Thinking big

This is the fifth in a series of articles on overcoming discouragement.

It can be hard to dig ourselves out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves with discouragement and despondency, and to identify with our pure potential or Buddha nature; and this can be where enlightened beings come in very handy!

So you can try this if you like – maybe just do it and worry about how or if it works later.

Get help

Buddha kindWe ask for help from enlightened beings, and then believe we’re receiving it. (Helping us is the main part of their job description.) Seeking help has worked for generation after generation of greatly realized Yogis and masters, as well as beginners, and so it is highly likely to work for us. The scriptures describe the most seemingly desperate lost causes (I’m betting far worse than you), who went on to attain high spiritual realizations by relying upon blessings – Lam Chung (the “stupidest man alive” at the time) and Angulimala (the “angriest man alive”, who made a necklace out of a thousand severed thumbs from his murder victims). Asking for help also helped  Kisigotami (who was overwhelmed by grief when she lost her newborn child) and Gampopa (who lost his beloved wife), both of whom went on to become powerful, happy practitioners. And this is just the tip of the iceberg — countless people past and present have gained peace and mental freedom this way.

Meditating backwards

I like to meditate backwards – starting with where I intend to end up, ie, enlightened, and then sort of working my way back to the beginning. I start my day by tapping into an infinite source of power, confidence, freedom, bliss, and love. The following is an example of the kind of thing I do.

Start off well

I start with a few minutes just sitting, feeling happy, and if necessary doing some relaxing and breathing meditation, ending up with a feeling of peace at my heart. In Great Treasury of Merit (see pages 46-47 for more detail), my teacher explains:

“At the very beginning we should make sure that our mind is calm, peaceful, and free from conceptual distractions.”

He explains that we begin a meditation by examining our mind to see if it is peaceful or not, and if it is not we can breathe out our impure minds (and energy winds) in the form of dark smoke and breathe in blessings in the form of pure light until:

“our mind is completely pacified of all conceptual distractions and has become pure, happy, and single-pointed.”

This is the mind to meditate with, not an agitated, uptight mind.

Interestingly enough, at the beginning of that section Geshe Kelsang says:

Sometimes the mere act of examining the mind, if it is done conscientiously, will pacify our distractions.

Even just turning into the mind (without doing breathing meditation) helps us experience its essentially peaceful nature because we are not following the distractions. Turning to the sky instead of the clouds, as it were.

I like tuning into a peaceful mind in other ways, for example as explained in this article I wrote for a friend.

Buddha nature

This peace, however slight or relative, is part of my Buddha nature–an indication of the limitless peace I am capable of, my enlightened potential. As such, I can already recognize it as part of Buddha’s own enlightened mind, the same nature, and in this way tap straight into blessings. I can identify with it by thinking, “This is me, and I’m only mistaken appearances away from being a Buddha.” Nothing exists from its own side, everything is like a dream, so I dissolve all unpleasant thoughts and their objects, including the sense of a limited self, including the past and the future, away into emptiness. Why not? I don’t have to hold onto this stuff, it is not even there.

Meditate with everyone around ~ living beings and Buddhas

Bodhisattvas and trainee Bodhisattvas never meditate alone. Even when they’re in a remote cave in the middle of nowhere developing the perfect single-pointed concentration of tranquil abiding, they imagine being surrounded by all living beings. Your family, friends, pet parrot, etc, can be sitting closest to you, but there is nobody left out. We can forget about ourselves for a while by feeling close to others out of love (start where you’re at) – this already dissipates the laziness and stuck feeling caused by over-preoccupation with ourselves.

Tara reflecting on usThen I think that Buddha is in front of me. He is not over there somewhere, but arising from my own pure mind mixed with Buddha’s blessings, and surrounded by any number of enlightened beings. (Actually, Buddhas are everywhere, so we can visualize them wherever we want to. We can visualize whichever holy being we feel closest to already, including in other traditions.) I feel close to them out of faith wishing to be like them — with a mind like a universal sun radiating love through all beings and a piercing wisdom that penetrates all objects of knowledge, for example. I feel their blessings flowing into me and mixing with my mind – if you like, you can imagine the blessings in the form of blissful lights. (If you happened to attend the Kadampa Brazilian Festival in 2010, you might remember that beautiful visualization Geshe Kelsang taught on receiving the four empowerments from Je Tsongkhapa – it works for me.) Whatever works.

Meditate in a pure space

I like to think that because we’re all in the presence of enlightened beings, we’re naturally in their Pure Land – a vast, expansive, empty, exquisitely beautiful space full of everything we could ever wish for and totally free from even the name “suffering”. This is in keeping with the two verses in Kadampa Buddhist preparatory prayers, “May the whole ground become completely pure…” and “May all of space be filled with offerings …”

I haven’t even started my meditation yet! Yet already my mind is lighter, more optimistic, and more blessed. And it doesn’t have to take all that long, maybe a few minutes, depending on how much time I have or how much I’m enjoying myself already.

