”

Why the emotional resistance?

Knowing about subtle impermanence (carrying on from this articlecan in fact make life fun, full, and vibrant. To begin with, however, thinking about all this constant changing can make us feel a bit insecure, like there is nothing to hold on to. “I want something to hold on to!” We may feel a little threatened, even though it is such a beautiful truth, which makes it hard to open our heart to this teaching. How can we overcome this emotional resistance?

See the beauty

Gen Samten says that the secret, he feels, is to approach these teachings from point of view of seeing their beauty. If we see them as threatening, we’ll have resistance, but if we see them as beautiful we’ll naturally open up to them. It’s a bit like loving poetry or a work of art. My mother has an always open poetry book on her kitchen counter, and can quote reams of the stuff by heart. She finds the poems beautiful and so reads them in a certain way — enjoys contemplating the nuances and drinking them in (and all while cooking the supper …)

dew drops 1It’s the same with subtle impermanence (and indeed any teaching). If we can see it as beautiful, we will want to explore it and drink it in and see its subtle implications in our life. This all comes down to seeing the beauty in it. That’s our job. Not to force ourselves to meditate on it as an onerous task, but to let ourselves discover the beauty (even while we are busy doing other things).

This, basically, is faith, particularly what is called “admiring faith”. Society may be a bit confused in general about faith, and even see it as contrary to wisdom (it’s not, they are mutually compatible). But in reality faith is one of most basic human emotions and is intrinsic to inner transformation. Buddhism teaches believing faith, admiring faith, and wishing faith. Here, we come to believe in the truth of the teaching, that everything changes moment by moment, and this is believing faith. Then we appreciate it, finding beauty in its special qualities, and this increases our admiring faith. As a result we wish to practice this truth in our lives, and this is wishing faith.

Another little anecdote

Not unusually for this blog, I am writing this article on a plane – this one from Denver to London via Charlotte. Just now I was waiting outside the restroom and trying to make the most of each moment by looking at the rows of heads in front of me, thinking: “What is their life like?” And then the verse on equalizing self and others/developing affectionate love from Offering to the Spiritual Guide:

In that no one ever wishes for even the slightest suffering,
Or is ever content with the happiness they have,
There is no difference between myself and others;
Realizing this, I seek your blessings joyfully to make others happy.

That way I was having that pleasant feeling that I was no more important than anyone else on the plane, including the person taking a rather long time in the restroom. Ten minutes later he came out, a young man with a huge beam on his face, carrying the book “The Power of Now”. So make of that what you will.

We’re all gonna die!

Buddha taught that there are two levels of impermanence – gross and subtle. For example, with respect to a house, its subtle impermanence is the moment by moment changes that happen continually for the duration of its existence; and its gross impermanence is when it falls down, finishes. We can see this everywhere – a tree grows and changes constantly, which is subtle impermanence; and then it dies, gross impermanence.

To live our lives in the moment, in the light of subtle impermanence, we have to learn to live it in the light of gross impermanence, which means living our life with an understanding of the truth that we are going to die.

death awarenessThis thought, contrary to popular opinion, is one of the most liberating and beautiful understandings we can cultivate.

Consider these two possibilities in relation to yourself: “I will die today” and “I won’t die today”. Seems to cover all options!

Now if we ask ourselves which of these applies to me …? We can’t say. All we can say is “I may die today. I may not, but I may.” Both those statements are true.

However, if we go around assuming “I won’t die today”, our life doesn’t do anything special. If somebody gives us something valuable and we treat it as worthless, we will waste it, of course. Our life is so valuable, but if we treat it as something mundane or never-ending we will waste it. However, if we think “I may die today”, we extract the meaning and the preciousness of our life. We will treat it as valuable, and we will stop taking it for granted.

It’s a wonderful life

One great benefit from understanding that we may die today is that we stop worrying about tomorrow. Instead we wake in the morning and think, “I want to live today in a way that is very meaningful, show kindness to others, make today special, without worrying about tomorrow.” It’s like our only mission is to make today a wonderful day.

drop of waterSometimes we think that making our life meaningful means making some mega changes. But on a day to day level, and on a mind level, perhaps, our life doesn’t change. We don’t change.

So what is a meaningful life, a wonderful life? Is it not made up of meaningful years, months, weeks, and days?

On the one hand, we can stop dwelling on the past because it has gone — every day is a new day. And on the other hand we can stop worrying about the future – I may die today. All that is real for us is today. And then we just focus our energy on today. Then, day by day, naturally our whole life will be meaningful.

Create a boundary

Boundaries can be useful for protecting our minds, and perhaps one of the most useful is a boundary around today. Gen Samten uses the example of food that is vacuum packed to keep it fresh — we can keep today new and fresh, not contaminated by worries of what might happen tomorrow. Through the power of our determination we can think:

I’m not going to worry about what might happen tomorrow or next week or next month. I may die today. All I will focus on is enjoying today in a meaningful manner.

It is like we need to build a wall around today and focus our mental energy within it. Otherwise, worry is a big problem for us and one we have little control over – our thoughts are running around in a non-existent future: “How will I be able to cope if that happens?” If we focus just on today, our mind will be peaceful. This is such a good habit to build.boundary

The wall goes behind us as well — I’m not going to dwell on the past. Maybe I screwed up terribly yesterday but that is outside the wall. I am not going to recreate that today. And then we are freed from the burden of all the mistakes we have made because they are outside the wall and we just focus on what is inside.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t learn from our mistakes or make plans for the future, but it does mean that we spend most of our energy on today. Reverse that original percentage — spend 10% of our energy thinking about the past and future and 90% concentrating on today! Building any wall takes time – we can’t just throw it up, it takes time to build up this mental habit. But it is very do-able.

Today is your first day. It may also be your last…

Next installment is here.