It was a fine day for an adventure and, leaving the 6 kittens and their mom with Aunty Erica for a couple of nights, I drove into the mountains toward Five Peaked Mountain for my first getaway in a long while.
My Air BnB, “The Snug,” came complete with mountains on all sides and its very own fairy garden. I sat outside with my face in the sun drinking coffee and contemplating snow because there was an awful lot of it around.
When we meditate, we often imagine that we are surrounded by living beings — our family and so on sitting closest to us but nobody left out. Snow reminds me that I am surrounded by infinite living beings, each unique, each dependent on each other. And I am not a big human being surrounded by miniscule snowflakes – I am also just one of those snowflakes no more important than any other.
Because there was snow as far as the eye could see, so there were snowflakes as far as the eye could see – and living beings too really are countless. Even a few square feet is so packed full of snowflakes, and so too is a city, for example, so packed full of living beings. Yet this is just a tiny tiny portion of all the snow/living beings who are alive and feel important.
Given that, why would one snowflake ever consider itself more significant than any of these others, let alone all these others? Even if it happened to be in charge of the few million snowflakes immediately around it, in the grand scheme of things this is negligible. Not to mention that however powerful a snowflake may think it is, or however popular or talented, it is still 100 percent dependent on all the other snowflakes and cannot last for even a second without them. (Ever seen a snowflake on its own?) And soon of course it will melt just like everyone else.
Caught by the light, snowflakes sparkle – move just a bit, though, and they stop sparkling while others sparkle instead. In the same way, over a period of countless aeons everybody has sparkled for us as our mother, our partner, our child, and so on, sometimes for a lifetime, sometimes for just a moment. And then they’ve gone dark again as we have moved on or moved away, mentally or physically, including at death.
That same afternoon I went looking for Rainbow Lake. Google Maps had a red dot right in the middle of it, but my car got me only as far as a lay by some miles away.
I walked further than I realized along the rainbow trail – as I got higher, the sun got lower, and it started getting quite chilly. I was leaning against a wooden pole in a sunbeam when a woman on cross country skis passed me on her way down. I asked if the lake was just up there, and she said she didn’t think it was. Then she added that she would prefer it if I went back down the mountain rather than go up any further because it was going to get exceedingly cold and I wasn’t going to find my lake. You can’t find rainbows and, as it turns out, you can’t find rainbow lakes either.
I followed her advice, not least because she was wearing red from top to toe, and I was glad I did because I was the last one off that mountain. I saw no one on the way down, and if I’d carried on up the mountain in search of that Rainbow Lake I may not be writing this to you now.
However, I did then get a bit more of an adventure than I bargained for. Having walked for quite a distance, I realized I could not recognize a thing. The sun was threatening to dip behind the mountains. I was lost.
I couldn’t retrace my steps too far because it was about to be very cold, not to mention pitch dark, and there wasn’t going to be any help forthcoming from that direction. I waded up a hillock in the thick snow to see if I could see anything promising on the horizon, but all that revealed was that the town lights were a rather alarmingly long way away.
A little worried, I kept walking until I was relieved to see a big building in the distance. Hurrying over to it, I called out loudly to a small figure in the parking lot, who told me that this was Summit Hospital and she was a nurse. She told me to keep walking on the trail for about a mile to access the emergency entrance of the hospital, go inside to avoid freezing, and figure out what to do from there. She couldn’t drive me anywhere, she said, because she was just on her quick break. Some break, talking to a foolish tourist! I love nurses.
A little later I was pondering how to get down the large bank of 3 to 4 feet snow and across a low wall to access the hospital below, and what I’d even do when I got there given that Uber wasn’t an option here and I didn’t know anyone in Frisco, when a couple walked past me, the only other people I had seen on the trail for well over an hour. I stopped them to explain my predicament, whereupon Jim said I needed to follow them, he thought he might know where my car was parked, but it was at least two miles away and did I mind walking fast? (It seemed like the opposite direction to me, but I wasn’t going to leave these people now!)
I fell into conversation with Julie, who commiserated with me for having a terrible sense of direction and told me that Jim and her took long hikes every day but were never out this late, she didn’t know how the day had gotten away from her. We were talking about how unbearable it must be to be truly stranded in these teeth-chattering, finger-throbbing temperatures without a house, like so many people in Denver. I was able to reach out to Julie or the hospital or even the police if it came to it, but who can unhoused people turn to for safety and warmth? In Denver, these human beings are not just ignored but constantly swept from place to place, their tents, sweeping bags, and other meager belongings trashed, even during these unlive-able temperatures. It just beggars belief.
