Healing the past

impermanence 3I think life is too weird if we don’t accept momentary impermanence and go day by day with the flow. We keep getting surprised, shocked: “I can’t believe that happened; it is so weird!” And life feels full of losses.

(Carrying straight on from this article on subtle impermanence.)

Mid-life crises

Why do we have midlife crises? Why not an early or late life crisis? Why at 42?! Perhaps because it begins to finally sink in that we are not the same person we were 20 years ago, we can’t do the same things, we are running out of years, we have a paunch, our dating pool has shrunk. This can induce panic, discontentment, obsession with youth (our own or others), driving a motorbike, and eventually acceptance – but why did it take us so long for the penny to drop? We are confused trying to reconcile an old self-image with what we see now, having been ignoring that we have been changing not only week by week but moment to moment, and changing completely at that.

midlife-crisisMidlife crises seem to occur when all the changes we’ve been through suddenly seem to hit us all at once and we can no longer hold so easily to our image of ourselves as youthful, virile, cool, etc.! So we go a bit crazy. But studies also show that if we find purpose in life, meaning, wisdom, apparently we are far less affected by mid-life crises.

Reducing the sufferings of ageing

We look in the mirror and we feel disappointed, “Oh no, the bags under my eyes are growing!” But if we weren’t holding onto what we looked like before, who cares?! If we were able to accept our momentary change, and let go of grasping at our previous body, it will be a lot quicker to accept and adapt to our body’s changes. And it’s the same for others, eg, ageing parents and partners, we can just let them be who they are now as opposed to freaking out at all the changes from what they were. As a hairdresser once told me, “We are all going in the same direction at the same speed.” And it’s ok! I had 2 good role models in my grandfather and Eileen, who never gave a monkeys about getting older (to the ages of 100 and 92 respectively) because they just loved every day as it arose. Dakini dancing

Permanent grasping

We need to drive home to ourselves that not even an atom remains of us, others, or the world from one moment to the next. As long as we feel there is some trace of yesterday’s person, for example, we are still grasping at permanence — holding onto the idea that the same basic substance has just changed or been modified a little bit. Grasping at that same basic substance is called “permanent grasping”.

Healing the past

That painful relationship we had in the past — the person we had it with doesn’t exist anymore. The person we were doesn’t exist anymore, not even an atom, not even a trace. The issues don’t exist anymore — they existed in the past, not now. So why are we recreating it all?

Heraclitus famously said, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” Apparently he also said, “You can’t step in the same river once.” He’s right! Think about it!

When we start to think deeply about subtle impermanence we experience a sense of liberation, freedom, being able to put down all of that emotional baggage and just experience deep peace and happiness. What a relief! baggage

I don’t have to go back in time to try and heal the past. How can we heal something that doesn’t exist? What happened in the past doesn’t exist.

We don’t need to heal the past, we just need to realize that it’s gone.

Forgiveness

And through understanding subtle impermanence deeply, if we had a conflict with someone yesterday we can look at them today with new eyes, knowing the person we had the conflict with doesn’t exist. When we begin to understand subtle impermanence we can put down the grudges and move into an area of forgiveness. Forgiveness is all about letting go of the past and moving on. We can ask ourselves how many people there are in our life that we’d like to do this with — let go of the past and just move on. Subtle impermanence gives us the freedom to do this.

Dealing with regrets

This wisdom also helps us let go of regrets and nostalgia. For example, maybe we think I’ve wasted so much time on this good for nothing relationship, project, etc., and we hold onto it, thinking, “I have to salvage something!” So we can’t let go. I have a good friend who put a lot of money into a business that just didn’t work out; people weren’t ready for it or something. But it was hard to walk away from it because of all the investment of time, hope, and money, so there was the temptation there to throw good money after bad, as they say.time is empty 2

Yet the best way to let go of the past without regrets is to embrace the present. Since beginningless time we have done lots of things with everyone, and these are all like dreams now passed. Let it all go — distant dreams are already forgotten, and the latest dreams are no more substantial, we just haven’t forgotten them yet. We don’t need to wait to forget them before we let them go; we can simply realize that there is nothing there to hold onto, that it’s like trying to hold onto last night’s dream. We don’t have to wait for time to heal, ie, until enough things happen that our memories are crowded out so we can forget and move on, however many long agonizing months or years that may take. We can heal a lot faster if we use our wisdom and determination.

If the past was good, we want it to come back, or to continue. But it is still past, ie, over, so we need to enjoy today too, not be nostalgic or melancholic.

