Accepting unhappiness without panicking

Another instinctive reaction to hurt feelings (accentuated these days by 24/7 availability) is to try and distract ourselves from them, hoping that by sweeping them under the carpet they’ll go away.

Carrying straight on from this articlejack in the box

Maybe we switch on a miniseries on Netflix for 6 hours, get drunk, run away, try and put ourselves somewhere else. We are trying to get away from our own thoughts, but what we resist persists; and by ignoring, repressing, or denying what is going on inside the more intrusive our thoughts become. Undealt with thoughts have a habit of coming back and biting us even harder the next time. What happens to a jack in the box when we try to push him down?

Do you remember me mentioning this experiment in Science Journal? The scientists got 700 people to sit in a room on their own, that was the experiment! But … they took away their smartphones. Horror! And how long do you think those poor souls lasted? Apparently all of 6 to 15 minutes before they preferred to administer themselves with electric shocks than endure any more time in solitary confinement. People are seemingly incapable of sitting with their thoughts due to unaccepted and unprocessed grief, loss, sadness – so, when left alone, they started to get sad. People everywhere have lost the art of accepting, processing, working through, letting go, moving on.

IMG_6725So, suppressing our unhappy thoughts is not the way to get rid of them, whereas accepting that they are there, like clouds, is the beginning of being able to transform them. We need to let them be, without panicking. As Ven Geshe Kelsang says in How to Solve Our Human Problems:

Unfortunately, by reacting so quickly we do not give ourself the time to see what is actually going on in our mind. In reality, the painful feelings that arise on such occasions are not intolerable. They are only feelings, a few moments of bad weather in the mind, with no power to cause us any lasting harm. There is no need to take them so seriously.

Phew, what a relief!

No need for internal conflict

12743909_945984215455688_7422037828919330423_nSo, instead of trying to immediately get rid of an unpleasant feeling with blame, suppression, or distraction, we can instead be confident enough to welcome it, saying: “Come in! Sit down! Join us! I find you not so intolerable really, you are in fact quite interesting, like a weird grey cloud formation; but bear in mind that I don’t believe a word you are saying, not for a moment. Your advice has always been blinkered and disastrous. I prefer the advice of my wise friends over here, my friend patience for example. You’re acting all self-important as usual, but there is plenty else going on in my life and my mind if I think about it.” We have perspective. However bombastic or seductive they may be, we stop giving them the platform, stop listening to them, stop writing stories about them. We realize our delusions are ludicrous and self-seeking and stop taking them so seriously. (Hmmm, could be writing this about the upcoming US elections.)

DON’T PANIC!

Geshe Kelsang says:

Just as there is room in the sky for a thunderstorm, so there is room in the vast space of our mind for a few painful feelings; and just as a storm has no power to destroy the sky, so unpleasant feelings have no power to destroy our mind. When painful feelings arise in our mind, there is no need to panic.

don't panic.jpgLove that last line. It reminds me of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When I read this book in the past, I started saying this to myself when thoughts seemed to be racing away with themselves, “DON’T PANIC!” We panic – “I can’t handle this!”, and we spin out of control because we can’t handle this feeling of being upset or betrayed or lonely. It fills our mind and we overreact. We give our thoughts power, not realizing that there is nothing behind them. Literally nothing. We really don’t like being unhappy and because we have no patience with it, we are not accepting it, we feel actually hurt by it — which means it sits there looking inherently horrible, all solid and real.

How effective is it to cling onto misery really tightly while at the same time wishing it would go away?

I was in New York in January for the monster Storm Jonas, but within a day the sky was crystal clear again. We know this about weather, so we don’t panic that we are never going to see the sun again. I used to even enjoy the raging thunderstorms in Florida, knowing that in a day or two the sky would be blue once more. We can be more like this with our minds and our moods.

So we don’t pretend that unhappiness is not there, but we do know that this thunderstorm is not all that big shakes, that it’ll pass, that it is never going to destroy my sky-like mind. This gives us the 12744175_1002357209802864_5939240562791456254_nspace and wisdom to see more deeply why we feel mad or jealous or anxious or saturated with longing — how these painful appearances, however overwhelming they seem, are arising, for example, from the unfurling of the karma in our mind — just karmic projection.

Lamrim has solutions

If we have studied and appreciate the Lamrim meditations, we can think for example that this unhappiness is reminding me to clean up the projector of my delusions and negative karma while I still have the time to do so, while I am still breathing, in this precious human life. I am on parole from the lower realms – states of existence where suffering appearances are so overpowering that there is no longer anything we can do about them and we have no idea that we even have a choice. I’m going to break parole and flee to12717396_1002005613171357_141140646733730239_n the Pure Land, I owe nothing to Officers Self-Grasping & Self-Cherishing, I’m not going back with them. Then I’ll be in a position to start busting everyone else out of samsara’s prison too because they don’t belong here any more than I do.

Slowly but surely we take responsibility to transform our minds to view the world in different ways, ways that don’t engender feelings of unhappiness and further delusions in the first place. Eventually we learn to control what weather comes up in our mind, which will help us now and always, and allow us to be there for others.

Next installment here.

