Courage for our changing times

temple at Manjushri

Within patient acceptance — now that we have given ourselves the space to see what is happening in our minds – we can then do something productive, such as stopping inappropriate attention and applying the opponents to delusions. A real hero or heroine is someone who does this, who courageously faces the actual enemies, not blaming it all on everybody else.

If we train in patient acceptance all the time, it will become second nature. Then our mind will be as strong as a blacksmith’s anvil – no matter how hard it is hit, we stay totally fine. Syrian refugees 2Courageous, even.

Migrating to new lands

I was watching a documentary called Exodus last night on the good old BBC iPlayer in the soggy green Lake District  – feeling contrastingly warm and cosy in my borrowed caravan. For I was watching refugees and their families leaving their entire lives in Syria and Afghanistan to escape the hellish civil war or the impossible Taliban and endeavor to start over in the West. This for me was an eye opener — not just because I wanted them to come live with me in this gorge in little England, but because I was so uplifted by the patience they showed. They kept encouraging each other, “Be patient!”, “Don’t worry!”, even as their overcrowded dinghy was sinking. One 11-year-old girl, Isra’a, was always touchingly, resiliently cheerful, except once when, finally overwhelmed by it all, she quietly cried. And it was heartbreaking.

Syrian refugeesHer mother also demonstrated to me how relative worldly pleasure is – she had lost everything in Aleppo, their house bombed to smithereens, and was facing a totally unknown future at the mercy of strangers. Yet, as they trudged mile after mile along an uncertain road in the pouring rain, she threw her arms in the air and declared triumphantly: “I feel so free!”

The refugees filmed on these hidden camera phones gave each other a lot of affection – not just their families but total strangers, such as the other refugees, perhaps because they recognized that they were (literally) in the same boat.

As are we all, really, when it comes right down to it. We are all migrators in the great ocean of samsara, just sometimes it is more obvious. I hope that by the time it happens to me I will have prepared deep reserves of patience and love, and that I meet with a kind welcome in those strange new lands.

Who wants world peace?!

Patience is essential all the time, and perhaps we all need to watch our minds more keenly than ever at the moment, when fear and its partner-in-crime, anger, threaten to hold sway and bring out the worst in all of us. Nowadays it seems to me that a lot of people aren’t even attempting to lip synch about harmony, tolerance, and peace – instead spouting racism, hatred, and intolerance is seen as increasingly acceptable. Are we desensitizing? Are all the adults leaving the room?! The lowest common denominator in the rise of all these behaviors = self-cherishing, me me me, what about me. Buddha called those with self-cherishing “childish” – I just hope we don’t end up in Lord of the Flies. Pokemon Go

Ah well, there is always Pokemon Go …

Seeing clearly

So, a bit more on patience and how we can cultivate it. Here might be a good place to point out that patient acceptance is for unhappy thoughts once they have already risen; it is not the same as indulging in inappropriate attention. We are not building up these thoughts, but getting them into perspective within the space of acceptance and seeing clearly where they are coming from. As my teacher (himself once a refugee who came to England) puts it:

Patience allows us to see clearly the mental habit patterns that keep us locked in samsara, and thereby enables us to begin to undo them. ~ How to Solve our Human Problems 

In this way we are removing their power over us rather than suppressing them; and we can then genuinely change the subject.

temple at Manjushri

For why I am really in the Lake District, click on image.

The idea in Buddhism is to oppose every delusion with its opposite, positive state of mind – eg, oppose hatred with love, or attachment with contentment. However, once, for example, strong dislike has already arisen toward someone, we need to accept that it is there and let the worst of it subside first so we experience some peace. Otherwise opposing it by thinking grimly and agitatedly, “No, no, I love this person!” (when in fact at that moment we really don’t) can be like trying to overlay one thought with another thought. We can end up with layers of conceptuality not freeing us but trapping us in suppression or over-elaboration.

Mental dead-end streets

If we notice ourselves just beginning to get agitated or deluded, remembering for example how someone cheated on us, it is a very good idea to change the subject before we get stuck in — just not go there. Avoid the inappropriate attention, as explained here. Trust the natural peace of the mind and don’t shake it. Stay confident and in control.

dead end streetI find people always reply “Yes!” if I ask them “Do your ever find your thoughts just boring?” We can think whatever we want, including such interesting things, but instead we keep putting on the same old cracked record. We have thought all these boring thoughts already, umpteen times — there is nothing to add to them except further elaboration or speculation.

A lot of our thoughts are like mental dead-end streets – we know we will end up discouraged and de-energized if we go any further down that road only to have to come all the way back up it again. So if we get in early enough — just as the inappropriate attention is about to land us down a cul de sac — we can decide not to follow it.

 Shift into neutral first

However  …. if the mind is already shaken because the inappropriate attention is already strong, I think we need to allow some settling time; and this is tied in with all this advice to practice acceptance.

rainbow clothAs Geshe Kelsang points out, for example, (when explaining how breathing meditation clears the mind), dark cloth needs to be bleached before it can be dyed our favorite colors. In the same way, we need to let a negative thought dissolve back into the natural peace of our mind before we dye our mind with our favorite thoughts.

Another example is driving a stick shift car – if we are in reverse gear we have to shift into neutral before we can move into forward gear. Likewise if our mind is feeling hideous we generally have to allow it to shift into some peacefulness before moving it into a fabulous mood.

Over to you. Do you agree that we need courageous acceptance if we are to survive?!

 

I choose everything

surreal

I’m on a roll with this monsters in the basement theme, so bear with me for one more article.

surrealOur delusions project problems “out there”, in all the directions they face. Work problems, relationship problems, political problems, weather problems, sickness problems, etc. … karma ripening as a myriad of hallucinations. Impure energy winds flow through the left and right channels giving rise to strange appearances and states of mind. Whichever way we want to look at it, stuff happens, and it doesn’t matter; it is weather that will pass.

Appearances can only make us feel bad if we give them permission to do so — if we don’t accept them without a struggle, and if we believe they are real or that they are us.

As explained in the mind-training teachings, we can use whatever appearance arises to remind us of renunciation, compassion, wisdom, and so on — essential qualities on the spiritual path to lasting freedom and helping everyone. If we get good at this through practice, there comes a time when we even think, “I need this!” when a suffering arises. At which point it is hard to say that it is a suffering any more.

We might even get to the point where our patience is so strong that we are happy with whatever arises. We might even think, “I choose this! I choose everything.” What a wonderful feeling to no longer be a victim, but to be in charge of our own life at last.

Out in the open

When a ghost next comes up the basement stairs, it is out in the open. We can think, “It is good that you have come up here, I can see you! You are out here in the sitting room where it is easy to accommodate you – in fact, please meet my friends Love and Patience, as well as all these enlightened beings; everyone is here!”break out of prison

In this context, delusions coming up can be so useful, reminding us what we need to do, as well as what everyone else is up against. Each time we work though our own stuff and come out triumphant, we become more skilled at helping others – “This is how I got rid of my jealousy, you can try it too.” It’s a bit like getting the demons out of our own cellar and then showing the neighbors how to do the same. We can all help each other for we are not each other’s enemies but in this together.