In this next article, how to back up our wisdom with determination so that Buddha’s advice has a stronger impact on our mind.

Live life lightly, live it well

What does it mean to you to take, or seize, the essence of your human life?

Denver Cheesman Park
View from Cheesman Park

I was just walking through my new leafy neighborhood, Capitol Hill, and into Cheesman Park, and once again the Colorado sky is wall to wall blue, a canopy of blue. It appears blue. It is blue? I can see blue very clearly up there. But if I try to reach out and grasp it, I will grasp at air; and if I try to push it away, my palm will meet no resistance.

This is true of everything in my life. Buddha said that all phenomena are mere appearance. They are like the blue of the sky. As Geshe Kelsang says in his section on the four profundities in The New Heart of Wisdom:

From an empty sky, blue manifests. Similarly, from the emptiness of form, form manifests. In the same way, all phenomena are manifestations of their emptiness.

Probably one of the best ways to seize the essence of our human life is to realize that there is nothing there to seize, there is nothing there to grasp at.  If we do that, we not only live lightly in this life, but we can pull the rug out from all our own and others’ suffering, destroying our self-grasping ignorance and all the pulling and pushing that go along with it. The only depth is emptiness.

Doorways in the minddoorway in mind

Many years ago a friend had a waking epiphany, or maybe it was a dream, I don’t remember. He was in a field and there was a doorway opening in the sky to the most exquisite, blissful place he had ever seen. Through that door he could see all the Buddhas and Dakinis beckoning him, including his Spiritual Guide. They were saying, “Come on through! What are you waiting for? There is nothing for you in that muddy field and you should know, you’ve been there long enough. Realize emptiness and fulfill the purpose of your human life, enter the door to total freedom and bliss and bring everyone along with you.”

My friend was ecstatic and motivated. But when he started walking toward that door, he noticed something unnerving.

The door was slowly closing.

He sent a description of this vision to Geshe Kelsang, who, somewhat to his surprise, was absolutely delighted. Geshe Kelsang asked for it to go in the next edition of Full Moon, which was a magazine produced by the New Kadampa Tradition at that time of news, views, and practitioner interviews of how they applied Kadampa Buddhism to their lives (long before the days of the Internet, Facebook, websites, blogs, etc.)

This vision has always helped me with two important Lamrim (stages of the path) meditations, which, because they motivate us to pursue the remaining stages of the path, are the first two meditations of the cycle – precious human life and death & impermanence. We have everything we need right now to enter that doorway, but we are also running out of time.

The first Lamrim meditation

These last two weeks I’ve been meditating on the Lamrim cycle of meditations, as Kadampa Centers traditionally give over the month of January to meditation retreat. It has always been my favorite time of year. Vide Kadampa has been recording his daily Lamrim meditations for over two years, in fact he has written, astonishingly enough, over 1,000 articles! I can’t recommend his blog, Daily Lamrim, highly enough. But nonetheless, if he doesn’t mind, I’m going to try my hand at writing down some of my thoughts on the 21 Lamrim meditations too.

I used Geshe Kelsang’s new book How to Understand the Mind for many of my meditations this year. I loved it.

The purpose of the precious human life meditation is to encourage ourself to take the real meaning of our human life and not to waste it in meaningless activities. 

birth and death“Meaningless activities” like pulling daisies out from that muddy field and making daisy chains? Unless perhaps we are doing it out of love, not losing sight of that closing doorway, and recognizing that the daisies are not as real as they appear (for example)! In other words, it is not what we do but why we do it that makes our activities either meaningful or meaningless.  We all have to do things, after all; we can’t just sit around all day twiddling our thumbs. But external developments, however promising or enticing, never end up being the be all and end all of our lives.

As Geshe Kelsang says also in How to Solve Our Human Problems:

Anyone who has even an inkling of how far the mind can be developed will never be satisfied with insubstantial attainments.

We can’t buy (lasting) happiness, as the saying goes, and we can’t buy lasting meaning either. If we could, someone would have done it by now.

What happened?!

