I was wondering recently if Dharma is what comes out when our Buddha nature is manifest. For example, when someone speaks directly from the heart and to the heart about love, compassion, equality, helping others, our mutual dependence and responsibility, and so on, or about our courage and ability to withstand discouragement and defeat, to me that sounds like Dharma.
On one level, Dharma or Buddhism is just profound common sense, and as such can be practiced by anyone at all who wants to practice it. Parts of it are already being practiced by people all over the world from different backgrounds, faiths, and traditions.
With respect to Kadampa Buddhism (Kadam Dharma), Venerable Geshe Kelsang says in Modern Buddhism:
Even without studying or listening to Dharma, some people often come to similar conclusions as those explained in Kadam Dharma teachings through looking at newspapers or television and understanding the world situation. This is because Kadam Dharma accords with people’s daily experience; it cannot be separated from daily life.
Take last Wednesday, January 20th, for example, the day of the inauguration. This was a hopeful and inspiring day for a lot of people, and a lot of amazing things were said, including that poem by Amanda Gorman. For example:
We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.
On one level that may seem obvious, that we are interdependent and so our collective well-being is completely undermined by grasping at our differences; yet still this sentiment has not been heard much of late in mainstream public discourse.
That poem was not about politics, was it? It was about all of us. I don’t use this blog to talk about politics because, regardless of our political persuasion, Buddhism works. It is open to everybody. Buddhists genuinely believe that every single living being has the exact same potential for compassion, wisdom, happiness, enlightenment. Therefore, Buddhism is open to everybody; and when we say “Everyone is welcome” — which we do on the doors and publicity of every Kadampa Center in the world — we really mean it.
Buddhism, or Dharma, is Buddha’s teachings and the experiences we get from practicing those teachings. It enables us to realize our truest potential or Buddha nature; and when someone talks from the heart about love and so on, it is as though that truest potential is shining through.
Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
And for Gorman, the light of her Buddha nature was shining through, which is why I think so many people were moved by her and why she has gone viral! (Along with Bernie Sanders memes, lol. Which, talking about our innate kindness, he capitalized on to make money for charity.) Gorman spoke from the heart and to the heart; and to me it sounded like Dharma words. This is true when anyone talks about the beautiful qualities of the human spirit.
Dharma provides the methods for bringing out and developing our Buddha nature – the good heart that every single person possesses, like a golden nugget, deep inside. When we learn Buddhism we are learning how to develop and increase all our innate qualities of tolerance, non-hatred, equanimity, and so on. We have a meditation, for example, called “equalizing self and others”, which, if everyone did it, would mean no more prejudice, racism, or bigotry – those faulty unpeaceful mental attitudes, or so-called delusions, would have to go away.
As it says in Modern Buddhism:
The great Master Dromtonpa said, “Kadam Dharma is like a mala made of gold.” Just as everyone, even those who do not use a mala (or prayer beads) would be happy to accept a gift of a gold mala because it is made of gold, in a similar way everyone, even non-Buddhists, can receive benefit from Kadam Dharma. This is because there is no difference between Kadam Dharma and people’s everyday experiences….
… Everyone needs it to make their lives happy and meaningful, to temporarily solve their human problems, and to enable them ultimately to find pure and everlasting happiness through controlling their anger, attachment, jealousy, and especially ignorance.
In my job I meet people from all walks of life and political persuasions, and I love them all equally, why not, we’re all the same. With Dharma we can break down the divides, empathize, and bring out the best in each other because the best in all of us is the same. Democrat or Republican, no one has a monopoly on compassion. Or common sense, for that matter, or love. As this is the truth, we can work to become more unified by emphasizing these qualities.
Living beings are terribly misguided and confused a lot of the time — what we call in Buddhism “deluded”. When we speak or act out of anger, hatred, fear, or self-grasping ignorance, that’s coming not from our true nature but from our delusions, which are the real, albeit adventitious, common enemies of us all. Living beings are not our enemies, as Buddha kept pointing out. But we don’t have to stay deluded. And on a day like January 20th when everyone was making an effort, their better natures were shining through, showing that delusions are not an intrinsic part of our minds.
So while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe? Now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
A quick look at today’s headlines shows that at least some of our collective absurdities have already crept back! Nonetheless, these are not permanent, nor whom we really are. The United States has some cool ideals as a country, equality, freedom, and justice for all – on one level I reckon all Americans love these ideals and the whole country was supposed to be founded on them. Of course it wasn’t and isn’t, and there has always been a struggle between these ideals and the reality; but nonetheless is there not a significant part of us that would like us all to live up to this? So these glimpses are important:
For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.
The hill we climb
“End of an error”, one wit put it the other day. But it is not an error to pin on others, just an error that we individually and collectively can rectify by trying to put behind us the things that have gone wrong — the division, the violence – to herald a new world of tolerance and kindness.
Buddha showed how we could be like this all the time, choosing to actualize this incredible potential for equality and freedom in our minds and in our society. It is what Buddhism is all about. By following Buddha’s advice, we do get kinder, wiser, and closer to other people, and we do let go of our intolerance, faulty discriminations, bigotry, and the rest of it.
That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare.
If we could only spend more than one day feeling hopeful and connected, if we can make an effort to keep this mutual respect and unity going day after day after day, to actively choose this way of thinking, one day we’ll find that we’ve climbed that hill once and for all. And what a view!
Over to you, please put a comment in the box below.
Sitting in my new PJs this bitterly cold December morning, about to start my meditation, I was wondering how can I imagine being all blissed out in the Pure Land of Heruka and Vajrayogini (Keajra) when my unhoused neighbors are freezing half to death outside on the streets and piglets are having their tails cut off while conscious?
The Pure Land cannot just be an extension of my privilege – that is, “I have a relatively comfy life and I’d like it to continue and improve in Keajra when I die, please!” We can’t get to Keajra out of attachment to the status quo. The Pure Land only arises from our utter distaste (as Geshe Kelsang puts it) for samsara’s evil dealings, and a heart broken into 1,000 pieces (like Avalokiteshvara 1,000 arms) from witnessing others’ suffering. `
The bliss of the Pure Land doesn’t actually come from all those endless cool objects of enjoyment, but from being in the position to effortlessly free everyone from samsara because our mind just is bliss and emptiness. The enjoyments are simply a means to an end. Hence this verse from the Heruka sadhana:
I offer to you, synthesis of all Buddhas of the ten directions, all my daily enjoyments – eating, drinking and enjoying any other objects of desire. May I quickly attain enlightenment and become like you so that I will effortlessly benefit all living beings.
I have a friend here in Denver called Shala, who is still in the middle of (hands down, no competition) the toughest year of her life working as an ICU nurse with COVID patients. What is as terrible in some ways as the lonely choking deaths she has witnessed is her frustration at the administrators at all levels who cannot or will not do a decent job of supporting the frontline healthcare workers, leading not just to their exhaustion and lack of protection but to unnecessary sentinel patient events.
How does she get past this to carry on, month after month, I asked her. The answer is by remembering renunciation, focusing directly on the patients (trying to make them as peaceful and comfortable as she personally can), and constantly asking the Buddhas to bless the situation.
Shala has given me a lot to think about. In our day to day work lives (if we’re lucky enough to still have one of those), including running a meditation center or another non-profit (which some of you do), it’s easy for us to get annoyed with our co-workers or managers if we feel that we are dependent on them for success. To avoid this at work (or indeed wherever things are not working out), we need the fearlessness to look at our own actual painful situation — including our own frustrations and griefs and shame and trauma and rage — and sit with these long enough to develop renunciation.
Samsara’s job is to make us suffer. We are not “wholeheartedly accepting” suffering (as in the necessary practice of patient acceptance) if we are at the same time brushing it off as quickly as we can. It doesn’t work to bypass samsara’s nature, saying “Oh yes, I know! Samsara is bad!” while being prepared to keep living with it and making it work — we have to detest it very deeply, have a lifelong grudge, if we are to muster sufficient activity to abolish it.
All this of course done within the framework of identifying ourselves with the vast sky of our limitless potential, not the dark clouds of our delusions and mistaken appearances. We’re the sky looking at the thunder, who knows full well that the sky is still alright, that no thunder can ever harm it.
We are not inherently impure or ordinary or even suffering! Holding to that is identifying ourself incorrectly, as Geshe Kelsang explains so clearly in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra(which would be a wonderful book to dust off and read this month). Which is just as well because it means that we can change.
We also need always to keep our eye on the ball by staying directly and personally focused on the living beings we’re trying to help in our area, not on the faults of our team and/or others who are seemingly sabotaging our best efforts. This compassion and love will go a long way to protecting us from daily anger (not to mention self-pity).
And we are not talking just, “Oh that’s a shame!”, but about a compassion that finds the suffering of others unbearable and so will keep us going day after day for their sake, without becoming mentally side-tracked or full of inertia by taking everything personally.
Thirdly, we need to channel the frustration at things not going as well as we would like (eg, due to inefficiency, bad management, selfishness, prejudice, disharmony etc) into the determination to attain enlightenment as quickly as we possibly can. Because that way we can DIRECTLY help each and every living being every day through our blessings and emanations (bypassing all management, lol). Developing pure view and practicing being in the Pure Land — where there is “not even the name of mistaken impure appearance” — is a must if we are to do this skillfully.
Transforming our families
I am currently part of a family of six cats. Over two months ago, a mom arrived with five tiny new cats, and they’ve grown up mainly knowing the world of me and my apartment/jungle-playground. For a brief moment in their endless samsaric lives, and unlike the vast majority of other animals, they have the karma to be wanted. They have a devoted cat mom and sympathetic human relatives wanting to take care of them, offering them food, warmth, companionship, and love. They are even lined up for great homes in other families.
But as I was watching them this morning while they slumbered next to me, it struck me quite deeply that, even if they get to spend the next 16 or so years in relative comfort and security, these innocent trusting little folk are at some point going to become sick, old, and dead. And then what? Then where?
These few months are a snapshot in time, a vanishing moment given the endless suffering they’ve already been through and the endless suffering that awaits them. My heart was breaking when I looked not just at today’s challenges (for example, Kendrick feeling sad and hungry because he simply can’t abide cat food, and who can blame him), but the fact that this discomfort is NOTHING compared with the rest of it. And the fact that he doesn’t even know that, nor can do anything about it. Looking at me with that tilted kitten head, he doesn’t even know how to plead with me not to forget him, not to let him suffer — not now, not ever.*
It is bad enough just contemplating what lies in store for these six individuals, but that of course gets me thinking about all my family, blood related or otherwise, furry or fur-less. And everyone else in the six realms of samsara’s wasteland.