Don’t leave me alone in here! ~ a Buddhist’s thoughts on Smartphone addiction

smartphone addictionSociety today could do with some meditation!

Science journal recently published a sobering study that has not surprisingly created a stir in the psychology and neuroscience communities. Get this:

“In 11 experiments involving more than 700 people, the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.”

6 to 15 minutes?! Apparently they reached for their Smartphones after only a couple of those minutes and, when these were denied them, they even administered themselves electric shocks — anything to stop themselves from being left alone with their own minds.

It’s true that people hate waiting in line, at airports, for friends, in traffic, in doctor’s offices, etc. What did we do in the old days, before we had our gadgets?

The study said people found it “unpleasant” because a lot of their thoughts were unpleasant or negative. There’s a lot of unprocessed sadness, loss, sorrow about. Louis CK does a very good riff on this in this video, worth a watch:

smartphone in carExtract: “Sometimes when things clear away and you’re not watching anything and you’re in your car and you start going, oh no, here it comes, that I’m alone, and it starts to visit on you, just this sadness,” he said. “And that’s why we text and drive.”

He describes sitting through his sadness one day, and coming out the other side actually happier, accompanied by a Bruce Springsteen song. Ironically, the day before seeing this video I was listening to “Philadelphia” and had a similar experience of a loss coming up and then subsiding, good old Bruce. You know how people say, “It’s okay to be sad”? There is truth in that. (As long as we are not identifying with the sadness, though – see below). If we let ourselves experience our thoughts, we see that they are not as scary as they seemed while they were still lurking in the shadows. The more we understand what our mind actually is — a clear formless awareness that is naturally peaceful — the more we realize that the passing shadows of clouds can in no way affect its spaciousness and natural freedom.

Give yourself a real break

In a readable commentary to the Science study called No Time to Think in the New York Times, Kate Murphy says:

“But you can’t solve or let go of problems if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them. It’s an imperative ignored by our culture, which values doing more than thinking and believes answers are in the palm of your hand rather than in your own head.”

happiness 2Life is full of loss for all of us. I once heard a Tibetan Lama say:

“Anyone who lives a long life has a sad story to tell.”

But the way to deal with sorrow is not just to pretend that these things aren’t happening, try to change channels, try to keep ourselves insanely busy. If we don’t allow ourselves to observe these sad thoughts, we are not going to take responsibility for them, nor discover that they are not in fact as frightening or harmful as we dread. We are not going to process them. We are not going to accept them, see them as just waves arising from the natural clarity and peace of our formless awareness. We are not going to be able to let them go, or transform them, or become happy. They are going to be recurrent thoughts. This distraction doesn’t work anyway – as one psychologist says:

“Suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power, leading to intrusive thoughts, which makes people get even busier to keep them at bay. The constant cognitive strain of evading emotions underlies a range of psychological troubles such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and panic attacks, not to mention a range of addictions. It is also associated with various somatic problems like eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, inflammation, impaired immunity and headaches.”

So in Buddhism, we do the exact opposite – we spend a lot of time with our thoughts, coming to know our own minds well through empirical observation so that we can transform them. We develop mindfulness, or presence of mind, to actually loosen our grip on the distractions and sorrowful thoughts as opposed to pushing them down like a jack in the box.

The patience of voluntarily enduring suffering jack in the box

Actual problems or suffering are the unpleasant thoughts or feelings in our own minds, nothing outside. When we think compassionate or wise thoughts, for example, about the things we perceive, we inhabit a different world – there is no world outside of our perception of it. To transcend suffering, to think differently, however, we first need to be able to accept these problems wholeheartedly without wishing that they were otherwise. Pushing them aside out of fear or denial, repressing or suppressing them, just makes us more deeply tormented and unhealthy, and can perpetuate a vicious downward spiral due to their inevitable, insistent recurrence.

In How to Solve our Human Problems, there is a really helpful section on this so-called “patience of voluntarily enduring suffering” (pages 42 onwards in my edition), and I really hope you get a chance to read all of it. Here is an extract:

“Normally our need to escape from unpleasant feelings is so urgent that we do not give ourself the time to discover where these feelings actually come from… In reality, the painful feelings that arise on such occasions are not intolerable. They are only feelings, a few moments of bad weather in the mind, with no power to cause us any lasting harm. There is no need to take them so seriously…. Just as there is room in the sky for a thunderstorm, so there is room in the vast space of our mind for a few painful feelings.”

Buddha said that the root cause of our mental pain is the two distorted ego-minds of self-grasping ignorance and self-cherishing. The article would also seem to suggest something along these lines:

“To get rid of the emotional static, experts advise not using first-person pronouns when thinking about troubling events in your life. Instead, use third-person pronouns or your own name when thinking about yourself. “If a friend comes to you with a problem it’s easy to coach them through it, but if the problem is happening to us we have real difficulty, in part because we have all these egocentric biases making it hard to reason rationally” said Dr. Kross of Michigan.”

