The life-changing power of small stories

By a guest writer, SG, who, amongst other things, uses art to bring about change in prisons and among vulnerable populations.

We are living in unparalleled times; it seems that extreme ideologies are gathering momentum. The increase of terrorist atrocities, sensationalised by a media pursuing a fear-based narrative, is causing bewilderment and anxiety.

As our economic structures fragment, poverty and a surge towards the politics of divide and rule inevitably escalate. Meanwhile, demagogic leaders are arising at the same time as fascism in Europe and America is rearing its ugly head.21325683_10155010321930847_566859715_n

These world events trickle down and affect ordinary people: In the UK, hate crimes have increased 41 percent since the Brexit vote. Since the elections in the US, the latest FBI statistics show hate crimes against Muslims have risen by 67 percent.

What to do?

What is a meaningful Buddhist response? What are we to do?

Firstly, it seems vital we work to reduce any divide between self and other. When facing those who hold extreme opposite viewpoints to ourselves, it is important not to ‘other-ize’ them. We can be mindful that people act in harmful ways only because of their delusions. When delusions are manifest, there is no control over the mind.

If we begin to ‘Monster’ others, we are externalising evil, which is a recipe for more insidious discord.

The current rise of racism and fascism is a symptom of fear, that fear is arising (conventionally) from a societal system collapsing. This collapse is due in large part to a resolute belief in external sources being able to secure a means to happiness. This view invariably leads to conflict and suffering. As Geshe Kelsang says:

If we consider why nations go to war we shall find that the basic reason is very simple. Human beings cannot be content with their own wealth and resources but must appropriate more and more. Millions of people have died as a result of humankind’s collective discontent.

Wrath vs anger

Recently, I have been thinking about wrath. In Buddhism, there is a vast difference between wrath and anger. It is possible to be wrathful without being angry. When we see images of wrathful protector Buddhas such as Dorje Shugden or Vajrapani, they are not angry. Motivated solely by compassion, they exist only to relieve the suffering of others. Afraid of nothing and no one, they display the aspect of anger toward the delusions while simultaneously being completely free from anger toward living beings.

Imagine being able to harness that energy, having the confidence and wisdom to know that we were always responding in the best manner, with the best set of actions.

21322857_10155010323290847_414830036_nWhen large crowds of people take to the streets espousing violence and hatred, imagine being a fearless opponent, able to perform wrathful actions while never straying from wisdom and compassion. Surely this would be most welcome? Could this be a way to think about challenging oppressive hate-fuelled actions while still practising modern Buddhism purely?

I think before we begin thinking about performing wrathful actions, however, we first have to spend time nurturing our compassion and wisdom. Otherwise, our “wrathful” actions could just be more anger, and end up causing more harm than good!

In the past I have tried engaging in wrathful actions — it didn’t work out well. I just ended up angry and frustrated. If we are to be wrathful, we need to be completely free of delusions such as anger and pride. We have to be free of the idea that before us stands an enemy and understand that the person in front of us is a suffering being, unable to fulfill or even express their unmet needs.

The importance of understanding

Can we try to enter into the frames of reference of those who engage in extreme hateful actions? To understand is not to condone. Many causes and conditions lead people to the views they hold.

Imagine being brought up with those very same causes and conditions, imagine having that very same karma — it becomes easier to see how we might then go on to develop those views. If we can do this, then we can learn to separate the person from their delusions and actions. Then we no longer see a monster, and instead become someone capable of developing genuine love and compassion.

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With love, compassion, and wisdom in our hearts, we can find innovative and creative ways to respond to age-old problems.

No man is an island

We can also strengthen our faith in the power of virtuous actions. Last month, I attended the Summer Festival at Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre, where Kadam Morten led the second week’s retreat. He read an excerpt from Geshe Kelsang’s How to Transform Your Life:

In short, we need others for our physical, emotional and spiritual well being. Without others we are nothing. Our sense that we are an island, an independent, self-sufficient individual, bears no relation to reality … It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. We cannot exist without others, and they in turn are affected by everything we do.