Turning the pain into power
I have seen the promised land!
So said Martin Luther King Jr – and did he keep going, I was wondering, despite endless odds, through the power of his faith and imagination? Was he already in some sense in the Pure Land, with the courage and power to lead others to that state? Do we have to be seeing the world that we want to create? I would say, Yes, we do.
Great compassion will be the new normal.
So said Gen Losang in the Summer. The ONLY solution we really have to this year and to every other terrible year is to become a Buddha as quickly as possible for the sake of others. And the only way to do that is to practice being a Buddha in the Pure Land now, making sure that Kendrick and everyone else is a mere aspect of our mind of bliss and emptiness, never separated from us, never again forgotten. For once we are in the outer or inner Pure Land of Heruka, this can happen fast for all our friends:
Through the wheel of sharp weapons of the exalted wisdom of bliss and emptiness, Circling throughout the space of the minds of sentient beings until the end of the aeon, Cutting away the demon of self-grasping, the root of samsara, May definitive Heruka be victorious. ~ The New Essence of Vajrayana
Over to you. What does the Pure Land mean to you? How are you going to spend Heruka and Vajrayogini month?
*Postscript: Kendrick died at 3am on Christmas day after a rapid decline.💔
He provides another compelling reason why not to feel a moment’s survivor’s guilt about hanging out in the Pure Land, given that I can do almost nothing for him while identified as an ordinary being. However, prayers work, so please let’s pray for this small cat and all other animals, whether beloved companions or hitherto completely unwanted.
How’s your attention span? These days, people are complaining of being more scatter-brained than ever – some studies even suggest that we may have the attention span of your average guppy!
Having a short attention span affects everything from being able to get much done through to feelings of restlessness, lack of inner peace, AND boredom.
I’ll talk more about this in the context of boredom because, as mentioned in Searching relief from tedium, boredom arises from diminished meaning and attention span. However, lengthening our attention span will be of huge benefit in most other areas of our life as well. So do read on … !
Got spare time?!
All this spare time! Finally I can read all those novels, or write my own! Or study Italian! Or meditate! Or sort out all my drawers! Or learn all about Buddhism!
Ironically, however, in these endless days of the Pandemic, people are reporting to getting even less done than usual. (Might explain why I started writing these boredom articles back in May …) With so many crises erupting — such as the headline today that almost one person a minute is now dying from COVID in the United States — nothing seems like nearly so much fun anymore. And in this context, it seems harder to get anything to hold our attention for long.
#3 cause of boredom: short attention span
We can only get things done if we can keep our focus. With all the fears and uncertainties floating around, a lot of people are finding it hard to concentrate.
Multiply that experience across billions of people, and you’ll get a sense of how much boredom the world is facing right now. The problem is exacerbated for people with difficult home lives, people who have lost their jobs and can’t afford rent, and even for the swaths of Americans still showing up in person for work: the more stress we experience, the more at risk we are for losing our ability to focus and find meaning.
Even if we find something meaningful to do, we have to be able to focus on it to not feel bored or restless.
Pick up the phone syndrome
To take writing this blog as an example — although in theory I find it meaningful, have hundreds of ideas for it, and some times am focused and in flow, at other times I am too distracted to focus on writing sufficiently for it to hold my interest and I don’t really want to do it. To deal with this restlessness I distract myself further with, for example, non-essential tasks or, more pointless still, seeing what everyone has been up in the last 15 minutes according to Facebook or the news – “I will just take a quick break to check!” Of course that just undermines my attention span even more, and I end up feeling more restless, not less.
(I read today in one of these breaks that Dolly Parton gets up at 3am, prays and meditates, and then writes for 4 hours before making breakfast for herself and her husband. Impressive, eh?! Clearly it can be done …)
In this age of distraction, we can find almost infinite distractions when bored – however, what we are doing when we give in to restlessness is just strengthening that habit, becoming more restless. If we want to not feel bored we have to pay MORE attention, not less, so that we feel immersed and find what we are doing enjoyable and valuable.
Sometimes boredom arises because we bite off more than we can chew. If we find things too hard, we cannot engage with them so we can get fed up with them — like throwing a Rubik cube to one side, “This is boring!” We can make this mistake with Buddhism as well, if we launch with expectations into teachings we’re not ready for. Although identifying with our potential is always important, we also need to be skillful and start where we are, building up a repertoire of understanding and experience. So rather than immediately trying, say, to master Ocean of Nectar (600 pages of Madhyamika philosophy), we’d be better off immersing ourselves in an easier book and base our meditation practice on genuine experience, building up our wisdom over time.
If the teachings ever seem boring, it is generally because we don’t really understand them or are not practicing them. If you find yourself getting bored with Dharma, my suggestion is always to return to those aspects of Dharma that work for you, that got you interested in the first place – whatever those are, everyone is different. Get that back, re-engage, and, on that foundation, you can then go back to that difficult subject without getting bent out of shape if it’s hard. Dharma progress is based on feeling happy and confident, not feeling worried or inadequate because we don’t understand everything.
Valuable, interesting, enjoyable
Buddhism specializes in finding meaning in life AND increasing our attention span or ability to concentrate, therefore providing the perfect antidote to these two causes of boredom. If we can find meaning in what we are doing — find it valuable, interesting, and enjoyable as I explain here – it is not too hard to overcome our distractions. Focusing on it, the boredom will go away. Eventually we’ll be in the zone.
We must understand that our creativity comes alive when we spend time alone focusing on our projects without distractions.
From a Buddhist technical point of view, to maintain interest and attention span requires what is called the “object-ascertaining mental factors.” A mental factor is a type or state of mind.
First we need “aspiration”, defined as “a mental factor that focuses on a desired object and takes an interest in it.” We can become interested in developing more love, for example, by meditating on the benefits of doing it and disadvantages of not doing it. Buddha explained the benefits of every meditation he taught, probably because he knows how our monkey minds need incentive. We can do something similar for tasks as well — if I bother to take a bit more time to think about why I am writing this blog, for example, that gets me in the mood.
Aspiration leads to firm apprehension, where we can hold our object firmly and understand it more deeply. This gives rise to mindfulness, which in turn gives rise to concentration. These mental factors will directly oppose our lack of attention span.
Moreover, concentration gives rise to wisdom, with which we can solve our problems permanently. You can read more about these five object-ascertaining mental factors in How to Understand the Mind.
Why the modern world is bad for your brain
Let me just add a little plug here for training in concentration – not only will it overcome boredom, it will also lead to a lot of other benefits. Check out this rather sobering but useful recent article in the media, as well as this incredibly helpful guest article partly inspired by it: Digital addiction and a plan for recovery.
I won’t go too much into it here, except to say that completely unchecked distractions are what really destroy us. And it is concentration, not distraction, that brings us peace and joy. Here is a wonderful explanation of why, from Introduction to Buddhism:
When the mind is stilled by concentration, the delusions subside and the mind becomes extremely lucid. At the moment, our minds are intractable, refusing to cooperate with our virtuous intentions; but concentration melts the tension in our body and mind and makes them supple, comfortable and easy to work with.
See, it is concentration that melts the tension in our body and mind, not endless scrolling through our Instagram feeds! (with the exception of Gen Samten’s kadampa.turtles – that HELPS our concentration 😁)
We (at least I) get pulled in by our gadgets because we are addicted, but also in the mistaken assumption that they will help us relax — but do they, do they really?! And, even if they do in smaller quantities, and can sometimes be useful in smaller quantities, the sheer amount of time we are spending following our distractions is what characterizes our modern age perhaps more than anything else. An age that is leading to unprecedented amounts of anxiety, depression, and other mental ills. A bit more from Introduction to Buddhism …
It is difficult for a distracted mind to become sufficiently acquainted with its object to induce spontaneous realizations, because it feels as if the mind is here and the object there.
Spontaneous realizations can be understood as having to make no effort – we gain effortless insights or mixing with our object, which might be love, for example, or impermanence, or any of the stages of the path to enlightenment. When we cannot mix our mind with its object, that sense of separation is actually what induces tension, because it causes dualistic pushing and grasping in the mind.
We may already have learned a lot of good objects to concentrate on that will make us so un-bored and so happy – from just our breath to love to the clarity of our mind to bliss & emptiness – but our mind won’t stabilize on them, even if we understand them intellectually, because we are too much in the habit of following our other thoughts. We all need to train in concentration if we want peace.
A concentrated mind, however, enters into its object and mixes with it, and, as a result, realizations of the stages of the path are quickly attained.
Notice the word “quickly”. As opposed to following all our distractions, on the other hand, when any mental development we manage to get around to is slow and arduous. Why would we want to stretch out our spiritual path unnecessarily? We can get the same results far more quickly and with far less hassle if we just bother to concentrate a bit more. And it is not as difficult as you may think – fact be told, it is hugely less painful and less tiring than continually chasing after distractions.
Normally our mind is moving all over the place. When we allow it to become still and stable by focusing single-pointedly on a meaningful object, it becomes peaceful, it becomes deep. This starts from our first meditations on the breath right through to being absorbed into the most profound mind of all, the clear light of bliss:
Through stabilizing this meditation the movement of my inner winds of conceptions will cease. Thus, I will perceive a fully qualified clear light. ~ The Hundreds of Deities of the Joyful Land
If you put a glass down, it won’t move until you move it. Wouldn’t you like a mind like that, staying on whatever wise or blissful thought you want for as long as you want?! Eventually our mind of concentration becomes like Mount Meru, completely unmoved by the winds of conception.
Retreat season 2021
By the way, if this has inspired you to up your concentration game, it’s excellent timing because we are just around the corner from our traditional retreat month (January), and there are umpteen online retreats to choose from in January 2021. Never has it been easier!! I say more about retreat and list some of your options in this article: Doing meditation retreat.
Two weeks ago, I sent the below message to 11 people. A way of holding myself accountable, taking personal responsibility, or looking to commiserate with my friends; my declaration wasn’t the first time I acknowledged that digital media was overtaking my life.
I’m writing this because I realize I have a digital addiction. I’ve had it for years and years, so it now seems like decades. I wrestle with the knowledge that I’m damaging my brain every time I multitask by picking up my phone to ‘see what’s happening.’
