Changing direction

6 mins read

In Buddhism, we train to solve our own and everybody else’s problems through compassion and wisdom.

This is a bit different to the usual way we try to solve them, to be honest, which is generally through attachment and aversion.IMG_2523.jpg

Out of attachment to a world outside our thoughts, a world in fact projected by our ignorance, we wish and sometimes expect things to turn out a certain way and people to behave a certain way. We’re constantly going outside of ourselves to get what we want and get others to cooperate with our wishes.

But it doesn’t really work, does it? Because we still don’t have everything we want and, even when we do get the things we want, we lose them. And then we get disappointed and upset. Worldly pleasures, as Buddha explained, are like scratching an itch. Indulging in them just satisfies the itch that’s created by our attachment in the first place.

In this way, attachment is a bit of an inner demon, deceiving us; but it’s sometimes hard for us to recognize this because we feel it’s what’s making us happy. This is our habit. We’ve always used our attachment to go out and try and get what we think we want.

And with aversion we try to push away the things out there that seem to be getting in the way of our happiness — people or situations that seem to be threatening us or harming us in any way. And this makes our mind unpeaceful. We don’t like things. We don’t like people, and we want them to behave differently, or go away. We are not in control – we have to push out mentally, verbally, and/or physically.

IMG_2519.jpgWe’ve been doing this since beginningless time, trying to solve our problems with our attachment and aversion, and for that matter all our other delusions too; but it doesn’t seem to be working, does it?! Because here we all are, still probably with the same number of problems we started with this life, or this morning, and still without all the things we want, or, even if we got them, still wanting more.

Newsflash: We cannot solve our problems through our delusions when it is our delusions that are creating our problems in the first place.

So, with Dharma (ie, Buddha’s teachings and the experiences we gain from practicing those teachings) we learn to become what’s called “inner beings”, appreciating more and more that the way to solve our problems is to change our minds. And on one level it may sound obvious, but it can’t be that obvious to us or we’d be doing it all the time. It may be intellectually obvious to us, but at the moment we have the deeply ingrained emotional habit of trying to solve our pain and problems outside of our mind. We try to get what we want by rearranging stuff outside of our mind.

What we need to do is change these habits and approach our problems with wisdom and compassion, which have the power to solve all our problems not just straightaway but permanently.

To get started …

When we start our training in meditation and Dharma, we need first to learn to experience our own inner peace by allowing our minds to relax and settle. Otherwise it is no wonder we feel we have to get our happiness from out there. Even Dharma seems to be something we have to find from out there.

IMG_2524.jpgWhat we come to understand when we start meditating (skillfully) is that Dharma is already within us. We already have the seeds of everything we need inside us, including a naturally peaceful, blissful mind. We may have heard this many times, but sometimes we forget. We also forget that peace equals happiness, and that when our mind is experiencing peace we don’t have problems.

So the very first step is learning to rely on that inner peace — identifying with just how good we feel when we allow our mind to relax and just forget those stupid delusions for awhile. We can do this through breathing meditations, relaxing into our heart, clarity of the mind, and so on. This is the first way we usually taste that freedom, that peace we have inside us. We can relax into it and think:

This is me. I’m home.

We really need to give ourselves a break and, by letting our mind chill out, see how our aversion and attachment settle down a bit, like waves disappearing into the ocean of our root mind. We can let this go. We can let our thoughts go. And when we let our thoughts go, their objects go as well; so for awhile we’re simply free of that problem! We feel peaceful inside, it’s like, “Hey, I don’t have a problem!” If we can just forget it though breathing meditation, we feel COMPLETELY FINE.

IMG_2536-1And it doesn’t matter what the problem is, to be honest. Any problem can be temporarily solved through breathing meditation if we get good at it. Or even if we’re not that good at it. Just by allowing ourself to focus on our breath, or relaxing into our heart, we get a little peace, a little space from that problem. And we stop, at least for a short while, trying to solve those problems OUT THERE, in that most frustrating way we normally have. We relax, we rest, we experience this feeling of contentment and think:

“That’s incredible. I have this peace inside me. I can relax. And, you know what? This indicates that there is so much more where this came from. This is just the beginning of the peace I can experience if I change direction — from trying to solve everything outside myself to just allowing myself to practice these teachings and change my mind. This is only the beginning, but I can rely on it — I can understand that this peace is how I can be feeling all the time, and it is who I am.”

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At the moment we are so habituated to following our attachment wherever it takes us, or our aversion trying to solve everything out there all the time. These delusions are what’s shaking up our minds and causing us so much aggravation, pain, frustration, tightness, heaviness, sadness, depression, not to mention negative actions, etc., etc., etc. IT’S OUR DELUSIONS. We get a glimpse into that simply by experiencing some temporary freedom from those delusions. We should really take refuge in that peace, knowing we can always go there.

Then we can arise from that peace with a clearer mind and happier heart, more centered and better able to deal practically with the so-called outer problems that present themselves.