Now, in this “safe” space, where I already have a glimpse of exits and hope, I check where I’m currently stuck, in a tight corner seeing no way out, with deluded tendencies that are taking me nowhere. (See the meditation on aspiration here.) I am specific about areas in my life where I want to become unstuck, asking myself things like, “What is the point of carrying on like this? Where is it actually going to get me? Do I really want to still be like this in 5 years’, 10 years’ time? Do I want to die like this?! Go into my next life with this hanging over me?! Do I not actually want a final glorious freedom from this attachment, this aversion, this pain?”

And I think, “I am not limited or fixed – other possibilities exist.” So we can identify our own faults, being as specific and practical as possible, eg, feeling useless, angry, helplessly attached, prideful, or stuck, but not identify with them. They are not objective facts, just thoughts or labels. We don’t need to go with them — we don’t believe everything we think, as the saying goes.

kid heroTantric thinking

Imagine, just imagine, that you are where you’d like to be right now – fearless, unstuck, enjoying everything and everyone, not full of the need of attachment but complete in yourself, kind, loving, blissful, free. If you know about Tantric practice, dissolve everything into bliss and emptiness and generate yourself anew as your personal Deity in your Pure Land, with everyone around you as pure. Suspend any disbelief, do some method acting – if Daniel Day Lewis can be Lincoln or  your neighbor’s kid believe she is Wonder Woman, you can be a Buddha or Bodhisattva! And enjoy it. Unlike ever becoming Wonder Woman, generating ourselves as a Buddha actually has its basis in truth, for we are never separated from our potential to be a Bodhisattva and a Buddha. It is so-called “correct imagination”. It is reality.

Tantric thinking can be done by anyone. We possess great imaginations, and indeed our whole world lacks existence from its own side and arises from imagination; so we can harness this creativity now for the good, change our dream, while we still have the opportunity to control the direction of our life.

(If you are up for it and have received Tantric empowerments, read the ten benefits of relying upon Buddha Vajrayogini in Guide to Dakini Land to see what you are REALLY capable of and how quickly you can change.)

One major cause of the laziness of discouragement is “There’s nobody who has made it, I can’t see any examples, so how am I supposed to make it?!” We project our own lack of progress onto others. When we lift our sights in the way described, we naturally become more confident that there are people with these results all around us – everything is a reflection of our minds. People are no more inherently limited or suffering than we are. Look for faults and we’ll find them. Look for loveability and potential and we’ll find that. This applies to us and everyone around us.

If I’m doing prayers and I’m on my own, I confess that I might do them once I’ve done all this – then they’re really very powerful and simply an expression of what is going on. Of course, they are normally used as preliminaries to meditation, and I can do that too.

To get out of the long-playing loop of negative, myopic thinking, I think we need this kind of alternate perspective.

More later. Meanwhile, your feedback on how you overcome discouragement is most welcome and helpful.

Do you even like yourself?!

This is the fourth in a series of articles on overcoming discouragement.

The last article looked at how the laziness of discouragement comes from ignorance. I think it can also have a strong relationship with anger directed inward.

dislikeHave you ever been in a situation where you’ve noticed that someone really doesn’t like you? (‘Course you have!) And you don’t really understand why they are so cross with you, but you suspect it’s because they don’t really get you. Yet their idea of you seems so fixed that there is no point in trying to change their opinion – in fact, everything you do seems to validate in their eyes what a b****y awful person you are. They don’t give you a chance. They have fixed you with the super glue of their dislike, you’re not going anywhere.

Well, that may be bad enough, but I think it is even worse when we are doing it to ourselves because then we really can’t get away! In the case of the other person who dislikes you, some projection is going on that has more to do with them than with you, but they believe it to be the truth. In the same way, when we put ourselves down with negative self-talk, “For real?! You can’t change! You’re basically an unloveable/irritating/pathetic loser”, we are projecting an image of ourselves that says way more about our delusions of ignorance and dislike than about who we actually are. But we believe it anyway and then we’re stuck.self sabotage

To change, therefore, we have to drop those limited ideas of ourselves and identify entirely with our potential and pure nature instead. All our meditations need this as their starting point. See this article for how this can apply to the first 2 stages of the path meditations, for example. I’ll explain another way in which we might do this, once I’ve given you some more examples.

The only thing that seems to work when someone hates us with no apparent reason is to have patient acceptance. We can stop focusing on their faults in a problematic way and instead accept them warts and all, without judgment. We can focus on something good about them, and let this gradually melt away the negativity — changing the atmosphere to allow both of us to change. Freedom.

Likewise, a way to counteract being heavy on ourselves is also to change the atmosphere by making an effort to focus on our good qualities instead of exaggerating our faults, so we can accept and love ourselves. Even more freedom.

Still smoking?!

smoking analogy for giving up bad habits in meditationI started smoking at school, and was still doing it at university. I tried to give up several times, but it was too hard – as soon as someone offered me a cigarette I would take it because I thought of myself as a smoker. Smoking was my natural default — I was a smoker trying hard not to smoke. There was a disconnect there, a contradiction. It was painful! It was unnatural.

