Lives and leaves

7.5 mins read.

We never really meditate alone. In Mahayana Buddhism, when we sit down to do prayers or meditations, it is customary to imagine countless living beings sitting all around us. Envisaging them in human form for auspiciousness, we recognize that they are in fact the beings of all 6 realms of samsara.

IMG_4787
I’m not a cartoon.

(By the way we’re not expected to visualize them all clearly, in case you were wondering. But just know they’re there, like I know there are people in London even though I can’t see them right now.)

We can have our mom on our left, our dad on our right, our current object(s) of attachment behind us, and our current object(s) of aversion in front of us. Our karmic circle are sitting closest to us, but we feel that there is nobody left out. Our karmic circle can even double up as representatives of everybody else.

The mere act of visualizing this ginormous assembly, however vaguely, starts to broaden our horizons.

We can then forget about ourself for a while and spread our mind over all these living beings, contemplating briefly how just as I want to be happy and free all the time, so do they. I am not more important than they are — we are all the same and equal. Moreover they are countless in number whereas I am just one single person, and so their happiness and suffering are more important than just mine. And they have all been so kind to me, including as my kind mother multiple times over. Thinking all or any of these thoughts, we feel close to them out of love and compassion.

If we spend a bit of time on this, a few minutes, say, our mind is moved even before we get to the refuge prayers or meditation.

Pinpricks in time and space

This Summer a friend explained what she did for this visualization of all living beings, which I find quickly moves my mind; so I have been playing with ever since.

We feel not that we are seated at ground level, as it were, in the very middle of a vast assembly circling out around from us, but are viewing everybody from above, including ourself. We are just one of many, a mere pinprick, no more special. This visualization is not ego-centered at all because we are no longer at the center of anything – and that is why I think it can be so helpful in overcoming self-cherishing.

If one pinprick is important, surely they all are?

deer in Paradise
Deer in Paradise

I have also been picturing how these pinprick beings, including me, are not static but constantly moving around – both within this life, and as they move from rebirth to rebirth in this endless prison of samsara. We never get to stay proximal to people for long. It helps to get a sense of our existential situation – that we are all perpetual travelers from life to life. Where in time and space am I — that one little pinprick – now? Where have I been? Where am I going? It’s the same for all living beings.

And so we need equanimity – to overcome our aversion, attachment, and indifference — because before too long all our relationships will change regardless, and we need that to be under our control.

Leaves in Fall

Which brings me to leaves. It is Fall, and I have been slushing through piles upon piles of leaves, doing this experiment by thinking I am just one of those leaves.

Generally when we are grounded in the perspective of the Me Leaf, center of the universe, all the other leaves are significant or not depending only on where they stand in relation to Me. As it says in The New Eight Steps to Happiness:

Our ordinary view is that we are the center of the universe and that other people and things derive their significance principally from the way in which they affect us. Our car, for example, is important simply because it is ours, and our friends are important because they make us happy. Strangers, on the other hand, do not seem so important.

IMG_4659“Look at me!” the Me Leaf goes. “I am so unique and interesting – such a lovely yellow color and interesting shape! Such an interesting journey to get here, let me tell you! I am important and ought to be the best off leaf in the forest. I must work toward that. Perhaps you’d like to work for me?”

The bigger our ego, the bigger our sense that the people who are nice to us are important, that strangers are not worth the time of day, and that our enemies are really threatening. “I don’t like those leaves because they look different to me, have different views, and they’re not praising me or scratching my back so they must be out to get me. But I like those leaves because they like my Facebook posts, agree with me all the time, and do what I want them to. And I am seriously bored by all those other leaves except insofar as I can figure out what they might have to offer me.” 

Perhaps we get ourselves into a position with a lot of power over people, but with these 3 poisons all that power does is make those 3 arbitrary categories bigger – more friends or fans, more enemies or people we fear, more people for whom we feel indifference or disdain.

IMG_4658Which is not only a poisonous but stupid attitude given that it only takes someone to march through our pile of leaves, kicking them around, such as the Lord of Death; at which point all bets are off as to who is around us anymore at all, let alone who are our friends, enemies, and strangers.

