No time like the present

First, a little anecdote

stop and smell the rosesI wrote this about a dog and me a few years ago. “I am leaving today. Earlier, I was a little melancholy to think this was the last walk Mr. Frodo and I would be taking down to the bay, until it occurred to me that it wasn’t a last walk at all. It was a first walk. Due to subtle impermanence, nothing stays the same even for a moment, and every step we were taking was brand new and different. Every Olympian leap Frodo made into the air to catch the yellow tennis ball was a new leap. Every ripple on the water was a first ripple. My permanent grasping abated. Each moment was fun, full, and vibrant. One of the best walks of my life.”

Why the emotional resistance?

Knowing about subtle impermanence (carrying on from this articlecan in fact make life fun, full, and vibrant. To begin with, however, thinking about all this constant changing can make us feel a bit insecure, like there is nothing to hold on to. “I want something to hold on to!” We may feel a little threatened, even though it is such a beautiful truth, which makes it hard to open our heart to this teaching. How can we overcome this emotional resistance?

See the beauty

Gen Samten says that the secret, he feels, is to approach these teachings from point of view of seeing their beauty. If we see them as threatening, we’ll have resistance, but if we see them as beautiful we’ll naturally open up to them. It’s a bit like loving poetry or a work of art. My mother has an always open poetry book on her kitchen counter, and can quote reams of the stuff by heart. She finds the poems beautiful and so reads them in a certain way — enjoys contemplating the nuances and drinking them in (and all while cooking the supper …)

dew drops 1It’s the same with subtle impermanence (and indeed any teaching). If we can see it as beautiful, we will want to explore it and drink it in and see its subtle implications in our life. This all comes down to seeing the beauty in it. That’s our job. Not to force ourselves to meditate on it as an onerous task, but to let ourselves discover the beauty (even while we are busy doing other things).

This, basically, is faith, particularly what is called “admiring faith”. Society may be a bit confused in general about faith, and even see it as contrary to wisdom (it’s not, they are mutually compatible). But in reality faith is one of most basic human emotions and is intrinsic to inner transformation. Buddhism teaches believing faith, admiring faith, and wishing faith. Here, we come to believe in the truth of the teaching, that everything changes moment by moment, and this is believing faith. Then we appreciate it, finding beauty in its special qualities, and this increases our admiring faith. As a result we wish to practice this truth in our lives, and this is wishing faith.

Another little anecdote

Not unusually for this blog, I am writing this article on a plane – this one from Denver to London via Charlotte. Just now I was waiting outside the restroom and trying to make the most of each moment by looking at the rows of heads in front of me, thinking: “What is their life like?” And then the verse on equalizing self and others/developing affectionate love from Offering to the Spiritual Guide:

In that no one ever wishes for even the slightest suffering,
Or is ever content with the happiness they have,
There is no difference between myself and others;
Realizing this, I seek your blessings joyfully to make others happy.

That way I was having that pleasant feeling that I was no more important than anyone else on the plane, including the person taking a rather long time in the restroom. Ten minutes later he came out, a young man with a huge beam on his face, carrying the book “The Power of Now”. So make of that what you will.

We’re all gonna die!

Buddha taught that there are two levels of impermanence – gross and subtle. For example, with respect to a house, its subtle impermanence is the moment by moment changes that happen continually for the duration of its existence; and its gross impermanence is when it falls down, finishes. We can see this everywhere – a tree grows and changes constantly, which is subtle impermanence; and then it dies, gross impermanence.

To live our lives in the moment, in the light of subtle impermanence, we have to learn to live it in the light of gross impermanence, which means living our life with an understanding of the truth that we are going to die.

death awarenessThis thought, contrary to popular opinion, is one of the most liberating and beautiful understandings we can cultivate.

Consider these two possibilities in relation to yourself: “I will die today” and “I won’t die today”. Seems to cover all options!

Now if we ask ourselves which of these applies to me …? We can’t say. All we can say is “I may die today. I may not, but I may.” Both those statements are true.