One day, however, perhaps due to some blessing, I literally just woke up thinking of myself as a non-smoker. “I’m a non-smoker! I realize this now. I’m a non-smoker who has picked up this bad habit of smoking. I’m going to pack it in.” In the student bar later that day, when a friend offered me a cigarette, I declined: “No, thanks, I’m not a smoker.” “Course you are,” they laughed, but I no longer believed them. I never smoked again.

giving up smokingIf we identify and grasp onto ourselves as being deluded, deluded we’ll stay. “See, I’m deluded! I can’t help it. I want to give up but I can’t.” If we identify ourselves as pure, generous, full of potential, and so on, we can give up our delusions because we are no longer grasping at them as who we are. They are no longer our natural default. They are just habits, just thoughts. Let them go. Think different thoughts instead.

In the next article, how to quickly dig ourselves out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves with some out of the box thinking.

Feeling stuck?

Continuing the subject of overcoming discouragement.

Motivation, the first step

woman meditatingHere’s a little five minute meditation. With our eyes closed, we can first identify with our potential so we feel peaceful and can get some space from the delusions we are about to observe.

Then we can bring to mind the main areas in our mind where we feel a bit stuck, certain tendencies we may have that cause us problems — we wish to be free of them and yet we find ourselves stuck there. Perhaps there’s a tendency towards anxiety, depression, frustration, guilt, or unhappiness with ourselves or other specific people. Our life seems to lack meaning even though we know it could be so meaningful and one part of us suspects what we are capable of. Something in us is holding us back. To begin with we just have to identify this (though not with it.)

We also need to actively think about how wonderful it would be if we could unblock this area, if we could let go of it and move forward to actualize our potential. We can imagine doing this. We have to let this wish to change arise and then stay with it in our heart for as long as we can.

To bring about this transformation we need to train our mind. The problem lies in the mind, and the solution lies in changing the mind. So we need to aspire to this.

We need to do this not just for our own sake but for everyone’s sake. How many people in this world are caught in compulsive patterns of behavior that are just causing suffering, trapped in painful thoughts, painful habits, and painful addictions? Feeling trapped in their minds, thus feeling trapped in their situations? Our friends, colleagues, family — are they actualizing their extraordinary potential or remaining stuck? Even whole cultures, whole nations, trapped in cycles of behavior which accomplish precisely the opposite of what they wish for … ?

We can think: “I no longer wish to participate in this creation of unhappiness. Instead I am going to change my mind, train my mind, so that I can help others do the same. I need increasing mental freedom and enlightenment so that I can help everyone else.”

This great motivation is part of our aspiration or wishes, and without aspiration there is no way we are ever going to develop joyful effort – we do what we want to do, always, unless coerced. With a big motivation, we’ll have big effort.

Are you fixed or not?

what self-cherishing seesOne major reason we feel discouraged when it comes to thinking about changing our mind is because we perceive ourselves as being fixed, as being someone who can’t really change, or not that much anyway. Easier to switch on the TV or go to bed.

When we think of ourselves we actually have a mind of ignorance. This delusion currently accompanies all our perceptions, including our self-perception. This ignorance believes us to exist in the way in which we appear. And right now we appear to have a whole selection of negative qualities. We may appear to ourselves to be a depressed person. Or an anxious person. A fearful person. An angry person. A loser. A victim. An unloveable person. An ordinary person. And so on. That is how we appear to ourselves, and our mind of ignorance basically assents to that appearance. It believes it’s the truth. This is the truth – I am this! I am angry, I am faulty, I am anxious, I am incompetent, I am no good … We are holding ourselves in this fixed way and thinking it’s the truth.

So then we try to practice meditation and Buddhism on top of that … ?! For example, we hear or read something that inspires us and it’s like a breath of fresh air, “Oooh that feels so good, I CAN change!” But then we walk back out on the street or into work, and we take a look at ourselves, and we are looking at somebody who can’t change. On the one hand we get it, “I can change!”, but on a deeper level there is an inner perception, “I’m fixed in this way, I can’t change.” We are actually grasping at ourselves as someone who can’t change.

overcoming the laziness of discouragementSo guess what happens if we don’t address that? We don’t change. We can’t change because we are holding ourselves as being fixed. That is our real meditation, what we are really familiarizing ourselves with – we might spend 5 minutes developing the aspiration to change as in the meditation above, and the remaining 23 hours and 55 minutes familiarizing ourselves with being a depressed loser, holding onto ourselves as being a FIXED person with nothing to offer. “You probably don’t even want this unloveable person loving you, right?”

If we are trying to change based on this strong self-grasping ignorance, this self-fixing mind, it is no wonder that we fail, and it is no wonder that we get discouraged. Then it can get even weirder because, in a strange sort of way, it becomes comforting to us that we can’t change. Simply because we think it’s the truth, I am a loser, I am a fixed person, an anxious person, etc – that’s who I am! It’s not a happy place but it feels like a secure place, it’s what we know, it’s where we feel comfortable. Then the idea of changing is unsettling because at least I know this. It’s like asking the person clinging onto the side of the burning building to jump into the net far below – they don’t want to, better the devil you know.

overcoming self-sabotage through meditationSo self-sabotage kicks in. Consciously, we set out to change – subconsciously we undermine ourselves because we don’t want to change. In fact, we are setting out to prove we can’t change. Like the example of someone who is always late given in the previous article on discouragement, or, another common example, someone who is trying to lose weight but they just keep snacking … And there is a comfort in that moment as we open the fridge door, isn’t there?! It’s like ‘You see, I can’t do it … I can’t do it … so then I don’t have to!!!’

