7 good reasons to learn how to meditate in a pandemic

(Scroll down for a simple 10-15 minute meditation you can do at home.)

As I don’t need to tell you, a lot of people around the world have been doing their best for several weeks now to practice social distancing — staying home, avoiding crowds, wearing masks, etc. Some projections have us doing some kind of social distancing for the next 12 months, possibly longer. Although living like this can be lonely, inconvenient, and even frightening, insofar as people are managing it is because they know it’s for the collective good. why we are staying home

This global pandemic has altered the very fabric of our existence, in one fell swoop shutting down everything we hold dear, from sports to movies to cafes to the very notion of human interaction. It’s uncomfortable to wake up each morning still under lockdown if we’re not used to it, and especially if we prefer being around people all day doing lots of stuff …

… BUT it doesn’t have to be all bad, especially if we can use the time to explore different ways to be happy and productive. Therefore, I’m going to share seven ways in which meditation can support our mental and emotional well-being during this time and indeed any time. I have basically stolen this whole list from a brilliant friend of mind who teaches meditation all over Ireland (with his permission, and his points are in blue). As Kadam Adam says:

By integrating some meditation practice into our daily routine, we will discover some of the benefits that meditators have experienced for thousands of years.

Just so you know, if you are coming upon this blog for the first time — you don’t need to be a Buddhist to learn Buddhist meditation and find peace, positivity, and joy in your life, whatever circumstances you find yourself in. Meditation basically means familiarizing and identifying ourselves with positive and happy ways of thinking, and breaking negative habits of mind that cause stress and unhappiness. It helps us a lot, and it helps us to become strong for others.

1. When we can’t go out, it gives us an opportunity to go in.

In meditation, we take a little time out each day to be alone, recover our strength, collect our thoughts, and see things in perspective.

Many of us usually have a habit of keeping ourselves mentally and physically busy, and almost exclusively oriented toward the never-ending externals of life. So now that we are stuck at home, I mean safe at home, with loads of time – as opposed to on the Cornteen cartoonfrontlines or suddenly having to homeschool the kids – is this not a perfect time to pick up those neglected meditation books and/or tune into a livestream channel (aka Buddhist TV) near us?!

Anyone can learn to meditate providing they have a mind to. I would argue that it is considerably more constructive and fun than being a media junkie using up all our new-found spare time to stay up to date with what dreadful stuff has happened in the past ten minutes. We can do nothing about the vast majority of headline news, after all; so all that happens after a bit of titillation is that we end up feeling more enervated or anxious.

This interruption in the routines of daily life can give us a chance to form a new habit—to turn inwards a little more often instead of habitually outwards. As Gen Rigpa, the Kadampa Buddhist teacher in Los Angeles, put it to his students:

“Free time can either lead to more movies, more eating, more drinking, more sleeping, more mindless diversions, more nervous energy, more boredom … or more enjoyment of your own mind through the magic of contemplation and meditation. See if you can learn to relax your mind more often and a little more deeply, and get more familiar with the richness and power of simple meditation practices. And remember, small changes and seemingly small decisions add up to massive differences in the long run. From one point of view you are the summation of your habits, and now is a great time to form some new ones, or strengthen the good ones you already have!”

2. Stay calm and cope

In meditation, we learn how to develop and maintain a calm, clear, and peaceful state of mind that helps us cope with the difficulties we face at this time, without feeling overwhelmed by them.

As Gen Rigpa said:

“During lockdown, it is easy for restlessness, anxiety, or boredom to creep in and take charge, but we can improve our response to this new combination of adversity and free time. Meditation practice is the one thing that can really protect us from the painful appearances we are always trying to escape.”

Buddha divided problems into two – outer problems (circumstances we find ourselves in such as weird pandemics) and inner problems (our unpeaceful uncontrolled feelings or mental reactions). These two types of problem have two types of solution, epitomized in keep calm and wash your handsthis COVID-19 sign: staying calm is dealing with our inner problems and washing our hands is dealing with our outer problems.

For example, if you try the breathing meditation helpfully offered by KA below, you might find that you relax and feel more peaceful and happy in your heart. Feeling peaceful is the opposite of feeling unpeaceful. Therefore, with this new experience we are directly antidoting the unhappiness, depression, worry, and so on that (1) cause our mental pain and (2) get in the way of our doing anything constructive with our outer problems.

Rather than “Freak out and wash your hands!”, solving these inner problems also helps us to solve our outer problems because when we are feeling peace and love at our heart we’re more likely and energized to do the right thing and be productive. As the saying goes, we can’t wring our hands and roll up our sleeves at the same time.

3. Feel happy inside, feel happy everywhere

We discover that the more we meditate the more peaceful our mind becomes, and the naturally happier we feel. In this way, we find we are at peace with, and simply happy to be where we are, even if that’s in self-isolation.

All meditations from simple breathing meditations to the most profound meditations on wisdom or Tantra have a common purpose, to make our mind calm and peaceful. As it happens, our mind is already naturally peaceful. As we experience and develop that peace by mastering our own thoughts through the application of Buddha’s practical teachings, or Dharma, it becomes richer and deeper, until one day we discover we can stay happy day and night. Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 2.57.35 PM 

One practical suggestion from me is to avoid binge-watching every single TV show and movie you can lay your eyes on, and instead get to bed and up again at a reasonable hour. First opportunity we get in the morning, we can grab ourselves a tea/coffee and a meditation book, and start the day anchored in happiness. As we prepare to get up from meditation, we can set our mental compass to caring for others and therewith more happiness throughout the day.

Back to Gen Rigpa:

“This way, rather than our mind getting hijacked by the relentless assault of the news and ordinary distractions, we can use these as fuel for our already primed and activated Dharma mindset. Make creating a Dharma experience within your mind the first priority of the day, then embrace the day from that space.”

4. Identify and let go of unhealthy feelings

We learn how to mindfully identify unhealthy feelings such as anxiety, fear, stress, and loneliness as they arise, without feeling overly identified with them. In this way, we can use meditation to let them go and deal with the difficulties we meet with a calm, peaceful and flexible mind.

When we learn about meditation, we come to understand that, far from being fixed and solid and real, our thoughts are as fleeting and insubstantial as clouds in the sky. By stepping back and identifying with our spacious sky-like mind rather than each passing cloud, we can see the bigger picture. Indeed we can step back and create the bigger picture.

This is because we get to choose our thoughts. We can learn to temporarily let go of all those mistaken distorted ways of thinking and seeing things, which make us unhappy, depressed, angry, worried, and so on; and then dig deeper with wisdom to eliminate them entirely. There is a lot about this essential spiritual practice of overcoming delusions in Kadampa Life, for example herescenic tree

5. Grow our innate good qualities

We learn how to cultivate the innate potential we all have for qualities such as loving- kindness, compassion, and wisdom. This helps us to feel increasingly at peace with ourselves, others, and our troubled world, as we develop healthier and wiser ways of relating to our current situation.

We have the choice to cultivate new ways of viewing ourselves, the world, and each other that make us feel more and more loving, connected, compassionate, and patient.

There is no limit to this process. Everyone with a mind has the potential to become an enlightened being – someone who has removed ALL their delusions, obstructions, and limitations and cultivated their love, compassion, and wisdom to perfection. Here is my favorite quote from William Blake:

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

In times of uncertainty, we can always trust our peaceful Buddha nature, our potential for enlightenment. This is who we really are. We have goodness and sanity at our core, we ARE goodness and sanity at our core — we simply need to learn how to go inside and access that. That is the practice of meditation.

6. A guaranteed way to help others

A little daily meditation can be the kindest thing we can do for everyone, at this time. The more at peace we are with ourselves, the more at peace we can be with others. This can be especially helpful if we are spending more time with our loved ones, than we are normally used to.

As I mentioned in this article, even the media is encouraging people to take up meditation:

So, you’re stuck at home. You’re stressed. Now is as good a time as ever to pick up a meditation practice. Scientific findings from an 18-year analysis on a Buddhist monk found that daily intensive meditation may significantly slow brain aging. There is a slew of other health benefits to the mindfulness and quiet peace that often accompanies meditation. And if you feel weird about getting Zen with so much happening in the world, remember that even the World Health Organization warned people this week to take care of their mental health as well as their physical health.

Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 2.59.19 PMIn the comments to that CNN article, someone wrote, “I feel guilty about doing this meditation practice when there is so much going on.” I have experienced this survivor’s guilt myself in the past, but now I understand that feeling bad about feeling good, as it were, is like one drowning person who wants to help another drowning person feeling guilty about making for dry land. We can’t help others if we are in no position to do so. Or another example is like one cell of the body of life feeling guilty because it is healthy when in fact its own health helps the health of those around it.

