Improving our focus

6 mins read.

focus on the solutionWhen we first attempt breathing meditation:

Our mind will be very busy, and we might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. ~ How to Transform Your Life

All we are asking our mind to do is focus on the in-breath and out-breath, how hard can that be?! But apparently we have an inane and endless talk show going on in our head. This is what we are dealing with when we close our eyes and try to focus on our breath — our uncontrolled mind has other ideas. A lot of other ideas. Some of them terrible ideas! Which is all the more reason why we need to bring it under control through improving our focus.

Mac n med

Concentration as explained in Buddhism is our ability to control our mind, to direct it at will, to focus on one meaningful object and eventually stay there for as long as we want. It allows us to think the thoughts we want to think as opposed to the thoughts that make us feel sad, bad, or mad.

Concentration makes our mind strong, clear, and relaxed, and we become more productive. It always makes us feel better, far more peaceful. It even makes us more physically comfortable. And, as mentioned in this article, we are not a moment too soon in getting better at it.

lotusConcentration goes along with mindfulness, which remembers our object by preventing forgetfulness or distractions. In How to Understand the Mind, where these mental factors or states of mind are all explained in detail, it says:

If we meditate with strong mindfulness our mind will remain on its object without distraction and we will naturally develop stable concentration.

Concentration also goes along with alertness, which is a type of wisdom or self-awareness that actually knows what our mind is up to, including wandering off to other things.

Meditation makes full use of all three – mindfulness, alertness, and concentration (MAC for short 😉 ) – improving them steadily. If we are to have any hope of experiencing the lasting happiness and mental freedom we long for, we need to train in MAC both in meditation sessions and in all areas of our life.

And it doesn’t have to be hard work. Frankly, it is far harder work to spend all day every day having to keep pace with our uncontrolled thoughts.

Reclaim your mind

distractionsWe don’t need to go on courses to learn how to feel busy and have out of control thoughts. That comes pretty naturally already. What we do need to learn to do is control our mind so we can direct it at will, get it to do what we want it to do rather than the other way around.

We already try and control everything else – where we eat, what we wear, who we date, where we live, what we do for a job, who we root for in politics, and so on. Of course this doesn’t always work out – but, even those times we do manage to control other people or our external circumstances, it makes little difference to our peace of mind if we don’t have control over our thoughts.

It is frankly weird that we don’t have control over the thoughts in our own mind, if you think about it. It is torture to have to think stupid stuff all the time — yet it is also utterly “normal”. We accept it as normal. But it is the reason we are suffering. And it doesn’t have to be like this. With just a little effort, we can get a whole lot better at staying focused on peace and happiness.

(By the way, some people don’t really like the term “controlling the mind” as it sounds a bit too, well, controlling. So you can think of it as taking charge of our mind and/or having choice over what our mind does and/or mastering our mind. Being a real superhero.)

Bigger picture

duckNot to mention the bigger picture … where are all these uncontrolled, unchosen thoughts taking us? To more uncontrolled, unchosen life — more samsara. How could they be taking us anywhere else? With irritation and attachment, jealousy and confusion, and so on, and the confused intentions and actions that arise from these minds, we are busy creating the karmic causes to experience some form of future unease or pain in our body and mind.

Today I overheard a woman in the park saying, “In my next life I want to be a duck.” Although she was watching an admittedly laid-back duck sunning himself on a rock, I thought, “No. Mm mm. No, you don’t. Don’t even joke about it.”

Our conceptual thoughts and sense consciousnesses cease at death, along with our sense of self or our current personality; but our deepest level of mental consciousness continues after this body screeches to a halt, our karma going with it. If I die today without having controlled my mind and my karma, where can I guarantee ending up tomorrow? What choices will I have?

Single-pointedness

Concentration is the ability to stay single-pointedly focused on an object, a skill that is key in the pursuit of happiness. For example, we may be surrounded by all the necessary conditions to become upset, such as grumpy co-workers or scary politics, but if our bench and reflectionmental spot light is trained on patient acceptance, we will not experience any unhappiness. And we will be able to respond more constructively to whatever is going on.

Concentration is the focus in our mind that enables us to get closer and closer to the object. With strong concentration our mind mixes with the object, as if there is no space between the object and us. It is like that beautiful TS Eliot quote:

music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

We’re actually already very good at concentrating on some things, namely objects of desire or aversion. When we’re attracted to someone, we call up all their features in ravishing detail with very little effort. When we’re angry with someone, we have single-pointed concentration on their faults. But this is not the concentration referred to by Buddha, which is necessarily positive or virtuous. To be happy, we want to be able to maintain these levels of concentration on wise and virtuous objects, which lead us in a positive direction. If we focus all our attention on, for example, the loving thought ‘May everyone be happy’, it’s like a laser beam trained onto a happy, powerful experience.

Buddha said that there is nothing more powerful in this universe than a fully concentrated mind. The reason our mind lacks power is because it is fractured. It is all over the place. We talk to ourselves, apparently, at a rate of a thousand words a minute: IMG_5328-EFFECTS‘What’s going on, who’s that coming in, what am I doing later, how should I respond to that insult?’ We rarely focus on one object. Our mind is currently in a state of constant motion, flitting onto anything that catches its fancy, then flitting away again.

