The life-changing power of small stories

By a guest writer, SG, who, amongst other things, uses art to bring about change in prisons and among vulnerable populations.

We are living in unparalleled times; it seems that extreme ideologies are gathering momentum. The increase of terrorist atrocities, sensationalised by a media pursuing a fear-based narrative, is causing bewilderment and anxiety.

As our economic structures fragment, poverty and a surge towards the politics of divide and rule inevitably escalate. Meanwhile, demagogic leaders are arising at the same time as fascism in Europe and America is rearing its ugly head.21325683_10155010321930847_566859715_n

These world events trickle down and affect ordinary people: In the UK, hate crimes have increased 41 percent since the Brexit vote. Since the elections in the US, the latest FBI statistics show hate crimes against Muslims have risen by 67 percent.

What to do?

What is a meaningful Buddhist response? What are we to do?

Firstly, it seems vital we work to reduce any divide between self and other. When facing those who hold extreme opposite viewpoints to ourselves, it is important not to ‘other-ize’ them. We can be mindful that people act in harmful ways only because of their delusions. When delusions are manifest, there is no control over the mind.

If we begin to ‘Monster’ others, we are externalising evil, which is a recipe for more insidious discord.

The current rise of racism and fascism is a symptom of fear, that fear is arising (conventionally) from a societal system collapsing. This collapse is due in large part to a resolute belief in external sources being able to secure a means to happiness. This view invariably leads to conflict and suffering. As Geshe Kelsang says:

If we consider why nations go to war we shall find that the basic reason is very simple. Human beings cannot be content with their own wealth and resources but must appropriate more and more. Millions of people have died as a result of humankind’s collective discontent.

Wrath vs anger

Recently, I have been thinking about wrath. In Buddhism, there is a vast difference between wrath and anger. It is possible to be wrathful without being angry. When we see images of wrathful protector Buddhas such as Dorje Shugden or Vajrapani, they are not angry. Motivated solely by compassion, they exist only to relieve the suffering of others. Afraid of nothing and no one, they display the aspect of anger toward the delusions while simultaneously being completely free from anger toward living beings.

Imagine being able to harness that energy, having the confidence and wisdom to know that we were always responding in the best manner, with the best set of actions.

21322857_10155010323290847_414830036_nWhen large crowds of people take to the streets espousing violence and hatred, imagine being a fearless opponent, able to perform wrathful actions while never straying from wisdom and compassion. Surely this would be most welcome? Could this be a way to think about challenging oppressive hate-fuelled actions while still practising modern Buddhism purely?

I think before we begin thinking about performing wrathful actions, however, we first have to spend time nurturing our compassion and wisdom. Otherwise, our “wrathful” actions could just be more anger, and end up causing more harm than good!

In the past I have tried engaging in wrathful actions — it didn’t work out well. I just ended up angry and frustrated. If we are to be wrathful, we need to be completely free of delusions such as anger and pride. We have to be free of the idea that before us stands an enemy and understand that the person in front of us is a suffering being, unable to fulfill or even express their unmet needs.

The importance of understanding

Can we try to enter into the frames of reference of those who engage in extreme hateful actions? To understand is not to condone. Many causes and conditions lead people to the views they hold.

Imagine being brought up with those very same causes and conditions, imagine having that very same karma — it becomes easier to see how we might then go on to develop those views. If we can do this, then we can learn to separate the person from their delusions and actions. Then we no longer see a monster, and instead become someone capable of developing genuine love and compassion.

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With love, compassion, and wisdom in our hearts, we can find innovative and creative ways to respond to age-old problems.

No man is an island

We can also strengthen our faith in the power of virtuous actions. Last month, I attended the Summer Festival at Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre, where Kadam Morten led the second week’s retreat. He read an excerpt from Geshe Kelsang’s How to Transform Your Life:

In short, we need others for our physical, emotional and spiritual well being. Without others we are nothing. Our sense that we are an island, an independent, self-sufficient individual, bears no relation to reality … It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. We cannot exist without others, and they in turn are affected by everything we do.

I have heard these lines many times before, but this time something was different. One of the most beautiful things about Dharma is that it always holds the potential to surprise you, to completely change your world view, to transform your life.

Everything we do …

Three words rang out, ‘Everything we do.’ Every single thing we do affects others.

I was reminded of a podcast I listened to last year, when the interviewee (a famous and respected counsellor) recalled a story his father told him. Years ago, his father was involved in the Spanish Civil war, during which time a village into which he had ventured was surrounded by fascists belonging to General Franco, and there seemed to be no escape. For days, the father remained in the village, hiding. There was no food in the village — all he had was a piece of stale bread, which he nibbled on each day. Then one day he encountered an ill, starving, old man and, without thinking, he gave him his last piece of bread.

