Five ways to deal with criticism

What is criticism?

According to Buddha’s teachings on karma, pointing out a truth motivated by kindness and skill is a positive action that leads to good results, whereas hurtful speech motivated by delusion is one of the ten non-virtuous actions that leads to a lot of trouble. If this is true, it makes sense not to criticize others unless we are sure of our motivation.

On the other hand, in terms of being on the receiving end of criticism ourselves, this is fairly routine; so we might as well learn to enjoy it.

Someone asked me to write an article about dealing with criticism so I decided to throw this question open to the experts on Facebook, feeling pretty confident that everyone’s had to do it at some point or another. Generally people don’t like it because it is one of the so-called eight worldly concerns and we’d prefer to be praised 🙂 So how can we come to enjoy the inescapable, or at least not mind it so much?

How do you feel about being criticized? The early Kadampas would say it was the best thing that could happen to us; but who finds it easy …. ?!

Who is criticizing us and how?

If it is people we trust and we know they have our best interests at heart, people find it easier to respond positively and learn. Eileen Quinn answered: “If it is someone you have a good, real, relationship with to start with and they are doing the criticizing from real insight then it’s easier to accept and react in a positive way.” And Allison Moxie Verville pointed out: “I think true valuable criticism, especially from those we trust, should be welcome, appreciated, and examined as a way by which to grow ourselves and learn. Supportive criticism isn’t intended as personal or negative and can be seen as an opportunity as well as indicator that someone has a positive vested interest in us.” Victoria Kaya said: “At university we are constantly criticized, but always constructively. Without being criticized I would not be where I am today. When I look back over the last few years I see that my teachers are my best friends and I owe what I have learnt to their kindness.”  Michael Hume put it this way: “Because of my self-cherishing I respond best to “skilful criticism” from people I trust & respect. Such as when someone says something slightly indirectly to help me understand something that will benefit me. That way I understand that the intention is good and they have taken the time not to directly hurt my feelings.” Rosanne Brancatelli from Brazil says “Whom I respect, I really think about, some people I don’t care. Pride? Maybe.”

So it seems that if we know the criticism is well motivated, we’re prepared to put up with it and use it. This is a fine place to start. However, the downside is that if we distrust others’ motivation we are quite likely to become annoyed or upset; and being conditional has its limits. For one thing, we cannot always choose how our criticism is served up or by whom, so that puts us in a vulnerable position. For another, if our criticizer happens to be speaking some truth, rejecting it could mean missing out on some helpful insight into our faults.

What would Geshe Kelsang do?

We can overcome these limitations by understanding that criticism can in fact always be helpful if we shift our perspective as to what we actually need out of life. The mind-training adepts of old, Kadampas like Atisha and Geshe Potowa, famously relished any kind of criticism that came their way as a vital demolisher of their egos — they far preferred a good insult to being massaged by praise!

Modern-day Kadampa teacher Geshe Kelsang explained to a friend of mine what he himself does when it comes to being criticized. (It is not as if he is short of practice — he has received his fair share of criticism from various quarters, including from people who really don’t appreciate him at all.) I’ve always found this advice very useful.

When he is criticized, he checks whether what the person is saying is true or not, regardless of their motivation. If it is true he thanks them (at least mentally) and tries to change. But even if it is not specifically true, the criticism reminds him that self-cherishing has many faults, and because he is happy to be reminded of this he also thanks them.

The second part of this article is coming soon, including how to defeat our faults confidently, without feeling guilty or inadequate.

Your comments are welcome, and please share this if you find it helpful.

A Buddhist solution to boredom

UK riots

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

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

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

Santino the Chimp
Santino the Chimp

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

Where does boredom come from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lack of or too much identity?

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

Creativity v. boredom

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

“If you’re bored, you’re boring.”

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

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

Precious human life

Paul on FB suggested the rioters:

“Meditate on ur precious human life!”

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

Summary

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

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

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

Rioting on the streets of England and in our own minds

What do you make of all these riots sweeping across England right now? People are getting hurt.