What if I don’t want to get over it?

I have come across people who are grieving who don’t WANT to get over it because it feels traitorous to the loved one and their memories. Or sometimes we don’t want to get over broken relationships because that means acknowledging that we are failures, or that the whole thing was a waste of time.

But letting go is never traitorous – love is the answer, we can still love them. Love is also the best healer.

moving onAnd we are not failures as relationships inevitably break up sooner or later, that is the nature of samsara. Also, there is no relationship from which we cannot learn something if we want to, meaning that it was not a total waste of time.

Even realizing that the attachment part was a bit of a waste of time is very helpful for avoiding it in the future, and for encouraging us to learn Buddha’s skillful methods for enjoying the honey while avoiding the razor!

Moving on and accepting the present means we can establish a saner and more positive relationship with that person, even if we never see them again in that form. The freedom to respond constructively comes from the acceptance of what is, not holding onto what is not and cannot be. With gratitude for what is making us stronger and wiser; with love and compassion; with pure view. After all, they don’t exist from their own side, so we have the freedom to view them however we choose.

Got meditation?

inner peace 1.jpgTo deal with our demons, we need to meditate. We don’t have much power to identify, reduce, and abandon our delusions without sitting down to meditate regularly. We need some introspection. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Unless we make some time every day to meditate, we shall find it very difficult to maintain peaceful and positive minds in our daily life, and our spiritual practice as a whole will suffer. ~ Transform Your Life

We need time out. We need, and can have, a daily vacation to get space and balance. Even the simplest breathing meditation can put us in touch with the natural peace and sanity of our own mind.

According to Buddhism, if we are so busy that we have no time to change our minds, we are wasting our time in laziness. It is a bit like being too busy to stop being too busy. Or like attempting to cut down a tree relentlessly for days with a blunt axe, when taking 15 minutes out to sharpen the axe would do the job so much more quickly and painlessly.

As Geshe-la says:

We need time alone to recover our strength, collect our thoughts, and see things in perspective.

Worldly activities are said to be like a man’s beard – though he shaves it off in the morning, it is back by the evening. Spending our whole lives trying to fix our problems outside our mind is exhausting and counter-productive. No wonder men in Denver don’t bother shaving any more.

Over to you, comments welcome.

 

Are you busy?

busy 3

“How are you?” I just asked someone. And she answered with a pained expression, “Busy!!!” “What are you up to?” I continued, and she replied that she had loads on at work and was also trying to organize her wedding, which was stressing her out. “I am too attached to the perfect wedding,” she said.

So often these days people reply, “I’m so busy!”. “Busy” seems to be the new “fine”. How often do you hear yourself saying things like this about your life: “hectic,” “whirlwind,” “consumed,” “crazy,” “it’s hard to keep up with it all,” “on the run,” “way too fast”? because apparently those words and expressions are on the rise. People are saying we have an epidemic of busy-ness in modern society.

busy 2

Four-armed …. ?!

But is it the case that we have so much more to do than in previous generations, or do we simply FEEL crazy busy because we cannot focus on one thing at a time, everything bleeds into everything else, and we cannot control our busy thoughts? Concentration and mindfulness actually make us feel peaceful, as if we have all the time in the world. So I wonder if we are in a concentration and mindfulness deficit rather than a deficit of time. I spoke to that friend again an hour later, after she’d done a meditation class, and she was smiling and chilled, thoughts of weddings and work pressures no longer overwhelming her.

Time for meditation 

Before we get started on the subject, let’s pause to relax, settle, and rest the mind by doing a short meditation to control our crazy mind and let go of the feelings of busyness.

We can first settle into a good posture with a straight back, etc, and focus on how we’re sitting, forget about everything else.

We feel we drop from our thinky head into the spaciousness of our root mind at our heart, where already some of our scattered thoughts dissolve away into space, like clouds into a vast, clear sky.

We can let go of all the tension in our body, like dropping heavy luggage, and let every muscle soften. Our body melts into light, we could pass our hand through it without obstruction, and it becomes as weightless as air. We can enjoy this deep physical relaxation for a little while.

lotus 2Then we can think that everything outside our body melts into light in all directions and disappears. This light then gathers towards us, leaving behind only empty space, like a mist lifting, until only our hollow body remains.

We can also think that everything up to this moment in time melts into light and disappears. It vanishes like last night’s dream. The past doesn’t exist anyway, it is being erased by the moment.

And everything after this moment also disappears – the future doesn’t exist either.

In this way we feel fully alive and alert in the present moment, the here and the now.

(As most of our feelings of busy-ness and being overwhelmed involve clinging to a past or worrying about a future, this simple contemplation alone can do wonders to help us relax and let go.)

And then we can, if we like, do some breathing meditation to let go of all remaining distractions and problems. We can think that these gather at the level of our heart in the form of thick heavy smoke, and then we let them go by breathing them out – they are just thoughts and we don’t need to keep thinking them. We feel our mind becoming lighter and purer with every out-breath.

We can think that our in-breath is the aspect of light, the most beautiful light you can imagine, and the nature of peace, and we ride this light deep into our heart, where it joins the inner light of our Buddha nature.

Finally, we can spend a few minutes identifying with this peace at our heart, enjoying it. We recognize it as the peaceful nature of our own mind and our potential for lasting peace and freedom. This is me! All that crazy busyness and worry is not.

As we arise from our meditation, we take this space into our busy daily lives so that it remains in the background of what we do. We can dip into it anytime, come into the present moment by simply sitting with and enjoying the peace of our own mind.

Busy is as busy does

(Actually I have no idea what that expression means …) Anyway, one definition of busy according to dictionary.com isbusy 3 “full of or characterized by activity”. So, there is nothing wrong with being busy per se (providing we are busy doing helpful things!) – but there is a problem if our busy-ness is consuming us and stressing us out, if we are feeling scattered, fragmented, or exhausted. However much we have to do, we want to be able to do it within a feeling of space and perspective.

Apparently people brag about being busy these days, as if it shows what a full life they are leading. Even dictionary.com says the antonym of busy is “indolent” or “unoccupied” and who wants to be that?! But being fully occupied doesn’t make us more glamorous. Being available 24/7 doesn’t make us the ideal worker. These are not marks of worth or social standing. We may think that having a huge amount of things to do makes us important or productive, but “There is more to life than its speed”, as Gandhi said, and if we are busy doing a lot of pointless things there is not much to feel proud about.

Laziness, according to Buddhism, can be slothful or indolent getting nowhere, but it can also be running around doing meaningless activities getting nowhere. Plus, over-busy 6extending ourselves doesn’t actually make us happy, just stressed out, so, given that happiness is what we really want, how successful is that? Our actual life can get lost in the flotsam and jetsam of our to-do lists, none of which will mean a thing when we are dying, or even, frankly, before that eg, when we retire, or next year. Our most precious non-renewable resource is time – we need to use it in the most meaningful way possible — and meaningful and busy are not synonyms.