We can remember too that meditation doesn’t just mean sitting on a cushion (or couch), closing our eyes, and absorbing within. That is meditation, but meditation is also whenever we familiarize ourselves with wisdom, kindness, and other virtuous states of mind as antidotes to our delusions. Which means we can be practicing meditation all day long, it is a way of life.

For example, when you’re practicing the patience of happily accepting suffering with something difficult coming up in your day, not yelling at someone, you know how this is very different from getting upset and annoyed? This is every bit as much meditation as when we are sitting with our eyes closed in single-pointed concentration.

For those of you wondering what meditation practices to do during this time, I would like to share this advice, courtesy once again of Gen Rigpa:

Newer practitioners may like to start with basic breathing meditations (like the one below).

“You can also create your own meditation practice by reading a paragraph or two from How to Transform Your Life, How to Solve Our Human Problems, Modern Buddhism, or any other favorite Buddhist book; and then close your eyes and think about what you have read until it “touches your heart”. Then just hold that special feeling gently in your mind for a few minutes so that you take it out of meditation and into your daily activities. In that way you transform your day into an expression of Dharma and everything becomes part of your spiritual path. [Ed: two of those books are free, see links on the right column of this blog.]

“In addition for more experienced practitioners, one practice you may like to emphasize at this time is the incredible meditation called Taking and Giving. Many of Venerable Geshe-la’s books teach this ancient healing practice (The New Eight Steps to Happiness, How to Transform Your Life, Universal Compassion, Modern Buddhism etc.), and it is the perfect way to transform adversity into spiritual realizations, meditating and dedicating for the sick, those who have died, the medical workers—for everyone around the world affected by this pandemic.”

7. Transform difficulties into personal growth

Finally we discover, if we can learn to respond to difficult situations — such as the one we are in — with a peaceful, positive state of mind, they don’t need to feel such a problem for us. Indeed, we may even come to regard them as challenges or opportunities for personal growth and development.

By training our mind in meditation we come to experience purer and purer forms of happiness — happiness that, because it comes from within, is unaffected by externals or conditional upon life going our way. Eventually we can be happy all the time, even in the most difficult circumstances. rainbow

My teacher Venerable Geshe Kelsang is for me a shining example of this ability to transform difficulties into the spiritual journey toward lasting freedom; and Kadampa Buddhism in particular specializes in this practice. In the 1950s, China invaded Tibet and he escaped in a hurry with just his robes and two texts. He had to leave the only country he had ever known, along with his language, monastery, family, and everything else, to go on an incredibly dangerous and difficult journey to India over the Himalayas. That, to put it mildly, would be a disruption to one’s routine.

Many years later at Madhyamaka Centre, where I first found Buddhism, I met some of the people who knew Geshe-la at the time. They told me that throughout this whole ordeal he stayed as beautifully calm, peaceful, and happy as he always was. Then he entered a long 16-year retreat and also practiced healing. Not once in this exile did he become unhappy or anxious – such is the power of a fully trained mind. Later, in his forties, he was able with compassion to bring all that wisdom he’d internalized through his challenging life to the West, and I and hundreds of thousands of his other students are testament to that power.

So when he says, as he does in The New Eight Steps To Happiness …

By training our mind to recognize the spiritual lessons in all our experiences, we can come to view everyone and everything as our Spiritual Teachers, and we can turn any and every situation to our advantage.

… we can believe him. If he can do it, and I now have all the same methods he had, I can transform anything; and so too can you if you want.

Right now, the narratives of our lives are unsettled. In modern society, we’ve gotten used to a cliched set of plotlines; but these carefully constructed stories no longer apply in the same way. The future looks totally strange and uncertain for many people — obviously for those who have tragically died or lost loved ones or find themselves out of work, but also for those missing major milestones in their own lives such as graduation or marriage. All the things that normally interest us are not holding our attention as much, replaced by endless COVID-19 headlines that people can’t seem to get enough of. Even the usual “he-said, she-said” of political debate doesn’t seem to be fascinating people to the same extent. Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 3.01.30 PM

When exposed to harsh reality — such as sickness, ageing, and death – the well-trod narratives tend to collapse under the weight of their own contradictions. This is Buddha’s point about the fleeting, deceptive, and dream-like nature of samsara, the cycle of impure life. But in losing the plot we can now chart a new course.

Hopefully this article has helped you see how, if we can learn to stay peaceful and calm and increase our wisdom and compassion, we will become a strong reliable person, a source of refuge for others. This may not happen overnight, but is nonetheless entirely possible.

A simple 7-step breathing meditation practice to support mental and emotional well-being (10 to 15 minutes)
  1. Find a quiet place to sit (a chair is fine) that is free of distractions. Partially close your eyes. Back straight but relaxed. Hands resting in your lap. Breathe gently and naturally through the nostrils. Let go of focusing externally and gather your awareness inwards.
  2. Begin by generating a wish to use the meditation to improve your inner peace, happiness and good qualities, so that it will be of benefit to both yourself and others.
  3. Next, be aware — without judgement — where your mind is at, in this moment. Is it calm, clear and peaceful? Or, busy and distracted? To let go of agitation and distraction and center in a calm, clear and peaceful state of mind, focus – without distraction – on the sensation of breath as it enters and leaves through your nostrils.
  4. When you notice you are following thoughts and distractions, simply acknowledge and accept their presence, and let go of the urge to follow them. Then, relax and return to the breath, allowing your attention to draw closer and closer to the breath each time.
  5. Eventually your attention will rest on the breath and you will notice the distractions naturally dissolve, like waves returning to an ocean. You will feel a deepening sense of inner calm, clarity, and peace of mind.
  6. Just relax into this inner peace and identify with it as your potential to change, to find a deeper and longer lasting peace of mind and happiness. Thinking, if I can become a little more peaceful, a little happier through a little meditation, it follows I can become a lot more peaceful, a lot happier, through regular meditation.
  7. Conclude the meditation with a determination to maintain this inner calm and peace throughout your day, so that it naturally, and positively, influences everything you think, say and do.

Over to you. Please share with the rest of us what practices or resources you are finding most helpful during these unusual times.

(Images courtesy of scenes from my neighborhood and lame jokes found online.)

Related articles on dealing with COVID-19

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s suggestion

NOPE!

Love in the time of corona

Love the great Protector

Better together

Audio meditations to do at home

 

Better together

Everything is being shaken up right now for almost everyone, one way or another. Business and activities as usual, including many of our distractions, are on hold. The future looks pretty cloudy and unsustainable based on our old ways of doing things; it would appear that something has to give.

Geshe-la meditating in his roomHopefully a lot of you, the relatively lucky ones who are forced to stay “safe at home”, have actually had a chance to rest and rejuvenate … you may have forgotten this, but in the “old days” we constantly complained of being too busy, stressed, even burned out. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say “I LOVE the idea of meditation!” but then never got around to it … (I’d be quite rich). If we use this time to deliberately reset our intentions and our hearts through meditation practices including loving-kindness, things will work out a lot better moving forward. Instead of giving ourselves over to anxiety (a “misuse of the imagination”) or aimlessly twiddling our thumbs, it makes us feel far more alive to take control of our days and hours.

Cells in the same body of life

We are all like cells in the body of life in two ways and there is nothing uniquely special about us in that respect.

To remind you of the first way, as explained in this last article Love the Great Protector — at the moment we may view ourself as being independent of everyone else – I am over here being me and you are over there being you — but that gap is not actually there. Where is that gap? When we meditate on the interconnectedness of self and others,  we realize that without others we’re literally nothing. We melt away like individual snowflakes. We don’t exist.

Buddha said that we are not wholes unto ourselves but part of a whole, only existing in dependence upon all the other parts. This is not just theoretical, it is reality. We need this deeper knowing so that we are not sucked into the illusion of loneliness every day.

Plus right now we can see that we are all on the same side fighting the same foe – we always are, it’s just clearer at the moment. We do have a common enemy and it is not each other – it is ignorance and delusions, suffering in general, and at this point in time the particular suffering arising from COVID-19.

We could recognize what needs to be done, practically speaking, without wasting time apportioning blame. Blaming each other with anger doesn’t really help, it generally makes things worse, and it tends to make us feel more powerless. We can stop blaming each other by recognizing that we are all in this together, that far from being each other’s enemies we are each other’s life support system.

better togetherWhen we really come to feel that we are cells in the same body of life, it’s not hard to appreciate that everything we do affects others and everything they do affects us. The parts affect the whole and the whole affects the parts. This is why our constant attempts to separate ourselves out backfire. When we go through life thinking “Me, me, me,” all day long (“What about me and my happiness, that’s what’s most important!”) — neglecting others and pursuing our own wishes at the expense of others — then we are not just harming others but harming ourselves. If everyone in the whole world is thinking “Me first!”… well, we can just look at the world to see how that is (not) working out.

