Heartspace

7 mins read.

I think we could all do with some kind of conversation between our heart-mind and our thinky head.

rock in gardenI remember some years back already knowing exactly what to think and do, Dharma-wise, when undergoing a break up, and even clearly understanding that I was far better off without this person. My head knew all this very well. But still my heart would yearn for him.

The heart wants what the heart wants, so I realized I needed to change at a heart level. To meditate from a deeper level of awareness, if possible, so as to overcome the deluded habit of attachment and develop wisdom wishes at a more sustainable level.

I am sort of carrying on from this article, Aligning with reality.

Head vs heart

Do you ever feel there are two of you – the wise person who sits in meditation and understands what’s really going on, and the crazy monkey-mind person who goes about their busy day getting overwhelmed by everything, sucked into the vast panoply of appearances, unknowingly driven here and there by the invisible habits of countless spring flowerslives? “Deceived by grasping at things as they appear”, as it says in Essence of Vajrayana.

There can be a struggle between these inner and outer selves. After all, if there is a disconnect between our heart and our head, superficial determinations to change may be drowned out in our habit-driven distracted daily lives and personas. How long did this year’s New Year’s resolutions last, for example?! How long did this morning’s resolutions last in the hurly burly of the day?

One of my favorite quotes is in Meaningful to Behold:

You should not let your habits dominate your behavior or act as if you are sleepwalking.

We are currently controlled by our mental habits and past actions. Our habits are anchored in the mind, engrained by repetition, programming us to act and respond in certain ways, such as automatic irritation when we would much rather be patient, or automatic yearning when we would much rather be content. We probably all sense this, so what can we do about it?lotuses

Luckily, lots. There is extraordinary spiritual technology available to us.

The stillness within

Before we launch into contemplative stages of the path (Lamrim) meditations, we need to be sure we’re feeling it. Any of these 3 methods can help get us there.

  1. Breathing meditation

Even the simplest breathing meditation, designed to let go of scattered thoughts, brings our awareness inward. Eventually we learn to “Leave the object alone”, as my friend Gen Losang puts it.

We are a bit addicted to movement, our monkey mind jumping all over the place. All this going outwards to objects of distraction is dualistic conception – me over here, the world and all its stuff over there. It feels different already just to bring our awareness inwards to examine the mind — already we sense the space around our thoughts, how we are not our thoughts. It is very relaxing just to stay a bit stiller for a while.tree

The slightest experience of peace indicates that lasting peace is possible, so we identify with that. We can learn to live more and more in our heart, where we know and feel things most deeply, where true happiness is. We are connecting to our Buddha nature, which is in fact unfathomably profound, and we can sense that.

Never meditate in your head. You can’t anyway.

And at those times we can believe we are accessing a subtler or deeper level of mind because, even if we are not yet using it directly, we can still know this mind. It also really helps to recognize that our peaceful mind is mixed with the blessings of all enlightened beings, their minds, because for sure we’ll feel ourselves going deeper if we do that.

  1. Clarity of mind

An even more powerful method for dissolving away distractions and going deep is meditating on the clarity of the mindlake.JPG

  1. Absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thoughts

And then we also have this wonderful meditation on accessing our subtle mind by remaining “unmoving, with a mind as impassive as wood.”

owl blending in
Look closely 😉

This meditation on turning our mind to wood temporarily shuts down all the deluded habits of ignorance, attachment, and worry etc. going outwards. It stops the projector, so that we can meditate at a deeper level and so change at a deeper more sustainable level. We are using absorption of cessation to stop the projector of the gross mind, which is only projecting mental images that aren’t really out there.

It doesn’t seem to work to superimpose Lamrim thoughts on top of hallucinatory thoughts. We need to scrap this movie or dream altogether and start again. Every day, until it takes.

The heart wants what the heart wants

Since the heart wants what the heart wants, it is best to start each Lamrim meditation in the heart, identified with our boundless Buddha nature, ideally mixed inseparably with the blessings of our Spiritual Guide, Buddha. We can observe self-limiting habits and conditioning in the light and space of our own indestructible potential, letting them fade away like mist in sunshine.

Having dissolved away our gross over-thinky thoughts and ordinary conceptions, we can generate the new ideas and language of Lamrim, the new naming, labelling, and discrimination at a subtler level. This will then show up in our lives, as our lives. In the beginning was the word, and the word was made flesh, as my favorite line in the Bible would have it.lotuses 2

By the way, as mentioned in this article Start where you are, it is effective to tune into an example of whatever object it is you’re going to meditate on, eg, the love you already have inside you for a nephew or a pet. This is because we have the seeds for every single stage of the path, so we are watering these, rather than adding something that is not there.

So we do our Lamrim meditations in our heart, with a peaceful undistracted mind. On this basis we reinvent ourselves – having dissolved everything away into inner empty space, we now have a chance to start from scratch. This is because everything is empty and therefore entirely unfixed, including, and especially, ourselves.

Check out this excellent guest article, The Meditation Game Changer, for more on that.

New me

rock gardenMoreover, we need to identify deeply with these new understandings and determinations, believing “I am a being of boundless potential who has a precious human life,” to take the first Lamrim meditation as an example. This wisdom discrimination will bring about very different actions and results in our daily life, don’t you think?, than the deluded discrimination that we cannot change, “I am pathetic. I can’t help even the people I want to help, and my life is going nowhere.” We might feel guilty or doomed, like we’re a total loser who is wasting this precious opportunity …  instead of inspired, feeling that we are the luckiest person alive.

We don’t use the word “subconscious” in Buddhism, but, if we did, I think this would be what I’d be talking about, changing at a subtler level.

I like to practice Lamrim in this way, in the light of our boundless potential that is part and parcel of our increasingly blissful levels of mind. (You can learn all about how to identify and realize the three levels of mind in Mahamudra Tantra.)

