Creating space in our minds

perspective and meditation
Depends how you look at things

Until Konstantin the Russian tenant showed up, my yard in America was overgrown with prickly thistles and ugly weeds. My ultimate plan was to get rid of the seeds and roots of those unwanted plants, but how was I supposed to dig those up if I couldn’t even get to them? I first needed to create space by weed-whacking (actually, I asked Konstantin to do it, but all analogies break down sooner or later…) In the same way, my ultimate spiritual plan is to dig out the seeds of my delusions by realizing emptiness, but at the same time I can be preventing delusions from growing wild in my mind by weed-whacking their other five causes, especially the object and inappropriate attention. (Sadly, neither Konstantin nor anyone else can do this job for me.)

For example, if I wrote something really annoying right here:

“Get off this computer and get a life, you loser.”

you might become angry with me. If so, this would be because you’ve still got the seed or potential for anger right now, even when your mind is peaceful, which means there is always the danger of anger arising. However, anger does not actually arise until the other causes of anger, such as a rude comment and inappropriate attention, come together.

Cause of delusion # 2, the object
a Lambanana in Liverpool
Is it a lamb or is it a banana?
(A Lambanana in Liverpool)

Delusions cannot arise without an object. Without perceiving an attractive object like Walker’s Salt and Vinegar Crisps, I cannot develop attachment, and without perceiving a disagreeable object like a dentist’s drill grinding into my teeth, I cannot develop aversion.

This means that the fewer objects of delusion I encounter, the fewer delusions I will develop. However, it is a tall order to never again run into another object of delusion. I need a replacement crown and two fillings, for example, no way of getting around that. When I wimpily asked the dentist whether it would be painful, he smirked at his assistant and said: “Not for us.” Adding insult to injury, I even have to pay for the pain. Moreover, anything can be a disagreeable object for us if we continue to keep our disagreeable states of mind.

art and meditation in Liverpool
An elevator crashed in Liverpool

However, conversely, nothing is a disagreeable object for us if we keep agreeable states of mind. I am in Liverpool at the moment. Two nights ago, a new friend called P, born and bred in the ‘pool, was walking down a street nearby when she was mugged for the first time in her fifty-something years. Someone grabbed her handbag containing all credit cards, iPhone, and cash, and ran off into the shadows. The nice policeman commiserated with her: “You must be very angry!” Friends sympathized with her: “You must feel violated! How awful for you.” But over lunch she was all smiles and told me that she was pleased to notice that she didn’t feel any anger. Indeed, she had no mental pain over the incident at all. And, most surprising of all to her, she found she had the entirely unironic thought, “That poor guy didn’t get away with very much cash!” She said she kept those thoughts to herself, or the policeman might have thought her quite mad.

P is not mad though, she has just been meditating on patience for twenty years, and so it kicked in when needed. Meantime, she was still able to do all the practical things like cancel the cards and put a stop on the phone.

P and I were having this conversation over the best vegetarian sausage I’ve ever tasted, in the Moon and Pea, Lark Lane. The café’s name reminds me of Buddha’s analogy for our spiritual potential – the amount of mind we are currently using compared to the amount of mind we could be using is like a pea compared to a planet.

Sefton Park Liverpool meditation
A friendly swan in Liverpool

So-called Foe Destroyers or Arhats (in Sanskrit) have destroyed all the inner foes of the delusions and their seeds through their direct realization of emptiness, which means that even if they are surrounded by objects of delusions, and even if they try to, it is impossible for them to develop a delusion. Such a person has attained so-called nirvana, or liberation. Their mind is completely at peace all the time, happy and free.

It is possible to accomplish these things because there is no such thing as an object of delusion that exists from its own side. If someone was an inherently disagreeable object of anger, then everyone who saw that person would get angry; but of course they don’t – it is not just Foe Destroyers, their pet dog also loves them to bits! So objects of delusion depend upon our deluded minds. If we have a mind to get deluded, we’re going to find an object of delusion with no difficulty. But if we overcome our delusions by developing patience, compassion, generosity, and so on, the object of delusion transforms into something entirely different – eg, from a thug into an unfortunate soul who really could do with that money.

That’s pretty cool, don’t you think?

(I need to practice it on the dentist next month. Tips welcome.)

Mirror, mirror, at the door

At 8am this morning, as I was peacefully absorbed in meditation, someone honked their horn very loudly. There was a pause, then they did it again. Another pause, and then a loud banging at my door.

I open it in my dressing gown, and a (watch this instant prejudice…) brash looking man in a shiny suit and slicked-back hair abruptly demands: “I’m here to pick up Yvonne.” I say I don’t know Yvonne. “She’s a laaaarge girl”, he offers, with (un)helpful hand gestures. My Simone de Beauvoir instincts kick in: “Do you mean a large girl or a large woman? In any event I don’t know any large or small women or girls by that name around here. And might I suggest that you don’t blow your horn so loudly…” (adding silently “…you’re not the only human being around here you know!”) and then “Oh, my cat has got out…” (adding silently “…because of you.”)