I have heard these lines many times before, but this time something was different. One of the most beautiful things about Dharma is that it always holds the potential to surprise you, to completely change your world view, to transform your life.

Everything we do …

Three words rang out, ‘Everything we do.’ Every single thing we do affects others.

I was reminded of a podcast I listened to last year, when the interviewee (a famous and respected counsellor) recalled a story his father told him. Years ago, his father was involved in the Spanish Civil war, during which time a village into which he had ventured was surrounded by fascists belonging to General Franco, and there seemed to be no escape. For days, the father remained in the village, hiding. There was no food in the village — all he had was a piece of stale bread, which he nibbled on each day. Then one day he encountered an ill, starving, old man and, without thinking, he gave him his last piece of bread.

Years later, the father returned to the village with his son to show him where the siege had taken place. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a woman came running out and hugged him. The old man’s daughter, she had never forgotten this stranger’s kindness, telling them that it had always been an act of great importance both to her father and to her.

The son went on to say that watching this tale unfold was instrumental in him becoming a counsellor. He also mentioned that he had told this story to many people, many times, and he believed that they too had gone on to repeat it to inspire others.

This story is now being read by hundreds of you, too!

21291263_10155010321605847_37033674_nIf a simple act of giving a piece of stale bread to one person can become a catalyst for positive change for thousands of people, what power does an action hold if it is motivated by bodhichitta — the wish to become enlightened for the lasting happiness of all living beings? Imagine if we had faith or trust in the often hidden consequences of our developing such a mind? What encouragement it would give us, what strength. How much faster we could move towards developing the wisdom and compassion needed to engage in actions that can bring about genuine world peace, actual nirvana (liberation) in the minds of all living beings?

Even the smallest of our actions performed with a big beneficial intention, therefore, can be a cause of ridding this world of even the most violent and destructive actions. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Others are affected by everything we do.

Over to you. Questions and comments welcome.

Related articles

People are not their delusions 

Can Buddhism help society? 

What is bodhichitta? 

A vision of hope in troubled times 

 

 

 

There is nothing there to grasp at

Discovering self-graspingEverything is dream-like. Anything that appears to be more than dreamlike is an inherently existent thing. And our delusion of ignorance that grasps at inherently existent things is dominating our lives at the moment, causing us to experience all our other delusions with all their pain and suffering.

(This is carrying on from this article.) For example, if something appears to us as attractive and we latch onto it as real, then what happens? We exaggerate its good qualities or power from its own side to make us happy, believing that any of its apparent good qualities are within it, intrinsic to it. If the object is real, its good qualities are real. So attachment arises.

If something is out there that is real and inherently attractive, we naturally want it – we mentally or physically try to go out to it and pull it toward us. I want this. I need it. I must have it. It’s going to make me happy from its own side. Nothing to do with the way I’m looking at it. It just is absolutely essential to my well-being. I just have to eat this pizza right now. Or I just have to get this person’s phone number right now. Or I have to climb the career ladder right now. Or whatever it is. The holy grail of happiness is always out there. I’m always going to go after it; it’s always going to feel real. And I’m going to go after it, and after it, and after it until I feel happy. Because that’s what happiness it. It’s out there.

shark circlingWhile we remain with ignorance, there will always be items of attachment appearing to our mind. As soon as anything appears nice to us, which happens because of our karma, then we want it. And we’re not happy without it. And if we lose it we suffer. So we are continually like some sort of shark circling around, never resting, trying to absorb that next juicy morsel — something, anything, that will make us happy.

I read recently about a dating site called Tinder, where people are stacked up like virtual cards – you swipe the ones you like to the right and the ones you don’t like to the left. It’s apparently addictive — you can never settle on any person because you think the next person just might be better. People get together socially and play with their Tinder app! Even if the first person is gorgeous, if you don’t swipe them to the left you’ll never know what you are missing. There is always someone better one swipe away.