This is part of the union of Sutra and Tantra that is the hallmark of the Kadampa tradition. We are basically going with the deepening heart bliss (taught in Tantra) on the tulipsone hand and the infinite possibilities of the wisdom realizing emptiness (taught in Sutra) on the other – thereby rebooting and completely transforming our reality from a samsara of suffering, ordinariness, and fixed existence into a Pure Land of bliss and the endless possibilities of emptiness.

As it says in Request to the Lord of all Lineages:

Through enjoying great bliss and the emptiness of all phenomena I have pacified all  ordinary appearances and conceptions,
And thus I have accomplished the real meaning of human life.

We are waking up so that we can wake everyone else up as well.

And, one last thing for Tantric practitioners …

In Highest Yoga Tantra completion stage, just so you know, we are aiming to get the energy winds from the left and right channels into the central channel for a completely orchidsblissful non-dual experience of the mind and its objects – that gap between them vanishes because it is an optical illusion of the ignorance that rides upon impure winds. With this manifest very subtle mind mounted on pure wisdom winds, we are finished with the powerlessness of confusion. An explanation of how to do this is given in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra.

Over to you. How do you keep your meditation determinations, or practical plans to apply the teachings, alive and well in your busy life? 

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How to overcome toxic self-criticism 

7 mins read.

It all starts with changing our experience.

If we want to change our actions or behaviors, we need to change our intentions. If we want to change our intentions or wishes, we need to change our sense of who we are. feeling smallAnd if we want to change our sense of self, this has to be based on changing our experience.

Carrying on from this article, Giving up self-hatred once and for all. 

We underestimate ourselves badly a lot of the time — in the case of self-dislike by experiencing and relating to an inherently limited unworthy small self. But where is that self to be found? What is it?

That self is who we are not rather than who we are. We want to get to the point that whenever it appears it actually reminds us that it is fake — it is appearing, but not really there. It is like — to use an analogy from the Buddhist scriptures — seeing two moons when we press our eyeball reminding us that there is only one moon in the sky.

Our sense of self at any given moment feels independent, existing in and of itself; but it arises 100% in dependence on what we happen to be thinking.

With self-criticism, we have a lack of patient acceptance for ourselves. We are never waking up happygood enough; we always have to do more or do better. Fighting this self-image, there is no room or energy for growth. We might also have the master emotion of guilt — the feeling that we’re not worthy, competent, or good, that we are, in a sense, rotten at the core.

The opposite is the case

But the reality is in fact the OPPOSITE of what we are telling ourselves. Far from being flawed, we are a being of boundless indestructible potential, pure and good at heart, and in a position to connect to the infinite wisdom of enlightenment.

By learning to accept ourselves happily within an understanding of our enormous capacity for freedom and growth, we will begin to awaken a source of deep inspiration and wisdom from within.

It is terribly sad to go through life not knowing about what we have inside us, or who we already are and can become. As mentioned in this passage from How to Transform Your Lifewhich I’ll repeat because it’s so significant for our spiritual development — our pure essential nature, who we really are, is mind-blowingly good:

Buddha compared our Buddha nature to a gold nugget in dirt, for no matter how disgusting a person’s delusions may be, the real nature of their mind remains undefiled, like pure gold. In the heart of even the cruelest and most degenerate person exists the potential for limitless love, compassion, and wisdom.

Yes, this means us too. However badly we are thinking ourselves to be, we are not.

Unlike the seeds of our delusions, which can be destroyed, this potential is utterly indestructible and is the pure essential nature of every living being.

hero insideOur delusions, such as disliking ourself, are all based on faulty or distorted thinking, inappropriate attention — so once we get rid of that faulty thinking for good, the delusion goes away and can never come back. But the seeds of compassion and wisdom will be our essential nature for as long as reality remains. (For more on how that is, check out this article.)

And now is the best time to really figure this out, while we have this precious human life.

Buddha’s analogy for our current opportunity

Buddha gives the analogy of a person living in poverty, in a hovel, scrabbling around to be happy and make ends meet for himself and his family. He is working really hard but feeling really poor.

But one day he gets a visitor – a wise person comes to his door and says: “I don’t think you realize this, but below your house is a gold mine. You are in fact exceedingly rich.”

The man may be skeptical at first, but he gets curious one day and checks it out. Sure enough, he realizes that he has been living on top of a gold mine since he was born. And his and his family’s life now changes completely.

gold mine.gifIn a similar way, Buddha has turned up in our lives to tell us that we have an incredible gold mine inside us — innate goodness and purity, possessing the capacity for lasting peace and happiness. Perhaps we don’t really believe him because we have gotten so used to identifying with being a poor person, but one day we check it out anyway and discover that he is right! And our life changes beyond recognition.

As Geshe Kelsang says:

Whenever we meet other people, rather than focusing on their delusions, we should focus on the gold of their Buddha nature. This will not only enable us to regard them as special and unique, but also help to bring out their good qualities. Recognizing everyone as a future Buddha, out of love and compassion we will naturally help and encourage this potential to ripen.

This includes meeting ourselves!

We are not doomed!

In other words, you are not doomed, and nor is anyone else. It is so important that we understand this because, until we do, our wish for lasting freedom for ourselves and others will never be sustainable. We will just keep getting tired, worried, and discouraged, losing energy, burning out. We can’t sustain a wish for something we don’t actually believe in, and if we don’t wish for it we won’t have any energy, effort, or patience to achieve it.

super womanStep 1 ~ new improved experience

Given all this, the first step is to allow our inner chatter to stop for a bit. We can simply turn inward to examine our mind, as explained here, and then use breathing meditation or clarity of mind meditation or absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thought.

As result of not focusing on our distracting thoughts, they disappear, because thoughts can only survive for as long as we are thinking them. Initially, just by allowing delusions to go away for a short while, we already feel better.