So as you can see from my responses, an irritation had arisen. Great fodder for meditation! Excellent timing for my morning session! Mr. Honk only appears irritating to me due to karma I’ve created in the past and is a reflection of my own faults of thoughtlessness and self-cherishing. Not everyone who bangs on my door early morning or late at night irritates me after all – most, I’m happy to say, don’t, including Jehovah’s witnesses, tenants who have lost their keys again, and, the other night, a totally drunk homeless guy whom I offered a place to stay for a few hours to get him out of the cold. (Don’t worry, dear landlords, if you are reading this, I took his social security card off him first). Back in meditation I did not have to go back far, sadly, to see how I share Mr. Honk’s apparent faults — for example I yell for my cat to come in, “ROUSSEAU!!!”, (which may be why, come to think of it, everyone around here knows his name), and I shout out a question for someone instead of bothering to go find them, etc. Not only that, but Mr. Honk may have had all sorts of extenuating circumstances that could cause me to go easy on him, as they would cause me to go easy on me if I was in his position – like, for example,  Yvonne being in dire need of a blood transfusion.

Not focusing on others’ faults doesn’t mean that we never recognize they have delusions (uncontrolled, unpeaceful minds) or develop the wish to help them overcome these – our mistake is conflating the person with the delusions. As my teacher says:

It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the faults of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any living being. Consequently, their love and compassion for living beings never diminish. ~ Transform Your Life, p 131

“Very nice!”

There is clearly far more to Mr. Honk than his seeming thoughtlessness – for all I know he was going out of his way to help Yvonne, large as she is, and he is probably a VERY NICE MAN. At any rate, he is not his delusions, even if he has any, and my relating to him as such for those moments by the front door didn’t help either of us. I lost an opportunity to be helpful. He helped me though, as it turns out, by serving as a mirror. Thank you Mr. Honk, I owe you 🙂

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Anger ruins our fun

I am sitting on the beach hearing a Russian couple arguing.

They’re missing this!

I can’t really begin to describe what a perfect day it is today, but I can say that it is the best time of year with clear blue sky, turquoise sea, white sand, soft breezes, pelicans, a vast bathtub to swim in with the dolphins, etc… you know the kind of thing. The kind of thing you see on billboards in the subway torturing New Yorkers in the middle of winter.

But this couple is missing all the fun. I noticed their tension the moment they came and stood, for some strange reason, a few feet away from me. Their argument started sotte voce, and then started to get a little louder, and then a little louder. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying as my Russian is not that good (though I do know the word for “cat”), but I still used a quick dip in the ocean as an excuse to leave them to it. Now having got back and snuck farther away, their voices sound even louder than before. And they are now standing with both feet solidly on the sand, hands on hips, not even wanting to look at each other.

Like I said, I have no idea what they are arguing about, and it doesn’t actually matter as it is probably the type of domestic dispute being played out all over the world and I certainly have not been immune to such squabbling myself. But it strikes me that at these times we are making ourselves miss out on all the fun, as DhiDakini suggests in her comment:

Doesn’t it seem strange and so interesting… that we sit in a pleasant moment and worry about things that AREN’T happening right now…?

Missing the bliss…

Nothing but their delusion of anger is currently ruining these two people’s day, perhaps even their entire hard-earned vacation. They might have spent a lot of money to come here and feel miserable.

My teacher Geshe Kelsang says in Introduction to Buddhism:

If our mind is peaceful we will be free from worries and mental discomfort, and so we will experience true happiness; but if our mind is not peaceful we will find it very difficult to be happy, even if we are living in the very best conditions.

If we ponder on simple staring-us-in-the-face illustrations like this how anger ruins our fun, this is one of its most obvious faults, and might give us the incentive to overcome our own anger next time we’re about to ruin the moment with a stupid argument. Some of the other faults of anger may not be quite as obvious — such as the destruction of our good karma and creating the cause to be ugly in future lives — but this one is.

Right now the man is spreadeagled flat on his back, the woman having stormed off back to their (rather nice) hotel. World War III is on hold. I hope he is staring into the space of the sky and calming down, and that he can count his blessings and enjoy his rather spectacular surroundings before it is time to go back to work.

May we all swiftly be freed from the crippling delusion of anger.

Your comments welcome, as always. And please share this article if you like it.

Anger wrecks our day(s)

“For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

The smallest thing can fill our mind if we have no control over our thoughts.

Someone on Facebook fessed up that they had been engaging in an “internal tantrum and imaginary arguments”, and I thought to myself, “Now ain’t that the way our delusions go!”

It is so easy to get irritated if we let ourselves due to our unchecked habit of inappropriate attention. Normally I live in a pretty peaceful place with lots of space — just cats, dogs, possums, and huge parking spots for one’s air-conditioned car — I’m not rubbing shoulders with a mass of annoying humanity as I try to get around. But I also travel to NYC from time to time, partly so as to get my fair share of shoulder-rubbing, to keep it real 🙂

On the plane recently a young man sat next to me and, despite his good health, looks and fortune, I could tell he was already feeling slightly edgy. He got out his Blackberry and engaged in some very fast texting with his two thumbs. I nosily eyed what he’d written and to my surprise the last text said “This fat b**** next to me is so large that I cannot put down my armrest.” I could tell this was the tale-end of a moan about the person sitting next to him, and I noticed to my alarm that the armrest between us was firmly up. But I’m not that big so I glanced hopefully to the other side of him just in case, and it did appear that a large lady was occupying that seat.

