The stopping practice

5.5 mins read

At the very beginning of How to Transform Your Life, on page 3 to be precise, and maybe just in case people don’t read any further, the author Geshe Kelsang Gyatso evokes the heart of the Buddhist mind-training teachings – which is basically to get over ourselves and be concerned about others instead.

ca420505775bfccb6d3e2e494a912a09In this “stopping practice”,* we stop thinking about our own happiness all the time. Why? Because it’s getting in the way of our happiness.

The author asks:

Since this world evolved, human beings have spent almost all their time and energy improving external conditions in their search for happiness and a solution to their problems. What has been the result?

We can pause to answer that question, perhaps coming up with something along these lines:

Instead of their wishes being fulfilled, human suffering and problems have continued to increase while the experience of happiness and peace is decreasing.

If we agree with this at all, what does it show us? = That our methods are clearly not working. Which means we need to change them up.

Built into the mind-set of ordinary people is grasping at a real Me who is important. The effect of this is that our wishes are very important. And this leads to attachment, or uncontrolled desire, wishing to fulfill our wishes all day and all night. This is not a good set up because our wishes cannot all be fulfilled, and certainly cannot stay fulfilled, and so we end up stressed, disappointed, angry, depressed, and so on.

Self-cherishing makes everything about me. Maybe someone brings up a topic not related to us, such as their vacation in Mexico where we have never been, and we still manage to somehow make it about us, “I was on vacation once!” And because we make everything about us we do not have the happiness we long for.

We must understand this through our own experience. If we check carefully how we are experiencing problems and unhappiness, we can understand that they are all created by our uncontrolled desire, wishing ourself to be happy all the time.

selfishnessJust to be clear, there’s nothing wrong at all with being happy or even the basic wish to be happy — quite the opposite. Buddhas are really really happy, for example. But wishing me to be happy all the time, putting me first, is what is getting in the way of fulfilling this basic wish.

We are misunderstanding where happiness comes from, thinking that it is about me and about manipulating stuff out there. When it is not.

Self-cherishing sets us up for disappointment. Try checking its psychology out in reverse next time you feel annoyed or disappointed. “I’m annoyed. Why? Because I was attached to something happening or not happening and it didn’t. Why was I attached to that? Because my wishes are so important. Why? Because I am.”

Most of our energy is going into ourselves because we are so super-duper important – how is MY life, MY diet, MY weather, accommodation, job, relationship, etc etc. This Me Me Me mind would be fine if it worked, but it doesn’t make us happy, it doesn’t solve our problems, and it doesn’t lead us to enlightenment. We have been trying and testing it for many years — since beginningless time, if Buddha is to be believed — and it hasn’t worked yet.

So we have to flip this around. Flip a switch! Just stop it!!! And wish for others to be happy all the time instead!!!

By stopping this wish and instead wishing for others to be happy all the time, we will not have any problems or unhappiness at all.

The irony is that when we stop wishing for ourselves to be happy all the time and instead wish for others to be happy all the time, we become the happiest person alive.

If we check all the times we are unhappy we shall see that we have excessive self-concern. Psychologically, samsara is the experience of the Me minds of self-grasping and self-cherishing — we are trapped in the Me of it all, an ego prison.

thA fish doesn’t notice it is wet and we usually don’t notice that we are soaked in ego-grasping. But this stopping practice helps us with our mindfulness and alertness throughout the day. It is strong, quick, and effective medicine. We can ask ourselves “Who are you thinking about? Stop it!!!”

We can then think about anybody at all and wish for them to be happy all the time, providing they are somebody other than us.

We can also bear in mind that I am only one single person and the reality is that there are billions or trillions of other living beings, human and otherwise, so of course my happiness is not as important as theirs. If I take this reality on board, I’ll be a lot happier. This is a massive spiritual shift. And it works where nothing else has worked.

If we sincerely practice every day stopping wishing for ourself to be happy all the time and instead wishing for others to be happy all the time, then we will understand from our own experience that through this practice, which prevents attachment to the fulfillment of our own wishes, we will have no experience of problems or unhappiness at all.

self-cherishingI love the simplicity of this practice and the clear injunction to just get on with it. We can try it for a day or half a day or 100 times and see if it works — just Stop It! And wish for others to be happy all the time instead. We can do this experiment on everyone we meet and see if it works. If it doesn’t, we can go back to self-cherishing the very next day. What is there to lose?