I found Tinder a good example (or analogy?) for modern society having so much on demand these days – overwhelming choice means that there is always something better out there than what we are looking at at the moment. It used to take five minutes browsing the TV guide to choose what channel to watch at what time, and then you would just have to settle down to watch it! Now, thanks to Netflix etc., it takes half the evening to choose Tinderellawhat to watch, and then we’re still a little bit unsettled, “Meh, that other movie might have been better.” We’re constantly searching to find the next best thing. This is what we are like with attachment. There is always something better around the corner, so the mind is in a constant state of overstimulation, trying to find happiness out there. And why do we have attachment? Because we have ignorance. We think that everything is attractive from its own side. It has nothing to do with the way we are looking at it.

Also, from the delusion of ignorance, aversion is born. Due to our karma, something can appear unpleasant or unattractive, and because it appears that way we mistake its appearance for reality, thinking it really is that way. Things are really unpleasant. Instead of recognizing that that person who just took my parking spot right in front of me is just appearing unpleasant to my mind due to some bad karma ripening, and letting it go, the inappropriate attention of anger begins to dwell on all the faults of that incredibly annoying spot-stealing person in the car: “They must do this all the time! They think the world is created just for them. They have no idea that I have to go shopping!” The exaggeration just digs in and, before we know it, we have full-blown irritation, aversion, annoyance. We think that they exist as they appear, and they appear annoying.

stealing parking spotThis is why with anger, attachment, and all the delusions we try to get in there before we start exaggerating. In this instance, for example, we can think, “Maybe this person has a massively important doctor’s appointment or maybe they have to catch their dying mother.” We just put our mind in a different direction so we don’t see all these apparent faults that we have created and exaggerated – clearly exaggerated as we have never met this person in our life, have barely glimpsed them through the car window, and we now have a list as long as our arm about how horrific they are.

Where did that all come from? In the case of anger, we are paying inappropriate attention to all their apparent faults. We exaggerate them, we hone in on them, we make them more real. And the reason we seized on their faults is because of our ignorance. With ignorance with have “subtle inappropriate attention,” which functions in our mind all the time and focuses on things being real. So there is someone behind that appearance of someone stealing our spot. They appear annoying, therefore they are annoying. There really is someone from their own side who is annoying, nothing to do with my mind. It’s because of this subtle inappropriate attention that we develop the gross inappropriate attention of anger, attachment, jealousy, fear, selfishness, you name it.

Do you want to go around relating to a world that doesn’t exist? I don’t.

For as Geshe Kelsang says in Modern Buddhism:

The truth is, although things appear to our senses to be truly or inherently existent, in reality all phenomena lack, or are empty of, true existence. This book, our body, our friends, we ourself and the whole universe are actually just appearances to mind, like things seen in a dream.

There is nothing there to grasp at. There is no one there to grasp at.

Next installment here. Meanwhile, your comments are welcome.

Dealing with negative thoughts and emotions

Delusions distort our world. With delusions, we project something from the side of our mind, and then we feel that the person or thing actually is like that from their own side, having nothing to do with our perceiving consciousness. All delusions do this, such as anger, which came up in this first article on delusions.

We give a disproportionate meaning to the things we are seeing, and misrepresent them to ourselves, and this leads to nothing but trouble. 

Pringles are good attachment to salt and vinegar Pringles

I really like Pringles. That, for me, has the same meaning as “Pringles ARE delicious.” Salt and vinegar flavored Pringles, to be more precise. Pringles are inherently tasty, unlike figs, the subject of my first recorded joke aged 6 ½: “I don’t like figs, that figures.” I might say to you, “Pringles are really good, try one.” We often say this instead of the more accurate: “I like Pringles, try one.”

