Overcoming self-doubts

Buddha kindThis weekend it is Buddha’s Enlightenment Day and Easter, both good occasions it would seem for overcoming self-doubts, sloughing off despondency, and resurging our spiritual practice.

I’ve been writing about the four types of self-confidence or so-called “non-deluded pride” we need for this – the first two are pride in realizing our potential and pride in overcoming our delusions. Today would seem like a perfect occasion for a conversation about the third type, called “Pride in our actions”. This is:

a strong determination to perform virtuous actions, for example a mind of superior intention thinking “I myself will free all sentient beings from suffering.” ~ How to Understand the Mind

So many people …

Back in New York this January, I found myself thinking about this type of self-confidence a lot, maybe because wherever there are lots of living beings, there is also lots of suffering. Which is what Geshe Kelsang Gyatso said when he visited Manhattan years ago – after a glamorous “sight seeing” tour in the car, he shook his head and said:

So many people. So much suffering.

Cars DriveI walked home each day via a homeless pregnant young woman. One one occasion it had started raining and she was more bedraggled than ever. I gave her a juice, but it was so inadequate to her enormous needs that it brought to mind that Cars song they played at Live Aid back in the day:

Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?

Did you wake up happy today?

One morning I woke up feeling stiff and sorry for myself, but then I opted to remember her and the umpteen others living under cardboard boxes, at which point my own pathetic problems vanished.

Later that day I asked a large group of New Yorkers if any of them had woken up really happy. To my slight surprise, with just one or two exceptions, they all laughed and said “No”.

dinosaurs eating humansI don’t really like that no one is even waking up happy. We haven’t even got out of our nice warm bed yet! Nothing has gone wrong! What chance do we have of being happy for the rest of the precarious day?

The thing is, we all have the potential to be happy all the time. But our delusions are ruining this for us. We wake up and cast around for things to blame for our malaise — surely there is something or someone out there I can pin this feeling on?! But in fact we only wake up unhappy because our mind is out of control.

This is why we need to develop compassion, superior intention, and bodhichitta, for both our own and others’ sake. We need to become, as my friend Gen Samten says, protectors, not victims.

Benefits of bodhichitta

Bodhichitta is the wish to attain enlightenment so that we can liberate all living beings from their sufferings permanently. It starts off as a nice idea, then we get more and more familiar with it until it sticks and replaces our hitherto selfish motivations. At which point, day and night, we experience outrageously huge benefits.

One of these, possibly my favorite, is that we have a state of mind that is a source of peace and happiness for all living beings!

superior intentionI don’t know about you, but I love the idea of being of instant benefit to this world before we have even lifted a finger. We should never underestimate the power of our mind. Just look at what Geshe Kelsang Gyatso is pulling off for example, through his ideas and his blessings, even though he spends most of his time in his room. We can become like his emanation, a servant helping him and all enlightened beings in their work of liberating everyone. We can become part of that enlightened society and invite everyone else to join us.

It’s up to me

So this third non-deluded pride has to do with our actions, with benefiting living beings. It includes superior intention, taking personal responsibility for everyone. On one level, there is such audacity in this! Because normally we think so far beneath our potential — for example we hear teachings on compassion and we think, “Okay, then, I’m really going to try to make up with my second cousin who beat me up in fourth grade” – whereas what we need to think is “I am going to do that, but I am also going to liberate all living beings without exception.”

Not just help them, but liberate them. Take them out of samsara. Take them away from all their suffering, lead them to liberation and enlightenment. I’m going to liberate all living beings without exception. I’m going to do that.

We can put ourselves in that frame of mind. Step out from our limited self-perception and go there.

money doesn't buy happinessIt might be helpful to consider how it’s not possible to find lasting happiness from our possessions, friendships, and so forth; but it is actually possible for us to attain the lasting happiness of enlightenment and liberate all living beings. So why invest all our energy and time into happiness that is impossible, as opposed to happiness that is possible?

That’s what a Buddha is – a Buddha is a very blissful being who has the power or capacity to liberate all living beings. We need this big vision of ourselves, and what better day to think about this than today?

With superior intention, we have this thought, “It’s up to me. If I don’t liberate everyone, who is going to do it?!” If a mother sees her child drowning, she doesn’t just think, “How nice it’d be if someone would dive in and rescue her!” – she jumps in herself. That is like superior intention – it is a compassion that assumes responsibility, knowing that we can, and have to, take it on.

This non-deluded pride overcomes discouragement, self-pity, and self-indulgence. Imagine sitting on the bank of the river feeling sorry for yourself just because no one gets you or acknowledges you, while meantime others are drowning right in front of you. It is a fairly sad state of affairs.

Sandwich Man

I love riding the subway. So much food for practice, so much scope for connection.

New York subway 1One day I was covertly watching the people around me, each in their own worlds and/or Smartphones, furrowed brows, far from the present moment, far from each other. But a man then entered the carriage with a trolley full of plain white-bread sandwiches. And he asked, simply: “Is anyone hungry?”

Everyone was snapped into the present moment — something about this man was making us smile, at him and also at each other. He then declared: “You don’t have to be homeless to be hungry!” A man wrapped up in the corner seat then asked if he could have one, which he devoured before asking for a second. Then someone else asked. Then people started giving Sandwich Man money. All of a sudden there was so much connection there, so much meaning, so much hope.