I’ve excused my overuse by rationalizing to myself that I do social media for work. I need to address emails and text messages ASAP to be ahead professionally. I’m just reading headlines and not commenting on OPPs (other people’s posts). I’m using social media to benefit others by engaging in the Buddhist prayer request group or sharing beautiful pictures or inspiring stories or expressing my support for a particular view or organization. I compare myself to others. If that teacher, person, or pet, can use social media responsibly, so can I. I have many ways I rationalize my overuse. But, finally, I know that my overuse is because I have an itch that needs scratching. I have some deep dissatisfaction in my mind. I have some pain that I’m trying to avoid. I need to be ‘liked,’ and at that moment, social media is the best place to fill that need. Wrong.
My brain finds it difficult to focus on one thing at a time for very long. It takes me longer to complete tasks that should be quick. I find myself becoming distracted during conversations and have to remind myself to listen to the other person. I can barely read a short blog post all the way through without distraction. I fall asleep watching TV, or streaming, I should say, because we don’t own a TV; but, I wake up in the middle of the night unable to get back to sleep. My meditation practice is mostly distracted to non-existent.
My goal isn’t to quit using my devices completely. That’s not realistic in this day, where we depend on technology. It sounds like a faraway place. No Technology Land. A place I want to visit sometimes. A place I need to create for myself more often. Honestly, technology has improved my life in so many ways I can’t count. But, deleting and staying away from Facebook is a long term goal. I’ve tried a few times. I have hacks to get around the app not being on my phone. I’ve made declarations to myself when I first started waking up to the idea that digital addiction is real and that it is having profound effects on me and the people I love.
My goal is to use all forms of digital media intentionally. So, it’s not time wasted, but time rewarded.
Things I will STOP doing:
picking up my phone out of boredom
scrolling mindlessly into a void
making judgments because of what I see on my device
getting angry because of what I see on my device
reading comments that cause confusion and anger
picking up my device when I feel uncomfortable in a situation
feeling naked when I don’t have my device
picking up my device when I’m watching a movie or reading a book
making others feel less important because they don’t have my full attention
expecting to get a response to my post, text, email, tweet
feeling like a prisoner
Things I will START or continue doing:
being intentional about my use of my device
checking email for work during work hours
turn off notifications
no phone in the bedroom at night
no phone while eating a meal
no phone in the room when meditating
NO other tasks when having a conversation with someone
NO phone when driving in the car
when I think of a friend, I’ll call or email them; instead of quick exchanges, I’ll make a plan for a longer conversation
I’ll foster and nurture creativity
I’ll go outside every day
I’ll watch movies and read books and listen to albums, and pay attention
I’ll dance and move my body intentionally with yoga and pilates
I’ll experience the natural world and be captivated by IT
I’ll keep having conversations about the effects of digital addiction
I’ll keep sharing knowledge
What will I do in the meantime?
Will I stop taking pictures because my camera is on my phone? Will I excuse myself from group texts or delete my Facebook account? Will I stop using Twitter and Instagram? No. Quitting relationships or staying less informed isn’t the answer. My dad is on Facebook now, and we video chat, and he has a friend he talks to, and he sees my posts and photos. I know he enjoys this. I know it makes a huge difference in his life right now. My mother’s death, his sister’s death, COVID–he’s had a tough year. I’ve heard from friends that they love the photos of our adventures that I post. I maintain and nurture familial relationships and friendships, and friend groups through our text chats. These connections are essential to me.
So, I will monitor my usage. I will be more intentional. I will pay attention.
I knew digital addiction existed, and probably for me after I listened to the audiobook Irresistible.
I recently read Why the modern world is bad for your brain and connected the dots between my physical symptoms of brain fog, insomnia, and tension in my body– the results of decades-long screen captivation. Thank you to Lucy James for posting this on her Facebook profile today. It captivated me and inspired me to come out with this post.
There are many other films, books, and articles on this topic–I Googled it, of course.
I’ll also Google treatments and see where that takes me.
I wish anyone who reads this the best. Keep looking up!
If you would like to have a more extended conversation, I’m so ready.
Two weeks later …
After I hit send on that email message, I received a reply requesting a guest post on this blog. Here I am. I also received a text message praising the email and admitting they too could relate. Another friend exclaimed that it had gotten worse since COVID. Still, yet another agreed that it was a problem, but not ready to “come out.”
One friend carefully crafted a longer response. She admitted that it had become a problem for her too. She has taken steps to curtail her overuse, implementing some strategies that speak volumes about who she is and our relationship. She mentioned that she does not pick up her phone in the morning before she talks to herself and God. This bit of advice would turn out to be the best. It translates for me as I go for Refuge, generate Bodhichitta, and self-generate. Making my intention for the day to benefit others and transform everything into the path.
I started paying attention to my itches–the ones that begged to be scratched. The ones that propelled me to pick up my phone. I discovered some things that are helping me get over this compulsive behavior.
Recognize, reduce, and abandon
First, I must admit that making declarations like I’m not ever doing certain things again, and expecting that to stick, was a completely flawed approach. I realized that soon after I hit send on that email message. I checked emails and texts immediately after! Am I a failure? No. I’m flawed. I have delusions. I decided to adjust and take this on like any other bad habit. I need to recognize the problem first. Think deeply about where this bad habit is taking me, what are the benefits of letting it go, and make a plan to reduce and eventually abandon the action of habitually and mindlessly picking up my phone for a nice scroll through the newsfeed.
When taking the ‘pick up my phone syndrome’ as far as I can, I see myself, on my deathbed, clenching my phone, scrolling into oblivion—wasting my chance—wasting my spiritual life. I think about the years of damage to my eyes and my brain. I think about my short attention span and how it will only get worse. I see how my monkey mind is scattered and can’t recall details without a device’s aid. Eventually, will I be able to produce thoughts on my own, without the device prompting me? I don’t want to find out. I use this line of thinking to increase my wish to reduce and abandon my overuse problem. Will I allow a bad habit that I can do something about to keep me trapped in a cycle of suffering? NO.
Recognizing also includes the fact that a phone, Facebook, email, or any other form of digital media is not inherently bad. The problem lies in mindless overuse that is rife with delusion spurring obstacles. The problem is allowing myself to continue without making an explicit intention to use my phone, social media, or any other screen to benefit others. May everyone be happy.
Side question, I ask myself:
Facebook is not inherently bad, but do you want to use something created by a university computer geek named Mark Zuckerberg to rate girls, Hot or Not?
Now that my intentions are clear, I’ve made my declaration, and I’ve decided to tackle this as my project, I start paying attention. I received a notification on my phone that my screen time was down by 85%. This is encouraging. I feel motivated in my quest for a technology-free life.
I see a tweet by Chrissy Teigen expressing how she is trying to find a screen life balance, too. I feel connected to Chrissy. And, like many other times, #DeleteFacebook is trending. I am not alone. I think most of the population is suffering from some form of screen captivation.
I begin to understand the need for boundaries. Time limits and rules or guidelines are necessary when adopting a new behavior or letting go of an old one. I am constantly being interrupted because ads and irrelevant content lure my attention. That’s not ok with me anymore. My attention is precious.
I decided that I only need 5-10 minutes to visit with my device. How many times a day? That seems to be where the challenge is for me. I’m working through how I use my phone. I’m looking at what I think are the necessary applications. I’m not keeping distracting apps like games or social media around. While tracking apps and usage monitoring on my phone are useful now, I do not want to depend on software or another app to curb my enthusiasm for picking up my phone.
I started considering questions like do you need another picture to add to the over 34,000 digital images your phone says you currently have?
Why do you want to post this picture?
Are you expecting to see another email besides the one from Costco that you saw the past 100 times you looked?
Do you need to confirm or seek out the answer to every random query that enters your mind? [insert Google or IMDB search]
Do you expect to read different headlines? Ones that are joyful and uplifting instead of depressing and anxiety-inducing?
What are you seeking?
I also pay attention to the kind of mind or situation that prompts me to pick up my phone. I notice that a super uncomfortable situation causes me to run to my phone so I can try to disappear into it in an attempt to hide from this painful discomfort.
I decided to make a plan for my usage. I deleted more apps and turned off notifications. With lower expectations, I use my phone on my own time. I use it for limited activities. I will make a plan with family and friends for emergencies if I am unreachable. I will make an intention to be intentional about my usage.
I started using a notebook again. I write down ideas or things I need to look up or add to a list — I use this notebook instead of my phone. I have considered buying a camera to replace the need to have my phone on picture-taking adventures. I do not want to buy another thing, though. My minimalist lifestyle is spilling over into my digital life. I am Marie Kondo-ing, my digital life. If it does not spark JOY, then it must go. Thank you for your service, bye-bye.
My most significant insight revealed itself. This device that professes productivity and relief from boredom kills my productivity and creates a lethargy that dulls my senses, like brain fog. I see myself in a thick fog, clutching my phone.
Another rule or guideline I observe is: out of sight (or hand), out of mind. I do not hold my phone when I am not using it. I leave it across the room when I am working. It is not in the bedroom at night. I have text messages on my laptop, so I turn those off when I need to concentrate, which is always.
What am I filling my time with now that I have increased productivity and I am not allowing myself to scroll and click into an internet hole? Things that nourish me and fill me up. I spend time watching the sunrise and set every day. I am studying Universal Compassion and enjoying my meditation practice again. I am getting through my reading list. The joy of cooking has inspired me. I brew kombucha. I exercise and enjoy nature. I listen to music–whole albums, the vinyl kind– instead of one song at a time or an internet playlist. I watch documentaries and select movies. I enjoy close relationships that I nurture. I observe the world around me instead of clicking my way into a digital hole of data points. Someone waved at me from the street for the first time the other day. I use these things to spark joy.
Relationship questions arise
Relationships: How do I relate to them on social media? Do I use social media to communicate solely with anyone? Am I using social media to cultivate and nurture relationships? I think about Dunbar’s number and the idea that we can only be capable of a certain number of close relationships. Are my close relationships suffering from my overuse problem?
I will continue to have video chats with Dad, family, and friends. I will examine my “friends list” and consider my personal Dunbar’s number. Which relationships am I going to focus on and nurture? I’ll start with the most important, my spiritual guide, my partner, my close sangha jewels, and my close friends. I’ve heard that you can love all living beings without exception, but you don’t have to have lunch with them. That eases the overwhelming feeling of wanting to be everything to everyone.
I consider that when I die, the only thing that will be left is a set of data points and a box or apartment full of items that will disperse to friends, family, and the needy. What am I leaving behind?
