How to overcome toxic self-criticism 

7 mins read.

It all starts with changing our experience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The opposite is the case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buddha’s analogy for our current opportunity

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

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

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

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

As Geshe Kelsang says:

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

This includes meeting ourselves!

We are not doomed!

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

super womanStep 1 ~ new improved experience

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

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

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

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

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

A friend said this the other day:

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

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

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

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

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The meditation game changer

A guest article. After great conversations with this long-term meditator and friend, I requested him to write an article on this subject. He kindly obliged. Hope you like it as much as I do.

8.5 mins read.

Road Warning Sign SeriesDoes any of this sound familiar to you? Maybe we’ve tried to change our view of ourselves, relating to our potential to change, our Buddha nature no less! We’ve been inspired by the Buddhist books and teachings, even meditated on them, yet we still feel stuck in a view of ourselves as someone who is fundamentally not changing and who lacks any real spiritual potential.

Something has been on my mind for some time now, which is why it is that we can sometimes be practicing meditation and Dharma for years but still feel we are not that much further along from when we started. And more importantly, is there a simple change we can make with the power to accelerate the process of deep and lasting spiritual transformation that we want? The answer is, thankfully, a resounding yes!

What’s going on

Perhaps without truly changing our view of ourselves, we are still trying to cultivate new intentions to live a more spiritual life. We have the intention to meditate daily and deeply, to be more consistently accepting, loving, and compassionate. Yet we never seem to quite get around to it, or at least never fully. Intention becomes “I intend”, ie, later, tomorrow!

With no genuine change in our intention, perhaps we are still trying to encourage or indeed force ourselves to change our actions. Maybe on the surface we try to act more like what we think a good Dharma practitioner or even a Bodhisattva should act like. Yet discouragement 1we find ourselves feeling stuck in habits of repression, distraction, worldly concerns, and many of the deluded and self-centered patterns of behavior we have always had, and increasingly desperately want to be free of.

In this way, our way of life can come to feel not that different to when we started out on our spiritual journey, with one notable exception: we now have the added burden of growing discouragement, feeling like a failing spiritual practitioner!

Why we can feel like we’re not really changing

A simple understanding to explore – helping us shed light on this problem and illuminate the solution – is that our present experience of life is what Buddha called a dependent-related phenomenon.

My teacher Geshe Kelsang says:

The definition of dependent related is existing (or established) in dependence upon its parts.

Meaning that, if it exists, it exists in dependence upon something else.

Now, consider this simple dependent-related sequence. From our experience comes our view, from our view comes our intention, from our intention come our actions, and from our actions comes our life. In this moment in time, our life exists in dependence upon these causes and conditions, not independent of them.

Our experience of life then reinforces our view, intention, actions, and life, in what is either a limiting and downward spiral or liberating and upward spiral of dependent-related change and transformation. This applies to all areas of our life, spiritual or otherwise.

Are you a swimmer?

As a simple example, if someone asks us ‘Are you a swimmer?’, our instinctive answer will very much depend on our experience. If we have previously tried to swim a few times or more, and it didn’t go well, naturally our view of our self (if not challenged) will be that we’re not a swimmer. Due to self-grasping ignorance we deeply identify with this belief as if it’s who we really are, inherently. In dependence upon this view, our intention and actions will naturally be to avoid swimming at all costs.

Without changing our experience, this downward spiral of limitation will continually reinforce itself, each time deepening our limiting self-identification and way of life, the life of a non-swimmer.

If we want to become a swimmer and try to change only our view, intentions, or actions without changing our experience, ultimately we will fail. This is simply because our attempts at change will be continually undermined by our default and deeply entrenched limiting self-identification: “At the end of the day, and no matter what I or anyone else says, I am just not a swimmer! Inherently!” Everything else will naturally flow from this.

The game-changer

happy-girl-swimmingTo transform this situation, and our lives, the solution is as simple as it is profound. All we need to do at the beginning is make a simple change in this dependent related sequence – which is to change our experience. We learn how to swim properly, then relax, and gradually gain consistent experience of swimming. All other positive changes will naturally flow from, and in dependence upon, this change.

In dependence upon this new experience, our view of ourselves will naturally change – we will start to identify ourselves as someone who is a swimmer.

In dependence upon this new view, our intention and actions will gradually and naturally change – we will find ourselves wanting to swim and doing it regularly and joyfully. As a result, our experience will get better and better.

In dependence upon this new and growing experience, view, intention, and actions, our life over time will become the life of a confident swimmer. A new liberating and upward spiral of positive change and transformation is established and continually reinforced on every new iteration. In this way, we elevate and accelerate this process of change.

How to elevate and accelerate our spiritual path

How can we apply this understanding to elevating and accelerating our spiritual path? The key is this: if we feel we are not really progressing spiritually, it is NOT because we are incapable. If we check, more likely than not we are trying to change our view, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso teaching 3intention, actions, and way of life without giving ourselves the time and space to immerse ourselves in that first and critical step, experience!

As Geshe Kelsang says:

Unless we make some time every day to meditate, we will find it very difficult to maintain peaceful and positive minds, and our spiritual practice as a whole will suffer. ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness 

Conversely, if we do make some time every day to meditate, we will find it increasingly easy to maintain peaceful and positive minds, and our spiritual practice as a whole will flourish.