Years later, the father returned to the village with his son to show him where the siege had taken place. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a woman came running out and hugged him. The old man’s daughter, she had never forgotten this stranger’s kindness, telling them that it had always been an act of great importance both to her father and to her.

The son went on to say that watching this tale unfold was instrumental in him becoming a counsellor. He also mentioned that he had told this story to many people, many times, and he believed that they too had gone on to repeat it to inspire others.

This story is now being read by hundreds of you, too!

21291263_10155010321605847_37033674_nIf a simple act of giving a piece of stale bread to one person can become a catalyst for positive change for thousands of people, what power does an action hold if it is motivated by bodhichitta — the wish to become enlightened for the lasting happiness of all living beings? Imagine if we had faith or trust in the often hidden consequences of our developing such a mind? What encouragement it would give us, what strength. How much faster we could move towards developing the wisdom and compassion needed to engage in actions that can bring about genuine world peace, actual nirvana (liberation) in the minds of all living beings?

Even the smallest of our actions performed with a big beneficial intention, therefore, can be a cause of ridding this world of even the most violent and destructive actions. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Others are affected by everything we do.

Over to you. Questions and comments welcome.

Related articles

People are not their delusions 

Can Buddhism help society? 

What is bodhichitta? 

A vision of hope in troubled times 

 

 

 

A handy introduction to some common Buddhist terms

My parents asked me for working definitions of the following terms, “an introduction to Buddhism in the simplest terms possible for the uninformed, but possibly quite bright, newcomer or beginner.”

GlossarySo I gave it a go, and they replied with some great suggestions for simplifying the language further. I also asked a good friend with much Buddhist knowledge, who helped edit Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s books, to give his input. This is therefore a collaborative work in progress, and you are invited to participate as well.

Meanwhile, the actual official Kadampa book glossary is accurate and useful.

And to find out more about all these terms, download this free Buddhist book, How to Transform Your Life.

What are delusions?

delusions

Delusions are distorted thoughts or emotions that destroy our mental peace and make us act in inappropriate ways; and so they are the cause of our suffering. Examples are anger, attachment, arrogance, and ignorance. They are distorted because the way they perceive their object does not correspond to reality – for example attachment exaggerates the pleasurable aspects of its object, in effect projecting things that are not there, whereas anger and hatred exaggerate the unpleasant aspects. If we get rid of our misperceptions, we get rid of our delusions and experience lasting happiness.

What is attachment?

Attachment, or “uncontrolled desire”, is a state of mind that believes happiness inheres or can be found in things outside the mind. Attachment is the “sticky desire” that is our normal response to anything or anyone we feel is a cause of pleasure, comfort, or security for us, that wants to keep it close or wants more, or that feels a painful sense of loss when it goes. The truth is, happiness is a state of mind that depends upon mental peace, and so its real causes lie within the mind, not without.

my precious.jpgAttachment exaggerates the power of its object to make us happy by focusing on its supposed good qualities while editing out all its faults, e.g., a pizza or a partner is perceived by attachment to be an inherent, or actual, source of pleasure when in fact they can be just as much a source of suffering.

Attachment is often confused with love but they are completely different. Love is other-centered and peaceful and focuses on the welfare of the other person, whereas attachment is self-centered and unpeaceful and wants the other person simply because we think they make us feel better.

What is self-cherishing?

Self-cherishing is a mind that wrongly believes we are more important than others, andself-cherishing that our happiness and freedom matter more. Self-grasping misconceives our I to be inherently existent, the only real me; and self-cherishing misconceives this I to be supremely important, the very center of our world. These two ego minds are the source of all samsaric problems.

What is Dharma?

Dharma refers to Buddhist teachings and especially the experiences we gain by putting these teachings into practice. It literally means “protection.” Since our suffering comes from our delusions, it is our inner experience of the opposite of these delusions that directly protects us from this suffering.

For example, the experience of pure love protects us from the suffering caused by our own anger and dislike, and the experience of emptiness protects us from the suffering caused by self-grasping ignorance.

What is samsara?

samsaraSamsara is the life experience of someone with a body and mind still polluted by delusions and the negative actions and their unpleasant consequences arising from these delusions. Sometimes known as “cyclic existence”, it is life characterized by repetitive suffering.

Samsara’s very nature is problematic. The mind is not physical and it continues after death, but, for as long as our mind is governed by delusions, what it experiences will be fundamentally unsatisfactory and generally painful.

But not all life is samsaric life – if we can free ourselves from delusions by realizing emptiness, we can end samsara and experience lasting peace and happiness.