We can feel disgruntled because we try so hard to find all the meaning in things that sooner or later just let us down – including our youth, beauty, jobs, marriages, health, vigor, ambition, careers, possessions, offspring, and so on. At Christmas I went home to my parents in London, who decided for some reason to hold a party for me, inviting all their local friends to meet me even though I’ve met all of them already. Anyway, I wasn’t complaining, and had some good conversations with a diverse, intelligent group of people, most of them now retired after quite illustrious or interesting careers. And, perhaps knowing that I have been into meditation for so long, a few of them shared with me how flat and disconcertingly anxious they felt now as they were ageing, with a dwindling sense of purpose, all their best times seemingly in the past, retired from useful work, their offspring all off doing their own thing. Several had already lost their spouses to death, and none of them felt as healthy or energetic as they used to. They were not being self-pitying – like people everywhere, they were just wondering at what happened, and how quickly too; and what next?

chapters
This life: just one chapter in the book of our travels from life to life

There is nothing wrong of course with raising a family, making money, having a job, etc. We have a saying in the Kadampa Tradition, “Remain natural while changing your aspiration”, which means we keep doing what we were doing before, but change our reasons and motivations for doing it. Traversing human life’s regular milestones is in any case generally inevitable given that we are human beings. But trying to grasp at these external things, trying to hang onto them, trying to give them inherent meaning or value, is like trying to scoop up the blue of the sky — we come up empty.

Ten reasons to be cheerful

Reason one: We are still alive. Buddha listed eight freedoms and ten endowments that make a human life precious from a spiritual point of view, which you can find in the stages of the path teachings, for example in Joyful Path – we can check if we have them all. We can also itemize other ways in which we are in fact very lucky that we might otherwise be taking for granted — eg, friends, family, roof over our head, food in our stomach, clothes on our back, ability to read, still breathing — to counteract the “I’m so unlucky” state of mind that mulls over everything that is wrong with our life and then, not unsurprisingly, ends up depressed, anxious, and discouraged. We can write them down if we are in danger of forgetting them! We could even do one of those Pros and Cons lists (you know the ones, with a ruler line down the middle of the page?!), listing out all the Pros of My Current Existence and Cons of My Current Existence!! Why not? See what happens.

You can even try closing your eyes and thinking of anyone you love and anyone who loves you. Appreciate them. Then spread that feeling further and further. Life can quickly become colorful and rich again with a bit of love thrown in the mix, whatever age we are.

So what is the “real meaning” of human life?!

Maybe I better save what Buddha had to say about that for the next article as I’m running out of space and you are probably running out of coffee break. Plus, who doesn’t like a good cliff hanger …

Over to you: Please share any insights you have had into the meaning of life 🙂

Postscript: Cranky Old Man

I found this on Facebook and it is moving and relevant so I thought I’d share it here.

When an old man died in the geriatric ward of a nursing home in an Australian country town, it was believed that he had nothing left of any value. Later, when the nurses were going through his meager possessions, they found this poem. Its quality and content so impressed the staff that copies were made and distributed to every nurse in the hospital, and made their way into magazines around the country. It is now winging its way across the Internet.

Cranky Old Man

What do you see nurses? . . .. . .What do you see?
What are you thinking .. . when you’re looking at me?
A cranky old man, . . . . . . not very wise,
Uncertain of habit .. . . . . . . .. with faraway eyes?
Who dribbles his food .. . … . . and makes no reply.
When you say in a loud voice . .’I do wish you’d try!’
Who seems not to notice . . . the things that you do.
And forever is losing . . . . . .. . . A sock or shoe?
Who, resisting or not . . . … lets you do as you will,
With bathing and feeding . . . . The long day to fill?
Is that what you’re thinking?. . Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse . you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am . . . . .. As I sit here so still,
As I do at your bidding, .. . . . as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of Ten . .with a father and mother,
Brothers and sisters .. . . .. . who love one another
A young boy of Sixteen . . . .. with wings on his feet
Dreaming that soon now . . .. . . a lover he’ll meet.
A groom soon at Twenty . . . ..my heart gives a leap.
Remembering, the vows .. .. .that I promised to keep.
At Twenty-Five, now . . . . .I have young of my own.
Who need me to guide . . . And a secure happy home.
A man of Thirty . .. . . . . My young now grown fast,
Bound to each other . . .. With ties that should last.
At Forty, my young sons .. .have grown and are gone,
But my woman is beside me . . to see I don’t mourn.
At Fifty, once more, .. …Babies play ’round my knee,
Again, we know children . . . . My loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me . . . . My wife is now dead.
I look at the future … . . . . I shudder with dread.
For my young are all rearing .. . . young of their own.
And I think of the years . . . And the love that I’ve known.
I’m now an old man . . . . . . .. and nature is cruel.
It’s jest to make old age . . . . . . . look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles .. .. . grace and vigour, depart.
There is now a stone . . . where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass . A young man still dwells,
And now and again . . . . . my battered heart swells
I remember the joys . . . . .. . I remember the pain.
And I’m loving and living . . . . . . . life over again.
I think of the years, all too few . . .. gone too fast.
And accept the stark fact . . . that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, people .. . . . .. . . open and see.
Not a cranky old man .
Look closer . . . . see .. .. . .. …. . ME!!