Start with peace

The essence of what is being explored here is how we can approach ALL aspects of our Dharma training for it to flow more naturally and effortlessly. Whether it’s building deep and stable refuge in our hearts, or gaining authentic experience of all the stages of the spiritual path of Lamrim, Lojong, or Mahamudra, we can use this approach to elevate and accelerate these trainings.

However, for the purposes of this article, let’s start with the simplest meditation and experience of peace. At the beginning of our daily meditation session – no matter how brief or extensive – we are encouraged to use a preparatory practice such as breathing meditation, absorption of cessation, or clarity of mind to help us gradually center in a calm, clear, and peaceful mind.

The key is, once we calm the mind and experience a noticeable degree of inner peace – even if it’s only a little bit — we give ourselves permission to take as much time and space as we need to abide with, and absorb more deeply into, that experience of a peaceful mind.keep calm and change the game

If you are anything like I was in the early years of my training in meditation, this preparatory stage felt more like an item on my to-do list before I got on with the rest of my sadhana.

I felt there was a lot I had to get through – before leaving for work – to fulfill my daily sadhana commitment, not realizing for some time that meditation can never be about ‘doing,’ rather it’s about ‘being’. Being absorbed in, and dynamically engaged with, an experience in our heart at every step from the moment we sit down to meditate and beyond!

Through giving ourselves the time and permission to abide and absorb a little in this way, we establish the experience of a relatively open, expansive, and peaceful mind. We then turn our attention to that experience and, crucially, identify with it as our innate and indestructible potential for great peace and happiness, our own Buddha nature.

This experience of peace alone does not transform our lives. However (1) the experience of inner peace that is associated with (2) the heartfelt wisdom insight that this is the peace of my own Buddha nature, my pure potential for the supreme and lasting peace and happiness of enlightenment, is the very basis for all deep and lasting spiritual transformation. Dharmavajra

Allowing ourselves to abide in that experience every day before, during, and after our meditation session is a key component to success in Dharma training. As a result of our increasing familiarity with this experience and correct self-identification with our Buddha nature, our view of ourselves will gradually and quite naturally change.

If we are feeling a little, or a lot, stuck in our spiritual life, it simply indicates that we currently lack this basic familiarity. As a result, we try to practice on the basis of our present default experience and view, which happens to be an ordinary limited self who isn’t changing, indeed can’t change.

This growing familiarity with our own Buddha nature is one we can all gain, and it will open the door to a whole new perspective on how we approach our Dharma practice. Instead of feeling like we are practicing in abstract, going through the motions in the hopes of some future “Aha!” moment, we will come to view our practice as a here and now dynamic and experientially-based engagement with our own path or journey.

In dependence upon this new view of our extraordinary potential, our intention will move from ‘I intend, tomorrow’ to the intention that is moving our mind Pagmacontinually and spontaneously to the full actualization of this pure potential; and over time not just for ourselves but for others as well.

In dependence upon this deepening intention, our actions will be increasingly in alignment – they will become the actions of someone who is joyfully dedicated to accomplishing this goal, coming from the confidence that I have the potential and that this is what I and others need.

Ultimately, this liberating and upward spiral of positive change will transform into the view, intention, actions, and life of a Bodhisattva – what is known as the Bodhisattva’s way of life – until one day we definitely realize our highest potential of enlightenment.

Over to you – comments and questions are welcome for this guest author.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toward an empowered sense of self

5.5 mins read.

Buddha is not saying that we don’t have faults and limitations because of course we do (well I do); and we need to identify what these are if we are to have any hope of getting rid of them.

Carrying on from this article, Being kinder to ourselves and others.

If we are honest with ourself, we will recognize that at the moment our mind is filled with defilements such as anger, attachment, and ignorance. These mental diseases will not go away just by our pretending they do not exist. The only way we  can ever get rid of them is by honestly acknowledging their existence and then making the effort to eliminate them. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Identify our faults without identifying with them

self-criticismHowever, there is a world of difference between identifying our faults and identifying WITH them. Sure we need to improve, but we can’t improve at the same time as feeling bad about ourselves, or guilty, because this is creating a negative self-fulfilling prophecy.

Try picking up a glass of water. How heavy is it? Not very? Okay, hold it for 5 minutes. How heavy is it now? Hmmm.

In the same way as water becomes heavy if we don’t let it go, similarly our bad feelings become heavy and guilty if we don’t know how to let them go. It is possible to admit to our mistakes without feeling guilty. Guilt holds on. It keeps us stuck. It comes from a fundamental lack of self-acceptance.

We need to let go of our delusions not because they are inherently bad or because they make us inherently bad, but simply because they make us and others unhappy. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Just as mud can always be removed to reveal pure, clear water, so delusions can be removed to reveal the natural purity and clarity of our mind.

Spiritual bypassing

Geshe Kelsang talks all the time about our innate purity, our Buddha nature, and our need to identify with it; but sometimes people don’t pick up on this, which is partly why I’m writing these articles. The other day someone in Germany pointed out, accurately I think:

Western people are different. Like you described it in the article, we learned always to put the blame on ourselves. Perhaps because of that Christian tradition (or what the church made of it), you’re guilty, small, and so on. I don’t really know. When we follow the Buddhist spiritual path we learn so much about delusions, uncontrolled minds, negative karma, and so on; and we are always told to purify our bad baaad karma, to tame our monkey mind. This is all clearly necessary. But I often ask myself, how can we love others honestly if we don’t take the first step to accept ourselves? We need more teachings on self-compassion.

burdenWithout skill, spiritual practitioners can indeed beat themselves up with guilt and feeling small while “pretending” to be good Buddhists or Christians or whatever – and this disconnect eventually leads to hypocrisy, or burnout, or abandonment of their spiritual practice. People can even use their Tantric practice as pure escapism from an unworthy sense of self, completely missing the point. It is no accident that one of our commitments as trainee Bodhisattvas is to “avoid pretension and deceit;” and I would argue that this is highly useful when it comes to talking to ourselves.