But please don’t be perfectionist – we don’t have to have a perfectly clear mind; any clearing of the clouds will do. Even a handkerchief of blue sky on an overcast day encourages us that there is plenty more where that comes from. We don’t want to over-judge our meditations, but instead be gentle and relaxed.

Concentration is not about pushing. We can simply relax into whatever peace we have, even if it is tiny. We can allow ourselves to enjoy this. Otherwise we are just buying into being useless at meditation as well – I am too useless even to learn how to be less useless!

When we first start meditating, we realize that we have an endless inane talk show going on. It takes a bit of time and practice to switch this off, so don’t have expectations, aka pre-meditated resentments! Just practice happily without grasping at results. This is how we get good at meditation. It doesn’t matter if our mind is full of busy thoughts — provided we are alert to that and letting them go we are doing really well, as explained in this article on mindfulness, alertness, and concentration. monkey mind

A friend said this the other day:

I love the admonition regarding meditation: “expectations are pre-meditated resentments.” For me, one of the greatest delights of meditation is knowing that any meditation is a good meditation and that judging simply gets in the way of absorption, concentration, and realizations.

I tend to be hard on myself in everything else I do and, unconsciously until recently, use high expectations and my regular failure to meet them as certifications of my not-good-enough self. Sitting down to meditate and just exhaling “Ahh!” is my empowering opponent to and vacation from beating myself up – at least once a day.

Saying “I cannot meditate because my mind is too distracted!” is like going to the doctor with a bad stomach ache but refusing to take the medicine. The doctor says, “Take these pills, you’ll feel better!”, but we reply, “I can’t because my stomachs hurts too much.” It is precisely because our mind is so distracted that we need take the medicine of breathing meditation 😁.

The rest of this explanation on overcoming self-hatred is on its way soon — I figured your coffee break might be up. Meantime, your comments have been very helpful up to now, so please leave more below!

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Giving up self-hatred once and for all

5.5 mins read.

Kadampa Buddha 4Call me biased, but I can’t help thinking that Buddha Shakyamuni is the best psychologist who ever walked the earth. Yet he is also transcendent, visionary. His vision is not just about us all feeling better, but about us all being our very best self, which just happens to be enlightened.

Following directly on from this article, How to stop being so down on ourselves.

A friend of mind recently went through the stuff of nightmares, a hellish trauma. This only happened in November, but she feels that with Dharma she should have “got over it by now,” and is upset with herself for feeling constant flashes of anger, fear, and sadness. Instead of accepting these unpleasant thoughts as entirely normal post-traumatic weather in a sky-like mind, she is buying into them and feeling they define her; and therefore she feels she is failing at being a “good Buddhist.” It will be hard for her to move beyond this horror if she keeps beating herself up, and her Buddhist practices and meditations will just be overlayed onto a sense of an inadequate self. I am glad we had a chance to talk yesterday because this is exactly the kind of problem we are dealing with here.

The last 4 articles have been about toxic self-criticism or self-hatred, what’s wrong with it, and where it comes from, including the relationship between our experience, sense of self, intentions, actions, and life. Now, with all this practical insight, we’re ready to give it up once and for all.

So how do we? First it might be helpful to see how NOT to.

Option 1. Change my view of self?

pep talk in mirrorMaybe we think the first step to overcoming self-hatred is changing our sense of self by telling ourselves we are great?

But this doesn’t work, any more than it works for someone else to tell us we’re great if we’re not feeling it. Maybe we talk to ourselves in the mirror: “You’re wonderful! You can do anything!” But our experience tells us otherwise. Affirmations or pep talks in the mirror won’t work if we’re feeling crummy inside.

Option 2. Change my intentions?

So maybe I should change my intentions or wishes?

But that doesn’t work while we are holding onto a limited view of self because what we want depends on whom we think we are, our sense of identity. So, for example, if we feel we’re a really hopeless person, we cannot help but have underwhelming wishes that hold us back from realizing our potential. This in turn makes us feel even more hopeless.

Option 3. Change my actions?

Often we try to change our actions through sheer will power, for example by forcing ourselves to do things outside our comfort zone, things that are supposed to be good for us. However, this is a stretch and not sustainable because there is a gulf between our head and our heart. It generally winds up with us having to control or suppress our actual wishes, which can make us feel hypocritical or more conflicted. For example, if we feel we need to be on a diet but are identifying ourself as an overweight loser whose only comfort is food, we may lock the fridge door but then give in and stuff ourselves later.

To summarize, what we do depends upon what we want, which in turn depends upon who we think we are.

So what CAN I change?!

No-one-can-make-you-feel-inferior-withoutGiven this, what do we need to change in order to get rid of self-hatred and other delusions? We have to change our EXPERIENCE. And this starts by getting in touch with our peaceful, pure, and boundless nature. It is not a case of, “Whatever! I can’t do this, it’s not me!”, believing that our lack of peace and incompetence is our very nature. Look what that leads too! We need to know our real nature or potential versus doubting it.

In How to Transform Your Life (free here), Geshe Kelsang explains:

Buddha compared our Buddha nature to a gold nugget in dirt, for no matter how disgusting a person’s delusions may be, the real nature of their mind remains undefiled, like pure gold. In the heart of even the cruelest and most degenerate person exists the potential for limitless love, compassion, and wisdom.

We need to discover who we truly are. This can be as simple at first as doing a short breathing meditation and giving ourselves some moments to identify with the result. When we disconnect from the external world and the internal chatter, we discover an innate peace of mind and goodness. We have changed our experience to one of relative happiness and contentment. We start to get what Buddha means about our mind being like a limitless sky.

hero inside 2If we sit with this for long enough (as a guest writer explained beautifully here and I plan on exploring more in the next article), we come to realize we have developed a new view of ourself. We have changed our basis of imputation. And we can build upon this with many virtuous and wise states of mind, all the stages of the path of Sutra and Tantra if we so desire.

