Pausing in the pursuit of happiness to be happy

9.5 mins read.

elephant in water.jpegSetting some time aside for a relaxing meditation session every day, even 10 or 15 minutes, is likely the quickest and most effective way to start mastering our minds (aka choosing our thoughts).

Carrying on from this article, Getting started with mindfulness.

And we can think of it more as a mini-vacation than yet another onerous commitment. Effort in meditation is likened to an elephant plunging into a lotus pool to find relief from the heat of the midday sun. In other words, meditation doesn’t have to be another item on an already over-subscribed to-do list — it is more like the space between items. If we take this time, we’ll find our to-do list a lot more manageable because feeling busy is a feeling, a state of mind.

I think pretty much most people can find 10 to 15 minutes in the day for concerted spiritual practice? It is true that we have a lot of stuff on, but I still don’t think we are always too busy to meditate so much as too distracted or attached to doing other things.

Not being here now

Without a skillful meditation practice, our mind will keep on being blown all over the place by our thoughts and whatever else is going on, like a balloon powerlessly buffeted by the wind. We are in danger of remaining totally caught up in fleeting external circumstances to the neglect of enjoying the deep and stable peace we have waiting inside.

Nowadays it seems as though there is even more pointless thinking going on. We can spend our entire day distracting ourselves if we’re not careful (talking to myself here). And this brings me to the main reason I am writing this article today, which is, once we have established some peace in our heart, how can we take advantage of the gaps in our day to keep that going 24/7?

Mini-meditations throughout the day

First off, how do we know there are numerous little gaps in our day? How do we know, all told, that, however busy our lives might feel, we have more time than we realize to relax and feel peaceful if that is what we really want?!

Because those gaps are all those times we get on our phones!

Smartphone-AddictionThe average American looks at their Smartphone for 3.5 hours a day! We might possibly be enlightened by now if we’d been using that 3.5 hours for mini-meditations instead.

And today in Madison Wisconsin, on what might have once been a nice lazy Sunday afternoon, I saw someone in a café with one of those new split-screens – Sudoko on the left, email on the right, and big headphones on her head. And of course the phone plonked right between her and the computer, apparently a perfect sign that she is a Millennial as opposed to a Gen X’er or Baby Boomer (who position their phones slightly off to the side.) In that scenario, there is literally not a spare moment to stare aimlessly into space like I feel we used to do in the old days, much less check in on her mind. I surreptitiously watched her for a while, and it was full-on diversion. It looked exhausting. I wanted to unplug her. No wonder this report found that people don’t even like to be left alone with their own thoughts for more than 6-15 minutes.

A Kadampa teacher emailed me this the other day:

“On a recent meditation retreat, I asked assembled students to share their favorite “evasive maneuvers” from the present moment, the ways we all hide out from having to be here with the direct simplicity of right now. People said all kinds of funny and not so funny things. In a discussion group later in the weekend, one student wondered why nobody had brought up Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Another student joked ‘Our teacher asked us what our individual evasive maneuvers were, not our shared ones. Everyone’s addicted to Facebook.’”

split screen
“more productive” or more distracted?!

I am not a Luddite, by the way. I actually relish the opportunities afforded by modern technology. It is not the technology that’s the problem but our strong attachment or addiction to it. Buddha predicted these degenerate times wherein our uncontrolled diversion-seeking would become stronger and stronger – and aptly called this “the desire realm”.

Why to turn inwards instead of phonewards

We apparently tend to check our phones 80-150 times a day. In an international poll taken by Time magazine, one in four people reported checking their phone “every 30 minutes, 1 in 5 people every 10 minutes.” I read that Apple and Google themselves are now coming up with Apps to stop people from being so addicted to their phones … Apps that switch off after a certain length of time, for example, because we are now seemingly incapable of switching them off ourselves.

This attachment has consequences.

addiction to smartphoneStudies are showing a direct correlation between this addiction and addiction to alcohol, drugs, overeating, and so forth – that it lights up the same areas in the brain. It is leading people to insomnia, the light from the screens ruining our much-needed rest. There is a spike in anxiety, depression, and so forth. Among teenagers, it is causing a spike in suicide.

Let alone our children, and let alone the lost art of looking other human beings in the eyes, we are apparently not even paying attention to our cats and dogs anymore! Our furry friends are suffering neglect and boredom borne by our addiction.

None of this is conducive to deep peace or frankly any peace — instead this addiction is making people feel more inadequate and insecure, making us feel worse about ourselves. Our creativity is diminishing because the silence in which we used to pop with great ideas has been taken over by scrolling and tapping.

In the age of attachment we are worryingly inclined to look for happiness outside of ourselves. This could be our last day – so do we want to spend it scrolling on our phone or do we want to spend it in peace and meaning?

kittenThere’s another downside too. In the old days, when there were a few minutes here and there in the day, we might use them to run errands, and end up with more time to do the things we love. Now the chores pile up till we have to spend a whole day catching up, leaving less free time. People also don’t feel they have the time to volunteer their help so much these days, or to spend time in real-life community; even though these activities are proven to make us feel happier and more connected.