When I have a craving to eat Pringles, the Pringles appear at that point to be intrinsically good and a true source of happiness. Again the neon sign is flashing: “I’m good, I’m delicious, eat me!” And it feels that it’s the Pringles that are doing all that. They are practically crying out to be eaten. This has nothing to do with my craving for Pringles, it’s just the Pringles, the Pringles made me eat them! negative emotion of attachment

Once I’ve eaten too many of them, though, I start to feel sick, and if I was forced to eat more than one of those tall tins, at some point I’d start begging for mercy. (I have never managed to get past three-quarters of a tin, personally, in one sitting, despite all my best intentions, so I think I know what I’m talking about.) Only a short time ago the neon sigh was flashing “Eat me, I’m good!”, now it’s flashing, “Keep off, your mouth is already dry and swollen, and I’m going to make you throw up!”

negative emotion of anger

There are no delicious or disgusting Pringles outside of my experience. I cannot find any desirable objects out there, anywhere, independent of my experience – whenever I refer to Pringles, for example, I am referring to the Pringles of my experience, the Pringles I know. For my mind of attachment they are desirable, whereas for my mind of aversion they are off-putting. This shows that in themselves Pringles are neither desirable nor undesirable, but they depend upon the mind. (If I add my recent discovery that Pringles are manufactured by a company that tests on animals, that also changes them for me.)

The mind and its object are dependent related. Without a dancer, there is no dance, as an old friend used to say.

Externalizing our happiness

We do seem to tend to externalize our happiness, believing that the causes of happiness are out there. Do we continually search for happiness in external objects, rearranging our lives to become happy? I think we do it all the time, don’t we, with people, movies, cappuccinos, carpets, careers, cats, jobs, etc?! (Just check where the bulk of your energy has gone since you woke up this morning.) That’s because of our attachment. We feel that the object is something we have to have, and that if we don’t have it we’re missing something.

Happiness in fact comes from inner peace — letting our mind rest free from delusions — and not from out there. But attachment is dumb and doesn’t understand that. Instead it projects a whole lot of pleasurable qualities on all the apparently attractive things out there, and then it relates to those objects as if they really did possess those qualities and were inherently pleasing: “If I get ahold of this and then I get ahold of that, and if I do that and then I do this, then I’ll be happy.” Attachment causes us to constantly rearrange the furniture of our lives, and for one hour perhaps we’re happy, or for about ten seconds, and then off we go shopping again.

headless chicken too busy doing nothing

Day by day, week by week, month by month, it is good to ask:

“Is it working? Am I becoming happier and happier? I am putting a lot of work into this, is it working?!”

If it’s not working, this may well be because attachment is functioning. It is making us miss the point.

WYSIWYG

All delusions are similar, projecting something that isn’t there and then believing it is there. We think, don’t we, even if we don’t always say it out loud: “It is like that. This is the way things are. The way I see the world is exactly the way the world is. What you see is what you get. WYSIWYG. I can’t help it if you don’t see it the same way, though I might try to make you because you’re clearly wrong and I’m clearly right.”

Delusions are painful and frustrating

In Modern Buddhism, (download your free copy here!), Geshe Kelsang says:

Delusions are wrong awarenesses whose function is to destroy mental peace, the source of happiness; they have no function other than to harm us. Delusions such as self-grasping abide at our heart and continually harm us day and night without rest by destroying our peace of mind.

All the tension, frustration, grasping and unpeacefulness in our mind come from our being under the control of the delusions. When they’re functioning, it can be agony. Pride makes us super-sensitive to even the slightest criticism. Jealousy is like a thorn in the heart. Self-cherishing can drive us to self-hatred and suicide.

delusions or negative emotions are painfulAnd no wonder. We are out of touch with reality and don’t even realize it. Sometimes our delusions are strong, sometimes they are relatively sneaky, but until we realize the ultimate nature of reality we’re going to be affected adversely by our delusions to a greater or lesser extent.