Relieved as I was that he wasn’t texting about me, I felt a little sorry for her, oblivious as she was to his annoyance at having to spend the next 2 hours and 48 minutes wedged next to her, thinking how mortified she’d have been if she had been as nosy as me and looked at his Blackberry. Perhaps she’d in any case sense his dislike and spend a few less than happy, confident hours as a result. Even hurtful thoughts are hurtful; they are mental actions that do leave some impression on our mind and our world. In the teachings on karma, Buddha says that no action is ever wasted.

Just as I was musing on this, he suddenly thrust his Blackberry under my nose, gesturing me to read his latest message, which just happened to be addressed to me. It said: “Don’t get weirded out if I sit closer to you, but the woman next to me is sitting half on my seat.” She wasn’t actually, and he was now sitting on my seat, but I thought I’d try and cheer him up a bit by smiling that it was no problem, sure, I don’t mind being squashed into half a seat even if he does, its not inherently bad after all… (I doubt he got all my silent messages, but I thought them anyway). The rest of the journey passed without incident, he entered his own sullen headphoned world — hopefully he cheered up later.

A tiny example of a minor irritation blown out of proportion, but these can waste every day of our whole precious life if we let them.

Got any good examples?!

Dealing with anger … more from our social worker

This is the fourth article from a guest writer, Kadampa Buddhist and student social worker. For the others, see Guest Articles.

Who is mentally healthy?

My second placement in my social work training was for a mental health charity. I found myself being attracted to the ethos of this organisation. They believe that we all experience mental health, and at times mental ill health or mental health distress.  Mental health distress only becomes a ‘mental health problem’ or mental ill health when our daily life is interfered with to such an extent that we are prevented from holding down a job or being able to live in stable accommodation.

Buddha would certainly agree with this ethos! In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says we are all sick as we suffer from desirous attachment, hatred, ignorance, and other diseases of the mind (Gyatso, 2006). I think that it is good to remember every day that these so-called delusions are our only enemy and that we all get them and the daily habits that come with them. Geshe Kelsang reminds us to have this awareness before we meditate or go into a Dharma teaching, to seek medicine for our mind through Dharma.

These teachings can also help us develop compassion for people we come into contact with in our daily lives and especially have compassion for those with strong delusions. Working in a mental health care setting I believe I came across people with strong delusions and some who had had quite horrendous and negative lives but their delusions, behaviour and wishes were perhaps most of the time no different to mine.

Anger management classes

On this placement I found myself helping run anger management classes, encouraging young men that anger and violence were not the best ways of coping when having relationship problems. The classes were based upon CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and I found the content and format quite similar to the practicalities of some of the teachings in the General Programme Classes run by Kadampa Buddhist Centres. I assisted the teacher in encouraging the service users to realise what triggers their anger, to recall/examine their thoughts and feelings the moment before they got angry and how to have nice thoughts about yourself.

During these classes I found my knowledge and experience of Shantideva’s teachings on anger in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life very helpful and beneficial. I recalled teachings on the faults of anger from How to Solve Our Human Problems, Gyatso 2005:

Anger robs us of our reason and good sense.

and why we get angry:

Anger is a response to feelings of unhappiness.

I would put this experience into practice by relaying these ideas in more everyday language to them without mentioning Buddhism or that I am a Buddhist e.g.

Have you ever wondered why you get angry? From my experience it is when I am disappointed and often my main triggers occur when I am tired.”

At times I could really relate to the guys on the course, the relationship problems they were having and the attachment that was causing their anger and jealousy. I didn’t see much difference between myself and them perhaps only in that I have in the past been aware enough not to do physical actions through anger whereas these men had acted out with their anger such as head-butting strangers, physically lashing out on their partners and attempting to commit suicide.

 It’s been challenging coming across people who commit really negative actions but the Buddhist meditation on universal compassion has helped here. – that you can take a step back from the person or situation and see and feel a bigger picture leading to compassion for those who are creating the cause to experience suffering in the future as well as those who are experiencing suffering now (Transform Your Life, Gyatso, 2006). Also to distinguish between delusions and persons:

The fault I see is not the fault of the person, but the fault of delusion.

(Eight Steps to Happiness, Gyatso, 2006).

Through reading about mental health care and various therapies I can see similarities between them and Buddhism and I could relate to the more psychodynamic therapies that recognise that feelings precede thoughts. Meditation, relaxation and complimentary therapies are becoming popular in mental health care settings. At the end of the anger management classes I co-facilitated we went through relaxation exercises similar to meditation. I would encourage service users to do these exercises and I would talk about the benefits of meditation to them such as a calm and peaceful mind, less fluctuations of mood, improved health and better relationships with others (The New Meditation Handbook, Gyatso, 2008). The meditation CD’s that Tharpa Publications produce are becoming popular throughout the world and could be utilised more in the mental health care world.

Has anyone else got experience of using these CD’s in workplaces or with the general public?