Going wide means going deep

mountain-4

Yesterday I ran into a cool guy at the Colorado Mills Outlet Mall – he was smiling so broadly as he served his customers that I couldn’t help saying to him when it was my turn,mountain-1 “You’re in a really great mood!” And he replied, “Yes, I’m always happy. It’s a choice, you know. I have also spent a lot of time in the past not being happy.” And then apropos nothing, except, who knows, maybe apprehension about this Tuesday’s election (or perhaps that’s just me), “Being black in this country is not always easy. But I have made a choice.” I told him I was a meditator, and he was of course all over that; and then he asked me if I had made the mala on my wrist myself (I hadn’t, I never make anything, but I liked that he knew the word.)

Encounters like this are more and more frequent with the passing years – this has just reminded me that an immigration official at Atlanta airport, upon noticing the mala on my wrist, recently reached below the fingerprint machine to pull out his well-thumbed copy of Eight Steps to Happiness. This is all a far cry from the start of my interest in meditation (1981), when people looked at me funny if I even mentioned the word, let alone that I was into Buddhism — “You, ermm, what?!”

i-had-help

Had help writing this article.

I think this growing awareness is a very good thing because the world could do with more people making the conscious effort to be happy, for lord knows there are enough unhappy people about, as my teacher Venerable Geshe-la once put it. And if the cover story of this week’s Time magazine, “Anxiety, depression, and the American adolescent” is anything to go by, unhappiness would appear to be on the rise in our modern society, and society needs help.

(I also hope that article will raise attention that will help stem the tide for young people. For it’s important that possible medical diagnoses of clinical anxiety and depression are considered by all concerned and treated where necessary by qualified authorities.)

I think the choice to be happy is one of the main choices we have to make in order to succeed in life – probably even more important than the choice of President (though please go vote in any case!) Luckily Buddha gave loads of practical advice that anyone can follow on how we can make that choice and stick to it. It’s not just for our own sakes either — if we are happy, we are in a far stronger position to make others happy. That guy in Aeropostale was helping make people’s day.

Getting over ourselves

As Buddha pointed out again and again, the best way to become happier is to get over ourselves and cherish others instead. But this can give rise to some trepidation; namely, if I care more and more about others, and take responsibility for them, won’t I just end up more stressed out than I am already?! It’s already bad enough worrying non-stop about the kids and the aged parents and the people at work and the refugees and the shelter animals — how can I add limitless living beings to the mix and not go mad? And when will I ever get another moment off? There’ll always be something to worry about, something that I have to do.

The other day I told the story of Patti Joshua in South Africa, who brought Buddha’s teachings to over 11,000 children in the rural areas of KwaZulu Natal; and I quoted her friend as saying, “There was always space in her heart for one more.” But she never worried. She had such a huge heart that there was plenty of room in it for everyone, with space left over. By increasing our compassion we can widen our own heart space, and with wisdom we can deepen it.mountain-3

Spread too thin?

With compassion to liberate all living beings, we understand that everybody hurts sometimes, and we want to take the suffering away from all of them, until we feel responsible for everyone — possessing the superior intention of a Bodhisattva. But we need to learn to do this without being overwhelmed or anxious.

Worry and existential tiredness, however, do not come from the concern we have for others but from a tightness born of ignorance about our true nature, and attachment to externals, to appearances. So to go wide, I think, without spreading ourselves thin, we have to go deep.

As Buddha pointed out, our mind is like a vast clear boundless ocean, with limitless potential. All his teachings are relating to that potential, which we all share – the spiritual path is about accessing more and more of that inner peace, love, wisdom, compassion, faith, and utter happiness, where we end up with not a care in the world even as we work for the welfare of all.

Take time out

There are many ways to go about this, to go deeper so we can go wider. Simply taking some time out each day to meditate and experience the restorative nature of our own peaceful mountain-4minds, even through a simple breathing meditation for example, is invaluable. And I bet we can all find ten or fifteen minutes for this if we really want to. For me, absorbing in meditation each day has always been the happiest and sanest part of my life, setting me up for the rest of the day. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:

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.

You know what happens if you never get off the couch to exercise, the results are not pretty. In a similar way, we need to tune daily into our Buddha nature and faith in our own potential — ideally in our own enlightenment — or we are almost bound to get swept up in superficials and feel overly busy and out of our depth.

If we are so busy changing externals that we have no time to change our mind, we are, according to Buddhism, being lazy and wasting time. It’s a bit like trying to chop down an old oak tree with a blunt axe for hours or days on end, not taking out the necessary few minutes to sharpen it.

Your happy seat

But if we enjoy some time out to relax into our hearts and experience the peace and clarity of our mind, observing in our own experience how all our thoughts arise from and fall into our root awareness, we will be able to let go of our busy, overwrought imaginings for we will no longer be grasping at them. If we make our deep ocean-like mind peaceful, wise, and loving, its emerging waves will be too. Otherwise, we can become so identified with mountain-2the waves and froth on the surface of the ocean that we forget where they’re coming from and think that they are arising under their own power, out of our control. And the detail then feels overwhelming; we easily lose the plot. As Geshe-la says:

We have to manage our time and energy in such a way that we can be of maximum benefit to others, and to do this effectively we need time alone to recover our strength, collect our thoughts, and see things in perspective.

Who doesn’t love vacations!? Most people I know love the idea of being able to get away from their worries and enjoy space and freedom. Frankly, we could be doing this every day of our lives if we wanted to, sans the expense and jet lag. Tibetan meditators called their meditation seat “the happy seat” for good reason.  

This ability to relax and go deep, to access our own inner peace in order to cope, has always been important. But in our complicated, fast, over-stimulated modern society, I would argue that it is now a crucial life skill that everyone needs to learn as soon as possible.

More in the next article. Meanwhile, I’d like to invite you to share any practical experience on how you cherish others without letting the responsibility worry you.

Related articles:

How is your meditation going?

Want quicker results from your meditation? Start where you are.

Clarity of mind meditation

Choosing to be grateful is choosing to be happy

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turkey

As mentioned in the last article, giving thanks, or being grateful, is an effective way to feel good. It can also help us help others, inspiring us to repay kindness instead of taking it for granted, ignoring it, and/or focusing on others’ faults.

And gratitude is not something we either have or don’t have – we can deliberately cultivate it until it becomes a strong, natural habit that inspires us every day.

For example, researchers in one 2003 study randomly assigned one group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed hassles or neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the others. Other studies have shown the same pattern and lead to the same conclusion. ~New York Times, 11/22/2015 

Buddhism can help us feel grateful on a large life-altering scale. The entire Lamrim, or stages of the path, teaches umpteen reasons for feeling lucky and grateful, and not just small ones either — some of these reasons are existentially cosmic, or cosmically existential, if you know what I mean.

Precious human life

world hurtsIt starts with our precious human life, realizing what we have compared with the sheer enormity of suffering of people in the lower realms right now, such as Butters, who is not only a small cat with zero control over his life (or bowels at the moment) but who also has to be jabbed with a needle twice a day to overcome his nausea. Or the flood of scared, exhausted refugees. Or the bundled up, unwashed man who keeps trying to play Frisbee with himself in the snowy park, muttering and shaking his head as he yet again walks after it to pick it up. Or …, or …, or …?  Or even compared just with those who don’t know at all how to make themselves or the friends around them happy, even though that is all they have ever wanted?

We have the option in this life to attempt whatever we want, spiritually speaking, including developing bodhichitta and becoming a Buddha. There’s a great story in Meaningful to Behold about a one-legged man who falls off a cliff on to the back of a wild horse. As the horse gallops off, the villagers yell at him to get off, but, knowing this horse ride is an almost impossibly rare opportunity, he replies: “Not on your life!”

“That’s awesome!”

In Buddhism, the precursor meditation to developing gratitude and love for all living beings as our mothers is recognizing that they are all our mothers. The other day I overheard someone after receiving his first teaching on this: “That’s awesome!” he said, nodding his head a lot and smiling. Pause, then: “But life would be so much fun then, if we thought that. Where would the suffering be?” Another pause, before he answered his own question. “I guess we’re all still experiencing suffering and I’d want to get us ALL out.” Such confidence he had at that moment to deal with suffering, coming from a feeling of being whole and connected, not from a feeling of being bereft and helpless.