Next installment is here. Meanwhile, your comments are always welcome.

Related articles

The relevance of inner peace

Coping with anxiety

Going wide means going deep

The relevance of inner peace

Right now it may seem as though our problems are getting in the way of our inner peace. But the only thing getting in the way is that we’re clutching onto our problems and determined to solve them all out there. Anxiety can arise when we feel an excessive need to do this, and what it does it shake our mind up more and more with inappropriate attention – dwelling, exaggerating, conceptualizing, elaborating – whether this be our relationships, our politics, our health, our work, war with Korea, etc. We’re like a dog with a bone, we can’t let go.

Carrying on from this article.

The perceived need to solve our problems becomes more compelling the more we focus on them with inappropriate attention.

But ironically we feel more and more powerless to solhead in cloudsve our problems because our mind is getting more and more out of control. Then, when we feel powerless, and that things have slipped out of our control, we get even more anxious and frustrated — we cannot see clearly what to do. You know that expression, we cannot see the wood for the trees.

Inner peace really does solve problems

It can take a while to become totally convinced that inner peace can solve our problems, even when we’ve had experience of this truth. This is because we have a deep habit of relying upon delusions to try and solve our problems. We are pretty attached to solving everything outside the mind.

For example, you ever had that feeling that you don’t even WANT to solve the problem you are having with an irritating person by letting go of your irritation because that just lets them off the hook!? We want to send them the irate email, we want them to know what we think of them, we want them to feel bad – and only when those goals are accomplished might we be ready to sit down and meditate. Or when we’re feeling hurt and neglected by our object of attachment, we don’t want to feel all peaceful by letting go of the attachment. No, THEY are obviously the ones who should change!

Outer and inner problems 

I’m not saying we don’t sort external problems out at all. Of course we have to pay some attention to them; but it is the kind of attention that matters. We need to approach these problems not from an unbalanced, chaotic mind, but from the sanity of inner peace.

To sort the outside out, we need to pay at least as much attention to the inside.

One of the most useful teachings we could ever stumble across is the difference between outer and inner problems. The classic example Geshe Kelsang uses is if our car breaks down — do we have a problem!? Sure our car has a problem (the outer problem); but we only have a problem if our mind gets upset (the inner problem). We deal with these problems in outer and inner ways — cars go to the garage, and inner problems need to be solved by transforming the mind.head in clouds 1

It is helpful to remember that solving our own and others’ outer problems — in itself — is never going to solve the inner problems, however busy or expert we become. But that’s ok, because even though we may never be able to solve every difficult situation, we CAN slowly but surely solve all our inner problems. And, as Venerable Geshe Kelsang says:

If we were to respond to difficult situations with a positive or peaceful mind they would not be problems for us; indeed, we may even come to regard them as challenges or opportunities for growth and development. ~ How to Transform Your Life, page 10

So we can afford to relax. We don’t need to feel bad about relaxing. Quite the opposite. Try, don’t worry, as Geshe Kelsang also says. Or, another favorite Kadampa quote:

Always rely upon a happy mind alone.

Come to love the space

As explained here, when problems come up they seem like reality because our head is in the clouds. We are caught up in the storms. We make them very real, very solid. Therefore, we are in worry.

head in the clouds 2Any problem tends to fill our mind when we’re in the middle of it. Our problems seem all encompassing — we have to get rid of them. But can you remember the problem you were having this time last week? This time last year?! It seemed totally compelling at the time, so where’s it gone, why can’t we even remember what it was?!

When we do allow our mind to experience its natural inner peace by letting go and relaxing into our heart, we see for ourselves how space solves problems. Just putting space around our problems, getting them into perspective, helps hugely. We relax and we see more clearly a way forward. We stop panicking. A cloud surrounded by an infinite sky is no big deal. On the basis of our mind being quieter, more mindful, more clear, we can then turn it to deep Dharma topics that will uproot all our problems more permanently.

Trusting inner peace

No matter how slight it is, or how relative, we can trust our inner peace. But we cannot trust our distorted, agitated states of mind, any more than we can trust a churned up lake to accurately reflect what is going on around it. The more peaceful our mind, the more in tune with reality, the more accurately it reflects the world. Truthfully, the world is just a reflection of our mind to begin with. This is why Geshe Kelsang says:

Without inner peace, there can be no outer peace.

Because we can trust inner peace, go there as often as you can. Even if it is only for a few minutes in the restroom at work, that will do it. As soon as you feel some inner peace, give yourself the permission to enjoy it, to remain with it, to remember “This is who I am.” It may sound unlikely while we are feeling anxious, but one day we will get to the point where we can bliss out whenever we want 🙂

And, far from being irresponsible or escapist, this will give us the power to solve stuff. It will give us the power to help others for, if we ain’t got it, how can we give it?