The same actions can have a very different meaning through this practice, even giving our whole life a far larger sense of fulfillment, while simultaneously creating the causes or karma for a whole different and better world to appear in the future.

For example, I can eat that grilled veggie sandwich (which I’m about to order in Whittier café) with a boring small-minded motivation, just wolfing it down out of attachment because I want to be happy all the time. Or I can be smart and eat it with the wish to nourish my life so that I can better use it to help others be happy all the time, starting with the friend who is joining me later. Same number of calories maybe, but everything else is different. We can transform all our daily stuff into the path to lasting happiness and mental freedom just by changing our heart.

ignoranceThere are hundreds of reasons given in this and other books that show why this stopping practice is so effective, but sometimes it’s good to stop analyzing and just get on with something to see if it works. “I am going to try something different.” And the proof will be in the pudding, as they say.

Comments welcome below.

(*Thank you to Gen Rigpa for coining this phrase! If any of you are in LA, be sure to check out his teachings — they’re clear, interesting, and excellent.)

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Seven benefits of gratitude

Benefits of gratitudeNow we are coming up to Thanksgiving here in the United States, and apparently the word “thanks” is connected to the word “grateful”, no surprises there, really. (“Grateful” is also loosely related to the word “grace”.) So this is the time of the year to feel grateful, which is nice, as study after study shows that gratitude is an enormous predictor of happiness, a kind of happiness superpower, and we all like being happy.

Plus we need to feel happy if we are to avoid being a grumpy git and ruin everyone’s Thanksgiving. Have you noticed that we are far more likely to get annoyed if we are already not feeling happy inside? How when things feel good and we are connected to our own inner peace, happiness, and confidence, minor annoyances don’t worry us at all – but how on the other hand when we feel unsettled inside, not good in ourselves, not whole, split off from our own peace, the smallest thing can set us off? This might sound obvious, but that doesn’t seem to prevent us, the moment we do get annoyed, from casting around for something or someone else to blame, anything other than our own disgruntled state of mind.

Join the clubcontrol mind

Things are changing all the time, and I mean literally moment by moment – this is called impermanence – so is it any wonder that things don’t always change in the direction we want them to? We all have to keep re-adjusting to changing circumstances, we have no choice. However, if our mind is calm and we know we have everything we need inside, we hardly care. And one of the most powerful ways to get there is to train in gratitude. This means actually putting time aside to think about it.

Great-full

I sometimes think of “grateful” as “great-full”, ie, feeling full of all that is great. (Or something like that.) Dictionary.com says it means “warmly or deeply appreciative of kindness or benefits received; thankful” as well as “pleasing to the mind or senses; agreeable or welcome; refreshing.”

Gratitude does please our mind. It helps us enjoy our lives immensely. It helps us feel happy, whole, enriched, and confident. Instead of focusing on the things that are wrong with our life, and of course we can all come up with a long list, we focus on the things that are right.

How does that square with the need to focus on our suffering in order to develop renunciation? (Just in case you are wondering.) This is samsara after all, so what on earth are we supposed to be happy about? Generally the only time it is worth focusing on our own suffering is just for that reason, in order to develop the wish to get rid of it all and its causes. But at the times we are feeling hopelessly unhappy, bereft, annoyed, sorry for ourselves – the chances are that we are not focusing on our suffering in this constructive way at all. At which point we can either shift our focus to renunciation, or shift our focus away from what’s wrong to what’s right, developing gratitude instead.

The grass is not always greenergrass greener

Too often we pine over the things we haven’t got whilst neglecting the things we have. Counting our blessings is a way to focus on what we’ve got going for us, the green grass right under our noses.

By the way, I don’t know if this is relevant but I’ve been thinking lately about how there is never any point in trying to replace people and things we have lost. Better to tune into what is now and we’ll feel whole again. Not, “Oh this is just a pale imitation of the living conditions/relationship/job etc I had!” It is not a pale imitation, it is just different. It is not supposed to replace anything, and if we don’t set it up as a replacement we might just find that we are enjoying it in its own right. Be happy in ourselves and we can enjoy everything that comes our way.