Taking stock

It is a good time to take stock. Many societal fault-lines are being revealed even more glaringly during this crisis – for example what happens if we don’t care for everyone’s health without prejudice. As the now famous Fauci said yesterday: “These health disparities have long been prevalent in the African American community and that this pandemic is shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is. ”

There is no clearly good path or outcome based on how our species has been running full tilt toward wreckage due to our uncontrolled selfish desires. We need to turn this around, starting with ourselves. We can’t wait for everyone else to change – where would we be if Buddha had done that? It is extraordinary what even one person can do to help their community if they put their mind to it – people who deeply cherish others are like “magic crystals”.

Caring about others is the best intention. Because we are all cells in the same body of life, what is good for one person must be good for another; and if we are harming others, we are harming ourselves. We all impact each other in both life-threatening and life-saving ways. We need to wake up to this. Love helps us immediately and it helps us in the long term because the positive intentions that arise from love are congruent with our wish for good experiences in the future.

Equalizing self and others

Everyone matters and everyone matters equally. We are all exactly the same. The Shantideva quote never harm othersdifferent cells in a body play different functions, but they are all important and need to be healthy.

The second way in which we are all like cells in the same body of life is explained in the meditation called “Equalizing ourself and others”. This meditation opens our hearts to cherishing others as much as we currently cherish ourself because we are all exactly the same, equally necessary parts of the one whole.

Here is the key contemplation from The New Meditation Handbook:

Just as I wish to be free from suffering and experience only happiness, so do all other beings. In this respect, I am no different from any other being; we are all equal.

“All this happiness is driving me crazy!” said no one ever. And who wants to be unhappy!? Right, nobody.

We’ve been working non-stop forever to be happy and free from unhappiness, but something we are doing is not working. Buddha identified that as self-grasping and self-cherishing ignorance, putting our own happiness and freedom before others’, which has brought about “a painful situation,” as Geshe Kelsang says, in all our countless lives.

The starting point of this meditation is: “Everyone is exactly like me. We all have the same wishes. I know their hearts.” We can practice it with our friends first, even just one friend, and then extend our contemplation to encompass more and more living beings.

What is life like for this person? We put ourselves in their shoes. This is empathy. If we don’t rush it but sit with this meditation, we will notice our heart starts to open. The first time I did this meditation was for my paternal grandmother, as explained in this article. It led to the liberating discovery that I could choose whom I love. I could choose my thoughts about people. It is not up to them whom I love, it is up to me. And this affection always makes me feel happy.

Through this meditation on equalizing self and others we come to understand what it is like for everyone in their hearts because they are just like me — they are as 3-dimensional as I am and have just as strong wishes for happiness and freedom. Far from being extras in the movie in which I play a starring role, they are all lead actors themselves.

Buddha’s advice on equalizing might even help us survive our relationships and/or prevent us killing our kids (jk. It’s just that a news alert popped up when I was writing this sentence, “Can your marriage survive the coronavirus?”)

Same boat

What is the difference between me and anyone else, therefore? What makes me more worthy or deserving of freedom and happiness than anyone else in this house or anywhere else? Nothing. We are all exactly the same and completely and utterly equal. We all want the same things — to be happy and free. No one is better than anyone else. Putting ourselves first therefore doesn’t work because it is not based on a realistic vision. Something as dramatic as this pandemic can help us to see that.

I spoke to a nurse on the front lines who is not happy about the “non-compliant” or flippant people taking risks, not realizing they could bring this virus to others including their own friends and family – she told me that it feels like an insult to her sacrifices. This is why people are doing a good thing by staying at home and why we may as well make the most of it. We can start by reframing it as being “safe” at home and having the opportunity to rest, rejuvenate, and think deeply about where we want to go next individually and collectively.

As Madonna said it (from her bathtub as it happens, but why not, anything goes these days):

We are all in the same boat. And if the ship goes down, we’re all going down together.

boat with hole in itShe talked about this pandemic being the great equalizer (hence the bathtub I guess). I was thinking about that too when I saw that some of the late night comedy hosts are doing their shows from their couch or porch, filmed by their partners. Without the glitz and glamor of the showbiz, without the studio audience and the band, it felt no different to a Skype call I could have had with any number of amusing friends. We are all exactly the same, and to their credit the late night hosts seem to agree.

The masks reveal who we really are

How as individuals and as a society have we been viewing and treating other human beings who may not look exactly like us, but who upon closer examination obviously are us? As Seneca put it:

We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.

I don’t often quote Seneca, in fact this is a first; but I just read that quote in a thoughtful article about how many people are coming together to help each other all over the world, in ways big and small. In it, the author talks about the equalizing effect of the masks we are all wearing:

masksThe mask also represents a world all in action at once, waves of the same sea, united against a common threat. When you put on a mask your features disappear, erasing the differences of skin color or face shape that trigger so many of our socially conditioned responses to the news. The masks work just as well whether you’re black, brown or white, Chinese, Italian, or Nigerian. What we are seeing now is something truly global in scale.

With equalizing, we recognize that everyone is a Me or an I. This includes every single human being. And, frankly, it also includes every single animal, who have just the same constant wish to be free from suffering and to be happy – as your cat will tell you loudly when you accidentally step on her tail. We would do well to recognize that all animals are part of our world, part of this whole, part of our body of life – and we depend on them as they do us. Do we usually pay much heed to their suffering? If we don’t, maybe we should.

panda in zooWe have to stop being cruel. Karmically our indifference, disdain, or cruelty is creating the causes for terrible times ahead. Word on the street is that pandemics come from our abuse of animals, and now, I’ve been thinking, here we are also locked in like billions of animals. What makes us so sure that these kinds of situations won’t deteriorate even more over time if we keep sowing careless and harmful intentions into our world?

Helping others makes us feel better

Would you say that deep in people’s core is the desire to be of service to others, to do something truly good from their hearts? Buddhists would say that the delusions get in the way, yet our hearts are naturally good. We are a bit like teenagers, or even children as Buddha would say, when it comes to selfless service to others. But the thing about children is that they have the potential to grow up. There is nothing wrong with any of us deep down, just a lack of knowledge and/or practice.

Good actions come from good intentions and lead to good outcomes. Many people, maybe all, find that helping others is deeply satisfying — far more so than just following our own selfish desires. As Shantideva succinctly puts it:

The childish work only for themselves,
Whereas the Buddhas work only for others.
Just look at the difference between them.

Helping others is where it’s at — this is what Buddha, Jesus, and all other great spiritual leaders have always said. It’s also an observable fact and we already kind of know it – we just don’t always act by it. But we feel better when we do, which makes sense when we understand we are all cells in the same body of life. Here are some “real-life” examples:

“It feels good to be able to do something,” D’Antonio (a maker of masks) said. “Because you feel helpless in this whole thing.” Despite the fear, anxiety and heartache, rather than the normal stress response of flight or fight, we can tap into a natural “tend and befriend” impulse, as one psychologist put it rather well:

“It can actually help us cultivate well-being in the midst of this pandemic. It also spreads hope. There’s so much we can’t control, but the one thing we can control is to help somebody or offer some kindness or compassion. That is what the virus hasn’t touched, these innate capacities we have as humans.”

One person shopping for the elderly put it: “I think it’s really important in times of crisis, when people are doing something positive it does make you feel a little bit calmer and more in control. It certainly does me. And another: “I do think the act of giving just makes us feel better. It feels as though we’re doing something, we’re part of a collective effort.” And another: “I think we just felt panic never solves anything, let’s focus some of that energy on really helping the people in our community.”

At a loss as to what to do practically to help?

Even if we can’t make any grand gestures to help others because we can’t think of any, we can keep our friends, family, and elderly neighbors in our thoughts and reach out to them by phone or on Facetime, especially those whom we know are more isolated than usual. Shelters are crying out for people to foster cats and dogs right now; and I know from caring for the two I have that they are a helpful reminder that, however bad we have it in the human realm, it is still far better than being an animal.

nailed it jigsawAnd even if for whatever reason we cannot do anything practical at all right now, we should know that our mental actions are very powerful, in a karmic sense even more powerful than physical and verbal actions, and that our prayers help. The practice known as “taking and giving” is also a massively useful and beautiful practice, always giving us a way to help others; and you can read up how to do it in this free ebook, in the chapter Taking and Giving.