Even though it is going directly against the fulfillment of our wishes, there is a strange relief there because it is affirming our limited view of self. “I’m stuck. I don’t like it here… but that’s the way it is.”

So, first thing to do is identify this problem. Then we can overcome it. More later. Meanwhile, do contribute to this discussion on overcoming discouragement — do you have any examples in your own experience of relating to a fixed, limited self, and/or how you overcome this?

Do you like change?

This continues from the article “Do you ever feel discouraged?

making the most of changeIf someone were to ask you: “Do you want to be exactly the same person, in the same situation, in the same moods, in 5 years’ time or even 10 years’ time?”, chances are you’d think, “Heck, no!”, especially if you understand your potential for happiness and think about the number of irritants you currently have in your life.

So one part of us wants to change.

The other part of us hates the idea. “You’ve got to move.” “No, I don’t want to move.” Our partner starts changing, or our kids start changing, or our job changes, and it makes us nervous, it unsettles us. Not to mention our fear of death, our own and that of others close to us.

We want things to change and remain the same. So this ambivalence about change – wanting it and dreading it — can be a problem! Change makes us anxious, yet at the same time we know we need to change. Why? Because we’re not happy where we are, we are always wishing things were different at some level. We are rarely free from some level of dissatisfaction; even when we’re having a good time there is still some sense that we could make it even nicer or better, or else worrying, “Oh no, this is really good, but it’s about to be over!”

can't get no satisfactionThere is always a shifting going on, a wanting things to be different to get away from the basic dissatisfaction in our heart, but we can’t get no satisfaction. Mick Jagger got that one right. And we try, and we try. It doesn’t matter how much we shift around our external circumstances, the basic dissatisfaction in our heart remains, and that’s why we want change.

That’s why we want it, yet at the same time we dread it. Better the devil you know. Big changes tend to make us very insecure, even if they are not bad ones, because at least we feel we have a sort of handle on the current situation even if it sucks – “The new job, city, apartment looks better, but I don’t know… it’s a bit unsettling all this.” 

Arriving late

Here’s an example of wanting to change and not wanting to change. I have a good friend who always arrives late at places – sometimes so late that he misses the entire event! He arrived halfway through his own birthday party recently. To hear him tell it, there’s nothing he can do about it. But, and he is not alone in this, if you are a perpetual late arriver it is not because you can’t tell the time — you know exactly when you need to leave to arrive on time. Usually something like this happens: “Ok, time to go… oh, hold on, let me just do this and that, put my laundry in the drier, nip into this shop on the way, get some gas … Oh, I’m late again!” That is an act of self-sabotage because you’re wishing to arrive on time to blow out your own candles with your invited guests, and yet arranging it in such a way that you are not going to be there on time. It may seem to just sort of happen, but if we check, we are making a choice, as a result of which we’re going to be late.white_rabbit_arriving_late

This is an example of how on the surface we want to change, but subconsciously in the realm of deeper habits we don’t want to. And so we’re at odds with ourselves, which is tiring and discouraging. If we check our habits in meditation, especially the ones we don’t like, we can see what it is we are doing to feed that habit. When we step back and look at it, it’s a choice we’re making. It might be a weighted choice coming with a lot of habit behind it, but still it’s a choice.

Spiritual practice is all about change

So it seems we have an ambivalence – on the one hand we want change and on the other hand we are afraid of change and cling on to the same old things with attachment. And spiritual practice is all about change. It’s all about training our mind, letting go of attachment, moving our mind somewhere new. It’s all about identifying the internal causes of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, inner conflicts – the delusions – and getting rid of them. It is all about changing our lifelong habits of relating to others and to ourselves in unconstructive ways by increasing our positive minds such as love and wisdom. Meditation practice is a systemic process of transforming the mind. It requires effort. And effort requires aspiration – we have to WANT it. We have to therefore WANT to change our mind, deep down, without the ambivalence.

lotus 6

The four mental powers that help effort

The sign that we’re applying actual effort (as opposed to being lazy) is that we are changing. We’re becoming more peaceful, positive, flexible, kind-hearted, strong, free. Not necessarily day-by-day – monitoring it on a daily basis just sets us up for more grasping or impatience – but month by month, year by year. How do we apply effort in such a way that it is going to bring about these results? It has everything to do with our (1) deepest wishes and motivations, (2) steadfast confidence, (3) joyfulness, and (4) ability to relax and recharge. Shantideva teaches these 4 powers extensively in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (and further commentary is in Meaningful to Behold.)

These four powers are the way to increase our effort. It might be worth noting that effort is a state of mind, or so-called “mental factor”, unto itself, and it is by nature “virtuous”, ie, creating the cause of happiness. Therefore, the more we are enjoying any spiritual or virtuous practice, the more good karma we are creating! It seems to be a win win.