As explained more in this article, Are you busy?, I don’t think people are necessarily much busier than they used to be – we are just distracted all the time, so our minds feel busier, we don’t feel we ever have enough time, we get totally overwhelmed. We don’t have a time deficit so much as a mindfulness and concentration deficit.

We can check for ourselves — as soon as we have a gap or pause in the day, waiting for a meeting or traffic lights or the kettle to boil, or even strolling down the road, what do we do? Something on our to-do list? Stop to smell the roses? Not usually. Instead we get on our smart phone and start scrolling downwards or sideways, searching for happiness. “Well, that’s underwhelming. But maybe it’s on the next screen! Or the next? Or the next?”

Have any of us actually found happiness and freedom yet in our phone?!

Have any of us found joy, love, connection, or meaning?

Surely we need to pause in the pursuit of happiness to just BE happy!

An idea that can help

We are up against weapons of mass distraction, but we can beat this.

WeaponsOfMassDistractions.jpgNext time there is a pause in the day — ie, you’re about to reach for the phone — reach inside yourself instead. See if you are feeling peaceful and, if you are not, do a bit of breathing meditation or reacquainting yourself with your meditation focus for that day. “What is going on in my mind? I will now improve it.” Feel present. Feel the love. Feel the freedom of peace.

Then go back about your busy day, but still using mindfulness, alertness, and concentration as explained in this last article. 

Buddha said:

From concentration comes peace.

This means both immediately, as our mind is virtuous and peaceful, and in the long-term, as we are familiarizing ourselves with positive objects and so creating causes for peace. The result of concentration is peace. It always is. Even if our mini-meditation is not perfect, we are still creating the karmic causes of peace in our mind every time we go in and not out.

With these mini-meditations we can gradually master our thoughts and remain peaceful and happy regardless of what is going on in our day. We can remember that our mind is like an infinite clear sky and we don’t need to be all mixed up in the thunderclouds or fog but instead abide in the peaceful clarity that always lies beyond. This is our refuge or safe haven. We can relax into that space for a minute or two, and in this way it will gradually become the background of our being so that we are not so quick to get upset and agitated.

Happy_HeartBy the way, please don’t be perfectionist whenever you meditate – expectations are pre-meditated resentments. The entire sky doesn’t have to clear before we can relax into a more peaceful space, even a slight parting of the clouds will do. Some days will of course go better than others – we can just recognize that whatever peace we do experience is the tip of the iceburg, or a gap in the clouds, indicating our vast capacity for boundless space and happiness.

Changing our sense of self

Based on this new peaceful experience, however slight or relative, we can identify our sense of self differently, such as by genuinely thinking: “I am an inner being, peaceful, not caught up in all the external appearances that whizz by.”

We can also think, validly, “I am a meditator.” And what do meditators do?!

This inner peace and self-identification will make it easier for us to stay patient and calm. We won’t have so much itchy attachment to the things outside us. We will have room for love and wisdom. We will feel far more alive.

Case study

A young woman, who said I should call her “Case Study Kaitlin,” told me the other day that she grew up with all technology all the time, but then went cold turkey a month ago. As a result, she said “I have never felt more alive, peaceful, or concentrated.” And this is what prompted her to seek out meditation classes. 

54421012_1286016704910489_8453803795372048384_nIf we use our day like this, taking advantage of the gaps to maintain a continuum of mindfulness, alertness, and concentration, I think we will find that we all get results. As Geshe Kelsang says:

If we train in meditation systematically eventually we can eradicate all the delusions that are the causes of our sufferings. Day and night and life after life we will experience only peace and happiness.

Meditation enables us to become comfortable with silence, too; though that might have to be the subject of another article. Meantime, Google “benefits of silence” if you want to find out how important it is.

Coffee/tea & meditation first thing in the morning = can’t be beat

And to conclude this article, here is a practical nugget for you …  Some months ago I bought myself a cheap alarm clock and, come bedtime, put my phone in another room. I was woken in the morning by a screech instead of a dulcet ringtone, but I was good with that because, with no phone to reach for, I found I had no addiction tingle in my hand. It came easier then to just get on with my day and my meditation without an urge to check wake up happy“vital” messages first. So I have been doing this by and large ever since; it feels good to have reclaimed that first-thing-in-the-morning space and time. Plus it’s a lot easier to set compass for the rest of the day.

Over to you. Comments on how you sustain inner peace in this technological age are very welcome.

Related articles

Are you busy?

How to feel less busy all the time

How to avoid stress and burn-out at work

The relevance of inner peace

Want quicker results from your meditation? 

 

 

Getting started with mindfulness

5 mins read.