Summary

To summarize these last 4 articles written for the age of Corona, we are all in this together.

We see the “me” in each other through equalizing self and others, because we see everyone is Me.

We see all the others in me when we meditate on how we are composed of others, rather like a wave arising in an ocean is composed directly or indirectly of all the other waves — without others we do not exist. We all need each other and no one is more important than anyone else.

This global appearance of the virus is bringing that home. The more we use this time at home to tune into this wisdom, the bigger our heart will grow and the more our problems will shrink.

there's more to life on the insideLast but not least, it’s immensely helpful to remember how everything is the same nature as our mind, like a dream or a reflection of a moon in a rippling lake. Through this we’ll see how, whenever we develop wisdom and compassion, we are already changing the make-up of our world because everything starts and ends in our minds. Avalokiteshvara, the Compassion Buddha, is known as “the most powerful one of all” because compassion is infinitely more powerful than the delusions of hate and attachment, it is an indestructible response to the way things are.

Here is a short meditation to conclude:

Short meditation

We can do some breathing meditation to get into our heart. 

We identify with the gold nugget of our Buddha nature, not the dirt of the delusions. If we do this, it is not hard to get rid of the dirt – but if we are trying to get rid of the dirt while identifying with the dirt, we will get nowhere. 

We identify also with our natural warmth (or our “instinctive compassion” as Queen Elizabeth referred to it the other day.)

We think that everyone is sitting around us – countless in number. Everyone wants to be happy and free from suffering just as I do. We can choose one person first, contemplate their life and wishes until our heart moves, and then expand this affection to others.

We understand that each one of them is exactly like us. It is only our delusions that are isolating us and cutting us off from others, as if we are a cell existing in a vacuum all on our own.

AvalokiteshvaraWe are all equally cells in body of life, all parts of the same whole. Everyone is equally important and equally deserving of happiness and freedom. In this way, we develop love, concern, and compassion for all living beings.

If we like, why not, we can finish off by putting a Buddha on everyone’s crown. We can think, for example, that the compassion of all enlightened beings is appearing as Avalokiteshvara on their crowns, pouring blessings into them, healing their body and mind.

Over to you – what have you been up to during these unusual times?!

Related articles 

Equalizing self and others

What’s the difference between us?

The courage to love

 

Love, the great Protector

10 mins read.

Once upon a time, about 3 weeks ago, when human beings roamed freely upon the Earth, two neighbors brushed right past each other without so much as a smile.

Screen Shot 2020-04-03 at 3.28.18 PMAll that changed in early 2020. These are indeed more surreal times than most of us can probably remember, and immensely challenging for just about everybody; but a lot of people are being amazing and brave when it comes right down to it. Despite the physical distancing, they are finding ways to connect with one another and to support their families and neighbors in this time of crisis, with kind gestures being made across the world to combat the dislocation, isolation, and potential insanity being brought on by the COVID-19 lockdown.

As I mentioned in this last article, people’s Buddha nature is shining. Not only do we owe a huge debt to the beautiful people on the frontlines of this battle, but people everywhere are trying hard to make a difference. Volunteers are making free deliveries. Sewing experts have been cranking out medical masks. Restaurants have been giving away food to employees, passers by, and the elderly. Individuals, including some children, are raising huge amounts of money for those in need and volunteering to run errands for high-risk people. Some are breaking into spontaneous song to cheer each other up from balconies, or making music on the Internet, including this beautiful offering: 

Even from beyond the grave, poignantly, an 88-year-old man in North Manchester who died of the virus has asked friends and family to carry out acts of kindness in his memory rather than offer flowers.

If there is any silver lining to this crisis, it is that people are experiencing more empathy at the moment because we all perhaps realize, for a change, that we are in the same boat. For example, I read this:

“This is the first time lots of us have looked at shelves and thought actually I need something and I can’t have it, and so we’re better able to relate to people living in poverty who feel like that quite a lot of the time.”

A friend just texted me:

“The neighbors have been quite enjoyable lately … very kind and compassionate, offering whatever needed to get by, coming together, communal.”

Stories have been appearing of people currently embracing the values of kindness, cooperation, self-sacrifice, and patience over materialistic values where every man or woman is out for themselves. People are finding plenty of free ways to spread love and cheer, such as costumes, parodies, front-lawn jam sessions, and this chalked sign I just walked past on the sidewalk.

we're in this togetherMoney, reputation, and so on clearly do not buy happiness because external conditions can never be the true source of happiness, or meaning for that matter. They never have been and never will be; and, at times like this, it is more obvious.

Of course we need basic human conditions because we are human beings …

as Venerable Geshe Kelsang puts it in The New Meditation Handbook,

… but external conditions can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful.

Cells in the same body of life

Peace and love are not some utopian fantasy, nor optional extras in our pursuit of happiness — they ARE our happiness.

Starting with a deeply encouraging understanding of our true nature, our potentially boundless good heart, Buddha revealed 84,000 methods that allow us to embrace and fully realize our Buddha nature. I plan on sharing a few of these to help us change our fundamental way of seeing ourselves and others, whether we are safe at home in lockdown or in the midst of the frightening overcrowded chaos of the hospitals. These simple considerations can help us become more loving, wise, and selfless, making both ourselves and others more peaceful and happy in the process.

Screen Shot 2020-03-26 at 12.27.39 AMWe don’t always see so clearly how we are all completely interdependent like cells in the same body of life — distinct yet intimately bound up with others. There are two ways to understand this, both of which help us to develop empathy and love. One is that we are interconnected in a web of kindness from which it is impossible to separate ourselves, and the other is that in all the ways that count we are exactly the same.

Our interconnectedness

We depend upon others for everything – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life (available as a free eBook here):

All the time our day-to-day needs are provided through the kindness of others. We brought nothing with us from our former life, yet as soon as we were born, we were given a home, food, clothes, and everything we needed – all provided through the kindness of others.

And nothing in that sense has changed since the day of our birth — all our day-to-day needs are still provided through the kindness of others. When we wander through aisles empty of toilet paper in the grocery store, we complain – but when those aisles are full, how often do we consider the incredible amount of people involved in inventing toilet paper, manufacturing it, transporting it, and stocking the shelves?

That is one small comfort of life, among others too numerous to count – so what about the plumbing, for a start, something we also take for granted until the plumber is too sick with the virus to sort out the blocked pipes. What about our life and health themselves – if this pandemic is showing us anything, it is the enormous debt we owe to those who have trained so long and work so hard to look after us when we are not well. Plus all the people who support them. Plus all the people who support them. And so on.

kindness of front linesWhen the infrastructure starts to crumble, as it is rapidly doing — when health workers and computer specialists and food manufacturers and school teachers are not able to do their work — it is not hard to see how much we have been taking them for granted. Ask any parent! Even WordPress has been acting up since this all started, making me appreciate how much I depend on it (100%) to get these articles out.

Through the meditation on the kindness of others, we see how we are in every way completely bound up with other living beings – none of us can separate ourselves out.

Our sense that we are an island, an independent, self-sufficient individual, bears no relation to reality. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Trying to split ourselves off from others is not realistic and so it doesn’t work:

It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. We cannot exist without others, and they in turn are affected by everything we do. The idea that it is possible to secure our own welfare while neglecting that of others, or even at the expense of others, is completely unrealistic.

If we sit with this image for a while and let it touch our heart, we naturally wish for the health and happiness of the entire body. All the other cells of this body make up our very infrastructure. If we started to hand back everything others have given us, within seconds there will be literally nothing left of us. Try doing it and see.

Every gesture connects us to the entire world

Every gesture we make and every step we take is evidence that we are all cells in the same body of life. If I lean over to pick up this glass of water, how many people are involved in that one gesture alone? The arm comes from my parents, for a start, plus all the food that comes from others. I had nothing to do with the invention, manufacturing, or delivery of that glass, yet without it the water would be all over the table. Only there wouldn’t be a table without others. Or water, for that matter.

I read a great book called “Thanks a Thousand”, where the author “decided to thank every single person involved in producing his morning cup of coffee. The resulting journey takes him across the globe, transforms his life, and reveals secrets about how gratitude can make us all happier, more generous, and more connected.” Well worth a read – far more uplifting than an hour of the news.

Thanks a thousandOthers matter. That is what cherishing others mean – we think they matter, and that their happiness and freedom are important. So we try to make them happy and we try to do nothing to harm them because why would we harm the body of which we are a part?