Thead in clouds 3his peace and bliss are sanity, reality. It is the delusions that are distorted. They are faulty ways of thinking that are not based on sanity and that make everything seem like a problem. Trust the truth of peace, compassion, kindness, and wisdom instead; they’ll never let us down.

How do I get started?

You may be thinking, “All this is easier said than done.” Well of course it takes no time to get these ideas written down on this page, but the reason these ideas are still around is because they work, countless people have benefited from them. We too can give ourselves permission to relax if we understand its importance and relevance to our “real world” problems. We can make time each day to sit quietly and look within, and the investment of time is going to be more than worth it. We could end up being far more productive! What have we got to lose?!

I am not even talking about hours and hours a day. I’m talking 10 to 20 minutes. Seriously. That’s really not a lot of time. You’ll may want to do more as you get better at it and love it more and more, but that’s not the point, you still only need 10 to 20 minutes to get started.

To summarize, learning to let go and relax through breathing meditation (a) feels good, (b) gives us essential space and perspective, and (c) is part of reality – it is sanity.

Bonus
Je Tsongkhapa on clouds
Je Tsongkhapa appearing on clouds of compassion

As a (big) bonus, this peace is also not separate from the non-deluded peaceful reality and good heart of an enlightened being, as explained here. Feel your connection to enlightenment, however you understand it, the divine. The more we recognize this, the more peaceful, blessed, and inspired we feel. Enlightened beings see us as we really are – at heart pure and good and worry-free, just not yet realizing it.

Related articles

How to overcome anxiety

Going wide means going deep

Acceptance — the first step toward self-transformation

 

Coping with anxiety

I am hoping this article will help you if you need to find some peace and calm during this particularly anxious time of COVID-19.

You might have heard the expression “Xanax is the new Prozac”? This is because worry worryand anxiety have already reached epidemic proportions in our modern society. And if we are prone to worry, there certainly seems more and more cause for it as the days and months roll by.

You’ve probably seen the articles. They report that, for example, in 1980, 4% of Americans suffered a mental disorder associated with anxiety. Today half do. A third of Britons will experience anxiety disorder at some stage in their life, with an explosion of reported anxiety among teenagers and young adults.

And so on and so forth, all over the world. It’s bad. It’s sad.

But it is not inevitable. And (along with the medication in some cases) meditation and Buddhism can help; they are designed to help.

Plus, we need to try and solve our own sense of anxiety and hopelessness if we have any desire to help our world. As we have probably all noticed, it is not easy to help others when we are feeling unbalanced or unhappy ourselves.

I am carrying on from this article.

How is it that some some people can cope with worry and stress and even thrive on it, whereas others get overwhelmed and even ill? Of course there are various factors at play, but there are also good methods for alleviating worry and stress that anyone can try.

I was interested to see that the dictionary.com definition for worry is:

To torment oneself with or suffer from disturbing thoughts; fret.

Note the word “oneself”. We are tormenting ourselves, no one is doing it to us. We are the ones thinking our thoughts. If we could control our thoughts, we could get rid of our worry. If we could change our thoughts, we could — we would — learn to be peaceful.

Break the vicious cycle

IMG_1750-EFFECTSWhen we notice our anxious symptoms, responding to some perceived threat, we think that we can’t cope with the situation, and therefore we become more anxious. This is the start of the vicious cycle of anxiety, the cycle we have to break.

If we are prone to worry, this means that our thoughts are thinking us us rather than the other way around. We have inadvertently boarded trains of thoughts that are taking us from worry stations right through to panic stations. We have to find a way to get off.

We don’t have to think all our thoughts. We don’t have to give them power – the only power a thought actually has is the power we give it. If we learn to control our mind, we can think our thoughts rather than the other way around. We can transform our thoughts and we can transform ourselves.

Thoughts depend upon the thinker just as the thinker depends upon the thoughts – change one, the other changes automatically.

This is a simple but devastatingly profound insight from Buddha, which can change everything. And we can experience it for ourselves by learning simple meditation.

Meditation has proven benefits in stopping worry – including even the simplest breathing meditation that anyone can do, such as the 15-minute peace meditation I explained in the last article on worry. Basically, in this meditation, we are making our mind bigger so that our problems become smaller. And we are learning that we can control our own thoughts.

Feeling foggy?

IMG_0956-EFFECTSOur mind is naturally peaceful. Our problem is that we keep shaking our minds up, like shaking a clear glass of water up and down, or like speedboats churning through a still mountain lake. Whenever we give ourselves some time and allow our mind to settle and relax, we experience some of our own natural peace of mind. Our inner problems subside temporarily because we have taken our attention away from them. And, even if we experience only a little bit of peace, we can know that there is plenty more where that came from.

Another analogy for our mind — and its infinite depth and spiritual potential – is that of a vast clear sky. When the fog rolls in, the whole sky can feel foggy, as anyone in San Francisco will tell you. But we know this is temporary, not the nature of sky; and that it can and will change. It is only if we are not aware of our limitless sky-like depth that we identify instead with our fog-like delusions and problems, and feel foggy ourselves. Our head is stuck in these as if that’s all there is. We get caught up in our fleeting feelings, clutching onto them as if they comprise our entire mind.