Jim had ran off ahead but, meeting up with him again 2.5 fast-walked miles later, we discovered that my car was not here after all. (Sort of a relief – my sense of direction was bad, but not that bad.) Jim was all for me calling the police at this point, but Julie had decided by now that she was not going to let this “young lady” (thanks Julie!) stick around any longer in the mountains in -9 degree temperatures. They called their son in law Chris, who bundled me and Julie in the car and drove us around Frisco until I recognized a road, from where we found my car. Then they waited until I drove safely away. I was very apologetic and thankful. Julie told me she believed in karma and that I would help her one day. How right she is.
Which just goes to illustrate my point about snowflakes. For the skier in red, the nurse in green, Julie, Chris, and Jim — strangers just hours ago — all sparkled brightly for me today.
One of Buddha Shakyamuni’s qualities is that he has love and compassion without discrimination. Sometimes we fantasize about Buddha’s time, as if it was always peaceful and magical. But the truth is that Buddha went against the grain of his society and invited everyone into the spiritual community — men, women, kings, queens, those of the lowest caste, those shunned by society, even thieves and murderers. This speaks to the foundation of the teachings — that they are for everyone. These teachings, which provide freedom, provide this freedom for everyone. It was powerful then and it is powerful now.
Tibet was pretty feudal, not the most progressive society in the world by any means. Although there were spiritual masters and Yoginis of staggering power, Dharma teachings and teachers were largely confined to the monasteries; and for whatever reason society as a whole was static for centuries. We have a better opportunity than practitioners in Tibet to use Buddhist ideas to make a difference in our world because we are already democratic in theory and because of modern communications. The last time that Venerable Geshe Kelsang, originally from Tibet, visited the States, he praised Western countries:
I find in Western countries very good examples. For example, in Europe and in America, according to their constitutions, everyone is equal. They’ve even made it into law. There is equal education, equal rights, equal freedom for free speech, no discrimination between different races, no discrimination between different religions.
On paper at least we are doing very well, and this is actually a wonderful achievement. The truth is that you cannot find one single person who is more important than everyone else, or even more important than anyone else. We are equal. We believe it in principle. However, as we know, we don’t always believe or live this truth in practice. Why? Geshe Kelsang explained:
It is so difficult to put this law into practice because we cannot help but discriminate naturally. Due to our self-cherishing mind thinking “I am important” and ignoring others’ happiness, even though the law says everyone is to be treated equally we are not doing this practically. The government constitutions saying “Everyone is equal” looks like a Mahayana Buddhist idea; but we can’t do it practically.
When Gen-la Dekyong was talking about this in this year’s Summer Festival, she said we need to check inside our heart: “Am I discriminating that everyone is equal? When we think I, I, mine, mine, we naturally cherish that I, thinking it is most important, and neglect others.” As Geshe-la says:
We can’t practice equality if we have never trained in thinking ‘Self-cherishing is bad. It causes problems and suffering.’ Thus the constitution is the law and Mahayana Buddhism is the practice of this law.
As Buddha’s ideas spread into the modern world at large, where everything is connected, we now have a new and inspiring opportunity to use them to reshape our society and become truly democratic. Everyone can make use of these ideas, not just Buddhists, for they are in many ways just super-charged common sense.
Over to my co-writer again for some very helpful suggestions on how we can get started.
Equalizing self and others
If we want to move from division to unity, if we want true equality, one way is to practice equalizing self and others. We can contemplate this for example:
Just as we value our own peace and happiness, so too should we value the peace and happiness of all living beings; and just as we work to free ourself from suffering and problems, so too should we work to free others. ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness
If we’re going to get to true or actual equality, equalizing is what we each need to practice. This is a very deep attitude, a deep spiritual conversion of our heart. Believing that other people’s happiness is equally or at least as important as our own, we will really help them and pray for them.
If we all go deep into this, how would it affect the people around us? How would our world change as a result? I think our personal world would change immensely, and the immediate world of our family and community would also change. Our contribution, our influence, would be powerful.
We need to examine our own perceptions and attitudes through introspection or meditation; this is our responsibility. What about those who are not doing this though, who are careless with their self-cherishing, who don’t even know or care that they have it?