The role of animals

This is also a really good time to remember not just our human but our billions of animal neighbors with whom we share this planet, who are also cells of this same body of life. We hate being made to stay inside even our own home – but we have been keeping animals trapped inside in alien cages in despicable conditions for decades for our own purposes with scant regard to how they feel.

As I read in an email about factory farming:

The COVID-19 crisis is concrete evidence of our interdependence. Our health and wellbeing is impacted by the health and wellbeing of others, including the animals who are raised for food.

Virtually every other recent pandemic threat—like swine flu H1N1 or bird flu H5N1—has been directly linked to factory farms. This is arguably why, while we are on the subject:

There is no other public health measure that could so dramatically reduce the risk of another pandemic virus emerging as reforming industrial animal agriculture.

factory farmPublic health measures start with a change of heart, and I hope that one thing this crisis might bring about is a more widespread understanding of how harming animals is really harming us human beings as well. This is both in the short term because it gives rise to a profoundly unhealthy way of life, as well as in the long term because of the awful karmic causes we are creating to experience similar conditions ourselves. It makes perfect sense for all of us to overcome both our selfish desires that harm animals and our senseless human exceptionalism.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were as responsive to being told to stop abusing animals for our own and others’ good as we are to being told to stay inside for our own and others’ good?

The health of this body

In a body, the health and happiness of one cell depends upon the health and happiness of the whole body and vice versa. It is never just about little old me. Putting ourselves first doesn’t help us or anyone else. If one rogue cell decides out of egotistical selfishness to do its own thing, maybe co-opting others to its selfish aims in return for favors … what would we call that?!

Cancer. Which in the process of destroying the body also destroys itself. No one wins.

Grasping at an independent self who is more important than all the others selves or Me’s leads to disaster for that self and for everyone else sooner or later. Self-cherishing both creates our suffering by leading to delusions and negative karma, and is the basis for our suffering because it makes our mind deluded and unpeaceful. And we can see why it doesn’t work if we understand that we are all equally cells in the body of life and therefore the welfare of the collective matters.

kindness of othersBy caring for the whole, we are caring for the parts. By caring for all the parts, we are caring for the whole, which includes us. If we care for others our needs will sooner or later be met through creating the right karmic causes and keeping a peaceful, positive mind despite any difficulties. Everybody wins.

This virus is showing us our profound interconnectedness and requisite social obligations by in some ways forcing us to adopt ways of thinking and behaviors that transcend the individual and help everyone collectively, including us. Once it is all over, let’s hope these lessons remain learned and our society becomes far healthier and happier as a result.

Out of time for now, I will conclude this topic in the next article. Meantime, please share how are you are doing under lockdown, including anything you have found helpful.

Related articles

The kindness of mother beings 

Others are the gift that keeps on giving 

A Buddhist take on factory farming 

Love in the Time of Corona

8 mins read.

How are you all coping with these uncertain and surreal times? I hope you’re able to resist binge-watching the news, and are taking at least some time out to relax your mind and feel the peace you have at your core. (Try this calming meditation for example.) As a friend put it:

The news should be 15 minutes information, 45 minutes prayer and meditation.

love in the time of coronaThis person just called me from lockdown in Brooklyn. He says it is very noisy as the walls and ceilings are paper thin, but rather than focusing on the grass being greener elsewhere he has put on his noise-cancelling headphones and is appreciating his time alone. He did however spend 4 days depressed last week because his neighbor told him he should be feeling more freaked out, prompting him to check out every piece of news on the pandemic that he could find. Finally he concluded, “This isn’t helping anyone”, whereupon he decided to keep washing his hands, staying at home, and not hugging anyone, but also to keep relaxed and to keep working on his ideas for helping others. As a result, he’s been feeling “inspired and productive” all week, coming up with great ideas for his new TV show.

One day at a time

Personally, I am taking this one day at a time – it doesn’t help to rewind to how much easier and more innocent life seemed in the past (ie, 3 weeks ago) or fast forward to a possibly even grimmer dystopian future. Buddha’s wise teachings on impermanence are very helpful right now. Today, apart from washing my hands and staying at home, I can control one thing — and that is my mind and whether or not I choose to stay calm and care about others more than myself, including those risking themselves for the rest of us.

The new normal and the old normal

We may be feeling more than usually overwhelmed with dread, but this panicked state only complicates everything, including our relationships with the people around us – which is a problem if we are stuck inside the house with them!

Screen Shot 2020-04-03 at 10.23.35 AMIt is worth bearing in mind that if we are in this cycle of impure life called “samsara,” we have been vulnerable to physical and mental sufferings of some form or another pretty much every day since beginningless time, and that we will be forever if we don’t do something radical and deep about it. It is just a bit more obvious for a lot of us at the moment, as if we have woken from a fairly comfortable dream to realize that things are not quite so fine after all.

This understanding of our existential predicament, far from freaking us out further, ironically helps us to find some mental balance and calm perspective. We are able to develop a light and peaceful wish for true and lasting mental freedom — a wish called “renunciation” — which we have always needed but don’t usually have. More on that here if you’re interested.

I read this today: “Massive swarms of locusts, one of which occupied an area more than three times the size of New York City, have devoured crops across the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, leaving an estimated 20 million people at risk of famine.”

Yes, 20 million people could starve, and more locusts could be on their way. And there is such helplessness: “Farmers attempt to drive them away by clanging pots and pans.” Why is this only on page 16 of Time magazine?

I will quote Kadam Morten from NYC at this point:

“There have been many pandemics in the past and there will be in the future. The potential for this was always there because we are in contaminated life. The real problem is not this virus. The real problem is the self-grasping and self-cherishing that are the underlying causes producing an environment that will produce viruses, that will produce oppression, injustice, violence, war, and all that has been going on since beginningless time. Use this visceral feeling of aversion to contamination to develop insight into these precious minds [renunciation, compassion, and wisdom] that will enable us to liberate ourselves and others.”

And here is another calm quiet voice of reason:

As Geshe Kelsang said, there is no point dwelling on our own suffering unless we want to develop the liberating mind of renunciation or use it as an example of the suffering of others so that we can develop empathy and compassion.

So I want to keep sharing one or two Buddhist pieces of advice about how we can keep a calm mind and a loving heart in the time of COVID-19. Starting with love – for love is the great Protector, said Buddha.

Feeling overwhelmed?

With self-cherishing or selfishness we assume we’re more important than everyone else (despite all evidence to the contrary), hence dwelling in an exaggerated way on our own stuff, including all potential catastrophes. This is, to be honest, what overwhelms us, not the external situation, and definitely not our wisdom and love.

safe at homeCheck out this article for the difference between inner and outer problems, helpful to know right now. Talking of which, here is a quick purification practice for you. It doubles up as a video on how to wash our groceries properly to stop us getting COVID-19 😁 Yes, it takes a tedious while to wash them well, but the tedium is removed if we also use this time to solve not just the outer problem but the inner problem by purifying our mind. For example, we can think:

Just as I clean these items, may my mind be cleansed of all delusions, negativity, and suffering.

Shining the light

There are some astonishingly kind people out there.

I know I am not alone in feeling awed by those who are working in increasingly uncomfortable environments, risking their health and their lives for our sakes. Who are these incredible people and would I do that? I like to think I would, but would I?! We’ve been hearing some bad stories about the conditions of nurses and other hospital workers on the front lines without inadequate protection – overworked, overtired, hungry, and unsupported – even here in the wealthiest country in the world (where our complacent lack of preparedness hasn’t helped), let alone in other parts of the world. These heroes and heroines keep going because they care more about their patients than themselves – why else would they keep going? Why else wouldn’t they just go home and sit on the sofa, safe inside with their families, like the rest of us?

Some of them have made the ultimate sacrifice. Due to the lack of medical staff to assist such a large number of patients, an Iranian doctor with the virus called Dr Shirin Rouhani, who was on IV, kept treating patients until her own last breath. Iranian doctor on IV

Pretty humbling. We all have Buddha nature – the potential for universal love, universal compassion – putting others before ourselves — and omniscient wisdom. Like a gold nugget encased in dirt, this innate good heart can never be sullied, even by the most egregious of our delusions (such as greed and selfishness). Every now and then our Buddha nature shines out strongly, and I think we are seeing that in many ways at the moment. It seems to me that there is more concern for fellow human beings, with less than the usual amount of discrimination, pettiness, and self-entitlement. I hope this lasts well beyond the pandemic.

I am not in Britain at the moment, but I read that since February 28, even Brexit — which was all anyone could think about for years — no longer looms so large. The battle lines drawn between the younger, metropolitan Britons on the one side versus the oldies on the other are now an anachronism. Elderly people are most at risk, and those of working age, in the NHS and other key professions, are there to try and save them. Everyone is in this together.