The first thing to do is allow these foggy problematical thoughts and feelings to disappear by focusing on the breath and not following them. Instead of shaking our mind up, we allow our mind to settle down. In this, we can start to experience the restorative nature of our own peaceful mind, which has the power to heal us.

This goes for any problem – relationship problems (is he texting me enough?!), work problems (will I get that thing done on time?), health problems (why isn’t this diet working?), children problems (how can I help them when they don’t want to be helped?), world problems (where do I start?!) — we can let go of the inappropriate attention. Just allow ourselves to forget about all this for a few minutes, relax, let the attachment and anxiety drop away. We’re not going to miss anything.

Hey, I can’t afford to do that!

Maybe we think that if we relax like this we are reneging on our responsibility – that we need to chew over every problem until we have solved it, especially when other people are involved. For example, if I am not worrying about my parents/children/pets/the world, I am letting them down. We feel guilty. We think, “Let me just try and sort this/them out first, and then I can get back to feeling peaceful — I can reward myself, go on retreat or something.”IMG_1950

But this is completely the wrong way around. The fact of the matter is that over-thinking is not the way to solve our own or others’ problems. Trying to sort everything out “out there” is not the way to solve problems. Space is the way to solve problems. The sanity of inner peace is the way to solve problems.

There’s a saying in Buddhism that worldly activities are like a man’s beard – though he may shave it off in the morning, it is growing back again by the evening. Even if we did manage to sort everything out “out there” on any given day (an entirely dubious proposition, at least in my experience), is it not true that there are more problems to sort out by the next day? We need to learn the art of relaxation and letting go as the way to (dis)solve our own and others’ problems.

Then — and this is very much part of it — we can approach the external problems from a far more helpful and realistic perspective.

Who are you?

It’s also helpful to ask ourselves, “Who am I, really?” Once we are feeling more peaceful, we can spend a few minutes developing a really positive mind – for example by contemplating some brief instruction on love.

Then we can relate to ourselves as a loving compassionate person, or at least, “Hey, I’m not so bad!”, as opposed to that limited anxious person, “I am useless and doomed.” We can start to get a foot in the door, some agency in our own narrative.

We are who we tell ourselves we are, and in fact it is closer to reality to see ourselves as loving than as hopeless. The love goes far far deeper, and it is our own nature.

IMG_1037We can learn to go through our day with this relative peace, love, and confidence in our heart — try it out for size, let it grow through practice. At least know it is in there somewhere, that there is an alternative to this anxiety. Dive into the restroom when we forget there is peace at the heart, make it live up to its name.

Also, my advice, if you can: go to meditation classes and get guided in meditation. You’ll learn stuff that you can practice all week, plus you’ll get the support and encouragement of others in the same boat. During COVID-19, there are many classes being streamed by Centers all over the world! Click here to find your nearest Center and enquire.

Start the virtuous cycle

So, through breathing meditation we can develop a little space between us and our suffering — it is no longer consuming all our attention by drawing it into an exaggerated sense of a limited, suffering me. From that perspective, we have a better chance of using our own problems to empathize more deeply with others — and the more we do this the less anxious we will feel. We have started a a virtuous cycle to replace the vicious one.

More ideas for helping with worry coming up soon. Meantime, is this helping at all? Please share your experience and questions in the comments.

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Overcoming a painful, limited sense of self

Accepting unhappiness without panicking

Gaining perspective on hurt feelings 

 

Want to banish stress?

I am on the road again, this time to Glasgow. The tube was delayed into Heathrow by some undisclosed incident on the tracks, and after 10 minutes a young boy started to stress 1whimper, “We’re going to miss our plane!” His patient mother explained several times why they still had plenty of time, and when that didn’t work she told him firmly, “You will have to learn how to cope with stress if you are going to survive life.” And then his dad added, “There is nothing we can do so we just have to accept this; stop worrying.” Advice to live by. Not that their son seemed too convinced at the time.

I have just overheard in this busy terminal, in short order, a man confiding into his phone, “Today has been a disaster so far and I’m on holiday so that makes it even more annoying.” And then a woman into her phone, “Everyone here is having a hard day as far as I can see.”

And it is not just here, of course, that everyone’s having a hard day. Today’s headlines out of Charlottesville, Virginia indicate the vicious and stupid racism that is still alive and well in America, for example. Plus, is anyone else around here wondering whether humankind is about to atomized, with all this adolescent tension between the US and North Korea? A friend said yesterday that we may as well not worry about the chaotic fumbling disaster that is Brexit because at this rate we won’t be around long enough for it to happen.