Waves on an ocean

We receive kindness from everyone every day – we are like waves in an ocean. A wave in an ocean may put up his watery hand and say, “Look at me! I’m distinct! I’m unique!” In a way he is right, and we’re all distinct and unique; but if we scratch beneath the surface we can understand that this wave is made up entirely of all the other waves. In the same way, we cannot exist on any level without others, we owe them everything, we are already in a symbiotic relationship with them all. Check out Eight Steps to Happiness for the meditation.  gratitude 5

Takes some contemplation to get there, and for it to be emotionally authentic; but we do come to see that others are the very infrastructure of our being, the very part and parcel of our existence – and that holding onto a separation between self and other is like trying to cut the sky in two with a knife.

Contemplating our interdependence naturally leads to gratitude and a feeling of richness and completeness – after all, as a wave, you have all the other waves in you already, you are missing nothing. (Did you know, by the way, that the word “whole” comes from the Old English hal, meaning “entire, unhurt, healthy”?)

3 reasons to feel good

Next time you’re feeling low you could check and see if you are assuming anything along the following lines: “Of course, the causes of my depression are out there in my lost friendship, my dead-end job, or my miserable life! It’s obvious. Plus, although I’m trying to be a happy Buddhist, what about all that endless suffering I keep hearing about! I’m doomed! I can’t handle all this. And look at everyone else having so much fun without me!”

By the way, I know this is true (taken from that same article today in the New York Times):

For many people, gratitude is difficult, because life is difficult. Even beyond deprivation and depression, there are many ordinary circumstances in which gratitude doesn’t come easily.

But I still think it is worth the effort to cultivate gratitude, and maybe we only need to think of 3 things — just 3 will do — that we can be grateful for to open that door.

gratitude 4Maybe pick from these 3 categories (just a suggestion, as is of course everything else you read on here.) Any order will do.

  • My potential. I do already have all the seeds for great happiness and freedom within. My Buddha nature is indestructible. It is there, I just have to re-access it and give myself a break from focusing on all that’s wrong with me, that limited painful self.
  • Something existential/big picture of our life. For example, I have a precious human life! That’s about as likely as a blind turtle managing to stick its head through a golden yoke that is floating on an immense ocean, but I’ve managed it. Or, another example, I have found Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and/or a Spiritual Guide who can take me wherever I want to go! Or, another example, others are immensely kind all the time in every way. No wonder Geshe Kelsang keeps saying, “How fortunate we are.”
  • Something in our daily life. For example, today I get to be indoors and warm even though it is snowing out there, and the trees are beautiful in the Fall light, and I’ll be able to hang out with some lovely people, and … whatever, just start counting your blessings however you like, big or small, and see where you end up.

Thinking about these things, hopefully we’ll feel gratitude, we’ll feel lucky. And I reckon we are only as lucky as we feel.

gratitude 7We can then think, if we like: “How come I have all these things?” They pretty much all come from others. In that way we’ll feel even more thankful, and even better.

As the same NYT article says:

It’s science, but also common sense: Choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things. As my teenage kids would say, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”

Is no news good news?

“No news is good news,” we say, maybe because we do so want things to stay predictable and our boat not to be rocked. However, as everything is impermanent, everything is news, in that everything is new every moment. There’s a Kadampa rejoicing group on Facebook where people just share things to feel good about – it is all news, but sometimes it lifts the heart. If we take the time to spell out the good stuff in our lives, we will feel gratitude. And we will naturally want to share it with others.

Opposite of taking things for granted

Also, as Louis CK says in this video:

Taking things for granted is the opposite of gratitude.

I like his anecdote:

I was on an airplane and there was internet – high speed internet – on the airplane. That’s the newest thing that I know exists. And I’m sitting on the plane and they go, “Open up your laptops. You can go on the internet.” And it’s fast and I’m watching YouTube clips – it’s amazing – I’m in an airplane! And then it breaks down. And they apologize, “The internet’s not working.” The guy next to me goes, “This is bullshit.” Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago.

Can gratitude help prevent worry?
Mighty Quinn and Butters

Butters (behind) when he was still a butter ball.

Our thoughts are not fixed and we can re-arrange them to our advantage. I find I am having to do that today as the foster kitten Butters is really very sickly. He has transformed from a bouncy butterball into a skinny little thing weighing less than a pound, just lying there listlessly. I can (1) uselessly worry that he’s going to die etc, which helps neither of us; or (2) feel grateful to him for giving me this opportunity to cherish someone else for a change, even when they are pooping over everything. I’ve been doing #2 as much as I can, and can report a considerable difference in terms of peace of mind.*

Try counting them

Finally, here’s another method I use to feel good. I don’t know if it’ll work for you but feel free to give it a try. Love is known as “the great protector” — it always protects us from mental pain and makes us happy, so the more of it the better. If you could wave a magic wand and make people happy, who would they be? Count them all. Think about them a bit. Then, as they feel the same about their friends and relatives, wave your magic wand for their people as well. And so on. And then, if this is going well, you might find it pretty easy to feel quite spontaneously grateful for just how much opportunity you have to love others, grateful for just how many people there are to love. Seriously. This can work!

Heartburn or heartwarm?!

Thanksgiving, when this article was originally written, is the official day to give thanks in the United States. It can be an excuse to slaughter defenseless turkeys, get indigestion, and argue with relatives, or it can be a heartwarming reminder of our good fortune. What would happen, do you think, if 300 million people stopped blaming & complaining for a whole day, and instead focused with gratitude on what we have?

This article is of course by no means exhaustive about what we have to feel grateful about, so please add your ideas to the comments.

*Update on ButtersButters
He died in my arms at 2am on 11/25. Many people were kind enough to pray for him, including Venerable Geshe-la. May all living beings be loved like Butters.

Seven benefits of gratitude

Benefits of gratitude

Benefits of gratitudeNow we are coming up to Thanksgiving here in the United States, and apparently the word “thanks” is connected to the word “grateful”, no surprises there, really. (“Grateful” is also loosely related to the word “grace”.) So this is the time of the year to feel grateful, which is nice, as study after study shows that gratitude is an enormous predictor of happiness, a kind of happiness superpower, and we all like being happy.

Plus we need to feel happy if we are to avoid being a grumpy git and ruin everyone’s Thanksgiving. Have you noticed that we are far more likely to get annoyed if we are already not feeling happy inside? How when things feel good and we are connected to our own inner peace, happiness, and confidence, minor annoyances don’t worry us at all – but how on the other hand when we feel unsettled inside, not good in ourselves, not whole, split off from our own peace, the smallest thing can set us off? This might sound obvious, but that doesn’t seem to prevent us, the moment we do get annoyed, from casting around for something or someone else to blame, anything other than our own disgruntled state of mind.

Join the clubcontrol mind

Things are changing all the time, and I mean literally moment by moment – this is called impermanence – so is it any wonder that things don’t always change in the direction we want them to? We all have to keep re-adjusting to changing circumstances, we have no choice. However, if our mind is calm and we know we have everything we need inside, we hardly care. And one of the most powerful ways to get there is to train in gratitude. This means actually putting time aside to think about it.

Great-full

I sometimes think of “grateful” as “great-full”, ie, feeling full of all that is great. (Or something like that.) Dictionary.com says it means “warmly or deeply appreciative of kindness or benefits received; thankful” as well as “pleasing to the mind or senses; agreeable or welcome; refreshing.”

Gratitude does please our mind. It helps us enjoy our lives immensely. It helps us feel happy, whole, enriched, and confident. Instead of focusing on the things that are wrong with our life, and of course we can all come up with a long list, we focus on the things that are right.

How does that square with the need to focus on our suffering in order to develop renunciation? (Just in case you are wondering.) This is samsara after all, so what on earth are we supposed to be happy about? Generally the only time it is worth focusing on our own suffering is just for that reason, in order to develop the wish to get rid of it all and its causes. But at the times we are feeling hopelessly unhappy, bereft, annoyed, sorry for ourselves – the chances are that we are not focusing on our suffering in this constructive way at all. At which point we can either shift our focus to renunciation, or shift our focus away from what’s wrong to what’s right, developing gratitude instead.

The grass is not always greenergrass greener

Too often we pine over the things we haven’t got whilst neglecting the things we have. Counting our blessings is a way to focus on what we’ve got going for us, the green grass right under our noses.

By the way, I don’t know if this is relevant but I’ve been thinking lately about how there is never any point in trying to replace people and things we have lost. Better to tune into what is now and we’ll feel whole again. Not, “Oh this is just a pale imitation of the living conditions/relationship/job etc I had!” It is not a pale imitation, it is just different. It is not supposed to replace anything, and if we don’t set it up as a replacement we might just find that we are enjoying it in its own right. Be happy in ourselves and we can enjoy everything that comes our way.