More here 

Over to you… comments welcome.

How is your meditation going?

Kadampa BuddhaMeditation is the way to access our own pure potential for mental freedom and happiness, gain deep experience of Buddha’s teachings, and really change for the better.

My tradition, the New Kadampa Tradition, is a meditator’s tradition – every sentence we hear in the teachings is intended to be an object of meditation, to be taken into the heart so that it becomes part of us. This Buddhist tradition stems from Buddha Shakyamuni, who clearly was the master of meditation. Later Je Tsongkhapa mastered all Buddha’s teachings of Sutra and Tantra, spent many years in meditation retreat, and taught immensely practical, experiential, and profound methods for gaining all the realizations of Lamrim, Lojong, and the union of bliss and emptiness (Mahamudra) revealed by Buddha. As a result of this, many of his disciples gained enlightenment in 3 years and 3 months.Je Tsongkhapa

The founder of the New Kadampa Tradition, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, has also spent about half of his life in meditation retreat on these same methods, much of it solitary, and has been meditating since he was a child. Many of Geshe Kelsang’s disciples are very proficient meditators too. We have no shortage of powerful examples showing how far meditation can take us.

Sometimes this tradition can be a bit talky – we talk a lot about the teachings but may not get round to meditating on them as much as perhaps we could. And over the years I have heard a number of people say that they find meditation hard and that they are not making as much progress in meditation as they’d like. They love the teachings, but find they can’t make them stick, and are sometimes discouraged to find they not really changing much. Some people even give up altogether.

Geshe-la meditating on a rock

I have thought about this quite a lot because I believe that we can make meditation harder than it needs to be even though, thanks to Buddha, Je Tsongkhapa, Geshe Kelsang, and their students, we, unbelievably, have access to the same liberating methods. I have always loved meditating, and I have already written a few things that I thought might be helpful here based on what I like to do (see end of article). But the other day in England, an old friend dating back to the early years of the NKT came to visit me. She told me that in the last couple of years her meditations had improved exponentially, and we discussed why. She volunteered all the things she had been doing “wrong” over the years and, with her permission, I thought I’d share this with you.

How not to meditate

(1)    Start by feeling inadequate, insecure, limited, perhaps even depressed, and think: “I really should meditate because I am so inadequate, insecure, limited, perhaps even depressed.” ie, identify with being a limited person from the outset, rather than identifying with your pure potential.

(2)    Do a few minutes half-hearted breathing meditation to try and settle the mind and get rid of at least a few of those strong distractions and delusions, but know really that it is a hopeless cause to try and get rid of all of them because, after all, I can’t meditate.

(3)    Perhaps do some prayers if we haven’t already done them distractedly at the beginning of the session – find it hard to stay focused on them as we’re not really in the zone, and thinking it doesn’t really matter as at least we’ll be creating some good karma.

(4)    Follow the guidelines for meditation – intellectually follow and repeat lines of reasoning that should lead us to our desired object, which is something we are not feeling at all at the moment; and, if we don’t get to our object, make it up. When the object fades, talk to ourselves some more. (Perhaps spend most of the meditation talking to ourselves and practically none of it absorbed.)

(5)    Push for blessings. I am inadequate etc and can’t meditate, but bless me anyway to get this object.

(6)    Feel slightly exhausted and make yourself a cup of coffee. Try and be good all day, but not from a natural place of deep inner peace and connectedness but because you know you’re supposed to be.

(7)    Result = no taste. Guilt. No fun. No progress. Commiserate with others experiencing the same thing. “I really can’t meditate!” “Don’t worry, nor can I!” Eventually stop trying at all.

Some solutions

My friend was not alone – she told me she found many people with whom to commiserate! Kadam Morten helped a lot of them when he led meditations in the new year at Manjushri Centre. As he and I have a long connection and practice in a very similar way, I thought I’d share some of these solutions. (Then please feel free to add your own ideas in the comments.) 

(1)    Tune in to what you have

Bear in car cute
Bear, recently died.

Relax into your meditation posture and then start where you are, allowing yourself to just sit there feeling positive and happy for a few minutes. Connect to any of the positive feelings you already have inside you, such as love for a cherished niece, compassion for a suffering animal you saw online, or a happy feeling you had when you understood that everything was dream-like. Enjoy that for a while. Don’t identify as a limited person and then take this into your meditation, “I am a terrible meditator, but here I am about to try and meditate”; this is self-defeating. Your good feeling is part of your Buddha nature, your endless capacity for kindness and improvement; you are going to meditate with this mind.

(2)    Settle the mind effectively

Start with one of the methods for overcoming distraction (see below), but to make this effective, recognize from the outset that you are just getting back to who and what you actually are. Your mind is naturally at rest and concentrated. Below your chattering thoughts, it is spontaneously pure, spacious, warm-hearted, vast, even blissful. But we don’t appreciate this. We are addicted to movement, skitting around on the surface of our minds with our constant inner chatter, babble, and anxieties, forgetting, if we ever knew it, who we really are and of what we are capable.