She kind of had a point. When we remember we will be dying before too long — let alone our countless past and future lives and all the big sufferings we have experienced and yet have to experience in samsara — it interestingly gets all our other problems into perspective. The individual details of samsara don’t have the power to crowd our mind, to overwhelm us, when we are focused on the big picture. We have the space and mental peaceful mind quotecontrol to develop renunciation (the determination to get permanently free) and bodhichitta (the determination to get everyone permanently free) instead.

But first things first. As indicated in this last article on how to overcome anxiety, we could all do with learning to relax as a matter of priority, which we can do using a breathing meditation that gives us the peace of mind to reboot and cope.

It is not selfish to take the time to do this, for how are we going to sort out this world if we cannot sort out ourselves? I thought I’d “guide” a simple but effective meditation here so you have something to do next time you’re trapped on a hot tube with anxious travelers or experiencing heart palpitations from headlines like, “North Korea’s nuclear threat is real and terrifying”.

We will all be Buddhas one day

Breathing meditation is all the rage these days. But have you ever wondered why a simple meditation on our breath has the power to make us feel so much better? After all, we are breathing all the time. I think it proves that our mind is naturally peaceful, and that to access this peaceful mind we simply need to stop churning it up with uncontrolled thoughts (which are like a speedboat churning up the deep water of a still Scottish loch). We don’t need to add peace to our minds, for we already have it going on inside.

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It is quite profound, really. When we do the following meditation, we get a glimpse of our Buddha nature, our infinite depth – our natural inner peace that is full of the seeds of universal love and compassion, omniscient wisdom, everlasting peace, and the ability to help everyone. It is like an indestructible gold nugget hiding out in the muck of our delusions.

People are not doomed …

… they are future Buddhas!

If we want the incredible inspiration required to keep going day after day in our pursuit of freeing the world of suffering, we must always relate to this fundamental purity in both ourselves and others, looking past our delusions to see the future Buddhas within. The alternative is to go around feeling moreorless bad about ourselves and everyone else, too demoralized to do much about all these complications we see everywhere. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says in the free Buddhist e-book How to Transform Your Life:

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 … Recognizing everyone as a future Buddha, out of love and compassion we will naturally help and encourage this potential to ripen.

And we can do this happily and without getting so exhausted. I think we have to clear the muck aside, at least for a moment, by doing some meditation every day, or we will inevitably forget about our own and others’ gold nuggets and simply remain part of the problem/muck. So, here goes.IMG_1391

15-minute peace meditation

First get into a good meditation posture with a straight but relaxed back, level shoulders, and head tilted a little forward. Your mouth and eyes are lightly closed or, if you prefer, your eyes can be slightly open. Take a moment to settle into this posture and forget about everything else.

Feel contented to be here doing this — accessing your potential for limitless peace and the ability to help others in this troubled world — and determined to concentrate as best you can.

Spend a couple of minutes doing some simple breathing meditation, focusing on the sensation of your breath as it enters and leaves through your nostrils. Tune into this, disregarding all static distractions.

As a result of your mind settling a little in this way, feel that you drop from your head into your heart – your spiritual heart or heart chakra right in the center of your chest. Feel already some space opening up, some peace. Feel as though your wave-like problems and distractions have dissolved away into the boundless ocean of clarity at your heart; just imagine.

Now, to become even more absorbed, think that everything outside your body disappears, melts into light in all directions. There is nothing out there to think about.

Now this light gathers into you, leaving behind only empty space, like a mist lifting, until all that remains is your body suspended in empty space.

Also everything up until this moment melts into light and disappears. The past evaporates like last night’s dream, for it is no more substantial than that.

And everything after this moment also melts into light and disappears. There is no future other than our thoughts about it, so let these go.

In this way, you are still and quiet, in your heart, in the present moment. There is only here and now. You are fully present, fully alive.

Now feel all the tension and weight fall away from your body. As it falls away, all your muscles relax and your body melts into light. Your body is hollow and translucent, as if you could pass your hand right through it without resistance. You think, “My body is as light as air, as if I am floating or flying.”

IMG_1368Then, “My body is like a rainbow body and my mind is like clear light.” Just imagine.

Now, still in your heart, imagine any problems you’re having — physical, emotional, mental, political, relationship, money problems etc. — appearing as heavy smoke or clouds. All unpleasant feelings and unhappy thoughts take form.

Think, “These are just thoughts and feelings, nothing more, nothing less. I don’t need to think them. I don’t need to identify with them. I can let them go.”

As you exhale through your nostrils, let them go. They disappear completely, never to arise again. You are breathing away your problems — with every breath your mind becoming purer and calmer. Concentrate on this for a couple of minutes and, if a distraction arises, breathe that out as well.

For the last few out-breaths, breathe out the last of the thick smoke.

Then, as you breathe in, imagine that your breath is in the aspect of blissful light. Ride this light into your heart, where it joins the inner light of your Buddha nature. Feel happier and lighter with every breath. Do this for a few minutes.