Some scientifically proven benefits of gratitude

As I said, there are a ton of articles out these days about the power of gratitude. This article for example gives 7 scientifically proven benefits of gratitude, so I thought I’d give a quick unscientific comment on all of them.

Gratitude:

  1. Opens the door to more relationships. Hardly surprising really, who doesn’t like being around someone who appreciates them?!
  2. Improves physical health. All I’ll say here is that I was feeling very grateful this morning (hence this article) and my good mood made me go for a swim in a pool in the snow.
  3. Improves psychological health. Gratitude “effectively increases happiness and reduces depression” and “reduces a multitude of toxic emotions (read “delusions”), ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret.” That’s understandable, and cool.
  4. Enhances empathy and reduces aggression. For sure.
  5. Grateful people sleep better. Yup, I love sleeping!
  6. Improves self-esteem. And “reduces social comparisons”. Yes, if we are grateful to others, we tend to want to repay them, and it becomes natural to rejoice in them instead of comparing ourselves and falling short.
  7. Increases mental strength. Gratitude “reduces stress” and “fosters resilience”. There is nothing more resilient than a peaceful, controlled mind, which we get with gratitude.

That was only 7. This article gives 31 benefits of gratitude 🙂 But I’ll spare you my comments.

pigletNow I don’t know if this kind of thing impresses you or not, but I’ll mention it just in case. Gratitude also boosts our dopamine and serotonin levels. It is apparently even a form of emotional intelligence and “affects neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex” (which apparently is a good thing).

Feel free to Google “gratitude benefits” or whatever and you’ll have a stack of bedtime reading.

Before teaching how to generate a positive state of mind, Buddha Shakyamuni would always talk first about its benefits to encourage us to go for it. So hopefully you’ve decided that gratitude is what you want, in which case, in the next article I carry on with this and share some Buddhist techniques for feeling more grateful.

Meanwhile, I am always (well, almost always) grateful for your comments …

Ten ways to be happier

exercize

Who doesn’t want to be happier? That, and wanting to be free from suffering, are the two basic wishes of all living beings, from world leaders to the smallest gnat. Generally, however, as Shantideva says:

Although living beings wish to be free from suffering,
They run straight towards the causes of suffering;
And although they wish for happiness,
Out of ignorance they destroy it like a foe. ~ Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

Someone at work posted an article called Ten Simple Science-Based Ways to be Happier Today, perhaps not surprisingly one of the most read leadership articles of 2013, and it inspired me to give a Buddhist version.

1.      Exercise more

As it explains in the article, exercise helps prevent depression, helps us relax, increases our brain power, is good for our physical health and weight, etc, etc. This we all know, really.

exercizeMy teacher Geshe Kelsang encourages people to stay healthy through exercise and good diet. Although our mind goes on forever and so we need to put most of our effort into keeping our mind healthy and increasingly strong, we also have to look after this meaty body despite its limited shelf life. At the moment we have a precious human life with which to help ourselves and everyone else, so we need to take care of this body as our vehicle, rather as an ambulance driver takes good care of her ambulance so she can drive around helping people. Those with a Tantric empowerment even have a commitment to take care of their body, not needlessly weaken it, let alone destroy it.

Prostrations are recommended if we want to combine our exercise directly with a spiritual practice. I think with a little mindfulness it is also possible to transform any exercise into the spiritual path – for example, when I get a chance to swim laps, I enjoy thinking Dharma thoughts, and bathing in water-like blessings and/or prostrating to an ocean of compassion, etc. Maybe some of you do some creative things, care to share?

See # 5 below too.

2.      Sleep more

“Sleep-deprived people fail to recall pleasant memories, yet recall gloomy memories just fine.”

For those who have not gained control over their deeper levels of consciousness, sleep may come from dullness and its imprints — but we still need it!!

For ordinary beings sleep helps to restore the energy of the body and to bring the elements of the body into harmony, thereby making the body comfortable and prolonging life. ~ How to Understand the Mind page 166

The book also says:

Sleep is also the basis of the development of all the things we experience in dreams.

remember you are dreamingI think this refers to the fact that the appearances in dreams actually arise from the dreaming mind, are perceptions of the dreaming mind. This is no different to when we are awake — our mind is the basis for the perceptions of our waking world too. There is nothing outside the mind. So dreaming can really help us to understand this, to increase our wisdom.

Also the yoga of sleeping taught in Tantra is incredibly helpful and time-saving – better than spending almost a third of this precious, hard-to-attain human life zonked out. Sleep doesn’t have to be a waste of time. We can actually learn to use our sleeping mind to meditate if we train in the six stages of Mahamudra Tantra.

At least it is a good idea last thing each night to let go of and purify the bad parts of the day, not entering our dream world with a deluded, upset, anxious mind. There is nothing to stop us turning our mind in a positive direction as we lay down, and we can ask the Buddhas and the Dakinis to bless our minds while we sleep. They will.

Trijang Rinpoche, Geshe Kelsang’s own root Spiritual Guide, even recommends a nap if we are feeling negative or anxious during the day. You can find out more about the yoga of sleeping in your free ebook Modern Buddhism.

3.      Move closer to work

‘Or as Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert put it, “Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day.”’

Although I do travel quite a lot, I’m lucky in that my daily commute at the moment is a rather delightful bike ride through the streets of Denver. But if we have no choice, we can remember that everything is transformable. Actually being stuck in traffic can give us the opportunity to listen to teachings, develop a happy mind, practice patience, remember the kindness of the people in the cars around (for without them, there would be no road), and so on. We don’t actually have to be “stuck”. Those moments of pause throughout our day — eg, at red lights, when our computer spends an age booting up, waiting for an appointment at the doctor’s office, last in the long line at Starbucks — are a perfect chance to check in with our mind to see if it is peaceful and positive.

4.      Spend times with friends and family

“The only thing that really matters in life is your relationships to other people.”

A study published in the Journal of Socio-Economics states that our relationships are worth more than $100,000! Not sure how they got that figure … but we do all know that money doesn’t buy us happiness, don’t we?! Nor does status etc. At least theoretically we know this, though this recent New York Times article shows that people still chase after more and more money and prestige … we chain ourselves to our own desks.

I am sitting at an airport café writing this, and enjoying the loud laughter, almost hysterical laughter, coming from a group of Bosnian friends sitting at a table close to me. They are having a blast! Love is where it’s at. If spending time with friends and family brings out our love, it’ll definitely make us happy. If it brings out our frustration, dislike, and attachment — not so much.Pope and little girl

Everyone can be a friend. To a Bodhisattva, a so called “friend of the world”, who has trained in universal love and compassion, everyone is a friend. I liked the recent footage of Pope Francis jumping out of his Fiat 500 every few feet, or so it seemed, to hug random strangers!

However, I think we also need time alone, and to learn to love being on our own, happy with ourselves, both in general and if we are interested in pursuing a spiritual path. I have spent many, maybe most, of my happiest hours alone. There are numerous benefits to solitude explained in the scriptures and experienced by past and present spiritual practitioners.attachment 3

Alone or surrounded, it all depends on what we are doing with our mind. If we have love, we can be on a retreat in the middle of nowhere and feel very connected and happy. If we don’t, we can be sitting in the midst of family and friends and feel left out and lonely.

The most reliable friends, if you ask me, are enlightened beings, holy beings — those who’ve perfected their love, compassion, and wisdom, whether Buddhist or otherwise. They unrelentingly see the good in us, looking beyond our faults to our pure nature, and are always there for us. We could do a lot worse than getting used to hanging out with them on a daily basis, sharing with them our good and our bad times.

5.      Go outside

I love going outside, personally, enjoying the elements. So, it seems, does everyone else around here (Colorado) who work so they can play – I sometimes wonder if a love of the great outdoors has supplanted the work ethic I’ve found everywhere else in America …

I’ve read various studies that say getting into nature is very helpful, and one thing I enjoy doing when I am walking around is the Tantric self-generation practice of remembering that the 4 elements of water, wind, fire (heat), and earth are the four Dakinis – Dakini, Lama, and Khandarohi, and Rupini. This blissful practice gets the inner elements into balance – good for both the mind and the body. You can check this out in The New Guide to Dakini Land.staunton state park 2

I think a wonderful practice while outside is to offer the flowers, sky, and other delights to the Buddhas around you and at your heart, with the wish that everyone enjoy a Pure Land.

6.      Help others

“To make yourself feel happier, you should help others.”