Buddha likened the uncontrolled mind to a monkey scampering up and down a tree grabbing and throwing stuff, or a crazy elephant wreaking havoc on a village. For a modern-day example, I think that being trapped in an out of control, unfocused mind is like trying to drive a car without a steering wheel. Or without brakes. Or even while we are locked in the trunk!

Part Two is here: Getting started with mindfulness.

Over to you! Comments welcome below.

Related articles

How to meditate – a selection of articles on breathing meditation 

When the mind wanders, happiness also strays

Breathe your way to inner peace 

Aligning with reality

8.5 mins read

impossible jigsaw puzzleDo you ever find yourself attempting to fit all the jigsaw pieces of life together to make a perfect picture, the one they promised on the box, only to discover (yet again) that life is not remotely neat or tidy, much less perfect? Moreover, our outwardly-oriented desires are constantly bringing us into conflict with others, who have different ideas of which pieces should be placed first or go where, or — more often than not — have a different picture on the box!

On the other hand, when we drop from our head into our heart and experience some depth and peace, we can feel our inner energy winds starting to draw inwards, toward our heart, instead of flowing outwards. If we pay attention, we can actually feel some absorption or gathering of winds taking place (a bit like water absorbing into a sponge, or waves gathering or sucking back into the ocean).

Carrying on from the themes of these two articles, Deep healing and The most important journey of our life.

Why do we need to know this? Because, bottom line, we could all do with more inner peace.

Check this out for a moment: Where do you feel peaceful? Is it in your head? Where do you feel things most deeply? Is that in your head?

No, it all happens in our heart. Everyone knows this really (even those who insist the mind is the brain); which is why ❤️ is the universally understood symbol for love.

love uWe drop into our heart by simply believing we are now centered there, not in our head. Just close your eyes for a moment and imagine you are there, starting to feel that extra bit of space and peace.

We immediately start to feel less of a gap between “in here and out there” – and more peaceful. There is less of a pull toward sorting out everything and everyone “outside” and a deepening feeling of being sorted out already inside.

How do I do this???

The question on your lips now may be, “Okaaay, I sort of get it, but I am so used to being in my head! Do you have any useful tips for dropping into my heart?!”

Yes, I do, actually. One is feeling that our awareness at our head is like a dense drop of water that falls into a clear ocean-like awareness at our heart. Another is to imagine descending in an elevator.

Even a simple breathing meditation, such as this one, can help us drop into our hearts. As can the clarity of mind meditation.

Spending a few minutes turning the mind to wood, as described in this recent article, is another really good way to be heart-centered.

Mantra recitation and/or focusing on a seed letter at our heart is always very helpful.

Spiritual Guide at heart

And what I probably find most effective is to start all my meditations by dissolving a trusted holy being into my heart. He or she comes to our crown, facing the way we face; and then his body of wisdom light diminishes to the size of a thumb and he enters our crown, gradually sliding down to our heart. (If we want more detail on that, we can imagine that he descends through our central channel — like a drop of dew rolling down a blade of grass). We go with him, feeling this powerful holy being at our heart, and even feeling our mind mixing with his mind like water mixing with water.

Aligning with reality

Abiding in our heart, we come to rely less on the push and the pull of aversion and attachment, resting beyond the fray in the space of our own peaceful mind.

Gradually we come to understand that there is in fact no “out there” or, for that matter, “in here”. Our dualistic appearances subside and we come to experience how everything is the same nature as our mind. There is no gap between subject mind and object things, like a reflection held in a lake is inseparable from it, unextractable. Where the reflecting lake goes, the reflection goes, and vice versa.

Moreover, we can also come to observe and realize that everything is the same nature as not just an ordinary mind but as the bliss and emptiness of enlightened mind. Enlightenment is, after all, reality. Reality is enlightenment.

lotus from mud

In Tantra we can learn not only to recognize and experience the infinite bliss and emptiness of enlightenment, but to identify ourselves with it, thinking “This is me”, Buddha Heruka. Even more profoundly, we can learn to impute or label ourselves on the infinite bliss and emptiness of our Spiritual Guide’s enlightenment, Guru Heruka, mixing our mind with his.

The self or ego that we normally perceive, on the other hand, is conflated with a contaminated or inherently existent body and mind, aka a sore meaty body and a deluded mind. For example, when our body is sick, we think “I am sick!” And when our thoughts are irritated, we think “I am irritated!” No wonder we feel bad a lot, but it is pointless because, in fact, we are neither our body nor our mind.

Here is a brilliant quote from Kadam Morten Clausen, when he led a six-week retreat early this year at the new Arizona International Kadampa Retreat Center near the Grand Canyon:

Abiding in correct self-identification in alignment with reality is an essential part of our practice. We need to get to the point where we WANT TO BE Buddha Heruka—shining, instead of hiding and hoping no one notices how much pain we’re in.