Without mindfulness, alertness, and concentration, our unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts (aka delusions) will keep running the show forever. In other words, we won’t be able to stop our suffering.

crazy elephantCarrying straight on from this article, Improving our focus 

In Essence of the Middle Way it is said that we need to bind our elephant-like mind to the stake of our virtuous object with the strong rope of mindfulness and use the hook of alertness to subdue it. ~ Joyful Path of Good Fortune

A “virtuous object” or an “object of meditation” can be a state of mind, such as love, or an object that is not a mind, such as impermanence or a mantra. (It is not an object of sense awareness such as a tree or a candle). You can read more about objects of meditation in Joyful Path. 

Breathing meditation, such as the simple one explained here, is a good place to start training in mindfulness, alertness, and concentration (MAC). The objects of other meditations, such as love or impermanence, require contemplation to find and to hold; but we are always breathing, so even if we lose our object of meditation, the breath, we can get back to it immediately.

Mindfulness functions both to keep the mind on an object that has not been forgotten, and to bring back to mind an object that has been forgotten. ~ How to Understand the Mind

For example, if our object of meditation is the breath, (1) mindfulness lets us resist the temptation to follow our other thoughts so that we stay with the breath; and, (2) when our attention does drift and can be found wandering to pizza, mindfulness brings it back to the breath.IMG_5353-EFFECTS

I think this is an important point: it doesn’t matter how often our mind wanders — even if that is a hundred times — provided that we notice and bring it back to the next breath, for this is still strengthening our mindfulness. In other words, however busy or distracted your mind feels, you are still meditating and improving.

As mentioned in the last article. the ability to notice that our mind has wandered and has forgotten or is about to forget its object is called “alertness”. Alertness is said to be like a spy or lookout that reports back to the generals of mindfulness and concentration.

If we don’t notice and bring it back, that’s just business as usual, namely our regular uncontrolled thinking! But consciously bringing our attention back to our breath, breath after breath, and focusing clearly on it is training in MAC. And we’ll soon see how much more calm, clear, and peaceful our mind becomes.

Which is what we need, because most of our thoughts are not necessarily that calm or peaceful. Often, they are grumbling or boring or distracted or worried. We don’t want to think them, but we cannot help it.

If we are not in a state of deep peace all day long, or if we lack mental space and clarity, this is a sign that we need more MAC.

colorado mountains 1

It doesn’t take much to get started

It only takes 10-15 minutes a day training like this to make the difference.

You can be confident that it all gets easier and more effortless with practice – you’ll get better at it if you do it, for sure, not of course if you don’t. If you practice breathing meditation consistently — 10 or 15 minutes a day being plenty to start with — there will definitely come a time when you can plop your mind on your breath like plopping down a glass of water, and it’ll stay there till you decide to move it. Blessed relief.

With improved MAC, gradually you’ll be able to set your mind on any object you have learned about and keep it there, including loving-kindness, compassion, or emptiness, so that you are experiencing these peaceful, wise states of mind all the time! At this point, as Geshe Kelsang explains:

If we train in meditation, our mind will gradually become more and more peaceful, and we will experience a purer and purer form of happiness. Eventually we will be able to stay happy all the time, even in the most difficult circumstances.

You’re not a lost cause

Just one more thing, in case you’re wondering …  you’re not a lost cause

lost causeSometimes when people start out meditating they complain that they’ll never be able to settle on their breath, that they’ll never be able to get their crazy minds to meditate, that basically they are a lost cause.

So in case you are one of them, I would like to point out two things:

  • However busy your mind, every time you bring your attention back to your breath, you are improving at meditation, as discussed above.
  • Long before you get really good at single-pointed concentration, and even when your mind is still going a hundred miles a minute, you can also practice mindfulness, alertness, and concentration in your daily life, and this is still the practice of meditation. In fact, as we spend most of our time out of formal meditation sessions, it is arguably the most important part of meditation practice.

Meditation, “gom” in Tibetan, translates as gaining familiarity with positive ways of thinking, and this can be happening throughout our day. So, as an example, if we don’t get mad when someone criticizes us, but see them as suffering and/or kind instead, we are training in meditation.

We are using alertness to be self-aware of what thoughts we’re having, catching inappropriate attention or negative thoughts early so they don’t spiral out of our control. We are using mindfulness to remember a positive state of mind such as patience or love and to forget the inappropriate attention we’re paying to that person’s faults. We are using concentration to focus on that patience or love.

55557087_10219170703363321_5996375554738094080_o

And, eh voila, this is how we take control of our own mind and behavior, and this is how we stay peaceful and happy. It is also the practice of moral discipline, which in turn greatly advances our concentration once we’re back on our meditation seat.

Next part of this topic is here – how to keep mini-meditations going throughout the busy day.

Meanwhile, over to you. I would love to hear your experiences of employing mindfulness, alertness, and concentration both on and off the cushion.

