Do you remember the Chilean miners? They were stuck underground for several months but then were miraculously saved. After they were rescued, they traveled the world like heroes, being feted wherever they went, having a grand old time.
Imagine being stuck down a mine. Imagine you have been down there so long that you don’t even register the possibility of a bright shiny world outside the mine, or, if you do occasionally wonder about such a thing, the thought quickly fades.
Then imagine that one day something amazing happens. A crack appears above you in the solid darkness, and light rays stream through.
When I was at high school, before I discovered Buddhism, these David Bowie lyrics from his song Starman inspired me for some half-remembered reason:
“There’s a starman waiting in the sky. He’d like to come and meet us but he thinks he’d blow our minds.
There’s a starman waiting in the sky. He’s told us not to blow it ‘cause he knows it’s all worthwhile.”
I had always had an intermittent sense that there was something more to life than these painted appearances, all this superficial stuff, and that I was supposed to be striving for something deeper and more cosmic than just getting through life; I just was not sure what it was. I also felt that someone somewhere was trying to tell me something, I just wasn’t sure who or where they were!
I think everyone has thoughts like these, even if it is 3am in the morning and the thought quickly fades or is pushed away. These are tiny cracks of light. They don’t amount to anything consistent or even life-changing, but they are an expression of the actual interdependent nature of all phenomena and our pure potential or Buddha nature (mystic theistic traditions might say our divinity and potential for apotheosis) — and they give us an intuition of something beyond this world of ordinary appearances. Whether we choose to pursue those existential thoughts or not depends on many things, of course.
Back in the mine, imagine now that the crack above your head becomes larger. And there is now a voice coming through from outside.
That voice is telling you that he wants to come and meet you and not to blow it because there is a way out of this mine…
… in fact he has all the equipment we’ll need to dig ourselves out with his help.
I remember when I first realized I had met my own Spiritual Guide. I was a student at university and was, strangely enough, at a disco (it was the 80s!) dancing with a friend. We had both met Geshe Kelsang a few weeks or months earlier, I don’t really remember. Suddenly, I was hit with a very blissful understanding — my starman had arrived. I shouted to my friend over the music, with unchecked teenage exuberance and somewhat to his (and probably everyone else’s) embarassment: “Do you realize our Spiritual Guide has found us?!!” And yes, it did blow my mind.
Since then, my teacher Geshe Kelsang has given me exactly everything I need. If all the enlightened beings had gotten together to figure out what I personally needed to escape from ignorance, anger, attachment, mistaken dualistic appearances and suffering, and start helping others to do the same, they would have done exactly what they have done. They would have emanated as someone I can communicate with and relate to because he appears in a relatively ordinary form, and given me through that person all the teachings, inspiration and conditions I need.
If I want to get out of the mine, I need to stay close to that light source and voice — not stray too far or get all skeptical about it — and keep believing that there is another world beyond the world of suffering. As my teacher says in Transform Your Life:
“Without faith, everything is mundane. We are blind to anything beyond the ordinary and imperfect world we normally inhabit, and we cannot even imagine that pure faultless beings, worlds, or states of mind exist.”
In truth, the world outside the mind is not somewhere else – the Pure Land is right here, it is the emptiness (lack of independent existence) of all phenomena that is always mixed indivisibly with the blissful wisdom of all enlightened beings. (When Milarepa, the great Buddhist meditator and poet, was asked in which Pure Land he had attained enlightenment, he famously pointed to his cave.) This bliss and emptiness pervades all phenomena, and we are only subtle mistaken appearances away from that experience ourselves. Faith in the enlightened beings and teachings necessitates faith in one’s own infinite potential. I sometimes like to think that we are just a trick of the mind away from enlightenment. As Geshe-la says in Yoga of Buddha Heruka:
“The moment our mind is free from subtle mistaken appearance, we open the door through which we can directly see all enlightened Deities. For as long as our mind remains polluted by subtle mistaken appearance, this door is closed.”
Through understanding that, I think we can understand what blessings actually are. But perhaps that can be the subject of another blog article.
Your comments are welcome!
(If you are interested in knowing more about my teacher, see this article.)
Geshe Chekhawa, famous Kadampa master, told us how we could measure our success in training our minds:
“Always rely upon a happy mind alone.”