The other day I had to do something new technologically at work and I wasn’t sure if I knew how to. In fact I knew I didn’t know how to. But I felt a little under pressure so I started thinking about it way ahead of the time I had my meeting scheduled with co-workers, and my thoughts ran away with themselves, “This is way too tricky! And I’m supposed to be able to sort this out but I can’t! My boss’ll think I’m incompetent. I’ll be fired! But I need the money!” Etc. So I felt under pressure, busy, not enough time, and then we had the meeting and it was all fine and we figured it out and even had a laugh while doing it. So what was all that inappropriate attention, or worry, for?!

I think we do this a lot in our society, wasting time worrying unnecessarily about ourselves and what we need to do, so we feel far busier than we actually are. We have all of tomorrow to do what needs to be done tomorrow – why worry about it today? We need a method to shut down the tape that runs in our minds about all that needs to be done that day, that week, that year.

More coming soon … it is already written, but I know you guys are way too busy to read it all in one sitting 😉

Be here now

photo 3

photo 4 (2)Mindfulness is about the present moment, being in touch with it, not forgetting it. Presence of mind. All of Buddha’s teachings, or Dharma, help us stay in touch with the present moment. For example, with love we focus on people who are here and now, wishing them to be happy, even if they are in another country, or even deceased (they are still somewhere). With patience we wholeheartedly accept what is happening in the here and now without thinking it should be otherwise. With wisdom we appreciate the moment by moment unfurling of mere appearance, which is arising, due to karma, like waves from our root mind.

Be here now, or we are quite capable of missing out on our entire life. As John Lennon put it:

Life is what happens while we are busy making other plans.

Where else can we be other than here? What time can we be other than now?

photo 3

I’m lucky enough to be living near the Denver Botanical Gardens, and right now they are exquisite with late summer blooming and the Chihuly exhibition.* The other day I was sitting on a bench contemplating — loving just being there absorbed in the scene. A power couple marched past fast, hand in hand, furrowed brows, looking straight ahead, in earnest conversation about some plans for the future. They did not seem present, they seemed to be missing all the beauty and stillness and space around them; and it made me think that I also am often not as present as I would like, even when supposedly relaxing and enjoying myself, let alone when busy at work.

Without mindfulness we are distracted, which basically means we are remembering something else other than what is happening right here and right now. Another way to understand distraction is all those thoughts we don’t want to think but can’t help thinking because our mind is out of control.

Breathing meditation, focusing single-pointedly on the breath, is the way to let go of distractions. Through this, we automatically become more centered, peaceful, present, focused, and clear, and then we can transform our mind from there. Otherwise, just trying to think good thoughts on top of the dubious thoughts we already have can be just adding one layer of conceptuality on top of another.

I explain here Geshe Kelsang’s very helpful basic meditation on the breath. I just wanted to add a few more observations. photo 4

Background noise

We remember that in the context of this meditation anything other than the breath is a distraction. Distractions and stray thoughts will continue to float around for a while, until we have constant mindfulness, which is quite a high level of concentration (the fourth of the nine stages leading to tranquil abiding – you can read more in Joyful Path.)  However, we don’t have to pay them attention, any more than we have to listen to the cacophony in a crowded room when we are focusing with interest on the person talking to us.

When we hit the sweet spot of concentration on the breath, and settle there, it’s a bit like tuning in the radio to our favorite song and dispensing with the static. We don’t want to spend ages tuning that radio knob, we want to get right to it; and nor would we want to spend ages settling into the breath if we know how enjoyable it’s going to be.

photo 2

No negotiation, just single-pointed focus

We don’t negotiate with our distractions – as soon as we engage them in any way, eg, “I’ll just think you through and then you’ll go away and leave me alone”, they’ve won. Some of these stray thoughts might feel like genius, “Hey, I’ve got to remember this, what an insight!”, but, as a teacher once told me, “It is a disaster to have a notepad by your meditation seat.” We are trying to control our minds through breathing meditation, and for that we have to stay on the breath. We need presence of mind. We can set up the will power to do this from the outset by remembering what we’re trying to accomplish with breathing meditation. Then there is great hope that when the witty riposte to that annoying co-worker suddenly comes to us, we don’t indulge it.

In the Summer Festival, Gen-la Dekyong said we don’t need any fancy tricks to overcome distractions, we just need the will power, just as when we are driving. I thought this was brilliant, so simple and obvious (once it’s pointed out!) While we are driving, we want to be mindful – so we don’t have to negotiate with ourselves moment by moment, “Shall I focus on the road or shall I text my friend?” When we know what’s at stake, we naturally concentrate on what we’re doing.

No rush

It’s best to feel like we have plenty of time when we meditate. Even if we only have ten minutes before work, we can feel that we have all the time in the world, and that there is no place else to be. Everything else can wait ten minutes. Don’t meditate in a rush.

photo 5 (2)We need meditation

If someone told you to focus on your arm for five minutes without thinking about anything else, you might think, “That’s easy, I can do that!” Well, just try it.

As a child, Einstein had a club. To join it, you had to sit in the corner for an hour and not think about a white bear. As he put it himself, “There is no one in this club, not even me.”

These kinds of examples show that we have far less control over our mind than we think! This is why we need to start meditating asap.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

*I only really mentioned the botanical gardens as an excuse to scatter my Chihuly photos throughout this article.

 

How is your meditation going?

kadampa Buddha under Bodhi Tree

Kadampa BuddhaMeditation is the way to access our own pure potential for mental freedom and happiness, gain deep experience of Buddha’s teachings, and really change for the better.

My tradition, the New Kadampa Tradition, is a meditator’s tradition – every sentence we hear in the teachings is intended to be an object of meditation, to be taken into the heart so that it becomes part of us. This Buddhist tradition stems from Buddha Shakyamuni, who clearly was the master of meditation. Later Je Tsongkhapa mastered all Buddha’s teachings of Sutra and Tantra, spent many years in meditation retreat, and taught immensely practical, experiential, and profound methods for gaining all the realizations of Lamrim, Lojong, and the union of bliss and emptiness (Mahamudra) revealed by Buddha. As a result of this, many of his disciples gained enlightenment in 3 years and 3 months.Je Tsongkhapa

The founder of the New Kadampa Tradition, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, has also spent about half of his life in meditation retreat on these same methods, much of it solitary, and has been meditating since he was a child. Many of Geshe Kelsang’s disciples are very proficient meditators too. We have no shortage of powerful examples showing how far meditation can take us.

Sometimes this tradition can be a bit talky – we talk a lot about the teachings but may not get round to meditating on them as much as perhaps we could. And over the years I have heard a number of people say that they find meditation hard and that they are not making as much progress in meditation as they’d like. They love the teachings, but find they can’t make them stick, and are sometimes discouraged to find they not really changing much. Some people even give up altogether.