“We scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.” ~ Martin Seligman

Cherishing others is the way to solve our problems. And we can help others practically in so many ways, it is the Bodhisattva’s way of life – Bodhisattvas promise two things, to get enlightened and to help others practically. Some of the moral disciplines of helping others in the Bodhisattva vow include, for example, going to the assistance of those in need, relieving the distress of others, and giving wealth to others. The article notes that spending money on other people, called “prosocial spending,” also boosts happiness. In Buddhism, generosity is taught to be a major source of happiness – the Bodhisattva feels amazing joy just at the word “Give”!

If you’re not sure practically how you’re supposed to help more people, Nagarjuna’s advice on the subject can be very helpful:

Even if we are not able to help others directly
We should still try to develop a beneficial intention.
If we develop this intention more and more strongly,
We shall naturally find ways to help others. ~  Universal Compassion 

The article also says:

“Volunteering is rewarding in terms of higher life satisfaction.”

And as you may have noticed already, there are often plenty of opportunities to volunteer at your local Buddhist Center 🙂 Or animal shelter. Or wherever.

Of course part of all this is avoiding the opposite, harming others.

7.      Practice smiling

I have sometimes wondered if I’d look more cool if I smiled less and scowled more. I have concluded that this may well be the case, but overall I’d rather be happy than cool.fake smile

Of course, you gotta mean it – fake smiles don’t count.

Interestingly:

“Smiling can improve our attention and help us perform better on cognitive tasks.”

This list doesn’t mention laughing at the ridiculousness of samsara/sense of humor, but perhaps that can be snuck in here.

8.      Plan a trip but don’t take one

I had to think about this one 🙂 Then I thought about the power of imagination. We don’t ever really go anywhere anyhow.

9.      Meditate
all you need is inside youNo list on becoming happier would be anywhere near complete without this. In fact, the things on this list can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful, and the function of meditation is to make our mind peaceful.

Buddha explained that due to ignorance we do a lot of hallucinating. On the most basic level, we hallucinate that happiness comes from outside ourselves. We almost always assume that it is to be found out there somewhere – if I can get the right partner, the right job, the right car, the right pair of shoes, etc I’ll be just fine! And until I have them, I won’t.

This is not true. What we need to be happy is mental freedom.

We chain ourselves to external sources of happiness that cannot deliver the goods. I think that uncontrolled desire is a bit like playing the slot machines. Maybe we hit some kind of jackpot — someone returns our desire for a while until one or the other of us has had enough, or we enjoy our promotion until we realize it is too much like work – but by now we are addicted to trying again and again. A morbid fascination – maybe the oranges will all line up this time!! – distracts us from looking for happiness within. Sometimes it works due to some good karma, frankly more often it doesn’t – gambling addictbut until then we keep trying, bound to the machine in a dingy crypt full of fellow gambling addicts. We need to get out of here and into the sunshine: “I’m free!” Meditation does that for us.

Happiness is a state of mind, a feeling, and therefore its real causes lie within the mind. So of course meditation has to be on this list because with it we go direct to the source. Familiarizing our mind with positivity is the most direct, effective way to become happy. This in fact is what the article says:

“Meditation literally clears your mind and calms you down, it’s been often proven to be the single most effective way to live a happier life.”

This whole Kadampa Life blog is about meditation, but I’ll let the scientists conclude this section:

“… neuroimaging … concluded that after completing the course, parts of the participants’ brains associated with compassion and self-awareness grew, and parts associated with stress shrank.”

And

“Research even shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness.”

10.  Practice gratitude

“Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.”

Buddha had a lot to say about this. We do some beautiful meditations on cherishing others by remembering their kindness. We are grateful to living beings and we are grateful to enlightened beings, both. I wrote more about that here.

Thanks everyone for reading. I have only touched on a few things here. I’m sure you have a lot more ideas and it’d be great if you felt like sharing them in the comments.

Thanking our lucky stars, thanking everyone

thank you for kindness

thank you 2I’ve been thinking about Thanksgiving, probably because it is Thanksgiving today – and I’m thinking that Buddhism teaches two very good reasons to give thanks, both of which have universal relevance.

The first is being thankful because we have such a precious human life right now. The second is being thankful to others, because without them this life would be impossible. Contemplating our good fortune makes us feel lucky to have it – and feeling lucky is feeling happy. Contemplating others’ kindness opens our heart to gratitude and appreciation, and feeling grateful is also feeling happy. Feeling happy in turn makes us value what we have and value others, and then we are far more likely to use what we have to pay others back.

So, if we really want to embrace the full meaning of “Thanksgiving” and feel doubly happy and energized to pay it forward, it seems like a win-win meditation to put these 2 meditations together … therefore I thought I would quickly offer a few ideas, providing I can get this written before I fall into a sugar coma (I ate already.)

richerAs for the first, we have everything we need to make spiritual progress in this life. And even leaving the opportunity for attaining permanent freedom and enlightenment out of it,  from a mundane point of view we are also far luckier than most of the other humans in this world, not to mention all other living beings, such as the cat on my lap. In an earlier article I listed the results of some research showing what happens if the whole world is to be shrunk to a village of 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same. That list of what could be but isn’t shows us where we fit in the grand scheme of things, and it occurred to me that every one of these good fortunes comes entirely from others. As a kind of contemplation, therefore, I’m going to list each one and then explain (1) how lucky that makes me, and (2) how this luck is all thanks to others.

  • 80 would live in substandard housing. Yesterday I was standing outside in Denver waiting for someone to givehomeless me a ride home as it felt bitterly cold and I was carrying shopping. I waited next to a guy in his twenties whose face was blue with cold. He had a skinny Chihuahua with him, and they were walking quickly up and down the sidewalk to keep warm. “When are they going to get a chance to get warm?”, I thought, for they were both homeless. I on the other hand live in a well-built house, and it comes entirely from others’ kindness, as I have never built a house in my life and wouldn’t know where to begin.
  • 67 would be unable to read. How much I take for granted my ability to read and write. When I read writewas staying in a remote Brazilian rain forest some years ago in meditation retreat, none of the valley dwellers had a reading age past 12, and as a result their world was quite confined. Primary school teachers spent many hours or even years teaching me to read and write, skills I use hugely every day; and I can’t even remember their names.
  • 50 would be malnourished and 1 dying of starvation. I just ate a huge dinner, every morsel of which came from others. I brought some peas, it is true; but, honestly, all I had to do is open the freezer door, provided by others, take out the frozen peas, grown, harvested, and packaged by others, put them in a saucepan manufactured by others, add boiling water from plumbing and a kettle provided by others, boil them on a stove made by others … anyway, you get the point. And I still took the credit when people thanked ME for the peas! (not that they did, but had they …)
  • 33 would be without access to a safe water supply. I may complain when the water doesn’t come out of the faucet, but we know how far many people have to walk each day just to carry back a bowl of water, the amount I probably use washing a few pieces of cutlery. And all the water I take for granted comes entirely from the kindness of others.
  • 39 would lack access to improved sanitation. I certainly take my bathroom for granted. But why!!? And how water scarcitykind of others to provide me with sanitation so I don’t have to use a hole in the ground or wash once a year. 
  • 24 would not have any electricity. It’s been cold outside, as I said. But I am very cozy and warm inside. I can also stay cool in summer. The lights are on; I just have to flip a switch. Yes, it is worth thinking this one through – the moment by moment infrastructure of my life is a result of others.
  • 7 people would have access to the Internet. I am able to write and post this, for a start. And all I have to do is move my fingers over the keyboard – fingers provided for me by my parents and typing taught me by … again, I’m afraid I’ve forgotten their name.
  • 1 would have a college education. The fact that we have any education is a blessing, and it all comes from others.
  • 2 would be near birth; 1 near death. I will indeed be near death before too long, in that regard we are all the same; however, I have better chances of good health and a long life than most due to doctors, good nutrition, etc. – all again coming from the kindness of others.
  • 5 would control 32% of the entire world’s wealth; all 5 would be from the US. Hmmm. The richer we are, the MORE we depend on others.

Also, in the same article I spoke of how much religious freedom we have compared with most people in the world. And, again, this makes us both very lucky, and also very indebted to those who provide us with everything we need to make spiritual progress and bring an end to suffering.icing on cake

All told, we are outrageously lucky and it is worth thinking about this from time to time rather than focusing on what is wrong with our life – of course we all have problems, but our problems are a walk in the park compared with those of others (see above.) Better to count our blessings on a regular basis. We may not have all the icing, but we DO have the cake.

