Feel free to change your mind

FOMOWith attachment born of ignorance we are always splitting ourselves off from our actual happiness, the happiness of our own peaceful mind. Holding onto an isolated real “self”, distanced from “other”, happiness is now necessarily separate from us, other than us.

We distance ourselves from it in time – “Oh I was so happy back THEN!” Or “I won’t be happy until I get this thing! …” Or we distance ourselves from it in terms of space – which reminds me of this FOMO thing I read about recently, “fear of missing out”. An apparent modern-day epidemic where interesting things are always going on elsewhere and we losers are most likely missing out on all the action … (as evidenced by all that fun everyone else is having on their Facebook pages). We need to make sure we are not missing out on happiness, and we may just manage to catch it if we check our social media enough times (apparently the US average is at least once an hour).

We are massively distracted these days, are we not?!

As mentioned in this article, however, meditating on the nature of our own mind pacifies distractions very well.

What is a distraction?

The definition of distraction is “A deluded mental factor that wanders to any object of delusion”. We are constantly distracting ourselves from our meditations, and from our happiness, and from our actual nature and potential.

Interestingly, however, there are no objects of delusion from their side. For example, a person is only an object of attachment when we are thinking about them with attachment.

You ever look at a photo of you and an ex-lover, for example, that you’ve seen many times, but today it looks completely different, and you can’t even recall what all the fuss was about? Why you were so bothered by them?! You feel a sense of relief, like you too are a different person. The attachment has gone – and so of course has its object. As has the attached you, the subject.

FOMO 4Soooo, if we can learn to let go of our distractions, attachments, irritations, etc, by dissolving them into the clarity of the mind, we are then free to think about others and ourselves in non-deluded ways.

When we have a delusion, eg, attachment coupled with loneliness, that delusion has both an object and a subject.  We are holding not only onto them as being real and outside the mind, as a real object of desire, but also ourself as being a real needy person who has to have them.

Likewise, if we are irritated with someone, we are holding onto both them and us in a certain fixed way. Even seeing that we have an email from them annoys us, and we are suspicious if it is somehow a nice one – why? Because we have set them up as a real irritant and we have set ourself up as a real victim who is being put upon by them, etc.

BUT, and it is a big but, if we view that person with love instead of attachment or anger, our sense of self also changes for the better. They are no longer an object of delusion, and we are no longer a deluded subject. We can identify instead with being a loving person wishing happiness to other beings — this makes us very happy, is truer to our nature, and puts us in the driver’s seat of our lives.

“People always let you down!”

We complain all the time, don’t we, “Oh people are so unreliable!” And it is true, they are — if we have delusions. People are never reliable if they are objects of our delusions. However, they are always reliable if they are objects of renunciation, love, compassion, wisdom, or pure view. So, it is up to us.

Cherishing and protecting a limited self

I want to explore this development of delusions a bit further. Let’s say we suddenly remember something someone said that we didn’t like, 5 minutes ago, or 25 years ago. (It doesn’t make much difference! It still feels real!) That person appears to our mind, and we focus on their unattractiveness and turn them into an enemy. This is unbearable, and suddenly we are in pain. Where did that come from? It just arose out of our mind.

As mentioned, with every delusion there is always an object and a subject. On the one hand, we are exaggerating the object, the unattractive appearance becoming an intrinsic source of pain. On the other hand, we are also exaggerating our self — identifying with a self who cannot handle it, who feels overwhelmed. “I can’t bear that you don’t like me, that you didn’t look at me when I wanted you to.” This very limited sense of self appears to us and we believe it, “I am a person who cannot handle criticism.” This is self-grasping.

Now we feel the need to cherish and protect this limited self, and there we are, having a problem.ignorance

An unattractive appearance arose out of our mind due to karma, and then, instead of letting it pass, we grasped at and consolidated it, got lost in it, wrote emails about it, maybe even a book. We talked to others to affirm our view or to get some help. And we can get lost in this little drama for a long time, sometimes a whole life.

This is a shame. All our problems are like this, by the way. It is similar with attachment. One moment we’re fine, the next we remember some attractive person, exaggerate their desirability and make it real, and simultaneously buy into a painful sense of a limited self, ie, “I need this person, I can’t be happy without them”. Suddenly we have a problem because that person has no interest in us! Others may agree, “Yeah, you’ve got a problem!” but it’s all created by the mind.