As I talk about here, for as long as reality exists, compassion and wisdom will always be the response; which means that it is impossible to destroy this gold nugget inside us. Anger, on the other hand, is a response to exaggerating others’ faults. I saw someone on Facebook going off on a diatribe about the toilet paper hoarders, for example, with the self-righteousness of anger – but people are not inherently evil toilet paper hoarders, they are just panicking.

“But people really are deluded!” — you may be protesting. “Look how crazily and selfishly some people are reacting!” True, some people’s behaviors are idiotic and dangerous. We can just as easily focus on that but, if we do, we should at least remember that people are not their delusions. As it says in the book Universal Compassion:

Buddhas never abandon, condemn, or get angry with living beings but, realizing that they are controlled by their deluded minds, feel only compassion for them. Cultivating the same attitude when someone becomes angry with us is one of the most profound ways of gaining peace for ourself and others.

Buddha’s advice is to relate persistently to the gold nugget in ourselves and in others. It is far easier to get rid of the dirt of our delusions if we are identified with being the gold nugget, and almost impossible if we are identified with the dirt. And if we identify others with their potential, we will bring out the best in each other. cat in house

More coming soon.

Meantime, I would love your feedback and suggestions in the comments below, including for any useful online resources you have found for keeping your meditation practice going at home.

Talking of which, here is one from Tharpa Publications (which has a streaming video embedded.) Don’t forget to tune into the increasing number of live-streaming classes and meditation prayers available from your nearest Center. And check out this worldwide streamed talk from Gen-la Dekyong on April 4th.

Related articles

A peaceful meditation to try out at home

Detoxing our daily life 

How to care for others without feeling overwhelmed 

 

NOPE

Hello everyone, I hope you’re all doing okay and not going too crazy.

I could start anywhere, so I am going to start by saying “Well done!” for getting this far, if you have. I think that a lot of you, maybe all of you, are dealing with this really well considering. I am noticing that our concern for others is at least occasionally kicking in to override the fears we have for ourselves.

Of course, there are some ludicrous manifestations of our fear and self-obsession, such as the Great COVID-19 Toilet Paper Stockpile of 2020 – toilet paperbut overall I think it’s impressive how quickly people have accepted our interdependence and mutual obligations now that these are staring us in the face. Politics and bickering partisanship are not sucking up all the oxygen, for a nice change. I read this earlier somewhere:

It’s sort of funny how at times the neighbors, including myself, get into petty squabbles about irrelevant topics. They certainly seem irrelevant now. But we so easily and smoothly become comrades! People are essentially GOOD! Just give them a chance to prove it.

Of  course this may get old and people may get mean, but right now a lot of Buddha nature is shining.

Literally ordered to stay at home!

I was allowed to drive out just now, despite Mayor Hancock’s brand new Stay at Home Order, because the kittens I am fostering need medication. (They, at least, seem contentedly oblivious to all of this.) Passing a nightclub called “Let’s Get Weird (this is Denver after all), instead of the OPEN sign this is what I saw:

NOPE

Nope indeed. The world is closed for business.

Thanks to said mayoral order forcing everyone to give up their “non-essential” jobs and stay inside (which, by the way, hardly raised an eyebrow – yet only a few weeks ago would have caused a riot), I also saw long queues of millennials lining up to stockpile the last of the marijuana before all non-medicinal dispensaries are shuttered for the That's the pointforeseeable.* Toilet paper is one thing, but running out of pot?! Poor under-25s, I can’t help thinking — all those Springtime hormones and nowhere to party. No, it is not as bad as being sent to war, obviously; but at that age it is still no fun to be stuck at home alone, or stuck at home with one’s parents! Not much fun for the parents either.

Let’s Get Weird

This is a very strange time for the two-legged people of Planet Earth. I already know samsara is crazy, but still I wake up and think, “Huh?!?!!? That wasn’t a dream?!!” (Of course, it kind of is a dream — that’s Buddha’s key point). Or you might be having conversations like this one, a snippet of an earlier text with a friend:

“It feels like a strange movie. It’s like none of this can be real.” “There’s no movie that could do justice to this.” “I know, I would switch it off because it would seem so far fetched.”

It is hard to think of anyone who is not affected by this surreal invisible enemy called COVID-19 — a tiny bundle of protein, 120 nanometers in diameter, carrying just eight kilobytes of genetic code. (By the way, I just had to add COVID to my spellcheck dictionary, which — like us only a few short weeks ago — hails from a more innocent age). Perhaps this pandemic isn’t making much difference to those who are already in such dire straits that today is just another crazy day – like people in Syria or Yemen or the 70 million displaced around the world. It also doesn’t make much difference I suppose to a lot of our animal friends – the millions of chickens, for example, who are still being kept in horrifying conditions and slaughtered en masse so that we can comfort ourselves with chewing their wings.

On the plus side, some people may be having a better time than usual right now due to different karma ripening, such as the dogs and cats who have their whole family stuck at home to entertain them, or the person I know who had happily and voluntarily entered a solitary meditation retreat just before any of this started. social distancing

But in general this social distancing is ironically bringing us humans closer because we are sensing that we are all in it together – our common enemy is clearly the virus, not each other. We understand a little better what other people are going through because we are going through it ourselves, not just at some point, but right now, at the same time.

Even for those of us who have it the best because we can work from home – that is, we actually have a home and a job that can be done at home or, to be honest, any job at all – these times are no doubt challenging. Most people are feeling at least occasionally insecure and panicky (especially if they’re binge-watching the news), not knowing where this is headed, scared of getting sick and not being able to breathe and dying. A lot of people are feeling isolated and restless and bored, and very worried about their finances and future.

COVID-19 got a bit more real for me yesterday when I was asked to pray for the husband of an old friend in England, who had just been rushed to hospital with lack of oxygen related to COVID-19. He is now getting better, I am happy to say, enough to send a message, ““Improving slowly. Breathing is much better with less shortage of breath. Oxygen levels higher now. Probably another day maybe two still in hospital. Very boring. Keep clear of this bastard illness. X”

Another text came in at the same time from a friend in Croatia, telling me about the badly-timed earthquake in Zagreb — people huddled in the streets, not able to shelter in place as their places were shelters no longer, more like death traps.

Everyone matters

If this virus is teaching us anything, it is that far from being isolated separated-out individuals, we are all parts of a whole – and therein we have some obligation to each other because everyone matters. No man is an island. The sanest place to start dealing with this crisis is with this heart of understanding for all these other living beings, including those millions of people whom we know for sure are considerably worse off.Cells in body quote and image of VG

It seems that wherever we look right now there are people in trouble. Practically where possible, and always in our hearts, it makes all the sense in the world right now to take care of our neighbors, family, friends, vulnerable members of our society, people on the frontlines, animals, everyone. And we can take care of our mind through applying the teachings, meditating, and praying so that we can be as strong, fearless, and peaceful as possible.

Let’s actually pray the virus doesn’t hit the refugee camps, for example, where washing your hands even once a day is a struggle. It is clearly concerning that we have such a huge homeless population who have nowhere to shelter in place except the “petri dishes” of understaffed and oversubscribed homeless shelters, as one of them put it. I dread the moment the first case hits the South African townships – as one South African put it, it is a privilege and luxury to be able to social distance.

And never was there a better time to share what resources we have with non-profits helping human beings and animals, responding in whatever way we can to those emails requesting help – because many of them risk closing down and leaving millions of vulnerable beings in very serious trouble. If you do have room in your home, now is not a bad time to consider helping out the overcrowded animal shelters by fostering some dogs or cats.

We are all in this together, cells of the same body of life. Obsessing about ourself will help no one and only drive us crazy. Love and concern for everyone else will help others and keep us sane — Buddha called love “the Great Protector”.

Four noble truths

I’ve been thinking about which Buddhist teachings might be most helpful for weathering this storm, and have concluded that EVERYTHING he said is tailor-made for dealing with a time like this.

In his very first teaching called the “four noble truths”, Buddha explained the first truth as “the truth of suffering” or “true sufferings”. He was referring to the endless and relentless suffering that comes from still hanging onto these impure minds and bodies, mistakenly thinking that they are “Me”. COVID-19 is the latest wave of the wave upon wave of suffering that inevitably arises from this ocean of self-grasping ignorance.

deathSome of the sufferings Buddha explained as samsara’s ongoing nature strike a stronger chord at the moment, now that we are feeling a little less sure of ourselves in the collapse of our normal narratives; but those sufferings have always been there, lurking beneath the surface of our distractions, complacency, and routines. These include but are not limited to being stuck in meaty bodies subject to sickness, ageing, death, and rebirth, dissatisfaction, loneliness, no real control or certainty, and constantly unpeaceful minds. We already have a very weird disease, for example – it is called ageing.

