Want peace of mind? Get rid of your delusions.

We already have within us our own source of peace and happiness, as Buddhist master Geshe Kelsang says in Transform Your Life. It is our birthright, our Buddha nature, who we actually are. Sometimes we know this, when the dark clouds of discontent disperse and the sun naturally shines through. So if we have the constant potential for happiness, and we work very hard at it in various ways, why, we may well ask ourselves, is it so hard to stay happy 24/7?!

delusion negative emotionThe answer is “delusions.” We hear this word all the time in Buddhism. I know I’ve mentioned delusions umpteen times on Kadampa Life, and we’ve looked a bit at some of the main ones (ignorance, anger, attachment, jealousy, self-cherishing). Since identifying and removing our delusions is, one could say, the bread and butter of a happy life, I’ve been meaning to write something about delusions in general for a while. (Also, you can find out everything you’ve ever needed to know about them in Joyful Path of Good Fortune and Understanding the Mind.)

What is a delusion?

According to Buddhism, any unpeaceful, uncontrolled state of mind  is a delusion. All delusions are unrealistic minds arising from so called “inappropriate attention”, or thinking about things in a false way. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Delusions are distorted ways of looking at ourselves, other people, and the world around us–like a distorted mirror, they reflect a distorted world. ~ Transform Your Life, p. 7

what is a delusion, negative emotionOur experience of the world is only distorted and messed up because it is reflected in the messed up mirror of our minds. Our delusions see things that aren’t really there. You know the House of Mirrors at fairgrounds, where we are all bendy, then nine feet wide, then suddenly fourteen feet tall? We know not to get taken in because we know the nature of mirrors. But we get taken in by our delusions, even though it’s the same thing – they are reflecting something that is not there and then believing that it IS there.

Distorting reality

The deluded mind of hatred, for example, views other people as intrinsically bad, but there is no such thing as an intrinsically bad person. ~ Transform Your Life, p.7

When we don’t like someone, they’re just bad, almost as if they had a neon sign above them flashing, “I’m BAD” (and not in a cool way …) Hatred apprehends other people to be bad from their own side, intrinsically bad, having nothing to do with the way we’re looking at them. But of course there is no such thing as an intrinsically bad person. If they were bad from their own side, then everybody would see that neon sign, but they don’t. Their mother comes along and for her the big neon sign says, “I’m cuddly”, doesn’t it?

A dying soldier

I once saw a picture of a woman cradling a wounded man. She was weeping. I looked more closely and didn’t know who this man was, and I wasn’t weeping. I read the caption — it was a mother with her dying son, who had been shot during some fighting. Someone had looked at that man and thought, “This man is my enemy. He is bad, so hateful in fact that I have to shoot him to death.”

I looked at that man and saw a stranger. The man who shot him looked at that man and saw a repugnant enemy. The mother looked at hatred versus love, mother's lovethat man and saw a child, a beautiful, loveable person now destroyed. One person. Who is right, me, the person who shot him, or his mother? Actually, all of us and none of us. It just depends. How that person appears to us depends entirely on how we’re looking at him.

The blinkered mind of hatred however does not see the other ways in which that person could be perceived; it just sees “enemy”. Our own minds of dislike just see disagreeable people, dislikable people, and so on. They project an enemy, and then think that the enemy is really there.

Ninja the Rat

We can see this from our own ever-changing experiences. When our feelings and perceptions change toward someone, they appear totally different, even to our sense awarenesses. They are different people for us. I was once friendly with a rat. Generally humans and rats don’t get along too well, and when I first met Ninja the pet rat, whom I was to look after for a few weeks, I confess that although I didn’t exactly dislike him, I didn’t want to get that close to him either. His tail looked a bit creepy, for a start. However, as I got to know him, I came to find him entirely adorable. He had a strokeable tummy, bright eyes, and sensitive whiskers, and he was intelligent, inquisitive, brave, and friendly. He hung out under my desk in San Francisco in one of those plastic balls and chewed through my trouser leg when I was absorbed in my work – I still look at the hole with affection.

cute pet rat, loveWhich view of this rat was correct? Ninja felt he was just Ninja throughout, but I had the experience of a completely different rat. There was no rat outside of my experience of the rat. That rat I first met didn’t exist outside of my experience, and nor did the sweet rat. If you had come to tea with me, for example, you might not have found him quite so sweet.