One day we could be in Paradise with a million dollar house and all the latest luxuries, and the next we could be enveloped in a terrifying fire, perhaps even find ourselves plunging into a hell realm. We cannot say, “That would never happen to me or the people I love!” On what basis can we say that? Those 48 people in Paradise, Northern California who have just lost their lives probably thought exactly the same thing until this week.

Even a tiny shift of perspective changes our positioning on everything and everyone around us. I saw three women painting in the Botanic Gardens the other day – they were mere feet apart in a peaceful place, but their paintings were very different. Had there been 100 painters, there would have been 100 different paintings. Tossed different perspectivesviolently on the turbulence of the four great rivers of birth, ageing, sickness, and death, what chance is there for our current perspective on everything and everyone to survive at all?

Are you having a small or a big day?

One question I like to ask myself each day is “What do I most want today?” And is it about me or about everyone else? If it is about me, for example attachment to someone showing an interest in me, that makes for a small day.

This is the case even if we have all the power or admirers in the world. Not only because we are just one person, but because for others, preoccupied with themselves, it is never about us but about them. From their point of view, our significance derives principally from the way in which we affect them. So, putting ourselves first, we all wander around in a world of one, effectively. No one shares our perspective – we are on our own, like one leaf on the forest floor.

But we can choose to share others’ perspective, ie, they are important, and see life from their point of view, and now we have a big life – it is as if we are now one with ALL the leaves. I was once traveling to an event with a very chatty driver, who shared with the entire busload that he and his wife got along very happily: “This is because we both share the same viewpoint – she thinks she is very important, and so do I!”

treesBy decreasing the three poisons of attachment, aversion, and indifference, we open our hearts to limitless love and connection. We can realize the equality and interdependence of self and others, understanding that we are others and others are us, and in this way feel a bond to each and every one of these leaves vast as space. And with the wisdom realizing that everyone is unfindable and mere name – that they are the same nature as our mind and we theirs — we are never separated from any of them again.

Once we attain enlightenment we abide in the blissful recognition of interdependence, totality, and union. We are no longer cut off and isolated by our self-grasping delusions and mistaken perceptions that cause everyone to appear “out there”, really outside our mind and therefore separate from us.

Both in meditation and whilst wandering around kicking leaves, I have been finding this visualization and contemplation great for expanding my horizons in these various ways. And with Winter on its way, you’ll be glad to hear it also works for snowflakes.

I seem to do most of the talking around here! Would love to hear from you in the comments below 😃

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Love & affection according to Buddhism

If we too want to wake everyone up from their hallucinations, as explained here, we have to like them first, just as S has affectionate love for Murphy. This is the first step, and it is why the equalizing-3straightforward meditation on equalizing self with others is so helpful and why I’m going to write a bit more about it.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the bestest of us all?

I remember being quite excited when I read this in the American constitution shortly after I arrived here in 1999:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal …

We are all equal. In what way? Clearly not financially or politically or materially, and perhaps it will always be impossible for us all to be the same externally. But on a deeper and more basic level altogether, the mind level, the heart level, we are all exactly the same in wanting to experience happiness and avoid suffering. That’s true, isn’t it? I want to be happy and I want to avoid suffering, but so do you and so do you and so do you and so do you and so do you! Everybody does.

We are all sitting around having lots of ideas –schemes and memories and reflections, & likes and dislikes and opinions — but basically if you distill us all down to 2 essential wishes, they are, I want to be happy and I don’t want to suffer. That’s why we think all of our other thoughts, they back them up, they come from us trying to make ourselves happy and solve our problems.

And yet we manage to think, “I’m so special!” If I’m special, everybody’s special. And if you’re not special, well I’m not special either. Because at heart we’re the same.cherishing-others-is-not-so-difficult

This is quite a miracle meditation – it is based on the methods for equalizing and exchanging self with others taught by the Wisdom Buddha Manjushri via Shantideva, and it is like Manjushri’s sword cutting right through appearances and differences to the heart of the matter.

I wanted to make a tee-shirt with the slogan: “You’re nobody till you realize you’re nobody.” My friends laughed at the notion, but I don’t care, I like it. It reminds me of my teacher, Geshe Kelsang, who has no ego, which makes him a big Somebody when it comes to his ability to help people in this world.