However, if we go around assuming “I won’t die today”, our life doesn’t do anything special. If somebody gives us something valuable and we treat it as worthless, we will waste it, of course. Our life is so valuable, but if we treat it as something mundane or never-ending we will waste it. However, if we think “I may die today”, we extract the meaning and the preciousness of our life. We will treat it as valuable, and we will stop taking it for granted.

It’s a wonderful life

One great benefit from understanding that we may die today is that we stop worrying about tomorrow. Instead we wake in the morning and think, “I want to live today in a way that is very meaningful, show kindness to others, make today special, without worrying about tomorrow.” It’s like our only mission is to make today a wonderful day.

drop of waterSometimes we think that making our life meaningful means making some mega changes. But on a day to day level, and on a mind level, perhaps, our life doesn’t change. We don’t change.

So what is a meaningful life, a wonderful life? Is it not made up of meaningful years, months, weeks, and days?

On the one hand, we can stop dwelling on the past because it has gone — every day is a new day. And on the other hand we can stop worrying about the future – I may die today. All that is real for us is today. And then we just focus our energy on today. Then, day by day, naturally our whole life will be meaningful.

Create a boundary

Boundaries can be useful for protecting our minds, and perhaps one of the most useful is a boundary around today. Gen Samten uses the example of food that is vacuum packed to keep it fresh — we can keep today new and fresh, not contaminated by worries of what might happen tomorrow. Through the power of our determination we can think:

I’m not going to worry about what might happen tomorrow or next week or next month. I may die today. All I will focus on is enjoying today in a meaningful manner.

It is like we need to build a wall around today and focus our mental energy within it. Otherwise, worry is a big problem for us and one we have little control over – our thoughts are running around in a non-existent future: “How will I be able to cope if that happens?” If we focus just on today, our mind will be peaceful. This is such a good habit to build.boundary

The wall goes behind us as well — I’m not going to dwell on the past. Maybe I screwed up terribly yesterday but that is outside the wall. I am not going to recreate that today. And then we are freed from the burden of all the mistakes we have made because they are outside the wall and we just focus on what is inside.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t learn from our mistakes or make plans for the future, but it does mean that we spend most of our energy on today. Reverse that original percentage — spend 10% of our energy thinking about the past and future and 90% concentrating on today! Building any wall takes time – we can’t just throw it up, it takes time to build up this mental habit. But it is very do-able.

Today is your first day. It may also be your last…

Next installment is here.

Is compassion happy or sad?

Compassion is the fuel of spiritual progress, but is it a sad or a happy state of mind? The Buddhist scriptures all say it is a peaceful, happy mind, but how does it feel in our own experience? How is it even possible to be happy or calm when caring about the horrible suffering of others? It seems crucial to know this if we are going to put any energy into contemplating suffering as opposed to digging our heads into the sand or switching channels.

I first decided to explore this subject when I was with Ralph the kitten. This is what I wrote down at the time.

After Ralph’s death:

Today, two days after his death, tears still spring to my eyes when my mind alights upon any details of his final hours. I even miss meditating with him (nothing like having a helpless kitten on your lap to help you meditate.) I managed to meditate for 30 years without him, but today I missed him all tucked up in my overalls.

But this sadness, though moving, is not unhappy, if you know what I mean. I am not averse to it. It is mixed with a sort of smile.

There is a part of me that misses him out of attachment, but I also know that this is looking backward rather than forward, and the past does not even exist. I am missing a non-existent kitten. There is no point in that. There is no point in even wanting him to still be a kitten, healthy or not. Better to think of him in the present, wishing him all happiness wherever he is, with any luck out of his limited cat body and in the Pure Land.

Two days earlier, in the ER waiting room:

I don’t know if I want any cats now. (I was planning on rescuing a couple in the Fall). Where is that coming from? A friend of mine lost her beloved cat recently in a nasty freak accident and it crushed her. Right now I understand why she said she didn’t ever want another cat. My mother always resisted our having pets and would say it was because her beloved guinea pigs were eaten by rats when she was a kid. (The more obvious reason was that we were continuously traveling around the world, but for some reason she’d usually play the guinea pig card). It slightly irked me when she did this, as I really wanted pets and had to make do with collecting ants and cocoons; but I understand her reluctance better now.