What is karma?

karma“Karma” is the Sanskrit word for “action”, referring to mental actions, or intentions. Karma generally speaking is the mental, internal law of cause and effect, which is as infallible as the physical, external law of cause and effect, such as oak trees arising from acorns and chickens arising from eggs. Every time we intentionally do something, we create the cause for something to ripen for us in the future, sowing a karmic “seed” in the “soil” of our mental continuum. Mental intentions are those seeds; experiences are their effects. Positive actions sow the seeds for positive experiences; negative actions sow the seeds for suffering experiences. Seeds take time to ripen, but what we put into the world is what, sooner or later, we get out of it.

What is self-grasping?

Self-grasping ignorance is the underlying source of all other delusions. It is a wrong awareness that apprehends people and things as existing inherently or independently. For example, when we think of a person called Tom, there seems to be a completely real Tom out there who in no way depends upon our perceptual and conceptual apparatus for his existence.

emptinessWhat is inherent existence?

Inherent existence means independent existence. An object would be inherently existent if it didn’t depend on anything at all for its existence, such as its causes, its parts, or the mind perceiving it. No object exists like this, so no object is inherently existent. Some synonyms for inherent existence are existing from the side of the object, existing from its own side, existing in and of itself, independently existent, or objectively existent. 

At the moment, we grasp at inherent existence; it is the object of self-grasping ignorance. The world seems to be made up of discrete, objective entities that do not depend upon an observer for their existence; but, in reality, all phenomena are inter-dependent, or “dependent relationships”, existing only in relationship with a multitude of causes, parts, contexts, imputations, and perceptions.

What is emptiness?

Emptiness is not nothingness but the lack of things existing inherently. Self-grasping ignorance misconceives things as having inherent or independent existence, and emptiness 1emptiness is the total absence of this mode of existence. Because everything depends entirely upon other things, everything is empty of inherent existence.

The things we normally see – inherently existent things — do not exist. Things do exist, but as mere appearances to mind, entirely dependent upon mind, and the nature of mind.

Realizing emptiness — lack of inherent existence — is the only way to destroy the object of self-grasping and free our mind permanently from all delusions.

What is Sangha?

Sangha refers to the spiritual community practicing Dharma. In general, our spiritual friends who give us spiritual advice, support, and inspiration are our Sangha; but more strictly a Sangha Jewel is someone who has realized emptiness directly, because only such a person sees things as they really are and can be relied upon completely.

wishfulfilling jewelWhat is a wishfulfillling jewel?

 A wishfulfilling jewel is an ancient legendary jewel similar to Aladdin’s lamp that supposedly had the power to grant all worldly wishes. It is often used as an analogy for spiritual accomplishments such as full enlightenment, which not only fulfill all our worldly and temporary wishes, but also our everlasting, ultimate wishes.

Postscript ~ parents’ verdict:

“We regret that we still find several definitions too difficult and sometimes too wordy, as if you are both trying too hard to cover every aspect.”almost there

So, as we are not there yet, I invite you all to give this a go as well! Please use the comments section below. My friend and I have found that attempting to sum up these profound subjects in a few sentences, if indeed such a thing is possible, has been a very useful exercise in checking our own understanding. As this list is very far from complete, please feel free to submit other Buddhist terms and working definitions too.

And check out the Kadampa glossary whenever in doubt.

Related articles

What is Buddhism? A short, simple guide

Karma

Delusions

Attachment 

Samsara

Self-cherishing 

Realizing emptiness and destroying self-grasping 

 

The age-old foes of our people

To get my news, I have taken to watching the late night comedians from time to time. It seems as reasonable as anything else in this post-facts world, and at least you get some laughs in.

umbrella jelly fish

It has always been strange times in samsara, however. Ask human beings all over the world.* Maybe for a lot of us, right now, it is just a bit more obviously strange.

(*Not to mention asking the 50,000 underwater beings I met yesterday at Vancouver Aquarium – “How strange is life for you, umbrella jelly fish?” for example. “What is it like to identify with that body and mind?”)

Continuing from this article on developing self-confidence.

Evolution

Everyone seems to be annoying everyone else these days, but in truth living beings are never our actual enemy – delusions are our only enemy. As a Buddhist verse says:

This fault I see is not the fault of the person
But the fault of delusion.
Realizing this, may I never view others’ faults,
But see all beings as supreme.

We can do a lot of things to help our world — complacency or opting out may not be the best options. But I think it’s important to consider that external action might be of limited use unless we’re remembering who is the real enslaving enemy here. If we want to know who is world hurtstruly unjust, cruel, narcissistic, and relentlessly unreasonable, causing the maximum damage to every single living being without caring even the tiniest bit, it is, and always has been, our delusions. Delusions lead to negative intentions and actions, or karma, and all its resulting unpleasant experiences, including sickness, ageing, not getting what we want, getting what we don’t want, dissatisfaction, death, and then all that all over again, rebirth, etc.

If everyone could just become a little less selfish, for example, or a little less angry, this world would improve overnight. That would be real evolution.