This has many layers of meaning. But one thing I think it reveals is the best perspective for approaching our spiritual practice in the first place. If we can get that right, our meditations flow, and we make easy progress. If we don’t get it right, meditation and spiritual practice seem like more hard work, more duty, and one day we might just pack it in.
Over the past 30 years, I’ve seen umpteen people start off enthusiastically, as they glimpse the infinite possibilities of developing the mind; but then the sky clouds over and they become discouraged. Sometimes, people who have been supposedly “practicing” Buddhist meditation for years just stop. That makes no sense to me because meditation gets better and better if we do it right. I love meditating. So I’m sharing some ideas in the hope that they might help a few people keep relying on a happy mind alone instead of giving into the laziness of discouragement. After all, do we get discouraged or stop doing something if we are really enjoying ourselves?
Buddhist meditation or Dharma is designed to make us happier and more free. We talk about “practicing Dharma”, or “training in meditation”, which means that we are practicing or training in becoming happier and more free. “Practicing” or “training in” implies we already have the potential for happiness and freedom, otherwise we would have to say something like “adding happiness” instead.
To borrow my friend’s gym analogy again… There is no point in going to the gym unless we have a muscle. We go the gym precisely to train our muscles, so we need to have at least some muscle, however weak, in order to train it. Well, Dharma is happiness-training. In other words, we need to have some happiness for us to train. We can also say Dharma is love-training or compassion-training or wisdom-training, and similarly we need to have some love or compassion or wisdom in order to train.
This is why it so important to identify and abide with our natural good qualities of happiness, wisdom, compassion etc., however feeble they may be at the moment. Then we naturally approach our training with such faith and optimism — regarding realizations as natural, even inevitable.
This will give you actual meditation experience.
Where are you starting from?
Buddha said our true nature, our Buddha nature, was like a clear sky and that our faults are not our intrinsic nature but adventitious or temporary defilements, like rain clouds scudding across the sky.
To see if we are approaching our spiritual practice from the best and indeed only useful perspective, we can ask ourself :
“On a daily basis, how much time do I spend identifying with my pure potential for happiness and freedom? And how much time do I spend identifying with being deluded e.g. irritated, worried, diseased, insecure, lonely, ugly, unhappy, addicted? When I do meditation or prayers or go to a teaching or remember spiritual advice in my daily life, where am I starting from? From the standpoint of being a limited, dark cloudy being who is a million miles away from where I want to be, or from the standpoint of being right now a spacious-sky-like blissful Buddha or Bodhisattva or good person, just temporarily obscured by the clouds of delusions?
Am I slogging away at this because I know it is supposed to be good for me, or am I enjoying myself every step of the way?”
“Enlightenment is defined as an omniscient wisdom whose nature is the permanent cessation of mistaken appearance and whose function is to bestow mental peace on all living beings.”
Nothing is being said here about adding anything. By freeing ourself permanently from mistaken or dualistic appearances, and by ripening our Buddha nature, we will naturally possess omniscience and universal compassion. We will then have the power to help each living being every day by bestowing our blessings on them, teaching, and emanating.
Love and all non-deluded minds are our Buddha nature — our innate potential for complete purity and bliss — which is never separate from any living being. This means that to increase our good qualities of love, happiness, wisdom and so on, we do not need to add anything. In fact, to go all the way to becoming an enlightened being we do not need to add anything. We simply need to (1) remove all cloud-like delusions and obscurations from our mind through the practice of wisdom and (2) ripen our potential for all good qualities with the so-called method practices of contentment, faith, renunciation (the mind of liberation), love, compassion, bodhichitta (the mind of enlightenment), and so on.
No time like the present
Anyone at all can tune into their spiritual potential, starting right now, if they know how. When you feel some peace from doing simple breathing meditation, for example, identify this as your true nature, your Buddha nature. Disbelieve or ignore all the ordinary cloud-like thoughts you have of yourself as a limited, deluded being, and in this way leave the space for the naturally pure, positive, loving thoughts to arise instead. Actually, the Pure Land is right here, right now – we are just not looking at it.