Fall Festival

Where is my real, limited, painful self?

This self that we normally perceive — that concrete, limited, often painful self — is just the object of an idea, a really stupid idea at that, made up by our self-grasping ignorance. However, relating to it as if it actually exists makes us want stuff for it all the time and to constantly try to push its problems away with aversion.

mirage

Our Me or I cannot be found anywhere in the body or the mind – when we go looking for it, it disappears like a mirage, as explained in detail here.

So although we normally perceive it, upon analysis we can never find a self that exists from its own side, concretely, in and of itself.

To give you a bit more sense of what I’m talking about, here’s an example. I was looking at Denver recently from a great distance, being as I was up a big mountain. Someone standing a few feet away from me pointed for their friend, “There’s the city.”

But where exactly? I could see even with my eye awareness that none of the buildings in the distance was a city – each one was not a city, was not Denver, whatever we imagine Denver to be. We cannot find an actual Denver in any one of those buildings; it could never fit.

If we have a clear idea of what we think Denver is, we should then spend some time letting it sink in how each building is NOT Denver, because Denver for a start couldn’t fit in each building and there is far more to Denver than one building.

If we do take the time to let this sink in, then when we look at the collection of buildings we can see clearly that it is just a bunch of things that are not Denver — non-Denvers.

Yet, take those non-Denvers away, and Denver is not there either.Denver graffitti

So what is Denver? Just a name or label that we are smearing over those buildings, like mayonnaise or something. Denver is mere name, mere label, mere appearance, as explained more in this forest example. If we try to find something behind that label, we can’t. Denver disappears upon analysis, which means that it’s not really there, which means that it exists entirely in dependence upon thought/conceptual imputation/projection.

And since our thoughts are free and we are able to choose how we impute or think, we are free to impute or think something new and different, such as Heruka’s blissful mandala, and that will function for us. This is called correct imagination.

This is true of EVERYTHING. Nothing exists concretely, findable, from its own side. Everything depends on mere name. Including me. Including you.

Look, even this kitten has figured out that everything is mere name and so there’s no real problem …

Living from our heart

Some of you know all this, so for you (and me) all I’m doing here is encouraging us to be a bit more direct and to go for it. We can stop approaching Dharma from a timid place. We don’t need to keep being intimidated by our ordinary suffering deluded self – instead, whenever it appears to us, it can simply be a reminder that it doesn’t exist!

We can be very happy in the fact that our ordinary suffering limited self doesn’t exist, so nor do any of its neuroses or issues — which is by far and away the best thing about them. This leaves us free to relate to ourselves as a being with boundless potential instead. And I mean from the get-go.

After all, the inherently existent self doesn’t exist so it has no hope of changing or attaining enlightenment, so what is the point of even attempting to meditate from its perspective?

Therefore, before we do anything else by way of meditation practice, we can take a few minutes to dissolve this self away by realizing it cannot be found anywhere. Then we can start by already being who we want to be and who we need to be for our own and others’ sake, Denvermeditating from that perspective, bringing that result into the path. And we need to do it today, before ordinary appearances and conceptions close back in again, and because there is (literally) no time like the present.

For those of you who are newer to meditation and Buddhism, I’d just like to encourage you to get into good habits from the start – in particular, before you do anything else, by dropping into your heart to sense some depth and peace, and letting this remind you that you’re actually a being of boundless potential. Be confident in these methods you’re learning because they are not incremental but revolutionary, and can work very fast if you go about them the right way.

Over to you. Feedback and questions welcome.

Related articles

Unleashing our potential

Moving from the head to the heart

Relaxing in your heart  

Relax and reboot

6.5 minutes read

In this recent article on the absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thought, cmon inner peaceEmergency aid for a troubled mind, I talked about the practical, easy, but also surprisingly effective practice for quickly overcoming disturbed minds and distractions so that we can go deep in meditation.

When we do this meditation we have a chance to shut down our gross conceptual thoughts, which seems to me a bit like switching off a movie projector.

In his Medicine Buddha teachings of 2006, when Geshe Kelsang explained this practice in some detail, he says that conceptual thoughts are our mind thinking, “This is a microphone, this is my friend, this is my body, this is my car, this is me”, and so forth, and then imputing a name. The verbal name comes from the conceptual thought. He goes on to say:

All our daily delusions — such as our anger, our attachment, our ignorance of self-grasping — are gross conceptual thoughts. When we awake from sleep during the day, we use only gross minds (including sense awarenesses) and gross conceptual thoughts. We have no ability to use our subtle mind.

(Just to reiterate, “subtle” means a deeper level of awareness and “gross” means as opposed to subtle — not as in “yuk”. My dad wanted me to point that out.)

Our peaceful subtle mind manifests when we fall asleep (and die), but our memory or mindfulness is really not much use at that time and so we cannot take advantage of it. Which is a shame because it means we are doomed in general to only being able to use our rough often uncontrollable waking minds. However, we can learn to do something about this, including this meditation:

We can accomplish this absorption through training in meditation. Whenever our gross conceptual thoughts cease, our self-grasping and other delusions also cease, because they are gross conceptual thoughts.