We are like droplets of water constantly thrown up on a vast, deep, boundless ocean, glinting and glittering and sometimes dancing around, but with no idea that they are water. We are so busy focusing outward that we forget or neglect the wellspring of happiness we already have inside. We have to remember this, our Buddha nature, if we are to allow ourselves to go deep and make progress. As Geshe Kelsang says in the chapter What is Meditation?:clear lake

“When the turbulence of distracting thoughts subsides and our mind becomes still, a deep happiness and contentment naturally arises from within…. We shall experience a calm, spacious feeling in the mind, and many of our usual problems will fall away. Difficult situations will become easier to deal with, we will naturally feel warm and well-disposed toward other people, and our relationships with others will gradually improve.” ~ Introduction to Buddhism

Notice the expressions “naturally” and “fall away” – there is no pushing here, you are just allowing those droplets of water to dissolve back into the profound stillness and clarity of your own root mind.

There are various methods to settle the mind, such as the different types of breathing meditation, for example focusing on the sensation of the breath at the nostrils, breathing smoke-like problems out and light-like blessings in, taking and giving, or OM AH HUM; as well as clarity of mind meditation, absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thought, and transforming enjoyments. We can all experience relative peace of mind by just focusing on the breath for a few minutes and letting the mind come to rest — then we pay attention to this experience. This is your own inner peace, you don’t need to add anything.

(3)    Identify with who you are, not who your ignorance says you are

Identify with this peace and spaciousness at your heart, thinking:

“This is who I actually am. Any peace I have, however slight, is my potential for lasting peace and happiness.”

Buddha smileIt is the peaceful, happy mind we liberate, not the agitated mind. Our inner peace is our Buddha nature or Buddha seed. Give yourself permission to experience this inner peace. Then enjoy this mind and deepen the experience. (You don’t need to grasp at the experience of inner peace and get tense, or you’ll lose it. Just sit back and relax.)

The inadequate, insecure, limited, perhaps even depressed you is not in fact you. This self is part of samsara, and is created by your ignorance. This self is just a thought, an hallucination, an idea – and a bad idea at that, so let it go. Don’t believe it. This is not the self that is going to become enlightened. Relate to yourself as inner peace and endless potential. Don’t relate to a limited self; you are limitless. You are not intrinsically a loser at meditation or anything else. Remember the lack of intrinsic characteristics, understanding that the only limitations you have are the ones you are creating.

(4)    Tune in to enlightened reality, blessings

Our peace and happiness are actually related to enlightened reality, its very seeds; and we naturally open ourselves to blessings if we understand this. Once you have realized your full potential you’ll become a Buddha, just like the Buddhas whom we can remember in front of us, around us, and/or inside us. Faith in the Buddhas necessitates faith in our own enlightened potential.

Also, others have this same potential and I want to help them realize it – you can remember that you are surrounded by living beings, those you’re already feeling connected to next to you, and tune into love and compassion.

As we’re in the presence of enlightened beings, we can think we are already in their vast, blissful, pure land, filled with offerings that we’re all enjoying. (This is included explicitly in the first 2 verses in Essence of Good Fortune, “May the whole ground become completely pure” and “May all of space be filled with offerings”.) If you do this, you’ll probably then have fun doing the prayers either verbally or mentally, and find it easy to focus on their meaning.

lotus reflectionIf you set your meditation up right, you will have no need to push for blessings because you’ll be receiving them naturally and can simply enjoy them. Your happy mind is a natural conduit for them. You can visualize them as lights and nectars if it’s helpful. Although Buddhas are blessing everyone all the time to bring them any measure of inner peace (it’s Buddha’s function), you can’t receive so-called “special” blessings to grow the seeds of your realizations if you’re holding tightly onto a limited sense of who you are and therefore feeling separate from them and miserable – trying vainly to feel the sun without opening up the shutters.

At any point in the meditation, right at the beginning even, as soon as it feels right and you’re ready, dissolve Guru Buddha into your heart, let your mind mix with his like a stream flowing into a vast, blissful ocean; and he can do the meditation with you.

(5)    Make it your own idea through contemplation and meditation

Feel you already have the object of meditation for a few moments, eg, “I think others are important and their happiness matters.” Pause to feel that. “Now I need to make this insight stronger and more stable.” We already have the seeds  for every single realization needed for enlightenment; through contemplation and meditation we are now watering these to grow them, not adding them from elsewhere to our mind.

Contemplate skillfully by asking yourself questions to make the meditations relevant to your own background, “Is this true for me? What examples do I have of this? Is today’s body really a result of others’ kindness?”, for example. Tune into your own experiences and build on those. Be creative in your meditations, use examples and analogies that move you. The idea is to make this your own idea, not just a good idea that someone else has had. Don’t dryly repeat things to yourself.

