Inner being

5 min read

Refuge is what we turn to to get rid of our suffering. We go for refuge because we need refuge, or protection, from our various problems, big or small. We arguably spend all day going for refuge, trying to get rid of one thing by turning to something else.

people walking in NYC.jpeg

Like, just now I was feeling a big sleepy, so went to grab a coffee from my local NYC coffee shop. (Passing waves of people on the street seemingly on their way somewhere, no doubt in pursuit of relief just like me.) If we are feeling unwell, we turn to medicine; if we’re lonely, maybe we turn to friends or Tinder; if we’re hungry, we eat something if we can; if we’re bored, maybe we go online; if we’re uncomfortable, we shift our body into another position. Etc. Those are relatively tame things to do – we also have a large variety of more suspect things we turn to, such as opioids or the pursuit of power, status, and extreme wealth (check out this video:)

Sped-up movies

You know those sped-up movies? Watching them, we can see how we’re always on the go — going here, doing this, going there, doing that. Getting up, sitting down, propping ourselves up, lying down, walking around, sitting down again. Each day is a constant pursuit of little relief hits from what are basically physical or mental aches and pains. And we’ve been doing this our entire life. In all our lives, since beginningless time.

But the interesting thing is that we have just as many problems to solve as ever, don’t you find? We have just as many physical aches and pains, quite possibly more given that this body doesn’t get more comfortable as it gets older. Not to mention the near-constant mental aches and pains. So, we’re turning for refuge to other things all the time, but they are clearly only providing some temporary relief at best.New york subway

This is not to say that we shouldn’t eat, drink coffee, get a job, surf the internet, etc. That’s not Buddha’s point. His point is, are we finding the lasting happiness and freedom that we all long for? Are these temporary refuges sufficient for us, or could we actually be doing more? Could we be getting rid of our aches and pains more effectively?

And so far we’re not even talking about those BIG problems — namely ageing, sickness, major loss, catastrophes, and death — just the run of the mill irritations and discomforts. Coffee, the internet, power/status, and hot dates don’t even touch the big problems.

Ultimate refuge

This is where we turn to the subject of refuge in Buddhism. This is a vast subject — all Buddha’s teachings are included within refuge one way or another, because basically Buddhist refuge means that instead of turning to worldly solutions, or sense pleasures, or indeed anything outside our mind, we turn inside to the practice of Buddhadharma.

The main object of refuge in Buddhism is our own efforts in practicing Dharma: such as increasing our inner peace, getting rid of our delusions (sometimes known, with good reason, as “afflictions”), practicing patience, love, compassion, and wisdom. We turn to Dharma experience because we appreciate that it is the effective and lasting protection from our problems.New York shrine

There would be no Dharma without Buddha Shakyamuni, he taught it in our world; and Buddhas also emanate as Spiritual Guides who can guide us and bless our minds. Without Buddhas, or enlightened beings, it would be impossible to practice Dharma. And we also turn to Sangha, such as our fellow Dharma practitioners – others who are also interested in solving their problems, if you like, from the inside, not always from the outside.

Buddhism

At the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, when he was walking around in a form that everyone could see, he never used the word “Buddhism.” The word “Buddhism” is a new invention. It is one of those Western “ism” words — we took Buddha and added ism to the end of it.

Buddha instead would apparently call his disciples “inner beings.” Nangpa cho, if you want to know the Tibetan and impress people at parties; which I believe, though correct me if I’m wrong, literally means inner Dharma. Those who practice the teachings, go for refuge to the Three Jewels, are inner beings, because instead of turning outwards for solutions to their problems they are trying to turn inwards to transform the mind.

new york freedom towerAnd the reason we practice Dharma is out of compassion, to free ourselves and others. To end suffering. To end suffering for everybody: humans, animals, insects, everybody. That’s the end goal in Buddhism — to ourselves become more and more of an object of refuge until eventually we ourselves are a Buddha.

Going for refuge to Dharma

Putting effort into practicing Dharma means that we take delight in it, really enjoy it. We see it as a real solution to everything that ails us and everybody else. We love it, we understand its benefits, we understand that it works. So we naturally turn to it with effort. Effort doesn’t mean straining and pushing, it means enjoyment — its full name is joyful effort. If we enjoy things, we do them, you’ve probably noticed.

Going for refuge to Buddha

We also put effort into receiving blessings and inspiration from Buddha. We can do this by just feeling close to enlightened beings, because from their side they’re already close to us, indeed one with us. By tuning into blessings, our minds experience huge amounts of power and inspiration.