Geshe-la meditating on a rock

I have thought about this quite a lot because I believe that we can make meditation harder than it needs to be even though, thanks to Buddha, Je Tsongkhapa, Geshe Kelsang, and their students, we, unbelievably, have access to the same liberating methods. I have always loved meditating, and I have already written a few things that I thought might be helpful here based on what I like to do (see end of article). But the other day in England, an old friend dating back to the early years of the NKT came to visit me. She told me that in the last couple of years her meditations had improved exponentially, and we discussed why. She volunteered all the things she had been doing “wrong” over the years and, with her permission, I thought I’d share this with you.

How not to meditate

(1)    Start by feeling inadequate, insecure, limited, perhaps even depressed, and think: “I really should meditate because I am so inadequate, insecure, limited, perhaps even depressed.” ie, identify with being a limited person from the outset, rather than identifying with your pure potential.

(2)    Do a few minutes half-hearted breathing meditation to try and settle the mind and get rid of at least a few of those strong distractions and delusions, but know really that it is a hopeless cause to try and get rid of all of them because, after all, I can’t meditate.

(3)    Perhaps do some prayers if we haven’t already done them distractedly at the beginning of the session – find it hard to stay focused on them as we’re not really in the zone, and thinking it doesn’t really matter as at least we’ll be creating some good karma.

(4)    Follow the guidelines for meditation – intellectually follow and repeat lines of reasoning that should lead us to our desired object, which is something we are not feeling at all at the moment; and, if we don’t get to our object, make it up. When the object fades, talk to ourselves some more. (Perhaps spend most of the meditation talking to ourselves and practically none of it absorbed.)

(5)    Push for blessings. I am inadequate etc and can’t meditate, but bless me anyway to get this object.

(6)    Feel slightly exhausted and make yourself a cup of coffee. Try and be good all day, but not from a natural place of deep inner peace and connectedness but because you know you’re supposed to be.

(7)    Result = no taste. Guilt. No fun. No progress. Commiserate with others experiencing the same thing. “I really can’t meditate!” “Don’t worry, nor can I!” Eventually stop trying at all.

Some solutions

My friend was not alone – she told me she found many people with whom to commiserate! Kadam Morten helped a lot of them when he led meditations in the new year at Manjushri Centre. As he and I have a long connection and practice in a very similar way, I thought I’d share some of these solutions. (Then please feel free to add your own ideas in the comments.) 

(1)    Tune in to what you have

Bear in car cute

Bear, recently died.

Relax into your meditation posture and then start where you are, allowing yourself to just sit there feeling positive and happy for a few minutes. Connect to any of the positive feelings you already have inside you, such as love for a cherished niece, compassion for a suffering animal you saw online, or a happy feeling you had when you understood that everything was dream-like. Enjoy that for a while. Don’t identify as a limited person and then take this into your meditation, “I am a terrible meditator, but here I am about to try and meditate”; this is self-defeating. Your good feeling is part of your Buddha nature, your endless capacity for kindness and improvement; you are going to meditate with this mind.

(2)    Settle the mind effectively

Start with one of the methods for overcoming distraction (see below), but to make this effective, recognize from the outset that you are just getting back to who and what you actually are. Your mind is naturally at rest and concentrated. Below your chattering thoughts, it is spontaneously pure, spacious, warm-hearted, vast, even blissful. But we don’t appreciate this. We are addicted to movement, skitting around on the surface of our minds with our constant inner chatter, babble, and anxieties, forgetting, if we ever knew it, who we really are and of what we are capable.

We are like droplets of water constantly thrown up on a vast, deep, boundless ocean, glinting and glittering and sometimes dancing around, but with no idea that they are water. We are so busy focusing outward that we forget or neglect the wellspring of happiness we already have inside. We have to remember this, our Buddha nature, if we are to allow ourselves to go deep and make progress. As Geshe Kelsang says in the chapter What is Meditation?:clear lake

“When the turbulence of distracting thoughts subsides and our mind becomes still, a deep happiness and contentment naturally arises from within…. We shall experience a calm, spacious feeling in the mind, and many of our usual problems will fall away. Difficult situations will become easier to deal with, we will naturally feel warm and well-disposed toward other people, and our relationships with others will gradually improve.” ~ Introduction to Buddhism

Notice the expressions “naturally” and “fall away” – there is no pushing here, you are just allowing those droplets of water to dissolve back into the profound stillness and clarity of your own root mind.

There are various methods to settle the mind, such as the different types of breathing meditation, for example focusing on the sensation of the breath at the nostrils, breathing smoke-like problems out and light-like blessings in, taking and giving, or OM AH HUM; as well as clarity of mind meditation, turning the mind to wood (see Mahamudra Tantra), and transforming enjoyments. We can all experience relative peace of mind by just focusing on the breath for a few minutes and letting the mind come to rest — then we pay attention to this experience. This is your own inner peace, you don’t need to add anything.

(3)    Identify with who you are, not who your ignorance says you are

Identify with this peace and spaciousness at your heart, thinking:

“This is who I actually am. Any peace I have, however slight, is my potential for lasting peace and happiness.”

Buddha smileIt is the peaceful, happy mind we liberate, not the agitated mind. Our inner peace is our Buddha nature or Buddha seed. Give yourself permission to experience this inner peace. Then enjoy this mind and deepen the experience. (You don’t need to grasp at the experience of inner peace and get tense, or you’ll lose it. Just sit back and relax.)

The inadequate, insecure, limited, perhaps even depressed you is not in fact you. This self is part of samsara, and is created by your ignorance. This self is just a thought, an hallucination, an idea – and a bad idea at that, so let it go. Don’t believe it. This is not the self that is going to become enlightened. Relate to yourself as inner peace and endless potential. Don’t relate to a limited self; you are limitless. You are not intrinsically a loser at meditation or anything else. Remember the lack of intrinsic characteristics, understanding that the only limitations you have are the ones you are creating.

(4)    Tune in to enlightened reality, blessings

Our peace and happiness are actually related to enlightened reality, its very seeds; and we naturally open ourselves to blessings if we understand this. Once you have realized your full potential you’ll become a Buddha, just like the Buddhas whom we can remember in front of us, around us, and/or inside us. Faith in the Buddhas necessitates faith in our own enlightened potential.

Also, others have this same potential and I want to help them realize it – you can remember that you are surrounded by living beings, those you’re already feeling connected to next to you, and tune into love and compassion.

As we’re in the presence of enlightened beings, we can think we are already in their vast, blissful, pure land, filled with offerings that we’re all enjoying. (This is included explicitly in the first 2 verses in Essence of Good Fortune, “May the whole ground become completely pure” and “May all of space be filled with offerings”.) If you do this, you’ll probably then have fun doing the prayers either verbally or mentally, and find it easy to focus on their meaning.

lotus reflectionIf you set your meditation up right, you will have no need to push for blessings because you’ll be receiving them naturally and can simply enjoy them. Your happy mind is a natural conduit for them. You can visualize them as lights and nectars if it’s helpful. Although Buddhas are blessing everyone all the time to bring them any measure of inner peace (it’s Buddha’s function), you can’t receive so-called “special” blessings to grow the seeds of your realizations if you’re holding tightly onto a limited sense of who you are and therefore feeling separate from them and miserable – trying vainly to feel the sun without opening up the shutters.