If we get good at this, we can even bring about a cessation of painful feelings related to being ill, which would be — to put it mildly — a very useful skill:

Normally when our body is seriously ill we experience painful feelings because we are grasping at it strongly. If we stop this grasping, there is no problem.

This meditation is therefore a wonderful method for bringing about a temporary cessation of delusions, providing us with some sorely needed relief, and giving us space and peace.

Deprogramming at a deeper level

relax and reboot

Of course, to get rid of delusions permanently we need to train in the stages of the path to enlightenment, and especially in emptiness. Combining this meditation with transforming the mind at a subtler level allows us to liberate ourselves quickly from deeply embedded painful habits such as anger, hurt, and compulsions, as well as our limited sense of self.

The meditation is explained here. As a quick reminder of how to do it, after relaxing into a good posture and dropping into our heart, we can follow Shantideva’s advice in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

First, I should check to see how my mind is;
And, if I see it is polluted with negativity,
I should remain unmoving,
With a mind as impassive as wood. ~ Guarding Alertness, verse 34.

We usually try to sort out our appearances or projections, solving our problems and finding happiness outside our mind rather than inside it, rather like wandering over there somewhere to rearrange things on the movie screen instead of simply switching off the projector at the wall. But now we are not thinking or feeling or projecting anything.

Normally the subtle mind manifests when we are falling asleep and the gross levels of mind dissolve away naturally – we stop projecting today’s waking world. It is not real, existing from its own side – it is just appearance with nothing behind it, so it can and does disappear.

absorption 4We think the things that appear to our sense awarenesses are so solid and real, somehow more real than the objects of our conceptual thoughts – but they are perhaps the flimsiest objects of all because our sense awarenesses are highly fleeting and unstable. Yet, curiously, almost all our objects of attachment and dread are sense objects, for example food, sex, movies, jobs. There is no deep pleasure to be found here, unless we combine our enjoyment with an understanding of their infinite empty nature. There is no depth other than emptiness.

Take a nap

By the way, while not a substitute for this meditation, and while we don’t have to go as far as suggested in The Week, falling asleep can sometimes help a bit:

Being awake is frequently a horror show! Thankfully, naps are the safest way to gently disengage from reality while also getting to recharge in a world that otherwise demands you run on all cylinders.

nap timeMy teacher’s teacher (my Grandteacher!) was a Tibetan Buddhist Master called Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, who was highly beloved and revered throughout his life. He recommended just falling asleep sometimes as emergency aid for a troubled mind — saying that whenever we are deeply unhappy and can’t do anything about it, just go to sleep, and naturally, when we wake up, our mind will have changed.

In this context, it is worth mentioning that the six stages of Mahamudra show us how to meditate in our sleep. Read Mahamudra Tantra for how to do that. And check out this guest article, Can I use sleep in my spiritual path? 

The imperative to overcome distractions

When Geshe Kelsang taught the six stages of Mahamudra in 2003, he said:

Distraction is the real enemy of inner peace, of concentration, of meditation. Distraction directly interferes with our inner peace. Although many people want to accomplish Dharma realizations, pure concentration and meditation, the good results of meditation, and so forth, the main problem is that it is difficult to control distractions. Our objects of distraction are the objects of attachment, anger, jealousy, or ignorance. There is no pure object in this world! All we see are the objects of either self-grasping or attachment or anger or jealousy, so it is very difficult to maintain mental peace, a peaceful mind. Therefore, there is no real happiness in this world.

Dissolving away all our sense awarenesses and gross conceptual thoughts allows us to dive below the surface waves & froth of our mind, accessing a deeper less distracted mind. Because inappropriate attention now has nothing to go on, delusions such distractionattachment and anger cannot be sustained. Even our gross self-grasping ignorance is decreased, bringing us at least temporarily closer to an experience of emptiness.

Within the six stages of Mahamudra, this is part of the important journey to identifying and realizing our very subtle mind and attaining enlightenment. But, as mentioned in the last article, we can also use it per Shantideva to overcome distractions in general.

With this respite from distraction, we can use our subtler more peaceful awareness now to meditate on Lamrim truths, healing our mental continuum at a deeper level. It’s like shutting down and rebooting the mind. If we don’t like the movie, we can simply learn how to project a new one.

Seems amazing, really, to still have this spiritual technology available for us to use whenever we want – if we would just shut down our overly thinky minds long enough to try it out 😉 Geshe Kelsang says:

From skillful wisdom, through giving skillful instruction, we have a special method for identifying our subtle mind during waking time – this is the close instruction that belongs to the Ganden Oral Lineage, which came from Je Tsongkhapa’s wisdom.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

Related articles

Emergency aid for a troubled mind

The relevance of inner peace

The art of letting go

Healing our mind

Control your thoughts or they’ll control you

8 mins read

IMG_5326The other day I heard about a study in which psychologists asked a bunch of regular people how many of their thoughts they had no control over, out of 10.

Their findings seemed quite startling, so in my own further market research I have of late been asking hundreds of people this same question.

