Want to banish stress?

I am on the road again, this time to Glasgow. The tube was delayed into Heathrow by some undisclosed incident on the tracks, and after 10 minutes a young boy started to stress 1whimper, “We’re going to miss our plane!” His patient mother explained several times why they still had plenty of time, and when that didn’t work she told him firmly, “You will have to learn how to cope with stress if you are going to survive life.” And then his dad added, “There is nothing we can do so we just have to accept this; stop worrying.” Advice to live by. Not that their son seemed too convinced at the time.

I have just overheard in this busy terminal, in short order, a man confiding into his phone, “Today has been a disaster so far and I’m on holiday so that makes it even more annoying.” And then a woman into her phone, “Everyone here is having a hard day as far as I can see.”

And it is not just here, of course, that everyone’s having a hard day. Today’s headlines out of Charlottesville, Virginia indicate the vicious and stupid racism that is still alive and well in America, for example. Plus, is anyone else around here wondering whether humankind is about to atomized, with all this adolescent tension between the US and North Korea? A friend said yesterday that we may as well not worry about the chaotic fumbling disaster that is Brexit because at this rate we won’t be around long enough for it to happen.

She kind of had a point. When we remember we will be dying before too long — let alone our countless past and future lives and all the big sufferings we have experienced and yet have to experience in samsara — it interestingly gets all our other problems into perspective. The individual details of samsara don’t have the power to crowd our mind, to overwhelm us, when we are focused on the big picture. We have the space and mental peaceful mind quotecontrol to develop renunciation (the determination to get permanently free) and bodhichitta (the determination to get everyone permanently free) instead.

But first things first. As indicated in this last article on how to overcome anxiety, we could all do with learning to relax as a matter of priority, which we can do using a breathing meditation that gives us the peace of mind to reboot and cope.

It is not selfish to take the time to do this, for how are we going to sort out this world if we cannot sort out ourselves? I thought I’d “guide” a simple but effective meditation here so you have something to do next time you’re trapped on a hot tube with anxious travelers or experiencing heart palpitations from headlines like, “North Korea’s nuclear threat is real and terrifying”.

We will all be Buddhas one day

Breathing meditation is all the rage these days. But have you ever wondered why a simple meditation on our breath has the power to make us feel so much better? After all, we are breathing all the time. I think it proves that our mind is naturally peaceful, and that to access this peaceful mind we simply need to stop churning it up with uncontrolled thoughts (which are like a speedboat churning up the deep water of a still Scottish loch). We don’t need to add peace to our minds, for we already have it going on inside.

IMG_1389.jpg

It is quite profound, really. When we do the following meditation, we get a glimpse of our Buddha nature, our infinite depth – our natural inner peace that is full of the seeds of universal love and compassion, omniscient wisdom, everlasting peace, and the ability to help everyone. It is like an indestructible gold nugget hiding out in the muck of our delusions.

If we want the incredible inspiration required to keep going day after day in our pursuit of freeing the world of suffering, we must always relate to this fundamental purity in both ourselves and others, looking past our delusions to see the future Buddhas within. The alternative is to go around feeling moreorless bad about ourselves and everyone else, too demoralized to do much about all these complications we see everywhere. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says in the free Buddhist e-book How to Transform Your Life:

Unlike the seeds of our delusions, which can be destroyed, this potential is utterly indestructible and is the pure, essential nature of every living being … Recognizing everyone as a future Buddha, out of love and compassion we will naturally help and encourage this potential to ripen.

And we can do this happily and without getting so exhausted. I think we have to clear the muck aside, at least for a moment, by doing some meditation every day, or we will inevitably forget about our own and others’ gold nuggets and simply remain part of the problem/muck. So, here goes.IMG_1391

15-minute peace meditation

First get into a good meditation posture with a straight but relaxed back, level shoulders, and head tilted a little forward. Your mouth and eyes are lightly closed or, if you prefer, your eyes can be slightly open. Take a moment to settle into this posture and forget about everything else.

Feel contented to be here doing this — accessing your potential for limitless peace and the ability to help others in this troubled world — and determined to concentrate as best you can.

Spend a couple of minutes doing some simple breathing meditation, focusing on the sensation of your breath as it enters and leaves through your nostrils. Tune into this, disregarding all static distractions.

As a result of your mind settling a little in this way, feel that you drop from your head into your heart – your spiritual heart or heart chakra right in the center of your chest. Feel already some space opening up, some peace. Feel as though your wave-like problems and distractions have dissolved away into the boundless ocean of clarity at your heart; just imagine.

Now, to become even more absorbed, think that everything outside your body disappears, melts into light in all directions. There is nothing out there to think about.

Now this light gathers into you, leaving behind only empty space, like a mist lifting, until all that remains is your body suspended in empty space.

Also everything up until this moment melts into light and disappears. The past evaporates like last night’s dream, for it is no more substantial than that.

And everything after this moment also melts into light and disappears. There is no future other than our thoughts about it, so let these go.

In this way, you are still and quiet, in your heart, in the present moment. There is only here and now. You are fully present, fully alive.

Now feel all the tension and weight fall away from your body. As it falls away, all your muscles relax and your body melts into light. Your body is hollow and translucent, as if you could pass your hand right through it without resistance. You think, “My body is as light as air, as if I am floating or flying.”

IMG_1368Then, “My body is like a rainbow body and my mind is like clear light.” Just imagine.

Now, still in your heart, imagine any problems you’re having — physical, emotional, mental, political, relationship, money problems etc. — appearing as heavy smoke or clouds. All unpleasant feelings and unhappy thoughts take form.

Think, “These are just thoughts and feelings, nothing more, nothing less. I don’t need to think them. I don’t need to identify with them. I can let them go.”

As you exhale through your nostrils, let them go. They disappear completely, never to arise again. You are breathing away your problems — with every breath your mind becoming purer and calmer. Concentrate on this for a couple of minutes and, if a distraction arises, breathe that out as well.

For the last few out-breaths, breathe out the last of the thick smoke.

Then, as you breathe in, imagine that your breath is in the aspect of blissful light. Ride this light into your heart, where it joins the inner light of your Buddha nature. Feel happier and lighter with every breath. Do this for a few minutes.