Now focus on this peaceful clarity at your heart, like a clear sky, infinitely spacious.

You can think, “This peace, however relative or slight, is the natural peace of my own mind. This peace is always in my mind. It indicates my potential for deep lasting happiness. There is plenty more where it came from. It is my Buddha nature. It is who I really am.” And feel happy about all that.

This peace is also not separate from the peace of enlightenment. Knowing this, you receive blessings

Allow yourself to abide with this peace, to enjoy it, thinking, “This is me. I don’t have a care in the world.”

Then you can think, “How wonderful it would be if everyone felt this peaceful and free, or for that matter completely peaceful and free.” With compassion, you can spend some time getting ready for the day ahead. Who are you going IMG_1392to meet? How do you want to relate to them? I usually request some inner guidance at this point from Buddha in my heart, so I have the opportunities and skill to help people in the best possible way that day. It usually seems to work.

It is now safe to go out 😁

I hope this helps. You can find more advice on breathing meditation in these articles

Did you enjoy this meditation?! How did you get on?

(ps, pictures are of Inchmurrin Island on Loch Lomond, where KMC Glasgow holds regular meditation retreats.)

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How to overcome anxiety

[Update Mar 23 2020: Hello everyone. Here is some Buddhist meditation advice on dealing with anxiety during these uncertain times.

Please check out an increasing number of live-streaming meditation classes at a Kadampa Center near you — learning to meditate or increasing your meditation practice will really help! Anyone can learn. All you need is somewhere to sit quietly for a while, and a wish to experience inner calm. Then just follow along.]

Sometimes dubbed “the age of anxiety”, people are reportedly experiencing a lot of (di)stress in this modern age. Up to a third of the UK population, for example, will suffer from anxiety disorder or panic attacks at some point; and more people go to the doctor be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battlefor anxiety in the UK than for the common cold. In the US, 40 million people are suffering from anxiety disorders, where anxiety is constant and overwhelming; and as for the occasional bout of panic, or the grumbling day-to-day unease, the number is probably closer to 300 million! I didn’t do a survey on the rest of the world, but I can’t imagine it’s much better.

So, can you relate to any of these?:

You’ve got a big meeting at work coming up where you have to give a presentation. You have to see your family and have a conflict with a family member who’ll be there. You know you’re going to run into your ex-girlfriend, who is with someone new whereas you are not. You see a police car in your rear view mirror, and you are a person of color. You have discovered a bump on your body and a quick Google search reveals that death is imminent. Your prostate is ten times larger than it should be. Your tent is leaking. You have to leave home soon because you are approaching adulthood but the future is scary. You are getting old and find yourself worrying about the smallest things that never used to bother you. Your co-worker is AWOL (again), leaving you with no support. You can’t understand why you don’t feel happier. You’ve eaten too much chocolate and have to go dress shopping with your mother, who is stick thin and always on at you about your weight. Your dog is sick. Your daughter is on drugs and possibly in trouble with the police. You can’t afford to leave a monotonous job even though your boss is a psychopath. You might be losing your Obamacare soon. You’ve read some very disturbing articles recently about the forces of darkness descending on our world. Your car has a rattle. You can’t make up your mind whether to (a) go grey gracefully or (b) go blonde. You’ve just spilled coffee all over your iPhone while writing this, with splashes landing on your keyboard (that one’s mine.) You’re going to die.

Written down like this, does this seem like a list of anxiety-provoking situations?! Yet these are just snippets from the most recent conversations with the people around me. It makes me wonder, how much of our daily chit chat does revolve around things that make us anxious? Anyway, you may have more to add. And, while we have a mind to worry, the list is potentially endless for each of us. (At least we’re not alone?!)

Dictionary.com defines anxiety as: Distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear of danger or misfortune.

It doesn’t matter whether fears or misfortunes are real or imagined, large or small — they all seem to consume us. With anxiety we can’t help overthinking, so there is no objective scale, you can’t number worries from 1 to 10 — worries never seem small because they each fill our mind.

What does anxiety feel like?

It can feel like we’re going mad, at its worst. We worry about everything and nothing. We feel out of control. The voice in our head is constant, we can’t stop it, it’s exhausting. We are on edge. Life is no fun. We can get no perspective even when we know we have things out of proportion and other people have it far worse.

AngelThere was a swan, Angel, in the small pond behind my caravan last week in the Lake District. Beautiful to watch on the surface, gliding around like swans do – but she was all alone, recuperating from an attack that killed her mate; and I felt sad for her. And, looking at her legs, I was reminded of a description I read of anxiety:

I smile gently while churning inside. I may seem calm. But if you could peer beneath the surface, you would see that I’m like a duck – paddling, paddling, paddling.

What makes us anxious?

There is always something to worry about if we have a tendency to worry: “What is there to worry about today?!”

Did you wake up happy this morning?!