As Geshe Kelsang succinctly puts it in a sentence that has helped thousands of people, including me:

“There is an enormous difference between the thoughts “I am feeling bad” and “Unpleasant feelings are arising in my mind.” ~ How to Solve our Human Problems

As soon as we stop identifying with our problems, “Oh woe is me!”, we can step back and look at them curiously, objectively even. We can practice transforming difficulties into interesting challenges, and experience the sweet taste of victory as the fear and sadness subside. Sometimes all in the time frame of one Bruce Springsteen song 🙂

And that’s not all …

The article also talks about empathy, or the growing lack of it in an over-stimulated society, when we don’t reflect on our own thoughts and feelings — for how then are we supposed to understand the experiences of others? In Buddhism, we use our own suffering to remind us 3d rendering of a water splash with ripple shaped as a heart.of the suffering of others so we can wish them to be free – this is compassion, vital for spiritual growth and happiness.

Also, there is no sorrow if we have not actually lost anything. If we go further and use our wisdom to understand how everything is simply the nature of our mind, all appearances and their minds arising and ceasing simultaneously from the same karmic seeds in the clarity of our root mind, like waves arising and falling in an ocean, we can relax deeply. There is nothing really out there to grasp at or to lose. Check out Joyful Path for more on this (p. 319-320).

So, next time we find ourselves alone, perhaps all of us could put down our Smartphones and look inside our own minds for entertainment instead. We and society might be a lot better off for it.

Over to you. I would love to hear your insights into this subject and any solutions!

Delusions be gone!

I had one more article on delusions up my sleeve, quickly finishing off the six causes of delusion as these are so practical. They show how delusions arise in dependence upon other factors and so, if we avoid those factors, we don’t have to experience the delusions.

overcoming delusions and negative mindsFirst it is worth remembering, as always, that it is our dualistic mind of self-grasping that is distorting our reality – reality itself is fine. We grasp at self and we grasp at other, and so we have a problem. And, believing in our own flimsy projection of our limited self, solidifying it, we grasp at negativity and impurity that are not actually there; they are the infrastructure needed to hold up this projection. “How is it even possible for me, me of all people, really to be free from all delusions?! I’m made of them!” we think. Instead of recognizing that the nature of our mind is fundamentally pure, our ego minds project impurity where it does not exist. Without the deep, abiding, confident recognition of and identification with our Buddha nature, although we may try to clean up our acts a little, we cannot help but reify our sense of an impure, unworthy self with the notions that we are deluded now, we will always be moreorless deluded even if we practice meditation, and we will probably die deluded.

 Buddha nature clouds of delusionsLuckily, these deluded projections have no power from their own side to stick because they are not the truth. They are momentary and extrinsic, like clouds in the sky – they can never become part of the pure, spacious, sky-like mind itself. Our own mind has always been naturally pure and brimming with every blissful potential for happiness and liberation, it is pure now, and it will always be pure. What we call delusions are superficial clouds arising from temporary causes and conditions that can be removed. They are fantasy. Once we start to relate on a daily basis to our Buddha nature, everything becomes easier and more joyful, and we find there is in fact no room in our space-like, empty mind for heaviness or mawkishness.

So, that being said, here is a whistle-stop tour of the last three conditions of delusions, explained beautifully in Understanding the Mind. (The first three causes are the seedthe object, and inappropriate attention.)

Cause # 4: Familiarity

Geshe Kelsang says:

The reason we develop delusions naturally, whereas we have to apply effort to cultivate virtuous minds, is that we are very familiar with delusions. ~ Understanding the Mind

Right now, although delusions have no actual leg to stand on in the space of our Buddha nature, following our delusions is the path of least resistance because it is the path we have always trodden. In certain situations, for example, we are always going to get annoyed because we always have. But if we practice patience in that situation, everything will change.

familiarity with delusionsOn a long hike some years ago in Andalucia, I got amazingly lost in the mountains when I followed the goat trails mistaking them for some kind of human path going somewhere useful. As darkness fell, me and my companion, a dog called No No, realized that just because a path is well trodden doesn’t mean it’s the best path to take. Luckily, No No (so-called as he was a very affectionate, grubby stray and everyone in the village was always saying “No, no!” when he jumped up on them) not only stayed perfectly cheerful, but also had a better sense of direction than I, so we got home eventually. Thing is, we have to start treading new, positive paths until they become clearer and easier to follow than the old ones, which will meantime become overgrown through lack of use. We come to the point where it’s easier for us to be patient than to be angry, it’s easier for us to feel love than to feel dislike, it’s easier for us to feel spiritually energetic than to succumb to the laziness of attachment. We even eventually get to the point where we’d have to work at it to develop delusions! Not that we would work at it, but if we wanted them, we’d have to. Imagine! Definitely this will happen.

We know from our own regular day-by-day experience that everything becomes easy with familiarity.  When I first started to drive a car, for example, it seemed almost impossible! In fact, I was relieved, aged 17, when I failed my test because it indicated that there were no drivers like me on the road. I thought I was never going to learn all this stuff! But we do. Next thing we know, we have music playing, we’re talking to other people in our car, we’re eating crisps, (some people these days even seem to be watching TV), and we’re still driving, effortlessly!  Effortlessly. In the same way, when we become familiar with positive minds, they will start to arise effortlessly regardless of what we’re doing. We won’t have to work at it. Until we get to that point, we need to work at it; but the end is in sight.

