How to keep a peaceful mind

 

9 mins read

This happens to be Article #500 on Kadampa Life! Thanks for sticking with me these last 10 years.

Although things are falling about around our ears, we nonetheless have the opportunity right now to discover deep peace. Although times are degenerating in general, for us individually this is said to be a golden age for spiritual practice because we have everything we need. Moreover, as Shantideva says:

Suffering has good qualities.

The more suffering we have, the more we have to practice with, and the stronger our mind becomes. Eventually it becomes like a blacksmith’s anvil that, no matter how hard it is hit, remains unaffected.

I know, I know, this is easier said than done. (We just got COVID in da house, here, for example, and the daily news headlines seem to get more and more dire with each passing week — in fact I’m wondering whether to just get my news from The Onion or the late night comedians so I can at least laugh grimly.) But we gotta do it because the option, to remain a hapless victim of samsara, is not feasible.

Carrying on from this article, Dealing with fears

Fact is, all of us want to be happy all the time. It is our driving force, along with the wish to avoid even the slightest suffering.

We know that human beings want to be happy because we are one. But it’s not just us … the other day I saw hundreds of small fish in a lake, and all of them wanted to be happy too. When my shadow fell on the water, they swam away in fear. All they want is to eat and swim around with their friends and be safe, they don’t want to be eaten, chased, or impaled any more than we do.

Make a fish’s life meaningful …

There is nothing wrong at all with the wish to be happy all the time and avoid all pain and suffering; but if we want to fulfill these wishes we have to learn to master our minds. I don’t see any other way working, do you?

If we can learn gradually to prioritize a pure and peaceful mind over (or during) external striving, we can learn to stay happy even when bad things happen, and even when we are seriously ill and dying … imagine having that superpower! I have met and heard about plenty of people who can do this, including a number of practitioners who have died so far, such as Tessa and Mimi; and there are legions of inspiring stories in the scriptures.

Neither man nor woman …

I asked my eye doctor Dr. Kumara last week how I could stop my retina from getting thinner, and he replied that neither man nor woman has the power to stop ageing no matter how much they want to or how much kale they eat. He then explained the second law of thermodynamics. He is not a very ordinary dude.

Quick segue into divine synchronicities … My eye went wrong when I happened to be doing a one-week Dorje Shugden retreat, including requesting favorable conditions and the removal of obstacles, LOL. When my optometrist referred me to a specialist, the receptionist said: “Welcome to our five retina locations. It just so happens you will be seeing the principal.” (Dorje Shugden is the principal Buddha of five retinues for those of you wondering.) Upon meeting him, Dr. Kumara asked what I did, and then declared, “Meditation has never been more needed! You have never been more needed.” Just before he operated, he gave me a vajra instruction: “I need you to call upon the deepest reserves of your meditative experience while I do this operation on your eye.” His going home advice was, “I only want you to do one thing this week: meditate.” As you might imagine, the operation was a success. When I saw him again last week, he told me, “I was having a very good day when I fixed your eye.”

Sooner or later bodies and everything else entropies and falls apart because this is samsara, but if we learn to prioritize a peaceful mind in our daily lives it doesn’t matter nearly as much. In fact the more problems we have, the more opportunities we have to practice and the more quickly we make progress. The alternative, not to rely on a peaceful mind, is hopeless, leading to more suffering now and in the future.

How to have a happy life

Simply put, Geshe Kelsang advised in the Kadampa Festival in Brazil that (1) Everyone wants to be happy all the time. (2) If our mind is happy, we are happy, even if we are sick. (3) To have a happy mind all the time, we need a peaceful mind. (4) To develop and maintain a peaceful mind, we need two things: to tune into blessings and to practice Dharma. 

1. Got blessings?

So one of the two ways to get a peaceful mind, according to Geshe-la, is through blessings. Anyone can get these whenever they tune in with faith and prayer to any enlightened being they like, believing they are there and asking for their help and protection — for example, Buddha of fearlessness, Tara, or Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara, or Buddha Shakyamuni, or Medicine Buddha, or a holy being from another tradition such as Jesus if you’re not a Buddhist.

Enlightened beings are always beaming their blessings — their blessings actually pervade space – but we’re like someone in a heavy suit of self-grasping armor, feeling all alone and cut off. We need to learn to lift that visor a little bit, let the light in.