But cats still need homes. So do guinea pigs and other animals. American comedian George Carlin said that getting a pet is a tragedy waiting to happen, as they always “go away”, unless we are 80 and get a tortoise. But we do it anyway. And as they say:

“It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

Everyone “goes away” — we’ll have to watch all our loved ones go away, if we don’t go away first. I think we have to be brave enough right now to accept a certain amount of sadness when the people we know are suffering. This is part of our training. One day our compassion will be bliss, but even if it is now mixed with minds that cause some sadness – such as fear, worry, and attachment – it is still better not to shrink away from getting involved with others.

Back to today:

However, at the same time we can work on removing the sad and worried part and increasing the happy and blissful part, and, starting in this article, that’s what I want to look at (with more help from you and my Facebook friends!)

Waves of worry

We worry about ourselves (and loved ones) all the time. Parents can worry about their children every single day. In samsara, worries are waves on an ocean – there is never an end of things we can worry about because everything can go wrong. We think short-term: “Oh it’ll be alright if he just gets a job! Or if his sickness is cured!”, but it still isn’t alright. Perhaps a brief respite, but then a new worry rolls onto the shore.

So we have to go deeper for both our own and others’ sake. We have to want us all to have real, lasting freedom. Where does this come from? Only from peaceful and controlled minds. If we wish that for them, in this wish we discover there is peace. There is also some peace to be had in accepting that we cannot control their minds for them, nor their karmic path.

I think realistically that our wish for them to have real freedom by overcoming the delusions and impure karma is more attainable than our wish for them to be free from one samsaric problem at a time! The waves of suffering cannot end until the ocean of samsara — created by delusions and impure karma — is dried up. Focusing on this doesn’t mean that we don’t take the cat to the vet, but it does mean we keep things in perspective, which helps a great deal.

dry up the ocean of samsara
Getting practical

A practical thing to do on a daily basis is to catch those worries as they start to roll in and transform them into bigger and better non-worries! For example, a friend of mine lost her job quite a while ago and is still finding it hard to get another, despite great efforts. I feel sad for her every time I think of how disappointed she feels. (And she is not alone, of course — finding someone who never has any financial concerns is almost impossible.) However, if I go deeper and wish for her to have complete freedom from this and all worries by drying up the entire ocean of samsara, immediately there is some mental peace. The same goes for worry about a loved one’s cancer results, or a cat’s infected eyes. “May they be free from ALL suffering and its causes. I will make this happen.” This wish galvanizes us and we have some control again.

More ideas coming in the next article.

Your turn: In your own experience, do you find compassion to be happy or sad?

Please share these articles if you find any of them helpful, on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever (there are some useful buttons for doing this below).

Breathe your way to inner peace

This is the last installment of the how not to worry articles.

Breathing meditations can help enormously in instantly alleviating our worry, and anyone can do them if they have a mind to.

Simple breathing meditation

Worrying affects us physiologically, from shallower breathing and the inability to relax through to full blown panic attacks when we can hardly breathe. When the mind is calm, our breathing tends to be deeper, and vice versa. So one way to confront the problem is to follow our breath and calm ourselves down that way. Here is a simple five-minute breathing meditation you can try anytime, even now!

You’ll get three specific benefits from doing this breathing meditation:

(1) There is a close relationship between our mind and our breath. Our breath is related to our subtle inner energy winds (Skt. prana). We can understand this by remembering what happens when, for example, we are anxious and our breathing quickens, or when we are calm or concentrated (e.g. threading a needle) and it slows down. As we calm the breath in breathing meditation, our mind naturally calms down too.

(2) The breath is a neutral object, so meditating on it temporarily pacifies our worries because we forget about them. It is like putting our car into neutral. We can then move into forward gear by meditating on a positive object such as patience.

(3) Our mind can only hold one object at a time. If we focus single-pointedly on our breath, which is not too difficult an object to find, our worries will naturally diminish and disappear.