Related articles

How to meditate – a selection of articles on breathing meditation 

Control your thoughts or they’ll control you

Twenty bits of advice for daily living

 

 

Improving our focus

6 mins read.

focus on the solutionWhen we first attempt breathing meditation:

Our mind will be very busy, and we might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. ~ How to Transform Your Life

All we are asking our mind to do is focus on the in-breath and out-breath, how hard can that be?! But apparently we have an inane and endless talk show going on in our head. This is what we are dealing with when we close our eyes and try to focus on our breath — our uncontrolled mind has other ideas. A lot of other ideas. Some of them terrible ideas! Which is all the more reason why we need to bring it under control through improving our focus.

Mac n med

Concentration as explained in Buddhism is our ability to control our mind, to direct it at will, to focus on one meaningful object and eventually stay there for as long as we want. It allows us to think the thoughts we want to think as opposed to the thoughts that make us feel sad, bad, or mad.

Concentration makes our mind strong, clear, and relaxed, and we become more productive. It always makes us feel better, far more peaceful. It even makes us more physically comfortable. And, as mentioned in this article, we are not a moment too soon in getting better at it.

lotusConcentration goes along with mindfulness, which remembers our object by preventing forgetfulness or distractions. In How to Understand the Mind, where these mental factors or states of mind are all explained in detail, it says:

If we meditate with strong mindfulness our mind will remain on its object without distraction and we will naturally develop stable concentration.

Concentration also goes along with alertness, which is a type of wisdom or self-awareness that actually knows what our mind is up to, including wandering off to other things.

Meditation makes full use of all three – mindfulness, alertness, and concentration (MAC for short 😉 ) – improving them steadily. If we are to have any hope of experiencing the lasting happiness and mental freedom we long for, we need to train in MAC both in meditation sessions and in all areas of our life.

And it doesn’t have to be hard work. Frankly, it is far harder work to spend all day every day having to keep pace with our uncontrolled thoughts.

Reclaim your mind

distractionsWe don’t need to go on courses to learn how to feel busy and have out of control thoughts. That comes pretty naturally already. What we do need to learn to do is control our mind so we can direct it at will, get it to do what we want it to do rather than the other way around.

We already try and control everything else – where we eat, what we wear, who we date, where we live, what we do for a job, who we root for in politics, and so on. Of course this doesn’t always work out – but, even those times we do manage to control other people or our external circumstances, it makes little difference to our peace of mind if we don’t have control over our thoughts.

It is frankly weird that we don’t have control over the thoughts in our own mind, if you think about it. It is torture to have to think stupid stuff all the time — yet it is also utterly “normal”. We accept it as normal. But it is the reason we are suffering. And it doesn’t have to be like this. With just a little effort, we can get a whole lot better at staying focused on peace and happiness.

(By the way, some people don’t really like the term “controlling the mind” as it sounds a bit too, well, controlling. So you can think of it as taking charge of our mind and/or having choice over what our mind does and/or mastering our mind. Being a real superhero.)

Bigger picture

duckNot to mention the bigger picture … where are all these uncontrolled, unchosen thoughts taking us? To more uncontrolled, unchosen life — more samsara. How could they be taking us anywhere else? With irritation and attachment, jealousy and confusion, and so on, and the confused intentions and actions that arise from these minds, we are busy creating the karmic causes to experience some form of future unease or pain in our body and mind.

Today I overheard a woman in the park saying, “In my next life I want to be a duck.” Although she was watching an admittedly laid-back duck sunning himself on a rock, I thought, “No. Mm mm. No, you don’t. Don’t even joke about it.”

Our conceptual thoughts and sense consciousnesses cease at death, along with our sense of self or our current personality; but our deepest level of mental consciousness continues after this body screeches to a halt, our karma going with it. If I die today without having controlled my mind and my karma, where can I guarantee ending up tomorrow? What choices will I have?

Single-pointedness

Concentration is the ability to stay single-pointedly focused on an object, a skill that is key in the pursuit of happiness. For example, we may be surrounded by all the necessary conditions to become upset, such as grumpy co-workers or scary politics, but if our bench and reflectionmental spot light is trained on patient acceptance, we will not experience any unhappiness. And we will be able to respond more constructively to whatever is going on.

Concentration is the focus in our mind that enables us to get closer and closer to the object. With strong concentration our mind mixes with the object, as if there is no space between the object and us. It is like that beautiful TS Eliot quote:

music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

We’re actually already very good at concentrating on some things, namely objects of desire or aversion. When we’re attracted to someone, we call up all their features in ravishing detail with very little effort. When we’re angry with someone, we have single-pointed concentration on their faults. But this is not the concentration referred to by Buddha, which is necessarily positive or virtuous. To be happy, we want to be able to maintain these levels of concentration on wise and virtuous objects, which lead us in a positive direction. If we focus all our attention on, for example, the loving thought ‘May everyone be happy’, it’s like a laser beam trained onto a happy, powerful experience.