What happens is that we then try to solve the problem while relating to the self who sees the problem. How is that working for you?

Isn’t it Einstein who said we can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it?!

We cherish that painful self that doesn’t exist, and as a result get attached to the things we think will help it and averse to the things that seem to threaten it. And so delusions are born, and the unskillful actions motivated by delusions. We keep doing this, so samsara rolls on.

This is where the meditation on the nature of the mind is so helpful. We learn this skill of recognizing that although at the moment we are caught up in the waves’ appearances, rather than the ocean, these are just the nature of the mind and if I don’t get caught up into them they’ll simply disappear.

Bad idea!

When we are relating to a painful neurotic sense of self, thinking about it obsessively, have you ever wondered how it is that no one else ever sees it?! They may even think we are fine. Is this construct of self therefore inside or outside FOMO 3the mind? If we look into this, it becomes more obvious that it is just an idea – and a bad idea at that. A private, painful idea that we’re walking around nurturing. It is a painful sense of self, but still our self-cherishing wants to nurture it, protect it, serve it.

What happens to an idea when we stop thinking about it?!

Ven Geshe Kelsang taught a wonderful analogy from Buddha’s Perfection of Wisdom Sutras of a man going to a doctor who tells him he has cancer and will soon die. Overwhelmed with anxiety and sorrow, he goes home to share the news with his family, who are all very upset too.

But then he gets a second opinion from a reliable physician who reassures him: “It is 100% guaranteed that you have no cancer.” His sorrow vanishes. His family throw a party!

The point is that this man never had cancer; he only believed he had it.

In the same way, this limited self has never existed and so it is not the problem – it is our belief in it that is the problem. Buddha is pointing out that the object of our self-grasping simply does not exist, 100% does not exist. If we realize this, we’ll relax. Profoundly relax.

If you are somewhat new to the idea of emptiness, you can think “My self is just an idea; I can let it go.”

Moreover, at the moment all our cherishing energy is circling around that self that we normally see. Once we let go of it, our cherishing energy is free to radiate to others.

Mummies of the World

I found myself doing a rather odd thing yesterday, but there were hundreds of other ordinary tourists and families doing it with me – though, come to think of it, that makes it even odder!! contemplating impermanence

I was looking at loads of dead bodies. Dead human bodies. And not just any old dead human bodies but bodies that had been dead for thousands of years. And me and all the kids, parents, couples, senior citizens, and so on were all trying to be respectful, as we had been requested in the introductory video, and we were surely fascinated with our “Ooohs!” and “Aaahhhs!”, though I overheard a great deal of “Euggh, that’s gross” comments and had no shortage of these sentiments myself.

I will backtrack. My friend Anya had asked me to go to the Mummies exhibition last week  with her and her kids, and I thought no more about it until they and another friend Donna picked me up yesterday morning. We had pancakes and coffee, a perfectly normal Sunday mummies story to be toldmorning activity, drove 50 miles to Tampa, still pretty normal, and then spent an hour or two staring at dead bodies.

Donna is a force of nature. She is undergoing extensive chemo for an aggressive cancer, throughout which she has continued to work nights at a grueling job without being granted so much as ten minutes off. 10am was like 3am for her, yet in the pancake house she was grinning from ear to ear as she told us a funny story about the rap artist 50 cents (I can’t really remember what it was about, I was too mesmerized by her contagious laughter, when I know that physically she feels a wreck.) This was after telling me her life history as I requested, which involved an Oprah-worthy amount of hardship, including abandonment at the age of 11 by her mother, years of living with a dead beat father, and basically bringing herself up with no money. But she seems to have emerged, if not entirely unscathed by her own admission, at least impressively lacking in self-pity and possessing a great sense of humor. She is two months younger than me.