They are reminding me of two things:

(1)   The uncontrollable nature of anger

(2)   How influenced we are by others

In the newspaper I was reading online, a commentator tries to figure out what exact grievances are leading to the riots, e.g. poor housing, drugs, sink schools, gangs. But he concludes:

“While these phenomena may explain many forms of crime, my attendance at some of these occasions made me aware of the sheer momentum of a mob sensing a licence for an orgy of destructive mischief.”

A good friend of mine in Manchester just emailed me to say moreorless the same thing, which got me thinking. And what I am thinking is: “This sounds just like my mind of anger!” Anger starts with some pretext and then dwells on perceived grievances with inappropriate attention and the next thing you know the mind is on fire. It is far easier to put out a match than a forest fire. If no effort is made in anger’s early stages to control it, it rapidly spins us out of control. And it often thinks that it’s enjoying itself at the time, and that it’s valid, especially while we are still surrounded by other like-minded, over-excited “friends”. It’s only later, when the inappropriate attention has died down, that any remorse kicks in and we realize what destructive idiots we’ve been. There were other ways to do this, whatever it is.

Inappropriate attention is #6 of the six causes of delusion identified in Buddha’s teachings. Take anger for example. Cause #1 is the seed – we all have the seed of anger within us until we have abandoned our delusions by means of the wisdom realizing emptiness, and meantime we can prevent it ripening by stopping the other five causes. #2 is the object – we need some pretext for our anger, great or small. Nothing is inherently irritating but if we’re not careful anything can set us off, especially if we are prone to anger through familiarity with it – and #5 is familiarity. Bad habits, #4, don’t help, such as generally doing lots of stealing, drugs, arguing, watching violent movies and so on. Which leaves us with # 3, distraction and being influenced by others, which really does seem to be a major factor in what is going on in the streets of England as we speak.

In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, Geshe Kelsang says:

Our friendships have a powerful influence over us. Since we tend to imitate our friends, we need to associate with friends who admire spiritual training and who apply themselves to it with joy.

That is, of course, if we want to make spiritual progress as opposed to get off with as many stolen video games as we can cram into our stolen shopping carts, have a good laugh at others’ expense, and possibly end up behind bars. Compare the riots to people’s uplifting accounts of the friendships made at the recent NKT Summer Festival, for example!

Anyway, a sad but useful reminder that until we uproot the six causes of our delusions, no one is safe, not even on the usually calm suburban streets of Croydon or in our own minds.

How to meditate on the peaceful clarity of your own mind

In the last article on Buddha and the Brain, I quoted from Transform Your Life on how our body and mind are different entities. If this is true, it has huge implications on our lives: for one thing it allows for the continuum of past and future lives and karma. It also means that our mind has infinite potential for spiritual development, unlike our meaty body (including brain), which necessarily has a limited shelf life!

In the beautiful Buddhist Mahamudra teachings, we learn to actually meditate on the nature and function of our own mind, the formless continuum of our awareness. I was taught this meditation early on in my meditation life and it is popular amongst both old and new practitioners in the Kadampa Buddhist tradition. So I know from experience that even if you are new to meditation it is possible to get a feeling for the clarity of your own mind, which in turn will give you an experiential insight into what the mind is and how your thoughts and feelings arise.

This is useful because happiness and suffering both depend upon the mind, and so if we want to avoid suffering and find enduring happiness it makes sense to understand how the mind works and use that understanding to bring our mind under control. In this way we will improve the quality of our life, both now and in the future.

This meditation actually has infinite benefits – from calming our mind and helping us to dissolve away distractions, worry and delusions; to improving our concentration and mindfulness; to preparing us for a realization of the ultimate nature of things, their emptiness of existing from their own side; to increasing our bliss and the ability to realize directly our own very subtle mind; and, finally, to attaining actual enlightenment. As Buddha Shakyamuni said:

“If you realize your own mind you will become a Buddha; you should not seek Buddhahood elsewhere.”

I thought I would introduce this meditation practically and simply in the way that I have often done it with the hope that you’ll come to love it too, if you don’t already.

First a little background…

In Mahamudra Tantra Geshe Kelsang explains the location, nature and function of the mind so that we can meditate on these.