Taking and giving mounted upon the breath

As mentioned in the previous article on overcoming worry, we can also combine our breathing meditation with taking and giving, thereby increasing our love and compassion at the same time as reducing our worry and stress.

OM AH HUM breathing meditation
OM AH HUM

And we can also get two for the price of one if we combine breathing meditation with receiving blessings from the holy beings in the profound OM AH  HUM meditation based on Tantric principles that renowned Buddhist teacher Geshe Kelsang explains in The New Meditation Handbook. This meditation also cleanses our subtle inner energy winds (chi, prana), upon which all our minds are “mounted”. As a result, so-called “wisdom winds” flow and our mind naturally becomes peaceful and positive. You can find out what is behind this profound meditation and how to do it here.

And now some final thoughts on the subject of overcoming worry in no particular order…

Focus on your precious human life and death
Click on picture for blind turtle analogy

Instead of thinking inappropriate thoughts itemizing all the things that can go wrong, we can count our blessings and current opportunities. Victoria Kaya says: “Only through my practice of putting others first before myself do I find the antidote to my worry. Not always easy — however I believe that if I contemplate the suffering of others, and realise how bad things could be, I am grateful for every moment of this very short human life.”

And we can recall: “If I die today, where do I want to be tomorrow?” Ironically, perhaps, remembering impermanence totally reduces our mental stress and helps us to relax. We don’t sweat the small stuff because it just doesn’t seem important any more.

Jb Christy told us of her rather radical approach to remembering impermanence: “Skydiving worked for me. For 9 months after jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, I’d get in situations that normally would cause me to worry, and I’d start to get anxious, and then I’d think “Hey, there’s no planet rushing up to pulverize me,” and then whatever was making me anxious really didn’t bother me anymore. After a few months of that, I got out of the habit of worrying, and really don’t worry much at all anymore. But that might not work for everyone :)” (Ed: and you didn’t read it here!)

Overcome attachment

Why do we worry so much more about our own cat or child than other people’s? Yes, love is in the mix, but the worry is not coming from the love (or the compassion) but from the attachment. It’s worth thinking about? And I am, in some articles I’m writing on whether compassion is a sad or happy mind, with help from Facebook feedback…

Emptiness

Who is worrying?! Where are they? What are they worrying about? Shantideva says:

If there were a truly existent I,
It would make sense to be afraid of certain things;
But, since there is no truly existent I,
Who is there to be afraid?

This is my favorite approach. You can recall the emptiness of the three spheres – the person doing the worrying, the worrying mind, and the object of worry. As mentioned in this article, the sharper our worry, the sharper our sense of a limited self, the bigger our target, and the freer we are when we knock it down in our meditation on no self! Mirja Renner puts it like this: “I tend to look at how worry is just a thought, and how the self that thinks it couldn’t handle the situation (should it arise) doesn’t exist.” Victoria Kaya says: “Interesting, only the realization of the way things really are could eradicate worry from my mind because it is only due to grasping at externals that we worry.”

To conclude…

As mentioned in the first of these anti-worry articles, all the stages of the path (Lamrim) have the side-effect of overcoming worry! As Fiona Layton put it: “Seems like we need to keep practicing the Lamrim and all will become worry free!” These are just a few ways of getting started with some different ways of thinking. As our experience of overcoming delusions, increasing our compassion and wisdom etc grows, our worries grow fewer and fewer until one day we can’t even remember what it is like to be worried about a thing. That’s the truth. In the meantime, we can use our worry to look at our minds and go deeper into its solutions.

Got anything to share? Have we missed anything crucial? Please add your comments in the box below, and share these articles with anyone who might find them useful.

No more nervous Nellie

Tomorrow’s another day

There have been some great comments on the previous no worry articles, including this one from DhiDakini: “In a meditation class, someone asked the teacher about the emotion of anxiety. I remember that he said in answer:

“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…?”