At any point in the meditation, right at the beginning even, as soon as it feels right and you’re ready, dissolve Guru Buddha into your heart, let your mind mix with his like a stream flowing into a vast, blissful ocean; and he can do the meditation with you.

(5)    Make it your own idea through contemplation and meditation

Feel you already have the object of meditation for a few moments, eg, “I think others are important and their happiness matters.” Pause to feel that. “Now I need to make this insight stronger and more stable.” We already have the seeds  for every single realization needed for enlightenment; through contemplation and meditation we are now watering these to grow them, not adding them from elsewhere to our mind.

Contemplate skillfully by asking yourself questions to make the meditations relevant to your own background, “Is this true for me? What examples do I have of this? Is today’s body really a result of others’ kindness?”, for example. Tune into your own experiences and build on those. Be creative in your meditations, use examples and analogies that move you. The idea is to make this your own idea, not just a good idea that someone else has had. Don’t dryly repeat things to yourself.

Although we know all our meditation objects through conceptual thought to begin with, this doesn’t mean that we have to over-think things or be exaggeratedly intellectual. When you want to protect your beloved dog, you are knowing him through a generic image; but that is not any kind of obstacle nor a dry intellectual thought — you still know him and love him viscerally, in your heart.

mirageA lot of our meditation objects are hidden in that they depend upon reasoning for us to discover them. So, let’s say you are meditating on emptiness, contemplating that all the things we normally perceive do not exist because they are analytically unfindable and whatever cannot be found cannot exist from its own side (and, if you like, throw in an example, like a mirage). We do gain our initial realizations of emptiness through correct beliefs and inferences, through such conceptual reasonings as this, but we still do realize our object and it does appear to us, and we need to stop thinking around it and just absorb into it.

For example, fire is a hidden object that we can know through the existence of smoke because we have reasoned correctly that wherever there is smoke there is fire. But let’s say you see smoke and know there is fire. Are you earnestly repeating to yourself: “Wherever there is smoke, there is fire; here there is smoke, therefore there is fire. Wherever there is smoke, there is fire; here there is smoke, therefore there is fire etc.”? No. You just know fire. You can stay with that knowledge; stop reminding yourself about how you came to know it. Also, its consequences are implicit, eg, you need to run get a hose! But in the case of emptiness, we don’t need at this point to run do anything, we can just sit with it and its extraordinary implications will sink in without the need for further analysis.

It is similar with all our meditations – as Geshe Kelsang says, for example, we start off by using the rounds of reasoning for realizing that death is definite and its time is uncertain, and we conclude: “I may die today, I may die today”, but then we concentrate on the feeling that it evokes. We stop repeating the reasoning and the words to ourselves and, like an eagle flying with barely a movement of its wings, we stay with the object in a spacious environment, identifying with it, enjoying it. Feel like you’re home. You’ve just arrived in your holiday cottage by the sea and can sit back and put your feet up. (And you’re not alone – the enlightened beings are right there on holiday with you.)

Bear in mind that it’s easy to generate any Lamrim mind when we are connected to our happiness and our potential. It is actually impossible to generate any Lamrim mind when we are identified with the self that we normally perceive, in other words when we are identifying with our limitations. See this article for examples.

(6)    Take your happiness for a walk

Charlie BrownIn the meditation break, keep connecting to that peaceful mind and insight so that when you return to your meditation seat you can quickly get back to it as there has been no real gap. Morten uses the analogy of walking a dog – take your happiness for a walk with you, remembering your happiness in and out of meditation. “Enjoy your mind”, he says, keep bringing the mind back to peace. Familiarize your mind with this source of happiness, then you’ll become a happy person. Don’t stamp on the small seedlings of peace/good experiences like a bad gardener stamping on tiny shoots of plants by identifying yourself with any delusions that arise. Protect your small seedlings of peace and happiness, go for refuge in them as your Dharma Jewel, and they will grow naturally.  As the Kadampa motto goes:

“Always rely upon a happy mind alone.”

If you understand that your happiness is your inner peace and you identify where it is and connect to it, and then you combine this knowledge with your constant, spontaneous wish to be happy, you will naturally go for refuge in your own inner peace both in and out of meditation.

I hope this helps. If we become good meditators, we can help others become good meditators too, and what a gift that will be.

Your turn: please share your own methods for being a happy, successful meditator. Or if you have any questions or doubts you want to clear up, please spell them out too.

Related articles

Want quicker results from your meditation? Start where you are. 

Meditation in the pursuit of happiness

How to avoid stress and burn out at work

Do you ever feel discouraged?  

What are blessings? 

Breathe out problems, breathe in love

giving meditation

The other day someone asked me: “I know we’re supposed to put others first – but I was taught that in the Girl Guides and its always just made me feel like a doormat.”Buddhism is not about being a doormat

Interestingly, someone else in a separate conversation on the same day also told me that they’d been taught that in the Girl Guides, but their take was different, they felt it was a Buddhist teaching for them in disguise, and they really liked it

What is the difference? The answer is what is going on in the mind. Putting others first has to come not from a sense of onerous, self-sacrificing duty but from a genuine cherishing of others, feeling that their happiness is important, even more important than our own. If we genuinely feel that way, we will naturally and happily want to put them first, there’ll be no self-flagellation involved. But that does not mean that our happiness becomes entirely unimportant. Happiness is our nature, our Buddha nature. It is not wrong to desire it. What is wrong, insofar as it doesn’t work, is seeking it outside when it is inside, and thinking that our happiness is more important than anyone else’s when it’s not.

Actually we need to learn to enjoy our own company a great deal, and it is no fun hanging out with a doormat! We have to like and respect ourselves, which means we have to have something good to like and respect about ourselves = and generally this is our positive and happy qualities, all of which come one way or another from cherishing others. Cherishing others is a win win for us and for others.

we are not the center of the universeThe great Indian Buddhist Shantideva famously said that all suffering in this world comes from self-cherishing and all happiness in this world comes from cherishing others. All of it. I’m not sure there is even an exception to this rule. What Shantideva says makes sense because self-cherishing is a delusion, an unrealistic mind – who else but your own self-cherishing attitude thinks you are the most important person in the world?! (Asked what he felt about death recently, an Australian comedian joked half-seriously that his main fear was who was going to take his place in the center of the universe.) Not even your own mum agrees with this assessment of your own importance, except maybe sometimes, and certainly none of the other 7 billion humans on the planet does — and don’t even think about all the animals who have no clue who you are and don’t care. When we are thinking and acting while taken in by an hallucination, it is no surprise when things don’t work out. Cherishing others, on the other hand, is entirely realistic because it understands that others actually are important, both to themselves and also to us. Others also think they are the only real ME, and we depend on them for everything.