To the extent that our delusions diminish, to that extent our natural happiness comes to the surface. But right now it seems that we often feel an underlying tension or dissatisfaction even when our mind is relatively peaceful, and I think this is because we are still under the influence of our self-grasping ignorance, the root delusion that causes all the others. We continually think that things exist independent of our mind, that they are inherently existent, that they have nothing to do with us whatsoever. These are real Pringles. We set up a dualistic gap between our world and us, and this in turn creates a feeling of alienation and mental discomfort. Buddha explained that everything is actually a projection of our mind, even the same nature as our mind, but ignorance doesn’t get that at all. Our ignorance is currently functioning all the time and so:

It is as if we are continually chasing mirages, only to be disappointed when they do not give us the satisfaction we had hoped for. ~ Transform Your Life, pps 7-8

Delusions destroy our peace

monkey mind of negative emotions or delusionsAll our unpeaceful and unhappy minds are deluded minds. Whenever we are unpeaceful and unhappy, we have a delusion functioning, guaranteed! Our mind at that point is like a monkey scampering all over the place — grasping at things, throwing things. We have no control over it. For example, a negative thought arises about someone, focusing on their faults, and that’s it, we can’t do anything about it, we’re thinking it. We can be blissfully happy one minute, and then a fault-finding thought pops up and we become annoyed and our day is ruined.

Delusions make us mad

When our mind is free from delusions, it is like a clear, peaceful lake that accurately reflects what is going on around it, such as mountains and clouds. When a delusion arises, it’s like a sudden storm disturbing the tranquility of that lake such that everything reflected in it is distorted. There is a saying in the Kadampa tradition, “Always rely upon a happy mind alone,” because we cannot trust any unhappy mind. If we are angry or attached or proud or jealous, we know that we cannot trust that mind because it is reflecting something that is not there. We actually say things like, “You are making me mad!”, or “I’m mad about you!” and we ARE mad. Delusions make us mad. They make us stupid.

Delusions create all negativity

When our mind is under the influence of delusions, that’s when we do unkind, unskillful and negative actions — we hurt others, slander others, speak harshly to others, and even kill others. Greedy actions, including pollution, come from our attachment. Delusions don’t let us see the big picture and how interconnected we all are. If we check where all our own and the world’s negative actions actually come from, we’ll see they come from minds that are unpeaceful, distorted, and to a greater or lesser extent out of control.

Delusions destroy our physical health

Anger is linked to heart disease and other ailments. Chronically angry people, studies have found, are three times more likely to develop heart disease, and six times more likely to suffer a heart attack before the age of 55. As The Week magazine puts it:

Feeling that you’re constantly at war with idiots and villains gets your body stuck in the flight-or-fight gear; a flood of hormones and toxins raises blood pressure, narrows arteries, and eats away at your innards.

Meanwhile, attachment makes us indulge in things that are bad for our body, self-cherishing leads to physical stress and tension, and all the delusions affect our body adversely one way or another due to the relationship between our mind and body.

Our actual enemies

disturbed by delusions and negative emotions For all these reasons and more, our delusions are our inner enemies. They are arguably the only actual enemies of living beings because their sole function is to destroy our happiness and cause us to suffer. Unlike outer enemies, they can never be won around. They will never be trusted allies, whatever mask they wear. Therefore, if we really want inner peace, it looks like we have to learn to identify these inner enemies and see them for what they are. We have to see each one — anger, attachment, jealousy, pride, and so on—for what it is, see what it does to our mind, see how it makes us view the world, see what it makes us do. Understanding that, we can then start to overcome our delusions temporarily and then permanently, through various means. This is the practice of Buddhist meditation.

On one level we don’t need to be “introduced” to our delusions as we are intimately acquainted with them already, sorry to say. However, because they are currently so enmeshed in our minds, and we rely on them every day, we cannot always see the wood for the trees. Without some clear pointing out instructions I think it can be hard to distinguish our own destructive delusions from other, positive, constructive states of mind (see this article distinguishing between love and attachment for a case in point.) I find the clear Buddhist teachings on these common enemies mighty helpful and liberating. And you don’t have to be a Buddhist to apply this understanding in your life.