This is one of my favorite quotes:
“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thru’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
~ William Blake
The more we grasp at things as real, the more out of touch with reality we are. Delusions (our unpeaceful, uncontrolled minds based on mistaken appearance and exaggeration, such as anger, greed and ignorance) grasp the most tightly, and their objects do not exist. Anger, for example, grasps at and wants to push away an inherently unpleasant person or situation; and there is no such thing. Attachment does the opposite — grasping at and pulling toward us something or someone out there that we feel is necessary for our happiness, when in fact our happiness is within, a state of mind. When any delusions are functioning, our life feels precarious, out of balance, somehow lacking.
Love, compassion, wisdom are in touch with reality and offer us transcendence – we can feel it, and it is why they make us feel good. When our love is arising in our mind, for example, it feels spacious, peaceful, and wholly connected with a wider reality. It also feels as if the elements of our life are in balance as we are in a state of not lacking anything — so it is impossible, for example, to feel guilty or worried about all the things we “should” be doing but are not…
Avoiding burnout at work
In this article, I try to explain how to use this understanding to prevent stress and burnout at work.
Your comments are very welcome. And please share this article if you found it helpful.
The problem is not in the person — the problem is the problem and the person is the person.
~ Solution-focussed social work theory
Our problems do not exist outside our mind. The real nature of our problems is our unpleasant feelings, which are part of our mind.
~ How to Solve Our Human Problems, Gyatso, 2005, p3.
When I first started training as a social worker I was immediately drawn to an approach which I feel is similar to Buddhism. It’s called “solution-focussed assessment and intervention”. As the first quote says, you don’t identify a problem in the person — the person is the person, the problem is the problem — and it is about identifying with solutions, and not giving too much energy to problems.
This reminded me of my Buddhist practice of trying to acknowledge my delusions, then let go of them and increase my positive qualities (solutions), and how as an aspiring Bodhisattva I can have a special view of others by not looking at their negative qualities, but focus on their good qualities and let these outshine any negative ones. As Geshe Kelsang often says:
“Where is a problem? It does not exist outside our mind.”
Many social workers are into empowering people and I find solution-focussed social work to be empowerment at its very best. You try and get clients to understand that they don’t have to identify with their problems, to get them to try and see the changeability of a problem and that they can eventually deal with and even transform the situation.For example in a mental health charity I worked for I helped a service user realise that external problems such as personal relationship difficulties and negative people within the community weren’t always problems and that, when she was feeling good, the people were friendly and the problems weren’t there as much. She understood the changeability of the situations and my advice helped a little. This person lacked self-esteem but I was able to help her improve her view of herself by helping her understand her good qualities such as being a good cook, being good at arts & crafts and being a very social person. She learned to deal with her problems and difficulties better.
As a social worker you are a mediator between an individual and society. You are concerned with helping vulnerable people and can often be a positive change agent for individuals. Helping vulnerable people can be very beneficial. In Joyful Path of Good Fortunemy teacher Geshe-la quotes Arya Asanga’s eleven ways of helping others such as: alleviating the suffering of others and offering them assistance in their work, teaching others skills when they do not know how to accomplish tasks, removing dangers that threaten others, consoling others when they are in grief and giving material assistance to those who are destitute. (Gyatso, 2006, p457)
My Kadampa values have definitely helped me in my social work practice! Through them I am now adopting my own individual assessment and intervention approach based on solution-focussed theory. You always have to be aware of risk and assess this, but resilience, people’s strengths and solutions to problems are the main emphasis.
Your turn: your comment, questions and observations are most welcome! Please leave them in the box below. And do share this article if you found it helpful.
Other articles by our guest social worker are available here.
But reading the article and especially the comments, I was struck by how many people don’t know how to get started with meditation and feel a little overwhelmed by the thought of what might be involved. And this reminded me of when I began 30 years ago this fall. Back then, in the Friday night meditation classes I attended, I felt encouraged to take baby steps, and that every little counts. Meditation is not as difficult as it may seem. In fact, it feels surprisingly natural, once you get going. Getting going is the main thing.
How to Begin Meditation
The advice in the book Transform Your Life, in the chapter What is Meditation?, (and specifically in the section How to Begin Meditation), is perfect. A lot of friends and family have asked me over the years to explain to them a simple 5 or 10 minute meditation so they can relax and get rid of anxiety, and I show them this chapter.