Test the teachings like gold

We don’t need to take Shantideva’s word for it though. In fact we should never take even Buddha’s word for anything, he said so himself – advising people to test everything he said as they’d assay gold to see if it was genuine. We test what we hear and read about Buddhism in the laboratory of our own mind, reasoning, and life experiences in order to come to our own conclusions and decisions, our own good ideas. However much we admire or trust someone, just taking on what they say without thinking it through and making it our own idea has limited benefit, for sooner or later we’ll fall back on our own habitual thoughts and behaviors again. That’s one reason why I think in Buddhism we talk about listening, contemplating, and meditating – we don’t just stop at listening.test Buddha's teachings like gold

So, in this instance, we can look at our own lives to see whether self-cherishing causes us problems or not, and whether cherishing others causes us happiness or not. A simple experiment to get us started is to think of a problem we’ve had recently, such as today. Any problem will do.

Okay, I’ll go first. I work as a project manager for a medical journal and sometimes one doctor or another can be a bit big for their boots. One was complaining about the imposition of only being paid $1,500 for a few hours’ work, and I found myself wondering briefly what planet he lived on. I was a little miffed at his rather rude and condescending email and felt discouraged for a few minutes. Then I got over it.

So, let’s analyze what was going on, and, specifically, who was I thinking of when I was feeling miffed…

Why, me, of course. “How dare he be so insensitive to ME!! Doesn’t he realize what my hourly rate of pay is?!” As my thoughts began to run away with themselves, I started to project this worry into the future as well… “Oh no, I have to work with this guy for a whole MONTH, what if I can’t do it …?”

Then, how did I get over it? By thinking about him and how he wants to be happy but, in this instance at least, doesn’t really know how to – if $1,500 for 3 hours work can’t make you happy, you may be relatively hard to satisfy. His own irritation was doubtless stressing him out. Plus, his dog probably loves him, he can’t be all bad. I genuinely wished him happiness and the problem magically disappeared.

Ok, your turn. Who were you thinking of while you were having your problem? ….

…. Now, if you imagine cherishing the other person or other people around you instead of yourself, what happens to your problem? ……

breathing out problemsDid the problem disappear? Poof…!

If it did, you can extrapolate that the same thing will happen to all your problems if you move away from the poky space of self to the vast space of others.

(This is not just the case for relatively small problems, such as having to work with an irritating client, but with seemingly insurmountable, existential ones. Loren Jay Shaw, for example, was in Super Max solitary confinement for 3 years, and it was cherishing ants that stopped him going quite literally insane.)

Combine your understanding with breathing meditation

Then, what you can do next, if you like, is think that this problem and all other problems caused by your self-cherishing appear in the form of dark clouds at the level of your heart, in the center of your chest. Think:

“I don’t need any of this – these thoughts are just bad habits, and they are not me.”

Then with this decision, breathe the dark clouds out through your nostrils so they disappear forever. Do that for a while, feeling your heart becoming lighter with every breath.

After a little while, imagine breathing in blissful, clear light – like the sky, only infinitely clearer. It enters your nostrils and descends to your heart, or heart chakra — your spiritual heart located in the center of your chest. It looks like light, but its nature is love, cherishing others. You can also think of it as all the love from throughout the universe, including that of all holy beings, blessings. With every breath, feel your heart become happier.

Than spend a few minutes combining the two, breathing out the last of the dark clouds and breathing in the blissful clear light.

Buddha peaceWe can identify with this peaceful, spacious feeling at our heart, thinking:

“This is my Buddha nature. This peace and love I am feeling, however slight, indicates my potential for limitless love. This is who I am.”

We are not the clouds of our delusions, we are the sky of our Buddha nature. We can hang out in this blissful clarity at our heart for as long as we like, feeling at home there, thinking “This is me.”

Then, for the extra icing on this meditation cake, we can think that everyone in the world has this same potential at their heart. How wonderful it would be if they could remove self-cherishing and its problems and identify with their pure love instead. Then we can dedicate all the good karma or good fortune we’ve created so that we and others quickly accomplish this.

Before we rise from meditation, we can think ahead briefly to how we are going to remember this love for the rest of the day. One excellent way is to use the Lojong (mind-training) motto with everyone we meet or think about:

“This person is important. Their happiness matters.”

Try a short meditation

man meditating on pier

Remember that new year’s resolution!? Here are two meditations you can practice at home. All you need is a comfortable chair or cushion and five to ten minutes’ free time.

Enjoy!

Meditation 1 – Finding a still point

Finding a still point in meditation – where busy mental activity subsides for a few moments – helps you to relieve stress and keep a clear head throughout the day.

  1. Sit comfortably with your back straight but relaxed.
  2. Close your eyes and become aware of your breath.
  3. Breathing normally, try to follow the inhalation and exhalation with your mind. Follow your breath, not your thoughts.
  4. Every time your mind is distracted by a thought, bring it back to the breath.
  5. Gradually you will feel the stress in your body and mind melt away and experience a deep, inner stillness and peace.
  6. Stay with this stillness for a while, giving yourself permission to enjoy it.
  7. Before you rise, mentally dedicate the merit from your meditation to the happiness of all.
  8. Throughout the day, try to remember the still point you reached in meditation and return to it as often as you can.

You can find our more about this meditation here.

Meditation 2 – Clearing the inner energies

Most of our problems come from our negative states of mind, which depend upon negative energy inside us. This meditation helps to eliminate negative energy and build up positive energy.

  1. Sit comfortably with your back straight but relaxed.
  2. Close your eyes and become aware of your breath.
  3. Breathing normally, try to follow the inhalation and exhalation.
  4. Follow your breath, not your thoughts. Every time your mind is distracted by a thought, bring it back to the breath.
  5. As you breathe out, imagine you exhale all your negative energy in the form of thick smoke, which completely disappears into space.
  6. As you breathe in, imagine you inhale blissful, positive energy in the form of clear light, which fills your entire body and mind.
  7. Continue in this way for a few minutes, then conclude by focusing on the clean, blissful feeling pervading your body and mind.
  8. Before you rise, mentally dedicate the good karma from your meditation to the happiness of all.
  9. Throughout the day, try to keep this clean, blissful feeling inside and make it the starting point for all your thoughts, words, and actions.

You can find out more about this meditation in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, pages 51-2.

If any of your family or friends have expressed interest in learning to meditate, please feel free to pass on this article, and/or this related article.

New Year’s resolution to meditate more?!

100

Did you happen to make a New Year’s resolution to meditate more?! If so, here is a little encouragement to hopefully help you keep to it.

Happy New Year Everyone!!

Over the past 35 years I’ve noticed that meditation classes in January are always packed because people have made the New Year’s resolution to learn to meditate, or to step up their existing practice. (January is also retreat season at Kadampa Buddhist centers around the world, the traditional time to focus on meditation practice.)  Meditation means familiarizing our mind with positivity, so we can do it anywhere all day long — I am talking here about so-called “meditation sessions”, where we sit down and close our eyes etc.

If you do want to devote some more time and energy to meditation, there are now quite a few tips and tricks on Kadampa Life to help keep you going — and with any luck even longer than January 😉 Sometime ago I talked about a simple breathing meditation taught by Geshe Kelsang, which anyone can learn to do. You can find a series of articles on meditation, including improving your mindfulness and concentration, here.