Although we know all our meditation objects through conceptual thought to begin with, this doesn’t mean that we have to over-think things or be exaggeratedly intellectual. When you want to protect your beloved dog, you are knowing him through a generic image; but that is not any kind of obstacle nor a dry intellectual thought — you still know him and love him viscerally, in your heart.

mirageA lot of our meditation objects are hidden in that they depend upon reasoning for us to discover them. So, let’s say you are meditating on emptiness, contemplating that all the things we normally perceive do not exist because they are analytically unfindable and whatever cannot be found cannot exist from its own side (and, if you like, throw in an example, like a mirage). We do gain our initial realizations of emptiness through correct beliefs and inferences, through such conceptual reasonings as this, but we still do realize our object and it does appear to us, and we need to stop thinking around it and just absorb into it.

For example, fire is a hidden object that we can know through the existence of smoke because we have reasoned correctly that wherever there is smoke there is fire. But let’s say you see smoke and know there is fire. Are you earnestly repeating to yourself: “Wherever there is smoke, there is fire; here there is smoke, therefore there is fire. Wherever there is smoke, there is fire; here there is smoke, therefore there is fire etc.”? No. You just know fire. You can stay with that knowledge; stop reminding yourself about how you came to know it. Also, its consequences are implicit, eg, you need to run get a hose! But in the case of emptiness, we don’t need at this point to run do anything, we can just sit with it and its extraordinary implications will sink in without the need for further analysis.

It is similar with all our meditations – as Geshe Kelsang says, for example, we start off by using the rounds of reasoning for realizing that death is definite and its time is uncertain, and we conclude: “I may die today, I may die today”, but then we concentrate on the feeling that it evokes. We stop repeating the reasoning and the words to ourselves and, like an eagle flying with barely a movement of its wings, we stay with the object in a spacious environment, identifying with it, enjoying it. Feel like you’re home. You’ve just arrived in your holiday cottage by the sea and can sit back and put your feet up. (And you’re not alone – the enlightened beings are right there on holiday with you.)

Bear in mind that it’s easy to generate any Lamrim mind when we are connected to our happiness and our potential. It is actually impossible to generate any Lamrim mind when we are identified with the self that we normally perceive, in other words when we are identifying with our limitations. See this article for examples.

(6)    Take your happiness for a walk

Charlie BrownIn the meditation break, keep connecting to that peaceful mind and insight so that when you return to your meditation seat you can quickly get back to it as there has been no real gap. Morten uses the analogy of walking a dog – take your happiness for a walk with you, remembering your happiness in and out of meditation. “Enjoy your mind”, he says, keep bringing the mind back to peace. Familiarize your mind with this source of happiness, then you’ll become a happy person. Don’t stamp on the small seedlings of peace/good experiences like a bad gardener stamping on tiny shoots of plants by identifying yourself with any delusions that arise. Protect your small seedlings of peace and happiness, go for refuge in them as your Dharma Jewel, and they will grow naturally.  As the Kadampa motto goes:

“Always rely upon a happy mind alone.”

If you understand that your happiness is your inner peace and you identify where it is and connect to it, and then you combine this knowledge with your constant, spontaneous wish to be happy, you will naturally go for refuge in your own inner peace both in and out of meditation.

I hope this helps. If we become good meditators, we can help others become good meditators too, and what a gift that will be.

Your turn: please share your own methods for being a happy, successful meditator. Or if you have any questions or doubts you want to clear up, please spell them out too.

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Do you ever feel discouraged?

Happy Easter in Buddhism Happy Easter Everyone! I thought today would be a good day to start a series of articles on how to become unstuck – overcoming the long winter of our discouragement to arise anew. Sloughing off our sense of a limited, fixed, deluded self — a self that doesn’t in any case even exist — and arising and identifying ourselves as a wise, peaceful, positive, loving, happy, blissful, free person instead.

Easter and Spring both seem to me occasions to celebrate the ripening of deep potential and fertility. Isn’t that what Jesus was showing when he arose from the dead on what is, according to Christian friends, the most uplifting day of the Christian calendar? Isn’t that also what eggs and bunnies are about? And, when the daffodils do finally manage to get their little yellow heads up above the snow, isn’t that what daffodils are about too?

Self-effacement or self-sabotage?

don't believe everything you thinkAt my day job last week I was asked to fill in an incredibly long and complicated (to me) application form in a very short period of time, and I was protesting inwardly and a little bit outwardly too: “Don’t make me do this! It’s way above my pay grade, someone else could do it so much better, there’s so much at stake, I’m going to blow it!”

Later that day I overheard someone talking about the impossibility of their realizing emptiness in almost exactly the same terms!

I realized we were both under the influence of discouragement, and therefore setting ourselves up for failure. Only when I got going and realized I probably could do this after all, (with a little encouragement), did I start enjoying myself; and I did a perfectly okay job of it. Likewise, only when we get going and get rid of the notion that we can’t do emptiness, (with a little encouragement and inspiration), can we start enjoying ourselves and get the job done.

Laziness in disguise

Discouragement is rampant in our times, and when it is applied to our spiritual practice it becomes a dangerous type of laziness, called the laziness of discouragement. Over the last year or so, quite a number of people have asked me to write something about it. Now that I’m back in the land of self-deprecation bordering on self-sabotage, I thought it would be a good time to start.