Start with family and friends

Equalizing is one of the first meditations I did and it had such an impact that it became an instant favorite. Back in the day, about 100 years ago, when I started going to meditation classes in York, England, we were encouraged to remember just one person, put ourselves in their shoes, and then reflect how, at heart, we are the same – just as I long to be happy, so do they, and just as I long to be free from suffering, so do they. When that understanding arose in our mind, we were encouraged to hold it, and the feeling of affection that comes along with it.equalizing-2

I chose my grandmother, the lovely old mother of my dad, because I already liked her and it is good to make meditations easy to start with, to slip into some good feeling you already have and build on that. And, like I said, doing this easy-peasy, entirely reasonable contemplation had an impact. I felt close and warm toward her, a feeling that lasted for the remaining years of her life. In fact, I still feel it now when she comes to mind, wherever she may be. Hey Granny, I hope you are exceedingly well and happy.

If we have a sense of how one person is at heart just like us, then we can understand that this is equally true for everyone. All these people around me in the street or at work have the same heart as mine, so why focus on the differences when through recognizing our commonality a mind of love will naturally arise? Instead of being neurotically focused on what’s going on in our own irksome dream-like lives, we can ask ourselves, with genuine interest, “What is their life like? How do they feel? What do they want?” Moving away from the poky space of self to the vast space of others allows the heart to open and warm happiness to flow.

And we can gradually ask this question of all those too whom we find upsetting at the moment — it really helps us get over it and become centered, grounded, and peaceful.

Whose team are you on?

Did you watch the Broncos vs the Panthers in the Super Bowl this year? Which side did you root for? I think of all living beings as being on the same team, and our opponent is always the same: suffering and delusions. Competing with each other, not to mention deliberately getting in each others’ way, is as pointless as football players on the same team working against each other. The Broncos knew that. That’s why we won!!! 😉

equalizing-1Everyone is worthy of love. With this meditation we understand the heart of others. We understand what we have in common. We understand what unites us, and how much greater it is than what divides us.

In a way, the equanimity meditation is about how we see others. Now, with equalizing, we recognize how they see themselves. We develop empathy, put ourselves in their shoes, understand that “I” is the name of everyone. We are not uniquely “Me”. Which means we are not uniquely important. With familiarity we get used to thinking this way, and our life becomes big. And a lot more fun.

A mantra for the meditation break

If we get some familiarity with this in the meditation session — which can be just 10 minutes sitting on our sofa thinking this through with as little distraction as possible until our heart moves — then we can make the decision to carry this understanding into our daily life. It is helpful to have a quote or a mantra or a slogan to recall whenever we encounter anyone, and one recommended for this meditation is:

This person is important. Their happiness matters.may-i-constantly-cherish

This quote is a problem-solver par excellence as most of our problems come from thinking we are more important and significant than others. In the short term people will like us and we won’t develop problems from hatred, jealousy, and so on. In the longer term we will easily develop great compassion and bodhichitta.

Over to you. Have you had good results from this meditation?

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Equalizing self and others

 Equalizing self and others is cherishing others as much as we cherish ourselves.

Just as I wish to be free from suffering and experience only happiness, so do all other beings. In this respect, I am no different from any other being; we are all equal. ~ The New Meditation Handbook 

roquetailladeWhen we can stand in others’ shoes, we have a big world to walk around in – a world that is so much more interesting than being holed up in the fortress of self-absorption. With self-cherishing we have no choice but to ward off loneliness by pulling others obsessively across a narrow drawbridge, or to defend ourselves by slamming closed the gates.

Snowflakes

We are like a snowflake. Sure, no two snowflakes are exactly alike, but it is also pretty hard to tell them apart. In the ways that count most, they are practically indistinguishable – they are made of ice and air, they are bound to perish sooner or later, and on their own will perish even faster for they cannot survive on their own. In the same way, we pride ourselves on our uniqueness, and our own problems and suffering are just that much more interesting than everybody else’s; but when it comes right down to it we are far more similar to others than different. We are made of flesh and blood, we are bound to perish sooner or later, and we cannot survive on snowflake-1our own for even a minute.

