Can too much bad news make us sick?

DSC_0134.NEFHow can we make a non-existent me happy?

How can we get rid of its suffering?!

Answer: we can’t.

Which is probably the main reason why it makes sense to get rid of our self-grasping and self-cherishing and cherish others instead.

As of now, self-cherishing hasn’t gotten us anywhere – any happiness and good fortune we are experiencing is coming about despite our self-cherishing, not because of it. Meanwhile, cherishing others gets us everywhere we need to be.

Any pain and problems you’ve had already today come from your self-cherishing. Do you believe that?!

For a few minutes this morning before I got out of bed, I was for some bizarre reason itemizing everything that didn’t seem to be working out properly – it was quite a long list, and I was beginning to feel a bit agitated.

Then I decided to do what I like to do, which is take the self out of the equation, cherish others instead, and see if I still had all those problems.

I didn’t.

Health problems

Rash on skin?! – nothing compared with a friend’s sister who has Behcet’s syndrome. Look it up. It is no fun and considerably more excruciating than my own red splodges. DSC_0170.NEFAnd I have been praying for said sister, so my own rash is in fact a very useful reminder, and now I want to do some taking and giving for her. Therefore, although my skin has problems, I do not.

Work problems

Meanwhile thinking about work, I was beginning to entertain this distasteful idea that people are not being as efficient or organized as I’d like. Heck, more importantly, that I was not being as efficient or organized as I’d like! Then I realized that anything less than being able to help countless living beings on any given day is never going to be quite enough for a Bodhisattva, while at the same time helping even one person is more than enough. So I need to remember to be a Bodhisattva and, indeed, a Buddha who has already made it; and work from there. Might seem like the same activities – but they become a lot more blessed and enjoyable, and far less about ME trying to get things done or prove something.

It is the motivation of bodhichitta that is important, and where that is taking me and how many people that allows me to help at least indirectly each day. How can I hope to be at DSC_0146maximum efficiency while I remain as a limited self-revolving being?

I was also thinking that instead of pondering what people are not doing, the fact that anyone is doing anything to help me and help others is incredible; and I focused on that instead so as to feel grateful instead of annoyed. It worked very well.

As did making one of my favorite requests to my Spiritual Guide, namely to help me help him help as many people as possible today. I hope that includes this article, because that is what I seem to be doing with this morning so far.

Relationship problems

A friend was supposed to meet me and bailed. I also don’t like that people I know are sick and I can’t do anything about it.

When we are focused on how friends are not doing what we want, or when we are feeling burdened by the illnesses of relatives, and so on, there is always a pronounced sense of ME. Even when we are supposedly trying to be there for these people in our lives, feeling let down or discouraged indicates that it is more about us than about them.

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Because … when we believe that they owe us nothing, when all we want is for them to be happy and free from suffering for their own sake, the mental pain goes away and we lighten up. This happens whenever we genuinely cherish them. If they’re not happy, we want to help them be happy, and if they are suffering we want to help them get rid of it – not because of us but because of them. It is as simple as that. There is nothing for us to lose, we just try and don’t worry, as Geshe Kelsang puts it. Unconditional love works every time. And it increases, as opposed to undermining, our compassion.

World problems

The day’s headlines, while also initially infuriating and problematic, reminded me of a report I just read about how over-exposure to bad news is making us sick: Too much bad news can make you sick.

There is a lot in that – one being that mindless consumption of the 24/7 news cycle is overwhelming and over-stimulating while also being deadening; another being that if we take all of this stuff personally we are going to be in a constant state of stress.

Things are not getting better despite all our external development. These are degenerate times. People’s minds and environments seem to be getting more and more out of control. As the article claims:

The United Nations’ disaster-monitoring system says that since 1970, the number of disasters worldwide has more than quadrupled, rising to about 400 per year.

It is true that, “Thanks to technology, exposure to traumatic events has rapidly increased over the past few decades”. However, I was thinking that if we are training in compassion and wisdom, we have a way of dealing with every bad appearance. Every news story is a reminder of our need to control and transform our minds.

DSC_0213.NEFAs one professor says in the article, we need “to learn effective ways to engage with reality without being consumed by it”; and compassion and wisdom help us with this, not least by helping us to understand what “reality” is in the first place.