Now focus on this peaceful clarity at your heart, like a clear sky, infinitely spacious.

You can think, “This peace, however relative or slight, is the natural peace of my own mind. This peace is always in my mind. It indicates my potential for deep lasting happiness. There is plenty more where it came from. It is my Buddha nature. It is who I really am.” And feel happy about all that.

This peace is also not separate from the peace of enlightenment. Knowing this, you receive blessings

Allow yourself to abide with this peace, to enjoy it, thinking, “This is me. I don’t have a care in the world.”

Then you can think, “How wonderful it would be if everyone felt this peaceful and free, or for that matter completely peaceful and free.” With compassion, you can spend some time getting ready for the day ahead. Who are you going IMG_1392to meet? How do you want to relate to them? I usually request some inner guidance at this point from Buddha in my heart, so I have the opportunities and skill to help people in the best possible way that day. It usually seems to work.

It is now safe to go out 😁

I hope this helps. You can find more advice on breathing meditation in these articles

Did you enjoy this meditation?! How did you get on?

(ps, pictures are of Inchmurrin Island on Loch Lomond, where KMC Glasgow holds regular meditation retreats.)

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Doing meditation retreat

divingJanuary is just around the corner – which means for a lot of lucky people that they get to do extra meditation because this is traditional retreat month in the Kadampa Buddhist tradition.

So, I thought I’d say something about retreat in the hope that some of you can do some. I know a lot of you, probably most, have to work and are not able to take a month or even a week off for retreat; so this article is also a bit of encouragement simply to get meditating in general ☺️

On retreat we stop all forms of business and extraneous activities so as to emphasize a particular spiritual practice. ~ New Guide to Dakini Land 

Starting several decades ago, when Geshe Kelsang first came to the West in 1977, up to six weeks each year have been put aside in the larger Kadampa centers for retreat. I personally benefited from this for many years, when I lived at Madhyamaka Centre and everything closed down for retreat. Sometimes we were even snowed in = bliss. We didn’t have Facebook back then to lure us away from thinking deep thoughts – heck, we didn’t even have the Internet. I count myself lucky that I didn’t need any will power whatsoever back then to turn all the gadgets off.the-internet

And I can honestly say that I have never gotten bored in retreat. Quite the opposite. It is those mindless habits of wanting or expecting endless distraction that really bore me. I tend also to have fewer delusions on retreat – and delusions are pretty tedious.

These January retreats engendered in me a love for using this bleak mid-winter time to go deep — to dive below the surface of the crazy ocean waves of samsaric suffering & overly complicated conceptual thoughts into clarity and bliss, into Lamrim and Tantra. They are the best possible way to start the new year, and my hands down favorite times.

We could all aim to do a few extra good deep meditations at home this month to get some control over these mad, mad times and set 2017 up in the way we’d like it to continue… how’s that for a new year’s resolution?

And if you haven’t learned to meditate at all yet, now could be a really great time to start 😊

2016

If ever there was a good time to get some perspective and space from all the craziness, the beginning of 2017 would seem to be it. Still four days of the strange 2016 to go, and the last two days alone have brought us the deaths of George Michael and Carrie Fisher (and just now her mother, Debbie Reynolds). Closer to home, this year, we lost Patti, Tessa, and Mimi.

This is all skirting dangerously close now to the one-by-one steady dropping off of everyone in my generation. Soon, not a person I grew up with will be left. And it is certain that I am no longer going to die young.

Plus, the number of celebrity and personally-known deaths of course barely scratches the surface of the millions of other deaths in the last few days, let alone in the last year. (An average of 55.3 million humans and untold billions of animals and others.) Any illusion we may be under that we are long-term residents of this world is just that, an illusion. We’re here on a month-by-month rental with nary a day’s notice.

Making the most of our precious time

george-michael-leaving-his-home-in-north-london-britain-17-oct-2012Our most valuable and rare possession is our precious human life, but we don’t have a whole lot of time left with it. All we have to look forward to, really, is spiritual realizations, insofar as everything else is dust in the wind. And to gain these realizations – actualizing our full potential and bringing about an end to suffering — we need time.

And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate
Hanging on to hope
When there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late
So maybe we should all be praying for time. ~ George Michael

To have time, we need to MAKE time.

This is what going deeper into our center, our spiritual heart, as explained here for example, can do for us – it can make us more time. It gives us a certain sense of timelessness in fact. Identifying with our pure inexhaustible potential instead of with our annoying off-kilter delusions makes us feel far more alive and present, and so time slows down. We might even feel for a change that we have all the time in the world.

I hear a lot of people, including me, complaining that life is too busy – and ordinarily it can feel that way; but I think that a lot of that feeling of busyness comes not from all that we have to get done but from not having sufficient mindfulness and concentration. These qualities, which improve on retreat, give us all the time, space, and freedom from surplus worrying thoughts we need to do what needs to be done.

We are none of us strangers to suffering, but Dharma gives us the ability to break free, and retreat gives us the opportunity to spend more time in Dharma. What’s not to love about spending several hours each day in freedom and happiness?! Even with poor concentration, we are generally more peaceful on retreat than in our ordinary fast-paced, externalized lives. We can become ridiculously happy.

dream-like-elephantIt’s very relaxing not to buy into the hallucinations of the gross mind for a while — to let these fevered imaginings die down, stop taking them quite so seriously. Meditation gives us the chance to see them for what they are and to let them go so we can enjoy the peace and bliss of our own mind in deep rest. I have yet to find anything more relaxing than giving up on trying to find this peace and bliss in objects of attachment or in getting one over my enemies.

Even one breathing meditation allows us to stop shaking our mind and discover that an unshaken mind is naturally peaceful. A whole week or month of doing this gives us invaluable insight and confidence.

I also think that when we meditate a lot our lives start to flow – we are not so much living second-hand through Facebook or the news or Netflix, trying to get our thrills vicariously, or even in the made up narratives of our own lives, the product solely of our conceptual thoughts. We start to abide in the reality of wisdom and compassion, our true nature, and freedomeverything flows naturally from there.