Some scientifically proven benefits of gratitude

As I said, there are a ton of articles out these days about the power of gratitude. This article for example gives 7 scientifically proven benefits of gratitude, so I thought I’d give a quick unscientific comment on all of them.

Gratitude:

  1. Opens the door to more relationships. Hardly surprising really, who doesn’t like being around someone who appreciates them?!
  2. Improves physical health. All I’ll say here is that I was feeling very grateful this morning (hence this article) and my good mood made me go for a swim in a pool in the snow.
  3. Improves psychological health. Gratitude “effectively increases happiness and reduces depression” and “reduces a multitude of toxic emotions (read “delusions”), ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret.” That’s understandable, and cool.
  4. Enhances empathy and reduces aggression. For sure.
  5. Grateful people sleep better. Yup, I love sleeping!
  6. Improves self-esteem. And “reduces social comparisons”. Yes, if we are grateful to others, we tend to want to repay them, and it becomes natural to rejoice in them instead of comparing ourselves and falling short.
  7. Increases mental strength. Gratitude “reduces stress” and “fosters resilience”. There is nothing more resilient than a peaceful, controlled mind, which we get with gratitude.

That was only 7. This article gives 31 benefits of gratitude 🙂 But I’ll spare you my comments.

pigletNow I don’t know if this kind of thing impresses you or not, but I’ll mention it just in case. Gratitude also boosts our dopamine and serotonin levels. It is apparently even a form of emotional intelligence and “affects neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex” (which apparently is a good thing).

Feel free to Google “gratitude benefits” or whatever and you’ll have a stack of bedtime reading.

Before teaching how to generate a positive state of mind, Buddha Shakyamuni would always talk first about its benefits to encourage us to go for it. So hopefully you’ve decided that gratitude is what you want, in which case, in the next article I carry on with this and share some Buddhist techniques for feeling more grateful.

Meanwhile, I am always (well, almost always) grateful for your comments …

Ten ways to be happier

Who doesn’t want to be happier? That, and wanting to be free from suffering, are the two basic wishes of all living beings, from world leaders to the smallest gnat. Generally, however, as Shantideva says:

Although living beings wish to be free from suffering,
They run straight towards the causes of suffering;
And although they wish for happiness,
Out of ignorance they destroy it like a foe. ~ Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

Someone at work posted an article called Ten Simple Science-Based Ways to be Happier Today, perhaps not surprisingly one of the most read leadership articles of 2013, and it inspired me to give a Buddhist version.

1.      Exercise more

As it explains in the article, exercise helps prevent depression, helps us relax, increases our brain power, is good for our physical health and weight, etc, etc. This we all know, really.

exercizeMy teacher Geshe Kelsang encourages people to stay healthy through exercise and good diet. Although our mind goes on forever and so we need to put most of our effort into keeping our mind healthy and increasingly strong, we also have to look after this meaty body despite its limited shelf life. At the moment we have a precious human life with which to help ourselves and everyone else, so we need to take care of this body as our vehicle, rather as an ambulance driver takes good care of her ambulance so she can drive around helping people. Those with a Tantric empowerment even have a commitment to take care of their body, not needlessly weaken it, let alone destroy it.

Prostrations are recommended if we want to combine our exercise directly with a spiritual practice. I think with a little mindfulness it is also possible to transform any exercise into the spiritual path – for example, when I get a chance to swim laps, I enjoy thinking Dharma thoughts, and bathing in water-like blessings and/or prostrating to an ocean of compassion, etc. Maybe some of you do some creative things, care to share?

See # 5 below too.

2.      Sleep more

“Sleep-deprived people fail to recall pleasant memories, yet recall gloomy memories just fine.”

For those who have not gained control over their deeper levels of consciousness, sleep may come from dullness and its imprints — but we still need it!!

For ordinary beings sleep helps to restore the energy of the body and to bring the elements of the body into harmony, thereby making the body comfortable and prolonging life. ~ How to Understand the Mind page 166

The book also says:

Sleep is also the basis of the development of all the things we experience in dreams.

remember you are dreamingI think this refers to the fact that the appearances in dreams actually arise from the dreaming mind, are perceptions of the dreaming mind. This is no different to when we are awake — our mind is the basis for the perceptions of our waking world too. There is nothing outside the mind. So dreaming can really help us to understand this, to increase our wisdom.