Imagine one little snowflake putting up its hand and declaring, “Hey, look at me! I’m special! I look like intricate lace!” And another goes, “No, look at me, I look like a flower!” And a third chips in, “That’s nothing, I look like a pointy star!” In a white blanket of snowflakes, they are all equally important or unimportant. No objective judge is going to say that one snowflake is superior to another, or more unique, or more deserving of happiness.

In meditation I sometimes imagine an alien coming down to earth and seeing millions of people all with their hands up, “Hey, look at me! I’m special.” As far as the alien is concerned, we are all the same. Let alone the aliens, as far as everyone else is concerned we alone are not the real deal. It is only our own self-cherishing that thinks otherwise.

Everybody without exception wants to be happy – I mean look at this world, how many are we, six, seven billion?, anyway, lots, and that’s just the humans, there’s all the animals too. There are so many — countless — living beings, and if we look into the heart of every single one of them, whether they are the good guys or the bad guys, without exception they are all yearning for happiness. But basically, more or less without exception, they are NOT experiencing enough happiness! There is a lot of pain right now in this world, isn’t there? And I think it’s very clear that our ordinary methods of striving for happiness aren’t working particularly well – and if we can’t see that, then it could be because we’re not looking.

What is love?!

I think we are all definitely interested in love, and we have this idea that if I am to be happy, if I am to have fun and meaning, I need love. But generally speaking in the West we also have this idea that in order to have love you have to fall into it. Which involves a lot of dating in the hope that somewhere along the line we will fall into it, and then have it, and then as a consequence be happy. But there are problems with that perspective, as you may have guessed.snowflake 2.jpeg

One being that we don’t really understand what love is – “Oh, I’m feeling something, is it love?! I don’t know! What’s going on?! Love’s a mystery! Man, why does it have to hurt like this?” A backdrop to our scheming, indulging, and recovering, we play endless songs about “love”, trying to figure it out yet again as our heart is yanked up and down like a yo yo. So from a Buddhist perspective there is a basic confusion between love and attachment. Attachment is a delusion yanking our heart and causing pain, but love is a peaceful, positive, warm mind that opens our heart to greater and greater happiness and bliss. One of the kindest things Buddha did for us is point out the many differences between them.

Scratch my back

The affectionate love that comes from equalizing is not conditioned by what the other person looks like, what they say, snowflake-4what they do, because it is other-centered. At the moment, because so much of our love is mixed with desirous attachment, it’s very conditional – meaning that for as long as you look attractive to me I am going to like you but, Oops! you’re no longer attractive, so therefore I am not going to like you. Or for as long as you keep saying things that make me happy I’m going to like you, but now you’ve gone all weird and are saying things that aren’t making me happy any more, so I don’t like you. See what I mean? I’m scratching your back and you’re scratching mine = the best we can hope for. Doesn’t leave much room for maneuver. Very quickly dissatisfaction can set in ~ “I don’t want my back scratched this way, I want it scratched that way.”

In other words, it’s all about ME! I’m judging my reality and discriminating between people based on ME. That guy is a great guy, he makes me happy. That guy bores me silly, he’s a boring guy. It’s like we become a universal arbiter of reality: “You want to have the real load on reality, you come to me cos I say it straight – this is a good person and this is a bad person (or, ermm, at least this person was a good person until they became a bad person …) etc.” It is all based on ME. “What have you done for me lately?” This self-focus and self-concern and self-obsession is self-cherishing. It’s a pain. Thankfully it is totally undermined by equalizing self and others.

Everyone needs Dharma

equalizingIn an oral transmission on his latest book that he gave in London last summer to a representative group of Kadampas, Ven Geshe Kelsang reiterated what he has said many times, that our actual problems are our own unpleasant feelings, such as discouragement, depression, unhappiness, and other unpeaceful states of mind. Our mind becomes crazy with so many internal problems, and even if we live in a very quiet place with nothing interfering with us, still due to self-grasping or self-cherishing inside we are tightly holding. Which means there is no peace, we are experiencing discomfort day and night. To solve this, he says, everyone needs Dharma — religious or not, Buddhist or not — because Dharma is the way to solve our unpleasant feelings.