Silence is golden

Whether in retreat doing the traditional four meditation sessions a day, or in the space of our own house once a day or so during January, we can let go of the demands of our daily life and reconnect to the stillness within ourselves. We can be quiet, for a change, verbally and mentally. As it mentions here, and I’ll now loosely quote:

“Silence is powerful. It creates space in our mind and fundamentally changes the way we connect with the teachings and meditations. Observing silence is a powerful method to disengage us from busyness, and it leads us naturally to deeper levels of being. Our heart begins to open and we feel the blessings of all Buddhas pouring into and filling our mind.

Through deepening our experience of meditation we can take our spiritual practice up to the next level (and this will keep us going in the following months when we are back at work.) By integrating this meditative experience into our daily activities we will improve the quality of our life and bring happiness to our family and friends.”

I think diving deep below the froth of the ocean waves is also an incredibly important way to identify with our pure potential and disengage from endless feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy, and lack of control that come from identifying with a limited, painful self. We need self-confidence during these difficult times if we are to be of any help to anyone. We don’t need discouragement.

Who am I?

In each of the stages of the path (Lamrim) meditations, therefore, we can get into the habit of identifying with our Buddha nature and the result of that meditation, asking each time, “Who am I?” For example, instead of “I am angry”, “I am lonely”, “I am hurt”, “I am useless at this”, etc., we can think, “I am someone with a precious human life”, “I am someone who is on their way out from this prison of samsara”, “I am someone who has compassion for everyone”, etc.

In this way we can enter the Pure Land of Lamrim, enjoying ourselves each day with these beautiful minds, getting in the habit of identifying with them so much that we can then keep doing that the whole rest of the year.

Blessed monthheruka-vajrayogini

January is also Heruka and Vajrayogini month. Again, even if our concentration is not brilliant yet, there are a lot of blessings flying around this month, so we may as well tune in the radio receiver of faith as often as we can.

Check out this recent Onion article if you get a moment, ‘I Can’t Do This Anymore,’ Think 320 Million Americans Quietly Going About Day. Spoof though it is, it still shows how we can all fall prey to humdrum mediocrity, even when things are not going particularly wrong in our lives; and how mediocrity doesn’t make us happy. If you have a chance to do some Tantric retreat, this immersion can be a swift way to transform these ordinary conceptions and appearances into an experience of great bliss and emptiness, transforming your world into the real Pure Land of the Dakinis.

(All this makes me think it should be called “Advance”, really, not “Retreat”.)

One day at a time

I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier
I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist
Like it doesn’t exist ~ Sia

Some of my best advice on doing retreat is to take one day at a time – once you’re in retreat you put up so-called “retreat boundaries” of body, speech, and mind, which basically means you’re not thinking of anything outside of the retreat; so there is in fact no need to plan. (And there is never any need to wallow in nostalgia). This means you have a good shot at living in the moment, remembering that today is your first and possibly also your last day. This is really quite unbelievably relaxing.

Practical plan

kailashIf you have lots of time, you could think about booking into one of the big residential KMCs such as KMC Manjushri or KMC New York, or into an other-worldly retreat center such as Kailash in Switzerland.  These offer incredibly special retreat programs with experienced meditation leaders that “address the needs of anyone wishing to deepen their experience of Kadam Dharma in modern day times.”

If you have medium amounts of time — say a day here or there, or a few days, or a week — check out this link for retreats near you, including in Denver, where I live.

If you can’t take any whole days off, you could think about using January to get along to some inspiring meditation classes and establish a good meditation habit for 2017. Check out this link for meditation classes in your area.

Over to you. Do you have any encouragement to share from retreats you may have done in the past?

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How to feel less busy all the time

This continues directly from this article.

busy 1Time off?!

Also, if you actually itemize what many frenetically “busy” people do every week, my bet would be that they (we, you) have far more leisure time than they think, it is just that instead of using the time to unwind and recharge they just fill it up with more stuff and distractions, eg, surfing the internet, driving places, organized leisure activities, computer games, Netflix. Having fun on the outside, perhaps, but feeling preoccupied on the inside. So leisure time feels busy too.

Flying recently, the moment we touched down almost every single person on that plane grabbed their phone. That withdrawal and addiction – it’s a bit like smoking, only smoking has been banned from public places whereas everyone can indulge their addiction for digital data. Scratching that itch – where is the happiness in that? We can’t live like that. Here’s an experiment: how long can you last without wanting to pick up your smartphone?! (I am talking to myself here.)

So technology, for all its uses, has not helped in this regard. The fleeting world is always-on — texts, tweets, emails, and status updates. (Also, on another subject, we are not really “connected” — we are isolated because we have no time to think deeply about each other or reality.) Now of course you can even get an Apple Watch that gives your wrist a little electric shock to announce all the wildly exciting alerts that cannot wait, even if you are actually trying to have an interesting conversation with someone. (It’s a bit like when servers interrupt deep, meaningful conversations at restaurants to ask if everything is ok?! Is it just me who gets bugged by that?!) That watch sounds like torture to me. Apparently the average video etc screen also changes every 7 to 11 seconds – now how does that not constitute over-stimulation?! There may be excitement in it, perhaps, but there is no real happiness if there is no real peace.busy 4

Froth and sparkles

Peace comes from concentration, being able to stay on one object. Single-tasking, not multi-tasking. If we are identifying entirely with the froth and sparkles on top of the ocean, oblivious to the vast stillness and peace beneath, there is not much peace in that.

I reckon we have plenty of time to meditate and get in touch with who we are, really, if we want to. Certainly enough time. Is there anyone who absolutely cannot find 20 minutes a day to meditate? Although we may complain at first that it is just another pressure on our to-do list, the reality is that it will open up the space and time we need for the rest of our day. The time to meditate is when you don’t have time for it.

In this way, we’ll have more freedom. Otherwise we are a bit like mindless automatons — the opposite of meditators. (What do you do first thing in the morning – reach for Facebook or absorb into your heart chakra?!) I read a study recently about what happened when people lost their iPhone – out of 100 people, 73 experienced panic, 8 experienced physical sickness, 7 felt nervous, and only 7 were cool with it.

“But I’m too busy to meditate!”