Cause # 5: Distraction and being influenced by others

We naturally imitate those with whom we associate. ~ Understanding the Mind

In fact, there is nothing wrong at all with having love and compassion and feeling close to everybody, but this cause of delusion seems to be talking about whom we are influenced by, whom we allow ourselves to influenced by; so we can check. If we are coming under the influence of people who are leading us into more delusions, who have no interest in developing their minds, then this will rub off on us. We are a bit like sheep, aren’t we? (Or goats, judging by my example.) Let’s face it, we copy the people around us, and we especially copy the people we admire. (We do it consciously and unconsciously). We don’t much like breaking ranks. That is fine if they are doing good things, but a cause of going backwards if they are not.peer_pressure

Geshe Kelsang talks about this cause of delusion over a couple of pages, there is a lot to it; but what I mainly take from it is that we’re easily influenced by our friends, so either choose good friends and be influenced by them, or make sure we’re not coming under the baleful influence of people doing destructive things. Watch our minds. Don’t succumb to negative peer pressure. Maintain integrity. Just because other people are, for example, engaging in some kind of gossip fest about someone, slandering people, developing angry minds, doesn’t mean we have to join in. That kind of thing. 

Cause # 6: Bad habits

Bad habits are the main cause of strong delusions arising in our mind. ~ Understanding the Mind

Examples given are stealing, sexual misconduct, talking meaninglessly, etc. For example, if we watch a lot of violent movies or play violent video games, thinking, ‘Kill them, kill them, kill them!’, this doesn’t seem very conducive to peaceful, loving minds. We want to check what kind of junk we’re putting in our minds, and see if we can do something about it, in terms of our lifestyle. Because we’ll always justify our lifestyle, even if it’s a bad one, with our delusions. Mmm?

That was just a whistle stop tour. There’s lots more to discover in Understanding the Mind and Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

reality checkSomeone asked me once: “How do we know that the minds like love are not just delusions, good delusions?” Good question. Minds like love and compassion are based on reality, whereas anger and so forth are not. For example, there’s no exaggeration in the mind when you’re wishing someone else to be happy out of love or wishing to protect others from their suffering out of compassion. You have an understanding of what suffering is and a wish for them to be free from it, and there is no exaggeration or inappropriate attention there. Our peaceful, positive minds are in tune with reality and our Buddha nature. Not only do we feel positive and peaceful when we are generating these minds, but they aren’t in any way undermined by our wisdom realizing the way things are. In fact, they are increased by our wisdom, whereas our delusions all automatically diminish as our wisdom improves.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

Rioting on the streets of England and in our own minds

What do you make of all these riots sweeping across England right now? People are getting hurt.

They are reminding me of two things:

(1)   The uncontrollable nature of anger

(2)   How influenced we are by others

In the newspaper I was reading online, a commentator tries to figure out what exact grievances are leading to the riots, e.g. poor housing, drugs, sink schools, gangs. But he concludes:

“While these phenomena may explain many forms of crime, my attendance at some of these occasions made me aware of the sheer momentum of a mob sensing a licence for an orgy of destructive mischief.”

A good friend of mine in Manchester just emailed me to say moreorless the same thing, which got me thinking. And what I am thinking is: “This sounds just like my mind of anger!” Anger starts with some pretext and then dwells on perceived grievances with inappropriate attention and the next thing you know the mind is on fire. It is far easier to put out a match than a forest fire. If no effort is made in anger’s early stages to control it, it rapidly spins us out of control. And it often thinks that it’s enjoying itself at the time, and that it’s valid, especially while we are still surrounded by other like-minded, over-excited “friends”. It’s only later, when the inappropriate attention has died down, that any remorse kicks in and we realize what destructive idiots we’ve been. There were other ways to do this, whatever it is.

Inappropriate attention is #6 of the six causes of delusion identified in Buddha’s teachings. Take anger for example. Cause #1 is the seed – we all have the seed of anger within us until we have abandoned our delusions by means of the wisdom realizing emptiness, and meantime we can prevent it ripening by stopping the other five causes. #2 is the object – we need some pretext for our anger, great or small. Nothing is inherently irritating but if we’re not careful anything can set us off, especially if we are prone to anger through familiarity with it – and #5 is familiarity. Bad habits, #4, don’t help, such as generally doing lots of stealing, drugs, arguing, watching violent movies and so on. Which leaves us with # 3, distraction and being influenced by others, which really does seem to be a major factor in what is going on in the streets of England as we speak.

In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, Geshe Kelsang says:

Our friendships have a powerful influence over us. Since we tend to imitate our friends, we need to associate with friends who admire spiritual training and who apply themselves to it with joy.

That is, of course, if we want to make spiritual progress as opposed to get off with as many stolen video games as we can cram into our stolen shopping carts, have a good laugh at others’ expense, and possibly end up behind bars. Compare the riots to people’s uplifting accounts of the friendships made at the recent NKT Summer Festival, for example!