Try a meditation
freedom from delusions
Break free!

If you want to meditate on this, you can begin with a few minutes breathing meditation. Then you can think about some of the faults Buddha explained and ask yourself: “Does this apply to me? First off, do I have delusions, and second, what do these delusions do to me? For example, today — was I happy all day or disturbed, and why? Are delusions really my main enemy?” Hopefully, you will come to the conclusion that you do have delusions functioning (unless you don’t, in which case Congratulations!) and that they are your enemy, but they are not an intrinsic part of your mind and you can get rid of them. Based on that, you’ll be able to develop the determination to get rid of them. Bye bye delusions.

In the next article I do on delusions in general, I want to talk about the so-called six causes of delusion, as I find knowing about these is really helpful for ridding myself of delusions in daily life.

Your turn: do you agree or not that delusions are our only actual enemies? Are there any exceptions to this rule?

Anger ruins our fun

I am sitting on the beach hearing a Russian couple arguing.

They’re missing this!

I can’t really begin to describe what a perfect day it is today, but I can say that it is the best time of year with clear blue sky, turquoise sea, white sand, soft breezes, pelicans, a vast bathtub to swim in with the dolphins, etc… you know the kind of thing. The kind of thing you see on billboards in the subway torturing New Yorkers in the middle of winter.

But this couple is missing all the fun. I noticed their tension the moment they came and stood, for some strange reason, a few feet away from me. Their argument started sotte voce, and then started to get a little louder, and then a little louder. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying as my Russian is not that good (though I do know the word for “cat”), but I still used a quick dip in the ocean as an excuse to leave them to it. Now having got back and snuck farther away, their voices sound even louder than before. And they are now standing with both feet solidly on the sand, hands on hips, not even wanting to look at each other.

Like I said, I have no idea what they are arguing about, and it doesn’t actually matter as it is probably the type of domestic dispute being played out all over the world and I certainly have not been immune to such squabbling myself. But it strikes me that at these times we are making ourselves miss out on all the fun, as DhiDakini suggests in her comment:

Doesn’t it seem strange and so interesting… that we sit in a pleasant moment and worry about things that AREN’T happening right now…?

Missing the bliss…

Nothing but their delusion of anger is currently ruining these two people’s day, perhaps even their entire hard-earned vacation. They might have spent a lot of money to come here and feel miserable.

My teacher Geshe Kelsang says in Introduction to Buddhism:

If our mind is peaceful we will be free from worries and mental discomfort, and so we will experience true happiness; but if our mind is not peaceful we will find it very difficult to be happy, even if we are living in the very best conditions.

If we ponder on simple staring-us-in-the-face illustrations like this how anger ruins our fun, this is one of its most obvious faults, and might give us the incentive to overcome our own anger next time we’re about to ruin the moment with a stupid argument. Some of the other faults of anger may not be quite as obvious — such as the destruction of our good karma and creating the cause to be ugly in future lives — but this one is.

Right now the man is spreadeagled flat on his back, the woman having stormed off back to their (rather nice) hotel. World War III is on hold. I hope he is staring into the space of the sky and calming down, and that he can count his blessings and enjoy his rather spectacular surroundings before it is time to go back to work.

May we all swiftly be freed from the crippling delusion of anger.

Your comments welcome, as always. And please share this article if you like it.

Anger wrecks our day(s)

“For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

The smallest thing can fill our mind if we have no control over our thoughts.

Someone on Facebook fessed up that they had been engaging in an “internal tantrum and imaginary arguments”, and I thought to myself, “Now ain’t that the way our delusions go!”