And, as mentioned, I would argue that we are not necessarily doing more, or getting more things done, not in the grand scheme of things — but just feeling busier. My teacher Geshe Kelsang, for example, has thousands of centers and students and a universal feeling of responsibility for others — if anyone has a right to feel under pressure, busy, or overextended it is him, but he is the most spacious, blissful, relaxed person you’ll ever meet.

Busy BusinessmanSo if we learn to increase our inner space and peace we can have a life full of things we want to do, but we don’t have to feel so busy, as if there’s never enough time, as if there’s always something else that needs doing, as if we’re running behind the bus. We don’t need that feeling. The feeling of being overwhelmed by all the things we need to do comes from uncontrolled thoughts, a bit like a dog with a bone, not able to stay in the moment and abide in space while still getting things done. We are not able to let go of distractions and enjoy a feeling of peace, the natural peace of our own settled mind. More than anything else, we need relief from the time pressure by setting aside time to meditate to access that peace. Not being too busy to take the medicine! The objection “But I am too busy to meditate!” is precisely why we need to meditate.

If you are new to meditation it is good to keep it short and sweet – 5, 10, or 15 minutes. Our mind is like an out of control elephant! (that’s what Buddha said). The mind is the most powerful force in the universe – for destruction or creativity. If we have no control over it, we have no control over our lives. When people start meditating they can often only manage about 3 minutes before they even forget they’re supposed to be meditating – so don’t worry if you feel like that, I wish I had a dollar for every time some says, “I am too distracted to meditate!” It gets better quickly, but you have to want to do it. For example, you manage to concentrate on your driving for considerably more than 3 minutes, presumably as you want to stay alive. You don’t text when you drive.

“You’re not that busy.”

Another tip for not feeling so overwhelmingly busy is to stop insisting to ourself that we’re overwhelmingly busy, because the truth is that we are all much less busy than we think we are. We can say to ourselves instead, “You’re not that busy”, or even “I have lots of time”, and then calmly do one thing after another. Living in the moment gives us all the time we need.swimming in bathtub

Swimming in a bathtub

Someone the other day put a good analogy on Facebook (that fount of all knowledge!) of swimming in the bathtub — splashing around hurting our limbs, and not really getting anywhere. Whereas the same strokes in a vast ocean feel blissful and expansive. So we can do the same daily activities either in the bathtub or in the ocean of the clarity and stillness of our own peaceful mind.

In meditation, we can relax into the natural rhythm of the breath. We can experience a moment by moment presence of mind, or mindfulness. We can get in touch with the present moment by getting in touch with the clarity and peace of our own mind. So we can rest our mind in meditation, and then bring that peace with us into daily life. We don’t forget about it but keep tuning into it, and everything becomes lighter, easier, and less frantic.

Comments welcome! (If you have time.)

Are you busy?

“How are you?” I just asked someone. And she answered with a pained expression, “Busy!!!” “What are you up to?” I continued, and she replied that she had loads on at work and was also trying to organize her wedding, which was stressing her out. “I am too attached to the perfect wedding,” she said.

So often these days people reply, “I’m so busy!”. “Busy” seems to be the new “fine”. How often do you hear yourself saying things like this about your life: “hectic,” “whirlwind,” “consumed,” “crazy,” “it’s hard to keep up with it all,” “on the run,” “way too fast”? because apparently those words and expressions are on the rise. People are saying we have an epidemic of busy-ness in modern society.

busy 2
Four-armed …. ?!

But is it the case that we have so much more to do than in previous generations, or do we simply FEEL crazy busy because we cannot focus on one thing at a time, everything bleeds into everything else, and we cannot control our busy thoughts? Concentration and mindfulness actually make us feel peaceful, as if we have all the time in the world. So I wonder if we are in a concentration and mindfulness deficit rather than a deficit of time. I spoke to that friend again an hour later, after she’d done a meditation class, and she was smiling and chilled, thoughts of weddings and work pressures no longer overwhelming her.

Time for meditation 

Before we get started on the subject, let’s pause to relax, settle, and rest the mind by doing a short meditation to control our crazy mind and let go of the feelings of busyness.

We can first settle into a good posture with a straight back, etc, and focus on how we’re sitting, forget about everything else.

We feel we drop from our thinky head into the spaciousness of our root mind at our heart, where already some of our scattered thoughts dissolve away into space, like clouds into a vast, clear sky.

We can let go of all the tension in our body, like dropping heavy luggage, and let every muscle soften. Our body melts into light, we could pass our hand through it without obstruction, and it becomes as weightless as air. We can enjoy this deep physical relaxation for a little while.

lotus 2Then we can think that everything outside our body melts into light in all directions and disappears. This light then gathers towards us, leaving behind only empty space, like a mist lifting, until only our hollow body remains.

We can also think that everything up to this moment in time melts into light and disappears. It vanishes like last night’s dream. The past doesn’t exist anyway, it is being erased by the moment.

And everything after this moment also disappears – the future doesn’t exist either.

In this way we feel fully alive and alert in the present moment, the here and the now.

(As most of our feelings of busy-ness and being overwhelmed involve clinging to a past or worrying about a future, this simple contemplation alone can do wonders to help us relax and let go.)

And then we can, if we like, do some breathing meditation to let go of all remaining distractions and problems. We can think that these gather at the level of our heart in the form of thick heavy smoke, and then we let them go by breathing them out – they are just thoughts and we don’t need to keep thinking them. We feel our mind becoming lighter and purer with every out-breath.

We can think that our in-breath is the aspect of light, the most beautiful light you can imagine, and the nature of peace, and we ride this light deep into our heart, where it joins the inner light of our Buddha nature.

Finally, we can spend a few minutes identifying with this peace at our heart, enjoying it. We recognize it as the peaceful nature of our own mind and our potential for lasting peace and freedom. This is me! All that crazy busyness and worry is not.

As we arise from our meditation, we take this space into our busy daily lives so that it remains in the background of what we do. We can dip into it anytime, come into the present moment by simply sitting with and enjoying the peace of our own mind.