The world has always been stressful, but experiencing acute events occurring thousands of miles away is a new and challenging phenomenon. On any given day, it feels like the world is falling apart.

This is true. And it has always been true – only now we get to see it close up through our screens without having to get out of our chairs. The report asks three rhetorical questions, which I’m going to answer 😉

“How can we brace for disaster and find the strength to withstand it?”

Understand that samsara has been forever thus … and the other realms are even worse. Far worse. Only Dharma is the truth — we need that refuge in Dharma to give us strength.

We also have to watch out for compassion fatigue:

Inundation of news and trauma can also lead to what is known as disaster fatigue, making us less concerned and more apathetic and feeling a diminished sense of urgency about the crisis at hand. Disaster fatigue occurs when prolonged exposure to news coverage of disasters causes potential donors or volunteers to lose motivation to address the problem.

DSC_0152Check out more on that in this article.

We can get strength by making an effort to rely on our community or Sangha, whoever they may be:

The research points to social connection as the bedrock of resilience and the best way to combat apathy. … The more that you are connected to others and you can call upon them, the more likely it is that your entire community will withstand.

Knowing the truth of suffering helps us all — everyone has indestructible compassion in them, and truly recognizing each other and what we have in common can bring this heroism out of us:

The most dire situations can lead people to be their best selves, serving others and coming together across difference.

And this is especially true for Bodhisattvas, who grow stronger from adversity, like peacocks thriving on the hemlock that harms other birds.

“How will we adapt to our greater exposure to trauma?”

By using everything to remind us to destroy our self-grasping and self-cherishing and help everyone else do the same. Those are the real causes of disaster, directly and indirectly; and luckily we can get rid of them.

The article says:

DSC_0190-EFFECTSIdeally, after the perceived threat is resolved, the body’s resting state of homeostasis should be regained.

Meditation — from the most simple breathing meditation to the subtle mind meditations of Tantra — can restore our homeostasis every time we are exposed to trauma. Trauma is “psychological injury”, and if we get rid of the real enemy of our ego minds we can’t be injured any further.

As it says in the article:

Self-care can seem indulgent, even selfish, in the face of destruction. … But in crisis, self-care is one of the most selfless actions. Practicing the ability to self-soothe and improve our nervous system’s response to stress will buffer the negative impacts of crisis and help us help others.

To go wide, i.e. to help everyone, we have to go deep. Carving some time out each day to meditate and experience the restorative nature of our own peaceful minds, even through a simple breathing meditation for example, is invaluable not just for ourselves but for everyone we want to help.

Unless we make some time every day to meditate, we will find it very difficult to maintain peaceful and positive minds in our daily life, and our spiritual practice as a whole will suffer. Since the real purpose of meditation is to increase our capacity to help others, taking time each day to meditate is not selfish. ~ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

It is also important to pay attention to our states of mind through the day in general so we can “stop” self-cherishing and its delusions when we notice their grumblings. As the article says:

What is important is to pay attention to when you are overloaded, when you start to get stressed, when you feel numb and moody or irritated or feel other outward symptoms of a nervous system response. Whenever you feel like you’re ‘off,’ that is a signal. That is your signal that you need to stop.

“And will our mental health be sacrificed in the process?”

DSC_0155Not if we do the above … quite the opposite.

Both our compassion and our wisdom protect us from stress and suffering, while enabling us to increasingly do what we need to do to help our world, including realizing the union of appearance and emptiness so that we can end our own and others’ hallucinations once and for all.

A sample selection

So that is how I dealt with today’s problems so far by remembering to change the object of my cherishing from myself to others. No doubt I will have plenty more opportunities to practice this even before the day is out. The challenge is always interesting and, I find, uplifting and confidence-building whenever I bother to make the slightest effort to greet it 😄

DSC_0164Meanwhile, as it’s my day off, I get to go to the park and read the new Mirror of Dharma as my hard copy has now arrived. And pictures of foster kittens (and flowers) taken with my new camera can’t hurt either (let me know if you’re in the business for a cat).

I am going to let CNN have the last word ‘cos it’s nice:

We might not be able to predict the future, but we can prepare for it using these strategies — a future that might be filled with catastrophe but that is hopefully brighter and more beautiful than the present.