I’ll ask you, if you don’t mind … out of 10, how many of your thoughts are in your control and how many are not? Or, put another way, how many of your thoughts do you actually want or choose to think and how many of your thoughts do you not want to think but can’t help thinking?

…….

I don’t know what your answer is, but I have, interestingly enough, been getting the same answer as the psychologists from almost everybody else. Which is …

9.

9 uncontrolled thoughts out of 10! Rarely has it been 8. Never has it been lower than 7. Sometimes people have said 10. Or 11!

Meditation is the antidote – it enables us to control our thoughts. So this has given me even more appreciation for the vital role of meditation in our day and age. For if this is true, and I have no reason to doubt what people are telling me, we can’t control our own mind 90% of the time. No wonder we feel bad a lot (90% of the time). No wonder we have only a 10% guarantee of happiness on any one day. And no wonder our world is such an uncontrollable mess – we are all pretty much insane.9-10-rating

Buddha analyzed that the main reason we are still suffering is because of our uncontrolled mind. We have a word for these uncontrolled thoughts – “delusions,” unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts that arise from inappropriate attention. Anxiety, anger, attachment, addiction, jealousy, self-obsession, pride, and so on rule the roost. They dominate and manipulate us all day, well at least 90% of the time. They are our worst enemies — our only enemies when it comes down to it. We have to gain control over these delusions or they will continue to control us, till kingdom come, every single day.

The devastating knock-on effects of uncontrolled thoughts

Yes, the world is getting crazier, if you ask me. Nationalism is on the rise in many countries. Hatred for “others” seems to be increasing exponentially, not just in the US, but in Central and South America, and all over Europe. These last 34 days leading up to a potentially no-deal Brexit feel to me like watching a slow-motion train wreck that we could stop but for some reason won’t. Meanwhile one fifth of the world’s children are living in a conflict zone, traumatized; and way too many children are starving. And don’t get me started on our behavior towards animals.

Where do these bad actions and their ensuing problems really stem from? Is it not from anger, hatred, intolerance, greed, selfishness, confusion, apathy? Are these not the real problems that we need to fix? Corrupt politics and so on are the conditions arising from these delusions, not the root cause. When we don’t control our thoughts, they control us.world peace

The great Indian master and founder of the Kadampa tradition, Venerable Atisha, said:

Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.

Try as we might to cure the world’s problems and sort everyone else out, and as important as that work and goal undoubtedly is, we can only make a deep and lasting difference if we are sorting out our own thoughts at the same time.

Below the mess

We are not crazy at heart though. At heart, below all this mess, we are amazing. We all have an indestructible potential for perfect concentration, mental mastery, peace, love, wisdom, and endless bliss. And we need to learn to pay attention to this, learn to identify with it, so that we can realize it. Our uncontrolled thoughts are still just thoughts – we can learn to let them go and think instead the thoughts we want to think.

And what would those be, as a matter of interest? Probably happy ones, loving ones, helpful ones, creative ones, etc. Buddha has a lot of ideas for positive and wise thoughts we can develop, comprising the entire path to enlightenment.

Mastering our own mind, we master our life and we master our future. With mindfulness and concentration, and indeed the whole path of training the mind in compassion and wisdom, we can learn how to master 2 thoughts out of 10, then 3, then 4 … all the way to 10/10. True mental freedom!

We have our work cut out

And I would submit that there is no time to waste. Distraction and intrusive thoughts are only getting worse. If you are reading this, you are probably older than 0 to 6 years old. But bear in mind that many of this age group are right now immersed in a screen somewhere, picking up the habits of distraction that will quite possibly torment them for a life time.Calvin and Hobbes

By the way, I just looked up “distraction” in the dictionary:

  1. something that serves as a diversion or entertainment
  2. an interruption; an obstacle to concentration
  3. mental turmoil or madness

Distractions can be all three at the same time, if you ask me, when driven by attachment. Our seemingly innocent diversions and entertainments can indeed be interruptions and obstacles to concentration; and our dependence on them is surely driving us to mental turmoil and madness.

Honestly, I can’t be bothered to wait for the results of the research on this intrusive technology on developing brains to come in – I will take the word of my dentist instead. She told me today that when her 4-year-old and 6-year-old nieces greet her, they run up, say “Hi Ally!”, and then immediately root about her person for her phone, “Can we do Snapchat!?!” If they are offered a toy to play with, they are uninterested, unless by playing with it they are then allowed more screen time. They won’t play board games. They are not all that interested in the great big outdoors even though they live in a veritable children’s wonderland (Colorado). They are already entirely addicted to the magic box. And in this they are just like all their friends. “Have you noticed fewer kids playing in the cul de sacs and so on?” Ally asked me. “Doesn’t it strike you as quieter outside these days?”

“All of space and time collapsing into a tiny box”

baby and technologyBy coincidence I also read The Week article about this later in the day, called “An iPad is not a parent”:

Children are living in a technologically augmented reality — not from adolescence or young adulthood, when they might be old enough to have some say in the matter, but from birth onward.