Buddha has covered this lack of self-worth from every angle. For example, I think renunciation is deep love and compassion for ourselves; we want true and lasting happiness and freedom for ourselves. However, here we are talking about our pure potential-filled self — not the painful, fixed, limited self held by self-grasping and self-cherishing, which in any case can never be made happy because it doesn’t exist.

And Geshe Kelsang is very clear about never identifying with our delusions, but always with our pure nature so that we can feel happy with ourselves while overcoming our faults. For example, as it says in How to Transform Your Life:

While acknowledging that we have delusions, we should not identify with them, thinking, “I am a selfish, worthless person” or “I am an angry person.” Instead we should identify with our pure potential and develop the wisdom and courage to overcome our delusions.

self-likingHow could it be put more clearly? Moreover we come to experience extraordinary self-confidence and happiness with ourselves as a Bodhisattva and blissful Tantric Deity, if we learn how to do it right. In Tantra, we totally identify ourselves with the result of our spiritual practicereality itself, the bliss and emptiness of a Buddha’s mind — and work to overcome our faults in that light, never while identified with a small intrinsically ordinary self that doesn’t even exist.

Becoming someone we like

From letting go of our painful thoughts in breathing meditation, as mentioned in this article, we can then go onto see that there is nothing fixed or immutable about us — through changing our thoughts, choosing better, wiser ones, we can become whom we want to be. Buddha and his followers have been saying this forever, and research abounds these days on the impact of positive vs negative thinking on ourselves and others, and the fact that we have the potential to transform ourselves by changing our habits of mind.

We can, for example, ask ourselves what advice we’d give to a good friend if they were suffering from the same low self-esteem, and then start to take that advice ourselves. We can even observe ourselves through the eyes of enlightened beings and Bodhisattvas who know the truth, that we are not our delusions, that we are basically great and full of potential – as it says in How to Transform Your Life:

It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the faults of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any living being. Consequently, their love and compassion for living beings never diminish.

A healthy sense of self

empowered selfWhat we really need to do is to reidentify who we think we are, which is called in Buddhism “changing our basis of imputation.” We can change our sense of who we are from someone who is inadequate to someone we really like and respect. Then we can enjoy our own company all day long, encourage ourselves to do great things, and like and respect other people more.

We need to develop a healthy sense of self, an empowered sense of self, based on something genuine.

To do this, it’s really very helpful to understand the relationship between our experience, sense of self, intentions, actions, and life. That next installment is here, How to stop being so down on ourselves.

Meanwhile, over to you! Please keep the feedback coming, it’s been helpful. 

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Judge not …

7.5 mins read

Our Buddha nature is likened to a golden nugget in filth for it can never perish, it is utterly indestructible. I find it pretty inspiring to think about that.

gold nugget in dirtNo matter how disgusting a person’s delusions may be, the real nature of their mind remains undefiled, like pure gold. In the heart of even the cruelest and most degenerate person exists the potential for limitless love, compassion and wisdom. 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. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Nothing we ever think, say, or do, however heinous, could destroy the vajra-like purity of our own or others’ root minds, any more than clouds can destroy the space of the sky. We can dive into that reality every day because it is the truth, and it heals us.

An encounter on Frontier

With this understanding of what lies at the heart of every single one of us, it’s a good idea not to judge ourselves or others on the basis of the fleeting thoughts in our mind or indeed the words coming out of our mouths. These are not who any of us really are. We can totally disagree with people’s ideas and actions of course, but judging the person themselves on the basis of their ideas and actions is superficial, often uninformed, and unhelpful. I relearned this lesson on Frontier Airlines last night coming back from DC.

IMG_4733I was sitting by the window, and squished in the middle seat was a portly man in his seventies. He soon became very interested in my reading the unwieldy pages of The Washington Post on Sunday, which I had bought because, hey, I was in the nation’s capital.

And he started asking me, in an unplaceable foreign accent, about where I lived and who my senators were and so on and so forth, and it soon became apparent that we were not of the same political persuasion and that he was going to vote for someone I was not. Raised eyebrows on both sides, this segued into a conversation about equality – he arguing that someone who worked hard to get an education and look after his family was not equal to someone who never mowed his lawn or picked up his trash, citing as an example his two next-door neighbors. I said they were still equal because we are all equal, and that different backgrounds and baked-in circumstances led to different opportunities and it was not on us to judge. This devolved into whether or not a physician should earn more than a school teacher because they had trained longer, me arguing that money didn’t buy happiness or measure success, that healing people could be its own reward, and he arguing that of course it did, that I was only able to fly on this plane because of money. I suggested that happiness depended not on the money in the bank but the thoughts in our mind, and he at least paused to consider that. But I could tell it was going to be an uphill battle to get him to agree with me on pretty much anything!