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, my Buddhist teacher, is a completely accomplished meditator who has spent much of his life in Tibet, India and the West in meditation retreat. He has used his combined understanding of meditation and the exigencies of modern life to teach thousands of distracted Westerners everything they need to know to be successful at meditation themselves. So if you really want to start meditating, you could do no better than to consult this chapter. A lot of it can be found here: and I have copied/pasted from there.
“The first stage of meditation is to stop distractions and make our mind clearer and more lucid. This can be accomplished by practicing a simple breathing meditation. We choose a quiet place to meditate and sit in a comfortable position. We can sit in the traditional cross-legged posture or in any other position that is comfortable. If we wish, we can sit in a chair. The most important thing is to keep our back straight to prevent our mind from becoming sluggish or sleepy.
We sit with our eyes partially closed and turn our attention to our breathing. We breathe naturally, preferably through the nostrils, without attempting to control our breath, and we try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. This sensation is our object of meditation. We should try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.
At first, our mind will be very busy, and we might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. There will be a great temptation to follow the different thoughts as they arise, but we should resist this and remain focused single-pointedly on the sensation of the breath. If we discover that our mind has wandered and is following our thoughts, we should immediately return it to the breath. We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.”
This is the meditation I started with in 1981 as a college student, just sitting on the end of my bed each day for the few precious minutes I could spare between the discos, pubs, and odd lecture. I’ve never looked back.
Step One ~ Sitting
As Geshe Kelsang teaches, the first thing to do is find a quiet spot where we won’t be interrupted. Mainly, these days, we need to find the will power to turn off all those gadgets!! Once we’re sitting in our comfortable position, we can relax our shoulders, rest our hands in our lap or wherever is comfortable, tilt our head slightly forward, and partially close our eyes to allow some light to come through the eyelashes (a lot of people also gently close their eyes). We can rest our tongue on the palate to keep our mouth moist.
(By the way, people sometimes wonder if it is ok to lie down to meditate — you can, but be wary that you are more likely to fall asleep if you do. Sitting with a straight back helps us stay alert.)
Step Two ~ Motivation
Before turning the attention to the breath or any other object of meditation, I think it is very helpful to think briefly about what we’re doing and why. The benefits of meditation are probably infinite, but I just pick one or two of my favorites, depending on the meditation. Geshe Kelsang explains the far-reaching benefits of breathing meditation here. Through this, our mind becomes light and happy, and we can make the decision: “This meditation will really help me and those around me. So for the next 5 (or 10) minutes I will focus on this meditation alone; everything else can wait.” Generating this good motivation makes it far easier to find the discipline to stay focused.
Step Three (optional) ~ Relaxing your Body
If your body is feeling tense, it can be helpful when starting out to spend a few moments deliberately relaxing your body (eventually, concentration on the breath alone has the side-effect of relaxing the body). We can do this by first dissolving everything outside our body into light (including the past and the future), so just our body remains. We become aware of the feelings in our body from our crown down to our feet; and then, as we become aware of any feelings of tension or tiredness in any parts of our body, we let go of them and imagine that they fall away –- as if dropping heavy luggage. All our muscles feel as if they are softening and relaxing. Our body then dissolves into light from our crown to our feet, so that just its merest outline remains. Our body is weightless like a feather in the breeze, clear and translucent like a hollow body, and so comfortable that we’re hardly even aware that it is there.
Step Four ~ Following the Breath
Geshe Kelsang teaches that “we try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils.” As we breathe in, we’ll come to notice a cool sensation at the edge of our nostrils or on our upper lip, and as we breathe out we’ll notice a warm pressure there. Just that. Once we notice this, we have found the object of meditation. “This sensation is our object of meditation. We should try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.”
Now, as Geshe Kelsang suggests, there are only two things to do for the next 5 minutes:
(1) We don’t forget the sensation of the breath, our object of meditation – resisting the temptation to follow other thoughts; (2) When we do forget the breath and find our mind has wandered to another object, we gently but firmly bring it straight back to the breath.
“We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.” I think it is important to know that it doesn’t matter how many times we have to bring our attention back to the breath – for as long as we are doing that, as opposed to following our other thoughts, we are training in mindfulness and concentration. In short, we are meditating.
Toward the end of your meditation, see if you can follow your breath for 3 or even 7 consecutive breaths (one breath being an inhalation and exhalation) without getting distracted by anything else! Believe your mind is settled on the breath, and indeed so close that it is as though your mind and your breath are mixed, as one.