Going for refuge to Sangha

love is the real nuclear bombAnd then we put effort into receiving help from Sangha, which means we allow ourselves to be encouraged and inspired by other people who are practicing Dharma. They’re all trying to gain the experiences of cherishing others and patience, for example, and all trying to get rid of their attachment and irritation. The fact that they haven’t managed it all yet doesn’t matter; we’re still motivated by them because they’re trying. They can be very good examples for us. And we can make an effort not just to receive help from Sangha but to help them too.

My feeling is that Sangha don’t have to be signed-up Buddhists – I find anyone who is relying on inner refuge, for example compassion in the face of adversity, can work as refuge and inspiration for me.

Over to you. Any thoughts to contribute on the subject of inner being?

Related articles

The power of Sangha 
Buddhism: an idea whose time has come 
What is Buddhism? ~ a short, simple guide

 

Good beginnings . . . to everything

A guest article from a Kadampa practitioner in New York who is determined to start the New Year right … everyday.

6 mins read

new years

Well looky looky, here it is again. The New Year. The time when we are reminded that a “fresh beginning” is again upon us and that perhaps (perhaps) this would be a good time to make some internal and/or external life changes. . . or at the very least, some worthy tweaks.

But first …

I know, I know, I know. . . The whole New Years resolution thing…it’s a ritual schtick. There is nothing intrinsically “transformagical” about the beginning of a new year. It’s a construction. It’s a convention. I’ve got that. It’s not really any different than any other random moment of the Earth’s solar orbit. January 1st. February 14th. July 4th. All these “special” days are simply designations, names and numbers bundled together and endowed with various agreed-upon meanings. As many a Kadampa teacher would say, “Find January 1. You can’t. It’s not really there, at least not the way you think it is.”

I love that.

It’s not really there.

Picture2I love this because what it means is that we get to assign meaning. How is it that the “New Year” can posses its fabled rejuvenating qualities? How can there be actual power on this very day in our resolutions to start doing this, quit doing that, begin eating this way, etc.?  Simple. Because we choose to name it as a day of power. That’s it, folks. The magic wand of our mind says it is so. Presto change-o. It’s nothing else but what we name it. So I’d strongly suggest that we name it well.

Beginnings

So, let’s scoot back for a moment to Day One of this life. Happy New Life. Your own personal January 1. How do we begin our life? No real news flash here, it’s with our breath, correct?  Inhale. . . exhale. . . cry like a baby. All of us, at some point in this rebirth, we each took our very first breath. We sucked some of that good old O2 down into our little chests. And so it began: the appearances of this life. Welcome (back) to Karmaville. Happy New Life.

Picture6Here’s a question for you. Meditation. Our precious tool for transformation. How is it that we begin our meditations? Well, traditionally, it’s also with the breath. Once we have settled in on our cushions (cracked our knuckles, scratched our head, readjusted our legs, rubbed our nose, noticed some dustballs on the floor near our shrine…) we close our eyes and bring our attention to our breathing. Many people, it turns out, have trouble with this part. It’s boring (they say). It’s too hard to do. It becomes its own distraction (“Am I breathing correctly?”).

I don’t dare reveal how many years it was that I did the shabbiest of all jobs in this “bring your attention to your breath” part of my practice. Along with the excuses I just listed, part of this shabbiness was due to my urgency to get on to the “real” stuff. You know, the contemplation, the single-pointed focus, the insights, the clear light mind, the liberating of all sentient beings from their suffering through the power of my correct imagination and compassion and wisdom, etc. Why the heck should I sit here and stare at my boring old breath when I’ve got all these more fun and more important matters to attend to?

Who knew? The breath rocks.

As it turns out, this neutral object is an astounding thing. It’s a fantastic vehicle to start us on our road to all those powerful places we want to go. Inhalation … exhalation . . . inhalation . . . exhalation.

Perhaps it will help if you stop thinking of it as breath. Try thinking of it as a tide that washes up onto the shore then draws back from the shore, clearing and cleansing with every single cycle.

Picture4Or as a wind that blows smoothly and calmly through your entire body and mind, dislodging and dispersing any sort of stuckness and ugh-ness that has been building up there. That’s nice.

Or let it be light: a cascade of radiant illumination silently blasting away any and all shadows. Your call. It’s just breath. It’s invisible. It’s about as “not really there” as you can get. So you can picture it any way you wish. Go wild. Designate at your pleasure. And “pleasure” is the key here, isn’t it?  We need to enjoy. The best advice on meditation in general that I’ve heard from my beloved Kadampa teachers is: Have fun with it. It is being presented to us as a joyful path to good fortune, not a frustrating or boring one.