Busy is as busy does

(Actually I have no idea what that expression means …) Anyway, one definition of busy according to dictionary.com isbusy 3 “full of or characterized by activity”. So, there is nothing wrong with being busy per se (providing we are busy doing helpful things!) – but there is a problem if our busy-ness is consuming us and stressing us out, if we are feeling scattered, fragmented, or exhausted. However much we have to do, we want to be able to do it within a feeling of space and perspective.

Apparently people brag about being busy these days, as if it shows what a full life they are leading. Even dictionary.com says the antonym of busy is “indolent” or “unoccupied” and who wants to be that?! But being fully occupied doesn’t make us more glamorous. Being available 24/7 doesn’t make us the ideal worker. These are not marks of worth or social standing. We may think that having a huge amount of things to do makes us important or productive, but “There is more to life than its speed”, as Gandhi said, and if we are busy doing a lot of pointless things there is not much to feel proud about.

Laziness, according to Buddhism, can be slothful or indolent getting nowhere, but it can also be running around doing meaningless activities getting nowhere. Plus, over-busy 6extending ourselves doesn’t actually make us happy, just stressed out, so, given that happiness is what we really want, how successful is that? Our actual life can get lost in the flotsam and jetsam of our to-do lists, none of which will mean a thing when we are dying, or even, frankly, before that eg, when we retire, or next year. Our most precious non-renewable resource is time – we need to use it in the most meaningful way possible — and meaningful and busy are not synonyms.

The other day I had to do something new technologically at work and I wasn’t sure if I knew how to. In fact I knew I didn’t know how to. But I felt a little under pressure so I started thinking about it way ahead of the time I had my meeting scheduled with co-workers, and my thoughts ran away with themselves, “This is way too tricky! And I’m supposed to be able to sort this out but I can’t! My boss’ll think I’m incompetent. I’ll be fired! But I need the money!” Etc. So I felt under pressure, busy, not enough time, and then we had the meeting and it was all fine and we figured it out and even had a laugh while doing it. So what was all that inappropriate attention, or worry, for?!

I think we do this a lot in our society, wasting time worrying unnecessarily about ourselves and what we need to do, so we feel far busier than we actually are. We have all of tomorrow to do what needs to be done tomorrow – why worry about it today? We need a method to shut down the tape that runs in our minds about all that needs to be done that day, that week, that year.

More coming soon … it is already written, but I know you guys are way too busy to read it all in one sitting 😉

Be here now

photo 4 (2)Mindfulness is about the present moment, being in touch with it, not forgetting it. Presence of mind. All of Buddha’s teachings, or Dharma, help us stay in touch with the present moment. For example, with love we focus on people who are here and now, wishing them to be happy, even if they are in another country, or even deceased (they are still somewhere). With patience we wholeheartedly accept what is happening in the here and now without thinking it should be otherwise. With wisdom we appreciate the moment by moment unfurling of mere appearance, which is arising, due to karma, like waves from our root mind.

Be here now, or we are quite capable of missing out on our entire life. As John Lennon put it:

Life is what happens while we are busy making other plans.

Where else can we be other than here? What time can we be other than now?

photo 3

I’m lucky enough to be living near the Denver Botanical Gardens, and right now they are exquisite with late summer blooming and the Chihuly exhibition.* The other day I was sitting on a bench contemplating — loving just being there absorbed in the scene. A power couple marched past fast, hand in hand, furrowed brows, looking straight ahead, in earnest conversation about some plans for the future. They did not seem present, they seemed to be missing all the beauty and stillness and space around them; and it made me think that I also am often not as present as I would like, even when supposedly relaxing and enjoying myself, let alone when busy at work.

Without mindfulness we are distracted, which basically means we are remembering something else other than what is happening right here and right now. Another way to understand distraction is all those thoughts we don’t want to think but can’t help thinking because our mind is out of control.

Breathing meditation, focusing single-pointedly on the breath, is the way to let go of distractions. Through this, we automatically become more centered, peaceful, present, focused, and clear, and then we can transform our mind from there. Otherwise, just trying to think good thoughts on top of the dubious thoughts we already have can be just adding one layer of conceptuality on top of another.

I explain here Geshe Kelsang’s very helpful basic meditation on the breath. I just wanted to add a few more observations. photo 4

Background noise

We remember that in the context of this meditation anything other than the breath is a distraction. Distractions and stray thoughts will continue to float around for a while, until we have constant mindfulness, which is quite a high level of concentration (the fourth of the nine stages leading to tranquil abiding – you can read more in Joyful Path.)  However, we don’t have to pay them attention, any more than we have to listen to the cacophony in a crowded room when we are focusing with interest on the person talking to us.

When we hit the sweet spot of concentration on the breath, and settle there, it’s a bit like tuning in the radio to our favorite song and dispensing with the static. We don’t want to spend ages tuning that radio knob, we want to get right to it; and nor would we want to spend ages settling into the breath if we know how enjoyable it’s going to be.

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No negotiation, just single-pointed focus

We don’t negotiate with our distractions – as soon as we engage them in any way, eg, “I’ll just think you through and then you’ll go away and leave me alone”, they’ve won. Some of these stray thoughts might feel like genius, “Hey, I’ve got to remember this, what an insight!”, but, as a teacher once told me, “It is a disaster to have a notepad by your meditation seat.” We are trying to control our minds through breathing meditation, and for that we have to stay on the breath. We need presence of mind. We can set up the will power to do this from the outset by remembering what we’re trying to accomplish with breathing meditation. Then there is great hope that when the witty riposte to that annoying co-worker suddenly comes to us, we don’t indulge it.

In the Summer Festival, Gen-la Dekyong said we don’t need any fancy tricks to overcome distractions, we just need the will power, just as when we are driving. I thought this was brilliant, so simple and obvious (once it’s pointed out!) While we are driving, we want to be mindful – so we don’t have to negotiate with ourselves moment by moment, “Shall I focus on the road or shall I text my friend?” When we know what’s at stake, we naturally concentrate on what we’re doing.

No rush

It’s best to feel like we have plenty of time when we meditate. Even if we only have ten minutes before work, we can feel that we have all the time in the world, and that there is no place else to be. Everything else can wait ten minutes. Don’t meditate in a rush.

photo 5 (2)We need meditation

If someone told you to focus on your arm for five minutes without thinking about anything else, you might think, “That’s easy, I can do that!” Well, just try it.