So there is no such thing as an intrinsically bad rat or bad human being. There is so much more to a person than the obnoxious person we are projecting, but when we’re angry we’re convinced that all they are is nasty.

Even if they are behaving in deluded ways, this is still not all there is to them – in fact they are not their delusions at all.

Our anger is a delusion because we are distorting reality — exaggerating their negative aspects, and then pouring mental superglue over them so they cannot change. While the mind of hatred or anger is functioning, it has no choice but to perceive an enemy. That delusion has to subside for the enemy to disappear. This is why Geshe Kelsang famously remarked during one teaching, to a rare round of applause:

Love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys enemies.love is the nuclear bomb that destroys enemies

It is not just our anger — all our delusions are projecting and then believing something that is not there. In the next article on delusions, I’m going to look at this some more.

Your turn. Do you ever project things that are not there and then get taken in by them?

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Unstoppable ~ 8 ways in which our thoughts are like a run-away train

delusions, runaway trainThe movie Unstoppable is based on the true 2001 story of a runaway train. The “real life” CSX 8888 train in Ohio was holding some toxic materials, whereas the movie train 777 in Pennsylvania was full of highly combustible molten phenol that could have blown up a huge area. It had to be stopped before it reached Stanton.

To begin with, the train company thought it was a “coaster” – not ideal to have it loose on the main line, but far better than it running on its own power. It was still manageable at a speed of between 10 and 20 miles per hour, giving someone time to hop on board and take control.

Then they discovered that due to “human error” and “bad luck”, the throttle had in fact jumped from idle to full power. The train was speeding away at over 70 miles per hour. It quickly burnt through its independent brakes.

Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, BuddhismMovie spoiler: As you might expect, after lots of drama, corporate pride and greed, and false moves, our heroes in the aspect of Denzel Washington and Chris Pine risked their lives for others and saved the day. They rode the train into town almost unscathed, to be greeted by relieved, happy hugs and kisses all around.

Well, this movie got me thinking about our thoughts and how out of control they can be. In the old days, Buddha Shakyamuni often likened the uncontrolled mind to a powerful, wild elephant that could trample an entire grass village and everyone in it. We don’t have too many elephants around where I live, and our houses are made of wood and concrete, so I have been finding the run-away train full of explosives analogy to be a good updated substitute. Buddha Shakyamuni said our mind is like a crazy elephant

(The stages of the path (Lamrim) teachings encourage us to deepen our meditative insights with the use of our own and others’ experience, stories, and analogies. I bet Buddha Shakyamuni, Shantideva, and others would have used cars and trains and planes etc as analogies too if they’d been invented at the time, seeing how much time we all spend in them…)

These are the main ways I’ve been applying the analogy of the train to help me understand how our own uncontrolled thoughts arise, and how we can get back into the driver’s seat.delusions are like a runaway train

  1. Human error – the hapless “driver” who switched the wrong lever and then left the cab was being ignorant, careless, and lazy. Like us most days. We switch on anger instead of patience, for example, either because we are ignorant of our options, or because we are being careless with our options as we reckon it doesn’t matter too much, or because we can’t be bothered to apply the right option if it seems like hard work.
  2. Like the train, while our negative thoughts are coasting along slowly they are easier to control and divert than when they have built up powerful momentum and a life of their own due to inappropriate attention.
  3. Like the train crisis arising from many causes and conditions, including bad luck, so our thoughts arise from many different causes and conditions, including bad karma or bad luck. We have also developed karmic tendencies for negative thoughts by thinking them repeatedly in the past.
  4. Like the train with no driver in control, at the moment our thoughts are driving us. We need to drive them. Also, this driverlessness reminds me that although our thoughts are pre-programmed to wreak havoc due to beginningless conditioning to our delusions, they are still ownerless or empty of inherent existence. Therefore they are unfixed, such that all habitual momentum can be reversed.
  5. Like the train, our thoughts are carrying toxic explosive substances – potentially dangerous and fatal to ourselves and others.
  6. Like the train, our negative thoughts need to be stopped as soon as possible – and we’ll need all the courage and ingenuity at our disposal to stop them. Pride, greed, fatalism, and over-caution won’t stop them. Only skill, energy, compassion, and wisdom will.
  7. Like the train, when our thoughts are under control we can ride them safely and peacefully and go wherever we want to go.Phew, no more delusions
  8. Like the train arriving home, everyone is very relieved and happy when we finally manage to get our minds under control.