Often when I ask people this question, they stoddlers 1ay they didn’t, not really. We are not even out of our warm cosy bed yet — nothing has happened! – and yet already we are feeling uneasy. So sometimes anxiety can be generalized, sort of random, lurking just below the surface of even the most uneventful day, with no specific cause. We usually cast around outside for something to blame for this feeling, “Must be because I have a presentation at work coming up in 3 weeks!” We can even lie there worrying that there is nothing to worry about, which must mean something horrendous is about to happen…

At other times we feel anxiety about something in particular, such as in the list above.

Luckily, although anxiety is a bad habit, all habits can be broken.

What can we do about anxiety?

Soooo, what is the secret of keeping it together in the face of worrying situations? Why and how do some people just seem to roll with the punches, while others are tormented by crippling anxiety at the merest glimpse of potential trouble? How do we rid ourselves of anxiety and connect with a more peaceful, balanced part of ourselves?

First off, we need to start to experience some genuine peace of mind in which we can take refuge. Then we can gradually come to understand the causes of anxiety in more depth, learning tools to train in during our lives that will help us overcome this crippling emotion for good.

Buddhist meditation can give us all of this.

anxiety girl

By the way, if you have concluded that meditation is not for you because you are just too distracted and worried to be able to concentrate, please know that pretty much everyone starts off too distracted and worried to concentrate. And this is exactly WHY we have to learn to meditate. Meditation is the medicine for distraction and distress. Not taking it is like saying:

“I am too sad to be happy.”

(Or as someone just said on Facebook “Actually, not meditating because it’s too hard is like saying “I’m too sad to take my Prozac.”)

Our uncontrolled mind is in a state of apparent chaos, lurching from one chaotic situation to another; we feel caught in that small space. But if we can step back and see what is arising from a bigger place, we can realize the bigger story. We can step back and then CREATE the bigger story.

So the first thing to do is to allow our mind to just settle, relax, and get bigger. Our mind is naturally peaceful, as explained here – our problem is that we keep shaking our mind up with uncontrolled thoughts, rather like a clear mountain lake being churned up by speedboats. Let the mind just settle through breathing meditation and we’ll discover that we already have peace, lucidity, and calm within.

Worries fill our mind, so we need to empty our mind, for a while at least. Things feel less overwhelming in that space. We realize we can cope. We realize we can feel good. Anxiety, as they say, is a misuse of the imagination. We realize we can think differently.

There are inner and outer problems, as explained here. I was thinking how each of those outer problems listed above requires different advice and solutions – the car may need to go to the mender, you may be able to enlist other people to help you with your work, your friends may have good suggestions on your hair, or you may be able to do something proactive to help prevent the forces of darkness from descending on our world. But internally, the advice is similar – control our mind and replace the anxious thoughts with helpful ones.

self-cherishing 3Breathing meditation is increasingly popular because it really helps people relax. Even a small amount of time and effort can yield surprisingly big results. The breath may not be the most profound object, but this meditation teaches us something profound – that we don’t need to add peace from outside, it is already there inside us. If we allow our inner problems to temporarily subside by taking our attention away from them by single-pointed focus on the breath, our natural peace comes to the surface. And we can know that even if it is only a little bit of peace to begin with, (a) it feels so much better than anxiety and (b) there is plenty more where that came from. Phew.

Plus we now have some space, control, and perspective to deal with the outer problems, as needs be.

You can find out how to get started in a breathing meditation here. And there may be meditation classes in your area if you check this link.

We’re out of space, so I’ll explain more next time. Meanwhile your comments are welcome.

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Ever had self-loathing?

How do I get rid of problems?

How to avoid stress and burn-out at work

Problem-free days

Courage for our changing times

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

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.

“It’s so unfair!”

I want to add this great insight from a comment someone just submitted (below):

“The thought that we could be so open and accepting of life is really powerful. When we stop fighting and rejecting what is appearing to us, we, in effect, gain full emotional balance, peace of mind. That’s incredible. I think I found this particularly moving because in the past I have really suffered with a victim mentality. Life was so painfully ‘unfair’. This mentality gives all the power to other people and external events, it is very debilitating actually.”

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?

“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 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.

 

Drop into your heart and breathe

meditating on rockThere are many breathing meditations, and one popular version involves breathing out our disturbing thoughts, distractions, problems etc. in the form of thick smoke and breathing into our heart happiness and blessings in the form of light.*

I find it can be very useful to target this breathing meditation against specific delusions or problems that I’m having, and to breathe in their opponent positive state of mind. It works for any delusion, eg, love vs hatred, renunciation vs attachment, rejoicing vs jealousy. I’ll explain one way I do below, here based on reducing our miserliness and increasing our generosity, its opposite … the meditation is guided below.

First I remind myself that delusions are just thoughts, they have no arms or legs as Shantideva points out, so only harm me insofar as I insist on thinking them, following them, buying into them.