Our mind is principally located in the region of our heart channel wheel, or heart chakra. Its nature is clarity. This means that it is empty, like clear space, and that it is a formless continuum completely lacking shape and color, which possesses the actual power to perceive, understand and remember objects…The function of the mind is to perceive or cognize objects, to understand or impute objects.

The mind has the power to perceive objects. Geshe Kelsang has used “perceive” and “appear” interchangeably in many teachings, so the mind has the power to “appear” objects, or we can say to “project” them.

Nothing exists outside of our experience — to exist means to be known by mind. Mind’s function is to cognize. It knows, cognizes or apprehends the things it “appears”. (Our ignorance believes these objects are actually out there, like believing a movie is “out there” coming at our mind rather than the other way around). Everything is imputed by mind, even the mind itself.

In our meditation on the mind we stop the projector, so to speak, and let all these perceptions or appearances dissolve into the clarity of the mind. Its nature is still to appear or project/impute, but we’re looking at the mind itself now rather than the objects projected – this is also rather like looking in the mirror/reflector rather than at the reflections in the mirror.

The mind also has the power to create. Mind is the “creator of all” according to Buddha. This becomes clearer the more we understand how the world and its inhabitants are merely imputed by mind, and you can read more in Geshe Kelsang’s brilliant explanation in Mahamudra Tantra.

We meditate on our mind in the location of the heart chakra because that is where our root mind or very subtle mind is said to be “located”. This is because the inner energy winds that support or are associated with our very subtle mind are located here.

You can bear any of this in mind as you do the meditation, but do keep the meditation simple as in the guidelines below, especially if you are just starting out. In the meditation, we’ll dissolve all our thoughts away and meditate on the nature and function of the mind located at the heart.

There are lots of other ways to do this meditation too that you can find out from New Kadampa Tradition meditation teachers, including in Mahamudra Tantra pages 100ff. (Before you start, you might find it helpful to remind yourself of the instructions on seeking, finding, holding and remaining, including the advice on how to stay concentrated on your meditation object, outlined in How to soar in the space of meditation.)

You’ll need 15-30 minutes. I’ve left spaces where you can pause to follow the guidelines.

The meditation

Sit comfortably with a straight back, gently close your eyes, generate a loving motivation, and settle your mind with a few minutes breathing meditation. (There is a simple breathing meditation explained here.)

Once you have overcome strong distractions and your mind is relatively peaceful and stable, turn your attention from your breath to the continuous stream of feelings, thoughts, and images arising in your mind. Simply observe these, without trying to control or follow them.

Watch your thoughts arising and falling away. Watch your feelings and sensations arising and falling away. Whatever comes up in the present moment and then disappears, watch this without reacting or intruding, clinging or pushing away.

Now ask yourself where these thoughts are coming from and where they go to. What is the space between the end of one thought and the beginning of the next?

You’ll notice that your thoughts, images, sensations and so on all arise from a deep formless clarity, like empty space, and that they also subside back into it.

Notice the clarity out of which thoughts arise and to which they return, like focusing on a mirror rather than on what is reflected in the mirror.

Drop your awareness from your head to your heart chakra so that you are experiencing this clarity or bare awareness at the level of your heart in the center of your chest. Meditate on your mind’s nature and function as described in Mahamudra Tantra:

“Its nature is clarity. This means that it is empty, like clear space, and that it is a formless continuum completely lacking shape and color, which possesses the actual power to perceive, understand and remember objects. Its function is to perceive or cognize objects, to understand or to impute objects.”

The mind also creates our reality through imputation by conceptual thought.

Simply put, meditate on the clarity of your mind free from all physical properties. Within that space you can recognize that it is awareness with the power to appear objects and know them, and that it is the creator of reality.

You can imagine that your mind is like a boundless clear ocean without shape, color or form. Gradually sink your awareness into this infinite ocean-like root mind at your heart chakra, and merge with it entirely. Think that it is peaceful and blissful.