(And affectionate love brought everyone out of the past and the future and into the here and now, as virtuous minds always do. We all shared a moment.)

This man had taken personal responsibility for feeding all the hungry people on the subway, and it was making all the difference. Imagine taking that kind of responsibility for everyone everywhere, I thought. Our life would be entirely different, as would the lives of all the people we met and worked with.

Our worries and self-doubts diminish straightaway when we develop this big heart as it is no longer about us. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso said to someone recently:

What is there to worry about? All you are trying to do is help others.

One more article on this third type of self-confidence in the pipeline. Meantime, over to you for feedback … how do you overcome self-doubts on a daily basis?

Related articles

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Compassion ~ the quick path to enlightenment

 

Living fearlessly

You know the thing I like most about Buddha Tara? That she is fearless. That she never gives up. That she never backs down. That she will never give up on anyone until the very last living being is rescued from the prison of samsara.

Someone wrote this earlier today on Facebook, and I reckon some of you can relate to it:toddler-in-aleppo

I’m mourning for the people of Aleppo, as well as ALL victims of war and genocide. I feel paralyzed, unable to help. Even in the midst of financial uncertainty, my life is so very comfortable and blessed in comparison with theirs, and I wish I could give them some of my good circumstances. I’d happily do with less to allow them to have safety and shelter and food. But I don’t know how to help when I have no financial resources to share.

Yes, I offer prayers and dedications, and I try to spread awareness; but I want to be able to do something more concrete and immediate. I do use their suffering as a motivation to become enlightened in order to save them and all other living beings from suffering, but some days that seems like such a distant and ethereal goal.

I want to be able to swoop in like a superhero right now and save the people from their hell on earth, but I cannot. It breaks my heart.

Fearlessness

Buddha Tara is a superhero.tara

She does not get discouraged or overwhelmed. And this is a quality we need if we are to be able to grow our compassion until it reaches all living beings. Because there are a lot of people experiencing a lot of suffering, and this can be terrifying and hard to cope with when we open our eyes to look at it. Without fearlessness, we will shut our eyes again; I think this is only a matter of time.

Earthlings

Human suffering is bad enough. But I have now watched Earthlings, having put it off for a long time, which shows the monstrous (I don’t have the words) suffering inflicted by humans — us — on millions and millions of bewildered fellow beings every single day. Within a few miles of where you are sitting — wherever that is — no doubt there are animals who, although they want to be loved just as much as our dog or cat, or at least left alone, are being stabbed and tortured and murdered instead.

Earthlings was almost impossible to watch; I knew it would be. But it also got a lot of things into perspective and brought out a compassionate, if somewhat desperate, wish to do whatever I could to bring an end to the suffering. However, I need a powerful ally. There is no way I can do this on my own, of course; I don’t even know where to begin, hence the desperation. So I was thinking a lot about Guru Tara — how she would never flinch in going to the aid of all the animals and human beings involved. And how I want and need that kind of ally and that kind of courage. Or I am never going to follow through, I am just going to switch channels.

earthlingsReader discretion is advised

I don’t know if you ever intend to watch Earthlings, but I hope you don’t mind if I mention here some of the reactions I had to it. As the movie says at the outset, “viewer discretion is advised.” Which, before the first harrowing images even appeared, made me realize the privilege, the luxury, of being a mere spectator, able to turn off this unpleasantness whenever I felt like it – unlike those who were actually experiencing it.

I think we need context for watching something like Earthlings or it will just make us angry and depressed, or cause us to stick our head even further into the sand. Same with Aleppo. Same with all the intense tragedies and catastrophes all around the world all the time.

Might doesn’t mean right

The film makers are making the case for us not harming animals with our own actions directly or indirectly – in all five categories where animals are misused, namely (unwanted) pets, food, clothes, entertainment, experimentation.

Just because our species happens to be more powerful is no excuse for exploiting people in other species. Any mark of humanity is surely that the powerful are supposed to look after the vulnerable, not take advantage of them. We kind of get that for human beings, but not for some sad reason for animals. And this despite the overwhelming and increasing evidence that animals and fish are just as feeling of suffering as we are, they have nervous systems, pain receptors, and so on.stop-it-thats-horrible

I think it is not correct to turn the other way when animals are suffering within our own realm, within our own neighborhoods, hidden within plain sight. As Edmund Burke was quoted in the movie:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Very few people visit slaughterhouses. Many people hope and assume that the meat they eat has come from humanely killed animals. Generally, this is a pipe dream. We need to know what and who we are eating or wearing. Ignorance is not bliss, especially not for the animals. As it says in the movie:

They all die from pain.

What will be enough?

Not misusing others for our own purposes, as the film makers want viewers to conclude, is a very good start – probably an essential one if we are to claim any conscience at all — but it is not ever going to be enough. It is not ever going to be nearly enough.

This movie shows pretty conclusively in my opinion that, despite its occasional pleasant moments, samsara is not a pleasure garden and we are idiotic to be skipping around fecklessly as if it is, as if it cannot suddenly twist into something very very nasty.Geshe-la turtle.jpg

And it shows too that nothing less than waking these living beings up forever from the nightmarish hallucinations of the sleep of ignorance will ever be enough.

Snapshots of hell

An “earthling” is someone who inhabits the Earth – any sentient being sharing our planet.