A woman came up to Donna in the pancake house, touched her shoulder, nodded toward her bald head, and said, “God bless you. I’ve been there.” Donna said she gets that a lot. It doesn’t really annoy her, not any more. She feels she has joined a secret club, which actually has a surprisingly large number of people in it, and it feels good to know she is not alone even though she has always prided herself on her independence. I was telling her about Shantideva’s quote “Suffering has good qualities” because, whatever illness or suffering we have, the curious thing is how quickly we find others who have it as well – and these may be the same people we’ve been brushing shoulders with for years without knowing. This helps our empathy and it is not too much of a stretch to spread it out to understand that everyone suffers from something or other. She is not a Buddhist, but she liked that, as she has a direct taste. She told me she did feel that her world had gotten larger, paradoxically, even though she is more physically constrained, her life currently a combination of work and being strapped to chemo machines.

One of my previous bodies?

She was tired when we arrived so we got her a wheelchair. It was kind of useful actually — we found that people got out of our way when I pushed her toward them! Ha ha! So, even though it was a busy labor day Sunday, we had front row seats for a whole bunch of dead bodies…  Lucky us. 

If Donna was having any thoughts about her own mortality, she was keeping quiet about it. As were all the other still animated bodies wandering around in there. For myself, having spent a lifetime contemplating death, I couldn’t help but imagine my own body lying there all shriveled and hideous 3000 years in the future, with bits of skin and hair still hanging off it, while a whole bunch of weird people in a futuristic world I could never have anticipated were all gaping at it, laughing nervously, ignoring it while chattering about other stuff, or moving away in disgust.  (I told Anya et al that on no account do I want them to mummify my body when I’m gone.) There was a video there of the sped-up decomposition of a rabbit, a pumpkin, a rat, and an orange. Anyone under any illusion about the beauty of flesh need look no further…  There were even mummies of cats – nice to know the Egyptians valued their pets so highly, but still… I think when the time comes I will bury Rousseau instead.

mummy of a cat mummies of the world
Or this one?

(One question I have for you, dear readers. Why are they called “Mummies”? I know from a Buddhist point of view everyone has been our Mummy, but I don’t think that’s what the Egyptians meant.)

There is one other vignette from yesterday that also gave me a little insight. Years ago, as a volunteer youth I assisted a man called Wilf, who was completely paralyzed except for his head, his right hand, and two fingers on his left hand. We became friends so I also went to visit him and his wife, also disabled, at their very well equipped house. One thing I noticed was the embarrassed or condescending reactions many (not all) people had upon seeing someone in a wheelchair. Wilf was sharp as a tack and amusing as could be, and he took beautiful photos, but many people seemed to overlook these basic facts about him. People would look sympathetic or talk about him literally above his head. While Donna was in the restroom, I sat on her chair in the corridor to wait and use the few minutes to think about what I had seen. A man came out of the gents and the door swung into my chair because I was entirely in the way. He was flustered, said sorry, and made as if to move me out of the way. I said quickly: “Don’t worry, I’m fine, I was in the way, this is not my chair, I’ll just get up and….” But he wasn’t listening to a word I was saying! In fact, he was barely looking at me; I don’t think we made any eye contact at all. He got behind my chair and started to pull it along the corridor. I started to try and get up, and he pushed down on my shoulder, saying “No, don’t do that, I will help get you out of harm’s way.” I decided to relent and let him push me wherever he felt like. And I got a fleeting but useful feeling of what it must have been like to be Wilf.

Later yesterday evening I was invited by my Russian neighbors to Konstantin’s birthday party, and we discussed the body of Lenin, embalmed in alcohol, waiting for… what exactly?

mummies of the world
Bit late for that?

I suppose yesterday for me was mainly a testament to the futility of attempting to preserve and hang onto our human flesh when one thing is inevitable, and one thing alone – we are all going to die and these cossetted bodies, temporary guesthouses, are going to be entirely useless and rather revolting when we do. For most of us, our friends and relatives will be in no hurry to keep them lying around any longer than they have to, and will quickly dispose of them. We might as well get used to this idea sooner rather than later, given that everyone we know is going to die pretty shortly in the grand scheme of things, including us. Better to embrace impermanence than try to grasp onto a permanence that simply does not exist and end up with nothing better to hug than a corpse. Better to ask ourselves, “Once this body of mine is shriveling up and decaying — whether that is in 50 years, 20 years, 5 years, a few weeks, or later today — where will I be and what will I be doing?” It is not the truth we need to avoid; it is the deceptions of our permanent-grasping and attachment.