All our thoughts arise from the blissful clarity of our own mental awareness, but some are based on inappropriate attention whereas others are more realistic and therefore conducive to mental health and happiness.

With some effort, the habitual miserly thoughts that cause us pain can change into other, more generous thoughts, which are their opponent — like light cancelling out darkness in so far as you cannot have a miserly thought about something and a generous thought about it at the same time.

Anyone who is reading this can do this because our minds can change completely — we can learn to think thoughts of our own choosing.

don't believe everything you thinkTo begin with, and here is where breathing meditation comes in handy, we sometimes just need the wisdom to know that we can first accept and then let go of our thoughts rather than perpetually having to fight or grapple with them.

Also, as always when training the mind, we must identify with our potential and not with being miserly – “Hey, I’m a stingy b****, but I’m trying to practice giving here”, as we offer someone the last slice of pizza – this feels unnatural, it doesn’t take.  The example of quitting smoking might be helpful here.

Meditation

(1) Relax, sit in a good posture with your back straight but not rigid, your shoulders level but relaxed, your mouth lightly closed, and your eyes either lightly closed or slightly open. My feeling is that these days we can just as well sit in chairs to meditate effectively because we grew up on chairs – so, if you find it difficult to get into a full lotus posture, don’t panic, you didn’t start out in life sitting this way at your mother’s knees (unlike Indians and Tibetans in the old days) and it is not essential for gaining realizations. (Geshe Kelsang has even said we can get enlightened in an armchair!) The main thing is to stay upright so as to stay alert. Focus on how you’re sitting, come into the present moment, forget about everything else.

(2)    Drop from your head to your heart. Immediately distractions will diminish and you’ll sense the spaciousness and peace of your Buddha nature. Just drop your awareness, your center of gravity. Don’t overthink it. We can do all our meditations from this vantage point and it makes them a lot better.

(3)    To overcome distractions focused outward, now think that that everything outside the room melts into light and disappears, including the past and the future  — what you did today and what you have planned for tomorrow. Then the walls of the room melt into light and disappear. Then everything inside the room, outside of your body, melts into light and disappears.

(4)    All that remains is your body, suspended in empty space. To relax and unwind your body, first become aware of any tension, tightness, pain, or heaviness starting at your crown and working your way down to your feet.  Are your shoulders tense, for example? Are your hands tense? (often a good indicator of whether the rest of you is). Think, “I don’t have to hold onto all this accumulated physical stress”, and drop it, like dropping heavy luggage. Every muscle relaxes, and your body melts into light so that just its merest outline remains.

(5) You think, “My body is hollow, made of light, as if I could pass my hand through it without obstruction. It is as weightless as a feather. It is so comfortable that I’m hardly even aware that it is there.” Enjoy this deep physical relaxation for a little while.body of light

(6)    Now you can relax and unwind the mind with breathing meditation. Remember you’re in your heart. Identify any miserly thoughts you’ve been having eg, ignoring the homeless guy, not wanting to share your possessions or your time or your friends, and remember some of the faults of hanging onto these thoughts (see this article.)

(7)    Let these take the form of thick heavy smoke and breathe them out through your nostrils. They vanish into space, never to return. With every outbreath you feel lighter and more peaceful. Do this for as long as you want with conviction and concentration.

(8)    Now imagine that all around the outline of your body is the most blissful sphere of light, the most beautiful light you can imagine. In aspect it is light, but its nature is all the peace, love and generosity from throughout the universe, including all the blessings and inspiration of all holy beings. Wherever it touches your body, you experience bliss.

(9)    Breathe this clear light into your heart, where it joins the inner light of your Buddha nature. Ride the light into your heart.

(10)    Focusing on the peace at your heart, think, “Whatever peace I am feeling, however slight, indicates my potential for lasting peace. Whatever generosity I am feeling is my potential to be totally open-hearted, like a Buddha. This is me.”

(11)   This light radiates like a sun shining inside. It spreads out until it dissolves my body. Then it spreads out further to reach the clear light in the hearts of those around me, whether physically close or mentally close as in my family, friends, pets, etc. It activates their Buddha nature and they become blissfully happy, generous, etc.

(12)   As an addition, I sometimes think that once I have fully realized this potential and ripened my Buddha nature, I will be a fully enlightened being, like Buddha, who is now sitting in front of me. Understanding that faith in Buddha necessitates faith in my own enlightened potential, and that we’ve always had this connection, I recite the Liberating Prayer as a request for more blessings.

(13)   Any feeling of peace we experience during this meditation and in general is the same as Buddha’s blessings, not separate. Check out this article to find out more.

*I personally don’t use the terms “black” smoke and “white” light as I feel in our modern culture that these can actually sound racist, whereas they were just colors back in Tibet. And as these are symbolic of our negative and positive thoughts, I think they perhaps could be any colored smoke or light. For me, thick heavy smoke and clear light (in fact the most beautiful light I can imagine) works better. But if black and white works for you, go for it.

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