It is so easy to get irritated if we let ourselves due to our unchecked habit of inappropriate attention. Normally I live in a pretty peaceful place with lots of space — just cats, dogs, possums, and huge parking spots for one’s air-conditioned car — I’m not rubbing shoulders with a mass of annoying humanity as I try to get around. But I also travel to NYC from time to time, partly so as to get my fair share of shoulder-rubbing, to keep it real 🙂

On the plane recently a young man sat next to me and, despite his good health, looks and fortune, I could tell he was already feeling slightly edgy. He got out his Blackberry and engaged in some very fast texting with his two thumbs. I nosily eyed what he’d written and to my surprise the last text said “This fat b**** next to me is so large that I cannot put down my armrest.” I could tell this was the tale-end of a moan about the person sitting next to him, and I noticed to my alarm that the armrest between us was firmly up. But I’m not that big so I glanced hopefully to the other side of him just in case, and it did appear that a large lady was occupying that seat.

Relieved as I was that he wasn’t texting about me, I felt a little sorry for her, oblivious as she was to his annoyance at having to spend the next 2 hours and 48 minutes wedged next to her, thinking how mortified she’d have been if she had been as nosy as me and looked at his Blackberry. Perhaps she’d in any case sense his dislike and spend a few less than happy, confident hours as a result. Even hurtful thoughts are hurtful; they are mental actions that do leave some impression on our mind and our world. In the teachings on karma, Buddha says that no action is ever wasted.

Just as I was musing on this, he suddenly thrust his Blackberry under my nose, gesturing me to read his latest message, which just happened to be addressed to me. It said: “Don’t get weirded out if I sit closer to you, but the woman next to me is sitting half on my seat.” She wasn’t actually, and he was now sitting on my seat, but I thought I’d try and cheer him up a bit by smiling that it was no problem, sure, I don’t mind being squashed into half a seat even if he does, its not inherently bad after all… (I doubt he got all my silent messages, but I thought them anyway). The rest of the journey passed without incident, he entered his own sullen headphoned world — hopefully he cheered up later.

A tiny example of a minor irritation blown out of proportion, but these can waste every day of our whole precious life if we let them.

Got any good examples?!

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.

Putting things in perspective

We make up our own storyline as we go along. So we might as well make it a good one.

I just heard that our two $700 bicycles that I ride all the time have been stolen. The upstairs tenants left them unlocked in the front yard. (I’m property manager but away at the moment).

I know straightaway that these things happen all the time – that things appear and disappear, even every moment. The bikes appeared out of nowhere in the first place, someone generously gave them to us when they left the area.

Inappropriate attention v appropriate attention

But my initial response is nonetheless one of disappointment followed fast on its heels by its best friend annoyance. And I can easily increase both these states of mind if I want to, for example by dwelling on detailed memories of the red and blue bikes with their cute convenient little key holders, the perfect distance between the seat and the handlebars, the 21 gears, the way I could sail up and over the bridge…. and how that is now all gone!! And the greater the disappointed lather I work myself up into, the greater the annoyance at Irena and the other Russian tenants who’ve ruined my fun: “I never said they could use those bikes! What were they thinking?! How careless!! How can we get $1400 out of them?” And kicking myself too for good measure: “You idiot, why did you trust them with the shed key in the first place?”

The definition of delusion is:

“A mental factor (state of mind) that arises from inappropriate attention and functions to make the mind unpeaceful and uncontrolled.”

(You can find out everything you need to know about delusions and how to get rid of them in Joyful Path of Good Fortune.)

With the delusion of anger (including aversion, annoyance, irritation, resentment etc), we pay inappropriate attention by mentally exaggerating the seeming bad qualities of a person or object until we consider it undesirable and become antagonistic and averse, wanting to push it away or even harm it/destroy it.