The only appropriate response to those who are driven by their delusions to harm others is compassion. Sometimes it is necessary to force those who are behaving in very deluded ways to stop both for their own sake and to protect other people, but it is never appropriate to blame or become angry with them. ~ Eight Steps
Which means to hate them. We know this. To hate someone who is acting out of ignorance or hatred is no better. It is no solution. It is a deeper transformation of our mind to see that people are being harmed by their hatred as opposed to being their hatred. It takes the wisdom born from meditation to really see the difference between a delusion and a person. It’s not intellectual.
We are all family
Right now, there’s a lot of division. Broadly speaking, we have friends, we have people we don’t like, and we have a huge group inbetween for whom we feel nothing at all. This is all mis-identification because, according to Buddha, we are all family. We have all been each others’ mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters a million times over. Through the countless rebirths we have had, we’ve changed our relationships repeatedly. We have taken a different rebirth now, but that doesn’t mean the connection we’ve had is gone — it does still exist. We are connected deeply.
Along with this basic category of friends, enemies, and strangers, we further divide ourselves up in so many different ways: by culture, race, sexual preferences, politics, income, and more. So then what happens? We develop attachment for the people who seem to be like us or who agree with us. And we develop unpleasant feelings — maybe even hatred — for people who do not seem to be like us or who do not subscribe to our views. Doesn’t this sound like what we do!? We create division. We’re fractured.
Just to get profound for a bit … on the deepest level, the origins of these classifications and divisions are what we call “dualistic appearance” and “dualistic grasping.” There’s the truth or reality of me, and there’s also what appears to be me. We see these two things to be separate when they are not.
For example when you go to work there’s a professional you in your uniform, then when you go home there’s an at-home you in your old comfy jeans. The professional you is not different from the at-home you — they are just different aspects of what appears to be you. The truth of you is that you are undefined and unlimited in aspects. Gardening you, jogging you, angry you, happy you. There are so many aspects or appearances of you! All of these “you’s” are unified in your truth, which is what Buddha called your emptiness.
One way to look at it is this — you are truly empty of definition. You are the unlimited possibility of emptiness. It’s a very positive liberating emptiness!
Your emptiness, or lack of true definition, is how the many aspects or appearances of you are possible in the first place. For the sake of argument, if you really were just one of these aspects entirely, defined only in that one way, the other aspects of you would be impossible. However, how you live your varied life every day in all these aspects tells you what’s really going on.
All of these modes of you, these ways of being, exist because of your lack of true definition. Your unlimited true nature (your emptiness) and your various aspects are unified. However we normally perceive these two, our emptiness and our aspects, as two different things, which is called dualistic appearance or mistaken appearance. Out of deep habit we believe this difference or inner division to be true, which is called dualistic grasping. From The Mirror of Dharma:
When we see our body, in truth we see only the emptiness of our body because the real nature of our body is its emptiness. However, we do not understand this because of our ignorance. We normally see our body as something that exists from its own side. This is mistaken appearance. ~ The Mirror of Dharma
Whether talking about our body or our self, we are perceiving something that is true as well as something that is not true. We perceive our emptiness, because emptiness is our true way of being, yet we don’t apprehend or relate to it. Instead we see and relate to an ordinary limited self that is independent in its way of being.
For example, we can think “I’m stuck,” and have this strong sense of a limited real self, yet not understand how that sense of self depends upon our way of thinking and is therefore empty of being stuck, not really stuck! Our mind is obscured by confusion, although the truth is already before us.
If our confused mind is creating division in ourself at a very deep level, you better believe it’s going to divide everyone and everything else up too. However, due to Buddha’s great and practical wisdom, we can remedy this situation. We can become whole — individually and collectively.
If we believe that there is an independent me or self, then this means there’s an independent you or other too. We have divided ourselves into independent me and independent you. Or into real, or actual, self and other.
Then come the many layers of classification and division that pile on from that ignorance. We believe in so many things that don’t exist from their own side! We put everything into separate boxes, not seeing their interconnection and 100 percent mutual dependence. Understanding the origin point of the mistake, we can address it or abandon it, as Buddha explains fully in the four noble truths.