That is why Dharma means, literally, “protection”, ie, protection from suffering. And this Dharma of equalizing self and others, which anyone can try out, I believe always has the power to solve unpeaceful feelings, my actual problems. At least it seems to work whenever I bother to do it 😍

Over to you ~ do you have familiarity with this meditation? Do you have, or have you overcome, any difficulties in doing it?

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What can we really know about anyone?

We always think we know stuff about people — cheesman-park-2yeah he’s really annoying, yeah she’s boring, yeah he’s great, etc. Occasionally we find ourselves hopelessly confused, for example when a friend becomes an enemy or a stranger and we are not sure how that happened, “What happened?!” — but generally at any given moment we accept the appearances of friends, enemies, and strangers for what they are. Or, rather, what they seem to be.

Contemplating equanimity is fantastic for shaking us out of our grasping at both permanence and inherent existence.

And … it clears the space for a heartfelt understanding that, just like us, everyone else wants to be happy and free from pain.

For what else do we really know about them?!

Let me explain a bit more.

Equanimitycheesman-park-1

As described more here, we see how those categories of friends, enemies, and strangers into which we are constantly placing people are not remotely fixed – they are changing all the time due to impermanence, and also because whether someone is a friend, enemy, or stranger says far more about our own projections than what is actually going on. Indeed, nothing is really going on. As Geshe Kelsang explains in Meaningful to Behold:   

It is extremely short-sighted and ultimately very mistaken to think that anyone is permanently or inherently our friend, enemy, or stranger. ~ page 24

So, given the facts of both impermanence and emptiness:

If these three positions are so temporary and variable – then who is the proper object of our attachment or hatred?

Not just in this lifetime — we have been around since beginningless time projecting stuff on people, everybody. Let me tell you a quick story.

Life, the Universe, and Everything

Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged had immortality thrust upon him.

“Most of those who are born immortal instinctively know how to cope with it, but Wowbagger was not one of them. Indeed, he had come to hate them, the load of serene bastards.”

Anyway, Wowbagger decided during one long dark teatime of the soul, around 2.55 on a Sunday, to insult everyone in the universe — in alphabetical order.

On his spaceship, Wowbagger:

“gazed at the fantastic jewelry of the night, the billions of tiny diamond worlds that dusted the infinite darkness with light. Every one, every single one, was on his itinerary. Most of them he would be going to millions of times over.”

Point being, over infinitely prolonged beginningless time, we have been doing this too! We have insulted everyone in the universe. We have slept with them. We have both slept with and insulted them. We have done everything with everybody.

On this particular trip he was on his way to insult a small slug by calling it a “brainless prat”.

That’s one thing, impermanence. And there is also emptiness to consider.

Infinite versions

If things are not fixed, and cannot be found outside the mind, you could argue that there are infinite versions of every situation and person. Even seemingly factual labels, such as “This is my husband or my boss or my President” have nothing real behind them. I saw a picture of the US President with his daughters the other day and I thought how he is a gazillion things – everyone is calling him something different. Stand up the one and true Barack Obama. Impossible.

cheesman-parkOr sitting in nearby Cheesman Park writing this – for me, a pleasant leafy place with wafting breezes; for that dog with the Frisbee, a playground; for the person who just approached me to canvass for the democratic party, an opportunity to get out the vote; for the more than 5,000 or so unclaimed bodies still buried under the ground, I’m not quite sure what. That is just two blunt illustrations amongst countless subtle variations. (Pics of said park liberally scattered through this article.)

We all have our own labels or versions of the people in our lives, and what we may sometimes forget is that so does everyone else. We might get possessive of our version, thinking it’s the only real person or the only version that counts, “This is MY husband, that’s who he is” — but try telling that to his mom, his best friend, his cat? Not to mention all those who knew previous versions and will know future versions.

So, we project our own stuff on everybody we meet – creating friends, enemies, and strangers over and over again. And this destroys our peace, causes us a lot of trouble, and blocks us from really helping people. We yearn for our objects of attachment to come here and make us happy while wanting our objects of anger to shut up and go away. But carlin-american-dreamprojected people can’t do anything from their own side to help us further our wishes for happiness and freedom, any more than can an actor on a screen.

So, what can we do?