Going on 92

Eileen with SilverI was able to visit my friend Eileen again a couple of weeks ago (you may remember her from this article), and after four years I found her skinnier, frailer, and walking a lot more slowly. The other day a doctor exclaimed: “Are you still walking around on those feet?!” Eileen replied that indeed she was. “And you do know that you have two dislocated toes?!” Eileen knows it all too well. As well as hobbling around on broken toes due to advanced rheumatoid arthritis, Eileen is losing her previously reliable eyesight to macular degeneration, and wonders how and if she will drive for much longer, read, see… Despite all these curtailments, Eileen is still loving her daily meditations on Mahamudra, the clarity of the mind, and still delights in life – a delight that seems extra qualified these days by a deepening patience. We had a lot of fun that weekend. I told her of the interest her last article generated on this blog, and asked her to give us an update on the ageing process from the point of view of a meditator and Kadampa Buddhist; and she has sent this snapshot.

Going on 92

At the request of my friends, here I am again to update the subject of Ageing…

Over a year has passed since I wrote about coping with an ageing body, and now the disparity between that body and the mind, which I am happy to say remains much as it ever was, is more obvious every day.

I will give you an example that happened only in the last few days. My lovely daughter who is now 61 spoke to me on Skype – oh yes, I do keep up with modern technology! – to see where I would like to go for a trip this year. For the past few years we have treated ourselves to a short break in some exciting European city, Barcelona, Marrakesh, Warsaw…  and so now she wanted to know “Where this year?!

I so much wanted to go with her but I also knew that it would be foolish to make this ageing body attempt the trip. So with a foot on each side of the fence, I replied: “Well, darling, where would YOU like to go?” Quick as a flash the answer came, “Let’s go to Prague!”

Now Prague is one of my favorite European cities. I have always loved the idea of visiting the river Vltava, about which the composer Smetana wrote such eloquent music – for although I have visited Prague many years ago, I have never been on that river.

So how to resolve this conflict? To go or not to go? That is the question!

Perhaps the salutary experience I had the next day was provided for me by the Buddhas to bring me to my senses.

A lovely new friend, a Buddhist monk, had taken me to a seaside town on the Yorkshire coast for some sea air. The day was beautiful and the sun warm, even though it is only February. We were strolling along the promenade, my arthritic feet doing reasonably well, and I suggested descending to the lower promenade to be closer to the sea. This involved negotiating a flight of 15 steep concrete steps, but off I set, with my teenage mind and my ancient body. Big mistake! All was fine until we reached the fifth step from the bottom, at which point my legs gave way and I fell head first, landing in a sprawling heap on the ground, to my poor friend’s horror.

Struggling to my feet I tested out my legs. They held my weight, no broken bones – just a large swathe of skin flapping off my lower calf. Dramatically bloody, I must admit, and not a pretty sight. That and a sprained wrist seemed to be all the damage. It could have been so much worse – a fractured skull, a broken hip.

Was this a timely warning to “Be my age!?” To use the time I have left in this life to better advantage? Not to give in to my attachment for beautiful cities, rivers, and above all music? Years ago I asked a well-known Buddhist teacher, “How do you know if you have attachment for something?” and he replied, “If you want it again.”

I took this to mean if I want something again because I think it makes me happy from its own side. It is a major part of our Buddhist endeavours to overcome the 3 poisons of anger, attachment, and ignorance – three snakes in a basket on our lap vying for supremacy and ready to bite any time. Is this an opportunity to deal with attachment? “But hang on…”, objects my unruly mind, “Would it not be an act of giving to go to Prague and make your daughter happy? Giving is, after all, one of the six perfections of a Bodhisattva!!” Prevaricating, my mind hops from one side of the fence to the other.

Eileen doorsWhat to do? I am sitting here, looking out into my garden, and my little cat Silver jumps onto my knee. Two wood pigeons preen themselves in the cherry tree, and it is almost Spring. A wave of wondrous contentment envelops me. How foolish I am, wishing to be somewhere else. Isn’t this the teaching of Buddha, to dwell in contentment and rely on a happy mind? I see it now…Eileen with Silver 2

Dear daughter, don’t be disappointed. Go with a young friend, and later, when you visit me — and we’re sitting by my window with the clematis like a pink waterfall, the early roses scenting the air, and the little cat lying in the sun — you can tell me all about it.