The second noble truth is “true origins,” meaning that this suffering has causes that are far deeper than we normally think about, namely self-grasping ignorance, other delusions, and the contaminated karma they spawn.

The third noble truth, “true cessations”, shows that it is in fact possible to have a suffering-free life that comes from a permanent cessation of ignorance and delusions.

The fourth noble truth, “true paths”, is where Buddha explained the practical path to that cessation, 84,000 teachings that bring peace and free the mind.

dog cartoonPoint is, Buddha’s whole intention has always been to help free everyone from difficulties and suffering, not just temporarily but permanently. He pointed all this suffering out, but he also came up with ways for us to deal with and ultimately transcend it. And these methods have been tried and tested and proved successful for at least 2500 years. Now is the time to use them.

Even CNN is encouraging people to take up a meditation practice:

So, you’re stuck at home. You’re stressed. Now is as good a time as ever to pick up a meditation practice. Scientific findings from an 18-year analysis on a Buddhist monk found that daily intensive meditation may significantly slow brain aging. There is a slew of other health benefits to the mindfulness and quiet peace that often accompanies meditation. And if you feel weird about getting zen with so much happening in the world, remember that even the World Health Organization warned people this week to take care of their mental health as well as their physical health.

Where the rubber hits the road

Buddha brought suffering to our attention so that we could — and would — do something about it. Moreover, Buddhism in general and Kadampa Buddhism in particular is known for helping us practically to transform adverse conditions into the spiritual path by applying the teachings to whatever is coming up for us, not just in the abstract. Dealing with problems is where the rubber hits the road in Buddhism. In The New Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang says:

By training our mind to recognize the spiritual lessons in all our experiences, we can come to view everyone and everything as our Spiritual Teachers, and we can turn any and every situation to our advantage.

Using these circumstances to deepen our inner peace, insight, and compassion means we could end up in a better place than we started, mentally speaking. From that point of view, although I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, this pandemic does give us a lot of opportunity if we decide to apply everything we have learned already or, alternatively, get interested in getting started.

Screen Shot 2020-03-23 at 7.42.21 PMTalking of which, before I go any further, I want to point out to those of you who don’t know that Kadampa Centers around the world are now streaming meditation classes to everyone in their local catchment area. This Buddhist TV is a wonderful addition – nay, antidote! – to all the other online channels you might have been binge-watching! There is great stuff going on all over the place that you can tune into. Click here if you want to know where you can find your local center, and then you can find their Facebook page or website and go from there.

“While you just stayed in your room”

The first port of call in weathering this storm is to learn how to calm down a bit and feel more peaceful and happy in our hearts. But who knows how far this burgeoning meditation habit might take us! If, like me, you are fortunate enough to be confined to your sofa (as opposed to heroically risking your own health to save the rest of us on the frontlines), now is the time to find out.

go insideThere is a whole world inside us, an extraordinary blissful inner landscape that remains largely unexplored because we are usually so busy wandering around in the outside world. Now is our chance to go within and, from there, re-emerge with very different experiences, in a dramatically improved world. Then we can help others do the same. This song came on Spotify while I was out driving for those kitty meds, most appropriate for these times I thought:

I pictured a rainbow
You held it in your hands
I had flashes
But you saw the plan
I wandered out in the world for years
While you just stayed in your room
I saw the crescent
You saw the whole of the moon
The whole of the moon.

Resources for meditating at home

Someone suggested on Facebook that it would be a great idea if I listed all the resources we have for reading and meditating at home.

I agree. And so I ask you in the comments to please list all the resources you have been finding helpful, as well as links to them where appropriate. I can then add them to the next article.

As well as the live-streaming mentioned above, for now, if you want to start reading a free Buddhist meditation eBook, click here.

If you want some tips and tricks to get you going in meditation, click here.

I will be back soon. I have a bunch of ideas up my sleeve that are relevant to COVID-19, and now seemingly endless weeks in which to explore them.

In fact, the next article is now out, here.

Meanwhile, here are some ideas for what you can do stuck at home …

(Or you could just learn to meditate … 🙂 )

(*That part of the mayoral order was rescinded before it even got started – all marijuana dispensaries and liquor stores will remain open for business. Other shops, not so much.)

Related reading

Get started with meditation 

A short meditation you can do at home to calm down 

Some articles on dealing with anxiety 

Love, the great Protector

A window into Kadampa Buddhism in 2020

Kadampa Centers everywhere welcome everyone and provide communities in which to learn about and practice Buddha’s meditations and teachings as an effective way to solve our daily problems, grow spiritually, and transform our world.

On this very cool date of January 1st 2020, I want to share a beautifully made video of one of these 1400 Centers because it seems to be a good representative of all the others. Credit and thanks go to film-maker Josh Ruzansky.

I hope you like it. Do leave your comments and questions below.

Wishing you a very Happy New Year!

 

Click here to find a Kadampa Center near you.

Evil monkeys

Of course we homo sapiens are not inherently monkeys, much less evil monkeys; but there is some validity in saying we are hairless primates rather than some superior life form, and that as a species we have managed to couple our creative imaginations with increasing greed and selfishness to entrap, torture, and exterminate millions of fellow living beings (including previous varieties of human).

monkey 1.gif

Carrying on from this article, No Buddhism.

(I called this article “Evil monkeys” because it was quicker than “psychopathic narcissistic genocidal self-important monkeys”).

For me that narrative of evolutionary biology only tells part of a story, yet it has been helpful. I have been feeling keenly that despite my usual pride of being a human being as opposed to, say, a chimpanzee or a squirrel, there is really nothing exceptional about me (or other humans) — we are all part and parcel of samsara, trapped in flesh and blood just like all the other animals.

What is so different about me?! How can I expect a better outcome than anyone else around here? How can I expect that for any of the other hairless monkeys I know? That is scary, as there is visibly infinite suffering in our world; so it has been helping me to develop deeper renunciation and compassion.

Yet at the same time my mind need not be that of an animal for I now have a brief window of opportunity to use my mental power to overcome self-grasping — to see that none of this suffering is really happening, that it is like a dream or a mirage. As I heard Lenny Kravitz sing earlier:

Wake up world before it is too late.

monkey 2.gif(I’ll just remind us all while I’m here of the Buddhist understanding of our minds as formless continuums of awareness that have passed from body to body since beginningless time. Therefore, this body we have right now is just one of countless we have appropriated. Evolutionary biology doesn’t take that continuum of consciousness into account as far as I can tell so, like I say, it only tells part of a story.)

Evil monkeys or enlightened Buddhas – our choice

Buddha is deeply radical in saying that all the things we normally perceive do not exist, and proving it in multiple ways.

Dream things such as dream mountains and dream houses
And the horses and elephants that are created by magicians
Are all mere appearance to the mind –
They do not actually exist.
In the same way, all living beings from gods to hell beings
And all phenomena that we normally see or perceive
Are also mere appearances to the mind –
They do not actually exist.” ~ Norsang Gyatso, quoted in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra 

This truth can come to be experienced, giving us actual mental freedom and lasting bliss. Which is what we all want. And all the other teachings of Buddhism — such as renunciation and compassion and even faith — are designed not as something to believe in “out there,” but as mere devices to lead us to the truth of emptiness.

The exercise yard of a bigger prison

The author Harari theorizes that we only ever escape one imagined order by inventing another. He gives some good examples, and funnily enough I just stumbled upon one myself while reading The Week — capitalism will go away if we all believe in socialism instead:

For 40 years, the corporate world has reverently knelt before libertarian economist Milton Friedman and his famed doctrine: “There is one and only one social responsibility of business,” Friedman said, and that is to “engage in activities designed to increase its profits.”

However, at this point in history, for various reasons I won’t get into:

… capitalism is clearly headed for a reckoning …. Real-world experience has undermined free marketeers’ near-theological belief that the unfettered pursuit of self-interest invariably produces the best outcomes for society itself.

We might be headed for “pure and unadulterated socialism” instead.stuck to prison lego

Be that as it may, and whether you think that would be an improvement or not, Harari concludes that replacing one system with another cannot actually free us:

There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.

Overall, I agree with him … BUT ONLY IF WE DON’T REALIZE EMPTINESS. This is the door through which we can finally escape the prison of samsara.

(Interestingly enough, and perhaps not surprisingly, Harari himself is a meditator.)