A conversation

 Just as I was writing all this, I overheard a conversation at the next table in this Denver café – a young woman was sharing with her friend how she hadn’t been invited to a social occasion: “I don’t like it; it makes me feel small. Who does she think she is?!” The other commiserated animatedly with some swear words and distasteful “facts” about the unfriendly person; and they both laughed.

To serve and protect our unworthy small self, to try and make ourselves feel bigger, one strategy is to be down on somebody else and ideally get other people to agree with us.

feeling small 2The dissing and laughter seems to have solved the problem temporarily! But, no, after a brief relief they are back on the subject – “What I want to say but can’t is ‘I’m tired of you being so b****.”

What her friend could usefully say to empower her is, “Look at the limited self you’re holding onto right now. It’s not actually you. It is a fake sense of self. Just let it go. You can be the master of your own moods.” But instead they are both now pinning all the frustration about the way she feels on the b**** friend who didn’t invite her; and that person of course is out of their control so there is no solution there.

As mentioned all over the place, there are two problems here. The inner problem can be solved by dissolving away the limited self by realizing it’s not actually there, and identifying with her natural self-contained happiness and boundless potential instead. On that basis, maybe she can find the courage to talk to her b**** friend, making an attempt to solve the outer problem, but in a calm way, without feeling on the defensive. If she does that, her friend is also more likely to listen.

The next installment is here.

Comments welcome!

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Pausing in the pursuit of happiness to be happy

9.5 mins read.

elephant in water.jpegSetting some time aside for a relaxing meditation session every day, even 10 or 15 minutes, is likely the quickest and most effective way to start mastering our minds (aka choosing our thoughts).

Carrying on from this article, Getting started with mindfulness.

And we can think of it more as a mini-vacation than yet another onerous commitment. Effort in meditation is likened to an elephant plunging into a lotus pool to find relief from the heat of the midday sun. In other words, meditation doesn’t have to be another item on an already over-subscribed to-do list — it is more like the space between items. If we take this time, we’ll find our to-do list a lot more manageable because feeling busy is a feeling, a state of mind.

I think pretty much most people can find 10 to 15 minutes in the day for concerted spiritual practice? It is true that we have a lot of stuff on, but I still don’t think we are always too busy to meditate so much as too distracted or attached to doing other things.

Not being here now

Without a skillful meditation practice, our mind will keep on being blown all over the place by our thoughts and whatever else is going on, like a balloon powerlessly buffeted by the wind. We are in danger of remaining totally caught up in fleeting external circumstances to the neglect of enjoying the deep and stable peace we have waiting inside.

Nowadays it seems as though there is even more pointless thinking going on. We can spend our entire day distracting ourselves if we’re not careful (talking to myself here). And this brings me to the main reason I am writing this article today, which is, once we have established some peace in our heart, how can we take advantage of the gaps in our day to keep that going 24/7?

Mini-meditations throughout the day

First off, how do we know there are numerous little gaps in our day? How do we know, all told, that, however busy our lives might feel, we have more time than we realize to relax and feel peaceful if that is what we really want?!

Because those gaps are all those times we get on our phones!

Smartphone-AddictionThe average American looks at their Smartphone for 3.5 hours a day! We might possibly be enlightened by now if we’d been using that 3.5 hours for mini-meditations instead.

And today in Madison Wisconsin, on what might have once been a nice lazy Sunday afternoon, I saw someone in a café with one of those new split-screens – Sudoko on the left, email on the right, and big headphones on her head. And of course the phone plonked right between her and the computer, apparently a perfect sign that she is a Millennial as opposed to a Gen X’er or Baby Boomer (who position their phones slightly off to the side.) In that scenario, there is literally not a spare moment to stare aimlessly into space like I feel we used to do in the old days, much less check in on her mind. I surreptitiously watched her for a while, and it was full-on diversion. It looked exhausting. I wanted to unplug her. No wonder this report found that people don’t even like to be left alone with their own thoughts for more than 6-15 minutes.

A Kadampa teacher emailed me this the other day:

“On a recent meditation retreat, I asked assembled students to share their favorite “evasive maneuvers” from the present moment, the ways we all hide out from having to be here with the direct simplicity of right now. People said all kinds of funny and not so funny things. In a discussion group later in the weekend, one student wondered why nobody had brought up Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Another student joked ‘Our teacher asked us what our individual evasive maneuvers were, not our shared ones. Everyone’s addicted to Facebook.’”

split screen
“more productive” or more distracted?!

I am not a Luddite, by the way. I actually relish the opportunities afforded by modern technology. It is not the technology that’s the problem but our strong attachment or addiction to it. Buddha predicted these degenerate times wherein our uncontrolled diversion-seeking would become stronger and stronger – and aptly called this “the desire realm”.

Why to turn inwards instead of phonewards

We apparently tend to check our phones 80-150 times a day. In an international poll taken by Time magazine, one in four people reported checking their phone “every 30 minutes, 1 in 5 people every 10 minutes.” I read that Apple and Google themselves are now coming up with Apps to stop people from being so addicted to their phones … Apps that switch off after a certain length of time, for example, because we are now seemingly incapable of switching them off ourselves.

This attachment has consequences.

addiction to smartphoneStudies are showing a direct correlation between this addiction and addiction to alcohol, drugs, overeating, and so forth – that it lights up the same areas in the brain. It is leading people to insomnia, the light from the screens ruining our much-needed rest. There is a spike in anxiety, depression, and so forth. Among teenagers, it is causing a spike in suicide.

Let alone our children, and let alone the lost art of looking other human beings in the eyes, we are apparently not even paying attention to our cats and dogs anymore! Our furry friends are suffering neglect and boredom borne by our addiction.