Korska, Russian for "cat"

There are so many ways in which inappropriate attention can run riot and take down our peace of mind! And within that inappropriate attention is a corresponding editing out of anything that inconveniently contradicts it e.g. the good qualities of Irena. Appropriate attention could be thoughts like: “This same Irena is looking after my feral cat Korska, who now apparently loves her and whom she even named, she empties all the smelly trash cans, she waters all my newly planted flowers, she spent ages trying her healing techniques on little Ralph… she’s actually a good person and probably feels bad about the bikes herself.” But annoyance doesn’t want to think about any of that stuff because it commits hari kiri if it does.

We choose what we focus on. And Irena only annoys me if I focus on her seeming bad qualities, not if I don’t.

Solving nothing
What vital things are going on in the world!?

We can find plenty of things to annoy us every day of our lives (and being currently in England, the land of the Daily Mail, reminds me how superbly daily tabloids can tap into our potential for whininess.) Alternatively we can choose to follow any number of positive lines of thought and deeper meanings, like those explained in Buddha’s teachings. For example, when something is stolen from us we can practice patience by remembering karma and impermanence, or what a downer attachment is and how great it is to live lightly, or compassion for those who have lost far more than a bicycle in the recent tornadoes in southern US, or the children in the horn of Africa who desperately need our attention, or how there is no point giving people a hard time when life is hard enough already, etc. I can even mentally give the bikes away so that the (quite possibly homeless) person who stole them doesn’t incur negative karma, advice I magnanimously gave to someone else just weeks ago 😉

After all, the bikes are gone whether I choose to get disappointed and annoyed or not, and so the disappointment and annoyance solve nothing.

Perspective
storm in a teacup

I have this theory that if you’re going to get your perspective back sooner or later anyway, you may as well skip out the annoying bit in the middle. We can hold onto certain things for years (our anger turning into the even worse delusion of resentment) due to stuck-record inappropriate attention, but don’t you find that we usually get bored of our negative thoughts sooner or later and end up dropping them? For example, what were you annoyed about this time last month, or last year? Can you even remember? And will the stealing of the bikes be any more than an anecdote in a matter of months, weeks, or even days?

There were two kids at Madhyamaka Centre long ago, brothers Edmund and Tamlin, who’d play with a third kid called Stephen, who was a bit of a handful. One day they fell out very badly with him and didn’t want to talk to him ever again.

Madhyamaka Centre, Geshe Kelsang's first centre

They tell me this, so I test out my theory on them: “Have you ever liked Stephen in the past, like yesterday for example did you play with him?” They consider this for a moment, then: “Yeah”. “Can you see a time when you might like to play with him again in the future, for example if he lets you use his space cowboy gun?” Pause while they think about this. “Errr, yeah, probably.” “How about then just saving time and energy by liking him now as you’re going to end up liking him again anyway?”

They both got it. They nodded their heads and laughed, and the three of them were playing again that very afternoon.

So, who is Irena? — the warm smiling woman who risks life and limb to stroke Korska or the woman chatting carelessly to her friends while she goes inside leaving our $700 bikes unattended? Do I waste mental energy and time itemizing her faults or do I recall how much easier she made my life by taking on my property manager responsibilities? Stand up the real Irena! But the fact is she cannot because nothing and no one exists independent of mind. Can you point to a world outside of your experience of the world? Where is it? And the world we experience is the world we are focusing on.

Thinking differently is not that hard once we decide to do it. You might be objecting: “But I can’t help feeling disappointed and annoyed when things don’t go my way!” But I reckon you can. If I can, you can. We all can. Start with small annoyances and work your way up. If you want to do it, there are a gazillion enjoyable ways to do it.

Postscript:

Well, dear reader, guess what? I have just heard that it was their own bikes that the Russians left in the front yard, not ours, thus rendering all those mental acrobatics unnecessary. But I’m putting up this article anyway because they still happened and so I can now use this article to also underscore another point: Many of our objects of disappointment, anger and annoyance, major or minor, do not have even the slightest basis of imputation to begin with e.g. imagined slights, fear of future unlikely events, etc, yet the deluded thought processes are the same.