The fully developed minds of enlightened beings are universal love and omniscient wisdom mixed with the true nature of all things – so they are everywhere, we simply need to tune in. We can feel their blessings flow into us, the nature of deep protective love and peace, and our mind lifts, becomes happier, is transported to a better place. We see the light! We are in effect mixing our minds with their minds, as explained more in this good guest article on blessings, and it works very well, we often get instant relief. Our anxiety or unhappiness feels far more manageable and may even go away entirely.

Here’s a great habit to get into: as soon as we notice the grip of anxiety or dread starting to tighten around our heart, stop what we are doing and tune into enlightened minds before the anxiety takes over our mind (at which point we normally have little choice but to wait it out.) One quick and effective way to get blessings from Buddha, day or night, is to use the Liberating Prayer. We can also do this traditional refuge prayer:

I and all sentient beings, until we attain enlightenment,
Go for refuge to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

Here is a short simple way to rely on Buddha Tara. Or we can just talk to holy beings in our own words, they’re listening. Their nature is that they have no choice but to respond instantly and spontaneously to our requests. Our only real job is to be open to their help.

Faith grows over time as we focus on the good qualities of enlightened beings. If we experiment with tuning into blessings, we notice we feel better, so our faith grows. Then we get more blessings and feel even better, so our faith grows more.

2. Apply Dharma

The other way to get a peaceful mind is to apply Buddha’s teachings, called Dharma, which pacify our self-cherishing and other delusions and transform our thoughts into compassion, wisdom, and other positive peaceful states. As Venerable Geshe-la says:

The purpose of meditation is to make the mind calm and peaceful. If our mind is peaceful, we will be free from worries and mental discomfort, and so we will experience true happiness. ~ How to Transform Your Life

BTW, meditation doesn’t mean just sitting on our cushion or chair with our eyes closed, but familiarizing ourselves with these peaceful thoughts during all our daily activities, identifying with them more and more.

Every Dharma mind is an effective antidote to some unpeaceful mind. For example, putting others first is an antidote to self-cherishing. Seeing everything as mere name, being less closely involved in the external situation, is an antidote to self-grasping. Renunciation with clear-sighted acceptance that we can’t expect everything to go our way all the time, at least not until we have permanent mental freedom, is an antidote to aversion and anxiety, and it makes our mind stable. Whatever Dharma we use, it has the effect of allowing our naturally peaceful mind to re-emerge and therefore stay happy.

As we get more and more used to turning to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, we find we go there naturally when we are feeling scared or sad. Receiving blessings and getting used to relying on Dharma minds, we get better and better at staying peaceful, whatever else is going on. This really is the essence of spiritual practice, fulfilling our wishes to be happy and free.

So, are we “relying upon a happy mind alone” as the great Kadampa saying goes, or are we panicking the moment something doesn’t go our way?! If we are training in keeping a pure and peaceful mind, we have no basis for worry. There are countless people who have pulled this off, and you are next in line. 

And talking of fish … It’s bad enough being a human being in the age of COVID, I was thinking, but being a fish has always sucked. And what chance do they have to keep a peaceful mind and/or get enlightened if I as a relatively free and fortunate human am not even making the effort?

To conclude … all of Buddhist spiritual practice is designed to fulfill our wishes to be happy and not suffer. And as we become stronger and more peaceful, we naturally want to help others to be the same, to share what we know. Knowing from our own experience that suffering sucks, we don’t want others to suffer either. One day we decide to strive for enlightenment so that we can bring blessings and peace to each and every living being every day. Then, whether we are healthy or sick, in this body or the next, that is our priority, our actual path, and our mind and life really start to go new places.

Over to you! Please share ways in which you have been able to keep a peaceful mind even when ill, it would be so helpful.

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Dealing with fears

8.5 mins read.

There’s a lot of anxiety, fear, and sadness going around this year. It is arguably leading to people feeling fragile and on a shorter fuse, more upset and angry than usual with each other and with everything that seems to be going on in our world. If we check where a lot of this is coming from, it comes because deep down most people are scared not just of losing the way of life they’ve known but of dying.

For this reason, to get rid of the underlying fear, it is really important that we don’t shy away from contemplating what is inevitable for all of us. That we come to terms with it, come to accept it, and even come to welcome it! After all, there is no getting around it. As Buddha says in Sutra Addressed to a King:

Ageing is like an immovable mountain. 
Decay is like an immoveable mountain.
Sickness is like an immoveable mountain.
Death is like an immoveable mountain.