Some searing moments among too many: a stray dog was thrown into the back of a garbage truck, and he stared out at the humans incomprehendingly before he was crushed along with all the other “trash”. Each week thousands of unwanted dogs and cats, just as lovable as yours or mine, are tossed into gas chambers like useless sacks, their bodies later pulled out and piled up, because the shelters cannot afford the cost of putting them down humanely with an injection.

Have you ever communed with a cow in a field? They are so curious, they’ll always come gather around you if you sit there long enough. I have sat meditating with cows in the English Lake District on more than one occasion, and I remember a particularly friendly cow once licked me all the way up the front of my dress. And these are the same kind of gentle big-brown-eyed beings with long eyelashes who are are branded on their faces and have their horns ripped out without anaesthetic; all this long before they get to the killing cows-on-hillroom. Where they can have their throats slit while still conscious because the steel bolt into the brain has been administered so carelessly, and where they can still be thrashing around on the assembly line. So much blood. It’s like watching a horror movie, only these are not special effects.

Intelligent sows are confined their entire lives in cages barely bigger than themselves – imagine someone chucking your dog in a closet filled with excrement and not letting her out her whole life. Piglets meanwhile squeal with agony as their baby ears are clipped, tails docked, teeth cut, and genitals removed. Ruptured flesh and abscesses make the rest of their lives wretched, not helped by being stomped on and yelled at, in insult upon injury, “Go you mother fucker, go, go!!! Come on, you bitch!” I had just been thinking, “Why don’t any of these workers ever want to try and let the pigs escape?”, when I saw a worker filmed laughing as he clubbed a pig to death.

I wonder how any human being can work at a slaughterhouse without becoming at least partly a hell being. The karma is hideous. The desensitization too common but necessary to do the job. The additional cruelty and harshness legion. There are hundreds of thousands of poor human beings being paid to maim and kill. Yeah, you can say it is a job like any other, you have to put food on the table, but still …. And reports like this one do show that even in this life it impairs people greatly …. Hard to watch this and deny the existence of hell realms, including the karmic experiences similar to the cause.

I don’t think you can stay hating the protagonists if you know Dharma; compassion for them is almost greater. For they are part of that same hell, and you know full well that if they remain oblivious of the reality they are creating for themselves, and don’t purify their harmful actions, it will soon be their turn on the killing room floor.cow-in-factory-farm

Earthlings is scary. Yet Earthlings shows just snapshots of the lower realms in terms of the amount of sentient beings in agony and the length of time they must suffer. Buddha taught that there are countless world systems in samsara, and countless living beings in pain. He also taught that we living beings have been suffering in samsara since beginningless time due to our delusions and bad karma.

I kept wishing for the animals I was watching to be able to die as quickly as possible and for the humans to stop, please stop, just clock off and go home – but the fact is that death may close that particular chapter, but the endless tale of suffering will continue in the next. This book of samsara is millions and millions of chapters long. Longer.

The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra says:

The flesh and bones of all the bodies I have previously taken if gathered together would be equal to Mount Meru,
And if the blood and bodily fluids were gathered they would be equal to the deepest ocean.
Although I have taken countless bodies as Brahma, Indra, chakravatin kings, gods and ordinary humans,
There has been no meaning from any of these, for still I continue to suffer.

If having been born in the hells drinking molten copper, as insects whose bodies turned into mud,
And as dogs, pigs and so forth who ate enough filth to cover the whole earth,
And if, as it is said, the tears I have shed from all this suffering are vaster than an ocean,
I still do not feel any sorrow or fear, do I have a mind made of iron?

Hang on Buddha, we may be thinking, it can’t be that bad. Watching Earthlings, it is not hard to see that it can. The whole of samsara is rotten to the core.

Time to wake upsuperheroes

Hence the need for Buddha Tara and her countless emanations, including us. “Buddha” means Awakened One. We can become an Awakened One ourselves. This need not be a “distant and ethereal goal”, not now when we have access to the wisdom realizing the dream-like nature of reality and the Awakened Ones’ help.

Once we have woken up from the sleep of samsara, and are abiding in the reality of bliss and emptiness — universal compassion and omniscient wisdom — we will be a position to wake everyone else up. What’s the alternative? What lies in store for us if we do not wake up?

I wanted to tell Tara’s story to show what I mean about her fearlessness and cheer you up a bit, but we are out of space. Coming up soon — here in fact! Meanwhile, comments as always are welcome.

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Compassion: the quick path to enlightenment

Being Buddha Tara

 

 

Compassion: the quick path to enlightenment

I was walking with an old friend yesterday evening on the beautiful beach at Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre in the English Lake District, discussing how we could improve our compassion. We have to get ourselves more and more out of the way, for sure, and train in the time-honored Buddhist methods for improving our love and compassion. And we can just take a genuine interest in how others are — entering into their worlds monk on beachempathetically without fear, finding out what is going on for them, somehow, even simply by asking them when we can. We can actively want them to be free from any problems they may be having, and from all the pains queuing up endlessly for them in samsara. We can practice this again and again (and again) until it takes.

My friend and I also discussed the helpfulness of watching documentaries or movies that bring others’ lives home to us, for example Earthlings, a documentary I confess I have so far been too squeamish to watch. But, a question for you, can we shy away from looking at unbearable suffering if we are to develop the compassionate wish to free those people from that suffering? Thinking “I can’t bear to watch this” is not necessarily what is meant by “unbearable compassion” for the suffering of others.