Uprooting systemic ignorance
Samsara, from a Buddhist definition, is the cycle of impure life — a life that is created by this dualistic self-grasping ignorance along with the self-centeredness (Me first!) that goes with it. This world that we normally see is definitely impure life — created, controlled, and perpetuated by ignorance. It is not so hard to see this truth when it is pointed out. The root of samsara is deep, deep systemic ignorance, and it is therefore pervaded by systemic division and systemic inequality.
The inequality that we see in society is a manifestation of the deep levels of samsaric divisiveness. Because in the origin point of our thinking there is a false duality, everything else is a projection of this duality, this separation, this division. However, instead of believing in an objective or actual “self” and “other” — or an independent me divided from an independent you — we can learn to see ourselves as gathered together into one. Parts of a whole. Unified in truth.
Going back to equalizing, we can see for a start that each one of us is interconnected in a dimensionless, huge, universal wish to be happy and free. We are unified or one in this wish. We can easily begin to overcome our mistaken divisiveness by seeing and feeling that we are all interconnected rather than independent. It’s so necessary, because this view of independence is literally killing us.
Geshe Kelsang says:
Loving others is principally an attitude of mind. The way in which we express it depends upon the needs, wishes, and situations of each individual as well as our karmic connection with them. We cannot physically care for everyone, but we can develop a caring attitude towards all beings. This is the main point of training the mind.
We can spend weeks, months, our whole life on deeply seeing others’ happiness and freedom as important as our own, and developing a caring attitude towards them. If we can do this, we will move beyond division. When we do this, we become someone who creates harmony, who creates peace, who can repair trouble. We become more and more fearless, an abolitionist of inequality. We have the methods. We’ve got such clear instruction that holds incredible power. We’ve got the wish and people are waiting.
Over to you. Please leave your comments and questions for us in the comments so we can answer them.
Everything is being shaken up right now for almost everyone, one way or another. Business and activities as usual, including many of our distractions, are on hold. The future looks pretty cloudy and unsustainable based on our old ways of doing things; it would appear that something has to give.
Hopefully a lot of you, the relatively lucky ones who are forced to stay “safe at home”, have actually had a chance to rest and rejuvenate … you may have forgotten this, but in the “old days” we constantly complained of being too busy, stressed, even burned out. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say “I LOVE the idea of meditation!” but then never got around to it … (I’d be quite rich). If we use this time to deliberately reset our intentions and our hearts through meditation practices including loving-kindness, things will work out a lot better moving forward. Instead of giving ourselves over to anxiety (a “misuse of the imagination”) or aimlessly twiddling our thumbs, it makes us feel far more alive to take control of our days and hours.
Cells in the same body of life
We are all like cells in the body of life in two ways and there is nothing uniquely special about us in that respect.
To remind you of the first way, as explained in this last article Love the Great Protector — at the moment we may view ourself as being independent of everyone else – I am over here being me and you are over there being you — but that gap is not actually there. Where is that gap? When we meditate on the interconnectedness of self and others, we realize that without others we’re literally nothing. We melt away like individual snowflakes. We don’t exist.
Buddha said that we are not wholes unto ourselves but part of a whole, only existing in dependence upon all the other parts. This is not just theoretical, it is reality. We need this deeper knowing so that we are not sucked into the illusion of loneliness every day.
Plus right now we can see that we are all on the same side fighting the same foe – we always are, it’s just clearer at the moment. We do have a common enemy and it is not each other – it is ignorance and delusions, suffering in general, and at this point in time the particular suffering arising from COVID-19.
We could recognize what needs to be done, practically speaking, without wasting time apportioning blame. Blaming each other with anger doesn’t really help, it generally makes things worse, and it tends to make us feel more powerless. We can stop blaming each other by recognizing that we are all in this together, that far from being each other’s enemies we are each other’s life support system.
When we really come to feel that we are cells in the same body of life, it’s not hard to appreciate that everything we do affects others and everything they do affects us. The parts affect the whole and the whole affects the parts. This is why our constant attempts to separate ourselves out backfire. When we go through life thinking “Me, me, me,” all day long (“What about me and my happiness, that’s what’s most important!”) — neglecting others and pursuing our own wishes at the expense of others — then we are not just harming others but harming ourselves. If everyone in the whole world is thinking “Me first!”… well, we can just look at the world to see how that is (not) working out.