As a child, Einstein had a club. To join it, you had to sit in the corner for an hour and not think about a white bear. As he put it himself, “There is no one in this club, not even me.”

These kinds of examples show that we have far less control over our mind than we think! This is why we need to start meditating asap.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

*I only really mentioned the botanical gardens as an excuse to scatter my Chihuly photos throughout this article.

 

Learning to meditate in 2017

calvin and hobbes new year's resolutionDeciding to learn meditation is a really great new year’s resolution. Anyone can learn, if they want to.

Meditation means becoming familiar with positivity and wisdom, both on the meditation seat and off it in our normal daily lives; and it is a powerful way to become a happier, more fulfilled person. It also helps us to help others. Life is short, our time is passing, and meditation helps us get the most out of our remaining years, months, weeks, or days, as well as prepare for the future.

We can meditate anywhere and anytime, together with all our daily activities, as meditation simply means, for example, thinking kind thoughts instead of unkind ones, complimentary thoughts instead of snide, gossipy ones, peaceful thoughts instead of angry ones, generous thoughts instead of grasping ones, wise thoughts instead of blinkered ones – understanding that this is our choice and freedom. There are many accessible ways to think positive and stay positive if we want to. We can become a relaxed, kind person whom we like and respect. new year's resolution to meditate

And we can also meditate in so-called meditation sessions, where we can begin by sitting down and closing our eyes, gathering within, and doing some relaxing breathing meditation. We can let go of all troubling, neurotic, anxious, self-disliking thoughts and touch on, then dwell in, the peace and clarity that is the natural state of our mind.

“Are you sure my mind is naturally peaceful?!”

My aunt is over here from France at the moment, and yesterday she asked me how to meditate. When I explained something along the lines of what I just wrote above, she wanted to know why it is that our mind is naturally peaceful as opposed to naturally anxious and unpeaceful. It is a very good question.

get rid of delusions and find peaceWhenever we don’t have a delusion functioning, we can observe that our mind is naturally peaceful. When our mind is roiled by a bunch of negative, unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts and emotions, it is as if a vast, deep, boundless ocean is being churned up. We cannot see below the surface, below the huge, terrifying, disorientating waves, to the endless clarity and depth below. We are stuck on the surface just trying to stay afloat. We identify with that even, thinking that it is all that we and life are about. But whenever the waves die down, we can tell that the ocean is clear, vast, and very deep – this is the nature of an ocean. In a similar way, when our mind settles and those wave-like thoughts die down and disappear, we can sense immediately that our mind is vast, clear, and deep, and naturally peaceful. It is far better to identify with the natural peace of our mind (our Buddha nature) then with the adventitious neurotic unhappy thoughts that come and go and are not who we are.

ocean like clarity and peace of mindStress relief

How can you begin meditating? It is good to think about why you might want to do it. One of the main reasons people turn to meditation is to relieve stress. They want to find a way to turn off the anxiety and find a measure of calm and relaxation. They’re fed up with being fed up.

Stress kills happiness stone dead. I’ve recently met a hamster called Patch. He is the luckiest hamster I’ve ever met because instead of having just one or two plastic balls and connecting pipes to run around in, his kind mom has pretty much bought up the entire hamster shop for him. Still, although he is a relatively lucky little guy, as hamsters go, he is not without his problems, just like the rest of us. I was watching him running on his wheel the other day, trying to go fast enough to avoid falling off. When we’re stressed out, we’re a bit like that. No matter how hard we work to solve the stress-inducing problem, it never seems to get any better. We can reach the point where we are so burnt out that we cease functioning productively at all, spending our days pushing pencils across our desk. treadmill of life

Stress arrives at any income bracket. If we’re earning $200,000 a year but our overheads, including for example alimony and kids’ education, is costing us $300,000 a year, it can be just as stressful as earning $50 a day but having $75 a day in expenses.

When we feel stressed, we see the stress as something that is happening to us and not in any way as a reflection of our state of mind: “My situation is so stressful! That selfish person is causing me so much stress! The ghastly noise my neighbors make day in day out winds me up!” We feel stress is intrinsic in our situations, but stress is not out there, external to the mind – it is a troubled way of responding to what’s appearing to our mind. For example, two people can be in a traffic jam and one can be very calm not really minding at all, whilst another can be hugely upset. If we react every time in a troubled way, then stress builds up and leads to unhappiness, a growing inability to cope, and related physical problems. dealing with stress

According to CNN.com, 43% of adults suffer from stress-related problems or illnesses. Even children are increasingly stressed these days. Doctors say that for 90% of patients their conditions are either caused by or aggravated by stress. Stress has been implicated in six major killers, including heart disease, lung disease, cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. Alcoholism and addiction often arise from or are exacerbated by stress.

Documented medical benefits of meditation

benefits of meditationMany medical studies now show how effective meditation is in combating both stress and sickness, including one by Dr. David Eisenberg and his colleagues at the Harvard Medical School that lists an increasing number of medical benefits from the practice of meditation:

  1. Reductions in heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, oxygen consumption, blood flow to skeletal muscles, perspiration and muscle tension, as well as improvement in immunity.
  2. Women with PMS (premenstrual syndrome) who meditate regularly reduce their symptoms by 58 percent. Women going through menopause could significantly reduce the intensity of hot flushes.
  3. In a study of a 10-week group program that included meditation (along with exercise and nutrition changes), women struggling with infertility had significantly less anxiety, depression, and fatigue, and 34-percent became pregnant within six months.
  4. New mothers who use meditation with images of milk flowing in their breasts can more than double their production of milk.
  5. Patients with coronary-artery disease who meditated daily for eight months had nearly a 15-percent increase in exercise tolerance.
  6. Patients with ischemic heart disease (in which the heart muscle receives an inadequate supply of blood) who practiced for four weeks had a significantly lower frequency of premature ventricular contractions (a type of irregular heartbeat).
  7. Angioplasty patients who used meditation had significantly less anxiety, pain and need for medication during and after the procedure.
  8. Patients having open-heart surgery who meditated regularly were able to reduce their incidence of postoperative supraventricular tachycardia (abnormally high heart rate).
  9. Medical students who meditated regularly during final exams had a higher percentage of “T-helper cells,” the immune cells that trigger the immune system into action.
  10. Nursing-home residents trained in meditation had increased activity of “natural-killer cells,” which kill bacteria and cancer cells. They also had reductions in the activity of viruses and of emotional distress.
  11. Patients with metastatic (spreading) cancer who meditated with imagery regularly for a year had significant increases in natural-killer cell activity.