I’m going to continue Marie Kondo-ing my digital life. If it does not serve me or spark joy, I will release it from my grip.
I will continue to extoll the benefits of cleaning up our digital lives. I know that Facebook isn’t a real representation of friendship. The people I want to talk to and be with right now aren’t here anymore. Not on Facebook or this Earth. I experience grief every day.
I’m not alone. This problem isn’t going to be as difficult for me because I have support. I think about people who are alone and have a digital addiction. They use social media for their connection to the outside world. My advice for these people and anyone who knows people like this, please call each other. Have video chats, meet up (at a safe distance and wearing a mask as necessary), but make one on one, interpersonal connections. Have deep, meaningful conversations. Ask each other, “How are you doing?“. We all need more of this.
Kids these days need role models. They are fighting an unfair battle. Again. Tik-Toking their way through climate change, the kids have a challenging future ahead of them-like all generations, but these particular ones will need some extra-special attention. I want to model good digital behavior and responsibility regarding climate change, which is essential to me.
Information or what we learn in this life can increase our love, compassion, wisdom, and wish to help others. Information can also be resigned to a collection of irrelevant data points.
I set my intention for the day. How will I use my talents, how will I use my devices, and how will I use my time?
I will generate joy and benefit others.
Our capacity for consuming and processing information is great, but our capacity for love is even greater.
How am I processing the information I receive daily via my digital devices?
Am I nervous, anxious, depressed, and afraid? Am I angry or confused? Am I overwhelmed and feel like I can’t get my digital life organized? Too many emails to read? Too many pictures to catalog? Too many files to file, in folders, on desktops and home screens.
I work in digital media. Now, I feel a bit like a tech-bro who doesn’t allow their kids to use social media or own an iPad. The insights I’ve been able to glean over the years have helped nonprofits, Buddhist centers, filmmakers, and friends. I hope to continue to help them inform, entertain, and love others.
In the immediate future, January is retreat month, a good time to disconnect, set boundaries, go inward, and experience the peace of a technology-free life. A life lived intentionally.
Keep looking up!
Please leave your comments for our guest writer below to keep this important conversation going.
Nine months into the pandemic, with at least 6 months to go before things return to whatever normal might mean by then, and life might be feeling a tad tedious – that is, marked by monotony and tiresomeness that is seemingly beyond our control. Luckily, although we can’t really hurry this thing along, there is something we can do about our boredom.
Carrying on from this last article, Boredom in the time of COVID, I have divided the inner or actual causes of boredom into (1) ignorance (2) lack of meaning, (3) poor attention span. The root of boredom is ignorance, which takes awhile to get rid of altogether; but #2 and #3 are recognizable causes that we can do something about straightaway. I found this article gives a very helpful summary of them:
Scientists measure boredom by looking across two axes: your ability to find meaning in a task, and your ability to pay attention to it. For a person to function normally—i.e. not be bored—both of these abilities must be intact. It’s easy enough to see how this pandemic would disrupt the meaning axis: With some of us now spending all of our time at home, whatever we leaned on in the Before Times for meaning—our friends, our work, the for-here mugs at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf—has teetered out of reach. But it’s just as likely that pandemic anxiety has been messing with the other axis, by shortening our attention spans.
Buddhism can help with both.
# 2 cause of boredom: lack of meaning
First, a question: Does feeling bored come from a sense of meaninglessness or a sense of meaninglessness come from feeling bored?
We have to find fun and meaning in new things, and it could be right now that many of those things are going to have to be less external than before.
With schedules and social lives disrupted, almost none of the sources of fulfillment we relied on two months ago are easily accessible. While some have reacted by recommending books, challenges, or stream-able Broadway shows to counter the new reality, these are only Band-Aids.
Without meaning, we don’t really feel that we have much agency over our lives. It feels that way to a lot of people right now because the normal things we reach out to for meaning are not available to us – whether that is our job, our friendships, travel, a new relationship. These external sources of meaning do not show signs of completely recovering for a while for many people.
There are a billion people around the world still largely in more isolated circumstances at the moment, especially in parts of the world where the days are shortening and there is less opportunity to be together outside. People are being thrown on their own resources for meaning. With far fewer entertainments or distractions, everyone is having to become a lot more self-contained.
And this is not necessarily all bad given that externals are fleeting and incapable of providing lasting meaning or satisfaction, as mentioned here. Wouldn’t it be good if we used this time to develop our power in other more enduring ways?
A lot of people are being more active than ever this year in addressing social causes, such as poverty and inequality. I have spoken during public comment on the City Council twice myself, and written letters, urging the mayor and council members to practice compassion toward our unhoused neighbors, to stop sweeping them from block to block like garbage (only difference being that garbage has somewhere to go), especially during a pandemic. This has not only added my voice to something that I have always found concerning — people in the wealthiest country in the world without a roof over their heads — but also helped me feel more meaning and connection during these difficult times.
Reframing our current situation
One immediate thing we can also do is reframe this current situation. We can give it meaning by remembering that there is still a good reason for us all to be doing this social distancing, it is still very beneficial to be protecting ourself and everyone else.
Talking to an ICU nurse here the other day, a Buddhist, I was very much reminded of the need to keep being as careful as possible for quite a long time yet, to hold out patiently till the vaccines arrive, and to keep praying for our frontline heroes:
“Unfortunately, the medical community is failing nurses and doctors right now. Every provider I interact with is having symptoms of compassion fatigue and burnout. Some of this is due to the sheer number of people we have seen die recently (in many cases providers have seen more deaths in the past few months than they expected to see in their entire careers). This is within the context of many providers being shunned in public as well as the resistance of many people to perform simple actions to prevent harming or infecting others, and the strong tendency of people to have wrong views regarding Covid. Hospital administrators are completely out of touch with the urgent needs of bedside clinicians. In every hospital in the world there is a philosophy of “do more with less”. To try and fix the budget crisis, nurses are asked to do our jobs with inadequate resources and reduced staff. The unfortunate side effect of this is that nurses experience greater burnout, compassion fatigue, and trauma; and we are witnessing worse outcomes and sentinal events resulting in patient deaths due to inadequate staffing. This leads to an ultimate feeling of hopelessness and helplessness within the frontline provider community.”
The American press doesn’t show many images of all the actual sickness and death, such as the thousands of unknown bodies buried in identical wooden boxes in Potter’s Graveyard in NYC; and when I saw some of these scary pictures this also reminded me of why we are being careful. As did the fact that someone tested positive in my house – luckily the rest of us tested negative despite being around each other, which could be testament to the power of masks. (She has recovered, I’m happy to say.)
To me, my mask reminds me of love. I am wearing it around other people to help keep all of us safer. There are so many people around the world who don’t have this luxury, and it reminds me to root for and pray for everyone who is in fear and danger, including all the frontline workers. We can reframe it to think that we are being careful because we care.
If we keep that concern for others in our heart, it will help us to find the meaning in this; and if we find the meaning we are immediately going to be less restless, bored, or unhappy.
This different life doesn’t have to be so terrible if we understand it in the context of being all in it together. This pandemic is showing that we are all utterly and totally interconnected. This virus does not discriminate who it attacks, whether an unhoused neighbor or the most powerful man in the world. If someone has it somewhere, there is always going to be some risk of the rest of the us getting it. We all need to help and look out for one another – never has self-absorption been so pointless.
We can remember how we are all cells in the same body of life, as I explained in this article, Better together. I am not an isolated separated out bored person but one cell in the body of life in which everyone is important and equally meaningful. We rise and fall together ultimately. The people we were cheering for are the essential workers –– the ones who will get the vaccination first because they after all, rather than the rich and famous, are the ones essential to our staying alive and well. We can develop a big heart of compassion for everyone who is sick and scared and in pain all over the world. Instead of thinking about our own boredom, we can let this situation feed our compassion, “I want to help all these other people. I want to be part of the solution.”
Benefits of solitude
How do you feel about quiet times? According to most if not all religions, times of solitude can bring us closer to the divine. Solitude can be our greatest treasure. A friend in NYC said he has realized how much time he has spent running around for the past 15 years, and this period of enforced isolation has been truly regenerating and eye-opening for him in terms of realizing the meaning of his life. I am sometimes reminded this year of the long period I spent in the 2010’s pretty much all on my own in retreat, voluntarily – they were in some respects the best years of my life.
Like anything, we can get used to more time with our own company and come to enjoy it more and more, especially if we are in the business of improving ourselves. Through this we can become more comfortable with uncertainty and far more self-contained — life lessons that will help us long after COVID-19 has finally gone away and left us alone.
Crisis of agency
Boredom is not just about not having enough to do. We can have too much to do and still feel bored if what we are doing is meaningless to us.
Studies have found that people who are working all the time and stressed are just as likely to experience boredom as those who don’t have enough to do. Under stimulation is not the problem.
We have to reframe our lives so that we feel we are someone who is always full of joy and possibilities, even enlightenment, whatever we are doing or not doing by way of external activities.
Telling a bored person to go read a book or watch a movie is like telling a drowning person to swim to shore. If they could, they would,” said John Eastwood, who heads the Boredom Lab at York University. “Boredom is a crisis of agency.
Boredom can be judged as a lack of imagination, but the truth is we don’t lack imagination, we just need the understanding, agency, and permission to employ our creative minds to our best ends, motivated by wisdom and compassion. We all have imagination – we are using it all the time to impute our reality.
When we are bored, we are allowing ourselves to be swept along by our own solidly boring universe, not taking the effort to see that it is not even there. We may not yet realize the huge part we play in creating our world and what extraordinary potential and opportunity we currently have, but when we do, we can take charge of our own narrative far more than we are doing at the moment. We need to take charge of our own narrative. We need agency in our lives, in our days.
Through meditation we start to change our sense of who we think we are from a fixed limited person at the mercy of every passing circumstance to the inspired architect of our own life and future. Our whole world is created by imagination. We create everything with our minds, including liberation and enlightenment themselves.
More coming up in the next article about the next culprit for feeling bored, poor attention span. Meanwhile, if this article got you thinking about anything, I’d love your comments in the box below!
If so, you’re not alone. Not surprisingly, there are reports of a rapid spread of boredom across the world – the hours are going really slowly while the days are flying past. Cooped up in their homes, wrestling with their own helplessness or mortality, forced to wait out a scary virus, people everywhere are complaining of feeling not just anxious but restless and stir-crazy.