What could be more fun?!

The other day I stumbled on a live webcam streaming a national park in Alaska. They asked, and I quote: “WHAT COULD BE more fun than watching brown bears fishing for bear and salmonsalmon?!”

I could think of a lot of things, but I still gingerly clicked on the link and spent a few relatively, I suppose, fun minutes watching some brown bears loll around in the river while silvery salmon jumped upstream. Could almost have been an idyllic scene, until one brown bear suddenly yanked a salmon from the water with its huge claws. The fish thrashed around in terror while the bear carried it in its mouth to a nearby rock. Then he tore a strip of flesh from its side. I gasped, as this was being shown live, and the salmon did not die – she carried on thrashing around in agony, bleeding. And there was nothing I could do.

Thirsty man’s wish for water

This line has struck me recently, even though I’ve read it many times:

If we train in taking and giving for a long time, our love and compassion will become very powerful and our wish to free others from suffering will be as strong as a thirsty man’s wish for water. ~ Great Treasury of Merit

Imagine having that urgent wish to free others from their suffering. It would do two things, it seems to me:

cows
Local cows, branded, their lives not their own.
  • It would drive all other deluded thoughts out of my mind. There would be no room for them. If you’re desperate for water, it’s all you can think about.
  • It would mean that nothing stops me from trying to help others. This is a short thought away from thinking, but how? I need to get into a position where I can help others, ie, I need to attain enlightenment.

The stronger our wish to free others, the stronger our efforts, and the quicker the results. In The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra Geshe Kelsang says that in general Highest Yoga Tantra is known as the quick path to enlightenment, but in the Sutras compassion observing all living beings is explained as the quick path:

If we have this mind, then through its power we will never waste a single moment, but draw closer and closer to the attainment of enlightenment every moment of the day and the night.

Taking and giving

monk on beach 2So, judging by the quote above, the so-called “magical practice” of taking and giving seems to be the way to get here. There is a lot that can be said about this practice and you can read all about it all over the place, including in Transform Your Life and the free eBook Modern Buddhism. But taking basically involves taking away others suffering in the form of smoke that dissolves into our heart and destroys our self-cherishing. And giving basically involves imagining giving others whatever they want, which bestows upon them endless, pure happiness.

Taking and giving has, when I last totted it up, at least 22 pretty amazing benefits, including obvious ones such as increasing our love and compassion, and slightly less obvious ones such as increasing our concentration and purifying our mind. And once we are used to doing it in meditation, we can then “mount taking and giving upon the breath”, which means breathing in others’ suffering and breathing out pure happiness – all as we wander about doing the regular things we do. There is then not a breath that need be wasted. Our whole life becomes meaningful. We feel incredible ourselves, and we become a walking, talking, breathing source of comfort and happiness for others, like Je Tsongkhapa, of whom his disciples said:

O Protector, even your daily breath brings benefit to countless beings.

Don’t take my word for it — do read all about this practice in the various books as soon as you get a spare moment.

Superior intention

To develop the motivation of going for enlightenment, the force of our compassion needs to grow until it becomes so-called “superior intention”. An analogy for this is given in the scriptures:

If we see a child fall into a river we will naturally want the child to be saved, but the child’s mother will wish so strongly that she will decide to act to save the child herself. ~ Great Treasury of Merit 

drowningEveryone standing on the bank (well, hopefully everyone) wants that child to be saved, but the mother jumps in after him. If we have superior intention we don’t plan on leaving it up to someone else, we take personal responsibility — we can’t help but take personal responsibility due to the force of our compassion. If my compassion for that agonized fish was strong enough, and I was close by, I would be compelled to help her if I could. And if I couldn’t, my wish to get into a stronger position to help her (and the bear) would grow naturally.

Superior intention leads to bodhichitta, which is the wish to free all others from suffering by developing all the qualities needed to do so, such as the requisite skill, omniscient wisdom, and freedom from limitations and faults.

Become their Buddha

So why, someone asked the other day, do WE need to become enlightened — why can’t Buddhasall the other Buddhas take care of the suffering of that fish and everyone else? After all they are already enlightened and have all the qualities needed to protect all living beings — isn’t that the whole point of becoming enlightened!?

What do you think about that? To me, it seems to be a question of timing – for others to be freed sooner rather than later. The ability to help others directly and practically — for example by removing them from suffering situations or teaching them — depends on karmic connections. It is a two-way street, a dependent relationship – we need a connection with an enlightened being from our side, too, to receive the full force of their help.

So, all the Buddhas want to help that brown bear and that fish, for example, not to mention my family etc; and they bless everyone’s mind every day. But I share some karmic two-way street with these particular living beings, meaning that I will be able to help them directly and soon, if I attain enlightenment.

We can strengthen our connections every day with a lot of living beings through love and compassion, through taking and giving, through prayer. Which means that one day, as a monk friend put it so beautifully, we will become “their Buddha”.