Abide in this blissful space-like clarity for as long as possible. Any thoughts that still arise are just like bubbles arising in an ocean — pay them no heed, and they will naturally dissolve back into the ocean from whence they came. They are just mind themselves and have nowhere else to go.

Thoughts disappear if you don’t think them.

(When a thought arises you can also ask yourself “What is the mind? Where is the mind?” and you’ll find yourself meditating on the clarity of the mind. Geshe Kelsang taught this method a few years ago. You can even start your whole meditation like this.)

Know that you can return to this space whenever you want to. Know that you can dissolve any thought away, however troublesome. It only has the energy you give to it.

Before you arise from meditation, think: “I’ll bring this peace, serenity and clarity back with me into my daily life.”

You can finish by dedicating the vast good karma you have just created to the happiness of all.

For more on this meditation, Mahamudra Tantra has it all. If you want to find out more about the mind and its functions as explained in Buddha’s teachings, Understanding the Mind is a great book for that.

If you have been doing this meditation for a while and have some extra tips and tricks, please do share them here with us.

New Kadampa Tradition Gatherings

My teacher, Geshe Kelsang, started a tradition of Festivals and Celebrations in the New Kadampa Tradition many years ago, calling them “spiritual vacations”, and explaining their contribution in keeping the New Kadampa Tradition community and tradition strong. The Summer Festival — held at the mother ship Manjushri Centre in the first Kadampa Temple for World Peace — is two weeks long and attracts the most visitors from all around the world. I think of it as the equivalent of the Great Prayer Festival (“Monlam Festival”) founded in 1409 by Je Tsongkhapa in Tibet, also two weeks long and comprising teachings, meditations, inspiring company and other good stuff.

Although Geshe Kelsang did not teach at this year’s Festival (he will with any luck teach in Portugal in 2013), the show went on! And this year there has been a very nice new development – blog articles written from the unique perspectives of Festival goers from all over the world, some new to Festivals, some old hands. I’ve enjoyed reading these because they contain some real gems and show that Kadampa Buddhism can be and is being practiced by a large diversity of modern-day people at all levels and for all sorts of reasons. For reasons explained on this page, Where are the Kadampas?, I reckon the more bloggers the merrier 🙂

Angela from England

Just to add to the mix, here is an article of my own that I wrote about Festivals some years ago. Of course this Summer Festival is almost over, but not to worry if you missed it, there will be more than enough Festivals, courses and retreats all over the world in the years to come. Pick your vacation spot — there will probably be a Festival there sooner or later 😉

Arthur from Ireland

Perhaps it’s worth pointing out that many of these benefits of a Festival apply to any meditation retreat we might do, even on our own. People always seem to love it when they can take a day or two, or a week, or even longer to recharge their spiritual batteries by focusing on meditation and reading. That is why it is called reTREAT!

Here is the original article:

Why go to a Festival?
Irving from South Africa

Anyone whose life is full of irritations, stress, and pain, whether physical or mental, needs a vacation from time to time. Just getting away from the usual routine and surroundings alleviates stress, promotes relaxation, and gives us some mental space with which to establish more positive attitudes.

However, thinking about it, what do we have now to show for our last vacation, other than a few souvenirs, a depleted bank account and a fading tan?! It seems, unfortunately, that the effects are almost always pretty fleeting. The temporary escape ends, but the same problems still seem to be there waiting for us when we get home to our unmowed lawn and back to work. What has changed? Have we come up with new behavioral strategies or spiritual insights, or are we thinking and feeling the same old things? How much impact has our investment of time and energy actually had? If it is back to business as usual, we are in danger of becoming so reinvolved with the details and hectic busyness of everyday living that we forget the deeper meaning and experiences of life.

Joelle from Scotland
Kelsang Menla from USA

That is why Festivals are so welcome – because they give us our well-earned break, but they also set us up for months, years, even lifetimes to come. This is because a Festival is designed to be a “meaningful vacation” or a “spiritual vacation”. It represents a chance to go to an exciting new place and to relax and unwind, for sure, but it is also far more satisfying and productive than being a passive sightseer. It gives us the opportunity to find a deep and lasting mental peace by working on our minds, which is the essence of the Buddhist way of life. It gives us more knowledge and skills to deal with our problems in the present, as soon as we get back to work and home. We learn to live life in a more comfortable, healthy and meaningful manner. It provides long-lasting spiritual benefits and blessings that continue long after the vacation is over.