Your turn: in the comments, please share any modern analogies or stories that you have found helpful for increasing your insights.

Why am I so sad? Removing the two ego minds at the source of our pain.

In a recent article I tried to explain how self-grasping and self-cherishing, and the delusions they spawn, entirely undermine our happiness. Luckily, nothing is fixed – if we can understand these two ego-centered states of mind at the source of our pain and dissatisfaction, that’s the first step to removing them. We don’t need them to survive, to live. The actual nature of our mind is purity – all our delusions are temporary defilements like clouds obscuring a clear sky.

Who comes first?

Not only are we not more important than anybody else, we’re certainly not more important than everybody else, which is what self-cherishing actually thinks. “My happiness comes first.” What does that mean?  My happiness comes first means it comes before the happiness of everybody else. That’s what “first” means, doesn’t it? There are millions of beings in the area around us alone, and our self-cherishing still manages to hold onto the thought, “I’m more important than all of them.” We may not admit that in polite company, it’s way too embarrassing to say it out loud at a dinner party; but if we check what motivates our thoughts and actions day and night, we are trying to serve and protect this sense of me or I, holding it to be the most important me in the world.

Stepping into others’ shoes

When our mind is less ignorant and deluded — for instance when we manage out of love to step out of our shoes and into somebody else’s — then what happens to our sense of self at that time, and our sense of other? It is less polarized, isn’t it? It evens out somewhat. Others feel more like “us” and we feel closer to them. When we do the meditation on equalizing self and others for example, we’re equalizing our sense of self and our sense of other so that we no longer have the sense that our self is like this incredibly important weighty thing and others are neither here nor there. When there is love, empathy, consideration, and so on, our sense of self is far, far less exaggerated and we see no real difference between our self and others.

Big fat ME

But when a delusion such as attachment, anger, jealousy or miserliness is arising, there’s a big fat sense of ME. Why do we cling tightly to our possessions, for example, or our time? Why do we not share ourselves with others, and instead hold ourselves back?  Because we’re trying to defend this isolated castle of me against the hordes of other. On the other hand, when we’re feeling really open and generous, that sense of me is greatly reduced.

Referring to cherishing others on the one hand, and the self-cherishing that thinks our happiness matters most on the other, Shantideva says:

All the happiness there is in the world
Arises from wishing others to be happy,
And all the suffering there is in this world
Arises from wishing ourself to be happy.

Destruction

I sometimes get the New York Times on Sunday. The cashier in Publix the other day wanted to know, “What’s in that paper that’s worth the six bucks?!” And, apart from using it to develop renunciation and compassion, I’m not sure why I do pay good money to torment myself with it for, as they say, no news is good news. Where does this seemingly endless array of disasters around our world actually come from? I think it’s easy to see how much suffering comes from negative, destructive actions — actions motivated by attachment and greed such as pollution and theft, actions motivated by hatred and anger, such as war and murder. When people’s minds are peaceful, calm, and loving, they don’t engage in negative actions (and generally they don’t make the news…)

According to Buddhism, our negativity all comes from our negative minds. This negativity gives rise to suffering, both in the short term, and, from a karmic point of view, in the long term. So these negative actions are all coming from our delusions, these delusions are all coming from our self-cherishing, and our self-cherishing is coming from our self-grasping ignorance.