And:

All of space and time collapsing into a tiny box after your parents press two buttons — or, more likely, without any apparent human effort at all, thanks to an infinite algorithmically generated playlist: This is an experience as familiar to them as the sound of rain.

A quick Google search reveals that kids under the age of 8 use screens for 2-3 hours a day and counting. Preteens and teens (from ages 8 to 18) an average of 7.5 hours. Adults stare into the light an average of 8.5 hours a day.

You know. We got problems.

My dentist Ally, who is very likeable and sociable by the way, told me that people don’t know how to have conversations any more, that they aren’t looking each other in the eye. And that when teenagers sit in her dentist’s chair, they are still glued to their phones. She lets them because it is their comfort zone. But when she tries to get their attention, “I’m afraid we are going to have to take five teeth out, and if you don’t reduce your sugar intake you might lose more,” they keep thumbing their video games, mumble, “Umm, okay,” and studiously avoid all eye contact.

playing outsideAnother friend told me today that at the middle school where he teaches, they now have a no-phone rule all day, and the results have been outstanding: kids are playing actual games like cards and rough and tumble, concentrating in classes, and generally seeming more content and communicative. But he says once they get to high school it won’t be possible to control their online behavior in this way.

Dentist Ally also mentioned that she is so relieved to be of the generation that can still remember a time before it was normal to be glued to a screen, spending the days of her early childhood riding her bike and hanging out with flesh & blood friends. I would like to point out that Ally was the one bemoaning what is happening to the next generation — and she is only 31! Things are changing very fast.

(Note to Kadampa Centers: we really need kids’ meditation classes.)

How can we improve this percentage?

 It looks like we have a huge problem on our hands, but luckily there are many effective ways to cure it. And rest assured that controlling our unwanted thoughts is not the same as pushing them away forcefully, entering into battle with them, suppressing them. Not the same at all. It is more about learning to take them less seriously and letting them go, gradually replacing them with their opposite wanted thoughts.

The most obvious and popular way for newcomers to start this is to learn some simple breathing meditation – and within that there are variations we can try out, some of which can be found here. Or we can meditate on the peaceful clarity of our mind. Or we can meditate on absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thought. Prayers help too, as does dissolving enlightened beings into our heart.

And whatever method you choose, please start in your heart space, not your head. We won’t get far along the road to peace if we stay in our head, there is little space to be found there. IMG_5325-1

Through any of these methods we will experience the relaxing clarity and concentration needed to work on uprooting our uncontrolled thoughts entirely, replacing them with wonderful thoughts, so as to reclaim our sanity, our happiness, our lives, and world peace.

There are 2 more articles on meditation and technology coming up: Improving our focus and How to use the gaps in our day. I mention it here as it will then oblige me to finish them in a timely fashion without getting distracted, lol.

Over to you – your insights are most welcome on this topic of how to get all our minds under control in over-stimulated times. Our collective future is at stake.

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Articles on mindfulness 

 

 

You’re never alone

5.5 mins read.

people walking in NYCNew York City is full of people. So full, perhaps, that you could find yourself sucked into dramas morning till night. Sometimes it is hard to see the wood for the trees. Given that there are so many people here, so many people in other cities, so many people in ant hills, so many people in samsara …  how on earth are we supposed to extricate ourselves, let alone everyone else?! It can all feel very solid and real – the sickness, the ageing, the death, the homelessness, the hunger, the cold, and so on. No wonder compassion fatigue is a thing.

It is true that there are infinite beings in the six realms of samsara, and our stories of pain and suffering, told since beginningless time, seem to show no signs of slowing down, much less stopping. Taken alone, getting us all out seems a daunting task. But when feeling besieged by samsaric narratives, it can be incredibly helpful to remember that although there may be countless samsaric beings, there are also countless enlightened beings.

To infinity and beyond

full moon surrounded by starsWhen we visualize Buddha Shakyamuni, for example, he is not appearing with only a few holy beings dotted around him, in our tiny NY room, hopelessly outnumbered by a gazillion sentient beings. Buddha is surrounded by infinite enlightened beings, “like the full moon surrounded by stars”, who stretch on and out forever and ever.

This is not just true for Buddhists. This is true for everyone. Holy omniscient beings, however or whoever we envisage them, pervade everywhere and everyone.

(Coincidentally, just as I was writing this, I heard Stevie Wonder sing: “When you feel your life’s too hard, just go have a talk with God.” 🙂 )

Countless beings, once just like us, have attained enlightenment and no longer belong in samsara. This means that although there are infinite beings in infinite galaxies, Buddhas and Buddha Lands equal, if not outnumber, them all.

Samsara is the product of hallucination. Enlightenment is reality. Pit samsaric worlds and beings against enlightened worlds and beings, and who, ultimately, is going to prevail?

What is faith?

With the practice of Dharma we get to start choosing whose company we want to keep and be influenced by. We can start to feel that we are in the company of enlightened beings whenever we want; and with Tantra we feel that we are already one of them.