We have enormous spiritual potential. And everything depends upon our mind, our thoughts; including our sense of self. Holding onto the thought of a fixed, limited self is preventing us from changing and realizing our potential.

British self-effacement can be endearing and sometimes even humble, but as often as not it is a tight grasping at a limited sense of self that is holding us back from attempting or achieving anything that will help ourselves and others. The self-talk thoughts, “You’re useless”, “You’re too old”, “You can’t do this!”… these are not humility, these are aversion, and comments we would not want to put up with from other people. That we put up with and heed our own self-defeating thoughts is a big shame, considering we have a precious human life and Buddha nature and can do anything if we go for it. As one Facebook friend put it:

overcoming discouragement in Buddhism

“Discouragement is a problem for me – often there is no boundary between being self-effacing and being self-destructive in my mind. My teacher once very helpfully pointed out that the full name for discouragement is ‘the laziness of discouragement’, but we don’t often think of ourselves as lazy when we’re feeling discouraged.”

Which is true. We might be assuming that putting ourselves down is almost innocent. We don’t think of it as a delusion, but this laziness of discouragement IS a delusion. Perhaps it is even the most pernicious delusion, insofar as, under its influence, we let our life go by without changing ourselves, and it keeps us forever stuck in suffering if we let it.

We can understand the delusion of laziness better if we appreciate what is its opposite, positive mind, which is effort. So perhaps we can start here.

What is effort?

“Effort” can sound like a lot of effort! Joyful effort, its full name, is better, but still seems to require, well, effort. Is “energy” any better? Inspiration? Enjoyment?  I’m inspired to practice, I’m happy to practice, I love practicing, I enjoy practicing – these are all manifestations of effort, far more than “I need to put in the effort”, “I really ought to be practicing”…

amazing race to enlightenmentEffort can sound tense, can sound like we’re squeezing or pushing for results. Sometimes we are — as competitive westerners we can bring our competitive streak to our spiritual practice. We may be sitting next to someone thinking “I wonder how they’re concentrating? Oh no, they can meditate for far longer than me! Oh, their posture is so much better…” We tend to push a lot in our own culture, job, family, society and so forth – we push for results. And we can also feel under pressure to fake for results in order to look good.

Do you ever live your life as if people are looking over your shoulder and judging you? Perhaps feeling guilty when you don’t think you’re up to scratch as mothers, workers, partners, and even spiritual practitioners? Then we feel we need to push and try harder (or fake better!); but guilt is certainly no substitute for joy, and this is not effort. I love to practice Buddhism or Dharma as if no one is looking.

When I first went to America, I noticed that Americans are unafraid to tell you about their qualities, whereas you could never get a Brit to tell you about their qualities except under torture. Brits resort to understatement and self-deprecation: “I am perfectly useless at that… I can’t meditate for the life of me”, whereas Americans like to put their best foot forward at all times, which can be good, but which can also sometimes mean faking it a little – it’s a bit like a job interview culture. Perhaps some of us associate effort, then, with pushing, and not being entirely authentic – and basically not really experiencing any change. However, effort is all about changing.

If we can avoid the extremes of self-deprecation and insincerity, and have a joyful, confident, enthusiastic, and relaxed approach to our meditation practices, we are guaranteed to change a great deal for the better.

What is “virtue”?

Effort is defined in Buddhism as “a mind that delights in virtue”.

Virtue means the causes of happiness. Again, not what we always think when we think of the word virtue, which can sound a bit too, well, virtuous (goody two shoes = not what it means.)

So, effort delights in the causes of happiness. This doesn’t sound much like effort as we know it! But we can see that if we did have a mind that delighted in cultivating the causes of happiness, we’d end up being very happy, because we’d be joyfully creating joy! With effort our meditation becomes delightful, like a child playing his favorite video game, and how much effort does THAT take?! We are aiming at enjoying our practice so that it feels effortless – and that funnily enough IS what genuine effort feels like.Buddha's face in flower

We may not be there yet, but it is as well to know that this is what effort is. Not pushing. Not squeezing. Not clenching. Not forcing. Not grasping at results. Not feeling miserably as if I am over here TRYING so hard to practice, and the results are over there, years or even lifetimes away in the future, an unbridgeable chasm between us — setting ourselves up for failure. Not comparing and contrasting what everyone else is doing or fantasizing about what they think of us. Not putting ourselves down or believing all our own inner narrative about who we are. Effort is all about being in the present moment, enjoying virtue or the causes of happiness, identifying with being a happy person – enjoying, in other words, being positive, kind, wise, happy, and free.

A little tip: To begin with, if you have to, you can pretend you are enjoying your virtuous activities — or rather imagine that you are.  I remember when I first got into Buddhist that I used to do this with really long prayers, prostrations, fasting, and so on, as I didn’t always automatically enjoy these spiritual practices. So I would think: “I’m really enjoying this!” until I believed it. It is just thoughts, after all. It worked for me.

Next time, more on how we get stuck and how to get unstuck.

YOUR TURN: Please help me with my continued market research on the subject. Do you ever feel discouraged? How do you overcome it?