Over to you …  comments invited as always.

 

 

To the rescue!

While working on an article filled with your ideas on how Buddhists can (and need to) help in the current world turmoil, someone sent me this:

In a recent retreat, after teaching on emptiness and how the appearances in this life are like dreams, Gen Losang went on to say that a compassionate way to help people is to skilfully reduce the importance of what is appearing to them, rather than increasing it. He meant skilfully, not shutting them down with, “Oh, it’s all emptiness.” 

wisdom

What do you think about this? It reminded me of this analogy (below) for helping people on different levels and in accordance with their needs that I hope you might also find helpful.

To help anyone, we need compassion. And true compassion, or deep compassion, arises from renunciation – we develop renunciation for ourselves and for everyone else.

Renunciation is when we stop buying into samsara, hoping that things in samsara will one day work themselves out – they will not. We cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as they say. For as long as our minds are impure, our worlds will be impure.

“Reducing the importance of what is appearing to them, rather than increasing it” depends on the degree of suffering and crazy appearances the person is experiencing.

If we are helping someone who has a little space in their lives, and who is suffering, for example, from a relationship problem – yes, this advice can really help.

For someone whose home and country have just been washed away or burned to the ground, maybe not so much. (Unless they already have experience of this deep spiritual truth and just want reminding.)

The swamp

Imagine living beings are trying to navigate a huge, deep swamp that happens to be full of alligators and other monsters with very big teeth and hungry bellies. It is dusky — hard to see clearly or far. There are stepping stones, but it’s challenging to see how to tread safely. Here and there are small patches of dry land where people can catch a bit of a breather, and some of those patches even seem relatively pretty or interesting.

alligator in swampImagine that we are also in that swamp, but that we know, at least intellectually, something profound – this swamp is false, merely an appearance to mind, like a dream or a movie.

The need for renunciation

In that scenario, we need renunciation ourselves, wishing to get out of this swamp of samsara entirely and forever rather than remaining intrigued by it. We need to know that for as long as we have delusions, we’re going to keep projecting monsters wherever we look.

dystopia

Speaking for myself, I know that the times I feel anxious, overwhelmed, heavy, or graspy is when I have forgotten my renunciation, which is a light, joyful, and confident wish for liberation. My compassion then is far less effective. I have thoughts like, “There are so many people, including animals, needing help! So many people demanding the attention that I’m not giving them – it’s coming from all sides. How am I going to save them all from the alligators?! Especially when I’m feeling trapped or overwhelmed myself?” I feel like going back to bed and pulling the covers over my head. Or distracting myself with Netflix. It also doesn’t help if we are bound to our own selfish attachments needing things or people to go our way.

If we don’t have the non-attachment of renunciation, we have only momentary relief when a plan pans out – but it is short lived, whereas the disappointments can seem to pile up effortlessly. This is because of attachment. It leads to the suffering of change, not to deep satisfaction or solutions.

The need for wisdom

We also need some wisdom understanding the illusory nature of the swamp or we will soon be joining in the collective panic, “Aarggh, I’m freaking out over here! We’re going to be swallowed whole.” We will be part of the problem, swept up in the drama, overwhelmed by appearances or the 24/7 news cycle.

Without wisdom, compassion fatigue sets in because it is exhausting to try and solve “real” problems — it is like wading through treacle with no end in sight. It can also make us feel guilty as we can never do enough.

With the compassion born of renunciation and wisdom, we won’t get discouraged. The context is different – we have set it up differently. We therefore can “try and not worry”, as Geshe Kelsang says. We are “only trying to help people”, he also says, “so why worry?”

Back to the analogy … Let’s say we are lucky enough to have a flashlight. The flashlight is the teachings illuminating the path — we don’t know how long we have this flashlight, but it is very effective. How strong it is depends on the strength of our experience. Perhaps we understand the dream-like nature of reality and — even though for now things may also still seem real to us — we know we have to get ourselves and others to the firm ground of wisdom.