Many people hold off thinking about things like serious illness, ageing, and death for as long as possible because they don’t know how to deal with them — they just seem catastrophic, terrifying. Like when the Doctor tells you or a loved one some test results, “I’m afraid it is not good news,” and our heart sinks — we just want to run away, even though there is nowhere to run to. However, we can face whatever happens not alone and scared but within the context of refuge – feeling safe, protected, okay. Also, if we can accept death, we find we can far more easily accept all the other things that go wrong with our lives.

We are all mortals made of flesh and bone, and the purpose of contemplating the mortal facts of sickness, ageing, death, and rebirth every day is not to paralyze us but to give rise to deep refuge in what will actually help us – and not just when these things happen, but now, straightaway. This includes, as we’ll see more in the next article, tuning into the blessings or protection of countless enlightened beings that are always on tap, and making an effort to apply the Dharma teachings that enable us to stay peaceful regardless of what is going on. With these we can stay happy in the present, and we are also ready for the illness and death when they come. We become fearless.

There is nothing to fear but fear itself, as the saying goes. And it turns out that our fear and anxiety, along with all our other unpeaceful thoughts, are delusions arising from grasping at something that is not there, such as a real body, or a real self, or a self that is more important than everyone else. Our fears are directly proportional to how tightly we are grasping. Luckily we can all learn to let go of these thoughts, to stop grasping. And it is helpful to remember that our mind is naturally peaceful, we are just shaking it up with our own inappropriate thoughts.

Getting started

We can start to relax straightaway through a few minutes breathing exercize or clarity of mind or turning the mind to wood. As Geshe Kelsang says:

So much of the stress and tension we normally experience comes from our mind, and many of the problems we experience, including ill health, are caused or aggravated by this stress. Just by doing breathing meditation for ten or fifteen minutes each day, we will be able to reduce this stress.

A lot of our ill health is enormously exacerbated – sometimes even brought on — by anxiety and tension in the mind. Therefore it would be great to start practicing these simple strategies now on a daily basis because they will be very healing. Then, through using wisdom and compassion to get rid of our grasping once and for all, we will become free from all sickness permanently.

Inner and outer problems

With our world in turmoil and anxiety, we have to learn how to keep our mind peaceful and calm. If we are peaceful, we are happy. We are also strong, which means we can help others stay strong too.

If we understand the difference between inner and outer problems we can understand why being able to keep a peaceful mind is the actual solution when things are going wrong. A quick reminder: if our car breaks down, that is an outer problem belonging to the car. It can be fixed (or not) depending on outer means, such as taking it to the garage, and it can be fixed by other people.

If we get upset that the car has broken down, that is an inner problem, an unpleasant feeling in our own mind. This is what makes us unhappy and is therefore our actual problem. It can ONLY be fixed by internal means, and by ourself.

It is never too late to start controlling our own mind – on one level it is not hard, it just takes a decision to get started, to make it a priority.

Dharma solves inner problems, that is its actual function. And on one level the solution to these problems is so very simple. If we let go of self-cherishing (believing we are more important than others) and self-grasping (believing everything is real, existing from its own side), the whole house of cards will come tumbling down. If we do not, then even if we manage to get over one fear or upset, this is a temporary relief – another is already on its way. It’s endless, life after life.

Being trapped in so-called samsara, the cycle of impure life, is not being trapped in an external prison – it simply means that we still have self-cherishing and self-grasping. If we learn how we are creating this prison, we can dismantle it. It is useful to let our daily problems remind us not that we are doomed, but instead:

Man, this health/financial/political/relationship problem is really showing me how much self-cherishing and self-grasping suck! Luckily they are just ignorant thoughts, bubbles arising from the ocean of my root mind. Therefore, I’m going to learn to stop thinking them and get used to not thinking them. And then help others to do the same.

Rinse and repeat. This way, it’s like our run of the mill outer and inner problems are giving us practice in getting rid of all of our problems once and for all!

Can we be ill and happy at the same time?!

But surely being ill is an inner problem? you may be thinking. No. It is our body’s problem, not our mind’s problem. We can include bodily ailments within outer problems. We believe our feelings of pain are coming from our body, but our body is inanimate and doesn’t feel anything. The pain is our bodily awareness, which pervades our body, but which is part of our mind. And the painful bodily feelings arise only because we have self-grasping ignorance, believing our body is inherently existent. If we get a direct realization of emptiness, we never feel any physical (or mental) pain again. Meantime, we can also have unpleasant bodily feelings while at the same time having peaceful mental feelings, such as compassion or renunciation.