None of this is conducive to deep peace or frankly any peace — instead this addiction is making people feel more inadequate and insecure, making us feel worse about ourselves. Our creativity is diminishing because the silence in which we used to pop with great ideas has been taken over by scrolling and tapping.

In the age of attachment we are worryingly inclined to look for happiness outside of ourselves. This could be our last day – so do we want to spend it scrolling on our phone or do we want to spend it in peace and meaning?

kittenThere’s another downside too. In the old days, when there were a few minutes here and there in the day, we might use them to run errands, and end up with more time to do the things we love. Now the chores pile up till we have to spend a whole day catching up, leaving less free time. People also don’t feel they have the time to volunteer their help so much these days, or to spend time in real-life community; even though these activities are proven to make us feel happier and more connected.

As explained more in this article, Are you busy?, I don’t think people are necessarily much busier than they used to be – we are just distracted all the time, so our minds feel busier, we don’t feel we ever have enough time, we get totally overwhelmed. We don’t have a time deficit so much as a mindfulness and concentration deficit.

We can check for ourselves — as soon as we have a gap or pause in the day, waiting for a meeting or traffic lights or the kettle to boil, or even strolling down the road, what do we do? Something on our to-do list? Stop to smell the roses? Not usually. Instead we get on our smart phone and start scrolling downwards or sideways, searching for happiness. “Well, that’s underwhelming. But maybe it’s on the next screen! Or the next? Or the next?”

Have any of us actually found happiness and freedom yet in our phone?!

Have any of us found joy, love, connection, or meaning?

Surely we need to pause in the pursuit of happiness to just BE happy!

An idea that can help

We are up against weapons of mass distraction, but we can beat this.

WeaponsOfMassDistractions.jpgNext time there is a pause in the day — ie, you’re about to reach for the phone — reach inside yourself instead. See if you are feeling peaceful and, if you are not, do a bit of breathing meditation or reacquainting yourself with your meditation focus for that day. “What is going on in my mind? I will now improve it.” Feel present. Feel the love. Feel the freedom of peace.

Then go back about your busy day, but still using mindfulness, alertness, and concentration as explained in this last article. 

Buddha said:

From concentration comes peace.

This means both immediately, as our mind is virtuous and peaceful, and in the long-term, as we are familiarizing ourselves with positive objects and so creating causes for peace. The result of concentration is peace. It always is. Even if our mini-meditation is not perfect, we are still creating the karmic causes of peace in our mind every time we go in and not out.

With these mini-meditations we can gradually master our thoughts and remain peaceful and happy regardless of what is going on in our day. We can remember that our mind is like an infinite clear sky and we don’t need to be all mixed up in the thunderclouds or fog but instead abide in the peaceful clarity that always lies beyond. This is our refuge or safe haven. We can relax into that space for a minute or two, and in this way it will gradually become the background of our being so that we are not so quick to get upset and agitated.

Happy_HeartBy the way, please don’t be perfectionist whenever you meditate – expectations are pre-meditated resentments. The entire sky doesn’t have to clear before we can relax into a more peaceful space, even a slight parting of the clouds will do. Some days will of course go better than others – we can just recognize that whatever peace we do experience is the tip of the iceburg, or a gap in the clouds, indicating our vast capacity for boundless space and happiness.

Changing our sense of self

Based on this new peaceful experience, however slight or relative, we can identify our sense of self differently, such as by genuinely thinking: “I am an inner being, peaceful, not caught up in all the external appearances that whizz by.”

We can also think, validly, “I am a meditator.” And what do meditators do?!

This inner peace and self-identification will make it easier for us to stay patient and calm. We won’t have so much itchy attachment to the things outside us. We will have room for love and wisdom. We will feel far more alive.

Case study

A young woman, who said I should call her “Case Study Kaitlin,” told me the other day that she grew up with all technology all the time, but then went cold turkey a month ago. As a result, she said “I have never felt more alive, peaceful, or concentrated.” And this is what prompted her to seek out meditation classes. 

54421012_1286016704910489_8453803795372048384_nIf we use our day like this, taking advantage of the gaps to maintain a continuum of mindfulness, alertness, and concentration, I think we will find that we all get results. As Geshe Kelsang says:

If we train in meditation systematically eventually we can eradicate all the delusions that are the causes of our sufferings. Day and night and life after life we will experience only peace and happiness.

Meditation enables us to become comfortable with silence, too; though that might have to be the subject of another article. Meantime, Google “benefits of silence” if you want to find out how important it is.

Coffee/tea & meditation first thing in the morning = can’t be beat

And to conclude this article, here is a practical nugget for you …  Some months ago I bought myself a cheap alarm clock and, come bedtime, put my phone in another room. I was woken in the morning by a screech instead of a dulcet ringtone, but I was good with that because, with no phone to reach for, I found I had no addiction tingle in my hand. It came easier then to just get on with my day and my meditation without an urge to check wake up happy“vital” messages first. So I have been doing this by and large ever since; it feels good to have reclaimed that first-thing-in-the-morning space and time. Plus it’s a lot easier to set compass for the rest of the day.

Over to you. Comments on how you sustain inner peace in this technological age are very welcome.

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Getting started with mindfulness

5 mins read.

Without mindfulness, alertness, and concentration, our unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts (aka delusions) will keep running the show forever. In other words, we won’t be able to stop our suffering.

crazy elephantCarrying straight on from this article, Improving our focus 

In Essence of the Middle Way it is said that we need to bind our elephant-like mind to the stake of our virtuous object with the strong rope of mindfulness and use the hook of alertness to subdue it. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

A “virtuous object” or an “object of meditation” can be a state of mind, such as love, or an object that is not a mind, such as impermanence or a mantra. (It is not an object of sense awareness such as a tree or a candle). You can read more about objects of meditation in Joyful Path. 