Anyway, a sad but useful reminder that until we uproot the six causes of our delusions, no one is safe, not even on the usually calm suburban streets of Croydon or in our own minds.

Oh woe is me! How to stop distracting ourselves from happiness.

Probably, as mentioned in this previous article, the worst fault of self-cherishing is how it undermines our wish and capability to love and help others. I have a couple of embarrassing examples of this from just now, which I have summoned up the courage to share with you below …

As my teacher says in his wonderful mind-training book Eight Steps to Happiness:

The main reason why we do not cherish all living beings is that we are so preoccupied with ourself, and this leaves very little room in our mind to appreciate others.

It is like you’ve worked hard and paid a fortune for a hotel room with a view, only to discover that this view is entirely obscured by a huge rocky mountain right in front of your window. Self-cherishing is likened in the scriptures to a huge mountain blocking our view of the valley of others, a big shame when we’ve paid a karmic fortune to be in this precious human life.

Tai Lung

The awful distraction of self-cherishing cannot be over-estimated and makes us useless to others. Whenever it arises it distracts us to a greater or lesser extent, and sometimes tragically, from the meaning of our lives and the source of real happiness, which is cherishing others.

I had a haircut yesterday and I don’t think Vince (not his real name) cut enough off. Vince was regaling me with a long sad story about an obese employee, and clearly he is a bit of a ham, and I’m not sure if he paid enough attention to my hair. He probably did, but my self-cherishing thinks he should have talked less and concentrated more. So I’m wondering whether to go back and have more chopped off, even though a friend told me its nice (but she doesn’t have to live with it on her head…). Basically, I have had some boring monotonous petty thoughts, plus annoyance at those bits of hair that keep falling into my eyes (which also remind me that my eyesight is deteriorating, which reminds me that I’m getting old…) Oh woe is me!

Then a particularly crafty mosquito buzzed around me all night and this morning, and I haven’t been able to catch her to take her outside. I have slathered myself with OFF! and smell like a chemical factory, but nonetheless she scared me in the night into having the sheet right up to my neck even though it’s hot, and she was still hungrily bugging me during my morning meditation session. Look, I love mosquitos in principle, and especially when they are behaving themselves. But I’m covered with itches. Oh woe is me!

So I open my emails and one is from a friend I haven’t seen in a long time, who was always a bit disturbed but is now sounding flat-out paranoid and threatening suicide. I have to find a way to help her…. I also get an email from a close friend saying that her mother has just had a (mild) stroke and is being kept in the hospital, and that it is a “shock”. And it is, for a few minutes until Madam Mosquito bites again.

Okaaaaaaay……

You’d think those two bits of news would be enough to occupy my mind with thoughts of compassion and how to help, but no, still my self-cherishing wants to veer off those things and back onto the bad hair day and the buzzing mosquito. I have to make an effort to ignore its demands.

(I would like to seguey into a little praise here for my friend, the Buddhist monk Kelsang Nyima. Standing chatting with him outside the NKT mother center Manjushri Centre’s front entrance one day, I noticed his hands were covered with small red welts. Indeed, there was a still a mosquito sucking out his blood. I asked him why he didn’t shoo her away and he replied matter of factly that she was hungry. Then he changed the subject.)

I can only be humbled by such patient generosity, but at least my own 30 years of practice helps me to recognize that it is crazy and, frankly, embarassing to be even remotely bothered about myself given the far worse situations of my friends, not to mention the entire rest of the planet and all six realms. Yet these two incidents have been a useful reminder that, until my self-grasping and self-cherishing are entirely eliminated, I am always in danger and cannot be complacent. My “biggest problem” during the minutes of distraction is bad hair and buzzing mosquitoes, not my sick friend or my friend’s sick mom, if I’m honest, and I might as well be. Those seemingly reasonable and self-protecting worries are entirely unreasonable and treacherous. Stop you buzzing biting mosquito and let me generate compassion!!! Let me offer the victory to others, but please be sure my hair looks hot while I’m doing it.

(Check out this blog, where the blogger says the same thing, only better. I don’t think this blogger is a Buddhist, which just goes to show that these teachings are common sense and you don’t have to be a Buddhist to choose cherishing others over self. It works for everyone, every time. Buddha gave some beautiful wise practical advice on how precisely to do it though – and you can read this in Eight Steps to Happiness.)

Got any examples of your own that you’d like to embarass yourselves with in the comments? And if you like this article, please share it.

Where eagles fly … how to soar in the space of meditation

High above, in the endless clear sky of the Brazilian Serra da Bocaina rain forest, I watched eagles fly. They soared effortlessly through the sphere of space, with barely a movement of their wings.

There is a picture of an eagle on the front cover of Modern Buddhism, her two wide outstretched wings symbolizing the path of compassion and wisdom, the book’s subtitle. These two wings of ultimate bodhichitta can and one day will fly us to enlightenment.

Bodhichitta is the wish to become enlightened by permanently overcoming all mistaken appearances so we can bring mental peace to all living beings each and every day. With this compassionate motivation, we meditate on the ultimate nature of reality, emptiness. We try to find ourself and other objects existing inherently (or from their own side), as they appear to exist; but — like a mirage — the closer we look the more it all just disappears. This meditation is explained with impeccable clarity in “Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta”, IMHO the best chapter on emptiness in the world. 