So we begin with our breath. Just like we did on that day we were reborn. But rather than simply breathing mindlessly as we did then, now we make skillful use of it to help direct us toward the experience of peace, of stillness, of expansive inner relaxation that is our potential. And of course the breath is so convenient an object. It’s right there. All the time. Usually being ignored. It’s like Dorothy’s red shoes…just sitting there waiting to start you on your way to fantastic places.

Picture5Lately, I’ve been employing the phrase, “Follow the breath into the heart,” as one of my encouragements, one of my suggestions to myself. “Do this. This will be nice. Follow the breath into the heart. This will help.”  And it has helped. Quite a lot. Geshe Kelsang provides a potent encouragement of his own (no surprise) in How To Transform Your Life:

Even though breathing meditation is only a preliminary stage of meditation, it can be quite powerful. We can see from this practice that it is possible to control the mind, without having to depend on external conditions….So much of the stress and tension we normally experience comes from the mind, and many of the problems we experience, including ill health, are caused or aggravated by this stress. Just by doing breathing meditation for ten or fifteen minutes each day, we will be able to reduce this stress. We will experience a calm, spacious feeling in the mind, and many of our usual problems will fall away. Difficult situations will become easier to deal with, we will naturally feel warm and well disposed toward other people, and our relationships with others will naturally improve.

Beginnings are important

Which is all to say (among other things), that beginnings are important. They can set the stage for what comes next. Little baby sucking in that first breath . . . a very good thing. Little meditator taking the time to create focus and inspiration with those first breaths . . . a very good thing.

And now, back to the New Year. 2018. It’s coming. That thing that holds no inherent meaning. That thing we get to imbue with meaning, if we so choose. What I’m going to suggest is that when 2018 rolls around, we notice our very first breath of the new year and make a resolution to follow it into our heart. Let it take us there. And let’s remain there.

Picture3Even better, what say we follow that first breath into the hearts of those we know? Or of those we encounter in the course of our days and nights? And those we hear about or read about, or even merely think about?  Good idea? And then follow the next breath there as well . . .and the next . . . and the next . . . “and so forth.”

The New Year is empty.  Beginnings are relative. Lucky us. We choose. We can fill that first moment of our new year with good purpose, and then holding that intention, see where it leads us.

I will prostrate to the new moon . . .

Good Beginnings.

Happy New Year.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

 

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.”

IMG_2521-EFFECTS

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

Don’t quit your day job (to practice dharma)

A guest article by a modern Buddhist practitioner who works full time as a manager of software engineer teams.

kamparipa
“Transform your daily task into an internal meditation … the result is the immaculate dharmakaya.” ~Kamparipa, the Mahasiddha who attained enlightenment in his daily life as a blacksmith

What do a Weaver, Musician, Cobbler, Blacksmith, Merchant and Potter all have in common? They are a few of the professions of ancient practitioners who attained full enlightenment through their day jobs. How did they do this? The common theme in the stories of these great yogis is that they used their daily appearances as fuel for their practice of meditation.

These ancient Mahasiddhas knew that everything is a mere appearance to the mind. By changing our mind and learning to see the appearances of our day job as a Dharma teaching, there is no need to change external appearances. Rather than our job being an obstacle to realizing Buddha’s teachings, it becomes our path of meditation. Then the focus of our job is not on escaping it so that we can really practice Dharma. Rather, the focus will be on transforming it in the most profound and meaningful way possible.

Our day job is not an obstacle to our practice
Manibhadra
“When I realized my mind is the nature of emptiness, all phenomena that appeared to my mind became emptiness itself.” ~Manibhadra, the female Mahasiddha who attained enlightenment in her daily life raising her family

Thinking that we need to quit our job to practice Dharma puts the results of our practice into the distant (and often unlikely) future. Often the wish to leave our job to practice Dharma is an aspect of aversion. We believe that if we only could have the space and time to actually focus on our practice, then we could make a dent in our delusions. This way of thinking obstructs us from living in the moment. It also disengages us from transforming every experience into one that destroys our delusions.

The most common objection to this is that we need to do solitary retreat for years to make progress. Geshe Kelsang has explained that with consistent practice we can attain the fourth stage of tranquil abiding in our daily life. In Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, Geshe Kelsang explains how to attain actual tranquil abiding and superior seeing using this level of concentration. This teaching unlocks the complete path to enlightenment without the need to quit our day job.