In any event, we were getting quite animated, but I confess I was also getting a bit annoyed by his seemingly hardline views and insistence on arguing about every point; and I was also beginning to think that he was way too big for his seat and physically squishing me as well. So I escaped by feigning sleep and then actually falling asleep. This was me:

With self-cherishing we hold our opinions and interests very strongly and are not willing to see a situation from another point of view. As a consequence we easily get angry and wish to harm others verbally or even physically. ~ How to Transform Your Life, page 97

Just before I started ignoring him, though, he looked at me and said, “We are not arguing! No, not at all. We are only debating!” And he had the sweetest look in his big old watery eyes.

When I woke later and took a sideways glance at him, I saw that he had, as a matter of fact, a very kind face. And there was something poignant about him. This idea came to my mind:

Buddha natureWhenever we meet other people, rather than focusing on their delusions we should focus on the gold of their Buddha nature. This will not only enable us to regard them as special and unique, but also help to bring out their good qualities. ~ How to Transform Your Life

A twist in the tale

I decided I didn’t want to spend the rest of our 4-hour journey ignoring him because he had really been enjoying our conversation even if I hadn’t, so I asked him, Which country did you come from originally?

“Syria”, he replied. I got interested and asked him more. It turned out that he came over here in 1970 and then tried to live in Syria again later, but “I was forced to leave permanently a few years ago because I was in danger.”

“Why?”

“My brother was killed.”

Was his brother involved in politics? No, a quiet man, not political, only the wrong sect of Islam. Shot. And he told me that in a country of 21 million people, 1 million people have been killed, 7 million people have been forced to leave as refugees, and the children have not been at school for 7 going on 8 years, an entire generation lost. The country is bitterly divided. Nowhere is safe. He said all this very sadly. He has two elderly sisters still there who are alright only because, like a lot of people, they never dare go outside. He asked me what I thought could be done about Syria. He asked me several impossible questions on this plane journey, genuinely wanting to know what I thought.

It was sobering. I had never felt this close to Syria or its people before, realized in person how they were just like me. I don’t need to mention how much it put other problems into perspective.world peace

I had realized by now that I had (mis)judged him. I had not immediately related to his Buddha nature but to the words coming out of his mouth in our first conversation, even though they were based on just a few of his fleeting thoughts, thoughts I didn’t even remotely know the context for as it turned out, and thoughts that were not him. I could have saved myself all those slightly irked and uncharitable thoughts if I had related instead to his good heart from the get-go.

Then he added that he believed rich people had a duty to look after poor people. And that the only reason he was going to vote in the way he was going to vote is not because he believed in the person or politics at all, in fact he thought they were bad and … (here he twirled his finger around his temple), but because he believed that the only chance for Iran to be stopped from destroying his country was if their money dried up due to sanctions.

I have of course never given that geopolitical perspective a moment’s thought before. It made me wonder what other perspectives I had never bothered to entertain in this almost infinite complex web of causes and conditions that make up our globe, assuming the correctness of my own.

Can these problems ever be solved?

outer space shelleyAll we can each trust when it comes to the immensity of our outer problems, it seems to me, is doing our level best to do the right thing, the ethical thing, the wise thing, the compassionate thing. But how that shows up in practice is probably going to turn out different depending upon our positioning, amongst other things. Whether we live in Syria, or Iran, or America, for example, and whereabouts in those countries we live.

Because, to the deluded mind, our own needs and wishes seem so often contradictory with others’, in an apparently zero sum game, how can we ever hope to solve all outer problems with only outer means? It makes me even more determined to solve all the inner problems of the delusions and hallucinations of inherent existence instead, for only then will the outer problems finally go away.

He also asked me about Buddhism and what we believed in because he didn’t know the first thing about it, though he had heard of meditation being good for relaxation. He said the world was created by a superpower, not a “being”; and we got a bit philosophical there for a while.inner problems outer problems

My new friend’s name is Osama, “as in Osama Bin Laden” he said slightly ruefully. We plan to talk again. He is the sweetest person. And, Dad, if you’re reading this, he reminded me ever so slightly of you.

I will leave you with a final insight brought home by this encounter with Osama, one that Geshe Kelsang has said would lead to world peace if we all adopted it:

It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the fault of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any sentient being. Consequently their love and compassion for sentient beings never diminish. Failing to make this distinction, we, on the other hand, are constantly finding fault with other people but do not recognize the faults of delusions, even those within our own mind.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

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Deep healing

8 mins & a video

An old friend of mine, a naturopath, has had a lot of success in healing people simply by telling them — confidently — to drop down into their hearts and feel they’re experiencing their own pure, peaceful natures, the restorative power of their own deep clear light awareness. He has been healing people like this for years, sometimes from intractable mental and physical problems that other medicines and therapies have not been able to touch.

beautiful heartExtraordinary, really, and it speaks to me of the importance of being direct and confident in our spiritual or meditation practice as well, not beating about the bush but heading straight for the source. So I thought I’d say a few things about that, starting with a little background.

The journey into the heart

We can travel all the way to enlightenment by learning to absorb deeply into our heart chakra, such that we manifest our own clear light mind. In fact, it is the only way to do it. As Buddha Shakyamuni says:

If you realize your own mind you will become a Buddha. You should not seek Buddhahood elsewhere.

As the saying goes, the most important journey we will ever make is the journey into our heart.