Breathing meditation, such as the simple one explained here, is a good place to start training in mindfulness, alertness, and concentration (MAC). The objects of other meditations, such as love or impermanence, require contemplation to find and to hold; but we are always breathing, so even if we lose our object of meditation, the breath, we can get back to it immediately.

Mindfulness functions both to keep the mind on an object that has not been forgotten, and to bring back to mind an object that has been forgotten. ~ How to Understand the Mind

For example, if our object of meditation is the breath, (1) mindfulness lets us resist the temptation to follow our other thoughts so that we stay with the breath; and, (2) when our attention does drift and can be found wandering to pizza, mindfulness brings it back to the breath.IMG_5353-EFFECTS

I think this is an important point: it doesn’t matter how often our mind wanders — even if that is a hundred times — provided that we notice and bring it back to the next breath, for this is still strengthening our mindfulness. In other words, however busy or distracted your mind feels, you are still meditating and improving.

As mentioned in the last article. the ability to notice that our mind has wandered and has forgotten or is about to forget its object is called “alertness”. Alertness is said to be like a spy or lookout that reports back to the generals of mindfulness and concentration.

If we don’t notice and bring it back, that’s just business as usual, namely our regular uncontrolled thinking! But consciously bringing our attention back to our breath, breath after breath, and focusing clearly on it is training in MAC. And we’ll soon see how much more calm, clear, and peaceful our mind becomes.

Which is what we need, because most of our thoughts are not necessarily that calm or peaceful. Often, they are grumbling or boring or distracted or worried. We don’t want to think them, but we cannot help it.

If we are not in a state of deep peace all day long, or if we lack mental space and clarity, this is a sign that we need more MAC.

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It doesn’t take much to get started

It only takes 10-15 minutes a day training like this to make the difference.

You can be confident that it all gets easier and more effortless with practice – you’ll get better at it if you do it, for sure, not of course if you don’t. If you practice breathing meditation consistently — 10 or 15 minutes a day being plenty to start with — there will definitely come a time when you can plop your mind on your breath like plopping down a glass of water, and it’ll stay there till you decide to move it. Blessed relief.

With improved MAC, gradually you’ll be able to set your mind on any object you have learned about and keep it there, including loving-kindness, compassion, or emptiness, so that you are experiencing these peaceful, wise states of mind all the time! At this point, as Geshe Kelsang explains:

If we train in meditation, our mind will gradually become more and more peaceful, and we will experience a purer and purer form of happiness. Eventually we will be able to stay happy all the time, even in the most difficult circumstances.

You’re not a lost cause

Just one more thing, in case you’re wondering …  you’re not a lost cause

lost causeSometimes when people start out meditating they complain that they’ll never be able to settle on their breath, that they’ll never be able to get their crazy minds to meditate, that basically they are a lost cause.

So in case you are one of them, I would like to point out two things:

  • However busy your mind, every time you bring your attention back to your breath, you are improving at meditation, as discussed above.
  • Long before you get really good at single-pointed concentration, and even when your mind is still going a hundred miles a minute, you can also practice mindfulness, alertness, and concentration in your daily life, and this is still the practice of meditation. In fact, as we spend most of our time out of formal meditation sessions, it is arguably the most important part of meditation practice.

Meditation, “gom” in Tibetan, translates as gaining familiarity with positive ways of thinking, and this can be happening throughout our day. So, as an example, if we don’t get mad when someone criticizes us, but see them as suffering and/or kind instead, we are training in meditation.

We are using alertness to be self-aware of what thoughts we’re having, catching inappropriate attention or negative thoughts early so they don’t spiral out of our control. We are using mindfulness to remember a positive state of mind such as patience or love and to forget the inappropriate attention we’re paying to that person’s faults. We are using concentration to focus on that patience or love.

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And, eh voila, this is how we take control of our own mind and behavior, and this is how we stay peaceful and happy. It is also the practice of moral discipline, which in turn greatly advances our concentration once we’re back on our meditation seat.

Next part of this topic is here – how to keep mini-meditations going throughout the busy day.

Meanwhile, over to you. I would love to hear your experiences of employing mindfulness, alertness, and concentration both on and off the cushion.

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Improving our focus

6 mins read.

focus on the solutionWhen we first attempt breathing meditation:

Our mind will be very busy, and we might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. ~ How to Transform Your Life

All we are asking our mind to do is focus on the in-breath and out-breath, how hard can that be?! But apparently we have an inane and endless talk show going on in our head. This is what we are dealing with when we close our eyes and try to focus on our breath — our uncontrolled mind has other ideas. A lot of other ideas. Some of them terrible ideas! Which is all the more reason why we need to bring it under control through improving our focus.

Mac n med

Concentration as explained in Buddhism is our ability to control our mind, to direct it at will, to focus on one meaningful object and eventually stay there for as long as we want. It allows us to think the thoughts we want to think as opposed to the thoughts that make us feel sad, bad, or mad.

Concentration makes our mind strong, clear, and relaxed, and we become more productive. It always makes us feel better, far more peaceful. It even makes us more physically comfortable. And, as mentioned in this article, we are not a moment too soon in getting better at it.

lotusConcentration goes along with mindfulness, which remembers our object by preventing forgetfulness or distractions. In How to Understand the Mind, where these mental factors or states of mind are all explained in detail, it says:

If we meditate with strong mindfulness our mind will remain on its object without distraction and we will naturally develop stable concentration.

Concentration also goes along with alertness, which is a type of wisdom or self-awareness that actually knows what our mind is up to, including wandering off to other things.

Meditation makes full use of all three – mindfulness, alertness, and concentration (MAC for short 😉 ) – improving them steadily. If we are to have any hope of experiencing the lasting happiness and mental freedom we long for, we need to train in MAC both in meditation sessions and in all areas of our life.