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang says in Transform Your Life:

All negative actions are motivated by delusions, which in turn arise from self-cherishing.  First we develop the thought,    “I am important,” and because of this we feel that the fulfillment our wishes is of paramount importance. Then we desire for ourself that which appears attractive and develop attachment, we feel aversion for that which appears unattractive and develop anger, and we feel indifference toward that which appears neutral and develop ignorance. From these three delusions, all other delusions arise. Self-grasping and self-cherishing are the roots of the tree of suffering, delusions such as anger and attachment are its trunk, negative actions are its branches, and the miseries and pains of samsara are its bitter fruit.

Samsara refers to a life seeded by and poisoned by delusions and suffering, the world described for example in the New York Times. Those who live free from delusions are not in samsara; they are called Foe Destroyers as they have destroyed the foe of delusions (and presumably have their own rather more cheerful newspaper.)

So, who does come first?

The fact is that we’re not the most important person. We’ll never get anyone to agree with us that we are, except possibly our mother (sometimes). We have this strong sense of self-importance, but everybody is exactly the same in that they’re seeking happiness and trying to avoid suffering. Everyone is equal in that respect, and their happiness and their suffering are just as significant as ours. When our mind is in a balanced non-deluded state, we understand this.

Everybody is me or I. We pay lip service to equality – it is even in the American constitution!

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…

It would be wonderful if we could really feel that everybody was equal. It would instantly solve so many problems arising from self-cherishing and other delusions.

The Mahayana Buddhist path involves reducing our delusions, especially self-cherishing and self-grasping, and increasing all our positive minds that are the opponents to those delusions, especially compassion and wisdom.

Conclusion
Which direction, samsara or liberation?

As I said at the beginning of this short series of articles, Buddha’s synopsis of the human condition is very encouraging because we are not evil, much less doomed. It is possible for all of us to overcome all our suffering if we simply overcome our ignorance. When we finally cut the root of delusions and suffering through realizing selflessness, delusions and suffering cannot survive. For a full understanding of this, check out the Ultimate Truth chapter in Modern Buddhism, which you can download entirely for free!!

Your turn. Where do you think all pain comes from?! Please share your experiences in the comments and or on the Facebook page, and also give this article to others if it’s useful.

Previous articles in this series:
What is the root of all evil according to Buddha?

Must we all suffer?
Why can’t I be happy?

Must we all suffer?

The last article, What is the root of all evil according to Buddha?, looked at how self-grasping — thinking that our I or me is real, solid, independent — naturally leads to self-cherishing, which believes that same I or me to be the most important.

Self-cherishing thinks that holding onto ourselves and other things, finding pleasure for ourselves, protecting ourselves, serving ourselves, will make us secure, will make us rich, will make us happy. But this is a lost cause from the get go because we are busy cherishing an independent self that doesn’t even exist. It’s a phantom. There is no real me. If there was, everyone who looked at us would see ME, but they don’t. Not even slightly. They see “you”, “other”, “she”, “it”, and maybe on a good day “we”.

No wonder we tie ourselves in knots and don’t know who we are most of the time. A friend uses this analogy – a sleek black limo turns up at the Oscars, and a hefty bodyguard emerges from the driver’s seat and runs around importantly to open the back door… who could it be, everyone is wondering? The bodyguard is scraping and bowing, the crowd is on tenterhooks, and out steps…. nobody.

That bodyguard clearly has to engage in some elaborate tricks to keep serving and protecting a celebrity who doesn’t even exist and to convince the public that it does. It is the same for our self-cherishing – it has to engage in contorted mental acrobatics to sustain the illusion of a real self, telling constant stories to ourselves and others about who and what we are, needing our reputation and status even though they are hollow, grasping at permanence, and constantly trying to bolster up our flimsy self-image with seemingly solid props such as material security, a career, validating friends, etc.