Over to you, comments welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

What about ME?

golden gate in fogOne reason that compassion is our Buddha nature, I think, is because compassion is a natural response to reality. If we remove our wrong conceptions holding ourselves to be independent of others, and focus on our interdependence, which exists, our compassion will naturally grow and grow and grow until it becomes the universal compassion of a Buddha. By the same token, I think the reason why wisdom is part of our Buddha nature is because it is a natural response to the reality of emptiness. 

In the sunshine of wisdom and compassion, our delusions have no choice but to dissolve into our clear light mind like the San Francisco fog.

The ME mind

As mentioned, one reason we find our own painful thoughts so intolerable is because we are identifying with them. Another reason is that we are forgetting something quite significant, that we are one of countless people. So it is not really all about me. Therefore, that ME mind is the crux of our suffering, based as it is on an hallucination. We forget:

We are just one person among countless living beings, and a few moments of unpleasant feeling arising in the mind of just one person is no great catastrophe. ~ How to Solve our Human Problems

We grasp at our painful feelings as if they were a storm in a teacup instead of a tiny, passing storm in a vast global sky.

duck
What about him?!

This is true, no? No one else really gives a monkeys, this is our private affair. When we get a glimpse into others’ minds and see their storm in a teacup, we might easily judge: “Get over it! Can’t you just drop it, or him or her, it’s not such a big deal.” Or “You haven’t lost that much money, what are you so worried about?!” But we grapple with our own problems like a dog with a bone because we are so obsessed with ourselves. “What about ME?” Our self-grasping and self-cherishing are like a black hole sucking everything into it.

As soon as we can identify with others, give ourselves a break from poor old me, there is relief. The “What about me?” mind hurts, for example comparing and contrasting our own situation unfavorably with everyone else’s. But everyone has a hard life, and we can use our own pain to remind us of that and slowly but surely get over ourselves.

As a neurotic Tweeter put it the other day:

I’m a tiny speck in the infinite cosmos that feels fat. ~ Melissa Broder

Cruel world

famineThis ME mind blinds us to others’ suffering. Yesterday I was eating my supper while casually reading The Week’s page The World at a Glance:

Gabarone, Botswana: Up to 49 million people across Southern Africa are at risk of famine from the worst drought in three decades.

I had to read it again, surely I didn’t just read “49 MILLION PEOPLE”? But I did. How come I never knew this? Why isn’t it the headline on every news outlet? Why has it not occupied a single moment of my attention until now? Why is it just one short paragraph at the bottom of one page in a short-circulation magazine?

I don’t know. But I suspect our global self-cherishing has a lot to do with it. And it is awful.

No ME

Meanwhile, the truth is that the Me we are so desperate to serve and protect and freak out about doesn’t even exist.

Of course it feels right now like it exists, but in truth it is nothing more than the non-existent object of an unrealistic painful idea of ourselves.

deerIn the course of one day we tell stories to ourselves about ourselves, one day it’s I’m fabulous, other days it’s “I’m such a wreck, can’t keep anything together.” We have wildly different ideas about ourselves. We might say kind things to ourselves “You’re ok, you’re good”, and we get on with our lives, but then when we get angry, for example, there is the person we are angry with, whom we are holding in an exaggerated way as the source of our harm, and there is the Me we are holding onto in also in an exaggeratedly limited way, eg, “I am a hurt person, that’s who I am.” Then we have to do something to protect that poor hurt person from that really mean person, as described here.

As for the allegedly harmful person, we can go from zero to a hundred miles per hour with anger by exaggerating their faults and thinking about nothing else, leaving the nice bits about them conveniently on the cutting room floor. While we remain angry we give them no wriggle room — nothing they say or do makes much difference as anger has covered Mister Mean with superglue.

A few days ago I was invited to coffee just to have someone insult me in a myriad of quite creative (I thought) ways. But in the same conversation she was telling me about her dying mother, who insists on continuing to work through her painful illness because she wants to claim a $9,000 tax credit in April to give to her child. Wow, I thought. Stand up the real person, the one who is appearing unjust and weird to me, or the beautiful one loved beyond pain by her mother?pagoda

Choose freedom

In this article I explained how we have the chance to identify with our potential rather than with our painful limited self, and in this way come to our own conclusion that we want liberation. So why do we identify with pain? If we believed we had choice, would we not choose to identify with freedom, space, happiness? Ignorance removes our choice because it is convincing us that we are not creating the painful self and other, that these are independent of our mind; so then we have no choice but to go along with it all.

If we dream of a monster and run away from it, is it because the monster is actually there? Or is it because we are misapprehending the monster’s mode of existence? Ignorance is causing this misapprehension. In the same way, we are not in pain because a real self or bay area treesother is actually there, but because ignorance is causing us to apprehend both self and other as independent of the mind.

Realizing this about ourselves gives us renunciation. Realizing this about others gives us compassion.

More coming soon! Meanwhile, please share your experiences on this subject in the comments below.

(And thank you for giving me an excuse to share some San Francisco photos I took this week 😉 Kadampa Meditation Center SF was the first Kadampa Center in America. I have been visiting this beautiful, lovable center and community for their 25 Year Anniversary Celebrations.)

Changing our world and ourselves through compassion

Geshe-la with baby deerThe Western scientific world, or at least some of it, is catching on to the benefits of compassion. According to this article:

Practicing compassion with intention has a positive physiological effect on the body. It can lower blood pressure, boost your immune response and increase your calmness… Other studies show it can be protective against disease and increase lifespan.