If you follow Geshe Kelsang’s simple instructions, you will gradually feel your mind settling and the constant chatter of uncontrolled thoughts, feelings, worries, emotions slow down and even stop. As Geshe-la describes it:
“… gradually our distracting thoughts will subside and we will experience a sense of inner peace and relaxation. Our mind will feel lucid and spacious and we will feel refreshed. When the sea is rough, sediment is churned up and the water becomes murky, but when the wind dies down the mud gradually settles and the water becomes clear. In a similar way, when the otherwise incessant flow of our distracting thoughts is calmed through concentrating on the breath, our mind becomes unusually lucid and clear. We should stay with this state of mental calm for a while.”
Feel yourself dissolve into this clarity and peace at the level of your heart — drop from your head to your heart. Stay here as long as you can, giving yourself permission to really enjoy yourself. Know that you can always return here.
Before arising gently from meditation, resolve to bring the peace you have experienced back with you into your day.
Can I suggest that you get used to this idea from the outset: no pushing allowed in meditation. It doesn’t work. We bring our attention back to the object in a determined but relaxed manner, and stay light. We also don’t need to grasp at results — we do that enough in the rest of our lives. Meditation is the best way to let go of grasping and just be, and this naturally leads to incredible insights and open-hearted positivity, the manifesting of our potential.
In our busy modern world, preoccupied with yesterday’s memories and tomorrow’s plans, we may have lost touch with the immediate, what is literally right under our noses; but it is actually very natural and normal to follow your breath. This is another reason why it is not necessary or advisable to attempt to control the breath, as Geshe Kelsang points out, or to push. Even though distractions interrupt seemingly non-stop to begin with, don’t panic; it is only because we are not used to focusing on anything single-pointedly for any length of time, and so have little or no control over our thoughts. That is our problem, and skillful meditation on the breath will overcome it.
The other problem people new to meditation sometimes complain about is drowsiness – not surprising insofar as usually the only time we allow ourselves to really relax and let go is when we are about to fall asleep in bed at night. Concentration is the antidote to drowsiness, and in the meantime, until we have some concentration, it is a good idea to meditate at a time of day when you are relatively alert e.g. after morning tea, and to sit in a light space. Avoid meditating after a big meal or wearing heavy clothes.
In fact, if you are doing just 5 or 10 minutes meditation at a time, there is a good chance that you’ll avoid both distraction and sleepiness – so a good tip is to keep your meditation short but professional. If you are enjoying it, meditate again for another 5 minutes later in the day! You’ll see your capacity and enthusiasm grow naturally.
Geshe Kelsang also teaches variations on the theme of breathing meditation, such as, in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, first identifying and then breathing out all your problems and anxiety in the form of thick smoke, and then strongly believing you are breathing in all lightness, joy and blessings in the form of blissful golden or white light. Some people prefer to do breathing meditation this way, and the basic instructions remain the same.
I hope you get started soon. You’ll never regret learning to meditate – it is the most problem-solving, mind-freeing and happiness-inducing skill in the world. It has no adverse side effects. It is free! And no one can take it away from you. Here is that website, About Meditation. If you get a chance, do go along to a meditation class in your area – you can’t beat live instructions from a real person.
I have recently had the surreal experience of unexpectedly reconnecting with my closest childhood friend, whom I played with in Guyana when we were 10 years old. Four days after we talked again, laughing at our memories of that different lifetime, she was diagnosed with cancer. She asked me how to meditate to find peace. This article is for you, Debra.
This brave, funny and happy man is helping millions of people to change their attitude, seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty. He is inspiring because he is a dramatic, visible, irrefutable example of how life depends on how you look at it. It is hard to sustain self-pity or even self-doubt when watching this video. That might be why some people have watched it many, many times!
Where does happiness come from?
Nick Vujicic reminds me that we have all the tools we need to be happy — very happy, indeed very blissful — but we won’t get round to using them if we don’t sincerely believe that we possess the seeds of happiness within. If our starting point for meditation is: “I’m a real mess and happiness is alien to me, but I guess I should try this meditation thing”, or — identifying with the delusions — “I’m so deluded, I better get around to training my mind”, we are off to a very slow and possibly quite torturous beginning. To succeed in becoming happier, we first have to actively want to be happy and stop buying into our misery. (It may sound obvious, but this step is surprisingly often left out.) Then, with that, we can be confident that happiness is a given if we apply effort. Why? Because we are not adding anything that is not already there.