 It seemed so pithy and yet so staggeringly deep in that moment for me – made me wonder “WHY would I every worry again?’ Ha! (Then I started worrying about worrying too much…)”

Less of the me, me, me

Do any of these adjectives describe you: Nervous, agitated, anxious, apprehensive, tense, edgy, excitable, fearful, fidgety, flustered, hesitant, highly strung, hyper? What is the leitmotif of all of these states of mind? “Me”. We need to work on less of Me. If we are in the habit of worrying about ourself or those we are attached to, the smallest thing can fill our mind, crowding out all other perspectives, so we become rigid, blinkered and myopic. I give one example here.

Worrying is a huge distraction. It may pretend to be helpful in getting things done, but in truth it distracts us from helping others. Worry saps our joy and does nothing to fix a situation – we can solve problems more energetically and effectively with a light mind of patience. You can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time. Worry is actually very tiring. And when we are tense, people can catch it from us (unless they are protected by the mind of love or  wisdom), and so things go backward in that sense too.

Fiona Layton says: “Habit yes it is, like all delusions. Worry comes from fear, which comes from self-cherishing, especially the part that needs to control the outcomes for myself and others.”

Taking and giving

We can be pretty sure that everyone worries a lot if they don’t have control over their mind. So, when you worry, it’s a good time to do taking and giving for everyone, especially those who are having a similar worry to yourself. How many people have to take care of sick cats or, even harder, sick children? We can take on their suffering and give them relief and everything else they need. Get the self out of the way and the worry goes but the compassion and love increase.

Quick explanation of how to do taking and giving

For those who are not familiar with the so-called “magical practice of taking and giving”, you can find it in this free eBook by Geshe Kelsang, Modern Buddhism, pages 95ff. You can also find it in Vide Kadampa’s Daily Lamrim blog.

Just in brief, for taking, with a mind of compassion we imagine we are taking on all the sufferings of others individually or collectively in the aspect of thick smoke, which dissolves into our self-cherishing at our heart and blows it up. We feel joy at having removed others’ suffering and destroyed our own worst enemy, self-cherishing, and meditate on this for as long as we can.

For giving, with the love wishing others to be happy we imagine that our body transforms into a wishfulfilling jewel, from which light rays radiate to touch all living beings, giving them whatever they need or wish for. As a result they experience a lasting and perfect joy and happiness. We too feel joy and meditate on this for as long as possible.

We can also combine the practice of taking and giving with our breathing, which really is one of the most fun and powerful methods for making our daily life meaningful. Not only does it reduce our worry, but it also improves our love and compassion, and creates potent causes for being actually able to bring happiness and freedom to others in the future. (If we understand emptiness, we’ll get the idea how everything begins (and ends!) in the imagination.) Taking and giving is taught in the books Universal Compassion and Eight Steps to Happiness.

On Facebook, Samuel Forbes beautifully explained how helpful taking and giving can be: “I suffer from intense anxiety (panic disorder) and I’ve found meditation on taking extremely helpful when panic sets in. In my experience, anxiety stems from self-cherishing, at least for me. When I’m anxious, I’m only worried about myself, not others. So, when meditating on taking, it helps me think of the fear others experience and I imagine taking it upon myself in the form of black smoke, ridding myself of self-grasping (the source of the fear) at my heart and developing compassion, purification and so forth all at once. Beautiful. With enough concentration and blessings it can work extremely quickly, sometimes in a matter of seconds, not only taking the fear away, but actually making the mind peaceful and happy. It is far more effective than any conventional medicine I’ve tried over the years.”

Victoria Kaya added: “My brother was diagnosed with cancer a year ago and most of my close family suffers from a rare heart condition. I know it can be difficult at that time not to worry; however the time I have spent in hospital I feel that the practice of taking and giving helped me to feel like I was able to do something for them and not feel helpless.”

You’re not alone

As explained in Ralph’s story, we can also turn our worries over through prayer, if we have faith. This method has worked pretty well for many people over the ages! As Sally Anne Atkinson says: “Hand it over :)” We obviously don’t have to be Buddhists to do this.