For example, a survey conducted of close to 3,500 adults living under national quarantine in Italy found that “boredom” beat out “loneliness” and “lack of fresh air” and trailed only “lack of freedom” as a source of misery.
So I thought this would be a good time to share a bit more about what Buddhism might have to say about boredom and how to deal with it.
What is boredom?
Boredom is defined as a psychological state marked by a general lack of interest, excitement, or motivation, and experiencing one’s current situation as monotonous, tedious, or irrelevant. Boredom is the opposite of fascination. As indicated by another definition for boredom, “the state of being weary and restless through lack of interest,” boredom is associated with finding things meaningless. We don’t feel fully alive. As one boredom expert put it:
Boredom is a completely natural reaction to not being meaningfully engaged in the world.
Some friends told me that they are incredulous that people have time to be bored when there is so much to do both practically and spiritually, but although in theory they may be right, I don’t think boredom works like that. People can be busy and bored too. Even if something is vital, such as the work in front of us, we can still feel weary and unmotivated.
(It’s a bit like saying you’re incredulous that people can get angry when everyone is our kind mother, lol, or attached when samsara is a prison not a pleasure garden. Delusions, in other words, never make sense, yet still we have them.)
Boredom is also associated with a lack of ability to focus or pay attention. Even if something is interesting, such as a classic novel or even a Buddhist masterpiece, for some reason it is not holding our attention. We still feel restless and get up to see what’s in the fridge.
Buddhism can help with both the lack of interest and the lack of attention, as you’ll see if you keep reading.
Is life on hold for you?
Is boredom a serious problem, or a #firstworldproblem? Should we be concerned about being bored? How important is it to avoid it or deal with it? Is boredom a waste of time or can it serve a useful purpose?
These are not new questions but they are perhaps more pressing at the moment, with much of humanity social distancing and many of our fun and leisure activities on hold for the foreseeable future. Sure, thanks to Netflix, cable news, et al we still have an endless choice of things to watch, and thanks to social media we can still devote a considerable amount of our newly spare time to snooping on our high school friends or finding out what our friend’s cat had for breakfast; but what about the rest of the day?
A quick glance at social media during this period of lockdown reveals some crazy (if sometimes humorous) stuff going on in the name of boredom avoidance.
(A slight detour down memory lane … when I was first writing this article, around May, I was interrupted in this precise sentence by the sound of people howling, followed by singing loudly along to the song “Stayin alive”. I don’t know, it made me chuckle every night at 8 p.m. With the virus raging at even greater rates this Winter, yet fatigue and politics ruling the day, those Spring evenings now feel like innocent times, when everyone cheered on our beleaguered healthcare workers and agreed to keep each other safe. Back then, this quote spoke to me, from an article called “What if the virus can teach us to change?”:
Suddenly time has a different complexion: it registers differently. Everything that once seemed so vital—the need to get the train on time, the need to get the essay done—seems insignificant. Only the truly significant is significant: the phone call to a loved one, the medicine that needs to be taken, the need to stay alive and of course the need to keep others alive too.
Let’s keep seeing the need for us all to stay alive for a few more months yet! The vaccines are on their way … )
Boredom can lead to more food and substance abuse. I have noticed a fair few people complaining about putting on weight during this lockdown. It can also lead to anxiety and depression.
Boredom can famously make people reckless and self-centered at the best of times. As lockdown lifts, it could lead to a whole new surge of virus activity if, desperate for something to do, we throw caution and masks to the winds. (Wrote that last sentence back in May lockdown also and, well, you see my point …)
I can’t help feeling that boredom is at least somewhat to blame for the over-thinking and over-talking this year about subjects that don’t bear that much thinking about, eg, conspiracy theories, endless political shenanigans, and the faults of others.
Therefore, it does seem important to try and find a cure for this boredom. Is there a simple way, for example, to turn our boredom into its opposite – fascination and being in the zone? Or into productive meaningful activities that can make us feel good both about ourselves and about this strange period in our lives?
What causes boredom?
I will delve first into various causes of boredom to see if Buddhism has anything to offer by way of solutions – dividing these into outer (or more circumstantial) conditions and inner (or actual) causes.
Not having enough to do, or having to do things we don’t want to do, can bring on boredom at any stage in our life, not just now or if you are a teenager. If we are literally unable to do the usual things we find interesting, of course that’s going to be a challenge. As someone said on Facebook:
You try to stay strong, but there’s only so much bread you can make or Tiger King you can watch on Netflix or jigsaws you can master before your head swims with the repetition and tedium of it all.
Not only that, but wasting more time twiddling our thumbs trying to wait this thing out just makes the restlessness worse. As someone else wrote to me the other day:
I know so much pressure is on all of us to waste time and to just trivialize it. There is so much pressure on us to try to overcome boredom by spending time on frivolities.
Pretty much every “What to do in Lockdown” list I’ve see on the media has left me yawning or even shuddering at the suggested time suck. Boredom is also quite contagious – hanging out with other bored people can lead to more boredom. Moreover, there is a connection between addiction (to our gadgets etc etc) and boredom, they reinforce each other – umpteen articles about that, Google it.
In general, the less acquainted we are with self-contained contentment and the more we are normally attached or even addicted to excitement and drama, the more we are going to feel bored when nothing seems to be happening.
Intensity and excitement can be a way of life – sometimes people in recovery, for example, complain of being bored even as they start to feel so much better in other ways. A mother was telling me how her whole family, complete with three teenagers with learning or eating issues, have been addicted to drama for years – when things quieten down, it is only a matter of minutes before they all look at each other and say, “I’m bored!”
Life in general appears unfair and sometimes people simply don’t have the opportunity or means to do the things that other people take for granted, to pursue certain dreams, to make the most of themselves in terms of worldly achievements. This can lead to an existential ennui with a seemingly blank future. Fortunately, becoming enlightened is available for everyone.
Those are some of the external reasons I can think of for why we get bored – but please feel free to leave others in the comments. And sometimes we can work on these outer causes, trying to change our circumstances or our daily routines in creative ways to alleviate boredom if the opportunity is there, which it may or may not be at the moment.
Fulfillment’s desolate attic
Just bear in mind that pursuing outer interests alone is also never going to cut it. In 1971, psychologists Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell went so far as to coin a term for the pointless quest for more, more, more: “The hedonic treadmill.” The term stuck. If we keep insisting on looking for pleasure in things outside of ourself, we end up on that treadmill, which is really boring if you think about it, going round and round like a hamster reaching nowhere. Speeding it up just gets us nowhere faster. The more we achieve, the more we require to sustain our new levels of satisfaction. Our gratification from the new is fleeting; we adapt in spite of ourselves. You may as well chase your afternoon shadow. When searching happiness without, it always looms ahead. As these psychologists put it:
There may be no way to permanently increase the total of one’s pleasure except by getting off the hedonic treadmill entirely.
Worldly commitments, too, can be fragile and transient. Maybe less fragile and transient than the dopamine high of getting a paper published or falling in love. But fragile and transient nonetheless. Relationships end; jobs don’t work out. The bonds we often think of as ropes are really gossamer threads. It can be a very painful discovery to make, but nonetheless a useful one, leading us into a deeper exploration of what constitutes true creativity, satisfaction, and fascination.
So, if we only look at the outer or circumstantial causes of our boredom, we won’t really be able to figure out any lasting solutions to it. Given that, to solve the relentless inner problem of boredom, we need to look more at its actual causes. I will divide these into three, just because why not.
Number 1 cause of boredom: ignorance
As I mentioned in this previous article I wrote back in the day, the root of boredom is ignorance – and in the case of boredom this manifests as a lack of true understanding and engagement with our world:
Whether we can or cannot make innovative changes to our circumstances, given that the main cause of boredom is internal (ignorance), the main creative solution is also to be found within our own minds. If we dismiss this fact, we may soon enough find ourselves becoming bored by our new job, companions, trees, puzzles, 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.
With ignorance, even though we are projecting the world with our own mind as in a dream, we still feel disconnected as if the world is outside our mind. Oblivious to our own act of creation, we feel a gap between me and the world — I am here and the world is out there. This is the crux of the matter for boredom and in fact every other delusion.
The world out there is no more findable than if we were walking around as an avatar in a virtual reality world. But we are so sucked in – first due to our confusion about its actual nature and then due to the ignorance grasping it as other than it is. The traditional analogy is stumbling across a snake at dusk, jumping back in fear, only to have our companion pick it up and tie a knot in it. Because it is dusk, we can’t make out the rope, and then we misinterpret it to be a snake, getting scared as a result.
Dusk symbolizes our confusion — we cannot see clearly the actual nature of things, their emptiness; and then our ignorance believes the things we are seeing are real. (You can read about these two types of ignorance in Joyful Path of Good Fortune.)
All delusions, fears, and sufferings come from this. Aversion sees those real things as inherently faulty and, believing what it sees, wants to push them away or destroy them. Attachment sees those real things as inherently desirable and wants to pull them towards us. With boredom, like I said, there is a sense of being disengaged. We are indifferent to these real things outside our mind, they are just sitting there being inherently uninteresting.
This can, sadly, include other living beings. The vast majority of living beings may be strangers to us right now, just “meh”, uninteresting and dull to us. (One antidote you can try out to boredom, therefore, if you are bored with the people around you, is the meditation on equanimity, where we head on tackle this indifference born of ignorance. More on that later.)
With boredom there is a belief in an inherently boring world, one that exists outside the mind. Nothing and no one appears interesting to us, and we believe that appearance as if it were the truth. But we will never find an actually boring world or boring people if we go looking for them with wisdom. Quite the opposite. We can therefore dissolve the boring world away with the wisdom realizing emptiness and re-impute a fully alive and fascinating one, knowing it is the same nature as our mind. When I first discovered teachings on emptiness, I saw I no longer had a real excuse to be bored when my mind is creating my own reality in every moment of every day. Wisdom is the ultimate antidote to this delusion, as it is to all the other delusions.
I will look at the other two inner causes in the next article – already moreorless written, but I’m coming out with these four articles in installments so you don’t get bored …
Over to you. I would love to hear what you think about all this and what you’ve been up to. I may be able to incorporate it into the next few articles too, which is helpful.
Scrolling through the news these days feels a bit like drinking salt water to quench my thirst – I keep vaguely hoping I’ll stumble upon something or someone that can make things better, but I rarely if ever do. This is probably because we cannot make this cycle of impure life called samsara work properly — it is not set up to work, it has not worked since beginningless time, and it is unlikely to start working now.