I hope you enjoy your cake and eat it this Thanksgiving, and indeed every day. We can thank our lucky stars for being so lucky, and thank pretty much every living being as they have all directly or indirectly had a hand in bringing us this good fortune. And now we can pay it forward — using these current great conditions to become a better person, hopefully even a Buddha, for others’ sake.

Don’t leave me alone in here! ~ a Buddhist’s thoughts on Smartphone addiction

smartphone addiction

smartphone addictionSociety today could do with some meditation!

Science journal recently published a sobering study that has not surprisingly created a stir in the psychology and neuroscience communities. Get this:

“In 11 experiments involving more than 700 people, the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.”

6 to 15 minutes?! Apparently they reached for their Smartphones after only a couple of those minutes and, when these were denied them, they even administered themselves electric shocks — anything to stop themselves from being left alone with their own minds.

It’s true that people hate waiting in line, at airports, for friends, in traffic, in doctor’s offices, etc. What did we do in the old days, before we had our gadgets?

The study said people found it “unpleasant” because a lot of their thoughts were unpleasant or negative. There’s a lot of unprocessed sadness, loss, sorrow about. Louis CK does a very good riff on this in this video, worth a watch:

smartphone in carExtract: “Sometimes when things clear away and you’re not watching anything and you’re in your car and you start going, oh no, here it comes, that I’m alone, and it starts to visit on you, just this sadness,” he said. “And that’s why we text and drive.”

He describes sitting through his sadness one day, and coming out the other side actually happier, accompanied by a Bruce Springsteen song. Ironically, the day before seeing this video I was listening to “Philadelphia” and had a similar experience of a loss coming up and then subsiding, good old Bruce. You know how people say, “It’s okay to be sad”? There is truth in that. (As long as we are not identifying with the sadness, though – see below). If we let ourselves experience our thoughts, we see that they are not as scary as they seemed while they were still lurking in the shadows. The more we understand what our mind actually is — a clear formless awareness that is naturally peaceful — the more we realize that the passing shadows of clouds can in no way affect its spaciousness and natural freedom.

Give yourself a real break

In a readable commentary to the Science study called No Time to Think in the New York Times, Kate Murphy says:

“But you can’t solve or let go of problems if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them. It’s an imperative ignored by our culture, which values doing more than thinking and believes answers are in the palm of your hand rather than in your own head.”

happiness 2Life is full of loss for all of us. I once heard a Tibetan Lama say:

“Anyone who lives a long life has a sad story to tell.”

But the way to deal with sorrow is not just to pretend that these things aren’t happening, try to change channels, try to keep ourselves insanely busy. If we don’t allow ourselves to observe these sad thoughts, we are not going to take responsibility for them, nor discover that they are not in fact as frightening or harmful as we dread. We are not going to process them. We are not going to accept them, see them as just waves arising from the natural clarity and peace of our formless awareness. We are not going to be able to let them go, or transform them, or become happy. They are going to be recurrent thoughts. This distraction doesn’t work anyway – as one psychologist says:

“Suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power, leading to intrusive thoughts, which makes people get even busier to keep them at bay. The constant cognitive strain of evading emotions underlies a range of psychological troubles such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and panic attacks, not to mention a range of addictions. It is also associated with various somatic problems like eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, inflammation, impaired immunity and headaches.”

So in Buddhism, we do the exact opposite – we spend a lot of time with our thoughts, coming to know our own minds well through empirical observation so that we can transform them. We develop mindfulness, or presence of mind, to actually loosen our grip on the distractions and sorrowful thoughts as opposed to pushing them down like a jack in the box.

The patience of voluntarily enduring suffering jack in the box

Actual problems or suffering are the unpleasant thoughts or feelings in our own minds, nothing outside. When we think compassionate or wise thoughts, for example, about the things we perceive, we inhabit a different world – there is no world outside of our perception of it. To transcend suffering, to think differently, however, we first need to be able to accept these problems wholeheartedly without wishing that they were otherwise. Pushing them aside out of fear or denial, repressing or suppressing them, just makes us more deeply tormented and unhealthy, and can perpetuate a vicious downward spiral due to their inevitable, insistent recurrence.

In How to Solve our Human Problems, there is a really helpful section on this so-called “patience of voluntarily enduring suffering” (pages 42 onwards in my edition), and I really hope you get a chance to read all of it. Here is an extract:

“Normally our need to escape from unpleasant feelings is so urgent that we do not give ourself the time to discover where these feelings actually come from… In reality, the painful feelings that arise on such occasions are not intolerable. They are only feelings, a few moments of bad weather in the mind, with no power to cause us any lasting harm. There is no need to take them so seriously…. Just as there is room in the sky for a thunderstorm, so there is room in the vast space of our mind for a few painful feelings.”

Buddha said that the root cause of our mental pain is the two distorted ego-minds of self-grasping ignorance and self-cherishing. The article would also seem to suggest something along these lines:

“To get rid of the emotional static, experts advise not using first-person pronouns when thinking about troubling events in your life. Instead, use third-person pronouns or your own name when thinking about yourself. “If a friend comes to you with a problem it’s easy to coach them through it, but if the problem is happening to us we have real difficulty, in part because we have all these egocentric biases making it hard to reason rationally” said Dr. Kross of Michigan.”

As Geshe Kelsang succinctly puts it in a sentence that has helped thousands of people, including me:

“There is an enormous difference between the thoughts “I am feeling bad” and “Unpleasant feelings are arising in my mind.” ~ How to Solve our Human Problems

As soon as we stop identifying with our problems, “Oh woe is me!”, we can step back and look at them curiously, objectively even. We can practice transforming difficulties into interesting challenges, and experience the sweet taste of victory as the fear and sadness subside. Sometimes all in the time frame of one Bruce Springsteen song 🙂

And that’s not all …

The article also talks about empathy, or the growing lack of it in an over-stimulated society, when we don’t reflect on our own thoughts and feelings — for how then are we supposed to understand the experiences of others? In Buddhism, we use our own suffering to remind us 3d rendering of a water splash with ripple shaped as a heart.of the suffering of others so we can wish them to be free – this is compassion, vital for spiritual growth and happiness.

Also, there is no sorrow if we have not actually lost anything. If we go further and use our wisdom to understand how everything is simply the nature of our mind, all appearances and their minds arising and ceasing simultaneously from the same karmic seeds in the clarity of our root mind, like waves arising and falling in an ocean, we can relax deeply. There is nothing really out there to grasp at or to lose. Check out Joyful Path for more on this (p. 319-320).

So, next time we find ourselves alone, perhaps all of us could put down our Smartphones and look inside our own minds for entertainment instead. We and society might be a lot better off for it.

Over to you. I would love to hear your insights into this subject and any solutions!

Buddhism and the pursuit of happiness

broken printer

broken printerThe last article, based on the Spring Festival introduction, looked at how deceptive samsara’s enjoyments are. Of course its sufferings are no fun either. Now I have boarded my second plane, from San Francisco to Denver, to find it almost entirely empty. I asked the flight attendant why, and she told me that the machines printing boarding passes were not working and so the would-be passengers who do not have their passes on their mobile devices are not able to clear security! I asked if we were waiting for them, and she said we couldn’t. I asked if they’d have to pay for another flight themselves, and she said yes, they would. So that sucks for all the other people who are supposed to be on this airplane. Unless of course this plane crashes.

Samsara sucks. Samsara sucks for everyone. Luckily, samsara is not real.

Gen-la Dekyong told us that she saw a bluebottle fly trying to seek sustenance from the bell-like flowers on the shrine — it tried and tried to find nectar, but its search was fruitless, for the flowers were fake. This is just like us trying to find happiness in this and in that. Buddha has said that there is no happiness inhering in any of the things we chase after.  Real happiness is a life that is not Man smelling flowercontrolled by uncontrolled desire.  A life of compassion and wisdom will bring that happiness now and in the future. Of course, she pointed out, we do engage in normal activities; but if we remember that none of these activities in themselves can bring us happiness, we won’t be disappointed when they fail. Buddha is suggesting that we stop giving our energy to things that cannot give us happiness and instead give our energy to things that can. We can make ourself happy all the time. We need the pure happiness that comes from a pure or positive mind. And when we gain this happiness, we will be able to give others real happiness too.

Time to choose

Thinking about this, it seems clear we have to make a decision. It is hard and discouraging to have one foot on samsara’s path and the other on the path to liberation. Those paths are going in opposite directions, so we end up doing the splits. If we know and are convinced where happiness comes from, we can stay on the liberating path, regardless of where our daily life activities take us from month to month.