The root of the Western word “happiness” is apparently Scandinavian and means “luck”. Happiness is randomly assigned to lucky people in some cosmic lottery, sorry mate if you got the losing numbers. And a lot of people subscribe to a Western psychotherapy “set level of happiness” theory, where an individual is always moreorless at the same level of happiness – studies showed happiness spiking or dipping due to e.g. winning the lottery or getting cancer, but returning to the same level later. If we believe all this, there is not much point in training the mind to be happy.
However, the only reason these studies showed that people’s happiness doesn’t appear to change much during their lifetime is because people are generally not training in happiness – they are trying to find happiness in external sources. Buddhism 101 explains how happiness is a state of mind, so its real cause lies in the mind, not the external world. Change the mind, everything changes. Change the mind a lot, and everything changes a lot.
I’ve had a lot of external changes over the last few years, and some of them have looked rather alarming to my loved ones. Over the holidays, my aunt, whom I haven’t seen in a while, asked me: “But how are you really feeling? I know you are always happy, but what is really going on?” What do I answer, “I’m really feeling awful… but I’m happy!” No, it is one or the other.
Yesterday, a friend told me how in a teaching he compared training the mind to going to the gym, in that you wouldn’t get round to going to the gym if you didn’t know for sure that you already had muscles to exercise. My biceps may be rather puny at the moment, but they are there, so I am prepared to make the effort to bring out their potential (well, I”m not really, but I am prepared to continue the effort to meditate.)
And if someone without arms and legs can learn to be happy, what is stopping us? As one school kid’s comment put it:
“I shall always remember this when I think I’m having problems, be happy. ‘Cos if he can, anyone can.”
Precious human life
One way instantly to lift our spirits is to count our blessings rather than worrying about all the things we don’t have. As another comment put it:
“Before this video, I felt I was so unlucky and I’ll never be good at something. After watching, DAMN! I’m lucky!”
This video for me was a meditation on my precious human life. Precious human life meditation is placed at the very beginning of the stages of the path so that we actually get going on the other stages. If we don’t remember and feel glad every day about how lucky we are right now, we’ll never get round to using our good fortune. We’ll take this rare life for granted — count out our life in coffee spoons — even though Buddha compares a precious human life to a star in the midday sky.
Nick Vujicic is being described by many as “a hero”. He has gained a victory over his own mind by fighting the inner enemies of self-pity and self-doubt. His website is called “Attitude is Altitude”. Nick Vujicic may not be able-bodied, but he sure is able-minded.
The book Eating Animals is brilliant. Jonathan Safran Foer has done the world a service. He is a best-selling novelist who has managed to write a book about factory farming that is readable — horrific, yes, but still readable. Even un-put-downable. He has looked at the question of eating animals from many angles — culture, community, history, politics, husbandry, morality, health etc. He has avoided black and white haranguing and reasonably discusses shades of gray so people can come to their own conclusions.
Those of you die-hard carnivores who don’t want to change your habits at all, don’t read any further, and don’t pick up this book. As 99% of USA meat is factory farmed, really knowing about factory farming forces you to change in some ways — and you may not want to change! The facts in this book, if digested, will lead most people (a) to become vegetarian or vegan, (b) to eat less meat, or (c) to be far more careful about choosing meat from animals that have not been tortured their entire lives or stewed in their own filth and stuffed with antibiotics, hormones etc. (If this book gets people into the habit of asking the store and restaurant owners where their meat or eggs actually come from, this will in itself have the power to improve animal welfare and human health). The alternative from digesting this book (as opposed to dismissing it) is that you won’t change but you will feel guilty, and that is not a useful state of mind according to Buddhism.
This article is more about me than about you. I can’t lecture anyone about vegetarianism (let alone veganism) — until some years ago I was an imperfect vegetarian, eating meat when I went to visit my family for holidays for example, thinking erroneously it was the best way to blend in, plus secretly digging the excuse … But I never felt that good about it. I love animals, and I could see that loving animals was somewhat contradictory to eating them! It sat uneasily with me. But hey, steak smelt so good, and I didn’t always have the will-power to ignore others tucking into it whilst I nibbled on the brussel sprouts.