Better to listen to advice from enlightened beings, if we are lucky enough to stumble into any of that. As Atisha says in his Advice from the Heart:
Until you realize ultimate truth, listening is indispensable, therefore listen to the instructions of the Spiritual Guide.
Our samsaric societies have systemic problems such as racism and sexism because samsara’s very source code is corrupted, contaminated by the mental poisons of ignorance, aversion, and uncontrolled desire. Samsara needs to be burned to the ground with wisdom, and a Pure Land built in its place from the source code of renunciation, compassion, wisdom, and the Tantric pure view that sees through our ordinary conceptions to the bliss and emptiness that is already here.
A friend and Yogi in England sends me regular insights and comments from his retreat, and some of you might like this recent one, at least I did:
What day are you reading this, Tuesday? What time is it there? In the world of self-grasping it is Unhappyday every day. No matter what the time, it is unhappy o’clock. In Keajra Pure Land it is Blissday every day and it is always happy o’clock.
Winter is coming
I think it’s always worth remembering that our mental actions or intentions are hundreds of times more powerful than our verbal and physical actions, however necessary these may be. Mental intentions determine the outcome of all our actions or karma, and it is intentionality that creates our experiences, creates our world. This also means that the mental actions of listening to enlightened advice, or Dharma, and working with our minds are never a waste of time but immediately enable us to become a greater source of strength for ourself and others.
This training is going to be very useful as we head into an uncertain winter. There’s no better time than in these coming dark perhaps somewhat solitary months to train as a spiritual warrior, a Bodhisattva, for the sake of our family, friends, community, society, animals, and everyone in the world.
Everyone has freedom
Now back to that Modern Day Kadampas booklet for more about Venerable Geshe Kelsang, as begun in this previous article, A light in the darkness.
Geshe-la has always encouraged his students to present Dharma in a way appropriate to their own culture and society without the need to adopt Tibetan culture and customs. Realizing that it would be difficult for many of his students to learn Tibetan, he taught himself English.
As I’ve mentioned in a few places on this blog, Buddha Shakyamuni was cutting edge in India almost 2600 years ago in ancient India – his teachings and actions freed his followers from the rigid caste system and he ordained untouchables. His Sangha is a classless society.
Venerable Geshe Kelsang has also been cutting edge in today’s world. I’ve been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to watch this extraordinary person and his disciples change the course of Buddhist history over the past 40 years, and I hope I live long enough to watch some more riveting chapters play out. And, by the way, despite his success in bringing modern Buddhism to our world, Geshe-la has never been partisan. I have never heard him utter anything disrespectful about any other traditions or faiths, Buddhist and not Buddhist. For example, he says in Modern Buddhism (available here as a free ebook, already downloaded a million times):
Today we can see many different forms of Buddhism, such as Zen and Theravada Buddhism. All these different aspects are practices of Buddha’s teachings, and all are equally precious; they are just different presentations.
He has always spoken up for freedom, “Everyone has freedom!”, and mutual respect.
From The Internal Rules of the New Kadampa Tradition ~ International Kadampa Buddhist Union (NKT-IKBU):
The principal lineage Gurus of the NKT-IKBU are Atisha, of the Old Kadam lineage, and Je Tsongkhapa, of the New Kadam lineage. The New Kadampa Tradition itself is not a Tibetan Buddhist tradition but a completely independent and worldwide Buddhist tradition. The constitution of the NKT-IKBU Charity explicitly forbids the NKT-IKBU to have any political affiliation.
The NKT has divested itself of the political luggage that was carried over from Tibet because Venerable Geshe-la does not agree with mixing religion and politics — any politics, Tibetan or otherwise. We don’t buy into the Tibetan power system, which partly explains why we have sometimes been unpopular amongst Tibetan Buddhists, but also why Kadampa Buddhism is increasingly well received amongst modern people who want to practice Buddhism but have neither interest nor time for learning Tibetan culture, language, or politics.
Back in the day, in England, when I had time on my hands, I personally used to enjoy learning Tibetan and studying old-fashioned style; but I have witnessed how much more accessible is the presentation of Buddha’s teachings and practices now, and how much easier it is to share it with different parts of the world.
From the start, Geshe Kelsang has been pretty visionary. Again, just from being in the right place at the right time, I was able to ask some questions and receive deep advice over the years about the role of women in Buddhism (because Tibetan society was pretty misogynistic), about the role of lay people (when there was a discouraging wrong view floating about that only monks and nuns could get enlightened), about LGBTQ (Tibetan society was antiquated), and about generally reaching people where they are at as opposed to waiting for them to come to us.
The New Kadampa Tradition started small and English and middle class and monochrome, because you have to start somewhere and England was a good choice; but as the years have flowed by I have watched with awe as Geshe-la has been finding more ways to include and promote women, lay people, children, LGBTQ, people of color, and so on and so forth. Not to mention adapting to countries and cultures all over the world, East and West, over 1200 Centers in 40 countries and counting.
Buddhism is a very forgiving religion because it teaches not to conflate people with their delusions – which is why the scriptures are full of stories of formerly evil people being given the chance to purify and make amends, such as Angulimala or Milarepa, and going onto attain high realizations. At the same time, it is so incredibly important that Buddhist traditions never condone systematic homophobia, racism, intolerance, or abuse.
Over the decades, Venerable Geshe-la has produced and sometimes updated the so-called “Internal Rules” (quoted above), which are vital guidelines on how this tradition can continue to be run smoothly, harmoniously, democratically, and with discipline. He has also appointed nuns and other women to head and run this tradition. This is unheard of in Tibetan circles where privileged monks are the order of the day, rather like white men in the West. Geshe Kelsang has broken all manner of glass ceilings, and I am sure he has a lot more up his sleeve.
Moreover, every time he has brought Buddhism to new countries — whether that be to Spain or to the States or to Brazil or to Malaysia or to South Africa — or to new communities and demographics, our whole Kadampa tradition has gotten so much more rich, vibrant, relevant, and joyful.
Over the years he has modernized this tradition from many angles, clearing away all that is not necessary or useful for us without in any way diluting Buddha’s message. How many have managed to do what he has done in bringing Buddhism to the lives of so many thousands of people, showing how to transform all the appearances of modern life and make Dharma applicable to the issues of the day? There is nothing to stop us now from gaining enlightenment in the very midst of our regular lives.
No baggage (yet)
This tradition came via India and Tibet and, as mentioned, Geshe Kelsang has skillfully cut away cultural and political accretions that doesn’t serve us whilst keeping the teachings intact. One thing it’s important to take into account in the United States, for example, is that we don’t have the baggage of systemic racism (yet) because we are brand new. Therefore, the question would seem to be, who do we want to be? We have some choice here. As part of a letter received from the Education Council a few months ago, it said:
The NKT does not accept discrimination based on race, gender, background, age, religion, politics, sexual orientation, or otherwise. Everyone is welcome at Kadampa Centers around the world.
It would appear from most of the Kadampas I have spoken to that we want to totally embody our motto “Everyone welcome” by making active and sustained efforts to be thoroughly inclusive, diverse, equal, and so on, to go out of our way to do this. This is both in accordance with Buddha’s teachings and because our tradition will be infinitely stronger if we adopt this approach.
Dharma is for everyone and it works for everyone. This world could do with these ideas spreading everywhere, IMHO, because they can bring about peace wherever they flourish. I think we are nowhere near finished yet in reaching out and growing, boldly going places no one has gone before, and making Buddhism accessible and available to the people of this world. I for one am sure that Venerable Geshe-la is not yet done in finding ways to make everyone feel truly welcome — understanding and embracing the awesome diversity of races and cultures that make up our modern world; and that our tradition will be far more outstanding and dynamic as a result.
Oops, gotta stop there, but I’m not finished talking about Geshe-la yet 😊So in the next article I will explain a bit more about him in particular, and also how we can rely upon a Spiritual Guide in general per Buddha’s advice.
Over to you! Your comments and stories about Geshe-la are most welcome — please put them in the box below so everyone can read them ….
This happens to be Article #500 on Kadampa Life! Thanks for sticking with me these last 10 years.
Although things are falling about around our ears, we nonetheless have the opportunity right now to discover deep peace. Although times are degenerating in general, for us individually this is said to be a golden age for spiritual practice because we have everything we need. Moreover, as Shantideva says:
Suffering has good qualities.
The more suffering we have, the more we have to practice with, and the stronger our mind becomes. Eventually it becomes like a blacksmith’s anvil that, no matter how hard it is hit, remains unaffected.
I know, I know, this is easier said than done. (We just got COVID in da house, here, for example, and the daily news headlines seem to get more and more dire with each passing week — in fact I’m wondering whether to just get my news from The Onion or the late night comedians so I can at least laugh grimly.) But we gotta do it because the option, to remain a hapless victim of samsara, is not feasible.
Fact is, all of us want to be happy all the time. It is our driving force, along with the wish to avoid even the slightest suffering.
We know that human beings want to be happy because we are one. But it’s not just us … the other day I saw hundreds of small fish in a lake, and all of them wanted to be happy too. When my shadow fell on the water, they swam away in fear. All they want is to eat and swim around with their friends and be safe, they don’t want to be eaten, chased, or impaled any more than we do.
There is nothing wrong at all with the wish to be happy all the time and avoid all pain and suffering; but if we want to fulfill these wishes we have to learn to master our minds. I don’t see any other way working, do you?
If we can learn gradually to prioritize a pure and peaceful mind over (or during) external striving, we can learn to stay happy even when bad things happen, and even when we are seriously ill and dying … imagine having that superpower! I have met and heard about plenty of people who can do this, including a number of practitioners who have died so far, such as Tessa and Mimi; and there are legions of inspiring stories in the scriptures.
Neither man nor woman …
I asked my eye doctor Dr. Kumara last week how I could stop my retina from getting thinner, and he replied that neither man nor woman has the power to stop ageing no matter how much they want to or how much kale they eat. He then explained the second law of thermodynamics. He is not a very ordinary dude.
Quick segue into divine synchronicities … My eye went wrong when I happened to be doing a one-week Dorje Shugden retreat, including requesting favorable conditions and the removal of obstacles, LOL. When my optometrist referred me to a specialist, the receptionist said: “Welcome to our five retina locations. It just so happens you will be seeing the principal.” (Dorje Shugden is the principal Buddha of five retinues for those of you wondering.) Upon meeting him, Dr. Kumara asked what I did, and then declared, “Meditation has never been more needed! You have never been more needed.” Just before he operated, he gave me a vajra instruction: “I need you to call upon the deepest reserves of your meditative experience while I do this operation on your eye.” His going home advice was, “I only want you to do one thing this week: meditate.” As you might imagine, the operation was a success. When I saw him again last week, he told me, “I was having a very good day when I fixed your eye.”