Right now, as humans we have a real shot at this. Our only shot. At Vancouver Aquarium yesterday I met fish who can do nothing but swim backwards and forwards day after relentless day, and anemones whose only activity is to suck their tentacles in and out, whose mouth and anus are one and the same.

This particular fish spent an age swimming Tekchen and fishup to my companion, a Buddhist monk, mouthing the words: “You have a chance to do something about samsara! I don’t. Help yourself. Help me!” At least that is what my friend heard his new fishy friend say.

To get rid of our real enemies, we need the self-confidence that believes:

I am the conqueror of my delusions; they will never conquer me!

Age-old foes

On the subject of solving external problems, I appreciate some (not all) of Avaaz‘s campaigns, especially on climate and animals. They have managed to right some wrongs, maybe because the founder, Ricken Patel, has his heart in the right place:

We need to be strong, and to challenge the forces of regress. But let’s not be twisted by the darkness and act from fear and anger. We are warriors for love and wisdom. We must act from that light. When we do come from love and wisdom, we can see that our ‘enemy’ is not so much any people, as it is unwisdom. Misplaced fear and anger. Lack of awareness and understanding.  These are age-old foes of our people. Our grandparents faced far worse with far less, and they won progress. We have every reason to hope, and no excuse for despair.

In general, it is a good deal more beneficial if our outward actions are nourished by renunciation for samsara, compassionate strength, and the wisdom realizing that all of this is the play of samsara, or drama inseparable from emptiness — nothing is really going on, as I was trying to explain in the last eight articles. We also need to grow our skill, which comes from compassion and wisdom, so we don’t make too many mistakes when trying to help others.

I reckon the best way we can help others right now is to show them that it is possible to remain peaceful, compassionate, and wise regardless of what we do on the outside – for the internal march toward lasting mental freedom and bliss is the one we must all take sooner or later.

Are you a prisoner?

Samsara is likened by Buddha to a prison. We need to remember that we don’t have to be in prison, at least not while we have a human life and the ability to change our deep-seated thoughts. We don’t have to feel part of the prison population; we can think out of the

don't be deceived by samsara's pleasure garden
Samsara’s pleasure garden

box. If we knew we had a way out, we’d focus on that, not wasting time with detailed gossip on the annoying and dreadful new prison guards – instead it’s “I’m outta here!” We’d be making plans to burn this thing down. There are no safe spaces in here, no real comfy corners, so we need to stop fiddling about in a samsaric pleasure garden of complacency and develop faith in the enlightened world, an enlightened society, outside the prison walls.

First thing we could usefully do is give up our useless or harmful self-image. We are whom we tell ourselves we are, whom we identify with. So we can close that gap between the ordinary prisoner we might think we are now and the liberator we really want to be, thinking, “I AM a conqueror of my delusions”, not the other way around.

Rebellion

Sometimes people pride themselves on their rebellious streak, stick it to the Man and all that – in my distant youth my own rebellious streak manifested in …. well, I wrote it down but have just thought better of publishing it! In any case, a lot of us don’t want to submit to the “establishment” or the “system”, whether worldly or religious, and hold ourselves at a distance.

After meeting Buddhism, I had an insight: I had been rebelling for years against the wrong things. It was kind of stupid. I had been throwing the baby out with the bath water. Although other people may boss me around and say what I can and cannot do, it is only my delusions who can truly yank my chains. Fact is, the only true and worthwhile rebellion is against samsara. Samsara is the rat race establishment that truly sucks, and self-grasping the callous, we can't solve problemscorrupt system that really needs overthrowing. As Geshe Kelsang says in The New Meditation Handbook, we have been slaves to our self-cherishing since beginningless time. We have to tear samsara down and build something new with fresh thinking. Not just thinking outside the box, but realizing there IS no box.

Samsara is the endless product of self-grasping and self-cherishing – so why not try now instead to produce a world out of compassion and wisdom, even bliss and emptiness? This may sound idealistic, like “How on earth are we all supposed do that?!” But, truth is, it is eminently realistic. Why? Because compassion and wisdom ARE reality.

Any other revolution is just gonna be another turning of the wheel of samsara.

Outward action nourished by a deeper understanding
Help fish
My friend’s fish

We can come up with new ideas for organizing ourselves that are less self-serving and more in tune with our mutual dependence – I applaud people who are doing this. A system that is based on integrity, including sense of shame — or conscience — and consideration for others. Standing up for what is right. I also think that good ideas can spread if we are practicing them ourselves and not afraid of sharing them as widely as we can.

Within this broader understanding of our existential predicament, we can help others overcome their bad habits and negativities as best we can, as per our Bodhisattva vow, and respectfully, seeing past their delusions to their Buddha nature. We can restrain others as need be, at the ballot box for example, as a doctor restrains a mental patient, without anger, understanding that people create negative actions because they are confused by the mental illness of the delusions and not because they are intrinsically bad people. Sometimes it is very necessary to take action – but it is never going to be enough on its own.