It is a good time to take stock. Many societal fault-lines are being revealed even more glaringly during this crisis – for example what happens if we don’t care for everyone’s health without prejudice. As the now famous Fauci said yesterday: “These health disparities have long been prevalent in the African American community and that this pandemic is shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is. ”
There is no clearly good path or outcome based on how our species has been running full tilt toward wreckage due to our uncontrolled selfish desires. We need to turn this around, starting with ourselves. We can’t wait for everyone else to change – where would we be if Buddha had done that? It is extraordinary what even one person can do to help their community if they put their mind to it – people who deeply cherish others are like “magic crystals”.
Caring about others is the best intention. Because we are all cells in the same body of life, what is good for one person must be good for another; and if we are harming others, we are harming ourselves. We all impact each other in both life-threatening and life-saving ways. We need to wake up to this. Love helps us immediately and it helps us in the long term because the positive intentions that arise from love are congruent with our wish for good experiences in the future.
Equalizing self and others
Everyone matters and everyone matters equally. We are all exactly the same. The different cells in a body play different functions, but they are all important and need to be healthy.
The second way in which we are all like cells in the same body of life is explained in the meditation called “Equalizing ourself and others”. This meditation opens our hearts to cherishing others as much as we currently cherish ourself because we are all exactly the same, equally necessary parts of the one whole.
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.
“All this happiness is driving me crazy!” said no one ever. And who wants to be unhappy!? Right, nobody.
We’ve been working non-stop forever to be happy and free from unhappiness, but something we are doing is not working. Buddha identified that as self-grasping and self-cherishing ignorance, putting our own happiness and freedom before others’, which has brought about “a painful situation,” as Geshe Kelsang says, in all our countless lives.
The starting point of this meditation is: “Everyone is exactly like me. We all have the same wishes. I know their hearts.” We can practice it with our friends first, even just one friend, and then extend our contemplation to encompass more and more living beings.
What is life like for this person? We put ourselves in their shoes. This is empathy. If we don’t rush it but sit with this meditation, we will notice our heart starts to open. The first time I did this meditation was for my paternal grandmother, as explained in this article. It led to the liberating discovery that I could choose whom I love. I could choose my thoughts about people. It is not up to them whom I love, it is up to me. And this affection always makes me feel happy.
Through this meditation on equalizing self and others we come to understand what it is like for everyone in their hearts because they are just like me — they are as 3-dimensional as I am and have just as strong wishes for happiness and freedom. Far from being extras in the movie in which I play a starring role, they are all lead actors themselves.
Buddha’s advice on equalizing might even help us survive our relationships and/or prevent us killing our kids (jk. It’s just that a news alert popped up when I was writing this sentence, “Can your marriage survive the coronavirus?”)
What is the difference between me and anyone else, therefore? What makes me more worthy or deserving of freedom and happiness than anyone else in this house or anywhere else? Nothing. We are all exactly the same and completely and utterly equal. We all want the same things — to be happy and free. No one is better than anyone else. Putting ourselves first therefore doesn’t work because it is not based on a realistic vision. Something as dramatic as this pandemic can help us to see that.
I spoke to a nurse on the front lines who is not happy about the “non-compliant” or flippant people taking risks, not realizing they could bring this virus to others including their own friends and family – she told me that it feels like an insult to her sacrifices. This is why people are doing a good thing by staying at home and why we may as well make the most of it. We can start by reframing it as being “safe” at home and having the opportunity to rest, rejuvenate, and think deeply about where we want to go next individually and collectively.
As Madonna said it (from her bathtub as it happens, but why not, anything goes these days):
We are all in the same boat. And if the ship goes down, we’re all going down together.
She talked about this pandemic being the great equalizer (hence the bathtub I guess). I was thinking about that too when I saw that some of the late night comedy hosts are doing their shows from their couch or porch, filmed by their partners. Without the glitz and glamor of the showbiz, without the studio audience and the band, it felt no different to a Skype call I could have had with any number of amusing friends. We are all exactly the same, and to their credit the late night hosts seem to agree.
The masks reveal who we really are
How as individuals and as a society have we been viewing and treating other human beings who may not look exactly like us, but who upon closer examination obviously are us? As Seneca put it:
We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.