Off we go!

If you are new to meditation, to begin with it can feel quite difficult because your mind doesn’t seem to be following the instructions. Perhaps you have attended a meditation class where the teacher says, “Merge your mind with your breath”, in a really special meditator’s voice, and you think, “Well, that sounds nice and peaceful, I’m going to do that. And then afterwards I’m going to watch some TV. Oh, what about that thing I did earlier?” And we’re gone. We just go — our mind zooms off into the far reaches of the universe in an instant. It doesn’t really want to behave. In fact it sometimes seems perverse, intentionally insisting: “I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to meditate on the breath. I’m going to think about this boring old thing again instead.”

The more you practice, especially if you are sometimes able to practice together with others, the more you’ll find that you are beginning to really enjoy meditating. After a while, you’re going to really want to meditate, and before too long you’ll find you can’t do without meditating. To begin with it’s like, “Oh I meditated today!”, as if that’s a really special thing, but eventually it will become like, “I haven’t meditated today, no wonder I’m so wacky.” This is because we start developing our own sense of centering our awareness and experiencing inner peace. We see for ourselves the deep healing effect it has on our body and our mind, and as a result how much better our relationships are with others. Everything improves when we get a bit of control over our mind, when our mind starts to get a bit peaceful.

Why is meditation difficult to begin with?

But meditation is quite difficult to begin with. Which, when you think about it, is a bit puzzling. Why should meditation be difficult? Why should placing our mind upon our breath be difficult? Fixing our computer, that’s difficult. Fixing our car, that’s difficult. Twisting our body into some upside-downward dog yoga posture, that’s difficult. But keeping our mind on our breath, surely that should be simple?! That should be like child’s play. What could be a simpler instruction?

And our breath is already here, we don’t have to invent it, we already have the first step. When we meditate on more contemplative objects of meditation, like love or compassion, we first have to spend some time seeking in order to awaken those states of mind, and then we meditate on those. We mix our mind with those to gain a deep pervasive experience of love and compassion. But that’s quite subtle. We have to cultivate love, we have to cultivate compassion. But we don’t have to cultivate our breath. It is already there. All we need to do is put our mind on it and leave it there, like parking the car. I find parking the car to be really quite easy – I just park it and leave it. But try and do the same thing with our minds, and they don’t behave, do they?! Our mind doesn’t stay parked, it trundles away.

In fact, to begin with, the meditator’s main task is to keep bringing the mind back to the breath. Our main task is not so much staying on the breath but reminding ourselves, “Oh, yeah, I’m supposed to be meditating. I forgot.” And then we bring the mind back. We do this over and over again. (Luckily, this is training in mindfulness and concentration.)

Heel!

It is like training a dog. We rein the dog in. The dog goes trotting off. We rein him in again. “Heel!” The mind keeps trotting off. Why? Habit. It is just a question of (bad) habit. That is why meditation is difficult. Our untrained puppy-like mind is used to being undisciplined and, when we begin to meditate, there is a sense in which we are beginning to exercise discipline over the mind. We are beginning to direct the mind.

Meditating on the breath is the beginning of learning to direct our mind to gain some concentration and control, and then we can learn to direct our mind in directions that are positive. Our meditations on love, compassion and so on will take us where we want to go and fulfill all our wishes.

Everything in our life hinges upon the mind. What we see is that, as we begin to gain control over our mind, we begin to gain control over our life. If we can transform our mind from negative to positive, we can and will transform our life.

Talking of transforming our lives, if you are new to meditation and would like to find out more, here is a FANTASTIC FREE BOOK for you! Just click on this link: How to Transform Your Life ~ A Blissful Journey.

Learning to meditate, and gradually getting better and better at it, is a really blissful journey in fact, especially if you stick at it for longer than the first week of January!

If you want to join in a meditation retreat near you, or attend meditation classes, you can find out where your nearest center is through Kadampa.org.

Your turn: Let me know if you want to add something to this, or if you have any questions. And please share this article with family and friends who might be curious about learning to meditate.

Breathe your way to inner peace

Meditando na Montanha

This is the last installment of the how not to worry articles.

Breathing meditations can help enormously in instantly alleviating our worry, and anyone can do them if they have a mind to.

Simple breathing meditation

Worrying affects us physiologically, from shallower breathing and the inability to relax through to full blown panic attacks when we can hardly breathe. When the mind is calm, our breathing tends to be deeper, and vice versa. So one way to confront the problem is to follow our breath and calm ourselves down that way. Here is a simple five-minute breathing meditation you can try anytime, even now!

You’ll get three specific benefits from doing this breathing meditation:

(1) There is a close relationship between our mind and our breath. Our breath is related to our subtle inner energy winds (Skt. prana). We can understand this by remembering what happens when, for example, we are anxious and our breathing quickens, or when we are calm or concentrated (e.g. threading a needle) and it slows down. As we calm the breath in breathing meditation, our mind naturally calms down too.

(2) The breath is a neutral object, so meditating on it temporarily pacifies our worries because we forget about them. It is like putting our car into neutral. We can then move into forward gear by meditating on a positive object such as patience.

(3) Our mind can only hold one object at a time. If we focus single-pointedly on our breath, which is not too difficult an object to find, our worries will naturally diminish and disappear.

Taking and giving mounted upon the breath

As mentioned in the previous article on overcoming worry, we can also combine our breathing meditation with taking and giving, thereby increasing our love and compassion at the same time as reducing our worry and stress.

OM AH HUM breathing meditation

OM AH HUM

And we can also get two for the price of one if we combine breathing meditation with receiving blessings from the holy beings in the profound OM AH  HUM meditation based on Tantric principles that renowned Buddhist teacher Geshe Kelsang explains in The New Meditation Handbook. This meditation also cleanses our subtle inner energy winds (chi, prana), upon which all our minds are “mounted”. As a result, so-called “wisdom winds” flow and our mind naturally becomes peaceful and positive. You can find out what is behind this profound meditation and how to do it here.

And now some final thoughts on the subject of overcoming worry in no particular order…

Focus on your precious human life and death

Click on picture for blind turtle analogy

Instead of thinking inappropriate thoughts itemizing all the things that can go wrong, we can count our blessings and current opportunities. Victoria Kaya says: “Only through my practice of putting others first before myself do I find the antidote to my worry. Not always easy — however I believe that if I contemplate the suffering of others, and realise how bad things could be, I am grateful for every moment of this very short human life.”

And we can recall: “If I die today, where do I want to be tomorrow?” Ironically, perhaps, remembering impermanence totally reduces our mental stress and helps us to relax. We don’t sweat the small stuff because it just doesn’t seem important any more.

Jb Christy told us of her rather radical approach to remembering impermanence: “Skydiving worked for me. For 9 months after jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, I’d get in situations that normally would cause me to worry, and I’d start to get anxious, and then I’d think “Hey, there’s no planet rushing up to pulverize me,” and then whatever was making me anxious really didn’t bother me anymore. After a few months of that, I got out of the habit of worrying, and really don’t worry much at all anymore. But that might not work for everyone :)” (Ed: and you didn’t read it here!)