For example, my teacher Geshe Kelsang Gyatso summarizes how to look for our own body:

Normally I see my body within its parts—the hands, back, and so forth—but neither the individual parts nor the collection of the parts are my body because they are the parts of the body and not the body itself. However, there is no “my body” other than its parts. Through searching with wisdom for my body in this way, I realize that my body is unfindable. This is a valid reason to prove that my body that I normally see does not exist at all.

To demonstrate how to meditate on this emptiness of inherent existence, Geshe Kelsang gives the analogy of eagles, who …

… soar through the vast expanse of the sky without meeting any obstructions, needing only minimal effort to maintain their flight…

Once we’ve found the object — the mere absence of the body we normally see – we settle on it, without further distracting flapping-wing-like analysis.

Analytical and placement meditation

There were many colorful hummingbirds there too, at the pousada where I was lucky enough to be doing a six week retreat off the grid prior to the Kadampa Brazil Festival. Their little wings moved faster than my eyes could keep up with; they were more like bees than birds. Cute as anything, but all this flapping is not the way to meditate! Plus it looked exhausting.

Meditation involves two parts, analytical meditation (contemplation) and placement meditation (single-pointed concentration.) You can find out about these in The New Meditation Handbook or Joyful Path of  Good Fortune. In brief, during analytical meditation we bring to mind the object of placement meditation through reasoning, analogies, and checking the teachings in our own experience. When the object appears clearly we stop analyzing and concentrate on it single-pointedly.

Whether we are meditating on emptiness or any other object, once we have a rough idea of our object through contemplation, we rest on it for as long as we can in single-pointed focus, remembering it moment by moment without further analysis. Soaring, not flapping.

Don’t over-think it

When I started meditating I had a tendency to over-think in my meditation sessions, not daring to rest on the object (whether that was an object apprehended by mind or a state of mind such as a determination) until I was quite sure I had it perfect. But, as Je Tsongkhapa says, you cannot see the details of a temple mural by the light of a flickering candle. Once I figured out that it would never be perfect if I never allowed myself to improve my concentration on it, I relaxed into the meditation objects sooner and for longer in placement meditation. Almost overnight, I became far better at meditating.

Three valuable tips for good concentration

Meditation involves seeking, finding, holding and remaining on our object – not just seeking. We seek the object through contemplation until we find it – we have to stop once we have a rough idea of the object, be content with that, and focus on it, or we’ll never improve our concentration. Then we hold the object firmly but gently and remain on it without pushing.

(I find it helpful at the outset of my meditations to believe that I have already found my object of meditation, and I spend a few moments focusing on it. Then I start contemplating to make that object clearer and more stable. This way, because I have some sense of the object right from the beginning, I know when to stop looking for it!)

I extrapolated these three instructions from the tranquil abiding teachings as I find them really helpful:

(1)   Remember the object moment by moment. Just remember it, don’t do anything with it. And relax. Hold the object in your root mind at the level of your heart, not in your thinky head.

(2)   Hold the object clearly. It is rough to begin with, but you are still focusing on just that and nothing else, without pushing.

(3)   Overcome distractions. Do this by ignoring them. If you fight your distractions or try and think your way out of them, they have won. Thoughts are going to come up unless you are an advanced meditator, and it doesn’t matter that they do provided you pay them no attention.

Don’t think, “This is too difficult, I can’t do it.” Think instead, “This is not difficult and I am doing it.”

When we do this, our mind and its meditation object become closer and closer until they mix like water mixing with water.

Everything becomes wonderful

Next time you have a chance, look up at an eagle blissfully soaring in space… When we have some experience of emptiness, and a little concentration, and we can dissolve all appearances away into their space-like ultimate nature and stay there for a little while, we are at deep peace because we discover that there is nothing more we could possibly want. Why? Because we have it all already. Geshe Kelsang describes it like this:

In this experience, everything becomes very peaceful and comfortable, balanced and harmonious, joyful and wonderful.

Buddha’s mind of great bliss always pervades all phenomena because it is permanently mixed with their emptiness. In truth, when we have even the slightest experience of emptiness, and we combine this with even an imagined bliss, this experience is tapping directly into the bliss and emptiness of a Buddha’s mind. See Modern Buddhism for how to meditate on the union of the emptiness taught in Sutra and the bliss taught in Tantra.

Space and creativity

Out of this fundamentally creative experience, like a rainbow arising from the sky, we can appear anything we want — pure appearance or experience arising from the ultimate bodhichitta of bliss (our compassionate bodhichitta) and the wisdom realizing emptiness. (Pure appearance doesn’t just mean visual images, BTW, it means any conventional truth arising from the experience of bliss and emptiness.) We can even arise as a Buddha in a Pure Land if we want to, spontaneously suffused with those blessings. We can change the movie reel of our reality, choosing the movie we want this time. About time too. All this is explained in Modern Buddhism, which is the union of Sutra and Tantra.

Treat yourself!