Just recently, a study published in Psychiatry Research by Dr. Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, reports that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with stress stress was reduced and there was a noticeable increase in empathy and memory. The New York Times also wrote an article recently called “How meditation may change the brain.”

Our mind and body are closely connected. This mind-body connection is not so mysterious, we instinctively understand it. Why else would we say things like, “I worried myself sick,” or, “My head’s about to explode.” According to Dr. William Collinge, the WebMD on CNN.com, there is mounting medical evidence to support the role of mind/body medicine in promoting health:Buddha and meditation

At the heart of mind/body medicine lies the age-old practice of meditation, a quiet, simple technique that belies an almost extraordinary power to boost disease resistance and maintain overall health.

Two approaches to dealing with stress

As explained here, there are two types of problem. This means that there are two main approaches to dealing with stress: working to resolve the practical “outer” problems causing it as far as is possible, but, more importantly, keeping our mind positive to solve the actual problem, the “inner” problem. Maintaining a positive mind, even if it is challenging, will help us deal with our practical outer problems. Meditation overcomes stress by enabling us to cultivate relaxed, peaceful, happy states of mind.

So, why not get started!? Learning to meditate is not as hard as you may think, and you’ll never regret learning. Wherever you go, whatever you do, meditation will become your own tool for discovering peace and happiness in 2017. You could resolve to meditate ten minutes a day, every day this year. You will be taking matters into your own hands, and feeling a great deal better for it.

Here is a recent article on breathing meditation that you may find helpful.

Please share this article with anyone you think might like to learn meditation this year.

Comments etc welcome.

Drop into your heart and breathe

meditating on rockThere are many breathing meditations, and one popular version involves breathing out our disturbing thoughts, distractions, problems etc. in the form of thick smoke and breathing into our heart happiness and blessings in the form of light.*

I find it can be very useful to target this breathing meditation against specific delusions or problems that I’m having, and to breathe in their opponent positive state of mind. It works for any delusion, eg, love vs hatred, renunciation vs attachment, rejoicing vs jealousy.  I’ll explain one way I do below, here based on reducing our miserliness and increasing our generosity, its opposite, just in time for the holidays …

First I remind myself that delusions are just thoughts, they have no arms or legs as Shantideva points out, so only harm me insofar as I insist on thinking them, following them, buying into them. All our thoughts arise from the blissful clarity of our own mental awareness, but some are based on inappropriate attention whereas others are more realistic and therefore conducive to mental health and happiness. With some effort, the habitual miserly thoughts that cause us pain can change into other, more generous thoughts, which are their opponent — like light cancelling out darkness in so far as you cannot have a miserly thought about something and a generous thought about it at the same time. Anyone who is reading this can do this because our minds can change completely, we can learn to think thoughts of our own choosing.

don't believe everything you thinkTo begin with, and here is where breathing meditation comes in handy, we sometimes just need the wisdom to know that we can first accept and then let go of our thoughts rather than perpetually having to fight or grapple with them.

Also, as always when training the mind, we must identify with our potential and not with being miserly – “Hey, I’m a stingy b****, but I’m trying to practice giving here”, as we offer someone the last slice of pizza – this feels unnatural, it doesn’t take.  The example of quitting smoking might be helpful here.

Meditation

(1) Relax, sit in a good posture with your back straight but not rigid, your shoulders level but relaxed, your mouth lightly closed, and your eyes either lightly closed or slightly open. My feeling is that these days we can just as well sit in chairs to meditate effectively because we grew up on chairs – so, if you find it difficult to get into a full lotus posture, don’t panic, you didn’t start out in life sitting this way at your mother’s knees (unlike Indians and Tibetans in the old days) and it is not essential for gaining realizations. (Geshe Kelsang has even said we can get enlightened in an armchair!) The main thing is to stay upright so as to stay alert. Focus on how you’re sitting, come into the present moment, forget about everything else.

(2)    Drop from your head to your heart. Immediately distractions will diminish and you’ll sense the spaciousness and peace of your Buddha nature. Just drop your awareness, your center of gravity. Don’t think about it. We can do all our meditations from this vantage point and it makes them a lot better.

(3)    To overcome distractions focused outward, now think that that everything outside the room melts into light and disappears, including the past and the future  — what you did today and what you have planned for tomorrow. Then the walls of the room melt into light and disappear. Then everything inside the room, outside of your body, melts into light and disappears.

(4)    All that remains is your body, suspended in empty space. To relax and unwind your body, first become aware of any tension, tightness, pain, or heaviness starting at your crown and working your way down to your feet.  Are your shoulders tense, for example? Are your hands tense? (often a good indicator of whether the rest of you is). Think, “I don’t have to hold onto all this accumulated physical stress”, and drop it, like dropping heavy luggage. Every muscle relaxes, and your body melts into light so that just its merest outline remains.

(5) You think, “My body is hollow, made of light, as if I could pass my hand through it without obstruction. It is as weightless as a feather. It is so comfortable that I’m hardly even aware that it is there.” Enjoy this deep physical relaxation for a little while.body of light

(6)    Now you can relax and unwind the mind with breathing meditation. Remember you’re in your heart. Identify any miserly thoughts you’ve been having eg, ignoring the homeless guy, not wanting to share your possessions or your time or your friends, and remember some of the faults of hanging onto these thoughts (see this article.)

(7)    Let these take the form of thick heavy smoke and breathe them out through your nostrils. They vanish into space, never to return. With every outbreath you feel lighter and more peaceful. Do this for as long as you want with conviction and concentration.

(8)    Now imagine that all around the outline of your body is the most blissful sphere of light, the most beautiful light you can imagine. In aspect it is light, but its nature is all the peace, love and generosity from throughout the universe, including all the blessings and inspiration of all holy beings. Wherever it touches your body, you experience bliss.