Buddha said that there is nothing more powerful in this universe than a fully concentrated mind. The reason our mind lacks power is because it is fractured. It is all over the place. We talk to ourselves, apparently, at a rate of a thousand words a minute: IMG_5328-EFFECTS‘What’s going on, who’s that coming in, what am I doing later, how should I respond to that insult?’ We rarely focus on one object. Our mind is currently in a state of constant motion, flitting onto anything that catches its fancy, then flitting away again.

Buddha likened the uncontrolled mind to a monkey scampering up and down a tree grabbing and throwing stuff, or a crazy elephant wreaking havoc on a village. For a modern-day example, I think that being trapped in an out of control, unfocused mind is like trying to drive a car without a steering wheel. Or without brakes. Or even while we are locked in the trunk!

Next installment is here: Getting started with mindfulness.

Over to you! Comments welcome below.

Related articles

How to meditate – a selection of articles on breathing meditation 

When the mind wanders, happiness also strays

Breathe your way to inner peace 

How to feel less busy all the time

This continues directly from this article.

busy 1Time off?!

Also, if you actually itemize what many frenetically “busy” people do every week, my bet would be that they (we, you) have far more leisure time than they think, it is just that instead of using the time to unwind and recharge they just fill it up with more stuff and distractions, eg, surfing the internet, driving places, organized leisure activities, computer games, Netflix. Having fun on the outside, perhaps, but feeling preoccupied on the inside. So leisure time feels busy too.

Flying recently, the moment we touched down almost every single person on that plane grabbed their phone. That withdrawal and addiction – it’s a bit like smoking, only smoking has been banned from public places whereas everyone can indulge their addiction for digital data. Scratching that itch – where is the happiness in that? We can’t live like that. Here’s an experiment: how long can you last without wanting to pick up your smartphone?! (I am talking to myself here.)

So technology, for all its uses, has not helped in this regard. The fleeting world is always-on — texts, tweets, emails, and status updates. (Also, on another subject, we are not really “connected” — we are isolated because we have no time to think deeply about each other or reality.) Now of course you can even get an Apple Watch that gives your wrist a little electric shock to announce all the wildly exciting alerts that cannot wait, even if you are actually trying to have an interesting conversation with someone. (It’s a bit like when servers interrupt deep, meaningful conversations at restaurants to ask if everything is ok?! Is it just me who gets bugged by that?!) That watch sounds like torture to me. Apparently the average video etc screen also changes every 7 to 11 seconds – now how does that not constitute over-stimulation?! There may be excitement in it, perhaps, but there is no real happiness if there is no real peace.busy 4

Froth and sparkles

Peace comes from concentration, being able to stay on one object. Single-tasking, not multi-tasking. If we are identifying entirely with the froth and sparkles on top of the ocean, oblivious to the vast stillness and peace beneath, there is not much peace in that.

I reckon we have plenty of time to meditate and get in touch with who we are, really, if we want to. Certainly enough time. Is there anyone who absolutely cannot find 20 minutes a day to meditate? Although we may complain at first that it is just another pressure on our to-do list, the reality is that it will open up the space and time we need for the rest of our day. The time to meditate is when you don’t have time for it.

In this way, we’ll have more freedom. Otherwise we are a bit like mindless automatons — the opposite of meditators. (What do you do first thing in the morning – reach for Facebook or absorb into your heart chakra?!) I read a study recently about what happened when people lost their iPhone – out of 100 people, 73 experienced panic, 8 experienced physical sickness, 7 felt nervous, and only 7 were cool with it.

“But I’m too busy to meditate!”

And, as mentioned, I would argue that we are not necessarily doing more, or getting more things done, not in the grand scheme of things — but just feeling busier. My teacher Geshe Kelsang, for example, has thousands of centers and students and a universal feeling of responsibility for others — if anyone has a right to feel under pressure, busy, or overextended it is him, but he is the most spacious, blissful, relaxed person you’ll ever meet.

Busy BusinessmanSo if we learn to increase our inner space and peace we can have a life full of things we want to do, but we don’t have to feel so busy, as if there’s never enough time, as if there’s always something else that needs doing, as if we’re running behind the bus. We don’t need that feeling. The feeling of being overwhelmed by all the things we need to do comes from uncontrolled thoughts, a bit like a dog with a bone, not able to stay in the moment and abide in space while still getting things done. We are not able to let go of distractions and enjoy a feeling of peace, the natural peace of our own settled mind. More than anything else, we need relief from the time pressure by setting aside time to meditate to access that peace. Not being too busy to take the medicine! The objection “But I am too busy to meditate!” is precisely why we need to meditate.

If you are new to meditation it is good to keep it short and sweet – 5, 10, or 15 minutes. Our mind is like an out of control elephant! (that’s what Buddha said). The mind is the most powerful force in the universe – for destruction or creativity. If we have no control over it, we have no control over our lives. When people start meditating they can often only manage about 3 minutes before they even forget they’re supposed to be meditating – so don’t worry if you feel like that, I wish I had a dollar for every time some says, “I am too distracted to meditate!” It gets better quickly, but you have to want to do it. For example, you manage to concentrate on your driving for considerably more than 3 minutes, presumably as you want to stay alive. You don’t text when you drive.