Soooo…  if we make a point of stopping self-cherishing and self-grasping with respect to our body, we will be able to stay increasingly pain-free and happy even when we’re getting older, sicker, and deader. And how important is that!!

I’ve had some practice with this of late — for example my lungs got a bit infected by all the wildfire smoke and I had to have laser surgery for a torn retina – and this fear (aargh, I have lung cancer and I’m going blind!) and loathing (why did this happen to me!? I was so happy before! I don’t like it!) has given me ample incentive to contemplate that my body is not my mind, and nor is it me. It is just a possession I use, like my car or my carrot peeler. It is inanimate. Plus it is not inherently existent. (Despite numerous contemplations on the subject over the years, I think I was still kinda hoping I might get away with not having to go through all that aging and sickness stuff, just drop dead one day and go to the Pure Land. Been having to rethink my strategy 😂).

At times when things go wrong with my body, I naturally turn to think of practitioners who are really good at transforming sickness and creeping fears; and there is actually no shortage of inspiration. Lhatse Geshe visited us at Madhyamaka Centre many years ago, possibly the happiest most fun-loving person in the world. He came for a week and stayed 3 months, and we never knew till after he’d left that he’d had migraines almost every day. (He and I stayed in touch for years, and a long time later he also had an awesome death — I’ll tell you that story another day.)

One senior Kadampa nun I know has experienced painful and debilitating arthritis for years, but she is always genuinely smiling and kind. The other day someone asked her how she was and she replied:

I am fine. I am not a sick person. I just have a body that is problematical.

I find this really helpful to contemplate.

Another 40-something Kadampa has recently come through cancer but she told me that she’d happily do it all again if it meant COVID would go away for everyone else. Shows how much authentic compassion she developed in the course of her illness and treatment.

A good friend with a degenerative illness replied to me the other day:

My physical health is getting worse. My spiritual practice is getting better.

Another friend told me that if he hadn’t suffered from so much ill health, he would never have turned so much to Dharma or led such a good and basically happy life, so he doesn’t regret any of it (even the operations where there was no anaesthesia ….) What about Harriet Tubman, still running the equivalent of five marathons to save people from slavery despite the horrendous headaches that would have floored less inspired people?

And something for the Tantric practitioners amongst you … You know those car stickers you see on old bangers, “My other car is a Mercedes?” I remember conversations with my ancient friend Eileen, who suffered sickness and old age for years, when she would say,

This meaty body is not my real body. My other body is a Deity body.

Which brings me to my Mom, too. She’s had a lot of serious health challenges in her life, but manages most all of the time to stay peaceful and keep enjoying life. If she isn’t happy she isn’t one to complain, she generally just waits patiently for it to pass. This is because she can be rather wise. The other day she was saying that our body is a thing, it is not us. It is a tool or an instrument that we use. Our mind is more important. She told me she makes an effort to think about things that are “important”, not to worry about small things. The main thing is to keep our mind peaceful and happy, not to worry about all the external things that we can do nothing about, which is pointless because we can do nothing about them. That includes all the things that can go wrong with our problematical body and, as she said, hers has been that.

There is literally no point following the inappropriate attention of anxiety or fear when it comes to our body. We don’t freak out (much) when the car is dented, we just take it to the garage. In a similar way, we can learn to patiently accept whatever is coming up with the body while taking it to the doctor.

Kadampa Geshes would pray to have a mind like a blacksmith’s anvil, undaunted however hard it is hit. Sounds good to me! Shortly after Venerable Geshe Kelsang came over to the West to help us, in the early 1980s, he developed tuberculosis and almost passed away. After he had recovered, I remember his doctor telling us that he saw absolutely no difference in Geshe-la’s way of being when he was well and when he was gravely ill. He said you couldn’t tell he was ill.

More coming up soon. Meantime, over to you! In particular, do you have any helpful experiences to share on transforming bodily ailments or physical pain in particular?

Before you go … I really recommend the International Kadampa Fall Festival that started on Friday (and is available for a couple of weeks)– for one thing Gen-la Dekyong just gave a beautiful commentary on inner and outer problems and what actually is physical pain, based on Venerable Geshe-la’s Medicine Buddha teachings in New York in 2006. Simply stunning. As was the empowerment today. Still plenty of time to tune in.