Mike Hume gives some personal examples: “When I look back at my life I can see many times when I have been in dangerous situations, several involving motorbikes. Once I fell in the river and was rescued and resuscitated, another time I was rescued from a large window falling on me, and there have been numerous less serious situations as well. Once I prayed very hard to Geshe Kelsang and Dorje Shugden [a so-called “Dharma Protector” who is the same as Wisdom Buddha Manjushri] to save my brother who was on life support when his vital signs were well below critical, and he survived; and I prayed in the same way when I was in a plane in a storm, when the captain announced, “A hole in the clouds has just appeared”. Fiona Layton says: “When I feel that I am not equipped to deal with certain situations, then I have forgotten my Spiritual Guide and Dorje Shugdan and all the other countless Buddhas who could bless my mind if I turned to them and instantly feel relaxed. This normally happens when I have skipped my prayers and Lamrim (must do it now actually!)” Maria Tonella says: “In reality for me there is not a worrying situation that cannot be softened by praying a mantra with faith.”

Have you found that any of the methods in this article have worked for you? Please share your experiences in the comments, and let others know of the article if it’s helpful.

One last article on worry in the pipeline! For all the no worry articles, see No worries.

DON’T PANIC

Shantideva

The great Indian Buddhist Master Shantideva is famous for his practical advice on dealing patiently with problems:

If something can be remedied
Why be unhappy about it?
And if there is no remedy for it,
There is still no point in being unhappy.

Here is a flow chart to illustrate this seemingly unarguable point (sorry, I don’t know who drew the original or I would credit them:)

don't worry be happy 1How can we do this in a simple way? By not immediately defaulting to: ‘Oh noooo’, with a mind of aversion, rejection, and worry, but getting in the habit of bringing it on: ‘Oh yessss’, and only then thinking: “Now what can I do about this?” If there is something I can do about it, why worry? And if there is nothing I can do about it, why worry? Instead, I can and will find another way to relate to this situation.

I confess that I used to have this following question, which I just shared on Facebook to receive what I think is a really good answer from the scientist Jon Dicks:

Luna: One quick question though, what do you do in the moments before deciding whether or not there is something we can do about it?!
Shirley Austin: Panic 🙂
Luna Kadampa: haha!! that’s what i thought.
Jon Dicks: @Luna, you do not need to panic in the moments before also, because it will be either one possibility or the other, so why worry. Like Schrodinger’s cat in its box there are only two possible states, dead or alive, so open the lid and find out which it is. Don’t get excited also in anticipation 🙂
Jon Dicks: (poor cat though).

Since I read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a teenager, I have found myself muttering “DON’T PANIC” if things seem to be going disastrously wrong, and then taking it from there. (The novel explains that “DON’T PANIC” was written in large, friendly letters on the cover partly as the device “looked insanely complicated” to operate and partly to keep intergalactic travelers from panicking.)

If we are attached to things going our way the whole time, we will experience aversion or impatience when things don’t go our way, and this is worry – a lack of acceptance of what is. Patient acceptance is therefore one major opponent to worry.

When we decide to stop worrying, we are in effect starting to practice patient acceptance. Shantideva suggests starting small to begin with, e.g. with insect bites (and it is all relative but buying a piano might also fall into that category!) So if you are a chronic worrier about anything that comes your way, you have plenty of opportunity to practice being laid back instead. (As my brother graphically put it: ‘You need to shovel shit all the time to grow roses.”)

Every time we succeed in not worrying by deliberately thinking differently about the situation, our habit of not worrying increases, and our mind becomes fresher, more confident and happier. Roseanne Brancatelli says: “The excitement in life is finding solutions for our problems. If there is no solution, there is acceptance — the solution for what can’t be resolved.” With this attitude, we make progress, whether you want to call it spiritual or not.

This is the third article in an occasional series on how to worry less using Buddhist techniques. The first two are Don’t worry, be happy and How to stop worrying about anything, everything and nothing. (All of the anti-worry articles can now be found here.)

It’s your turn. Has Shantideva’s advice worked for you? Please share your experience in the comments box below.