Marcus from Germany
Catherine from France

Last but not least, during a Festival we can make friends with inspiring people from all round the world who can provide us with support and encouragement. (Update to this article 2011: Then we can continue to meet up with them the rest of the year on Facebook… 😉

Alice aged 4

Update: This latest one, just in, is my personal favorite:

“I wished to have the stabilisers off my bike and Tubchen wished for everyone to be happy. And then we took Tsog back to Mummy and had a midnight feast. I felt grown up.”

Festival Play Co-director

Also just in, the co-director of The Life of Buddha, Julie, gives some fascinating insights into acting and directing and its relationship with practicing Dharma. (For more on Kisogatami’s moving story, see the death article, Preparing for Something?)

Have you ever fallen for a perfect stranger?!

With just a few twists and turns we can and do bump into perfect strangers who become part of our hearts and lives for a lifetime. In fact, apart from our immediate family, which of our closest friends did not start off as a stranger?!

Sparky and Joe
The happy tail of Winston

A marvelous encounter took place in heat-drenched Manhattan yesterday. I was meeting my friend J (her of Ralph’s story) to do some shopping for a laptop. Right next to Best Buy was Pet Smart and so I said entirely jokingly: “Let’s go in there and I’ll buy a small dog.” J agreed that she needed to go in there anyway to buy some cat treats so we visited with the adoptive cats for a while and then made to leave.

At the doorway, a cute dog stopped us in our tracks, and we bent to pet him. Then we noticed his owner sitting on the window ledge with tears in his eyes. Joe told us in a delightful but sad Irish brogue that he was being forced to bring Sparky back as he was severely allergic to him and that he and his girlfriend Julia were gutted, absolutely gutted. This half-Peke half-ShihTzu ”Shinese” was the best dog in the world and this was obvious even though they’d only had him for a week. Joe had been trying everything to work a way around the allergies, but “I feel like I’ve swallowed a furball and if I cuddle him I just can’t breathe.” The tears in his eyes came from the allergy and the fact that he was finding it agony to hand him back in. The shelter woman hadn’t arrived yet, he was waiting.

We asked him where Sparky came from – he and his family were in a house fire and wasn’t allowed in their shelter, and then his family were not able to have him back as they lost everything. He is just one year old. He was in a cage for weeks.

I looked at J. She looked back at me. It was obvious what she was thinking. “What is there to lose?” I rather naughtily encouraged her half under my breath. “Perhaps he could just spend the weekend with you and F and then, if F or the cats object, you can bring him back on Monday? Delay his re-entry into the cold lonely cage?”

Thing about J is that she is a pushover when it comes to animals… but there was just something about Sparky.

The 29-year-old DJ sized up the situation and seized his chance: “Hey girls, how about we take Sparky for a walk to the dog park? It’s not too far. You can see how good he is with the other dogs.” (Said Sparky is apparently spectacularly well behaved and friendly with every life form on earth, if Joe with the blarney stone is to be believed, and of course, smitten by Sparky, we believed him.)

We walked miles through the sweltering heat, Sparky tugging on the end of J’s green leash, his panty pink tongue hanging out. He is a human-magnet. And it is true that he managed to make friends with all the dogs in the park within a matter of minutes. Then Joe sloshed him with water to cool him down, and we started walking back.

“Why not cut out the middleman”, I proffered. “Just lend Sparky to J and you could both meet up again next week at Pet Smart if it doesn’t work out?”

And so we came to be carrying Sparky home in a shopping bag via Bleeker Street subway to the World Trade Center and the Park line back to New Jersey to an unsuspecting fiancé who never knew what hit him until it was too late and he’d fallen for him at first sight 🙂

And there he is to this day. Well, it is only a day later, but it looks like he has stolen the hearts of his new family and will not be going back into a cage anytime soon. Even the cats liked him instantly, and when it comes to Fluffer that is really saying something. And the landlords say he can stay, even though they don’t allow dogs. He is now called Winston because of his Churchillian jaw. Sir Winston, to be precise.