Also the yoga of sleeping taught in Tantra is incredibly helpful and time-saving – better than spending almost a third of this precious, hard-to-attain human life zonked out. Sleep doesn’t have to be a waste of time. We can actually learn to use our sleeping mind to meditate if we train in the six stages of Mahamudra Tantra.

At least it is a good idea last thing each night to let go of and purify the bad parts of the day, not entering our dream world with a deluded, upset, anxious mind. There is nothing to stop us turning our mind in a positive direction as we lay down, and we can ask the Buddhas and the Dakinis to bless our minds while we sleep. They will.

Trijang Rinpoche, Geshe Kelsang’s own root Spiritual Guide, even recommends a nap if we are feeling negative or anxious during the day. You can find out more about the yoga of sleeping in your free ebook Modern Buddhism.

3.      Move closer to work

‘Or as Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert put it, “Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day.”’

Although I do travel quite a lot, I’m lucky in that my daily commute at the moment is a rather delightful bike ride through the streets of Denver. But if we have no choice, we can remember that everything is transformable. Actually being stuck in traffic can give us the opportunity to listen to teachings, develop a happy mind, practice patience, remember the kindness of the people in the cars around (for without them, there would be no road), and so on. We don’t actually have to be “stuck”. Those moments of pause throughout our day — eg, at red lights, when our computer spends an age booting up, waiting for an appointment at the doctor’s office, last in the long line at Starbucks — are a perfect chance to check in with our mind to see if it is peaceful and positive.

4.      Spend times with friends and family

“The only thing that really matters in life is your relationships to other people.”

A study published in the Journal of Socio-Economics states that our relationships are worth more than $100,000! Not sure how they got that figure … but we do all know that money doesn’t buy us happiness, don’t we?! Nor does status etc. At least theoretically we know this, though this recent New York Times article shows that people still chase after more and more money and prestige … we chain ourselves to our own desks.

I am sitting at an airport café writing this, and enjoying the loud laughter, almost hysterical laughter, coming from a group of Bosnian friends sitting at a table close to me. They are having a blast! Love is where it’s at. If spending time with friends and family brings out our love, it’ll definitely make us happy. If it brings out our frustration, dislike, and attachment — not so much.Pope and little girl

Everyone can be a friend. To a Bodhisattva, a so called “friend of the world”, who has trained in universal love and compassion, everyone is a friend. I liked the recent footage of Pope Francis jumping out of his Fiat 500 every few feet, or so it seemed, to hug random strangers!

However, I think we also need time alone, and to learn to love being on our own, happy with ourselves, both in general and if we are interested in pursuing a spiritual path. I have spent many, maybe most, of my happiest hours alone. There are numerous benefits to solitude explained in the scriptures and experienced by past and present spiritual practitioners.attachment 3

Alone or surrounded, it all depends on what we are doing with our mind. If we have love, we can be on a retreat in the middle of nowhere and feel very connected and happy. If we don’t, we can be sitting in the midst of family and friends and feel left out and lonely.

The most reliable friends, if you ask me, are enlightened beings, holy beings — those who’ve perfected their love, compassion, and wisdom, whether Buddhist or otherwise. They unrelentingly see the good in us, looking beyond our faults to our pure nature, and are always there for us. We could do a lot worse than getting used to hanging out with them on a daily basis, sharing with them our good and our bad times.

5.      Go outside

I love going outside, personally, enjoying the elements. So, it seems, does everyone else around here (Colorado) who work so they can play – I sometimes wonder if a love of the great outdoors has supplanted the work ethic I’ve found everywhere else in America …

I’ve read various studies that say getting into nature is very helpful, and one thing I enjoy doing when I am walking around is the Tantric self-generation practice of remembering that the 4 elements of water, wind, fire (heat), and earth are the four Dakinis – Dakini, Lama, and Khandarohi, and Rupini. This blissful practice gets the inner elements into balance – good for both the mind and the body. You can check this out in The New Guide to Dakini Land.staunton state park 2

I think a wonderful practice while outside is to offer the flowers, sky, and other delights to the Buddhas around you and at your heart, with the wish that everyone enjoy a Pure Land.