And this next one has got to be a clincher, right?!

Brain imaging reveals that exercising compassion stimulates the same pleasure centres associated with the drive for food, water and sex.

I knew it! Give me compassion over attachment any day. Especially universal compassion. Moreover, whether we have love or compassion for someone depends on us, not them. Compassion can therefore become a guaranteed source of pleasure — unlike food, water, or sex, which can and do also cause us pain.

If you are uncertain as to how compassion can be pleasurable, it might help to think about how and why love is a happy mind — as we get that already — and compare that to compassion, which is just the other side of the coin. So, with love, we do focus first on how others do not experience the happiness they long for — but the actual love is the wish for them to be happy, and this wish feels great. Similarly, with compassion we do focus first on others’ suffering to develop the wish for them to be freed from it, but the actual compassion is the wish for them to be free – and this wish feels good too. And solution-oriented.

suffering

As you have probably noticed, there is no shortage of people to develop compassion for. Buddha pointed out that there is no one with an uncontrolled mind who is not a suitable object of compassion. Why? Because uncontrolled minds = suffering. Every single person and animal is suffering. Most are suffering a great deal. And this is not just now, but pretty much all the time, life after life. Therefore, everyone can be the object of our compassionate wish, “May they be free.”

Hang on, universal compassion is a bit of a stretch, surely?!

Does universal compassion seem pie in the sky to you right now? Try this simple experiment for me – just close your eyes and develop the thought, “May everyone be free from suffering and its causes.” Don’t think too much, just do it for a couple of minutes.

PAUSE FOR TWO MINUTES

Did you manage it? Amazing if so, because that is a mind of universal compassion. If we had that all the time, imagine! Even a minute or two is encouraging for it shows we are capable of developing these vast beautiful minds, we are capable of thinking of others when we put our mind to it. Imagine always having this thought, and imagine it becoming deeper and vaster – you’d actually be a Buddha.

In fact, whenever you are developing compassion you can feel that it is inseparable from the compassion of all enlightened beings, and let their blessings pour into you while you are at it.

Being able to develop compassion like this, even if briefly, even if relatively superficially, shows that we have Buddha nature, the potential to be a fully in the heart of even the cruellest person...enlightened being, who has completely realized universal compassion. It is one of a Buddha’s two principal ingredients, the other being wisdom. And there is no living being who does not have this potential. Even Western science, in its own way, is figuring out that compassion is part of our very make-up:

Not only are we hard-wired to be kind, but it is essential for the survival of our species…. People are much happier and live a better life if they are able to maximise their genetic potential for being compassionate, and it has a significant contagion effect on others, motivating them to be more kind….

and

There is an emerging mental health movement relying less on pharmaceutical interventions and more on innate human traits such as empathy, altruism, kindness and resilience.

Also, having compassion not just for the symptoms but for where suffering is coming from, its causes – wanting everyone to be free from their delusions and contaminated karma — is an even more solution-oriented and pleasurable mind. Through training, this wish is perfectly possible and a very desirable state of mind to cultivate.

I like watching videos of people and animals being compassionate, it is one of my favorite uses of Facebook. I am not alone, millions of people do. I think it shows how pleasing compassion is to us.

More articles on compassion in the pipeline. Meantime, please contribute your comments on this lovely subject.

What is compassion?

help everyone escape
Have to help everyone escape 100%

Compassion fills our life with meaning. So, what is it? It is not just being nice, though it will lead us to being good people. If we have compassion, we want something for others. If a friend has tripped over a drain and broken their leg, we want them to be free from physical pain. If a friend is suicidal, we want to protect them from mental suffering.

We already have some compassion—it may be a bit limited and biased, it may come and go, but we do have it. It is our Buddha nature. And don’t you find that those times you have felt a deep genuine compassion for another person with no thought for yourself have been very precious? Something good happens to your perspective? You feel more in touch with the truth of things?

Actual compassion is defined as the mind wishing others to be free from suffering and its causes. It’s the other side of the coin from wishing love, wishing others to have happiness and its causes.

Feeling sad and bad about others?
dog helped by Bodhisattva
Click on this picture for a story about a very kind man.

Though compassion can be hard sometimes, it is still more than worth it. (Delusions such as selfishness and anger are always hard, and they are never worth it!) And compassion, unlike delusions, is not a painful feeling. At its most qualified, it is blissful. I tried to start explaining this already in this article. But for me, I find that this quote from Eight Steps to Happiness puts it most beautifully:

Pure compassion is a mind that finds the suffering of others unbearable, but it does not make us depressed. In fact it gives us tremendous energy to work for others and to complete the spiritual path for their sake. It shatters our complacency and makes it impossible to rest content with the superficial happiness of satisfying our worldly desires, yet in its place we shall come to know a deep inner peace that cannot be disturbed by changing conditions.

One practical way to develop compassion starting here and now

It is good to keep it real, not abstract, by starting with our immediate circle. We can contemplate the situation of those under our noses at home or at work, for example, as opposed to a mass of unknown humanity living in China. We find a way in, and then draw more and more people into that orbit of love and compassion at our heart. Make meditation work, as my teacher Geshe Kelsang says.

I’ll give you a recent example of how I try to do this.