Next article on self-confidence here.

Over to you. Comments and suggestions welcome.

Related articles

Who are we!?

Freedom march

Unleashing our potential

How to catch a problem before it catches you

This carries on directly from this last article.

My lovely dad turned 80 on October 2nd, and we were discussing the meaning of (the rest of his) life. He told me he’d been perusing the obituaries to get a sense of how long he had to live and worked out (by some strange and somewhat optimistic algorithm known only to himself) that most people die at 82. And he has been thinking about what he can accomplish in this remaining time. He thinks making his family happy might be it. I’m quite happy to go along with that 😉  “And how about accomplishing inner peace?”, I suggested. He liked that, so this article is for you, dad. (Your comments are welcome in the comments section below if you can figure out how to get it to work. Just scroll way down the first page of this blog til you see “I’d love to hear from you”, write your comment in that box, and hit the button that says “Post comment”. Anyone else reading this is also welcome to do this!)

Because to accomplish inner peace, I think, we have to understand that our mind is naturally peaceful. That natural peace is constantly being disturbed, however–but by inner problems, not outer ones.

waves on samsaric ocean In this article I talk about how according to Buddha all our problems fit into a pattern of seven types of problem, and all of these can be recognized as stemming from our delusions. The very day after we spoke, my father emailed me about a problem he’d been having with a car and possibly a policeman … even that would seem to fit into the category of having to encounter what we do not like.

So without understanding the nature and causes of our problems (as described in the last article), and if we try instead of fixing our delusions just to fix one outer problem at a time, our problems will continue to arise like endless waves on an ocean. My dad said he was using the car thing as a way to practice inner peace — if he manages it, his actual problem will be over, even if he still has to do something external to make the policeman happy. And also he’ll be better set up to solve the next problem that comes his way. Inner peace, just as much as anxiety, is habit-forming.

When was your last problem-free day?
should i tell him
We’re looking in the wrong place!

This time next year we will still be having a problem. It may well appear in a different shape and size to the one we have been having today, but it will still fill our mind, just like today’s problem. The chances are we will have no clue then what today’s problem was, it’ll be long forgotten. I don’t even remember what problem I was having this time last week. However, we’ll still be thinking: “All I need to do is solve this particular problem and I’ll be happy again!” This won’t work. We won’t be happy again, or at least not for more than a few minutes or hours. Something else will have come up. This is pretty much what has been happening for as long as we can remember – can you remember having even one completely problem-free day?

We have to heal our mind, our mental continuum. The causes of our problems have been lurking in our mind since beginningless time – now is the time to address these, not their symptoms.

Essential advice: catch them early

And it is a very good idea to come to understand how the delusions each operate in our own minds so that we can spot them early. Spotting the inappropriate attention as it is about to arise and dealing with it is like extinguishing a match before it becomes a forest fire. match

For example, if we feel the murmurings of disappointed attachment arising, “Why is it not as good as it used to be?” and we run with that, rather than letting it go and turning our thoughts to compassion or some other actual source of happiness, it will quickly take over our mind and make us feel despondent and lethargic. It will be hard to apply the antidotes to attachment once it has taken over the mind. If we let our delusions or so-called “afflictions” take over our mind, we have no choice but to ride them out or pray for a massive blessing to zap them away. We quickly become stuck and confused and powerless.

On the other hand, when the first murmuring of unhappiness aka delusion does arise, I like to ask myself:

Who are you, thought!? And where do you come from? Where are you going?

I let it dissolve away into emptiness and/or the clarity of my root mind, like a snowflake dissolving onto a hot roof. Then I think about something else, such as faith, or love, or wisdom. I know that my real pleasure always comes from these positive, wise thoughts, and that the changing suffering of attachment is always a disaster — so enough already.

anger 4For anger, I think it is particularly essential to catch it early if we want to control it. It is the most self-justifying delusion – once it has arisen in the mind, it brooks no discussion. So, if for example we feel the rumblings of discontent or dislike, and are about to hone in on someone’s faults and get mighty annoyed, thus ruining a perfectly good day, we can go into the restroom and remember just 3 good things about that person to derail the runaway anger train.

We can learn a thousand wise, positive ways of thinking to which we gently turn our mind as soon as we notice that it is getting agitated. In this way, over time, we can stay in control, stay spacious, stay light, stay content, stay free.

It is a great pity to let delusions/problems take over our mind if we have a choice not to do that.  And we do have a choice. We can understand how delusions arise in dependence upon causes and conditions that we can change, ie, from inappropriate, unhelpful thoughts that we don’t need to think if we just catch them early enough and learn not to indulge them. Then we can stay happy and problem-free instead.