(9)    Breathe this clear light into your heart, where it joins the inner light of your Buddha nature. Ride the light into your heart.

(10)    Focusing on the peace at your heart, think, “Whatever peace I am feeling, however slight, indicates my potential for lasting peace. Whatever generosity I am feeling is my potential to be totally open-hearted, like a Buddha. This is me.”

(11)   This light radiates like a sun shining inside. It spreads out until it dissolves my body. Then it spreads out further to reach the clear light in the hearts of those around me, whether physically close or mentally close as in my family, friends, pets, etc. It activates their Buddha nature and they become blissfully happy, generous, etc.

(12)   As an addition, I sometimes think that once I have fully realized this potential and ripened my Buddha nature, I will be a fully enlightened being, like Buddha, who is now sitting in front of me. Understanding that faith in Buddha necessitates faith in my own enlightened potential, and that we’ve always had this connection, I recite the Liberating Prayer as a request for more blessings.

(13)   Any feeling of peace we experience during this meditation and in general is the same as Buddha’s blessings, not separate. On this point, I have decided to share here as the second half of this article a beautiful, helpful comment that someone left on this blog some time ago. Please keep reading below if you’re interested.

*I personally don’t use the terms “black” smoke and “white” light as I feel in our modern culture that these can actually sound racist, whereas they were just colors back in Tibet. And as these are symbolic of our negative and positive thoughts, I think they perhaps could be any colored smoke or light. For me, thick heavy smoke and clear light (in fact the most beautiful light I can imagine) works better. But if black and white works for you, go for it.

What’s the relationship between blessings and inner peace?

blessings 2Venerable Geshe Kelsang has said that the function of Buddha is to bestow blessings continuously upon living beings and cause them to experience inner peace. Often I take these words superficially without relating them to my daily experience; but on those rare occasions when I do …

My experience of peace now, at this time, is arising from the blessings or inspiration of holy beings affecting my mind here and now!!! …

… a completely new world opens up before me.

Such a difference between words to the ear understood by the intellect, and wisdom from the spiritual guide experienced, even just for a moment, within daily life.

A beautiful piece of advice that Kadam Morten gave in the New York Festival was to learn to recognise the presence of blessings in our lives. Whenever we experience some degree of inner peace, we should recognise that experience as moments of blessing, to enjoy those moments with an understanding of the deep and close connection we have with enlightened beings. As he said (according to my recollection, so please forgive mistakes):

When you experience inner peace, right there is your Buddha nature, right there is Buddha and Buddha’s blessings.

Often when we experience some inner peace (and I can only speak for myself) we can easily take these moments for granted and let them pass without noticing what is actually happening. When those fleeting moments pass and the clouds of disturbing conceptions have rolled back, covering the pure inner sky of our mind, we are once more unhappy and wondering where we can go to, what can we hold on to or push ourselves away from to return to that pure space. When the mind is peaceful – and thus blessed – it is easy to feel connected to holy beings and develop our relationship with them. By contrast – again I speak for myself – when the mind has no peace it is hard to develop faith in, or even remember, our connection with Buddhas and their unobstructed power to bless and transform our mind. The instinct is to immediately search outside the mind… and so journey further into suffering.

To me this shows a lack of deep understanding of where peace and happiness really come from. We need to take Geshe-la’s teaching to heart – to develop a deep understanding and belief in the non-deceptive dependent relationship between Buddhas’ blessings and our own inner experience of peace and happiness.

Buddha of lightThe more I think about this dependent relationship and, more importantly, the more I learn to experience it in daily life, the more I start to realise that we are not the independent entities we normally perceive – unrelated to, and separate from, everything else in the universe. Normally it feels like our state of mind just is what it is, from its own side, existing as a discreet entity whose qualities of peace or disturbance do not come from anywhere but are simply inherent characteristics of our mind itself. However this feeling is mistaken. Just as a rainbow arises entirely from the gathering of different necessary conditions and cannot be separate from them, so our peaceful mind arises from the blessings of Buddha.

For me, learning to let go of my sense of independence and separateness goes hand in hand with learning to become more open and receptive to blessings. While on the one hand we long to feel more connected to Buddhas and be nourished by their blessings, our grasping at an independent self creates the illusion of a big gap between our self and these beings, undermining our receptivity. Our mind that we wish to change feels “in here” while Buddhas and their benevolent power seem “out there”. These two, which we yearn to experience as deeply related and connected, are held by our ignorance to be truly separate, different, unrelated. While we try to feel ever closer to our Spiritual Guide and develop powerful faith so as to receive the blessings of all the Buddhas, our inner ignorance always holds us at a distance, weakening the power of our faith. The ignorance in our heart doesn’t really believe we can change, let alone “be changed”, by the influence of a pure being so “different” and “other” to ourselves.

With faith we make sincere requests but ignorance makes it feel as if our prayers are telegraphed across a big existential gap and that blessings are received from some distant Dharmakaya or holy space.

Through contemplating the dependent relationship of our own experience of inner peace and blessings we begin to realize that we already have a deep, profound, powerful, and intimate connection with enlightened beings. That relationship is already there – we do not need to create it. But we can learn to recognize it and increase our trust and reliance upon this relationship as a dynamic and vital source of refuge and transformation.

When I recognize (on the basic level that I am able) that all that I am and all that I experience is entirely dependent on other factors, that every moment my mind and my self are being re-created and transformed by many conditions, I let go (however slightly) of my sense of existing independently, permanent, and separate. Instead I can begin to experience my self as a dependently arising be-ing, in connection with the universe and receptive to conditions of transformation. There is no real gap between myself and Buddhas, no space between my mind and their blessings. This wisdom opens the heart more and more to the blessings of our Spiritual Guide, which in turn further awaken our Buddha nature.

Likewise there is no real gap or difference between ourselves and all other living beings. We already have, right now, a profound, powerful and intimate connection with all the countless mother beings of the universe. We do not need to create this relationship. It is already there. Just by recognizing this relationship our heart begins to open with a natural, uncontrived love and compassion, through which the blessings of Buddha can pervade and transform the entire universe.