It is inspiring to understand that inside us, at all times, is this indestructible potential for lasting happiness, healing, and freedom from all suffering. It is called our Buddha nature. Everyone has it.

There are different ways of talking about this potential – in The New Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang says our compassion is our Buddha nature or Buddha seed because it is our compassion that will grow into enlightenment.

Elsewhere he says that our very subtle mind and body are our Buddha nature because these are the substantial causes of the mind and body of an enlightened being (rather as a rose seed is the substantial cause of a rose bush). In other words, we already have the actual ingredients for enlightenment inside us; nothing needs to be added, we just need to grow it.

Sometimes our Buddha nature refers to the emptiness of our clear light mind, which allows for everything and anything to appear and exist.

Through any of these explanations, we can understand that our mind is not set in concrete, however much it may seem like that some days; but can heal, purify, and transform completely. This means that we ourselves are also not at all fixed, but can and will one day become completely different people.

Whatever has happened up to now, if we go on this spiritual journey our future will be an entirely better story. We will end up completely free and blissful, day and night, life  radiate loveafter life, and able to bring others to the same state.

The goal …

The goal of Buddhist meditation is to use Tantric technology to deliberately manifest our very subtle mind of great bliss and use it to realize its perceived object, the emptiness of all phenomena. This bliss radiates eternally to all living beings as compassion, blessing them with mental peace. It mixes with the true nature of all phenomena, emptiness, like water mixing with water.

So cultivating bliss and emptiness, compassion and wisdom, are the way to go and the way to grow! And we also impute ourselves on this bliss and emptiness with correct imagination, thinking “This is me”, to attain enlightenment as fast as possible, even in this one short life.

Here is an illuminating extract from the teachings by Gen-la Khyenrab at the recent International Kadampa Festival in Portugal:

… is within reach already

Modern Buddhism emphasizes bringing this goal, or result, into the path. In other words, rather than laboriously working our way through all the stages of the path in a dualistic fashion — wherein we are over here all restricted and the realizations are light years away over there all transcendent — we can dip into them every day. Bathe in them, even.

Then we don’t have to wait forever to have them.

Try this for a moment if you like …

Gently close your eyes and imagine you drop from your head into your heart chakra (in the center of your chest cavity). Feel that your cloud-like distractions and worries have dissolved into an empty-like space in your heart, an inner light, like an infinite clear sky — just imagine. Feel your way into that peace, and think “This peace, however slight or relative, is my indestructible Buddha nature, my potential for lasting peace and mental freedom. It is who I really am.” It is also tuned into the enlightenment of all Buddhas. I can trust it. Believe that everything has dissolved away into the emptiness of this mind because nothing is as solid or as concrete as you thought. Bathe in that for a few moments or longer.

(By the way, if you’re not a Buddhist you can still do this — tuning into whatever holy or divine being works for you.)

reflection emptiness 2

So we dive or drop into our hearts and simply imagine, based on whatever understanding we have so far, that we are experiencing that bliss and wisdom right now. This is not make-believe going nowhere – as Gen-la Khyenrab says in that video above, imagination functions. All our thoughts are paths leading somewhere. Everything starts in the imagination. Then we can do all our step-by-step meditations in that context, not in the context of being an ordinary, deluded, inherently miserable person.

For the point is, the limited self we normally see and relate to doesn’t even exist; so there is really not much point in practicing Dharma, or meditation, in the context of that self, while believing in that self and buying into its limitations. It is far more effective and enjoyable to learn to practice in the context of feeling blissful, believing in and buying into the adamantine purity and goodness of our root mind. I mentioned this a bit before in an article where I explained how I like to meditate “backwards”, as it were.  

emptiness reflection 2I don’t think it matters how vague this bliss and emptiness are to begin with, it is still worth getting started. If we don’t take a few moments each day to dive in — to imagine dissolving ourselves and everything else away into this bliss and emptiness — our ordinary appearances and conceptions will for sure overpower us. We will go round continuing to assume that we are ordinary, others are ordinary, this world is ordinary. These ideas are not true, and both they and their objects are false hallucinations projected by the impure minds of self-grasping and ordinary conceptions. But they are so convincing and so deceptive that we can spend years lost in them.

I have met a lot of people who stop practicing meditation because they get immersed in appearances, too closely involved in the external situation as Geshe Kelsang puts it, like a dog with a bone; and in the “real” busyness of ordinary life simply forget to journey within. Only years later, when they come back to a meditation class or retreat, they realize, “I forgot who I really was! I forgot this alternative existed.” I think this scenario is something to watch out for because we are all subject to forgetfulness.

Healing ourselves, healing others

Now that we know that there’s an alternative to samsaric selves, places, and enjoyments, I think we owe it to ourselves not to forget. We can take a little time daily to taste the restorative, healing power of our own peaceful mind, for then we can regularly observe for ourselves that the neurotic or unlovable or unloving version of ourself doesn’t actually exist. So we’ll know for ourselves that we may as well stop right now trying to make that self we normally see happy or to solve its hallucinatory issues because it’s literally a fool’s game.

We can dive into our heart and experience the deeply healing power of truth, versus pandering to the barely existing but psychotropic projections that our ignorant mind takes to be concrete reality. We can let go of the thought and the labels “self”, “mine”, and “other”. “Stop grasping at labels” as Venerable Geshe Kelsang said in his Universal Compassion oral teachings. After all, everything is unfindable upon analysis. Everything is mere name. So why not rename ourselves?