This futile, misleading attitude also causes all our other delusions and their resultant suffering. Geshe Kelsang says:

It is impossible to find a single problem, misfortune, or painful experience that does not arise from self-cherishing ~ Transform Your Life

Self-cherishing thinks: “I am more important than others. My happiness matters more than your happiness. My suffering matters more. My problems are more interesting, for a start, and certainly more significant than yours.” Who exactly is this fascinating, important, unique I or me that self-cherishing is so keen to serve and protect? It is the I or me that feels independent and unrelated to everybody else, the REAL me! I’m me, you’re you, I’m self, you’re other, I’m over here, you’re over there. There’s a gap between us. The self-cherishing protecting that fake turf gives rise to all our problems, misfortunes, and painful experiences.

How? More coming later. Meantime, comments welcome!

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What is the root of all evil according to Buddha?!

Synopsis

Buddha said that the root of all our negative minds — all our so-called “delusions” or unpeaceful, uncontrolled minds — is self-grasping ignorance. We are grasping very tightly at an exaggerated sense of self — an I or me that is independent, real. Due to this we naturally develop a grossly overrated, over the top, overweening sense of our own importance, a delusion called “self-cherishing”. Due to this, we naturally develop all the other delusions such as anger and attachment. Due to this, we naturally do negative actions. Due to this, we suffer!

I find this to be an immensely encouraging summary of our human condition. We are not evil at heart, just ignorant, and ignorance can be overcome. We can tackle it in ourselves and forgive it in others. I think that Jesus understood that we are not evil, just ignorant, when he cried out on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Rewind

So, let’s rewind to the starting point. We grasp at a real or inherently existent me or I all the time, but sometimes it is more obvious to see how — when we are afraid or embarrassed, for example. Geshe Kelsang gives the example of being about to fall off a cliff. We are not thinking “Aarrghhh, my body is about to fall!” or “Aarrghhh, my mind is about to fall!” – just “Aarrghhh, I am about to fall”. We have a visceral non-analytical grasping at a me or self that appears solid, real and graspable, and we are terrified for it. (If we had the time and mental space to analyze, we’d see that this I we’re grasping is independent, different from our body and mind, and existent from its own side. But self-grasping doesn’t analyze, it just grasps, and strongly at times like this…!)

Here’s another example. Imagine for a moment that you are attending a large meditation class, and at the beginning the organizer says: “Please remember to switch off your cell phones.” But you forget, and just as it becomes all quiet and peaceful, your cell phone goes off. Loudly. And it’s one of those really funky theme tunes that you chose late one night and never got round to switching back. And then what happens is a sense of “UH OH!”

Check what’s going on now. You have a powerful sense of me or I, don’t you? “My cell phone’s ringing! Everyone is looking at me! I look like such an idiot!” Within that embarrassment is a strong sense of me or I as unrelated to, or distinct from, everybody else in the room. You feel rather estranged from them at this point, don’t you? They’re over there looking at me, I’m over here. I’m really me, this is the real me here, and they’re really other. And there’s a gap between us, there’s some alienation there, some estrangement, I am all alone in here. “Help me out!” Maybe you give the friend you came with a little embarrassed smile, mentally beseeching, “Maybe you can help me out here, I’m feeling out on a limb, share the burden …”

Does a scenario like this one ring any bells?! We are experiencing a sense of isolation, grasping at a self that is independent and unrelated to others, and feeling that it is the real, the only — the one and only — ME.

Stand up the real me

Who is the real me? We always think it’s us, don’t we? “I’m the real me, everybody else is other. Everyone other than me may think they’re me, but I’m me.” That attitude is actually almost as familiar to us as breathing, but the fact of the matter is that it’s basically nonsense.

We’re not the only me. In fact, I don’t know where you are right now but my guess is that there’s probably a lot of me’s around you, each one of them with a perfect right to call themselves “me” for they’re just as much me as you are. We have a strong sense of self-importance, that our happiness matters and so on, and where is that coming from?  If we check very carefully, we can see that it’s because we believe that our me is more real and therefore more important than others’ me! Strip away all the rationalizations and we end up with: “It is of the most crucial importance that I am happy and not sad because I am me.” 

But that mind is an ignorant mind. This may or may not come as a surprise, but you are actually not more real and important than me! Or anybody else. Not even close. In fact, what grounds do we actually have for thinking that we are more real and important than others? Do we have any grounds?