Tread here!

swampWhat we need to do, if we care about the people around us, is to stop them being eaten by swamp monsters. The first thing we need to do is encourage them to get to the patches of dry land … tread here, avoid those jaws, hold my hand, look at the light. You’ll be ok, let me help.” Although there are no real dangers there, they are not necessarily ready to hear us say so: “Stop being an idiot! There are no swamp monsters! This is just a dream! It’s all empty!” We understand how it is all appearing to them as real, and so we give them the relevant advice for their situation. We empathize with their hopes and fears. We give them material help, “Here, have some water.” They need water.

Once they reach dry land, and have had a chance to rest up, we can then tell them:

“Believe it or not, this is all just a bad dream. You are in no real danger. And now let me explain how.”

We can explain how it is possible for them to stay on firm ground forever, and help get everyone else out as well.

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We may not be able to do this with everyone straightaway, of course — for example all I can do with these foster kittens is give them food, shelter, love, temporary safety, and entertainment. But we never give up trying until everyone is permanently safe and free. That is a Bodhisattva‘s mentality.

Calm the waters

I’ll finish by sharing what my friend wrote about Gen Losang’s advice:

The key for me here is genuine compassion. I say that because if we try to practice this without genuine compassion as a motivation then we just end up unskillfully minimising people’s feelings. It can be very hurtful to be feeling pain and have someone tell you, “It’s all emptiness.” Unless you have high realisations, that pain exists for you, just as a child’s fears exist even if the nightmare doesn’t.

Within that, I try not to draw attention to the awful things that are happening. Also, when people are sharing their worries with me, I try to reduce the drama rather than adding to it, whilst still being sympathetic. I point out possible alternative explanations for the actions they have witnessed, or suggest a better possible outcome. In a way I try to steer their dream in a more positive direction. If a mother comforts a child after a nightmare, she doesn’t do this by agreeing the monsters were just horrific and are probably still there …IMG_2085

If we are not careful, we can just spread the hype (and there is also no shortage of “fake news” out there). We can end up pointing out the monsters in their nightmares that they missed the first time, instead of shining the flashlight under the bed and saying, “Look, there is no one there!”

A parent comforts their children when they have been terrified or upset by a dream by sympathising with their pain but skilfully reducing the sense that what they experienced was the truth. Then, once they are comforted to some extent, they can move their attention to something that will soothe or comfort them, rather than harping on about their own horrific nightmares or asking them for more details. 

What I am working on now is responding in the way Losang suggested, calming the waters, not swirling them around. 

As always, your comments are welcome below.

Related articles

Renunciation 

Change your future by changing your mind

How to help on different levels

Developing confidence

 

How to be a hero

One of the main things about compassion is that it makes us a kinder, more helpful person. A force of good in this world, for sure. But it also helps US. Why? Because it overcomes our own limitations and problems, as does love. If we understand this, we are less reluctant to develop it. (Carrying on from this last article.)

compassion fatigue?!
compassion fatigue?!

Certain things slow us down, one being a fear that contemplating the suffering of others will make us depressed and give us compassion fatigue. Maybe this is because we do have Buddha seed, the natural good heart of compassion, so when we perceive suffering we do take a kind of responsibility for it, thinking, “I have to do something about this. But I can’t; it is too big. So thinking about it will just make me unhappy, remind me of how useless I am.” If we think like this, we need to build up our confidence that compassion doesn’t cause us problems, instead it solves them. So we don’t have to be that ostrich with its head in the sand. Plus, if we have some understanding of where suffering is coming from, this also really helps us become confident and strong enough to focus on growing our compassion because we know there is a solution.

As Geshe Kelsang says:

Compassion causes us to experience happiness because once we generate it our disturbing minds such as pride, jealousy, anger, and attachment are pacified and our mind becomes very peaceful. It causes others to experience happiness because when we have great compassion we naturally care for others and try to help them whenever we can. ~ Ocean of Nectar page 21.

Brief compassion experiment

We can close our eyes and think of the last time we had strong compassion for someone we loved – our dog at the vet, or our disappointed child, or our parent suffering from a pain of old age, or our friend who lost their partner. Or a stranger whose plight has moved us. I don’t need to give you examples! Think of that person. Sadly we all have at least one.