But a word of caution – it’s good to lighten up when we think about these things, not get all heavy. Attachment and disappointment and other delusions weigh us down – the decision to stay on the liberating path on the other hand is a light mind, free from the extremes of excitement and despondency. Have you ever been at a long, tedious party where you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself, but you’re actually not? And then you decide to leave, and how great it feels to stop pretending that it is all such good fun, and you step out lightly and with relief into the fresh air? Renunciation is a bit like that. We don’t need to take ourselves or our delusions too seriously as we work to overcome them, we don’t need to give them more power over us than they normally have. They are just clouds in the vast limitless sky-like space of our mind.boring party

Is it possible to have some happiness from the inside but also at least a little bit from the outside? That question needs thinking about. For one thing, we do need good human conditions, and Geshe Kelsang has said we need to avoid the extreme attitude of abandoning these. These days, in particular, we need a normal life — we generally can’t just run off and hide in a cave, no one would understand or support that. We also need the so-called “happiness of humans and gods”, for it is far easier to be happy in the human realm than in the lower realms. So it may be easier to frame the question in terms of where we feel happiness really comes from.

It’s easy to try to really look for it in both our mind and outer enjoyments – “Ooh, I’m all meditated and Buddhisted out, I need to relax and watch a movie!” There’s nothing wrong with a movie per se, it can teach us the truth of Dharma, help us develop empathy for others’ stories, for example; but there is something misleading in thinking that our happiness comes from the side of the movie as opposed to from our own states of mind. External things such as movies and dancing can make us happy if our mind is peaceful or blissful, but not if it is not. The endless frustration in samsara – such as failing to satisfy our desires and the other samsaric sufferings listed by Buddha — are all coming from uncontrolled desire, thinking that the holy grail of happiness is out there somewhere.

Who do you belong to?

As an example of trying to get happiness by following both a path motivated by delusions and a liberating path at the same time, I was thinking of the example of believing that our happiness comes from love AND from attachment. Lets say you’re an aspiring Bodhisattva, for example, who loves the idea of belonging to the world and making everyone happy, and who knows how great love always makes you feel. But at the same time you feel the need out of attachment or isolation arising from self-grasping to belong to just one person or a few people. This can cause a contradiction and a tension in the mind. This to-ing and fro-ing blocks us or slows us down — we digress, we get distracted, we take our eye off the ball, we don’t know where to put ourselves, we get discouraged in our ability to make ourselves and others happy.love breaks chains

Is it really possible to make both love and attachment work at the same time as real causes of our happiness? For one thing, is it possible to love unconditionally if we have fear in our heart? Yet uncontrolled desire makes us fearful, for example of losing. So it seems we have to choose – does happiness come from following the path of love OR the path of attachment? I think we need to make our life bigger, not reduce it to a poky life of attachment.

Not saying it is not a work in progress, we cannot abandon our delusions overnight obviously, that is not possible; but for one thing we don’t have to keep identifying with them, and for another we need to know from our own experience where happiness comes from if we are to make a firm decision to follow the blissful liberating path and generally stay on it.

A liberating path

Back to what Gen-la said, if we wanted to get to Paris from here, we would need to know the correct path. It’s the same for happiness, what are the correct spiritual paths or spiritual trainings leading to happiness? Examples would be renunciation, universal compassion, and the wisdom realizing the way things really are, or emptiness. The reason these paths lead to happiness is because we learn to control our delusions, controlling our own anger and attachment, controlling our self-grasping ignorance. Our delusions function to disturb our inner peace, so we have to give up on them if we are to experience real happiness. We don’t need to give up our usual daily activities, we just need to give up our delusions.this way or that way

Have you noticed how problems are everywhere all the time? They may surprise us every day, seeming to come out of nowhere, as anomalies, causing us to shake our heads “Oh dear, how did THIS happen?!”; but in fact they pervade our lives. Wherever we turn, whoever we talk to, delusions and karma are causing people problems.

For example, I talked to one of my brothers yesterday, it had been a few months. He told me almost by way of small talk that his company was in liquidation this week, his father-in-law had just suffered from a heart attack, and a vulnerable elderly person we both knew was being taken advantage of financially. He was making the best of it, and looking on the bright side (“No more overheads! Only a small heart attack! She doesn’t care that she is being fleeced!”), as we do, especially when we are trying to be stoical. (And people are remarkably brave, I find.) But it showed me, yet again, for the billionth time, that we don’t have to scratch deep beneath the surface of samsara’s sometimes seeming okayness to see that, no matter what we do, samsara doesn’t work very well for us at all. It never has. It never will.

Samsara is not by nature benign with the occasional unexpected setback thrown in. Our karma and delusions are ALWAYS out to get us!

I observe that a lot of people feel as if something is missing in their life, they know that happiness doesn’t really come from external activities; and this is especially the case as we get older and the things we were turning to work less and less, including our own health and energy and even the simple ability to stay awake and chat. But sometimes people don’t know where else to look. This is one reason, as Gen-la Dekyong said, why Geshe Kelsang has established centers all over the world so that people can learn about renunciation, universal compassion, the wisdom realizing emptiness, and the bliss and creative power of Tantra, or the “unmistaken Dharma of Lamrim, Lojong, and Mahamudra.” Through the centers, teachings, books, festivals, all this knowledge can be ours. And if we apply this knowledge, our life itself can become the liberating path while we go about our normal daily activities.

Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive

Pringles 2

In the Spring Festival I just attended at the Kadampa World Peace temple in the Lake District in England (laid back, relaxed, good Dharma, lovely Sangha, blessings all over), Gen-la Dekyong gave a talk on Friday night about the deceptive nature of samsara’s pleasures. In general, people think they will find happiness in eating, drinking, sexual activity, or watching television, or in a good job or nice relationship, or in lots of money, or even more money, or in a good reputation. If I have all this, we think, I will be happy, so we put all our energy into it. But we can see that even people who have managed to get a lot or even all of these things together are still not happy.

Pringles 2So, maybe, she said, you know what is coming next.  The happiness that arises from these worldly activities–eating drinking etc–isn’t real happiness, because it changes into suffering. Geshe Kelsang calls this artificial happiness or contaminated happiness or happiness mixed with suffering. For example, a pleasant feeling may arise when we start eating, but if eating was a real cause of happiness, then the more we ate the happier we would become. Yet the opposite is the case – the more we eat, the more uncomfortable we become.

Thinking this through I have concluded, not for the first time, that the same does indeed apply to all the other things we grasp at for pleasure, without exception. We’ve tried it all enough times, in this life and in countless previous lives – trying to find happiness in things or people outside the mind. Every time we get excited, “Perhaps this is it! This is the ultimate café, town to live in, relationship, weather, job!!” But it never lasts, does it?

Pringles 1Don’t get me wrong – I like eating, drinking, hanging out in the sun, and the rest of it as much as anyone else, and am not suggesting that we stop all these enjoyments (as if we even could). But it is important to find a way to transform them into the spiritual path through wisdom, compassion, and bliss, and we will only bother doing that if we see that in themselves they are not the real causes of our happiness.

I think we have to check this point carefully, not in an abstract way but based on our own activities and experiences at the moment – where are we investing our happiness? For example, what did you do today? Did it deliver the goods? Or was it more reminiscent of the words of Venerable Atisha:

Friends, the things you desire give no more contentment than drinking saltwater.

Pringles 3Or eating Pringles. I have often tried to find contentment in eating Pringles, and “once you pop, you cannot stop”, as their jingle goes — but I just end up with a sore mouth and slight feeling of nausea.

(And we are not even talking here about the problems of samsara, just the pleasures!! Which can often end up, weirdly, amounting to the same thing.)