“Hands up who thinks I’m most important”

If we really were more real and important than others, don’t you think there’d be at least a few other people who agree with us about that? Maybe I should put up a Facebook poll to ask that very question: who is the most important person reading this page?! Whose happiness and suffering matters most? I think it would be a fairly divided poll. I don’t think we’re going to get a whole lot of consensus on that question.

Continued in this article … meanwhile, your turn. Have you ever had a scary or embarrassing experience where you notice at the time or in retrospect that you are/were grasping at ME really tightly?! What did that feel like?

Don’t worry, be happy

Sarah, the piano, and the Italian vacation

We can get in the habit of worrying about small things incessantly if we are not careful. Of course, our worries never feel small because they fill our mind. There is no objective scale.

I was in England this summer visiting my family. We spent a delightful weekend in a family reunion in St. Albans, quite a well-to-do town just north of London, where my brother, sister-in-law and their children live, work, and play.

As my sister-in-law and I dropped off my niece and nephew at their elementary school one morning, I noticed a mother hovering near us, looking ever so slightly tense. The moment we were done, she approached my sister-in-law, her friend, and, after feigning some interest at meeting me, started to spill the beans. She was really anxious and worried. Why, we asked? Because she had to buy a piano, was the first reason. The second? Because she had to plan a two-week holiday in Italy to celebrate her husband’s 50th birthday.

Ermm, these were problems?!?!

For the piano, it took a little while for C to reassure her that it’d all be ok and that she wouldn’t necessarily end up with an out-of-tune piano as she feared. As for the villa in Tuscany, half-way through reassuring her about this we ran out of time, which was not a bad thing.

Sarah is clearly a bit of a nervous Nellie. C said it is hard to imagine how she could ever not worry about something.

These middle-class worries reflected a skewed perspective – the headlines the very same day told of the new famine in the Horn of Africa. But she is not alone. We all get things out of proportion. Many of us worry at least some of the time about things that would clearly be considered luxuries by the rest of the planet. My own current worry concerns a cat, for example.

Are you ever a nervous Nellie or Nigel?

Over coffee my sister-in-law, brother and I discussed how to stop worrying, as C admits that she herself worries too much. For example, she was annoyed at having to waste an inordinate amount of time over the weekend on school politics. My niece, a gifted singer, was sharing the role of Alice in the school musical Alice in Wonderland. The mother of the other Alice wanted both Alices to wear a particular dress, but my niece hated the dress, and so who was going to back down? C said she worried about her daughter and how to resolve this situation all weekend, even in the midst of all the family jollity.

To digress slightly: worry can seem more justified when it is a mother bear defending her cub. It also becomes entwined with its best friend guilt, perhaps an even stickier delusion to shift. I had my first intimation of this not long ago — again being solely responsible for a wayward cat was the trigger — when I found myself guiltily thinking I wasn’t doing enough: “I am a terrible mother!” This was quite a new sensation for me, as it happens. I’ve never understood it before when perfectly saintly mothers say such things.

On this occasion, as always, C was very sensitive and diplomatic and actually did manage to sort it all out to everyone’s satisfaction, but she didn’t enjoy any of it, and she did still begrudge the whole event.

My brother is not a worrier. In a flash of inspiration, but in his typically laconic way, he suggested:

“A problem like this could have been time-consuming without being mind-consuming.”

He followed that by explaining she may have to deal with it, as life is like that, but that she didn’t have to take it personally, make it her problem, or worry about it at the same time. For effect he turned on his Billy Bass fish who sings the ‘Don’t worry be happy’ song.

(I noticed that he also has a ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster above his desk. There is a saying in Buddhism ‘Train in every activity by words’, and Billy Bass and a 1939 Ministry of Information poster seem to do the trick for him.)

They both inspired me to write some articles on the subject of worry as it seems to be a bit of an epidemic. The whole of Buddhism is methods to decrease worry, but with the help of my Facebook friends I’ll look at a few methods that might work straightaway. Anyone can have a go at applying these, regardless of background. After all, worry is universal and knows no boundaries of culture or geography – it arises from inappropriate attention and seems related to all or any of the three root delusions (attachment incl. expectations; aversion; ignorance). Your comments, as always, will be very welcome.