Dexton 2I was fostering a kitten recently called Dexton and we bonded like crazy. A woman had swerved to avoid him as he crossed the intersection on 53rd street and Pearl. She got out of the car to see him lying upside down with his paws thrown up above his head. “OMG,” she thought, “I’ve killed him!” But of course she hadn’t, that is just Dexton’s favorite posture, even, it seems, when he is in the middle of the highway. And she bought him into the shelter.

Given that it was already easy to love him, I found him a perfect candidate for compassion that I could then spread out to all the other cats and humans etc. But whenever I found myself worrying about him, for example how betrayed he would feel when I gave him away later, or when my friend P and I thought he’d jumped out of a second-storey window as we couldn’t find him anywhere (he was in a shoe), I found it very helpful to remember that it is not just that suffering I want him free from, but all wretched cat sufferings forever. And all other sufferings. And therefore all the causes of that suffering.

And then it was not too much of a stretch to remember that he is just one small furry person amongst countless others who need exactly what he does — complete freedom from suffering and its causes. It may seem counter-intuitive to our normal way of (avoiding) thinking about suffering, but worry starts to subside in the course of this contemplation, and an initial heartfelt concern for one kitten’s sore paw, for example, or a baby’s colic, or a friend’s heartbreak can be a trigger or way in for compassion wanting to remove everyone’s suffering and its causes. Because everyone is suffering and no one wants to.

Anyone can develop compassion for one suffering at a time – May this person be free from their migraine! May this family living in poverty receive a windfall! May this dying person consumed with anger quickly find peace! But only if we understand the actual origins of suffering – delusions and contaminated karma – can we develop genuine compassion wishing others to be free from all suffering and its causes.

How can I help everyone?!

kind BuddhaTo help everyone we have to become a Buddha first, but every day we can go in that direction by paying attention to suffering or “opening our eyes” as Geshe Kelsang has put it. Wishing, “May you be free”.

So, how does it work that a Buddha’s compassion has the power directly to protect others from suffering? The answer is profound, but this is one way to think about it. If you are experiencing some pain in the presence of someone, even an ordinary person, who genuinely and respectfully wants you to be free from that suffering, how does that make you feel? It’s at least a little bit better than being entirely neglected, is it not?! The Bodhisattva Vow describes Buddha Shakyamuni:

His purified mind abides eternally in the tranquil ocean of reality, seeing all phenomena as clearly as a jewel held in the hand, and suffused with an all-embracing compassion.

Buddha’s minds are everywhere, infinitely powerful, and a constant source of blessings.

The 2 ingredients of compassion

Are (1) love and (2) seeing suffering. Both wishing love (the wish for others to have happiness and its causes) and compassion come from cherishing love, thinking that others matter and that their happiness and freedom are important. If we don’t care about someone, we might think “Who cares” or even “Yeah!” when we see them suffering. But if we love our brother, say, and care for him, and see that he’s in pain, naturally we want that pain to go away. That will in turn lead to behaviors that help us help our brother – but compassion itself is what we are thinking, not what we do, it is a state of mind.

Compassion increases our opportunities to help
In the safe hands of the Bodhisattva who runs the shelter in Florida
In the safe hands of the Bodhisattva who runs the shelter I worked at

The more compassion we have, of course, the more likely it is that we are going to be kind, care for others, look after them, and protect them. But just the wish “May they be free” is compassion, and in itself is a powerful mind. So we don’t ever need feel inadequate, “Oh so and so is helping SO many more people than me, I’m useless …” Mental actions are more powerful than physical and verbal actions, according to Geshe Kelsang.

Not only are we good to be around when we have a heart filled with compassion, even without our having to lift a finger, but one encouraging thing is that if we do have the compassionate intention to help others, opportunities to help others will arise more and more. As the great teacher Nagarjuna explains in one of my favorite quotes:

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

Compassion increases our capacity to help

compassion 4Our capacity to help others will also increase because compassion purifies our mind and leads to many other good mental qualities, while at the same time decreasing our delusions. As it says in Eight Steps to Happiness:

It is impossible for strong delusions to arise in a mind filled with compassion. If we do not develop delusions, external circumstances alone have no power to disturb us; so when our mind is governed by compassion it is always at peace.

For example, if you really want someone to be free from their cancer, and you’re in their shoes, you’re not irritated with them at the same time, are you? You find quite a reservoir of patience! And in that way you can help more. Here is a short anecdote from an old friend of mine to illustrate this point.

To travel to South Africa for my gap year before university I had to earn money, so I took a job in a hospital’s geriatric ward as a “Domestic” with the uniquely British combined responsibilities of scrubbing toilets and making tea.

The ward felt like the asylum of lost hopes, where thrown-away people who had often led stellar lives were living out their end days lonely, lost and incapacitated. Several had amputated limbs, thus condemned to hospital life despite their active minds. And then there was the cheerful teenage me, about to go on a dazzling African adventure with my whole life still ahead, jovially offering them cups of tea. More than once they threw the tea on the floor, saying it was awful, deliberately trying to make my life difficult. Yet I was curious to note at the time that I never became annoyed with them. Why did their actions not upset me when the far less ornery behavior of people elsewhere irritated me all the time? It was because it made no sense to become angry when they were suffering so much; in fact the worse they behaved the more deeply I felt for them. My compassion for them was protecting my mind.

Over to you: More thoughts on compassion in the pipeline. Meantime, your feedback and comments are most welcome. How do you generate compassion?