Okay, I’ll start. I was just contemplating this all a bit earlier on this plane when my vegetarian Asian dinner arrived, a delicious BA curry, so much tastier than the stodgy pasta and dead chickens that all those meat-eaters have to eat! Ravenous after several hours of packing, traveling, security, and powerlessly waiting around, I eagerly stopped what I was doing (actually writing this), put lime pickle all over it, and shoved it in my mouth, barely managing to remember that it was not an actual cause of happiness, even though I had just been thinking about this subject. The first few mouthfuls were fine and dandy, then, hunger pangs abating, it already got a bit boring, and I started to toy with it, roll it around on my fork, and wonder, “What exactly is this?”, and “What shall I eat next?” One mouthful of the lemon cake was more than enough. To eat the bread roll or not to eat it, that was the next question. I decided not, but I have hedged my bets by buttering it and photo 1 (1)secreting it away for a snack later, no doubt so I can find it in a few days’ time mouldy and festering in my rucksack, like the banana I “kept for later” on my last plane trip, or the year-old cookies found in a forgotten pocket. I am a very slow learner when it comes to figuring out how to make samsara work for me. But there again, aren’t we all? Perhaps it is why we are still here, we are still hedging our bets, “One day it’ll work out, surely?! I just need to try harder!” Then I needed a coffee to wash down my coca cola, and while I was at it I thought I should finish my earlier purchased Kit Kat before it melted completely. Now I’m on a sugar/caffeine high, of which you, dear reader, are bearing the brunt. I also am waiting again, this time for the flight attendant to take this annoying meal tray away. I’d also like to use the bathroom, but I am in the window seat, and trays and bodies are everywhere, in my way. Oh, and did I mention that I dropped the tray of leftovers from this once appetizing curry all over my lap?

But my search for happiness on this flight is not over yet. Nowhere near. I still have 7 hours and 47 minutes to go. (And that’s just the first leg, getting me from London to San Francisco just so I can get on a whole other flight backward eastward to Denver, don’t even ask … ) When I watch a movie later, it may moreorless entertain me and keep me awake, but by the time I crawl into bed 5am UK time, I won’t feel I have accomplished much, really — just gone from A to C and back to B, killing time. If on the other hand I used this time in the sky plane in sky who takes these photosactually flying, thinking about renunciation, universal compassion, and wisdom, for example, or generating bliss and using that to meditate on emptiness, that would be a day well spent, whether or not I watched the movie or enjoyed the curry or even spilt more stuff over myself. My journey would have meant something. Something would have changed forever for the better.

Gen-la Dekyong went onto quote the verse from Je Tsongkhapa’s Prayer of the Stages of the Path:

Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive
Give no contentment, only torment.

If we believed this from our own experience, we could reach a conclusion: “I don’t want artificial happiness. I want the real thing!” So what is the happiness we experience when we eat?  It is actually just a reduction in our previous suffering of hunger.  Buddha says that in this world no one has real happiness and their actions cause suffering.  But we keep looking; we are absolutely convinced that within this cycle of impure life we can find happiness.

I find it very helpful to consider how happiness could ever possibly come from outside the mind when there isn’t anything outside the mind to begin with?! Attachment is based on ignorance, grasping at (pleasant) things outside the mind, so no wonder it is futile.

We can remember the story of the thief rummaging around in Milarepa’s cave at night to find something to steal, only to hear Milarepa’s voice: “I cannot even find anything in here worth stealing in the daytime!” Buddhas in the light of their omniscient wisdom have searched and failed to find any real happiness in samsara, so what hope do we have in the darkness of our ignorance?

Over to you, do you think we can find happiness in objects and people outside the mind?

Live life lightly, live it well

photo_11.jpg

What does it mean to you to take, or seize, the essence of your human life?

Denver Cheesman Park

View from Cheesman Park

I was just walking through my new leafy neighborhood, Capitol Hill, and into Cheesman Park, and once again the Colorado sky is wall to wall blue, a canopy of blue. It appears blue. It is blue? I can see blue very clearly up there. But if I try to reach out and grasp it, I will grasp at air; and if I try to push it away, my palm will meet no resistance.

This is true of everything in my life. Buddha said that all phenomena are mere appearance. They are like the blue of the sky. As Geshe Kelsang says in his section on the four profundities in The New Heart of Wisdom:

From an empty sky, blue manifests. Similarly, from the emptiness of form, form manifests. In the same way, all phenomena are manifestations of their emptiness.

Probably one of the best ways to seize the essence of our human life is to realize that there is nothing there to seize, there is nothing there to grasp at.  If we do that, we not only live lightly in this life, but we can pull the rug out from all our own and others’ suffering, destroying our self-grasping ignorance and all the pulling and pushing that go along with it. The only depth is emptiness.

Doorways in the minddoorway in mind

Many years ago a friend had a waking epiphany, or maybe it was a dream, I don’t remember. He was in a field and there was a doorway opening in the sky to the most exquisite, blissful place he had ever seen. Through that door he could see all the Buddhas and Dakinis beckoning him, including his Spiritual Guide. They were saying, “Come on through! What are you waiting for? There is nothing for you in that muddy field and you should know, you’ve been there long enough. Realize emptiness and fulfill the purpose of your human life, enter the door to total freedom and bliss and bring everyone along with you.”

My friend was ecstatic and motivated. But when he started walking toward that door, he noticed something unnerving.

The door was slowly closing.

He sent a description of this vision to Geshe Kelsang, who, somewhat to his surprise, was absolutely delighted. Geshe Kelsang asked for it to go in the next edition of Full Moon, which was a magazine produced by the New Kadampa Tradition at that time of news, views, and practitioner interviews of how they applied Kadampa Buddhism to their lives (long before the days of the Internet, Facebook, websites, blogs, etc.)

This vision has always helped me with two important Lamrim (stages of the path) meditations, which, because they motivate us to pursue the remaining stages of the path, are the first two meditations of the cycle – precious human life and death & impermanence. We have everything we need right now to enter that doorway, but we are also running out of time.

The first Lamrim meditation

These last two weeks I’ve been meditating on the Lamrim cycle of meditations, as Kadampa Centers traditionally give over the month of January to meditation retreat. It has always been my favorite time of year. Vide Kadampa has been recording his daily Lamrim meditations for over two years, in fact he has written, astonishingly enough, over 1,000 articles! I can’t recommend his blog, Daily Lamrim, highly enough. But nonetheless, if he doesn’t mind, I’m going to try my hand at writing down some of my thoughts on the 21 Lamrim meditations too.

I used Geshe Kelsang’s new book How to Understand the Mind for many of my meditations this year. I loved it.

The purpose of the precious human life meditation is to encourage ourself to take the real meaning of our human life and not to waste it in meaningless activities. 

birth and death“Meaningless activities” like pulling daisies out from that muddy field and making daisy chains? Unless perhaps we are doing it out of love, not losing sight of that closing doorway, and recognizing that the daisies are not as real as they appear (for example)! In other words, it is not what we do but why we do it that makes our activities either meaningful or meaningless.  We all have to do things, after all; we can’t just sit around all day twiddling our thumbs. But external developments, however promising or enticing, never end up being the be all and end all of our lives.

As Geshe Kelsang says also in How to Solve Our Human Problems:

Anyone who has even an inkling of how far the mind can be developed will never be satisfied with insubstantial attainments.

We can’t buy (lasting) happiness, as the saying goes, and we can’t buy lasting meaning either. If we could, someone would have done it by now.

What happened?!

We can feel disgruntled because we try so hard to find all the meaning in things that sooner or later just let us down – including our youth, beauty, jobs, marriages, health, vigor, ambition, careers, possessions, offspring, and so on. At Christmas I went home to my parents in London, who decided for some reason to hold a party for me, inviting all their local friends to meet me even though I’ve met all of them already. Anyway, I wasn’t complaining, and had some good conversations with a diverse, intelligent group of people, most of them now retired after quite illustrious or interesting careers. And, perhaps knowing that I have been into meditation for so long, a few of them shared with me how flat and disconcertingly anxious they felt now as they were ageing, with a dwindling sense of purpose, all their best times seemingly in the past, retired from useful work, their offspring all off doing their own thing. Several had already lost their spouses to death, and none of them felt as healthy or energetic as they used to. They were not being self-pitying – like people everywhere, they were just wondering at what happened, and how quickly too; and what next?

chapters

This life: just one chapter in the book of our travels from life to life

There is nothing wrong of course with raising a family, making money, having a job, etc. We have a saying in the Kadampa Tradition, “Remain natural while changing your aspiration”, which means we keep doing what we were doing before, but change our reasons and motivations for doing it. Traversing human life’s regular milestones is in any case generally inevitable given that we are human beings. But trying to grasp at these external things, trying to hang onto them, trying to give them inherent meaning or value, is like trying to scoop up the blue of the sky — we come up empty.

Ten reasons to be cheerful

Reason one: We are still alive. Buddha listed eight freedoms and ten endowments that make a human life precious from a spiritual point of view, which you can find in the stages of the path teachings, for example in Joyful Path – we can check if we have them all. We can also itemize other ways in which we are in fact very lucky that we might otherwise be taking for granted — eg, friends, family, roof over our head, food in our stomach, clothes on our back, ability to read, still breathing — to counteract the “I’m so unlucky” state of mind that mulls over everything that is wrong with our life and then, not unsurprisingly, ends up depressed, anxious, and discouraged. We can write them down if we are in danger of forgetting them! We could even do one of those Pros and Cons lists (you know the ones, with a ruler line down the middle of the page?!), listing out all the Pros of My Current Existence and Cons of My Current Existence!! Why not? See what happens.