Then I watched a nature program about animals in the Arctic. Like these programs always are, it was brutal. Kill or be killed. It dawned on me that — unlike every animal struggling every day in the wild — I have the choice, every day, not to eat meat. That is my good fortune. I don’t have to kill anyone in order to eat. And every time I exercise that choice, I create the karmic cause to have that choice again. Whereas if I deliberately allow animals to be killed for me so that I can eat them, am I not creating the cause to have less freedom to choose in the future? Every thought and action has consequences. Buddha said that with our thoughts we create our world. From a Buddhist understanding of rebirth (and depending on my motivation) could one even say that I might be creating the cause to be a powerless animal in future lives?
None of us likes being told what to do or having our lives controlled by others. Imagine what it is like, then, to be an animal.
Even by omission, by ignoring the facts, I personally felt like I was buying into samsara, the cycle of impure life.
This all got me thinking, and later I visited a friend who happened to have a copy of Eating Animals on the table. I read it avidly over the next two days and then could think or talk of little else but the horror of factory farms, driving everyone around me mad. I even fancied I caught a glimpse of what it felt like for the local Germans finally seeing the concentration camps that had been invisible in full sight all along.
When Buddha Shakyamuni tried to help us improve our states of mind or our actions, he would explain the benefits of doing something positive and the faults of not. This way people could check these out for themselves, in their own experience, and come to a genuine intention that was all theirs. No one can force us to be good or kind or healthy. Everything depends upon our own intention.
So for myself I have a quick mental checklist of the benefits and faults of eating animals — a mixture of worldly and spiritual. Although my temptation to eat anyone with a face is now down to zero, this list has been helpful in helping me get here. Much of this is explained in the book Eating Animals, the rest in Buddha’s teachings on karma and rebirth.
Benefits of not eating animals
I am more conscious to avoid harming animals
I avoid the hypocrisy of saying I love animals and then eating them
I’m healthier and slimmer
I’m helping the planet
I’m less likely to create the karmic causes to be tortured or eaten myself in the future
I am trying to purify the karmic causes of taking an animal rebirth where it is eat or be eaten in samsara
I’m increasing my empathy and compassion
Faults of eating animals
The opposite of the above
This, or any similar checklist of your own, might work for reducing your factory farmed intake, one way or another. Ignorance is not bliss according to Buddhism. In fact, it is the complete opposite of bliss (which is indivisible with the wisdom realizing emptiness, more another time). So my feeling is that if we’re going to eat factory-farmed animals, we should at least do so with full possession of the facts. I don’t think we need to harangue others (sorry if I am haranguing you!) — in Buddhism we try to identify and get rid of our own faults, rather than dwell on the faults of others. But nor do we need to, as it says in one of my long-time favorite quotations from Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (who doesn’t eat meat):
“Act as if we are sleepwalking or let our habits dominate our behavior.”
Recently two of my old friends lost their beloved husbands to unexpected death. One was a suicide and the other a murder.
These were both very loving partnerships, lasting decades. Both these women have responded to violent loss by seeking refuge in their spiritual practice.
While on retreat, J called her husband at about 2pm each day. This day he didn’t pick up. After 20 minutes of redialing: “I had a hunch that something was dreadfully wrong.” Driving to his store, she was crying all the way. She found him unconscious, and two days later his life support was turned off. Her husband was a wonderful person, always giving things away in his store, always a kind word for everyone. One of his customers recalled on TV:
“He was just one of the sweetest guys you ever want to meet. He didn’t deserve this.”
J said to me:
“I collapse on the floor with the pain sometimes. However, if it wasn’t for Dharma, I would have to be hospitalized for grief.”
Interviews of her on local TV show her deeply sad but full of grace, unwilling to condemn the attacker despite the reporter’s leading questions. (The 33-year-old attacker battered J’s husband in a robbery of his antique store, enraged that he had sold his pawned silver coins. The cell phone that J’s husband never picked up was found discarded, along with his wallet, on the road). J said on TV that she was overwhelmed by the kindness that her community had shown her and her family, and felt immense gratitude to friends and strangers. She told me that she surprised herself by feeling no anger toward the attacker due to her practice of compassion, and for this she was also very grateful. She is taking refuge in her spiritual community and in her meditations, and intends to spend the rest of her life seeking deeper spiritual meanings.