The complete path to enlightenment is available in daily life
Tantipa
“I weave the strands of my experience … and the finished fabric is the dharmakaya.” ~Tantipa, the Mahasiddha who met his teacher at the age of 89 and attained enlightenment in his daily life as a weaver

Geshe-la has explained again and again that we can easily attain the same results as the ancient practitioners of the past. He said that their stories are our proof that these practices work. We have access to the same techniques, presented in a modern context that are clear and easily understood. Due to many special qualities of Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings, attaining the results of these practices is even easier now than it ever has been before!

So what other excuses do we have that stop us from fully embracing every appearance in our life as our spiritual path? What is stopping an Art Manager, Graphic Designer, Performer, Event Coordinator, or Software Engineer from becoming a modern-day Mahasiddha?

We need to fully believe that we can attain enlightenment in our day job and encourage ourself again and again until this becomes our reality.

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

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 regular 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.

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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Just passin’ through …

Today I was wondering what people might want to do with my ashes, if anything at all. For the record, if any of you can be bothered, I would like them scattered in the lake at Madhyamaka Centre, Geshe Kelsang’s first Buddhist Centre in the West, where I spent a number of formative years. If that’s inconvenient because I die in another country, I don’t mind being scattered on the plants at any Kadampa Center.

riding through townAnyway, this got me thinking. And maybe it is because I live in the Wild West these days, but I got this image of myself as a cowboy riding into town – one of those fake Hollywood towns with a saloon, livery, general store, sheriff, and all that other atmospheric stuff.

I have no idea how long I will be on this set — it could be days or weeks or perhaps even years, but one thing I know for sure is that I am only passing through. I have been riding my whole life through town after town, and before long I will be riding onto countless more. And the same is true for everybody else in this dusty desert.

For the sake of argument, lets say that everything I do in this town is going to count towards where I go next — I will be taking my intentions or karma with me like credentials or a rap sheet. Also, in this town, everybody, just like me, wants to be happy all the time and never wants to suffer.

So, given this, what am I going to do while I’m here? What is the best way to help myself and help everyone else?

I will do my best to make sure they’re comfortable. I will try and make this town more peaceful, harmonious, fair, and equitable. I will try and help people find enough to eat and have roofs over their heads. I will speak up against injustice. I will vote for the best sheriff on offer. When there is trouble, eg, a violent storm, I will try my best to help people rebuild. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:

Through technological progress and by organizing society in fairer, more humane ways, we can certainly help improve people’s lives in some respects.

All of this is very important. But even more important, I think, is to help everyone realize that they are just here for a short time and that none of this is really happening.

indianAlso, when I do help in those external ways, I need to be able to set the intention and release the outcome, as it were – not getting attached to results, because these are by no means certain in samsara. This is not fatalistic, it is realistic; and recognizing it will make me more, not less, effective in helping my townsfolk, while keeping the discouragement of false expectations at bay.

Also, I need to be prepared not to freak out if there are unwanted consequences from some of my actions – I am dealing, after all, with a truck-load of cowboys and girls, with all their uncontrolled minds and bad karma. For example, I might protect the damsel from the gunslinger, but she may go on to shoot someone else.

Whatever we do will inevitably have some unwanted side effects. The best we can hope for is to provide people with conditions that bring some temporary relief from problems and difficulties, but we cannot give them true, lasting happiness. This is because the real cause of happiness is inner peace, which can be found only within the mind, not in external conditions. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Whatever happens in this town has no lasting impact or value because soon we will all be moving on. Realizing this obviates the 8 worldly concerns. For what use are fame, wealth, and so on, except insofar as we can use it to help others? I need to realize as well that this town is basically fake, a back lot at Universal Studios. Appearances are deceptive. We can sometimes have happy moments in a virtual reality, but buying into mistaken appearances overall causes nothing but problems and confusion.

The source of everything that appears to us in this movie-like reality is mind, an extraordinarily creative mind. One that happens to be our own. We need to harness and control it as soon as we can, take over the narrative, and help everyone else do the same.

Portals

So let’s say that in this town there is a place that has uncovered the mystery that lies at the heart of the Wild West and all its people, ie, it is all fleeting and it is all false.

sceneryAnd if I were to stumble upon this place, it would be utterly eye-opening, it would shatter my complacency, it would be a portal into a blissful new world of possibility and freedom. I couldn’t get enough of it. And I would want to help it grow so that more and more of my friends and fellow inhabitants could find it too.