You can even try closing your eyes and thinking of anyone you love and anyone who loves you. Appreciate them. Then spread that feeling further and further. Life can quickly become colorful and rich again with a bit of love thrown in the mix, whatever age we are.

So what is the “real meaning” of human life?!

Maybe I better save what Buddha had to say about that for the next article as I’m running out of space and you are probably running out of coffee break. Plus, who doesn’t like a good cliff hanger …

Over to you: Please share any insights you have had into the meaning of life 🙂

Postscript: Cranky Old Man

I found this on Facebook and it is moving and relevant so I thought I’d share it here.

When an old man died in the geriatric ward of a nursing home in an Australian country town, it was believed that he had nothing left of any value. Later, when the nurses were going through his meager possessions, they found this poem. Its quality and content so impressed the staff that copies were made and distributed to every nurse in the hospital, and made their way into magazines around the country. It is now winging its way across the Internet.

Cranky Old Man

What do you see nurses? . . .. . .What do you see?
What are you thinking .. . when you’re looking at me?
A cranky old man, . . . . . . not very wise,
Uncertain of habit .. . . . . . . .. with faraway eyes?
Who dribbles his food .. . … . . and makes no reply.
When you say in a loud voice . .’I do wish you’d try!’
Who seems not to notice . . . the things that you do.
And forever is losing . . . . . .. . . A sock or shoe?
Who, resisting or not . . . … lets you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding . . . . The long day to fill?
Is that what you’re thinking?. . Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse . you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am . . . . .. As I sit here so still,
As I do at your bidding, .. . . . as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of Ten . .with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters .. . . .. . who love one another
A young boy of Sixteen . . . .. with wings on his feet
Dreaming that soon now . . .. . . a lover he’ll meet.
A groom soon at Twenty . . . ..my heart gives a leap.
Remembering, the vows .. .. .that I promised to keep.
At Twenty-Five, now . . . . .I have young of my own.
Who need me to guide . . . And a secure happy home.
A man of Thirty . .. . . . . My young now grown fast,
Bound to each other . . .. With ties that should last.
At Forty, my young sons .. .have grown and are gone,
But my woman is beside me . . to see I don’t mourn.
At Fifty, once more, .. …Babies play ’round my knee,
Again, we know children . . . . My loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me . . . . My wife is now dead.
I look at the future … . . . . I shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing .. . . young of their own.
And I think of the years . . . And the love that I’ve known.
I’m now an old man . . . . . . .. and nature is cruel.
It’s jest to make old age . . . . . . . look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles .. .. . grace and vigour, depart.
There is now a stone . . . where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass . A young man still dwells,
And now and again . . . . . my battered heart swells
I remember the joys . . . . .. . I remember the pain.
And I’m loving and living . . . . . . . life over again.
I think of the years, all too few . . .. gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact . . . that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, people .. . . . .. . . open and see.
Not a cranky old man .
Look closer . . . . see .. .. . .. …. . ME!!

Happiness from the inside out

rainbow in clouds
Escape to reality

rainbow in cloudsPeople often decide they’ll learn to meditate once they see the connection between inner peace and feeling good or happy.

But sometimes people misunderstand “happiness depends on inner peace” to mean that, when they meditate, Buddhists and so on are just trying to find some peace by escaping from reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. We use meditation to become fully engaged both with our reality and with others’ reality. Peace is not just about switching off and ignoring whatever is going on. It’s about waking up to reality. Therefore, peaceful minds are peaceful, but they’re also meaningful.

Where do you look for happiness?

When we go to Buddhist meditation classes, or read some books, it is not too long before we discover that Buddha taught that happiness comes from within. And we nod our heads in agreement and perhaps even tell others about it. But if we examine where we put all our time and energy, where we try to find happiness, this’ll give us a good indication of what we really believe about where our happiness comes from, regardless of the words coming out of our mouth. And it could well be that we still believe that it is to be found out there, somewhere. “If I get this right I’ll be happy” – if I just get this piece of pizza, this promotion, this pay raise, this boyfriend, this GPS…

directionally challengedActually, when I was given my first GPS, a Magellan, back in San Francisco where I was based about 8 years ago, I confess that for a while there I thought I might finally have stumbled upon the one thing in the entire universe that was capable of making me happy. That navigator revolutionized my entire existence! For years I had been saying to people that happiness didn’t depend on externals, and now I was realizing that it did! After years of being directionally challenged, to put it mildly, more like directionally demented, I drove around San Francisco like some crazy woman, and found my way everywhere with absolutely no difficulty whatsoever.

At the time I had to think quite hard about why Lady Magellan wasn’t a source of happiness from her own side – the only lame thing I could come up with was that although she got me places, she didn’t guarantee I enjoyed those places once I was there. (Admittedly, this was before she started to become a bit perverse and peevish and send me on some very odd detours, once even suggesting I drive off a cliff.)

Why am I fessing up to this? It’s because sometimes (often!) I do have to think hard about why someone or something is not capable from their own side of giving me happiness. If I dig deeper, I can see how this is the case, but it is not always immediately obvious, which is why I fall for external sources of happiness over and over again.

Have you found anything that from its own side is capable of giving you happiness, without its depending on the mind?

Where do you look for inner peace?

value of somethingWhereas we do often think that the causes of happiness lie outside the mind, when it comes to peace I think we have more of a sense that peace is an inner state of mind, and we have to work on our mind to get it. “If I want to be peaceful, my mind has to be peaceful.” I never thought, for example, that Lady Magellan could give rise to inner peace. I think it makes more sense to us to think of cultivating peace of mind, whereas when we use the word “pursuing happiness” it seems to suggest more about rearranging things externally. Just a little more Mozzarella on the pizza, or if only my kitten would stop throwing up, I’ll be happy. Happiness is out there and so we have to go out there and get it.

Joining the dots… happiness comes from inner peace, nowhere else

So it is very helpful to understand the relationship between peace and happiness – it helps us join the dots and change priorities. If we knew for sure that happiness depends on inner peace as opposed to external sources, we would find the energy to train in it. With inner peace, we can be happy all the time, no matter what is going on in our world. Without it, if our mind is troubled, we cannot find a moment’s happiness, even if we are magically transported to a fabulous tropical paradise surrounded by all our dearest friends. External conditions can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful.

Happiness come from the inside out, not the outside in.

Japanese-Tea-Garden-San-FranciscoFor example, San Francisco is a very beautiful city. I know, because I drove around it like a crazy woman and saw lots of touristy things, like the Japanese Tea Garden. But it is still going to entirely depend on our frame of mind whether we’re going to enjoy that Japanese Garden or find it, “Boooring! I’m hungry. Where’s my lunch?” If our mind is elsewhere, nothing takes: “I wish my boss would give me a break”, or “I’m so stressed out about that stupid deadline”, then a brief, “Oh, nice Bonsai tree”, then “I can’t believe what that woman said to me…” If our mind is churning and unpeaceful, we can be in one of the most beautiful corners of this planet and it can still be just “Bleahh!”, not making us happier at all. Many of us do live in a beautiful corner of this planet, but are we happy all the time? There are literally countless examples like this.

Everyone wants to be happy all the time. I can’t remember the last time I woke up in the morning thinking, “I hope I have a really miserable day”… Yet, without choice, we often do have a miserable day. This is because happiness is just not going to happen if we are not peaceful inside, regardless of which external source we turn to. Happiness comes from the inside out. We’ve got that backwards at the moment. We’ve tried it from the outside in for a very long time – months, years, decades, possibly half a century or more. And we’ll go on like this until we realize that happiness is not coming from there. That we won’t find happiness out there because happiness is a state of mind and it depends on inner peace, peace of mind. And, in fact, there is nothing out there!

A clearly defined path to peace and happiness

happiness comes from withinMeditation redresses this issue. The Western word “happiness” comes from the Icelandic word “luck”. We are happy by chance, when things suddenly go our way or we receive a windfall; and then something goes wrong and we are randomly unhappy again. But according to Buddhism, by contrast, there’s a clearly defined path to happiness, and this involves training in improving our peaceful and positive minds.

Over to you: In the comments, let us know if you have managed to find a real external source of happiness, so we can all go out and buy one …

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