In this way, we can remain with our natural inner peace and let it gradually increase — first for one hour, then one day, then two, then a week, then a month, then a year, then two years, then for the rest of this life, however long that may be, and then for all our future lives. May my dad and everyone else accomplish this permanent inner peace.

How do I get rid of problems? Buddha’s advice

problemA million-dollar question. If we could answer this, we could get finally be free of the wretched things. In fact, this would be priceless information.

Buddha did answer this. The whole of Buddhism, or “Dharma”, is supposedly a method to solve all our daily problems, and not just temporarily but FOREVER! This might seem a bit far-fetched. Unless …  unless we realize what our problems actually are and where they are all coming from. At which point the Dharma method suddenly make a lot of sense. And if we gain some actual experience of how this works by trying it out in practice, it makes increasingly more sense. At least, that has been my experience over the past 33 years. I think Buddhism is supercharged common sense.

In his Medicine Buddha teachings of 2004, my teacher Geshe Kelsang said:

Buddha’s teachings are the actual method to solve human problems. To understand this, firstly we think, “What is the real nature of our problems?” Secondly we think, “What is the main cause of our problems?”

The nature of our problems
Medicine Buddha 1
Medicine Buddha helps us cure our inner problems

Have you already had a problem today perchance? What was it? A work problem, a relationship problem, a health problem, a family problem, a computer problem, an ageing problem, an existential problem?

Whichever it was, there were two things going on if we check. For example, if someone said something to us like, “You are not a priority in my life,” and we felt disappointed, there was the outer problem presenting as the thing they said and the inner (actual) problem of our unwished for sad response to that. These are not the same. If that person had said the same words and we hadn’t given a monkeys, we wouldn’t have had an actual problem. And in some cases, like if you happen to be a celebrity and that person a stalker (and I don’t know who reads this blog), those same words might even be a source of relief.

Our problems do not exist outside our mind. Their real nature is our unpleasant feelings, which are part of our mind. Normally we conflate outer and inner problems. Yesterday during a phone call my friend cursed, “Oh darn, I have a problem,” when Avast antivirus disabled his Yahoo toolbar. To be fair he got over it right away – his own unpleasant feeling, his actual problem, passed quickly. Then he sorted out the outer problem by fiddling about with his computer. (Or maybe he didn’t, I didn’t check.)

No unpleasant feeling = no problem. As my teacher says:

 “The computer’s problem exists outside. Our problem exists inside.”baby Rousseau

We can solve external problems as and when necessary by external means, eg, taking the computer to a computer whizz who understands the causes of the problem and can therefore fix it. To fix our inner problems, however, we need to understand their causes, which are not the same at all.

The cause of our problems

Geshe Kelsang continues:

problems outside the mindNow, what is the main cause of our problems? The delusions. All our problems, our unpleasant feelings, come from the delusions of our attachment and ignorance. Therefore, these delusions are the main causes of our problems.

To show how this works, he goes onto explain the role that uncontrolled desire or attachment to our own wishes plays, and you can read about this in How to Solve our Human Problems pages 3-4.  (I recommend having that book on your bedside table and dipping into it every day or whenever you are having a problem —  it is a treasury of practical advice.) I have also written several articles on delusions here.

So I won’t go into more detail here — I just wanted to share the simple logic of figuring out (1) what is the nature of our problems ie, unpleasant feelings, and (2) what is the cause of our problems ie, delusions. Once we can see this, problems becomes so much more easy to handle.

 

Learning to meditate in 2017

calvin and hobbes new year's resolutionDeciding to learn meditation is a really great new year’s resolution. Anyone can learn, if they want to.

Meditation means becoming familiar with positivity and wisdom, both on the meditation seat and off it in our normal daily lives; and it is a powerful way to become a happier, more fulfilled person. It also helps us to help others. Life is short, our time is passing, and meditation helps us get the most out of our remaining years, months, weeks, or days, as well as prepare for the future.

We can meditate anywhere and anytime, together with all our daily activities, as meditation simply means, for example, thinking kind thoughts instead of unkind ones, complimentary thoughts instead of snide, gossipy ones, peaceful thoughts instead of angry ones, generous thoughts instead of grasping ones, wise thoughts instead of blinkered ones – understanding that this is our choice and freedom. There are many accessible ways to think positive and stay positive if we want to. We can become a relaxed, kind person whom we like and respect. new year's resolution to meditate

And we can also meditate in so-called meditation sessions, where we can begin by sitting down and closing our eyes, gathering within, and doing some relaxing breathing meditation. We can let go of all troubling, neurotic, anxious, self-disliking thoughts and touch on, then dwell in, the peace and clarity that is the natural state of our mind.

“Are you sure my mind is naturally peaceful?!”