As the townsfolk discovered it, and gradually learned the ideas that set them free, they would naturally bring those ideas into their lives in the town, share them with others, whatever line of work they were in. They would naturally work to help their people because they would WANT to, and they might have imaginative and fresh approaches to old problems. Society could change for the better.

Welcome to your local Buddhist Center.

Buddha said:

This world is not our permanent home. We are travelers passing through.

In this short human life, of course I want to help with practical kindness as much as I am able, even if it’s only donating to disaster relief. But my main wish is to help create portals of wisdom and compassion so that everyone in the world can learn the true nature of reality and escape from the bad dream of samsara forever.

I heard Gen Rigpa, the Kadampa Buddhist teacher in Los Angeles, say that every atom of a Dharma Center is made of compassion. I love that.  For of course the Center is not just bricks and mortar, or what happens inside those walls. It is not even just the people attending at any given time. It doesn’t have boundaries. It spreads into the society cowgirlaround it via the hearts and deeds of all its members. People get peace from the teachings and are inspired to pay it forward. Everyone is welcome. No one is excluded.

The portal doesn’t have to be secret, not at all. It could be in the building right next to the Saloon. The commercial spaces being created all over the world are particularly interesting for this reason – when I started out, Buddhist Centers were always out in the sticks, not obvious, and self-contained like the monasteries of Tibet. Now they are very much a public service, part of the fabric of modern life, found in the middle of cities everywhere, open and accessible to all the people walking by. People show up to relax at a lunchtime breathing meditation, and find themselves with access to an entire path to enlightenment. This is modern Buddhism.

So everything we do directly or indirectly to help these Centers is of great service to our one-horse town and — because each Center is dedicated to world peace — it is also of implicit service to everyone else.

There are temples for world peace everywhere, where the teachings are available and prayers for world peace are being offered up all the time. And prayers work. Luckily there is a world peace temple being built in Washington DC as we speak; and it is is also clearer to me now why Geshe Kelsang seemed so keen on starting a Center in South Korea, even though this has not properly materialized yet. None of these temples will come a moment too soon.

Practitioners at the Centers learn what they need to know, become more and more like Bodhisattvas, and gradually take their wisdom, compassion, skill, and imagination into their own and others’ daily lives. Wherever they go, the Center goes with them so to speak – as artists, doctors, social activists, teachers, parents, entrepreneurs, flight attendants, film makers, and so on. There are no real limits. That’s how I see it at least. I think these teachings, far from leading to escapism, can light fires under the socially engaged.

WestworldAnd, by the way, it seems to be a two-way street – Dharma Centers cannot flourish in a vacuum. People need to have a certain number of good human conditions and the space and freedom to practice. Think of Tibet – when it was overrun, Dharma could not flourish. If we want Dharma to flourish, I would say we have some responsibility for helping make our society conducive. For right now our world does not seem to be going in a fabulous direction, not at all.

Buddhism is therefore not about navel-gazing – once we know and have some stable experience of it, we apply it also with relevance to “real-world” problems, while at the same time recognizing that there is no real world.

For material development alone, for its own sake, is not good enough. Temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough. And no matter how hard we try, we’ll never find happiness where it is not. Of primary importance is the radical shift within, especially realizing the true nature of reality. As modern-day Buddhist master Geshe Kelsang says:

Just as the only way to solve our own problems is to find inner peace, so the only way to help others to solve theirs is to encourage them to engage in spiritual practice and discover their own inner peace.

This peace is not just a feel-good option but a must-have. It is the path to lasting freedom and happiness. There are many levels of inner peace – from the patience that stops shooting at everything that moves, right through to the enlightenment that dissolves away the suffering world and recreates a Pure Land.

The teachings on selflessness and Tantra in particular are capable of flipping switches left, right, and center. The lasting inner peace we want people to experience is the inner light of omniscient wisdom, where they see through the illusion, see through the deception, and are finally completely free to create the blissful reality and worlds of their choosing.

The actual portal to freedom is not outside of us – it is the doorway into the heart of bliss and emptiness. We need to realize the impermanent and illusory nature of the scenery, ourselves, and everyone else in this godforsaken town! As Geshe Kelsang says:

We can sometimes help others by providing them with money or better material conditions, but we should remember that the greatest benefit we can give is to help them overcome their delusions and find true, lasting happiness within.

And that is the true and only purpose for helping power up these portals — wherever you are and however you can.

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