Sooner or later bodies and everything else entropies and falls apart because this is samsara, but if we learn to prioritize a peaceful mind in our daily lives it doesn’t matter nearly as much. In fact the more problems we have, the more opportunities we have to practice and the more quickly we make progress. The alternative, not to rely on a peaceful mind, is hopeless, leading to more suffering now and in the future.
How to have a happy life
Simply put, Geshe Kelsang advised in the Kadampa Festival in Brazil that (1) Everyone wants to be happy all the time. (2) If our mind is happy, we are happy, even if we are sick. (3) To have a happy mind all the time, we need a peaceful mind. (4) To develop and maintain a peaceful mind, we need two things: to tune into blessings and to practice Dharma.
1. Got blessings?
So one of the two ways to get a peaceful mind, according to Geshe-la, is through blessings. Anyone can get these whenever they tune in with faith and prayer to any enlightened being they like, believing they are there and asking for their help and protection — for example, Buddha of fearlessness, Tara, or Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara, or Buddha Shakyamuni, or Medicine Buddha, or a holy being from another tradition such as Jesus if you’re not a Buddhist.
Enlightened beings are always beaming their blessings — their blessings actually pervade space – but we’re like someone in a heavy suit of self-grasping armor, feeling all alone and cut off. We need to learn to lift that visor a little bit, let the light in.
The fully developed minds of enlightened beings are universal love and omniscient wisdom mixed with the true nature of all things – so they are everywhere, we simply need to tune in. We can feel their blessings flow into us, the nature of deep protective love and peace, and our mind lifts, becomes happier, is transported to a better place. We see the light! We are in effect mixing our minds with their minds, as explained more in this good guest article on blessings, and it works very well, we often get instant relief. Our anxiety or unhappiness feels far more manageable and may even go away entirely.
Here’s a great habit to get into: as soon as we notice the grip of anxiety or dread starting to tighten around our heart, stop what we are doing and tune into enlightened minds before the anxiety takes over our mind (at which point we normally have little choice but to wait it out.) One quick and effective way to get blessings from Buddha, day or night, is to use the Liberating Prayer. We can also do this traditional refuge prayer:
I and all sentient beings, until we attain enlightenment, Go for refuge to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Here is a short simple way to rely on Buddha Tara. Or we can just talk to holy beings in our own words, they’re listening. Their nature is that they have no choice but to respond instantly and spontaneously to our requests. Our only real job is to be open to their help.
Faith grows over time as we focus on the good qualities of enlightened beings. If we experiment with tuning into blessings, we notice we feel better, so our faith grows. Then we get more blessings and feel even better, so our faith grows more.
2. Apply Dharma
The other way to get a peaceful mind is to apply Buddha’s teachings, called Dharma, which pacify our self-cherishing and other delusions and transform our thoughts into compassion, wisdom, and other positive peaceful states. As Venerable Geshe-la says:
The purpose of meditation is to make the mind calm and peaceful. If our mind is peaceful, we will be free from worries and mental discomfort, and so we will experience true happiness. ~ How to Transform Your Life
BTW, meditation doesn’t mean just sitting on our cushion or chair with our eyes closed, but familiarizing ourselves with these peaceful thoughts during all our daily activities, identifying with them more and more.
Every Dharma mind is an effective antidote to some unpeaceful mind. For example, putting others first is an antidote to self-cherishing. Seeing everything as mere name, being less closely involved in the external situation, is an antidote to self-grasping. Renunciation with clear-sighted acceptance that we can’t expect everything to go our way all the time, at least not until we have permanent mental freedom, is an antidote to aversion and anxiety, and it makes our mind stable. Whatever Dharma we use, it has the effect of allowing our naturally peaceful mind to re-emerge and therefore stay happy.
As we get more and more used to turning to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, we find we go there naturally when we are feeling scared or sad. Receiving blessings and getting used to relying on Dharma minds, we get better and better at staying peaceful, whatever else is going on. This really is the essence of spiritual practice, fulfilling our wishes to be happy and free.
So, are we “relying upon a happy mind alone” as the great Kadampa saying goes, or are we panicking the moment something doesn’t go our way?! If we are training in keeping a pure and peaceful mind, we have no basis for worry. There are countless people who have pulled this off, and you are next in line.
And talking of fish … It’s bad enough being a human being in the age of COVID, I was thinking, but being a fish has always sucked. And what chance do they have to keep a peaceful mind and/or get enlightened if I as a relatively free and fortunate human am not even making the effort?
To conclude … all of Buddhist spiritual practice is designed to fulfill our wishes to be happy and not suffer. And as we become stronger and more peaceful, we naturally want to help others to be the same, to share what we know. Knowing from our own experience that suffering sucks, we don’t want others to suffer either. One day we decide to strive for enlightenment so that we can bring blessings and peace to each and every living being every day. Then, whether we are healthy or sick, in this body or the next, that is our priority, our actual path, and our mind and life really start to go new places.
Over to you! Please share ways in which you have been able to keep a peaceful mind even when ill, it would be so helpful.
There’s a lot of anxiety, fear, and sadness going around this year. It is arguably leading to people feeling fragile and on a shorter fuse, more upset and angry than usual with each other and with everything that seems to be going on in our world. If we check where a lot of this is coming from, it comes because deep down most people are scared not just of losing the way of life they’ve known but of dying.
For this reason, to get rid of the underlying fear, it is really important that we don’t shy away from contemplating what is inevitable for all of us. That we come to terms with it, come to accept it, and even come to welcome it! After all, there is no getting around it. As Buddha says in Sutra Addressed to a King:
Ageing is like an immovable mountain. Decay is like an immoveable mountain. Sickness is like an immoveable mountain. Death is like an immoveable mountain.
Many people hold off thinking about things like serious illness, ageing, and death for as long as possible because they don’t know how to deal with them — they just seem catastrophic, terrifying. Like when the Doctor tells you or a loved one some test results, “I’m afraid it is not good news,” and our heart sinks — we just want to run away, even though there is nowhere to run to. However, we can face whatever happens not alone and scared but within the context of refuge – feeling safe, protected, okay. Also, if we can accept death, we find we can far more easily accept all the other things that go wrong with our lives.
We are all mortals made of flesh and bone, and the purpose of contemplating the mortal facts of sickness, ageing, death, and rebirth every day is not to paralyze us but to give rise to deep refuge in what will actually help us – and not just when these things happen, but now, straightaway. This includes, as we’ll see more in the next article, tuning into the blessings or protection of countless enlightened beings that are always on tap, and making an effort to apply the Dharma teachings that enable us to stay peaceful regardless of what is going on. With these we can stay happy in the present, and we are also ready for the illness and death when they come. We become fearless.
There is nothing to fear but fear itself, as the saying goes. And it turns out that our fear and anxiety, along with all our other unpeaceful thoughts, are delusions arising from grasping at something that is not there, such as a real body, or a real self, or a self that is more important than everyone else. Our fears are directly proportional to how tightly we are grasping. Luckily we can all learn to let go of these thoughts, to stop grasping. And it is helpful to remember that our mind is naturally peaceful, we are just shaking it up with our own inappropriate thoughts.
So much of the stress and tension we normally experience comes from our mind, and many of the problems we experience, including ill health, are caused or aggravated by this stress. Just by doing breathing meditation for ten or fifteen minutes each day, we will be able to reduce this stress.
A lot of our ill health is enormously exacerbated – sometimes even brought on — by anxiety and tension in the mind. Therefore it would be great to start practicing these simple strategies now on a daily basis because they will be very healing. Then, through using wisdom and compassion to get rid of our grasping once and for all, we will become free from all sickness permanently.
Inner and outer problems
With our world in turmoil and anxiety, we have to learn how to keep our mind peaceful and calm. If we are peaceful, we are happy. We are also strong, which means we can help others stay strong too.
If we understand the difference between inner and outer problems we can understand why being able to keep a peaceful mind is the actual solution when things are going wrong. A quick reminder: if our car breaks down, that is an outer problem belonging to the car. It can be fixed (or not) depending on outer means, such as taking it to the garage, and it can be fixed by other people.
If we get upset that the car has broken down, that is an inner problem, an unpleasant feeling in our own mind. This is what makes us unhappy and is therefore our actual problem. It can ONLY be fixed by internal means, and by ourself.
It is never too late to start controlling our own mind – on one level it is not hard, it just takes a decision to get started, to make it a priority.
Dharma solves inner problems, that is its actual function. And on one level the solution to these problems is so very simple. If we let go of self-cherishing (believing we are more important than others) and self-grasping (believing everything is real, existing from its own side), the whole house of cards will come tumbling down. If we do not, then even if we manage to get over one fear or upset, this is a temporary relief – another is already on its way. It’s endless, life after life.
Being trapped in so-called samsara, the cycle of impure life, is not being trapped in an external prison – it simply means that we still have self-cherishing and self-grasping. If we learn how we are creating this prison, we can dismantle it. It is useful to let our daily problems remind us not that we are doomed, but instead:
Man, this health/financial/political/relationship problem is really showing me how much self-cherishing and self-grasping suck! Luckily they are just ignorant thoughts, bubbles arising from the ocean of my root mind. Therefore, I’m going to learn to stop thinking them and get used to not thinking them. And then help others to do the same.
Rinse and repeat. This way, it’s like our run of the mill outer and inner problems are giving us practice in getting rid of all of our problems once and for all!
Can we be ill and happy at the same time?!
But surely being ill is an inner problem? you may be thinking. No. It is our body’s problem, not our mind’s problem. We can include bodily ailments within outer problems. We believe our feelings of pain are coming from our body, but our body is inanimate and doesn’t feel anything. The pain is our bodily awareness, which pervades our body, but which is part of our mind. And the painful bodily feelings arise only because we have self-grasping ignorance, believing our body is inherently existent. If we get a direct realization of emptiness, we never feel any physical (or mental) pain again. Meantime, we can also have unpleasant bodily feelings while at the same time having peaceful mental feelings, such as compassion or renunciation.