“You’re not that busy.”

Another tip for not feeling so overwhelmingly busy is to stop insisting to ourself that we’re overwhelmingly busy, because the truth is that we are all much less busy than we think we are. We can say to ourselves instead, “You’re not that busy”, or even “I have lots of time”, and then calmly do one thing after another. Living in the moment gives us all the time we need.swimming in bathtub

Swimming in a bathtub

Someone the other day put a good analogy on Facebook (that fount of all knowledge!) of swimming in the bathtub — splashing around hurting our limbs, and not really getting anywhere. Whereas the same strokes in a vast ocean feel blissful and expansive. So we can do the same daily activities either in the bathtub or in the ocean of the clarity and stillness of our own peaceful mind.

In meditation, we can relax into the natural rhythm of the breath. We can experience a moment by moment presence of mind, or mindfulness. We can get in touch with the present moment by getting in touch with the clarity and peace of our own mind. So we can rest our mind in meditation, and then bring that peace with us into daily life. We don’t forget about it but keep tuning into it, and everything becomes lighter, easier, and less frantic.

Comments welcome! (If you have time.)

Tantra: bliss and emptiness

In the previous article on Tantra, I explain a meditation for overcoming attachment and other delusions that is derived from Buddha’s Tantric methods. Now I want to say a few more things about why I think this meditation is so helpful, practical, and profound.

follow your blissBliss improves concentration

As the experience arising from this meditation is so pleasurable, naturally our mind likes it. When we are experiencing bliss, it is easier to stay concentrated because our mind naturally wants to stay put, to absorb. Ordinarily, it is the opposite – our mind wants to wander. Distractions are overwhelmingly interesting to our monkey mind (even paradoxically when they’re boring or anxiety-provoking), and so concentration is difficult. Now concentration feels easier and distractions relatively powerless.

Buddha understood very well that we like bliss – we love to be ecstatically happy. Our problem is that our bliss is very brief. Ordinarily, we achieve bliss through stimulating ourselves with sense pleasures, from seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching beautiful things, and this bliss is fleeting. Yet, we build our lives around it. We chase that high, which is about as successful as trying to grab onto a mirage. If we can give the mind pleasurable feelings, or even bliss, by itself, the attachment within us becomes redundant. We have what we want, so we no longer crave external objects to get us there. Who wants to go chasing after a pizza or a yacht or a boyfriend when we already have it all? The bliss can last. It can cause us to enjoy everything that appears to our mind.

Bliss is in fact in the nature of concentration and a state of mind ­– so the source of our bliss comes from within the mind, not from grasping at external objects.

Once we can dissolve our inner winds into our central channel through Tantric completion stage practice, we experience an unparalleled bliss and level of concentration. As it says in Modern Buddhism p. 194:

The stronger this bliss becomes, the more subtle our mind becomes. Gradually our mind becomes very peaceful, all conceptual distractions disappear, and we experience very special suppleness.

photo 2Use a blissful mind to meditate on other objects

We can use our blissful concentration, at whatever level we are at, to focus on any object of meditation that we choose. For example, we can generate bliss through this method and then meditate on love for all living beings: “May everyone be happy.” And naturally we’ll be able to hold that mind of love much more easily than with an ordinary, crunchy, distracted, non-blissful mind. Most of our objects of distraction are in fact objects of attachment — we want to be somewhere else. What’s for supper? The mind is going somewhere else so we have to keep reining it back in, even when meditating on something as beautiful as love. It is much easier with bliss to stay on our object.

The object that we mainly use bliss to meditate on is the ultimate nature of reality, emptiness, the actual dreamlike nature of things. There are many levels of bliss and, at its deepest most qualified level it is free from mistaken or dualistic appearance and utterly undistracted. Buddha taught how to use this concentrated mind of bliss to meditate on emptiness, the ultimate nature of reality, so that we experience the union of bliss and emptiness or Mahamudra. This mind of the clear light of bliss and its main object emptiness mix together like water mixed with water, they go together very well, they belong together. In fact, once you receive a Highest Yoga Tantra empowerment we have the commitment to generate bliss six times a photo 2day and then use it to meditate on emptiness. I have wondered what there is not to love about a tradition that obliges you to feel blissful six times a day?!

You can find out more about this essential practice — perhaps the ultimate meditation of the Buddhist Kadampa tradition, the meditation to which all other meditations lead — in the incredible book Mahamudra Tantra.

Even more benefits next time…

What is Tantra?

ClarityI wanted to say a bit about what Tantra is within the Buddhist tradition, and how accessible it can be.

Buddhist Tantra is known as the “quick path to enlightenment.” Judging by my local bookstore and a quick Google search, a lot of people might be misunderstanding what Tantra is — for example, it is not about middle-aged couples in Hawaii improving their sex lives. Buddha was a celibate monk and he taught Tantra to many monks and nuns as well as lay people; so Tantra is not what we do with our bodies, particularly our gross fleshy bodies, but with our minds.