And it doesn’t have to be hard work. Frankly, it is far harder work to spend all day every day having to keep pace with our uncontrolled thoughts.

Reclaim your mind

distractionsWe don’t need to go on courses to learn how to feel busy and have out of control thoughts. That comes pretty naturally already. What we do need to learn to do is control our mind so we can direct it at will, get it to do what we want it to do rather than the other way around.

We already try and control everything else – where we eat, what we wear, who we date, where we live, what we do for a job, who we root for in politics, and so on. Of course this doesn’t always work out – but, even those times we do manage to control other people or our external circumstances, it makes little difference to our peace of mind if we don’t have control over our thoughts.

It is frankly weird that we don’t have control over the thoughts in our own mind, if you think about it. It is torture to have to think stupid stuff all the time — yet it is also utterly “normal”. We accept it as normal. But it is the reason we are suffering. And it doesn’t have to be like this. With just a little effort, we can get a whole lot better at staying focused on peace and happiness.

(By the way, some people don’t really like the term “controlling the mind” as it sounds a bit too, well, controlling. So you can think of it as taking charge of our mind and/or having choice over what our mind does and/or mastering our mind. Being a real superhero.)

Bigger picture

duckNot to mention the bigger picture … where are all these uncontrolled, unchosen thoughts taking us? To more uncontrolled, unchosen life — more samsara. How could they be taking us anywhere else? With irritation and attachment, jealousy and confusion, and so on, and the confused intentions and actions that arise from these minds, we are busy creating the karmic causes to experience some form of future unease or pain in our body and mind.

Today I overheard a woman in the park saying, “In my next life I want to be a duck.” Although she was watching an admittedly laid-back duck sunning himself on a rock, I thought, “No. Mm mm. No, you don’t. Don’t even joke about it.”

Our conceptual thoughts and sense consciousnesses cease at death, along with our sense of self or our current personality; but our deepest level of mental consciousness continues after this body screeches to a halt, our karma going with it. If I die today without having controlled my mind and my karma, where can I guarantee ending up tomorrow? What choices will I have?

Single-pointedness

Concentration is the ability to stay single-pointedly focused on an object, a skill that is key in the pursuit of happiness. For example, we may be surrounded by all the necessary conditions to become upset, such as grumpy co-workers or scary politics, but if our bench and reflectionmental spot light is trained on patient acceptance, we will not experience any unhappiness. And we will be able to respond more constructively to whatever is going on.

Concentration is the focus in our mind that enables us to get closer and closer to the object. With strong concentration our mind mixes with the object, as if there is no space between the object and us. It is like that beautiful TS Eliot quote:

music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

We’re actually already very good at concentrating on some things, namely objects of desire or aversion. When we’re attracted to someone, we call up all their features in ravishing detail with very little effort. When we’re angry with someone, we have single-pointed concentration on their faults. But this is not the concentration referred to by Buddha, which is necessarily positive or virtuous. To be happy, we want to be able to maintain these levels of concentration on wise and virtuous objects, which lead us in a positive direction. If we focus all our attention on, for example, the loving thought ‘May everyone be happy’, it’s like a laser beam trained onto a happy, powerful experience.

Buddha said that there is nothing more powerful in this universe than a fully concentrated mind. The reason our mind lacks power is because it is fractured. It is all over the place. We talk to ourselves, apparently, at a rate of a thousand words a minute: IMG_5328-EFFECTS‘What’s going on, who’s that coming in, what am I doing later, how should I respond to that insult?’ We rarely focus on one object. Our mind is currently in a state of constant motion, flitting onto anything that catches its fancy, then flitting away again.

Buddha likened the uncontrolled mind to a monkey scampering up and down a tree grabbing and throwing stuff, or a crazy elephant wreaking havoc on a village. For a modern-day example, I think that being trapped in an out of control, unfocused mind is like trying to drive a car without a steering wheel. Or without brakes. Or even while we are locked in the trunk!

Next installment is here: Getting started with mindfulness.

Over to you! Comments welcome below.

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The art of letting go

Did you get a chance to try out any breathing meditation lately?

sama-660x330

It can be so very useful, indeed powerful; and we can gain some deep levels of concentration and mindfulness with it. While we remain in that state of peace, when thoughts arise we don’t feel the same need to dwell on them – we sense the space around them and the space within them.

Continuing from this article.

We can let even disturbing thoughts come and we can let them go. We are free from the mental chain reactions induced by the habit of over-thinking. We are more present – not worrying about the future or dwelling on the past. We can stop identifying with our thoughts, as explained more in this article, understanding that:

There is an enormous difference between the thoughts “I am feeling bad” and “Unpleasant feelings are arising in my mind. ~ How to Solve our Human Problems

What’s next?

However, within minutes our meditation will come to an end and we’ll have to get up and get on. And even though we’ve tasted that space — and in fact even if we have some insight that things are more virtual reality than they seem — daily appearances can be very overpowering very quickly. We get sucked in.

In which case our delusions might quite likely not just rear their heads again but take over — possibly within minutes! — and we’ll be obliged to go back to our normal, crazy way of reacting to things as if they are solid, real, and outside our mind.

So, we need to take our spiritual practice further and get rid of delusions altogether by applying the antidotes of Dharma (Buddha’s teachings) both in and out of meditation.

Man holding crystal ball in landscapeWhen we do that breathing meditation, the first step, we feel the pure, clear, spacious peace that we already have inside us once we allow our delusions and their objects to simply subside. We give ourselves a break, giving ourselves permission to let go, relax, and take refuge in the peace of our own minds. And this in itself is evidence that our actual problems are created by our mind, because, when we let go of the thoughts of attachment and other delusions, our mind is at peace. The problem is gone; it actually just goes away.