Do you think there is anything better we could do with our life than realize emptiness motivated by bodhichitta? Geshe Kelsang requests us on the back of Modern Buddhism:

I particularly would like to encourage everyone to read specifically the chapter “Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta”. Through carefully reading and contemplating this chapter again and again with a positive mind, you will gain very profound knowledge, or wisdom, which will bring great meaning to your life.”

You could (re)treat yourself by carving out a couple of hours this weekend or soon to read the chapter, closing your eyes and thinking about it. Everyone has access to this book now… If you don’t have the book, you can download it for free here thanks to Geshe-la’s kindness 🙂

Is something stopping you?

Finally, with Buddha Shakyamuni’s appearance in our world and his perfect instructions on emptiness, not to mention Geshe Kelsang’s constant heartfelt requests and attempts to wake us all up over the years, what is stopping us from wanting to spend all our time blissfully absorbed in emptiness?! Clearly something is or we’d be finding every opportunity to do it (perhaps you are).

Please leave your comments so I can write the next article, “What is stopping us?!”

Meditation: simple easy instructions for getting started

Recently the New York Times did another article on the benefits of meditation – along the lines of how scientists are finding it makes your brain bigger in all the right places. It attracted a great deal of interest and hundreds of comments. This is good.

But reading the article and especially the comments, I was struck by how many people don’t know how to get started with meditation and feel a little overwhelmed by the thought of what might be involved. And this reminded me of when I began 30 years ago this fall. Back then, in the Friday night meditation classes I attended, I felt encouraged to take baby steps, and that every little counts. Meditation is not as difficult as it may seem. In fact, it feels surprisingly natural, once you get going. Getting going is the main thing.

How to Begin Meditation

The advice in the book Transform Your Life, in the chapter What is Meditation?, (and specifically in the section How to Begin Meditation), is perfect. A lot of friends and family have asked me over the years to explain to them a simple 5 or 10 minute meditation so they can relax and get rid of anxiety, and I show them this chapter.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, my Buddhist teacher, is a completely accomplished meditator who has spent much of his life in Tibet, India and the West in meditation retreat. He has used his combined understanding of meditation and the exigencies of modern life to teach thousands of distracted Westerners everything they need to know to be successful at meditation themselves. So if you really want to start meditating, you could do no better than to consult this chapter. A lot of it can be found here: and I have copied/pasted from there.

“The first stage of meditation is to stop distractions and make our mind clearer and more lucid. This can be accomplished by practicing a simple breathing meditation. We choose a quiet place to meditate and sit in a comfortable position. We can sit in the traditional cross-legged posture or in any other position that is comfortable. If we wish, we can sit in a chair. The most important thing is to keep our back straight to prevent our mind from becoming sluggish or sleepy.

We sit with our eyes partially closed and turn our attention to our breathing. We breathe naturally, preferably through the nostrils, without attempting to control our breath, and we try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. This sensation is our object of meditation. We should try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.

At first, our mind will be very busy, and we might even feel that the meditation is making our mind busier; but in reality we are just becoming more aware of how busy our mind actually is. There will be a great temptation to follow the different thoughts as they arise, but we should resist this and remain focused single-pointedly on the sensation of the breath. If we discover that our mind has wandered and is following our thoughts, we should immediately return it to the breath. We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.”

The 1980's

This is the meditation I started with in 1981 as a college student, just sitting on the end of my bed each day for the few precious minutes I could spare between the discos, pubs, and odd lecture. I’ve never looked back.

Step One ~ Sitting

As Geshe Kelsang teaches, the first thing to do is find a quiet spot where we won’t be interrupted. Mainly, these days, we need to find the will power to turn off all those gadgets!! Once we’re sitting in our comfortable position, we can relax our shoulders, rest our hands in our lap or wherever is comfortable, tilt our head slightly forward, and partially close our eyes to allow some light to come through the eyelashes (a lot of people also gently close their eyes). We can rest our tongue on the palate to keep our mouth moist.

(By the way, people sometimes wonder if it is ok to lie down to meditate — you can, but be wary that you are more likely to fall asleep if you do. Sitting with a straight back helps us stay alert.)

Step Two ~ Motivation

Before turning the attention to the breath or any other object of meditation, I think it is very helpful to think briefly about what we’re doing and why. The benefits of meditation are probably infinite, but I just pick one or two of my favorites, depending on the meditation. Geshe Kelsang explains the far-reaching benefits of breathing meditation here. Through this, our mind becomes light and happy, and we can make the decision: “This meditation will really help me and those around me. So for the next 5 (or 10) minutes I will focus on this meditation alone; everything else can wait.” Generating this good motivation makes it far easier to find the discipline to stay focused.

Step Three (optional) ~ Relaxing your Body

If your body is feeling tense, it can be helpful when starting out to spend a few moments deliberately relaxing your body (eventually, concentration on the breath alone has the side-effect of relaxing the body). We can do this by first dissolving everything outside our body into light (including the past and the future), so just our body remains. We become aware of the feelings in our body from our crown down to our feet; and then, as we become aware of any feelings of tension or tiredness in any parts of our body, we let go of them and imagine that they fall away –- as if dropping heavy luggage. All our muscles feel as if they are softening and relaxing. Our body then dissolves into light from our crown to our feet, so that just its merest outline remains. Our body is weightless like a feather in the breeze, clear and translucent like a hollow body, and so comfortable that we’re hardly even aware that it is there.