Overcome attachment

Why do we worry so much more about our own cat or child than other people’s? Yes, love is in the mix, but the worry is not coming from the love (or the compassion) but from the attachment. It’s worth thinking about? And I am, in some articles I’m writing on whether compassion is a sad or happy mind, with help from Facebook feedback…

Emptiness

Who is worrying?! Where are they? What are they worrying about? Shantideva says:

If there were a truly existent I,
It would make sense to be afraid of certain things;
But, since there is no truly existent I,
Who is there to be afraid?

This is my favorite approach. You can recall the emptiness of the three spheres – the person doing the worrying, the worrying mind, and the object of worry. As mentioned in this article, the sharper our worry, the sharper our sense of a limited self, the bigger our target, and the freer we are when we knock it down in our meditation on no self! Mirja Renner puts it like this: “I tend to look at how worry is just a thought, and how the self that thinks it couldn’t handle the situation (should it arise) doesn’t exist.” Victoria Kaya says: “Interesting, only the realization of the way things really are could eradicate worry from my mind because it is only due to grasping at externals that we worry.”

To conclude…

As mentioned in the first of these anti-worry articles, all the stages of the path (Lamrim) have the side-effect of overcoming worry! As Fiona Layton put it: “Seems like we need to keep practicing the Lamrim and all will become worry free!” These are just a few ways of getting started with some different ways of thinking. As our experience of overcoming delusions, increasing our compassion and wisdom etc grows, our worries grow fewer and fewer until one day we can’t even remember what it is like to be worried about a thing. That’s the truth. In the meantime, we can use our worry to look at our minds and go deeper into its solutions.

Got anything to share? Have we missed anything crucial? Please add your comments in the box below, and share these articles with anyone who might find them useful.

Clearing out the clutter from our mind

wide open road

Yesterday I met Steve, recently evicted from his mobile home and locked out from his possessions for no longer earning enough money from eBay to pay his rent. Living in his car for two weeks, he has just been rescued by my old friend Iben who lives next to him and who decided to buy his home for the princely price of $5000 (plus $40,000 for shares in the park). This means that Steve can get back into his house and retrieve his possessions and, his dignity somewhat restored, my friend is letting him take his time.

Steve’s house was musty and full of, dare I say it, junk. Junk to me, anyway. Not so much to him, though in a way it seems as if the penny is dropping and he’s got different eyes to see this stuff now that he is obliged to move on with only what can fit in a rented truck. He told me he is now a little embarrassed about all “this mess” and strangely relieved to be leaving most of it behind forever as he sets off on his road trip via Mexico, ending up in the mid-west (whereabouts and with whom is not so certain). He had drink on his breath, but he is a thoughtful man, who is well read in history and counts several globes amongst his possessions.

I find it intriguing how relieved he feels to be getting away again after 8 years of accumulating stuff – to leave all that behind and get on the road again. He is looking forward to it, even though he has no idea where the road will take him. For years before he was evicted he was hunkered down, and his neighbors say he was taciturn and surly.  Now he is friendly and talkative, optimistic. You can tell a cloud has lifted. He’ll probably shave off that long straggly yellow beard.

Buddhas in NY Temple for World Peace

Whenever we de-clutter our mind, I think we have a similar type of relief. We are encouraged to clean our meditation room before meditating to clear our mind and make our place welcoming for holy beings and sentient beings. As my teacher Geshe Kelsang says in Eight Steps to Happiness:

We know from our own experience that dirty and untidy surroundings tend to bring our mind down and drain our energy, whereas a clean and tidy environment uplifts our mind, making it clear and vibrant… Having physically cleaned our room, we should imagine that our environment transforms into the Pure Land of a Buddha.

And then we spring-clean our mind by letting go of thoughts, for example by doing a simple breathing meditation.

We live with the same stale thoughts day by day. They are familiar; we are attached to the coconut monkey or the shiny lacquered fish on the wall that Steve caught when he was 14 (“I would never go fishing again”, yet “I have to take that fish with me”). Both of these have followed Steve around for decades, along with his musty books, pewter glasses, bits of lace, and shiny pieces of porcelain. How many baseballs will he take with him?—he used to volunteer at a baseball stadium and has boxes, some of them autographed (albeit by rookies). He has to decide.

We too have to decide whether we want to lug all our mental stuff around with us forever. Do we really need it? Do we need to keep thinking familiar sagging thoughts about trivial things that give our life no real essence? Do we need endless imaginary conversations with all the people we feel have let us down? We are so strangely attached to the minutiae of our lives and, indeed, of our thoughts – yet anyone else privy to these thoughts would quite possibly disregard them as so much junk! That conversation we had  with that person 15 years ago still rankles. That daydream we had for some kind of success or acknowledgment, as yet unfulfilled, is still popping up. Those painful assumptions that if we let go of this or that worry, such as about finances or relationships, we’ll suffer in the future – just as if we don’t hang onto sufficient baseballs we’ll miss them later.

We apparently talk to ourselves at a rate of 1300 words per minute. What are we ‘saying’ to ourselves and how many of these conversations are worth the time of day? Studies accord with Buddha’s analysis that a lot of our self-talk is negative and self-defeating, giving rise to anxiety, stress and depression – and in our own experience we can see how easily we can talk ourselves out of a good mood and back into another funk.

Quite soon, at death, we will be forced to leave behind all our objects of attachment and aversion, and all their associated mundane gross thoughts behind, just like Steve leaving his stuff. Without any control we’ll be back on the road again, who knows to where. It seems to me that through the practice of meditation we have the chance to let go now so we have time to enjoy and make use of the wonderful space and clarity that opens up in the mind, and feel as though we have the wide open road of the spiritual path stretching invitingly before us. In particular, with meditation we can replace our tired stale old delusions with the fresh flowers of dynamic positive minds such as love, compassion, renunciation, and wisdom.

Space solves problems, not holding onto things and constantly tussling with them like a dog with a bone. Interacting obsessively with their stuff on a daily basis, the pile getting higher as they accumulate more and more, hoarders are blinkered and demoralized by old musty memories. Similarly, interacting with our same old thoughts day in and day out, adding to the dusty pile as the day goes by without letting anything go or replacing old stuff with fresh positive thoughts like fresh flowers, is stale and demoralizing. It both restricts our outlook and weighs us down.

And others don’t enjoy it or enjoy us as much as they might – I liked Steve but I still couldn’t wait to get out of his sour-smelling old-feeling junk-filled house. It was a glorious sunny day but you would never know it in that place, things piled high in front of the windows – what a relief to emerge into the clear light.

Steve himself is sensing that at the moment he has a chance for freedom, a chance to let go of a lot of this; his intelligent blue eyes are gleaming. He told me with a big smile that he is looking forward to moving on and traveling the open road. Are we ready for that too?!

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