No one is forcing us to keep grasping at a concrete reality that is not there. Believe me, no one needs us to be doing this.

Just as one drowning person cannot save another, however fervently he or she may wish to, so we cannot help others much if we are drowning ourselves. We need to be on at least some dry patch of reality.

I think that most of us could probably do with more confidence and directness in our approach to meditation. Bringing the result into the path is hallmark of our tradition, starting from the outset of our practice. We don’t need to skirt around the bliss and emptiness that is reality; we need to go for it as soon as possible — why not right now? We can trust it, take refuge in it. Then we can sort out our issues within the perspective of infinite space and freedom — and this process becomes so much more enjoyable, not to mention effective!

wings of a birdDharma teachings are not intended to make us all hung up on what is inherently wrong with us – there is nothing inherently nor permanently wrong with us, our problems and delusions are ephemeral clouds in the sky. (Check out these articles for more tips on how to overcome our faults and delusions without buying into them.)

We are not working our way up to blissful non-dualistic wholeness from a distant ordinary place, an OTHER place, a place of inherent lack. We are realizing that this is who we already are from one perspective, and we just need to gain this perspective. This is the quickest path to transformation.

Practicing as if no one is watching

And, by the way, while we’re working on getting enlightened we don’t need to prove anything to ourselves or to anyone else. Thinking that we do is just another elaboration, another ego game. It is another way we distance ourselves from our own wellbeing and reify our painful, limited sense of self by feeling alternately proud and/or bad about it. I personally like to practice as if no one is watching.

If you have time, check Part Two and Part Three of this article, including some tips and tricks for getting quickly into our heart. Meanwhile, over to you … was this helpful or not? Anything to add?

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Enlightenment is reality 

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Enlightenment is reality

9 mins read

clear light of blissMeditation is now marketed as an antidote to everything from anxiety and depression to poor sleep and workplace inefficiency.

These are tangible benefits into which it is worth investing time and energy.

But why stop there? This is only the tip of the iceberg.

While meditation can certainly help enormously with all these things, if we stop there we are starving ourselves of the really best parts of Buddhist technology: the attainment of liberation and enlightenment.

When we engage in simple breathing meditation, we find that we are more peaceful and relaxed. This indicates that our mind is naturally peaceful, and is an important start. However, this only scratches the surface of the power of meditation and our potential to help ourselves and others.

In general, in the West, there’s a tendency to market an extraordinarily transcendent process, meditation, only as a solution for stress. Meditating to bring out our innate compassion and deep insight can sometimes get lost in translation. But traditional Buddhist meditation has these two main objectives — to develop universal compassion and gain insight into the true nature of reality — and by practicing these we can use this life to attain incredible joy and freedom for both ourselves and others.

From engaging in meditation we can increasingly understand that we all have within us a vast potential for peace and happiness, even if it isn’t fully manifest as of yet. We are infinitely transformable, and potentially infinitely peaceful, wise, and loving.

Step into reality

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Once we’ve fully realized this potential, we’ve attained enlightenment — the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance and whose function is to bestow blessings and mental peace upon each and every living being every day.

And the thing about enlightenment? …

Enlightenment is reality.

Everything else is mistaken appearance — it is unreality. And buying into it is why we are suffering.

Using Buddha’s teachings, we can understand that we are engaged in a process of practical contemplation and meditation that is drawing us closer to reality. Revealing reality.

Sometimes we think about enlightenment in the sense of a higher state of mind, a transcendent consciousness. And from one point of view that’s true. But the problem with this type of articulation is that enlightenment can sound difficult. It sounds like a good idea in general, but probably not for me because it feels unattainable.

Instead, it’s much more helpful to understand that enlightenment is just reality. Enlightenment is the only mind that that is IN reality, that is experiencing reality, and that, finally, IS reality.

So what does it mean if we’re not enlightened? It means we’re not in reality, which means we’re in an hallucination of mistaken appearances.

And this hallucination — because it’s not in reality — is producing suffering simply automatically. So whatever suffering is appearing in our life is coming about because we’re not enlightened.

welcome to reality

We can challenge our Western notions — just because it is common doesn’t mean that suffering is inevitable.

Reality cannot be destroyed

What or who is a Buddha? A person who has “awakened from the sleep of ignorance and seen things as they really are.”

We have the potential for no less than enlightenment. This is called our Buddha nature and every living being without exception has this extraordinary capacity to change, get rid of all their suffering, and cultivate all their good qualities to perfection.

The reason we have this indestructible potential is because it is not possible to destroy reality, only delusions.

This profound but simple wisdom — that enlightenment is reality — is weaved through all Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s books, both Sutra and Tantra. For example, in The New Eight Steps to Happiness, it says:

Because a Buddha’s mind is mixed with the ultimate nature of all phenomena and is free from the obstructions to omniscience, it pervades all phenomena …. From this we can understand that Buddhas are present everywhere and that there is no place where Buddha does not exist. Buddhas are like the sun and our ignorance is like the clouds that obscure the sun. When clouds disperse we see that in reality the sun has clouds and sunbeen shining all along; and, in a similar way, when we remove the clouds of ignorance from our mind we shall see that the Buddhas have always been present all around us.