Still, Tantra does involve generating a lot of bliss. There are many things we can do with a blissful mind, and a blissful life. Bliss in our heart is a very concentrated state of mind. We sort of know this already from the ordinary bits of bliss we have now from a lovely smoothy or nice romantic encounter — whenever we are experiencing bliss, wild horses can’t pull us away. All we really want is to be blissful, we’d like to be blissful 24 hours a day, at least I would. But our current bliss is exceedingly short-lived. “Desire realm beings,” as Buddha Shakyamuni called us, are constantly searching for the bliss high, the excitement, and then trying to hold onto it; but it is hard to find or hold onto it for any time at all. This is because we’re looking for bliss in entirely the wrong place, namely outside the mind, when in fact bliss is a state of mind.

There are many different levels of bliss, and in Tantra we are aiming at the deepest and most transcendent – the clear light of bliss — which is associated not with our five senses or conceptual thoughts but with the most subtle state of our consciousness.

blissThis blog often talks about our Buddha nature, aka our potential for limitless happiness, freedom, love, and wisdom, our natural kindness, our potential to improve ourselves to perfection … Our Buddha nature is analogous to a sky free from clouds, where our delusions are the clouds that are obscuring the clarity and purity of our mind. Get rid of these bad habits and we would naturally abide in contentment, peace, and purity – this is who we are, it is just that the delusions get in our way.

Our Buddha seed or potential is associated with our most subtle level of mental consciousness that goes from life to life, our root mind at our heart, that one day will become the omniscient mind of a Buddha. We all have this very subtle mind. At the moment it only manifests in deep sleep or when we’re dying, and we’re not mindful of it because it is too subtle for us, we can only deliberately use our grosser levels of consciousness. And the thing is that our actual Buddha nature — our clear light mind, our root mind, our very subtle mind — is not just naturally contented, but naturally blissful.

In Tantra we learn to access this bliss, deeper and deeper feelings of bliss. If we can do this, many good things happen — for one thing we have a blissful life because there is no life outside of our experience of life and we are experiencing bliss. We are also able to concentrate on any object we choose far better because we are enjoying ourselves. If you are blissed out, and someone offers you some worldly enjoyment such as a slice of pizza, you don’t need it, you can take it or leave it; but if your mind is in a state of agitation or craving, it’s like, “Give me something, give me that pizza!” We search outside ourself for happiness, we spend a lot of time waiting; but if we are happy inside, we’re already there.

TantraFor this reason, generating bliss is very helpful for concentration, very undistractable. We can mix it smoothly with any object of meditation, whether that be love, compassion, or indeed the ultimate nature of reality, which is what we mainly want to use our bliss for. Understanding the real nature of ourselves, our world, and other people — that things are not as solid and real as they appear — overcomes our ignorance, the root of all our problems. A subtle, blissful, concentrated mind mixes with emptiness like water mixing with water, so we are quickly able to realize the ultimate nature of things and transform completely into a pure being, someone who is completely free from obscurations and who has manifested and grown all their good qualities. We can quickly gain deep spiritual experience, which is one main reason why Tantra is called the quick path to enlightenment.

Another main reason is because Tantra harnesses the creative power of our imagination. More on bliss and imagination coming soon.

Where is that sound coming from?

Chisato Kusunoki reflectionA couple of weeks ago, in London, N, my parents, and I were invited to a piano recital by an old friend of my parents, who is sponsoring the Japanese pianist Chisato Kusunoki. The elegantly attired audience were seated casually around tables in a dark and stylish lounge, though actually we were in the new (by London theatre standards) St. James Theatre; and Kusonoki’s virtuoso performance included works by Bach, Schumann, Medtner, Moszkowski, Chopin, and Rachmaninoff.

It was an evening of classical culture, to be sure 😉 But the real reason I am writing this is that the performance reminded me of the story of Sadaprarudita told in Heart of Wisdom, and how his teacher Dharmodgata explained emptiness to him using sound as a basis.

The Times said about Kusonoki’s performance: ‘wonderfully fleet and supple fingers, quick to locate the music’s inner voices, able to dapple and perfume.’ I don’t even know what that means, but I like it! Still, how are her fingers able to ‘locate’ the music?! How are they able to produce it? Where is it?

Chisato Kusunoki meditation pianoTo me, it sounded as if she had at least 20 fingers, there was so much noise coming from the piano, or wherever it was coming from, or, for that matter, ending up. But I could never point to the music even if I tried. Perhaps I could try pointing at it, but where would I start? I could point at her left forefinger, or her thumb, or the thumping key of the piano reflected in its shiny lid, or the waving of her elegant hands over the keyboard, or the smile on her face perhaps reflecting her inner enjoyment or astonishing creative memory, or to the composer’s mind, or the microphone, or the sound waves, or my ears, or the space traveled between the piano and the audience’s ears, or our ear consciousness (if it was physical), or… . For the music to appear to our mind, all these components, and more, are essential. Not one of them individually is the music, and yet take even one away and the music vanishes.