A friend of mine wrote to me today with an eloquent, moving reply to my condolences on his beloved mother’s death and explaining a little of how he is reacting to it. One of the things he said:

“It is a challenging appearance as you said. I had a thought yesterday as I sat in the chapel next to her open coffin that really she is Buddha Tara and this emanated appearance of death is just to teach me the most important meditation that Venerable Geshe-la is always encouraging us to realise.”

At this point I can only imagine what it must be like to sit beside the body of one of my parents, but we are all going to have to do this over and over again with all our loved ones, so we may as well give at least some thought as to how we’re going to cope with that before it is upon us. Is that morbid or is that common sense?

Over to you. Comments welcome.

 

 

Touches of kindness ~ a day in the life of Sue Hulley

My good friend Sue is currently in hospice. Please pray for her.

I had the opportunity to visit Sue when she invited me to stay with her for 10 days in Marin in November (overlapping with the 20th year anniversary celebration of Saraha Center in San Francisco.) Here is something I wrote at the time.

11.08.2011

“Health is fragile and life is short. I’m sitting in the radiology waiting room while my friend Sue has her port seen to – we have an appointment in an hour with her chemo doctor in the cancer center down the road but who knows if we’ll be done here by then. It is not in our hands.

A woman sitting near us, with a pixie face and big blue eyes, whose hair is just growing back into a fuzz, is asked by the nurse: “Do you want to come with me?” “No”, pixie lady replies, but she goes anyway.

So much paperwork! Just to get past the entrance for a chest x-ray involved paperwork and insurance details in triplicate, followed by a long questionnaire of an entire medical history – all lest the minutest detail might have changed in the last few weeks since Sue’s last x-ray so that, goodness forbid, her insurance might not cover it anymore. Paperwork is challenging even if you’ve just had a cup of Starbucks – what to do if you’re feeling bone tired and can hardly sit up straight?! As Sue says, “Look at the chairs!” These are not designed for people to recline.

“There is only one thing for it”, Sue says, “when you lose your autonomy. I have had to stop identifying with my body and appreciate the opportunity to practice patience.”

And the fact that everyone sitting around you is either in the same boat or already overboard kind of means that there is less room for self-pity. One lanky man sitting opposite us seems to have lost half his face, he looks like a Persian cat and his voice is a sibilant whisper. He is being tended to by a brother, it seems. The elderly lady next to me has sparkling blue eyes and a sweet smile, but also a deep air of resignation. The nurse says to her, “Maureen, that is a lovely sweater. I love the color red.” A moment of kindness in the face of all Maureen is having to go through, a touch of humanity to make the patients feel less alone.

Sue, noticing this too, says, “What a difference even one small human encounter makes when you are in the system waiting for appointments etc. One touch on the arm, and a kind comment, makes it all meaningful.” I tell her that it reminds me in a funny kind of way of being in the busy San Francisco airport the other day. The lack of autonomy as large numbers of people are processed and the individual gets caught up in the big garbage collecting claw as opposed to picked off gently in the tweezers (Sue’s words, she has such a way with words!) Crowded never-ending security lines but one official was so welcoming: “Hello mister so and so!” “Hello Ms L, how are you doing?” “Ah, you’re from the Phillipines, how great is that!” A little bit of love transforms everything.

There will be a changing of the guards as Sue’s valiant and cute as a button partner Bill drives over to relieve me so I can make it to the temple in time for a powa (transference of consciousness) for Maynor. As for perspective, I hear Sue, who has just said that being stuck with cancer treatment is a luxury compared to this atrocity: Maynor was a gentle 19-year-old, always helping his mother and grandmother around the house, when he was brutally tortured and killed in Honduras last week. He was in a taxi and mistaken for a gang member in possession of information needed by another gang. After chopping off 10 toes and 9 fingers, his torturers realized he actually did know nothing and killed him off. Meanwhile, they beheaded the taxi driver for good measure. Maynor was the brother-in-law of Michael, a member of Saraha Center. Maynor’s stunned father was there at the powa, very quiet, but managing to smile at all gestures of concern. His uncle, an old friend called Carlos, was there too, with tears in his eyes: “I miss him.”

Meanwhile, talking of perspective, I have a torn rotator cuff and it pales into nothingness next to Sue’s and Maynor’s situations.”

Please keep Sue in your prayers during this time.