In the meantime we can still safely agree on some things

An understanding of emptiness allows for us to follow relative reality. We can all agree that this is a blog for example. We will neversapiens 5 find it anywhere if we look for it, so it is not an objective or absolute truth; but it still functions as a blog. That is conventional reality.

I explained here about how things like forests come into being – once the forest exists, insofar as we all agree there is a forest, it functions and we can burn it down and make lots of money.

But although things appear and perform a function, they never exist from their own side. They don’t have to exist from their own side to appear and function – in fact, if they did exist from their own side they could neither appear nor function.

Within that, some relative reality works very well, not least because it brings us inner peace and takes us in the direction of the wisdom realizing the way things are. Geshe-la calls this “beneficial believing”.

For example, developing love and compassion is beneficial believing because it gets us closer and closer to being able to benefit ourselves and others. It is also an expression of our pure, non-deluded nature. Identifying ourselves and others as our pure Buddha nature as opposed to our delusions is also beneficial believing.

Karma functions too. Virtuous actions that derive from a relatively realistic view of things, such as compassion, patience, or love, lead to good results; and actions that derive from delusions — non-virtuous actions (such as gouging out pigs’ eyes so they can’t run away) — lead to bad results. It’s not surprising really that this is the case.

There is relative truth. We want to be happy and free from suffering and some truths and states of mind, including faith, lead us closer toward that. As Voltaire said:

There is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night.

No narrative created by self-grasping can work that great, but some do work better than others. How? Because some bring about some temporary happiness and freedom for ourselves and others, such as those rooted in decency, empathy, kindness, and unselfishness. Others just entrap us more and more deeply in a vicious cycle of selfishness, fear, and pain.

So what can we do for our troubled planet?

We watch the news at record rates; everyone is interested in politics these days it seems. And the more we watch, the more we are in danger of buying into the various narratives we are being fed, and the more we become immersed in our own echo chambers, believing more and more what we’re told. It’s a bit dangerous, frankly. Another maybe slightly relevant quote:

It is impossible to raise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honor, motherland, manhood, or money.

I reckon we could all do with less feverish yet passive following of CNN, Fox news, or Twitter feeds, and spending more time proactively and responsibly working on transforming our own minds and actions.

monkey mindThe point is, we don’t really have much time left, whichever way you cut it. A year goes fast, and how many of those do we have before we die? A month goes even faster and how many of those do we have left – several hundred at most? What we choose to do with this remaining time is incredibly important because who knows whether we’ll have the freedom to choose what to do with our thoughts in our next life. Just ask the veal calf or one of the trillion tortured chickens.

Freedom from illusion

I found this passage from Sapiens somewhat thought-provoking, what do you think of it?

How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity*, democracy, or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature. People are unequal, not because Hammurabi said so, but because Enlil and Marduk decreed it. Free markets are the best economic system, not because Adam Smith said so, but because these are the immutable laws of nature.

But the point I suppose I am trying to make is that Buddha totally did admit that his teachings are imagined – because everything is. But there is incorrect and correct imagination, and Buddha’s clear and practical teachings are designed specifically to lead us to the realization that everything is imagined, and thus finally to freedom from the illusion.

*I don’t feel comfortable singling out any religion as not revealing the truth of emptiness – it seems very likely to me that enlightened beings (Skt. Buddhas) would do their best to appear and teach in all traditions to reveal this truth one way or another. I have read profound things in Christianity, for example; and I also remember Venerable Geshe-la saying how surprised he was to discover how rich was the English language and therefore how easy to translate profound concepts from Tibetan Buddhism — how it had the deep words “manifestation” and “emanation” for example, which come from the early Christian tradition. I think it is also helpful that we have the words “illusion” versus “reality,” for example, indicating that these ideas are not new. Emptiness doesn’t belong to Buddhism, obviously; it is the only truth for everyone. But Buddha did emphasize and explain it very clearly.

The graying of America

old ageTalking of aging, dying, and getting a move on, I was just reading an article called “The graying of America”, which includes all the dismal statistics and prognoses you can imagine. But the article then suggested optimistically that we could “copy or learn” from other countries in their approach to the problem. That sounded good, for a moment, or at least better than nothing, as I read about hacks for incentivizing old people to keep exercising.

But the good ideas then abruptly dried up, because this is what came next: “Japanese companies such as Sony and Soft Bank are marketing a line of robot puppies and baby seals as a balm for elderly loneliness.”

Whaaa? That’s supposed to reassure me — that I can look forward to a robot baby seal for company?! Yes, apparently: “Just looking at it makes people smile.” Grimly, I would hope, unless they’ve totally lost their marbles. And that’s not all – at the Shintomi nursing home in Tokyo you can now join in a sing-along led by a 4-foot-tall android named Pepper.

Forget the chronic shortage of social security, pensions, and doctors, the decline in GDP, the resetting of crosswalk timers throughout the land, or the epidemic of loneliness as millions of people find themselves trapped in their once comfortable suburban houses unable to walk or drive to the shops. The idea of spending my golden years with a literally mindless robot seal who can neither give nor receive an iota of love, and apparently enjoying it, is what horrifies me the most.

And in my case we’re only really talking a matter of 10-20 years at this point: all the more reason to focus my efforts and for-now-functioning marbles on getting into my heart and out of samsara.

Here is a great poem a friend sent me the other day; she knew it’d be right up my street!:

The Parade

BY BILLY COLLINS

How exhilarating it was to march
along the great boulevards
in the sun flash of trumpets
and under all the waving flags— 

the flag of ambition, the flag of love.
So many of us streaming along—
all of humanity, really—
moving in perfect step,
yet each lost in the room of a private dream. 

How stimulating the scenery of the world,
the rows of roadside trees,
the huge curtain of the sky. 

How endless it seemed until we veered
off the broad turnpike
into a pasture of high grass,
headed toward the dizzying cliffs of mortality. 

Generation after generation,
we keep shouldering forward
until we step off the lip into space.

And I should not have to remind you
that little time is given here
to rest on a wayside bench,
to stop and bend to the wildflowers,
or to study a bird on a branch— 

not when the young
are always shoving from behind,
not when the old keep tugging us forward,
pulling on our arms with all their feeble strength.

Wake up world

The other day I dreamed I was miles from where I needed to be and already late, but instead of getting a move on I was sluggishly trying to figure out something suitable to wear.

Whatever this random dream amongst millions of dreams may mean, far more important is what I noticed upon waking, which is how we just get caught up in our narratives.

Within those nightly parameters we feel we have to figure everything out, whereas all we really need to do to solve everything and get where we need to be is to wake up. Blessed relief. It is all well and good being nice to the people around us in our dream, and accepting their help and kindness and so on, and it makes the dream far more pleasant than fighting and arguing; but, either way, nothing is really going on, and we simply need to wake up. As it says in Request to the Lord of all Lineages:

All my appearances in my dreams teach me
That all my appearances when awake do not exist;
Thus for me all my dream appearances
Are the supreme instructions of my Guru.

Percy in graveyard

Rather than blindly following the crowd or people at work, like a sheep, we have to figure out what narrative or world view we are following and whether or not it is working for us; and use our considerable human ingenuity and will power to escape.

Percy and Jenny

Talking of sheep, I once lived in a huge Buddhist Centre called Madhyamaka Centre, at Kilnwick Percy Hall, way out in the Yorkshire countryside. Two sheep, only two, kept escaping from the neighboring field and hanging out in our rose gardens. We kept returning them, and they kept escaping, we never quite figured out how.

One Tuesday the farmer came to collect his flock for slaughter, and sure enough the two sheep once again sought refuge on our land. When the farmer realized they were missing and came to find them, our Admin Director Nick Gillespie decided on the spot to buy them off him instead.

Percy, the ringleader, was a surprisingly intelligent and personable sheep – one could imagine him reading The Times when no one was looking. Jenny was pretty dumb, but she adored Percy and followed him everywhere, and that was her saving grace. Within a few months, the beloved Percy died of yew poisoning and we all did a transference of consciousness for him. Due to his refusal to follow the other sheep, we like to think that he escaped not just a beastly death but more lives in the lower realms and/or samsara. Jenny escaped relatively due to her good idea to follow Percy – she lived to a ripe old age, along with a couple more lambs to keep her company. Hopefully she followed him to the Pure Land.

Percy and JennyIt takes a special sheep to be that persistent. It takes a special human to be that persistent too, but here we are, and we have to find freedom before the farmer gets here.

Over to you, love your comments.

Related articles

How’s samsara working out for you?

Tired, yet, of living a cliche?