My aunt is over here from France at the moment, and yesterday she asked me how to meditate. When I explained something along the lines of what I just wrote above, she wanted to know why it is that our mind is naturally peaceful as opposed to naturally anxious and unpeaceful. It is a very good question.

get rid of delusions and find peaceWhenever we don’t have a delusion functioning, we can observe that our mind is naturally peaceful. When our mind is roiled by a bunch of negative, unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts and emotions, it is as if a vast, deep, boundless ocean is being churned up. We cannot see below the surface, below the huge, terrifying, disorientating waves, to the endless clarity and depth below. We are stuck on the surface just trying to stay afloat. We identify with that even, thinking that it is all that we and life are about. But whenever the waves die down, we can tell that the ocean is clear, vast, and very deep – this is the nature of an ocean. In a similar way, when our mind settles and those wave-like thoughts die down and disappear, we can sense immediately that our mind is vast, clear, and deep, and naturally peaceful. It is far better to identify with the natural peace of our mind (our Buddha nature) then with the adventitious neurotic unhappy thoughts that come and go and are not who we are.

ocean like clarity and peace of mindStress relief

How can you begin meditating? It is good to think about why you might want to do it. One of the main reasons people turn to meditation is to relieve stress. They want to find a way to turn off the anxiety and find a measure of calm and relaxation. They’re fed up with being fed up.

Stress kills happiness stone dead. I’ve recently met a hamster called Patch. He is the luckiest hamster I’ve ever met because instead of having just one or two plastic balls and connecting pipes to run around in, his kind mom has pretty much bought up the entire hamster shop for him. Still, although he is a relatively lucky little guy, as hamsters go, he is not without his problems, just like the rest of us. I was watching him running on his wheel the other day, trying to go fast enough to avoid falling off. When we’re stressed out, we’re a bit like that. No matter how hard we work to solve the stress-inducing problem, it never seems to get any better. We can reach the point where we are so burnt out that we cease functioning productively at all, spending our days pushing pencils across our desk. treadmill of life

Stress arrives at any income bracket. If we’re earning $200,000 a year but our overheads, including for example alimony and kids’ education, is costing us $300,000 a year, it can be just as stressful as earning $50 a day but having $75 a day in expenses.

When we feel stressed, we see the stress as something that is happening to us and not in any way as a reflection of our state of mind: “My situation is so stressful! That selfish person is causing me so much stress! The ghastly noise my neighbors make day in day out winds me up!” We feel stress is intrinsic in our situations, but stress is not out there, external to the mind – it is a troubled way of responding to what’s appearing to our mind. For example, two people can be in a traffic jam and one can be very calm not really minding at all, whilst another can be hugely upset. If we react every time in a troubled way, then stress builds up and leads to unhappiness, a growing inability to cope, and related physical problems. dealing with stress

According to CNN.com, 43% of adults suffer from stress-related problems or illnesses. Even children are increasingly stressed these days. Doctors say that for 90% of patients their conditions are either caused by or aggravated by stress. Stress has been implicated in six major killers, including heart disease, lung disease, cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. Alcoholism and addiction often arise from or are exacerbated by stress.

Documented medical benefits of meditation

benefits of meditationMany medical studies now show how effective meditation is in combating both stress and sickness, including one by Dr. David Eisenberg and his colleagues at the Harvard Medical School that lists an increasing number of medical benefits from the practice of meditation:

  1. Reductions in heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, oxygen consumption, blood flow to skeletal muscles, perspiration and muscle tension, as well as improvement in immunity.
  2. Women with PMS (premenstrual syndrome) who meditate regularly reduce their symptoms by 58 percent. Women going through menopause could significantly reduce the intensity of hot flushes.
  3. In a study of a 10-week group program that included meditation (along with exercise and nutrition changes), women struggling with infertility had significantly less anxiety, depression, and fatigue, and 34-percent became pregnant within six months.
  4. New mothers who use meditation with images of milk flowing in their breasts can more than double their production of milk.
  5. Patients with coronary-artery disease who meditated daily for eight months had nearly a 15-percent increase in exercise tolerance.
  6. Patients with ischemic heart disease (in which the heart muscle receives an inadequate supply of blood) who practiced for four weeks had a significantly lower frequency of premature ventricular contractions (a type of irregular heartbeat).
  7. Angioplasty patients who used meditation had significantly less anxiety, pain and need for medication during and after the procedure.
  8. Patients having open-heart surgery who meditated regularly were able to reduce their incidence of postoperative supraventricular tachycardia (abnormally high heart rate).
  9. Medical students who meditated regularly during final exams had a higher percentage of “T-helper cells,” the immune cells that trigger the immune system into action.
  10. Nursing-home residents trained in meditation had increased activity of “natural-killer cells,” which kill bacteria and cancer cells. They also had reductions in the activity of viruses and of emotional distress.
  11. Patients with metastatic (spreading) cancer who meditated with imagery regularly for a year had significant increases in natural-killer cell activity.