Can ageing be worthwhile?

Carrying on from where this article left off.

The power of the Bodhisattva’s mind 

When a Bodhisattva experiences pain, they regard this pain as an example of the pain experienced by countless other living beings. They do not possess the pain or identify with it. Ordinarily, pain destroys our happiness because we grasp it tightly as our own and it is all-consuming for us. But for a Bodhisattva, their pain induces more compassion for others. Strong compassion, in turn, lessens the feeling of pain, mentally for sure, and also physically. Therefore, a Bodhisattva has nothing to fear from pain.

kindness of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

If a Bodhisattva experiences a moment of loneliness, for example, they observe it in their mind. They don’t think, “I am so lonely”; instead they think, “Here is an example of the loneliness experienced by countless other beings right now.” Understanding directly how horrible this is, they decide, “How wonderful it would be if I could help alleviate the suffering of loneliness in this world.” Bodhisattvas transform their experience of any sickness or pain into a positive spiritual realization.

We can see examples of this in everyday lives. If parents lose their children to incurable diseases, they sometimes establish foundations in their children’s honor that are specifically dedicated to helping find a cure for this disease, and in doing so find meaning and relief. Or consider Lance Armstrong – whatever you may think of his cycling “performance”, his experience of the pain of fighting and surviving cancer led to his creation of the Livestrong Foundation and the ubiquitous yellow wrist bands that have raised so much awareness and money for a cancer-cure.

love is all you need in Buddhism

As we get older, we tend to experience more physical pain. If instead of focusing on our own pain and thereby making it feel worse, we can manage to think of others who are suffering in a similar way and generate strong compassion, this compassion helps protect us from our pain and fears and motivates us to help others.

My dad had to undergo some very uncomfortable medical treatment last year. He told me that he was feeling sorry for himself in the hospital one day, when something made him notice the other people around him. Focusing his attention on them, he realized that they were in a worse way than he was, and he felt very sorry for them. This totally took his mind off his own painful predicament, and for the first time, but not the last, he felt strangely all okay again.

It might be a good idea to start training in this now!

Growing old gracefully

Do you agree that being confident and being attractive are closely related? When people find a way to retain and cultivate their inner confidence, their engagement with others, their ability to laugh at themselves, they don’t cease being attractive whatever age or however doddery they are. I think a lot of confidence comes from having a clear sense of who you are, what you love, and a zest for life. My Grandfather loved life until the day he died aged 100, and so he was always fun to be with.

growinggracefullyAs our physical enjoyments and reputations diminish through ageing, instead of getting bitter or nostalgic we can increase even further the value we place on our experience of inner peace. If we become more peaceful, positive, and even blissful in our mind, people will enjoy hanging out with us, regardless of our age. This is certainly the case for my friend Eileen, who I’m visiting next weekend 🙂 Buddhist meditation practice can engender great self-confidence.

Upon turning 80 last year (on the same day as my teacher!), my quasi father-in-law wrote to me:

I must admit that yesterday I woke up with a sense of amazement. Wow! I had thought it was only other people that get old, and an octogenarian is old. One is treated with a certain reverence (though whether this might be covering a degree of pity and disdain, I don’t know). Physically, I feel ancient. I used to boast a degree of dexterity but for some years I’ve felt clumsy. I’m learning to be more careful but I dropped and broke the lid of one of P’s casseroles the other day. Walking has become more of a thought-about action, particularly since I slipped on the ice early this year. My memory is getting very poor. There are embarrassingly long pauses in my speech as I search, not for the right word, but for any word that will do! I’ve also lost a little confidence in walking and driving. 

However as far as attitude is concerned, I haven’t felt much change. I am OK as long as I feel I’m still in control of how I’m reacting to what is happening around me. I can visualize a time when this may not be so any more. As long as I find my absent-mindedness amusing, I’m happy. I imagine that most thinking geriatrics feel something similar to this. The sad thing is when one of us “wrinklies” does not notice the control slipping away and they drift into senility. Then all their bold statements along the lines of, “I don’t want to lose my dignity, to become dependent on others; I’d rather die with my independence intact,” and so forth, count for nothing.

Senior-MomentAs our body starts to let us down, we are compelled to rely more deeply on inner resources. Even if we do become more forgetful of words and phrases and where we left our keys, and our brain is seizing up, we can still feel love and compassion in our heart-mind, especially if we have started our training in this. In the end, the journey within is the most interesting journey we can ever take, and ageing is a constant motivator to travel it well.

Your turn: Do you have inspiring examples of people you know who aged or are ageing well?