(The remaining articles on overcoming worry can be found here.)

A Buddhist solution to boredom

UK riots

The unexpected riots and looting in England left all of us wondering where they sprung from. There were some extenuating external factors but, as I said in this last article, I think they certainly were inflamed by inappropriate attention and the baleful influence of unhelpful “friends”. I also agree with those who say that they arose from attachment/greed (no shop was safe, no matter how innocent), the “me first” mind of self-cherishing and even plain boredom. A lot of vandalism in general is primarily motivated by boredom, and even back in the Roman days a graffitist wrote:

“Wall, I wonder that you haven’t fallen down in ruin, when you have to support all the boredom of your inscribers.”

Rioting might have seemed like a lot more fun than slouching around on another street corner or trying to find something to watch on summertime British TV. Perhaps the 24/7 access to You Tube, Xbox, Google and Facebook had also at least temporarily lost its ability to charm and distract, I’m sure we all know that feeling.

Santino the Chimp
Santino the Chimp

A chimp called Santino collects rocks before his Swedish zoo opens in the morning so he can pelt them at the roughly 300 humans who come to stare at him. Is he bad-tempered, seeking relief from boredom, or a bit of both?

Where does boredom come from?

Do you ever feel bored? Or how about ennui, lethargy, inertia, melancholy, flatness, or any of its other close cousins!? What does it feel like? What do you do about it? It seems to be a universal predicament in all age groups and income brackets. Kids during endless summer holidays get bored, adolescents notoriously get bored, people working day in and day out at dead-end jobs get bored, people with no jobs get bored, old people stuck in their houses get bored, caged animals get bored, and even people with comparatively nothing to be bored about get bored (think mid-life crisis). Perhaps we all get bored sometimes unless we are just too busy, which may be the opposite problem?! Nor is it just a recent phenomenon – humans and animals have been getting bored for as long as they’ve had minds, namely since beginningless time.

So where does boredom come from? The reason it is so common is probably that it is a facet of one of the three main mental poisons – ignorance. One reason I think this is that in the meditation on equanimity we get rid of our three poisons of: (1) closeness for our friends out of attachment, (2) distance for our enemies out of anger, and (3) indifference for boring strangers out of ignorance. And we can also develop equanimity with respect to inanimate objects, overcoming attachment, aversion and indifference/boredom for them too.

In some ways, if we are not in a state of attachment or aversion and things appear just neutral, boredom may be our kind of natural default! We feel unengaged, indifferent and distanced from the things we find neutral. At the same time, we paradoxically feel more hemmed in because everything seems more solid and real. What do you think?! In the mind-training book Universal Compassion, Geshe Kelsang says that for ordinary beings:

Attractive objects cause desirous attachment to arise, unattractive objects cause anger, and neutral objects cause ignorance… Those with special interest in training the mind, however, should try to change this and develop the three virtuous minds instead of the three poisons.

We become bored by supposed predictability and unavoidable and unchanging circumstances that seem beyond our control – not understanding that our own minds are the creators of our ever-changing and indeed unpredictable circumstances, and that we can take control of our minds. In terms of the inappropriate attention that accompanies all delusions, I would think that we are exaggerating the apparent solidity, permanence, and inherent existence of our situation whenever we are bored.

I agree with a Facebook friend Matthew who says that the boredom of the UK rioters is related to impatience (a type of anger) and attachment too:

“I think boredom is a form of impatience. Therefore patience is an antidote – so is contentment. It is said that young people tend to equate happiness with excitement while older people equate happiness with peace. Boredom in the young is related to attachment to excitement.”

 It could be that in this age of instant ever-shifting entertainment in our pockets it is harder in general to stay interested and absorbed, and boredom is likelier to crop up. But I think that the lack of excitement or pleasure itself comes from an ignorance grasping strongly at an inherently existent world outside the mind and thus feeling alienated from it, adrift, unconnected, unable to enjoy. Boredom also comes from fruitlessly seeking happiness in that inherently existent external world for, as Jenny on Facebook puts it:

“Maybe it arises from lack of understanding of where true happiness is to be found – surely if we didn’t search for happiness in external things we would have no reason to be bored?”