Soooo… if we make a point of stopping self-cherishing and self-grasping with respect to our body, we will be able to stay increasingly pain-free and happy even when we’re getting older, sicker, and deader. And how important is that!!
I’ve had some practice with this of late — for example my lungs got a bit infected by all the wildfire smoke and I had to have laser surgery for a torn retina – and this fear (aargh, I have lung cancer and I’m going blind!) and loathing (why did this happen to me!? I was so happy before! I don’t like it!) has given me ample incentive to contemplate that my body is not my mind, and nor is it me. It is just a possession I use, like my car or my carrot peeler. It is inanimate. Plus it is not inherently existent. (Despite numerous contemplations on the subject over the years, I think I was still kinda hoping I might get away with not having to go through all that aging and sickness stuff, just drop dead one day and go to the Pure Land. Been having to rethink my strategy 😂).
At times when things go wrong with my body, I naturally turn to think of practitioners who are really good at transforming sickness and creeping fears; and there is actually no shortage of inspiration. Lhatse Geshe visited us at Madhyamaka Centre many years ago, possibly the happiest most fun-loving person in the world. He came for a week and stayed 3 months, and we never knew till after he’d left that he’d had migraines almost every day. (He and I stayed in touch for years, and a long time later he also had an awesome death — I’ll tell you that story another day.)
One senior Kadampa nun I know has experienced painful and debilitating arthritis for years, but she is always genuinely smiling and kind. The other day someone asked her how she was and she replied:
I am fine. I am not a sick person. I just have a body that is problematical.
I find this really helpful to contemplate.
Another 40-something Kadampa has recently come through cancer but she told me that she’d happily do it all again if it meant COVID would go away for everyone else. Shows how much authentic compassion she developed in the course of her illness and treatment.
A good friend with a degenerative illness replied to me the other day:
My physical health is getting worse. My spiritual practice is getting better.
Another friend told me that if he hadn’t suffered from so much ill health, he would never have turned so much to Dharma or led such a good and basically happy life, so he doesn’t regret any of it (even the operations where there was no anaesthesia ….) What about Harriet Tubman, still running the equivalent of five marathons to save people from slavery despite the horrendous headaches that would have floored less inspired people?
And something for the Tantric practitioners amongst you … You know those car stickers you see on old bangers, “My other car is a Mercedes?” I remember conversations with my ancient friend Eileen, who suffered sickness and old age for years, when she would say,
This meaty body is not my real body. My other body is a Deity body.
Which brings me to my Mom, too. She’s had a lot of serious health challenges in her life, but manages most all of the time to stay peaceful and keep enjoying life. If she isn’t happy she isn’t one to complain, she generally just waits patiently for it to pass. This is because she can be rather wise. The other day she was saying that our body is a thing, it is not us. It is a tool or an instrument that we use. Our mind is more important. She told me she makes an effort to think about things that are “important”, not to worry about small things. The main thing is to keep our mind peaceful and happy, not to worry about all the external things that we can do nothing about, which is pointless because we can do nothing about them. That includes all the things that can go wrong with our problematical body and, as she said, hers has been that.
There is literally no point following the inappropriate attention of anxiety or fear when it comes to our body. We don’t freak out (much) when the car is dented, we just take it to the garage. In a similar way, we can learn to patiently accept whatever is coming up with the body while taking it to the doctor.
Kadampa Geshes would pray to have a mind like a blacksmith’s anvil, undaunted however hard it is hit. Sounds good to me! Shortly after Venerable Geshe Kelsang came over to the West to help us, in the early 1980s, he developed tuberculosis and almost passed away. After he had recovered, I remember his doctor telling us that he saw absolutely no difference in Geshe-la’s way of being when he was well and when he was gravely ill. He said you couldn’t tell he was ill.
More coming up soon. Meantime, over to you! In particular, do you have any helpful experiences to share on transforming bodily ailments or physical pain in particular?
Before you go … I really recommend the International Kadampa Fall Festival that started on Friday (and is available for a couple of weeks)– for one thing Gen-la Dekyong just gave a beautiful commentary on inner and outer problems and what actually is physical pain, based on Venerable Geshe-la’s Medicine Buddha teachings in New York in 2006. Simply stunning. As was the empowerment today. Still plenty of time to tune in.
My dad said on Skype yesterday that we’d all get through 2020 if we stay cool, calm, and collected and if we are nice to everyone, lol. He added, “That is what you are telling everyone, isn’t it?”
Buddhism does indeed explain how we can be IN the world, as it were, without being OF the world – helping others in a practical way but without feeling helplessly swept along by everything and everyone that seems to be going wrong. We need not be dangling like a puppet on the strings of aversion, uncontrolled desire, and confusion, but more like a Weeble that bounces back to center however hard it is pushed.
And rather than being stymied by the guilty dualistic thought, “I am not doing enough,” we need the contented feeling of wholeness that sources a steady stream of action, “I am doing enough.”
Firm, stable refuge in our heart starts with a knowledge that underneath the chaos we have deep hearts of gold; there sanity lies. We have everything we need inside us and nothing truly to be worried about. If we steadily grow our reliance on wisdom and love, we come to possess an inner calm and coolness under pressure. This also has us automatically tuned in to the inspiring wisdom, bliss, and protection of all enlightened beings.
Question is, how can we deepen this reliance? I find it interesting that at both the International Spring AND Summer Kadampa Buddhist Festivals this year, Venerable Geshe-la shared this as his message to us all:
Hello to the International Kadampa community. I would like to offer you the following message based on The Stories of Rebirth by Arya Sura. I would like to explain the benefits of listening to Dharma teachings.
Why the emphasis on listening to Dharma? Partly, for reasons I talked about in this last article, I think it may be because at least some of us might be spending a bit too much time listening to things that are NOT the Dharma of wisdom and compassion, and that could even indeed be the opposite.
Are you doom-scrolling?
We need to be responsible, educated citizens, for sure, with an election coming up here in the USA for example and age-old injustices to be addressed. But with fewer IRL places and people for us to hang out with these days, we may be getting too helplessly sucked into the endless virtual noise, speculation, and inappropriate attention that just seem to take us further and further from the truth. I have seen that tendency in myself and had to nip it in the bud a few times, so I know what I’m talking about.
In fact, there is even a new word for it, “doom-scrolling”. Or, it’s even worse cousin, “rage-scrolling.”
As the great Indian Master Atisha puts it:
Avoid places that disturb your mind, and always remain where your virtues increase.
I would submit that we could apply this advice not just to physical but to virtual places. Less time on CNN/Fox News, more time on Buddhist TV! Less time in our echo chambers, or vainly talking at people, and more time doing practical things to actually make a difference in the lives of our families, community, and country. As the saying goes: “Less drama, more Dharma.”
Less drama, more Dharma
I thought in this article it’d be nice to go over some of these benefits. Please feel welcome to add your own commentary in the Comments Box below.
1. Listening to Dharma teachings is a great light that eliminates the darkness of our own and others’ ignorance.
We have been in this discombobulating darkness since beginningless time! It’s way too long. Way too long. To break out of the dystopian worlds we keep projecting for ourselves with self-grasping ignorance, we need to listen to Buddha’s teachings on reality more and more deeply.
It is hard to see that this light is even there, however, if we get stuck down a rabbit hole.
2. Listening to Dharma teachings is the best wealth that cannot be stolen by thieves and which gives great meaning to our human life.
Our external resources have always been unstable and subject to decline, which seems more obvious than ever in these days of economic uncertainty. But increasing the inner wealth of spiritual experience can come to help us so much more than any amount of outer wealth could ever do – in the short term it gives us the riches of contentment (that we can also take with us through death), and in the long term it leads us to lasting happiness and freedom.
Listening also includes reading Buddhist books – for example, you could start working your way through the 23 totally inspirational works by Venerable Geshe-la. How about that for a meaningful and fool-proof life plan to acquire the best wealth?!
3. Listening to Dharma teachings is a weapon that destroys our enemy of confusion.
We need a wisdom sword to cut through the never-ending hallucinations of samsara. One bit of advice I find useful: When reading or listening to stuff that I find confusing or provocative on the internet etc, when I am not sure who or what to believe, one thing I ask myself is:
What would Buddha believe?
Or “What would Geshe-la believe,” if that works for you too. We are Buddha’s followers, so follow Buddha.
4. Listening to Dharma teachings is our best friend who will never deceive us and from whom we receive our best advice.
“Time is running,” as Geshe Kelsang says, and it’s all too easy to waste it. Unlike the greatest conspiracy theorist of them all – our own self-grasping mind – listening to the advice of enlightened beings will only ever reveal things we need to know for greater happiness and freedom. We might come to prefer hanging out with Dharma more than anything else. We will never feel lonely again with this friend around.
5. Listening to Dharma teachings is a relative and friend who remains loyal even when we are impoverished.
6. Listening to Dharma teachings is the supreme medicine that cures the disease of uncontrolled desire, anger, and ignorance.
Indirectly, listening also helps us overcome all physical diseases. It certainly helps us deal better with them.
7. Listening to Dharma teachings is a powerful opponent that destroys great faults.
8. Listening to Dharma teachings is the best treasure because it is the foundation of all fame and resources.
By listening, we create positive mental actions that are “hundreds of times more powerful than verbal and physical actions,” according to Venerable Geshe-la. These create the karmic causes for anything and everything we could ever want.
9. Listening to Dharma teachings is the best gift through which we can benefit all living beings.
I think we’d all like to help as many people as we can, given the choice? Through listening to Dharma, we become a source of refuge and strength for others, and a good example of how to be happy and carefree. Eventually we become a Bodhisattva and then a Buddha, helping everyone every day.
10. Listening to Dharma teachings is the best method to make countless living beings happy.
Summer is winding down and Kadampa Centers everywhere are about to embark on their Fall scheduling. (Here in Colorado, high temperatures and sunshine are set to plunge 50 degrees and snow next Tuesday!) Longer nights and colder days give us the perfect opportunity to cozy up to our local Buddhist TV station or read more Dharma books. It’s a great idea to make a schedule that we can stick to.
If you haven’t done so already, for example, maybe now would be a good time to join in with a consistent in-depth study program such as Foundation Program? And those of you who have been around Kadampa Buddhism for a while, have you considered joining a Teacher Training Program? – for all the reasons listed above, our world could do with more Dharma teachers. Here is more info on on the study programs of Modern Buddhism.
To finish the message started above:
Please memorize, contemplate the meaning again and again and then put it into practice day by day, month by month, year by year.