To get a bit philosophical for a moment …

Emptiness is the real nature of all phenomena – always has been, always will be. But emptiness doesn’t exist from its own side, in isolation. It exists like everything else only through being known by mind. The mind that is permanently mixed with emptiness is the clear light of bliss. This is the very subtle mind that all of us have had since beginningless time, but purified of all obstructions.

So wherever emptiness is — ie, everywhere — there too is great bliss. Nice!

Here is a cool bit from Essence of Vajrayana:

Definitive Heruka is Buddha’s mind of great bliss mixed with emptiness. Since the ultimate nature of all phenomena is emptiness, definitive Heruka pervades all phenomena. In Tibetan Heruka is sometimes called “kyab dag” Heruka. “Kyab” means “pervasive” and “dag” means “nature”, so “kyab dag” means that all phenomena are pervaded by Heruka’s nature…. If we have deep understanding of this there is great hope that we shall be able to perceive whatever appears to our mind as Heruka.

Omniscient wisdom is possible because it simply knows reality, the union of bliss and emptiness. We don’t need to think of bliss and emptiness as too high for us to know or experience because it is right here, just obscured. Practicing the stages of the path of Sutra and Tantra gradually reveals it.

rubik cubeSometimes we see Buddhas or enlightened beings as separate from us, denizens of a distant world. But they are just enlightenment, or, strictly speaking, imputed on enlightenment.

In other words, Buddhas are people, like us, but they are entirely unlike us in that our self or I is imputed on a contaminated body and mind whereas a Buddha, such as Buddha Heruka, is a self or I imputed on the bliss and emptiness that is the real nature of all phenomena, and is therefore everywhere, including right here right now.

Another way of putting this is that someone who has realized bliss and emptiness directly, and imputed themselves on this reality, is called a Buddha.

And since our I or self is not at all fixed, once we get rid of our ignorance and mistaken appearances we can become the Buddha we’ve always been destined to become. We too can be everywhere, helping everyone.

As I sometimes like to put it, enlightenment is just a trick of the mind away.

Or as a friend of mine put it the other day, “All we need to do is stop tripping.”

One way to get started …

In Highest Yoga Tantra, the essence practice is dissolving our Spiritual Guide into our heart, mixing our own mind with his/her mind of bliss and emptiness, and imagining we arise as a Buddha ourselves within that space.

If you haven’t got empowerments yet, you could perhaps get started by dissolving your Spiritual Guide, Buddha Shakyamuni, through your crown and into your heart and letting your mind mix with his like water mixing with water, feeling happy. Then impute yourself on that peaceful pure mind. There is a bit more about self-generation as Buddha Shakyamuni in Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

Not an ordinary life

In some ways, we can think that everything is already enlightenment, everything is Buddha. Which is why in Tantra the main obstacles to liberation and enlightenment are called “ordinary appearances and conceptions”, ie, the mistaken appearances of things as not being Buddha-like, and the mind that assents to those appearances as the truth.

As it says in Modern Buddhism (available for free here):

Suppose there is a Heruka practitioner called John. Normally he sees himself as John, and his environment, enjoyments, body, and mind as John’s. These appearances are ordinary appearances. The mind that assents to these ordinary appearances by holding them to be true is ordinary conception. Ordinary conceptions are obstructions to liberation and ordinary appearances are obstructions to omniscience.

We see everything not only as impure and suffering, but as ordinary as opposed to enlightened; and those perceptions are in fact a mistake, grasping at which is perpetuating our samsara.

grumpy cat in landscapeI, for example, am going around thinking, “I’m L. I have this boring old body and I have this neurotic personality and I live in this okay house in this problematic country surrounded by these other regular people, all of us doing all these regular activities.” It’s all just ordinary.

But this ordinariness is not really the truth, it is just ideas, mere imputations of an ordinary mentality. None of the things I normally see exists = reality. And, providing I have some understanding of what reality is, I could instead be thinking, “I am Buddha Vajrayogini. I have this incredible body of light and I have this winning personality and I live in this blissful Buddha Land surrounded by all these pure beings, helping everyone without exception!”

These are also just ideas, but they are far better ideas, and far closer to the truth. As we discover over time, as our wisdom of bliss and emptiness grows, our hallucinations die down, and eventually enlightenment becomes our own direct experience 24/7.

Revelation

lightbulb momentsOnce we have a feeling for how enlightenment just is reality, all Buddha’s teachings make a huge lot of sense. We have more of those light bulb moments. We can understand how right now we are not in reality. Which is why enlightenment is not an option, it’s the only place to be. And how through Buddhist meditation we can step into an enlightened perspective that has always been available to us, we just needed it to be pointed out (probably more than once!) That’s the real meaning of meeting a Spiritual Guide.

Therefore, enlightenment isn’t a philosophical talking point, or the goal of superhuman meditators, like climbing a distant mountain. If we are not in enlightenment, not in reality, we are necessarily trying to make unreality work. Everything is deceiving us more or less.

So when we go deeper in our meditations with the motivation to attain enlightenment, in addition to addressing our stress and other temporary problems we are also drawing every day closer to this blissful primordial reality. Two for the price of one!

To engage in Buddhist meditation is to understand that we all have within us this unlimited potential for the truth of bliss and emptiness, even if it isn’t fully manifest as of yet. So whenever we meditate, even if it is just a breathing meditation, we can try starting with this understanding and see what happens. (In this article on meditating backwards, I explain a bit about how I practically do this.) Even an intellectual understanding that enlightenment is reality is inspiring; and, if we can get a feeling for this in our heart, everything flows so much more effortlessly from there.