DAMASCUS, SYRIA - JANUARY 31: In this handout provided by the United Nation Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Residents wait in line to receive food aid distributed in the Yarmouk refugee camp on January 31, 2014 in Damascus, Syria. The United Nations renewed calls for the Syria regime and rebels to allow food and medical aid into the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk. An estimated 18,000 people are besieged inside the camp as the conflict in Syria continues. (Photo by United Nation Relief and Works Agency via Getty Images)
DAMASCUS, SYRIA  (Photo by United Nation Relief and Works Agency via Getty Images)

We wished for them to be free from pain. We would have done anything to free them.

We can go back to that experience, when all we wanted was for them to be well again, free from suffering.  What was going on in our mind at that time? During this experience, who were we caring about—ourselves or them? Was this wish for them to be free actually painful or — with the ego temporarily out of the way and our focus exclusively on another — was it okay? We can look and see for ourselves.

Also at that time, we can see how other obstacles in our mind were pacified – for example, was there any irritation or impatience, any self-pity? No, because it wasn’t about us. All problems associated with thinking about ourself disappeared. If someone had said to us, while we were caught up with the needs of a suffering relative, “Look, I’m sorry, but the machine is out of cappuccino”, would we really have cared?

We can keep that experience of compassion vivid, and ask ourself, “Was this a peaceful mind or not? Within that mind was there some cessation of suffering because I wasn’t thinking about myself?” Although we wished for someone we loved to be free from suffering, this was not a painful feeling. It was dynamic, positive.

“You need to go and let him out, then”

Be a heroI don’t often share my dreams, except with the occasional long-suffering friend, and I don’t want to bore you, but this vivid one I had last night showed me how compassion can be both unbearable and a liberating force that makes everything else pale into insignificance.

A young man was trapped in a big glass box on an unknown pedestrian street, quite visible, by enemies he had crossed, and the  box was heated up to an unbearably hot temperature. He wouldn’t die, but his body was shriveling up, and he was clutching his hands together in pain, blinking. People were walking past, some curious, others ignoring him, but no one seeming inclined to do anything. I couldn’t bear it and got on the phone to an (unknown in my dream) assistant of my teacher Geshe Kelsang to tell him what was going on. The message got lost in translation as Geshe-la came out to meet me holding a large glass of water, and I had to explain that the man wasn’t just hot, but trapped in a boiling box. To which Geshe-la replied: “You need to go and let him out, then.”

I hadn’t considered that a possibility, but I ran over there with my friend Morten, who managed to lift up a corner of the box and said, “Man, it is really hot in there.” I realized from this that it was possible to lift the entire side of the box up, so we did, and dragged the skinny man out. Then I told him, “We need to get out of here, we’re not safe yet, run with me.” Which he managed to do. We ran, stopping only for me to beg for some water for him from a passing vendor as I’d left my wallet and phone behind. We got away.

Moral of the tale
cape of compassion
cape of compassion

I got a few things from this dream: People suffer unbearably every day, including in hot, hellish states of existence that are out of our sight, but also plenty right under our nose, eg, the refugees trying so desperately hard to escape to Europe.

Until Geshe-la told me to let this man out, I hadn’t realized I could. Until I found Buddha’s teachings through Geshe-la, I didn’t realize liberating people from suffering was an option. I also had help from Sangha.

The main thing was the agony of seeing the man curled up in the box, and the sheer joy of helping him escape. Nothing would have distracted me at that point. The passion I had to save this person was stronger than any passion that comes from attachment, strong as that can be (remember Daniel Day Lewis and “I WILL find you?!” Stronger than that even!)

Pure compassion makes heroes of us all. A real hero or heroine, according to Buddhism, is someone who has beaten the foe of their selfish desires & other delusions and developed their compassion for others.

From these kinds of experiences, both in and out of dreams, I think it is not hard to see how, for Bodhisattvas motivated by compassion, nothing now will stop them from getting enlightened. By contrast to strong love and compassion, it is so so boring to be thinking about myself. If I never had to think about myself again out of self-centeredness, it would not be a day too soon.

The best way to have helped this man would have been to realize that I was dreaming, that the suffering was not real. The best way to help people is to wake ourselves and others up. More in a later article on how everything is the nature of the mind and so there are no inherently existent suffering beings. I’ll just leave you with a question: If everything is the nature of your mind, what is going to happen to everyone when you become an omniscient Buddha?