S understands impermanence and the opportunity she now has to increase her empathy and love for everyone, but missing her partner of 46 years hurts like hell:
“In Geshe-la’s books, where do you think I could find some words to help me with my attachment to M……… wanting him back on earth….. I just cannot believe I will not see him again.”
“I have been trying to get a grip on this experience of a broken heart as a gift towards greater compassion. But, you know L,………I just miss M… The younger generation is independent and know how to live their lives self sufficiently……I had been with M for 46 years……I have been part of a team! This is very challenging for me…….”
These women are having strident wake up calls. Not ones anyone would choose, naturally, but we rarely choose our wake up calls; that is why they have the power to wake us up. Hitting the snooze button doesn’t work when we’re in so much pain; we simply cannot distract ourselves with meaningless things as we typically do when we have problems. We have to face the big questions in life because they are staring us in the face. But by facing them and by finding answers, we can gain acceptance, understanding and a growing peace of mind. In this way, we live our fullest lives.
Every day is a challenge for S and J right now, but they are strong. S said this week:
“Spending at least part of the day reading & meditating about this life of ours. Forgiveness is what I am working on a lot………for M & for myself …………just knowing this was his path and had nothing to do with me……is a relief……. Realizing there is nothing permanent here ………… so many things I have learned over the years are now being tested for real……. and I am getting through it all pretty well……… I am working on being happy in this situation because this is what is right now……..”
Please pray for S, J, their husbands and their children.
So often a close encounter with death leads to transformation. At the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, there was a young woman called Kisigotami. She lived a regular life pursuing ordinary ambitions, not particularly interested in spiritual practice. She had a baby, but the baby fell ill and died before its first birthday.
Clutching the little body in her arms, she took to the streets, begging anyone she met to help bring her baby back to life. One passer-by eventually pointed her in the direction of Buddha.
Buddha told her that there was only one thing she could do to heal her pain, and that was to bring him back a mustard seed from a house in the village that had never known death.
She excitedly knocked on the first door. “I’m sorry. My brother died recently.” At the second door, “We have known many deaths in this family.” At the third, “We are no strangers to death in this house.”
And on it went. She was struck with the realization of death and impermanence, that no one lives forever, that death is part of life. She bid farewell to her child and returned to Buddha empty-handed.
“Did you bring me the mustard seed?” Buddha asked her. She shook her head, and explained how grief had blinded her to the fact that she was not alone in experiencing the reality of death, but that she was now ready to receive spiritual teachings. She wanted to know what death is, what happens at death, what happens after death. She went onto become a great spiritual adept.
No matter how much we deny death, like everyone else we will find ourselves staring it in the face soon enough. Others’ deaths, and our own. It is amazing how little we talk about death in any meaningful way in our modern society — it is taboo, it is considered morbid, as if talking about it will somehow make it more likely. This leaves us searching for words and meaning when it happens to our friends and loved ones, and utterly unable to cope when we have to face it in ourselves.
Life and death are two ends of the same tunnel. They are parts of the same continuum. If we don’t accept this and learn to live our lives in accordance with this truth, we will experience fear, pain and confusion as the exit looms. If we do accept it, we find like Kisigotami, and so many spiritual practitioners since, that life takes on a deeper meaning. Therein lies a deeper humility, sense of purpose, love, transcendent wisdom and joy. This life is very precious. Others’ lives are precious. If we don’t feel that way, it is probably because we rarely think about how soon we all have to leave.
Death is not the end, it is the opening of a new chapter, one that we are writing today with our thoughts and actions. Every day we prepare for many things. We prepare to get out of bed, we prepare our breakfast, we prepare for school, we prepare for work, we prepare what we’ll do that evening, we prepare to pick up the kids, we prepare how we’ll proceed in our careers, we prepare to meet someone, we prepare ways to earn money, we prepare what to plant in our gardens, we prepare replies for those who’ve offended us, we prepare for our next vacation, we prepare for our retirement, we prepare for bed….
But how many minutes today have we spent preparing for the only future that is certain to occur?