This is faith, of course – but faith doesn’t have to be overly complicated or mysterious. We can believe in the existence of enlightened beings by observing our own minds and how we have been able to reduce our delusions and increase our love and patience, for example. Nothing is fixed about our thoughts, and everything depends upon our thoughts. Taking that to its logical conclusion, we can envisage ourselves free from all faults and suffering and pervaded by spontaneous wisdom and compassion.New York skyscrapers

Close your eyes for a moment and try it!

Did that work? If so, even being able to entertain a notion of being enlightened indicates our potential for enlightenment and therewith the fact that countless enlightened beings already exist – the only difference between us and them is that they have put in the effort.

Based on this so-called “believing faith”, we can develop admiration for their good qualities — they can be our role models and super heroes, we can feel happy about them. And because we have this so-called “admiring faith,” which includes that faith in our own potential, we have the wish to become just like them, which is called “wishing faith.”

As Geshe Kelsang says in the first edition of Transform Your Life:

Without faith, everything is mundane. We are blind to anything beyond the ordinary and imperfect world we normally inhabit, and we cannot even imagine that pure, faultless beings, worlds, or states of mind exist. Faith is like pure eyes that enable us to see a pure and perfect world beyond the suffering world of samsara.

The company we keep

countless BuddhasWhenever we think of Buddha, there he or she is. He is there even when we don’t think of him. Enlightenment is everywhere, always, because enlightenment is reality, always waiting to be revealed.

As Geshe Kelsang says in The New Eight Steps to Happiness:

Because a Buddha’s mind is mixed with the ultimate nature of all phenomena and is free from the obstructions to omniscience, it pervades all phenomena; and because his or her body and mind are the same nature, his body is also all-pervasive. From this we can understand that Buddhas are present everywhere and that there is no place where Buddha does not exist.

This means that enlightened beings and Buddha Lands are everywhere and always, including right here right now. Holy beings are just as close to us as all these samsaric beings popping up around us. Purify our minds and we will see these pure beings directly. In the meantime we can have faith that they’re here, and that, because they are always relating to our pure potential as opposed to our delusions and suffering, they love us unconditionally whatever we are up to.

We do have a choice. Even in the middle of a huge city, full of seemingly endless suffering samsaric beings, we don’t need to invest in every passing mirage, powerlessly pulled in every direction. With Dharma in general and Tantra in particular, we can start to enjoy ourselves and those around us as illusion-like appearances arising within the space of emptiness – not inherently suffering, potentially pure and enlightened. We are already in the living company of countless holy beings in a pure and beautiful world.

to infinity and beyondAs it continues in Eight Steps:

Buddhas are like the sun and our ignorance is like the clouds that obscure the sun. When clouds disperse we see that in reality the sun has been shining all along, and, in a similar way, when we remove the clouds of ignorance from our mind we will see that the Buddhas have always been present all around us.

Tuning into joy and purity like this, space opens up and discouragement goes away. I think there’s an enormous amount of love and support available all the time, more than enough to stop us from feeling overwrought. And, situated now on the side of the solution, we can always find the energy to help others. For if we are already in the Pure Land, what is there to worry about?

This is the highest and most empowering form of renunciation (seeking to be permanently free) and compassion (seeking to free others), which we can learn to feel all the time, wherever we are. After all, as Freddie Mercury just happens to sing in the movie I’ve been watching on this plane out of NYC:

We are the champions, my friends. And we’ll keep on fighting till the end.

Over to you. Comments welcome below!

Related articles

What is the point of faith? 

Enlightenment is right here, right now 

Blessings are not that mysterious 

 

 

 

 

 

Fellow American

Sickened by political division and conflict, a filmmaker travels across the US in search of  a different story.
A love letter to a troubled nation, one face at a time. 

 

 

 

 

New York narratives

6 mins read

Subway 1A month in New York City provides more than enough food for thought for a meditator. There is no avoiding people in the city that never sleeps, and on every street, avenue, and subway all manifestations of human nature, good or bad, are on display. Here are three subway stories for starters.

Story 1 The Family

I was sitting opposite a family – the elderly mom and dad sitting close to each other, and the adult daughter standing up next to them. They were being companionable, not chatting very much if at all, but they looked sweet together. I wondered whether the parents had come to visit the daughter, or the daughter had come to visit the parents, or whether they all lived in NYC. I wondered what they all did and whether there were other children in the family. I can’t remember what else I wondered about, but it kept me occupied for at least two subway stops.

Then we reached 42nd Street and the daughter got off. She didn’t say goodbye to her parents! That’s odd, I thought. Bit rude. Or … and this was a bit of a blow … maybe she wasn’t their daughter after all!

Ah well, they still made an adorable couple. Obviously been together for years as they felt no need to make small talk. Probably still had a daughter somewhere. Maybe a dog too.

But when we reached 28th Street, the husband just stood up and left — without so much as a backward glance at his wife of 30 years! That’s odd, I thought. Bit rude! Or … and this was now not just a blow but an entire dismantling of my subway reality … maybe they weren’t a couple after all!!!