Just recently, a study published in Psychiatry Research by Dr. Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, reports that those who meditated for about 30 minutes a day for eight weeks had measurable changes in gray-matter density in parts of the brain associated with stress stress was reduced and there was a noticeable increase in empathy and memory. The New York Times also wrote an article recently called “How meditation may change the brain.”

Our mind and body are closely connected. This mind-body connection is not so mysterious, we instinctively understand it. Why else would we say things like, “I worried myself sick,” or, “My head’s about to explode.” According to Dr. William Collinge, the WebMD on CNN.com, there is mounting medical evidence to support the role of mind/body medicine in promoting health:Buddha and meditation

At the heart of mind/body medicine lies the age-old practice of meditation, a quiet, simple technique that belies an almost extraordinary power to boost disease resistance and maintain overall health.

Two approaches to dealing with stress

As explained here, there are two types of problem. This means that there are two main approaches to dealing with stress: working to resolve the practical “outer” problems causing it as far as is possible, but, more importantly, keeping our mind positive to solve the actual problem, the “inner” problem. Maintaining a positive mind, even if it is challenging, will help us deal with our practical outer problems. Meditation overcomes stress by enabling us to cultivate relaxed, peaceful, happy states of mind.

So, why not get started!? Learning to meditate is not as hard as you may think, and you’ll never regret learning. Wherever you go, whatever you do, meditation will become your own tool for discovering peace and happiness in 2017. You could resolve to meditate ten minutes a day, every day this year. You will be taking matters into your own hands, and feeling a great deal better for it.

Here is a recent article on breathing meditation that you may find helpful.

Please share this article with anyone you think might like to learn meditation this year.

Comments etc welcome.

Enemy or victim?

Yesterday J and F bought Winston for a visit. He has been scratching himself a lot recently, due to fleas, and J has been applying anti-histamine cream out of great concern for his discomfort. Apparently, I was informed, he no longer has fleas. But sitting at the dining table, stroking Winston, F looked up suddenly: “Oh, here’s a flea.” Then he added, perhaps somewhat in defense of his beloved pooch, “You must have fleas in the carpet!”

Winston 5 Now, not wanting to quibble, but I did feel the need to point out that I have thus far never had any fleas in my carpet, and Winston is the one who has been scratching like crazy, so I was coming to an entirely different conclusion… my carpet (and cat) were now at risk from Winston, not the other way around!

And I caught myself developing a split second of aversion toward this usually adorable fellow, “Oh, Winston, as if it’s not enough that you chase my cat, I wish you hadn’t bought fleas into my house”, as if the fleas were all his fault, and somehow part of him. But of course it was not his fault. He is a poor little dog plagued by flea bites, not an annoying flea-dog at one with his fleas.

This got me thinking some more. If I had the constant, unconditional love for Winston that J and F have, I would not assume for a moment that the fleas are somehow his fault, nor ever identify him with his fleas. I would distinguish between Winston and his fleas, seeing the faults of being bitten by fleas without seeing a single fault in Winston.*

You know how, if we encounter a co-worker with a huge head cold and then develop symptoms ourselves, we can easily think: “Oh it is their fault I feel so ill, they are the one who gave me this” (as if the head cold was part and parcel of them as opposed to something victimizing them.) Think about the panic, aversion and vilification that used to surround people with cancer, for example, or more recently AIDS, as people conflated the victims with the very enemy who was drawing the life out of them. They were not distinguishing between the person and their illness, and this caused hard-heartedness and even cruelty.

Yet when a mother sees her child with a head cold, she is not thinking about herself but about him, so she never identifies the child with the illness or develops aversion out of selfish concern for her own welfare. Instead she distinguishes between her child and his illness and tries her best to free him from this enemy, to make him feel better.

mother childThe common denominator here strikes me as being love. When we have love for someone, we seem to naturally focus on their pure nature and potential and don’t mistake them for their temporary faults, even if we see that they have them. We don’t think “Oh, all you are is a flea-carrying cur, get out of my house!” or “You are just one big head cold, get away from me!” We think “Oh, you poor thing, let me help you overcome your problems and feel better.”

This reminds me of that quote I mentioned here:

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

It strikes me that this goes both ways, in a virtuous cycle. If we don’t identify people with their delusions, we can keep loving them; and if we love them, we are far less likely to identify them with their delusions.

*By the way, I have nothing against fleas per se. They are sentient beings and as such are not enemies at all. But I won’t get into all that right now.

What do you think?

Postscript: I wrote this some time ago too. Winston has since moved to New York and I am about to move to a place with another carpet.