6.      Help others

“To make yourself feel happier, you should help others.”

“We scientists have found that doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.” ~ Martin Seligman

Cherishing others is the way to solve our problems. And we can help others practically in so many ways, it is the Bodhisattva’s way of life – Bodhisattvas promise two things, to get enlightened and to help others practically. Some of the moral disciplines of helping others in the Bodhisattva vow include, for example, going to the assistance of those in need, relieving the distress of others, and giving wealth to others. The article notes that spending money on other people, called “prosocial spending,” also boosts happiness. In Buddhism, generosity is taught to be a major source of happiness – the Bodhisattva feels amazing joy just at the word “Give”!

If you’re not sure practically how you’re supposed to help more people, Nagarjuna’s advice on the subject can be very helpful:

Even if we are not able to help others directly
We should still try to develop a beneficial intention.
If we develop this intention more and more strongly,
We shall naturally find ways to help others. ~  Universal Compassion 

The article also says:

“Volunteering is rewarding in terms of higher life satisfaction.”

And as you may have noticed already, there are often plenty of opportunities to volunteer at your local Buddhist Center 🙂 Or animal shelter. Or wherever.

Of course part of all this is avoiding the opposite, harming others.

7.      Practice smiling

I have sometimes wondered if I’d look more cool if I smiled less and scowled more. I have concluded that this may well be the case, but overall I’d rather be happy than cool.fake smile

Of course, you gotta mean it – fake smiles don’t count.

Interestingly:

“Smiling can improve our attention and help us perform better on cognitive tasks.”

This list doesn’t mention laughing at the ridiculousness of samsara/sense of humor, but perhaps that can be snuck in here.

8.      Plan a trip but don’t take one

I had to think about this one 🙂 Then I thought about the power of imagination. We don’t ever really go anywhere anyhow.

9.      Meditate
all you need is inside youNo list on becoming happier would be anywhere near complete without this. In fact, the things on this list can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful, and the function of meditation is to make our mind peaceful.

Buddha explained that due to ignorance we do a lot of hallucinating. On the most basic level, we hallucinate that happiness comes from outside ourselves. We almost always assume that it is to be found out there somewhere – if I can get the right partner, the right job, the right car, the right pair of shoes, etc I’ll be just fine! And until I have them, I won’t.

This is not true. What we need to be happy is mental freedom.

We chain ourselves to external sources of happiness that cannot deliver the goods. I think that uncontrolled desire is a bit like playing the slot machines. Maybe we hit some kind of jackpot — someone returns our desire for a while until one or the other of us has had enough, or we enjoy our promotion until we realize it is too much like work – but by now we are addicted to trying again and again. A morbid fascination – maybe the oranges will all line up this time!! – distracts us from looking for happiness within. Sometimes it works due to some good karma, frankly more often it doesn’t – gambling addictbut until then we keep trying, bound to the machine in a dingy crypt full of fellow gambling addicts. We need to get out of here and into the sunshine: “I’m free!” Meditation does that for us.

Happiness is a state of mind, a feeling, and therefore its real causes lie within the mind. So of course meditation has to be on this list because with it we go direct to the source. Familiarizing our mind with positivity is the most direct, effective way to become happy. This in fact is what the article says:

“Meditation literally clears your mind and calms you down, it’s been often proven to be the single most effective way to live a happier life.”

This whole Kadampa Life blog is about meditation, but I’ll let the scientists conclude this section:

“… neuroimaging … concluded that after completing the course, parts of the participants’ brains associated with compassion and self-awareness grew, and parts associated with stress shrank.”

And

“Research even shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness.”

10.  Practice gratitude

“Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.”

Buddha had a lot to say about this. We do some beautiful meditations on cherishing others by remembering their kindness. We are grateful to living beings and we are grateful to enlightened beings, both. I wrote more about that here.

Thanks everyone for reading. I have only touched on a few things here. I’m sure you have a lot more ideas and it’d be great if you felt like sharing them in the comments.