Where does each note come from? And where does each note go? What is that space between the notes? Where did one note end and the next begin? Trying to figure this out in St. James Theatre led me into a lovely reverie on the emptiness, or lack of inherent existence, of the music. The music was not ‘out there’ anywhere.

There is no real coming or going

Each elaborate piece was imputed on a stream of sounds, each sound coming from nowhere and going nowhere in order for the next sound to arise, and our minds imputing some kind of continuum on that, to end up with the haunting mellifluence of Chopin’s Nocturnes or the grandiosity of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes. (Ha ha, that’ll have to do for description, I’m not paid to be a music critic. You’ll have to read the fancy reviews for that. I watched a bit of Strictly Come Dancing for the first time yesterday evening and was mainly astounded by the florid verbosity with which the judges described each dance. I could just about come up with ‘That’s nice!’) But the point is, we describe a ‘thing’ as if it were really out there being a thing, we try so hard to label it and itemize it and make it even more of a ‘thing’ — when in fact it came from nowhere and went nowhere, and is completely empty of existing out there or from its own side.

rainbow and meditation on emptinessOn the train down from Liverpool yesterday there was a rainbow appearing out of the space of the sky. The reason it was appearing to me was because of the atmospheric conditions and the position of me, the observer. One moment of rainbow only appeared to cause the next moment of rainbow; that continuum was only imputed by mind. Moment by moment the rainbow was arising in dependence upon causes and conditions that were NOT it.

So although it seemed as if the rainbow had a continuum from its own side, each moment of rainbow giving rise to the next moment of rainbow, that seeming continuum was projected only by my mind – in truth, each moment of the rainbow was appearing newly in dependence upon other causes, such as the sun and the moisture and me sitting in the train. None of these things was the rainbow, yet remove one and the rainbow would vanish.

It is the same for the music. It is the same for EVERYTHING, even mountains and stars, even you and me. There is no inherently existent coming and going. We impute or project continuity on things with our mind, like perceiving countless still frames of a movie and projecting on them movement.

Where is everything?!

Dharmodgata asked Sadaprarudita:

Where does the sound of the lute come from and where does it go to? Does it come from the strings, from within the lute, from the fingers of the player, from his effort to play, or from elsewhere? And when the sound has stopped, where does it go?

Because Kusonoki’s music depends on things outside itself for its existence, it is empty of inherent, or independent, existence and is a mere imputation or projection of the mind. You cannot find it existing anywhere outside the mind, however hard you try. If you cannot find something existing outside the mind, or from its own side, you can know it doesn’t exist there.

For example, we cannot find a dream existing outside the mind or from its own side, so we know it doesn’t exist there. So, where does a dream exist? Where does music exist? Where does anything exist?

Chisato Kusunoki
Where does she keep that vast memory?!
The power of effort and concentration

Everything depends upon the mind. Including of course, as N said during the interval, Kusonoki’s impressive mind. How amazing, he said, that she had managed to memorize every note of the composition and play it flawlessly for over two hours, oftentimes with her eyes closed. The sound flowed effortlessly from her fingertips (or wherever!); she didn’t need to ‘think’ it, more just ‘be’ it.

It also made us think how, with familiarity, something beautiful that in reality has taken a great deal of effort and practice become entirely spontaneous and effortless – just like cherishing others or meditating on emptiness if we do it enough. Practice indeed makes perfect. Plus she was enjoying herself so much, even though we knew (from what her sponsor confided to my mother) that she had a head cold. Concentration gets us to this state of effortlessness too, reminding me of one of my favorite TS Eliot quotes:

music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

A virtuous spiral

Although music is empty of inherent existence, it can still appear in dependence upon many causes and conditions and, when they cease, it can no longer appear. Therefore, there is nothing solid or objective about music – it is a manifestation of its emptiness, with no more concrete existence than yesterday’s rainbow appearing from the empty sky.

Understanding this makes listening to music all the more beautiful and blissful. And in general, the more blissful the mind, the more blissful the music becomes, proving again that the object depends on the mind. (Even without necessarily contemplating emptiness, I could tell that as the audience gradually got into the music, becoming more concentrated and relaxed, they enjoyed the music more and so it sounded better, even though it hadn’t improved from its own side.)

Emptiness and bliss in fact go together very well, like water mixed with water, enhancing each other in a virtuous spiral. But that’ll have to be the subject for another day.

At the end, I thanked Chisato Kusunoki, and said I hoped she’d be able to bring the joy of her music to many thousands of people. She smiled enigmatically. I made a secret prayer that everyone who listens to her accomplishes the realization of bliss and emptiness, and therewith complete mental freedom.

Meanwhile, to test this out for yourself, please do an experiment if you can: next time you listen to music, see if you can find it, and report back.