So in one chance meeting, this perfect stranger entered the hearts and lives of a family who weren’t looking for a dog but will love him for his whole life. Joe, all smiles, says he thinks he ran into angels this sweltering summer’s day in Soho. But it was the other way round.

Meet your daughter (again)

Another friend sent me an ultrasound of his daughter in her mother’s womb yesterday. She is lying in the position in which Buddha entered paranirvana, and he is chuffed: “It’s quite something when you see your daughter facing straight at you on the big flat screen TV, lying on her right side, with her head on her hand (not sucking her thumb)! I can’t say that’s her orientation relative to anything in the outside world, as she floats in her ambionic fluid, but it was very clear on the screen and I rejoice in my projection!”

He has not officially met her yet but already he adores her: “As I said to my wife when they confirmed her gender, ‘I guess I’ll be saying yes to just about anything from now on!’” When did that love happen?! Why did it happen?! In beginningless lifetimes, we have all been each other’s father and each other’s daughter. That recognition – for example when the facts are staring us in the face on a flat screen TV — is enough to bring out our innate love, our Buddha nature. However, we don’t have to wait countless lifetimes to be everyone’s father and daughter again; we can recognize that relationship right now if we want to greatly speed up our love for everyone.

Actually, although it is true that our best friends started off as strangers, if we go back even further we’ll see that they also started off as our kind mothers. Take any slice of time and our bodies and relationships will appear different; but the fact is that once someone is our mother, they are always our mother. Look at a photo of your mom before you were born — is she your mother or not?! Yes, we say “That’s a picture of my mom before I was born.” And let’s say she dies and a trusted person with clairvoyance introduces you to her in another form, won’t you still recognize her as your mother and wish for her happiness and safety?

Sure, we can argue that we’ve all been each others’ enemies too, but not only is thinking in that way unproductive, we were also only each others’ enemies when we had ignorantly forgotten our mutual dependence, close relationship and lovability, and were under the influence of anger’s inappropriate attention.

We are generally superficial in our perceptions and as a result love does not flow. I reckon the three poisons actually depend on superficiality, on taking appearances at face value, on confusing appearance for reality. Someone appears disagreeable and we believe that they are, inherently so, even though stacks of evidence points to the contrary.

We can love anyone so we might as well love everyone

Our relationships with others are never stuck or fixed; we can accelerate our universal love by understanding this. We don’t need to wait for “chance” meetings like that of Winston, we don’t need to wait for someone to become pregnant, we don’t need to wait for things to change physically. We can imagine these changes happening, as we do in the meditation on equanimity, and our relationships will change dramatically. We can bring everyone up to the level of our mother, our best friend, or even our child. Genuine love entails noticing and accepting that everything and everyone changes all the time while it itself endures. Love does not take appearances at face value. Love does not judge the book by its cover. If love depends on everything and everyone staying the same, it is actually not love at all but attachment.

Sir Winston of New York

Useful tip: If you find it hard seeing everyone as your kind mother, as in the Buddhist Lamrim meditation, or you have as yet unresolved grievances with your mother, you can try seeing people as your pet dog instead to begin with! Do whatever works. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso calls meditation “beneficial believing”. It is endlessly creative — not just repeating things to ourselves, but tuning into our own experience and building on that. Geshe Kelsang says in Eight Steps to Happiness (page 148):

Since an object’s nature and characteristics depend upon the mind that beholds it, we can change the objects we see by changing the way we see them. We can choose to view ourselves, other people and our world in whatever way is most beneficial. By steadfastly maintaining a positive view we gradually come to inhabit a positive world, and eventually a Pure Land.

To conclude, we’re all going to become Bodhisattvas and enlightened beings at some point because we have the potential to and the methods exist – sooner or later these two conditions will come together and we’ll travel the spiritual path. Therefore, I always think I may as well get started now! I’ll save myself and others a lot of unnecessary heartache if I do …

Your comments are most welcome, and please share this article if you like it.