If people are not permanently nor inherently friends, enemies, and strangers, what ARE they? What DO we know about them, really?

Only that they want to be happy all the time and free from suffering. Just like us.

Yup. That we can know.

One of the most amazing things I find about this way of thinking is the amount of space and freedom it opens up to abide with the minds that help me, instead of wasting time and cheesman-park-3peace being sidetracked by the three poisons. As Geshe-la says in Joyful Path

Equanimity reduces our attachment and hostility, but it does not reduce our liking and our love for others.

Quite the opposite. With equanimity understanding impermanence and projection, we now have the space to consider how others feel about things, rather than how we do, stepping into their shoes and walking through doorways to interesting new worlds based on appreciation, respect, affection, rejoicing, compassion, and empathy. Instead of staying confined to the claustrophobic spaceship of “me, me me”, our mental horizons are broadened on the way to the all-pervasive compassion and omniscient wisdom of a Buddha.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

 

 

 

No time like the present

First, a little anecdote

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

Why the emotional resistance?

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

See the beauty

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

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

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

Another little anecdote

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

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

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

We’re all gonna die!

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a wonderful life

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

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

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

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

Create a boundary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next installment is here.

Do liberals and conservatives share any common ground?

Someone commented on my last article that from the perspective of someone in the UK there is no difference between the two US presidential candidates. But I think that up closer there is a difference in candidates (and parties), not just in terms of their policies but in terms of the core values that motivate those policies.

In general, I think the best value of liberals is their wish for equality and fairness, helping each other based on an understanding of mutual dependence and that the health of the whole depends on the health of its parts.

I think the best value of conservatives is their emphasis on taking personal responsibility for their lives. They also believe in charity and community support on a private, individual, voluntary basis, and can be exceedingly generous. (And giving is the karmic cause of wealth.)

My theory is that these two world views are not contradictory and in fact are mutually supportive. We need both attitudes. You can’t actually have one working properly without the other. At their best, they are two attitudes of a Bodhisattva.

kitten finding forever home
See below for (ir)relevance of kitten photos.

There is a Buddhist Lojong or training the mind meditation called equalizing self and others, where we understand how we are all exactly the same in the way it really means something, in our two main wishes in life – wanting to be happy and free from suffering.  If we value the equality of all living beings, this entails a fairness in our treatment of everyone else. But it doesn’t stop there. We are also entirely bound up in each other in mutual dependence – everything we have and everything we are depends entirely on others.  We are one body of life. And if one part of the body is suffering, say the foot has a thorn in it, the hand will want to pull it out even if not directly affected.

It is all very well not wanting people to take advantage of the system, but you cannot pull yourself up by your own bootstraps if someone didn’t make you those boots in the first place. Everyone needs boots made for them — ontologically speaking, there is no such thing as a self-made man. This is because without others we are, literally, nothing. We came into this world with nothing — not a silver spoon in our mouth, not even a plastic utensil. Rich or poor, we were given everything. All of us are entirely connected in a web of kindness. (For a description of this meditation, read Eight Steps to Happiness pages 54-57.) In that context, people with fewer resources are not undeserving of a helping hand, and they in turn can then pay it back or forward. The safety net can be like a trampoline, helping everyone have more success. (An insight into mutual dependence and karma also indicates that life is not a zero sum game, where some have to lose for others to win – that it can be a win win.) cat going to his forever home

Yet, at the same time, our mutual dependence is not an excuse for letting others pull us along like dead weight without making any effort according to our capacity, power, and ingenuity to help ourselves or others, becoming dependent in a, well, “dependent” way. Understanding our mutual dependence and what we owe to others on the contrary gives Bodhisattvas a strong sense of personal responsibility, called superior intention, where they promise to work continually until they have really freed themselves and all living beings from the ocean of suffering and actualized their full potential. They see this as their job and their obligation. It doesn’t matter what conditions they find themselves in, good or bad; they still take responsibility for their own progress and freedom.

I deliberately went over to watch the VP debate with a friend who happens to be a member of the other party, as a sort of experiment to see if we’d still like each other by the end of the evening (LOL), and during the debate I put myself in her shoes to see what that felt like. I still thought my own candidate “won”, but then so did she, which was in itself quite a teaching on relativity — we had been sitting in the same room eating the same popcorn watching the same screen but, even without watching the Spin afterward, we came to opposite conclusions! However, as a result of putting myself in her shoes, I had more sympathy for her position that I might otherwise have done.