Are these the causes or symptoms of boredom that Kelsang Dorje describes on Facebook?:

“A lack of feeling of any place in the community or world. A feeling of impotence and disenchantment for a world that seems to ignore one and holds no opportunity for productive action or pleasure.”

The stronger we grasp at the world existing outside of ourselves, the more isolated, alienated, impotent, bored, and yes, ignored, we are going to feel. Then we are naturally going to start craving anything that will excite us and become impatient when nothing exciting enough seems to be forthcoming to relieve the monotony and feeling of being hemmed in.

Lack of or too much identity?

It is paradoxical that young rioters are described as suffering from a “lack of identity” because although on one level that is true insofar as they are demonstrating no healthy sense of self-worth, when we are bored our sense of identity is more concrete than ever. We are holding ourself separate from the rest of the world, me versus them. It is just not a very constructive or wise sense of self as it ignores our profound connection to others on every level. Although we can be bored on our own or in the company of others, loneliness also seems to be boredom’s never far-straying twin.

Creativity v. boredom

Whenever as a kid I complained of having nothing to do, my mother would say that annoying old-fashioned thing:

“If you’re bored, you’re boring.”

Thing is though, I could see she had a point. Boredom is the opposite of creativity. While we’re bored we feel like a victim of our circumstances, we feel disenfranchised, we don’t feel creative, we don’t feel in charge. When I heard teachings on emptiness I realized I had lost my excuse to be bored ever again because I was creating my own reality moment by moment through conceptual imputation – and there is nothing boring about an act of creation that cosmic! It doesn’t mean that I have yet completely conquered boredom though, I still detect it sometimes – which is partly why I am interested in the subject. The best antidote for me is to meditate, which is creative and uplifting, and in particular to remember emptiness. Wisdom, I find, dismantles the temporal and spatial walls erected by boredom. For an amazingly clear introduction to the wisdom realizing emptiness, you can download this free Buddhist eBook Modern Buddhism and read the chapter called “Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta”.

Because boredom lacks creativity, it is understandable that graffiti artists, for example, try to assuage it by writing on walls in an act of creation that may or may not annoy everyone else in the neighborhood. We can of course try to change our circumstances in helpful ways to alleviate boredom if the opportunity is there — seeking a more challenging job, for example, or meeting new people, or taking up a hobby, or simply taking ourself out of the house for a walk in a new area. This can be helpful, especially if we are well motivated. Boredom, in other words, can lead us to creativity and useful innovation. But as the main cause of boredom is internal (ignorance), the main creative solution is also to be found within our own minds – dismiss that fact, and we may soon enough find ourselves becoming bored by our new job, companions, trees, or hobbies. After all, we’ve been trying to change the circumstances of our lives to solve our boredom since beginningless time, yet here we all are, still finding ourselves bored.

Precious human life

Paul on FB suggested the rioters:

“Meditate on ur precious human life!”

which is a good starting point providing someone lets them know that they have one! In fact it is the starting point for all of us, realizing that we have more choices and prospects than we knew. Nick Vujicic, who I wrote about in this article, has no arms or legs and therefore seemingly far fewer opportunities than the rest of us; but try telling him that!

Summary

According to Buddhism, when we’re attached, the main opponent is non-attachment or the wish for true mental freedom. When we’re angry the main opponent is patience or love. When we are indifferent, or bored, the main opponent is non-ignorance, or the wisdom realizing emptiness and an understanding of the mind’s power to create. There is always something creative to do. Loren Jay Shaw managed to find creative ways to stave off boredom for three years in solitary confinement!

As with all opponents to delusions, however, we need to know about them before we can apply them. Once again I find myself grateful for Buddha’s teachings, or to be honest I think I too would be bored out of my mind with samsara by now.

Do you have any good solutions for boredom? Please share them. And share this article with anyone who might be getting bored during these long dog days of summer!