IMG_5260-ANIMATIONHmmm. I don’t know about you (well, I do a bit), but I am doing this kind of thing all the time. We are making up stories about other people, and ourselves for that matter, but then believing them as if they were the truth. Always believing whatever appears to us, which just so happens to be the same as whatever it is we are unknowingly projecting with our thoughts.

This story and its characters turned out to be completely unreal, but all felt perfectly real at the time. How many of our daily stories are actually real? What are we doing all day long?!!

Story 2 “You are a sick woman!”

Story 1 was a fabricated narrative for sure, which left me feeling slightly foolish; but no real harm was done, and I didn’t inflict my “truth” on others. This was not the case in this second story.

Subway 2

Opposite me was a man and a woman (they were canoodling so I felt safe in assuming they were a couple), and next to the girlfriend (Woman 1) was another woman (Woman 2).

The couple were chatting away while Woman 2 was contentedly minding her own business and, like 95% of the rest of the carriage, playing with her phone. All was fine. All was peaceful.

Then Woman 1, wanting to point out where they were going, accidentally waved her hand in Woman 2’s face. Woman 2 not unreasonably pushed her hand away without looking up from her phone.

Woman 1 made a face at her boyfriend, but was otherwise ready to let it go. But he wasn’t. He leaned over and said, “What do you think you are doing, pushing my girlfriend’s hand away like that?!”

Surprised, Woman 2 said it had been in her face, and in the way of her and her texting.

“I don’t care!” said the man. “That was incredibly rude”. Anyway, I will now spare you the details of what they said, but the whole carriage, including Woman 1, started to pay even more attention to their phones as this rapidly escalated into a loud argument.

Woman 1, embarrassed, put her hand on the boyfriend’s knee to try and pacify him, but he wasn’t having it, the bit now between his teeth. And instead of just saying sorry or nothing at all, Woman 2 was giving back as good as she got.

Visibly agitated, they stopped and stared ahead of them for a few moments. Peace at last, the rest of us fervently hoped, as we surreptitiously resumed some eye contact.

But then Woman 2 leaned over, having thought of something really juicy to say, and let it rip.

Within the time frame of two subway stops, two strangers had become two mortal enemies — the man was standing up and yelling at her, “You are a sick woman!”

Luckily, he had to get off at his stop. But his anger went with him; he was still fuming as he walked past the window. Subway 3

The two women sat there right next to each other in silence. Woman 1 looked like she was about to cry. I wanted them to turn to each other and say, “Sorry about that! Bit over the top.” But they didn’t. They just looked miserable. All three of those people’s mornings were ruined. That may not even be the only time anger arose for them that day. And it could all have been so easily avoided.

This was just one of million stories of anger playing themselves out all over the city and all over the world. Ruining people’s enjoyment. Ruining relationships. Exaggerating everything into such ugliness. Causing such harm. And for what? Where was the truth in any of that? To those in the carriage not under the deception of anger, for example, there was nothing believable about that narrative at all.

Story 3 The old lady fallen on hard times

Meanwhile, while the anger narratives play out on every street and subway, the stories worth paying attention to if we want to develop positive minds are instead ignored.

A woman in her seventies, I would guess, got onto the subway and started hesitantly to tell us her story. “I am very sorry to be doing this, but I never expected at my age to be staying in a shelter.”

She lived with her husband for many years and had a job just like everyone else. But he fell very ill and, having no children, she left work to take care of him. They spent all their money, and then he died, a month ago. And she realized she had nothing. That she was homeless.

This story was so so sad, I was deeply moved. I gave her some money and a smile, and her eyes brimmed with tears.

Homeless at Columbus CircleThe reality is that she is our kind mother, she is just like us, and she has fallen on hard times and is deserving of our love and concern. She could have been me. She could have been you. We could be her. If I so much as lost my phone, wallet, or way, for example, or if I felt faint, I would expect the people around me to be sympathetic if I asked for help. But everyone in that carriage was way too immersed in their phone or studying the floor to even look at this entirely lost old woman. Not one person gave her money. Not one person said, “I’m so sorry.”

Then I got to wondering, because I know these people are not bad people, what if you had been sitting next to her in a doctor’s waiting room or at a friend’s funeral when she told you her story? Would you not say, “I’m so sorry” then, and mean it? What line, in other words, do people have to fall below to become invisible?

One homeless man, head bowed, had a cardboard sign saying, “I am invisible.”

homeless 2In India, a friend from Calcutta was telling me, most people don’t see the huge numbers of destitute street children, and, if they do, they look through them or down on them. And you wonder how anyone could ever become that desensitized, you think, “That could never happen in my country! Those children would be cared for!” Well, guess what, it is happening in my country, it is happening right under my nose.

Where is the shared humanity? Let’s not get started on our unkindness to other species – what about man’s inhumanity to man? We are better than this of course, much better. And if we could just learn to follow our better instincts, live in accordance with our Buddha nature, there would be no more loud arguments on the subway, no more callous disregard of an old lady’s despair.

Over to you.

Related articles

Us and them in Buddhism 

Changing our world and ourselves through compassion

Anger ruins our fun