Dealing with suffering

BAMHappy Vajrayogini Day 🙂 This transcendent Buddha of Wisdom is all about helping us destroy our suffering at its root, in the course of one short lifetime.

We don’t like suffering, at least I don’t. Strange how much time we spend, then, dwelling on our own suffering each day.

Geshe Kelsang has said it is meaningless to think about our own suffering unless we want to develop renunciation, the wish for permanent freedom from all suffering and its causes. Dwelling on our own problems out of the context of renunciation can just lead to more self-cherishing. We tend to bat away one problem at a time, which is a bit exhausting and overwhelming. This is one reason why we need genuine renunciation, a compassion for ourselves that wants to be free from the whole ocean of samara, not just one wave at a time.

My friend K went to ER on Wednesday morning – waited 7 hours to be seen, all the time experiencing attacks of agony from kidney stones. She said the main thing she learned was that temporary cessations from particular sufferings, as Geshe Kelsang puts it, were indeed not good enough. In between the bouts of vomiting she’d experience temporary relief, and for the first few hours she though each time, “Phew, that’s it.” She said she even forgot quickly about the pain, thought she was free. But by 11 at night, experience had shown her that this short respite was just the precursor to another pain attack, and that she needed permanent freedom.

Keeping suffering in context

prison and freedomInterestingly, we can be overwhelmingly sad about any given daily mental or physical suffering, but when we manage to view that in the bigger existential context of the four noble truths and develop renunciation our mind becomes lighter and happier, already on the side of liberation, on the side of the solution.

Imagine you’d been born in a prison but had no idea, and you spent your life complaining about the prison food, the bars on the window that ruined your view, the rough and annoying people around you, the cold showers …. You tried to fix these problems as they arose, with greater or lesser success, but generally the whole experience was frustrating. Then someone comes along and says, “Your actual problem is that you are in prison. Until you get out, you are going to experience prison problems, whatever you do.” Buddha was like that when he pointed out the truth of suffering, the first of the four noble truths, likening samsara to a prison. It was not to depress us that he explained how we suffer from mental and physical pain every single frigging day of our lives, but to energize us to break out of the prison of suffering, whose walls and prison guards are our own delusions and negative actions.

hunger gamesWe’ve been enslaved by a master race of delusions since beginningless time. Katniss may be cool, but never mind the Hunger Games (a nod to the 4 nieces who told me to read/watch it) – that’s small fry. It’s time for us all to really rebel, shooting the flaming arrow of wisdom into our ignorance by realizing the ultimate nature of things, the mere absence of all the things we normally see.

Life is short

As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Understand the Mind p 275:

“Normally we believe that solving the suffering and problems of our present life is most important, and we dedicate our whole life for this purpose.”

But the problems of this life are very short-lived – if we die tomorrow, those problems end tomorrow.

I was talking with a friend over Xmas who was saying he wanted to win the lottery. I replied, “Don’t we all, but all the same it won’t solve our problems for very long.” He disagreed, regaling me with the varying levels of debt he and his family are in, and how much more wonderful life will be when those debts are paid off, how they’ll be free. Yes, perhaps, (I might have said if I’d thought of it at the time) — but not if you pay your debts off on Tuesday and then die on Wednesday.

Springboard to freedom
flicking off a rock
Quick, learn to fly!

Far more serious are the problems we are carrying deep inside us in the form of delusions and negative karma, as these undercurrents will flow into our countless future lives, constantly churning up new sufferings. If we use this short, very precious human life just to bat away at our immediate problems, I was thinking it’s a bit like using a million dollars to pay for a bag of salt & vinegar crisps at the airport because we feel peckish and happen to like Walkers. Precious human lives packed full with opportunity don’t come out of nowhere – we may not remember, but we must have spent a huge amount of time and effort in previous lives creating all the causes for this one, our potential springboard to freedom. Do we want to squander all that trying to solve the problems of just this life when we can use it in advance to solve the problems of all our future destinations?

Same for others

I think we can use a similar line of reasoning for developing compassion. Let’s say someone we love has been diagnosed with a horrible perhaps incurable illness. We can’t bear it, and we want them to be free from it; but we are not a doctor and, even if we were, we cannot cure them. So we are unhappy, the suffering seems overwhelming, seems to be just there, just sitting there. If however we transform that simple wish for them to be free from this particular illness into actual compassion for not just this sickness but all their sicknesses forever, already our mind is lifting.

Vajrayogini
What would Vajrayogini do?!

Because it is true, isn’t it, that if we want our mother, say, to be free from her neck pain today, we would also like her still to be free from it next week, and the week after, and the week after that … and, if we stop to think further, we want her to be free from ANY physical illness and mental suffering now and forever too. And if we understand that for her to be free from suffering forever she needs to be free of the causes of suffering, and we develop that wish for her, our mind becomes the very peaceful, solution-oriented, pure, even blissful mind of genuine compassion. Try it and see, and report back in the comments if you would. (Doesn’t mean of course that we don’t also try to alleviate her immediate neck pain eg, with Tiger Balm patches.) 

Spread that out to all our kind mothers and our mind gradually becomes vast and powerful, developing first into universal compassion and then the compassion of a Buddha, like Vajrayogini, that actually has the power to protect living beings from suffering.