Step Four ~ Following the Breath

Geshe Kelsang teaches that “we try to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils.” As we breathe in, we’ll come to notice a cool sensation at the edge of our nostrils or on our upper lip, and as we breathe out we’ll notice a warm pressure there. Just that. Once we notice this, we have found the object of meditation. “This sensation is our object of meditation. We should try to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.”

Now, as Geshe Kelsang suggests, there are only two things to do for the next 5 minutes:

(1) We don’t forget the sensation of the breath, our object of meditation – resisting the temptation to follow other thoughts; (2) When we do forget the breath and find our mind has wandered to another object, we gently but firmly bring it straight back to the breath.

“We should repeat this as many times as necessary until the mind settles on the breath.” I think it is important to know that it doesn’t matter how many times we have to bring our attention back to the breath – for as long as we are doing that, as opposed to following our other thoughts, we are training in mindfulness and concentration. In short, we are meditating.

Toward the end of your meditation, see if you can follow your breath for 3 or even 7 consecutive breaths (one breath being an inhalation and exhalation) without getting distracted by anything else! Believe your mind is settled on the breath, and indeed so close that it is as though your mind and your breath are mixed, as one.

Conclusion

If you follow Geshe Kelsang’s simple instructions, you will gradually feel your mind settling and the constant chatter of uncontrolled thoughts, feelings, worries, emotions slow down and even stop. As Geshe-la describes it:

“… gradually our distracting thoughts will subside and we will experience a sense of inner peace and relaxation. Our mind will feel lucid and spacious and we will feel refreshed. When the sea is rough, sediment is churned up and the water becomes murky, but when the wind dies down the mud gradually settles and the water becomes clear. In a similar way, when the otherwise incessant flow of our distracting thoughts is calmed through concentrating on the breath, our mind becomes unusually lucid and clear. We should stay with this state of mental calm for a while.”

Enlightened beings are free from grasping.

Feel yourself dissolve into this clarity and peace at the level of your heart — drop from your head to your heart. Stay here as long as you can, giving yourself permission to really enjoy yourself. Know that you can always return here.

Before arising gently from meditation, resolve to bring the peace you have experienced back with you into your day.

Some Tips

Can I suggest that you get used to this idea from the outset: no pushing allowed in meditation. It doesn’t work. We bring our attention back to the object in a determined but relaxed manner, and stay light. We also don’t need to grasp at results — we do that enough in the rest of our lives. Meditation is the best way to let go of grasping and just be, and this naturally leads to incredible insights and open-hearted positivity, the manifesting of our potential.

In our busy modern world, preoccupied with yesterday’s memories and tomorrow’s plans, we may have lost touch with the immediate, what is literally right under our noses; but it is actually very natural and normal to follow your breath. This is another reason why it is not necessary or advisable to attempt to control the breath, as Geshe Kelsang points out, or to push. Even though distractions interrupt seemingly non-stop to begin with, don’t panic; it is only because we are not used to focusing on anything single-pointedly for any length of time, and so have little or no control over our thoughts. That is our problem, and skillful meditation on the breath will overcome it.

The other problem people new to meditation sometimes complain about is drowsiness – not surprising insofar as usually the only time we allow ourselves to really relax and let go is when we are about to fall asleep in bed at night. Concentration is the antidote to drowsiness, and in the meantime, until we have some concentration, it is a good idea to meditate at a time of day when you are relatively alert e.g. after morning tea, and to sit in a light space. Avoid meditating after a big meal or wearing heavy clothes.

In fact, if you are doing just 5 or 10 minutes meditation at a time, there is a good chance that you’ll avoid both distraction and sleepiness – so a good tip is to keep your meditation short but professional. If you are enjoying it, meditate again for another 5 minutes later in the day! You’ll see your capacity and enthusiasm grow naturally.

Geshe Kelsang also teaches variations on the theme of breathing meditation, such as, in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, first identifying and then breathing out all your problems and anxiety in the form of thick smoke, and then strongly believing you are breathing in all lightness, joy and blessings in the form of blissful golden or white light. Some people prefer to do breathing meditation this way, and the basic instructions remain the same.

I hope you get started soon. You’ll never regret learning to meditate – it is the most problem-solving, mind-freeing and happiness-inducing skill in the world. It has no adverse side effects. It is free! And no one can take it away from you. Here is that website, About Meditation. If you get a chance, do go along to a meditation class in your area – you can’t beat live instructions from a real person.

For two more helpful articles on meditation see Meditation in the Pursuit of Happiness and How to Use Meditation to Avoid Stress and Burnout at Work.

Postscript

I have recently had the surreal experience of unexpectedly reconnecting with my closest childhood friend, whom I played with in Guyana when we were 10 years old. Four days after we talked again, laughing at our memories of that different lifetime, she was diagnosed with cancer. She asked me how to meditate to find peace. This article is for you, Debra.