My friend’s point was that she doesn’t like people “scrounging” off the state. I pointed out that in a way we all scrounge off the state and each other because we rely on the infrastructure of this country for everything and we paid for just a fraction of it. For example, to get to work, we all need to use roads or public transport, and even a yard of road would cost a great deal more money than I could afford – I wouldn’t get very far if I had to pay for/build the road myself. The things we use every single day cost billions of dollars, toward which we have contributed a minute fraction, whatever our tax bracket.

In fact (and she liked this point the best), the higher up we are in the world, and the more we have, the MORE we depend on others. I wrote all about that here.

Dependence is not a dirty word. It is a fact. Self-reliance is not a dirty word. We need it. Recognizing our mutual dependence is a strength, not a weakness, for it is in touch with the way things are and it also encourages us to take responsibility for ourselves and everyone else, understanding that no man is an island. Likewise, within that context it is desirable to encourage people to take responsibility for their own destiny, for although others can give us the boots, only we can pull ourselves up by the straps. So, where is the contradiction?

As pretty much half this country is Democrat and half Republican, and that is not going to change anytime soon, I think it’d be a relief if we could recognize what is good or even noble about the other party’s world view and try to embrace it. Otherwise at least half of us are in for a pretty annoying four years, starting Tuesday. We don’t have to like everything the other party is trying to do (like that is ever going to happen anyway!) Some politicians and activists do try to do this, start from respect and understanding rather than dislike; but these days many more seem to be entrenched in the “We’re inherently right, you’re inherently wrong” polarity. Mutual antipathy based on accentuating others’ faults is unrealistic and crippling at any time, as it is based on inappropriate attention. Throw out those attack ads, they demean everyone.  

On the whole, politics and religion have different goals because the former is concerned with this life and the latter with future lives. But we need to overcome our delusions and get along with others to gain peace and happiness in this life and in future lives, and we can find practical ways of doing so through Lojong.

So, for example, understanding how our values are not contradictory but mutually supportive might be a good way of engendering respect and even some affection, and on that basis it might be easier to work together? What do you think? (Now I’m ducking as I wait for some of you to throw eggs at me… This was my last foray into politics. But I still want my candidate to win on Tuesday, ha ha!!)

(By the way, two of my kittens just found a wonderful home, and I had to write this whole article with lonely big-eyed Alyona on my lap, so I blame her cuteness for any sentimental idealism or oxytocin-induced lapses of logic. That has given me an idea… I don’t know what other pictures to use, so I’m going to transform this into a feel-good article by sprinkling it with kittens in their new forever homes.)

Why am I so sad? Removing the two ego minds at the source of our pain.

In a recent article I tried to explain how self-grasping and self-cherishing, and the delusions they spawn, entirely undermine our happiness. Luckily, nothing is fixed – if we can understand these two ego-centered states of mind at the source of our pain and dissatisfaction, that’s the first step to removing them. We don’t need them to survive, to live. The actual nature of our mind is purity – all our delusions are temporary defilements like clouds obscuring a clear sky.

Who comes first?

Not only are we not more important than anybody else, we’re certainly not more important than everybody else, which is what self-cherishing actually thinks. “My happiness comes first.” What does that mean?  My happiness comes first means it comes before the happiness of everybody else. That’s what “first” means, doesn’t it? There are millions of beings in the area around us alone, and our self-cherishing still manages to hold onto the thought, “I’m more important than all of them.” We may not admit that in polite company, it’s way too embarrassing to say it out loud at a dinner party; but if we check what motivates our thoughts and actions day and night, we are trying to serve and protect this sense of me or I, holding it to be the most important me in the world.

Stepping into others’ shoes

When our mind is less ignorant and deluded — for instance when we manage out of love to step out of our shoes and into somebody else’s — then what happens to our sense of self at that time, and our sense of other? It is less polarized, isn’t it? It evens out somewhat. Others feel more like “us” and we feel closer to them. When we do the meditation on equalizing self and others for example, we’re equalizing our sense of self and our sense of other so that we no longer have the sense that our self is like this incredibly important weighty thing and others are neither here nor there. When there is love, empathy, consideration, and so on, our sense of self is far, far less exaggerated and we see no real difference between our self and others.