Buddha & the Brain

(This is an article I wrote ten years ago for a New Kadampa Tradition website, and I thought I’d dust it off and share it here as not much has changed in this department!)

In May 2001, Newsweek ran the headline ‘God & the Brain’. The magazine featured a series of articles on the new ‘neurotheologists’ who are attempting to chart the connections between mystical experience and brain patterns, hoping to answer the ‘question of consciousness’.

One of the articles began:

“One Sunday morning in March 19 years ago, as Dr James Austin waited for a train in London, he glanced away from the tracks towards the river Thames. The neurologist — who was spending a sabbatical year in England — saw nothing out of the ordinary: the grimy Underground station, a few dingy buildings, some pale gray sky. He was thinking, a bit absent-mindedly, about a Buddhist meditation retreat he was headed toward.

And then Austin suddenly felt a sense of enlightenment unlike anything he had ever experienced. His sense of individual existence, of separateness from the physical world around him evaporated like morning mist in a bright dawn. He saw things ‘as they really are’, he recalls. The sense of ‘I, me, mine’ disappeared. ‘Time was not present,’ he says. ‘I had a sense of eternity. My old yearnings, loathings, fear of death, insinuations of self-hood vanished. I had been graced by a comprehension of the ultimate nature of things.’”

Sharon Begley’s article went on to state that scientists are beginning to use brain imaging to pinpoint the circuits within the brain that are active when people meditate or enter periods of deep prayer. Current scientific thinking has us experiencing a sense of ‘cosmic unity’ when the parietal lobes quiet down, manifesting ‘spiritual emotions… of joy and awe’ within our middle temporal lobe, and having our intense periods of concentration, such as in meditation, linked to our frontal lobes.

Notwithstanding the above, Buddha drew a clear distinction between our body and our mind. Although the two are related, he said, they are not the same thing. The mind is not the brain, and the brain is not the mind. The brain is physical, whereas the mind is formless and functions to know objects. In fact, Buddha explained how our deepest levels of consciousness do not depend upon the body at all.

Here we can consider some words from Geshe Kelsang’s book Transform Your Life – A Blissful Journey, published in August 2001. In the chapter What is the Mind? he writes:

Some people think that the mind is the brain or some other part or function of the body, but this is incorrect. The brain is a physical object that can be seen with the eyes and that can be photographed or operated on in surgery. The mind, on the other hand, is not a physical object. It cannot be seen with the eyes, nor can it be photographed or repaired by surgery. The brain therefore is not the mind but simply part of the body. There is nothing within the body that can be identified as being our mind because our body and mind are different entities. For example, sometimes when our body is relaxed and immobile our mind can be very busy, darting from one object to another. This indicates that our body and mind are not the same entity.

In Buddhist scriptures our body is compared to a guest house and our mind to a guest dwelling within it. When we die our [deepest level of] mind leaves our body and goes to the next life, just like a guest leaving a guest house and going somewhere else. If the mind is not the brain, nor any other part of the body, what is it? It is a formless continuum that functions to perceive and understand objects. Because the mind is formless, or non-physical, by nature, it is not obstructed by physical objects. Thus, it is impossible for our body to go to the moon without traveling in a spaceship, but our mind can reach the moon in an instant just by thinking about it. Knowing and perceiving objects is a function that is unique to the mind. Although we say `I know such and such’, in reality it is our mind that knows. We know things only by using our mind.

I reckon we all know from our own common-sense experience of our own mind that mind and body are not the same. Here’s an experiment. Close your eyes and think about your mom. Ask yourself: “What does this thought feel like? What is it? Where is it? Does it feel like a chemical or neural impulse? Or the side-effect of heightened lobe activity? Etc.”

When I do this, consciousness of my mother (let alone any non-dual experience of anything transcendent such as the illusory nature of all phenomena or the experience of blessings) does not feel like anything physical at all. Thought exists in a different dimension altogether — the formless dimension beyond the physical, without shape, color, spatial boundaries, tactile properties. Invisible, but the creator of reality. Immaterial, but mattering a great deal.