Within that understanding, we train in Dharma to change our way of thinking about or holding onto things. Our mind and its objects — or our thoughts and what’s appearing to those thoughts — are co-dependent (not in a bad way!) Because they co-arise and depend upon each other completely, then when our way of looking at other people and the world changes, those objects change too. Literally change.

I think we’ve all had this experience.

Moving on naturally

attachment-1For example, if the person we are currently attached to has not replied to our 25 texts, we might feel desperate, holding them as neglectful and ourselves as unlovable. But instead of dropping this storyline, we’re like a dog with a bone. We try to wrestle with that person mentally, physically, verbally — whatever we think it will take to get them to change and start being nice to us again. We believe we need this to happen so that we can feel good about them again. AND good about ourselves.

To that end, we send a text, “Hey, do you like me?” We know it’s lame and will cause our self-respect to sink even further, but we can’t help it. We have to do something.

Seems like we’re always trying subtle and less subtle ways to get other people to cooperate, to get them to do what we want them to do. And it’s a bit of a battle, isn’t it? Because, funnily enough, they’ve got their own ideas and self-interest. And meanwhile we’re just exacerbating the problem because we are trying to solve it with the very same mind that is creating it.

But then one day, just naturally, even without deliberately changing our thoughts, we realize: “Actually I don’t care any more what this person thinks or does! Cool.” A cloud lifts. Our attachment has lessened. Maybe it’s even gone away. And at that point the problem’s gone, the battle is over. We have moved on, as they say.

We are now free to view that person and ourselves in a different way. We can establish a better kind of connection with them, maybe keeping the love part while ditching the attachment. This too can happen quite naturally — sometimes we discover we can feel quite warmly toward someone we were really upset about. Sometimes we can’t even remember what we were upset about, and it doesn’t matter anymore.

So, on Wednesday that person can seem like a major problem. And this is from their own side I might add – it is their bad behavior causing our pain and self-contempt. We wander around thinking, “It’s their fault I feel this way. It’s their fault, it’s their fault, they need to change.” That’s what we think, isn’t it, when we have attachment or aversion? It’s their fault. But then on Thursday we wake up and think, “Actually, I don’t have a problem with this person anymore.” We’ve let go, moved on. At which point the person appears very differently, do they not? And we are happy and confident in ourselves again – back to being cool and mysterious. (At which point they may start texting us again … just sayin’. Doesn’t matter either way though.)

That person hasn’t had to do a single thing from Wednesday to Thursday. They’re just going about their merry way, as usual, ignoring us or not, as usual. They haven’t done anything, but our thoughts have changed, and so suddenly they’ve changed and we ourselves have changed. When we think about them, it’s: “Oh they’re not so bad. I could be friendly with them again.” Maybe we can even think, “I really want them to be happy.” At which point they’re no longer a source of pain but a source of happiness for us.

The three spheresemptiness bend the spoon

And we are now identifying ourselves as, or imputing ourselves on, a loving, whole person, no longer a neurotic needy one. Again, these changes have not come from that person’s side, but because there’s a dependent relationship between our thoughts and their objects, including our self. Our mind and its objects arise together.

We have these kinds of experiences all the time, even without practicing Dharma. When our delusions naturally abate through time, the problem goes away and we’re free to have a totally different experience of that other person, relationship, and self. These are called “the three spheres”. They are all empty of existing from their own side.

Moving on more quickly

So, with Dharma, what we’re doing is understanding this connection between our thoughts and their objects and then changing our thoughts deliberately. This means we don’t have to wait for weeks, months, or years for our attachment to go away on its own, or for our aversion to subside, or for our disappointment or frustration or anxiety to fade. Through Dharma, we no longer have to wait for our thoughts to exhaust themselves. We can actually seize control over our own minds, rather than (as Buddha pointed out) having our minds control us, which is our current predicament. Our thoughts are no longer calling all the shots, because we are.

Through the meditations on renunciation, compassion, and wisdom we can learn to let go of our attachment, aversion, and other delusions, and in an instant be relating to ourselves and others in a happier way. And when we love other people — genuinely love them, not mixed with attachment or conditionality, just wanting them to be happy — then they present no problem for us. If they are an object of our attachment or aversion, they are a problem for us; but as soon as attachmentthey become an object of our love, they’re no longer a problem for us. Quite the opposite, in fact. They become a source of joy, even if they’ve let us down. Does that make sense?

Love, compassion, and so on are our greatest wealth because they will always help us solve our problems and find happiness. And this is because our problems don’t exist outside the mind. Nothing exists outside our mind. Nothing is independent of our perceptions and thoughts.

As it says in the synopsis of How to Understand the Mind:

If we understand that objects depend on the subjective mind, we can change the way objects appear to us by changing our own mind. Gradually we will gain the ability to control our mind and in this way solve all our problems.

Geshe Kelsang explains in his Mahamudra teachings how subject minds and object things arise simultaneously from the root mind like waves. Whatever we are experiencing or thinking about in any given moment, we cannot separate our thoughts out from their objects. Everything that appears to us entirely depends on the quality of our consciousness, or our thoughts. So, if we have a thought of irritation or anger, we have an object of irritation or anger. If we change that irritation into love, we have an object of love.

As we may know from Buddha’s wisdom teachings, everything is dreamlike. What appears to our mind depends entirely upon the mind itself. This is why Dharma works. Pure and simple – this is why it works. Change our mind, change our world. Literally. Not just tweak our world, not just make incremental changes, but change it. Transform it from the inside out.

Common experience

If we gain some experience of this peace and transformation, we have something to give, do we not? If we understand how our own thoughts operate, we can understand the same for others; and, feeling this common experience, are now more able to be there for them. We can help others, eg, give them some badly-needed encouragement or advice, because we’ve done it ourselves. Dharma is a win win. We help ourselves, we help the people we love, we help everybody.

Over to you. Do you have any examples or anything else to add?

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