Big fat ME

But when a delusion such as attachment, anger, jealousy or miserliness is arising, there’s a big fat sense of ME. Why do we cling tightly to our possessions, for example, or our time? Why do we not share ourselves with others, and instead hold ourselves back?  Because we’re trying to defend this isolated castle of me against the hordes of other. On the other hand, when we’re feeling really open and generous, that sense of me is greatly reduced.

Referring to cherishing others on the one hand, and the self-cherishing that thinks our happiness matters most on the other, Shantideva says:

All the happiness there is in the world
Arises from wishing others to be happy,
And all the suffering there is in this world
Arises from wishing ourself to be happy.

Destruction

I sometimes get the New York Times on Sunday. The cashier in Publix the other day wanted to know, “What’s in that paper that’s worth the six bucks?!” And, apart from using it to develop renunciation and compassion, I’m not sure why I do pay good money to torment myself with it for, as they say, no news is good news. Where does this seemingly endless array of disasters around our world actually come from? I think it’s easy to see how much suffering comes from negative, destructive actions — actions motivated by attachment and greed such as pollution and theft, actions motivated by hatred and anger, such as war and murder. When people’s minds are peaceful, calm, and loving, they don’t engage in negative actions (and generally they don’t make the news…)

According to Buddhism, our negativity all comes from our negative minds. This negativity gives rise to suffering, both in the short term, and, from a karmic point of view, in the long term. So these negative actions are all coming from our delusions, these delusions are all coming from our self-cherishing, and our self-cherishing is coming from our self-grasping ignorance.

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang says in Transform Your Life:

All negative actions are motivated by delusions, which in turn arise from self-cherishing.  First we develop the thought,    “I am important,” and because of this we feel that the fulfillment our wishes is of paramount importance. Then we desire for ourself that which appears attractive and develop attachment, we feel aversion for that which appears unattractive and develop anger, and we feel indifference toward that which appears neutral and develop ignorance. From these three delusions, all other delusions arise. Self-grasping and self-cherishing are the roots of the tree of suffering, delusions such as anger and attachment are its trunk, negative actions are its branches, and the miseries and pains of samsara are its bitter fruit.

Samsara refers to a life seeded by and poisoned by delusions and suffering, the world described for example in the New York Times. Those who live free from delusions are not in samsara; they are called Foe Destroyers as they have destroyed the foe of delusions (and presumably have their own rather more cheerful newspaper.)

So, who does come first?

The fact is that we’re not the most important person. We’ll never get anyone to agree with us that we are, except possibly our mother (sometimes). We have this strong sense of self-importance, but everybody is exactly the same in that they’re seeking happiness and trying to avoid suffering. Everyone is equal in that respect, and their happiness and their suffering are just as significant as ours. When our mind is in a balanced non-deluded state, we understand this.

Everybody is me or I. We pay lip service to equality – it is even in the American constitution!

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…

It would be wonderful if we could really feel that everybody was equal. It would instantly solve so many problems arising from self-cherishing and other delusions.

The Mahayana Buddhist path involves reducing our delusions, especially self-cherishing and self-grasping, and increasing all our positive minds that are the opponents to those delusions, especially compassion and wisdom.

Conclusion
Which direction, samsara or liberation?

As I said at the beginning of this short series of articles, Buddha’s synopsis of the human condition is very encouraging because we are not evil, much less doomed. It is possible for all of us to overcome all our suffering if we simply overcome our ignorance. When we finally cut the root of delusions and suffering through realizing selflessness, delusions and suffering cannot survive. For a full understanding of this, check out the Ultimate Truth chapter in Modern Buddhism, which you can download entirely for free!!

Your turn. Where do you think all pain comes from?! Please share your experiences in the comments and or on the Facebook page, and also give this article to others if it’s useful.

Previous articles in this series:
What is the root of all evil according to Buddha?

Must we all suffer?
Why can’t I be happy?