Moreover, when we refer to ‘my body’, we do not feel as if we are talking about ‘my mind’, and vice versa, which clearly indicates that we know first-hand that they are not the same. We may have the figure of speech “My brain hurts”, but we also talk about our mind, feelings and experiences all the time, and I would argue that when we do we are not even casting a sideways glance at our brain. If you’re feeling depressed, do you have the notion “My brain is depressed”? If you really want something, does it feel like “My brain really wants that!”?

I personally think that we are not born with a belief that our mind is our brain. I think it is a so-called “intellectually-formed delusion” that we acquire due to incorrect reasoning and/or other people telling us. Often we don’t question this conventional wisdom and assume smart people know what they are talking about when they say the mind is the brain, even though it provides far more questions than answers.

I never thought about it much until one day, as a 14-year-old, I was dancing and suddenly felt a wave of bliss at my heart. I thought to myself: “This feeling is not in my brain! It is so much bigger than that. It is not physical!” And that for some reason got me thinking about an article I had read about a mother who had lost her child, and it seemed to me impossible that all that grief could be contained in a lump of grey matter in her head. Also, life just isn’t that meaningless – why do we worry about anything if all that is doing the worrying is a sponge-like organ or a bunch of chemicals? Who cares what happens to us or anyone else if it is only happening to a blob of meat in our skull? Anyway, I had practical thoughts like this before I met Buddhism, so when later I was introduced to Buddha’s experiential teachings on the mind it was a “no brainer” (sorry, couldn’t resist ;-))

In struggling to answer the ‘question of consciousness’ and how the mind relates to the body — which arose when the materialist view of Descartes and his followers took hold of Western philosophy — rather than simply accepting that mind and body are different natures and taking it from there, scientists have tried to answer the question by reducing consciousness to the purely physical. We are blinded by science: this reductionism obscures our own direct experience, based on the false premise that mind and body cannot be different natures. We are cheated out of an understanding of the formless continuum of our mind, with dire ramifications for our spiritual beliefs such as life after death, the existence of enlightened beings, and the possibility of infinite mental and spiritual development and bliss.

There is not and never will be a magical chemical concoction or brain operation that will lead living beings to full spiritual awakening. Finding a permanent way to quieten our parietal lobes is no guarantee of ‘cosmic unity’! And even if these things were possible, they would be pointless.

Geshe Kelsang's hands in meditation

Meditators, on the other hand, are scientists of the mind who spend their lives investigating the nature of consciousness from direct experience (something that can be done only by using mental awareness, not crude physical instruments) — and they have clearly understood that the mind is not anything physical. There may be some relationship between certain types of mental awareness and the brain, as there is between sense consciousness and our sense faculties (the eyeball, nose, etc); but the fact that two things have a relationship proves that they are two different things, not the same thing e.g. a driver affects his car, but is not the same as the car.

People tend to put their hands to their hearts, not their heads, to indicate deep feelings of love there. When we meditate deeply, our consciousness feels seated at our heart. In his Tantric teachings, Buddha explained that our mind is related to subtle inner energy winds that can be said to have locations within the body — we have conceptual thoughts related to the winds in our crown chakra (perhaps why we scratch our head when we’re confused!). Our minds of attachment are related to winds in our navel chakra (hence those butterflies!) We have love and wisdom related to winds in our heart chakra, which is also the seat of our deepest level of mind. Stories abound in Buddhism of great meditators, such as Geshe Kelsang’s Spiritual Guide Trijang Rinpoche, who remained warm and upright for days after their brain was dead, meditating on the clear light of bliss at their heart. You can find out more about all this in the Tantric books.

(Finally, there are stories of people who live with a tiny fraction of normal brain matter but still have an IQ of 100 or more. You can Google it.)

To gain experience of the nature and function of your own mind, you can try out this meditation: How to meditate on the peaceful clarity of your own mind.

Do you think it matters whether or not Westerners are taught that the mind is the brain? Have you had any experiences that convince you that it is not (or that it is!)? I look forward to your comments.