I find this immensely encouraging: we are not having to go anywhere strange and new, much less having to create something from scratch, or something that is not already in some sense there. What we are doing on the journey to enlightenment, the journey into the clear light of bliss at our heart, is gradually letting go of all mental elaborations so that we can at last directly enjoy what has always been.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

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Once a Buddha, always a Buddha

4.5 mins read 

Escape to realitySometimes people get discouraged with their Tantric practice, thinking it’s beyond them and they should stick to Sutra. But I think Tantra can be pretty straightforward, especially if we can read and follow the instructions of the modern-day Vajra Master Geshe Kelsang who, like Je Tsongkhapa, is known for his ability to reveal Buddha’s wisdom and Tantric teachings in a clear and profound, yet totally accessible, way.

Carrying on from this last article about Tantra.

If we’re used to identifying with our Buddha nature from a Sutra point of view, then we do this now from a Tantric point of view, bringing the result into the path – which makes our progress smooth, joyful, and rapid.

And, as explained in the last couple of articles, we are not plopping an inherently existent ordinary miserable me onto Buddha Vajrayogini or Buddha Heruka. There is no such real me — our me or I is mere label, thank goodness. So we are generating some purity in our mind and labelling it with our mere I, Vajrayogini, and growing it from there. Try it and see!  nothing is real

Then we keep coming back to divine pride and clear appearance in very practical, usable ways, both in meditation and throughout our day. This way we transform our life into a very rapid path to enlightenment, which is what Tantra is all about.

As mentioned here, normally we believe the self we normally perceive, the one around which all our problems revolve, the ordinary limited self; and we cherish this self and protect it at all costs. We are obliged to follow its ordinary narrative and milestones. But we slowly come to understand that it is time to stop doing that — I don’t want to do that anymore! It is painful. It is daily frustrating. It is also a ginormous waste of time.

As we get going in our Tantric practice, for a long time we move back and forth between generating as a Deity and identifying as an ordinary being. This is normal, so there’s no need to entertain discouraged thoughts such as: “I thought I had this! I felt so blissful – I can’t believe I got all neurotic and graspy and sad again!”

Subtle impermanence and the emptiness of time

And here is a profound contemplation that I have always found enormously encouraging in this regard, and hope you might too.

When we appear as Vajrayogini or Heruka, we remember that we dissolved away all ordinary appearances, including their time, ie, including the pasts and futures of all ordinary appearances.

Past and future are mere name, mere appearance, now disappeared – so when we arise as Vajrayogini, we have always been Vajrayogini. Our previous identity has dissolved into emptiness, disappeared entirely, and we, Vajrayogini, have never been that person.

samsaric life

Remembering subtle impermanence is invaluable – always, but especially in Tantra. For the present moment to arise, the previous moment has to go out of existence, completely. Yesterday has gone, or where is it?! It had to go for today to arise. Everything before this moment in time has completely disappeared. By the same token, everything after this moment doesn’t exist yet because this moment has to disappear first.

In this article I talk about this incredibly useful teaching from Geshe Kelsang:

In reality we do not remain the same for one moment without changing, let alone for one life. Without the I of the previous moment ceasing, the I of the next moment could not arise. The I of one moment is the cause of the I of the next moment, and a cause and its effect cannot exist at the same time. A sprout, for example, can develop only when its cause, the seed, disintegrates. ~ How to Understand the Mind, page 134

When we arise in bliss and emptiness as a Buddha, the whole past is transformed because there is no past, only pasts of things (as explained in Ocean of Nectar), and Buddha’s past is bliss and emptiness. In that moment the whole future is transformed too, as there are only futures of things.

How long is a dream?

To help us understand this, we can consider our dreams. Dreams arise fully and all at once – they are mere projection of mind, and always present, unravelling moment by moment; but when we meet people in our dreams they have a past and a future, do they not? They were born in Clapham and they are going to die who knows where. All that is part of them in the present moment because this is the only moment there is.

Vajrayogini 1

The me of this present moment has a past and a future – so if I am ordinary I have an ordinary & suffering past and future and if I am Vajrayogini I have a pure & blissful past and future.

Wild, huh?! But true.

How old are you?

I was at the Grand Canyon recently, thinking about these rocks. They are, mind-bogglingly enough, millions of years old! Yet at the same time they are a momentary arising, an appearance to mind that is completely new in this moment. In this moment, which I am sharing with this rock, the rock has a past of millions of years whereas I only have a past of three (ahem) decades. old rocks

So once you are Buddha Vajrayogini, you have always been Vajrayogini. And always will be.

Yes, we may forget this due to lacking effort, mindfulness, and familiarity, and the ordinary person might reappear with an ordinary past and future, just like another dream. But it doesn’t invalidate the pure dream of being Vajrayogini; and at the next available opportunity we can dissolve away all the ordinariness and hallucination and go back to the Pure Land.

Eventually we can stay here  24/7, which is liberation. And then guide everyone else to this reality by helping them drop their self-grasping and ordinary appearances as well.

Check out these articles on subtle impermanence for a better idea of all this. And I have a bit more to say on the subject later.

Comments very welcome – please scroll below to leave one.

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