I don’t often quote Seneca, in fact this is a first; but I just read that quote in a thoughtful article about how many people are coming together to help each other all over the world, in ways big and small. In it, the author talks about the equalizing effect of the masks we are all wearing:
The mask also represents a world all in action at once,waves of the same sea, united against a common threat. When you put on a mask your features disappear, erasing the differences of skin color or face shape that trigger so many of our socially conditioned responses to the news. The masks work just as well whether you’re black, brown or white, Chinese, Italian, or Nigerian. What we are seeing now is something truly global in scale.
With equalizing, we recognize that everyone is a Me or an I. This includes every single human being. And, frankly, it also includes every single animal, who have just the same constant wish to be free from suffering and to be happy – as your cat will tell you loudly when you accidentally step on her tail. We would do well to recognize that all animals are part of our world, part of this whole, part of our body of life – and we depend on them as they do us. Do we usually pay much heed to their suffering? If we don’t, maybe we should.
We have to stop being cruel. Karmically our indifference, disdain, or cruelty is creating the causes for terrible times ahead. Word on the street is that pandemics come from our abuse of animals, and now, I’ve been thinking, here we are also locked in like billions of animals. What makes us so sure that these kinds of situations won’t deteriorate even more over time if we keep sowing careless and harmful intentions into our world?
Helping others makes us feel better
Would you say that deep in people’s core is the desire to be of service to others, to do something truly good from their hearts? Buddhists would say that the delusions get in the way, yet our hearts are naturally good. We are a bit like teenagers, or even children as Buddha would say, when it comes to selfless service to others. But the thing about children is that they have the potential to grow up. There is nothing wrong with any of us deep down, just a lack of knowledge and/or practice.
Good actions come from good intentions and lead to good outcomes. Many people, maybe all, find that helping others is deeply satisfying — far more so than just following our own selfish desires. As Shantideva succinctly puts it:
The childish work only for themselves, Whereas the Buddhas work only for others.
Just look at the difference between them.
Helping others is where it’s at — this is what Buddha, Jesus, and all other great spiritual leaders have always said. It’s also an observable fact and we already kind of know it – we just don’t always act by it. But we feel better when we do, which makes sense when we understand we are all cells in the same body of life. Here are some “real-life” examples:
“It feels good to be able to do something,” D’Antonio (a maker of masks) said. “Because you feel helpless in this whole thing.” Despite the fear, anxiety and heartache, rather than the normal stress response of flight or fight, we can tap into a natural “tend and befriend” impulse, as one psychologist put it rather well:
“It can actually help us cultivate well-being in the midst of this pandemic. It also spreads hope. There’s so much we can’t control, but the one thing we can control is to help somebody or offer some kindness or compassion. That is what the virus hasn’t touched, these innate capacities we have as humans.”
One person shopping for the elderly put it: “I think it’s really important in times of crisis, when people are doing something positive it does make you feel a little bit calmer and more in control. It certainly does me. And another: “I do think the act of giving just makes us feel better. It feels as though we’re doing something, we’re part of a collective effort.” And another: “I think we just felt panic never solves anything, let’s focus some of that energy on really helping the people in our community.”
At a loss as to what to do practically to help?
Even if we can’t make any grand gestures to help others because we can’t think of any, we can keep our friends, family, and elderly neighbors in our thoughts and reach out to them by phone or on Facetime, especially those whom we know are more isolated than usual. Shelters are crying out for people to foster cats and dogs right now; and I know from caring for the two I have that they are a helpful reminder that, however bad we have it in the human realm, it is still far better than being an animal.
And even if for whatever reason we cannot do anything practical at all right now, we should know that our mental actions are very powerful, in a karmic sense even more powerful than physical and verbal actions, and that our prayers help. The practice known as “taking and giving” is also a massively useful and beautiful practice, always giving us a way to help others; and you can read up how to do it in this free ebook, in the chapter Taking and Giving.
To summarize these last 4 articles written for the age of Corona, we are all in this together.
We see the “me” in each other through equalizing self and others, because we see everyone is Me.
Wesee all the others in me when we meditate on how we are composed of others, rather like a wave arising in an ocean is composed directly or indirectly of all the other waves — without others we do not exist. We all need each other and no one is more important than anyone else.
This global appearance of the virus is bringing that home. The more we use this time at home to tune into this wisdom, the bigger our heart will grow and the more our problems will shrink.
Last but not least, it’s immensely helpful to remember how everything is the same nature as our mind, like a dream or a reflection of a moon in a rippling lake. Through this we’ll see how, whenever we develop wisdom and compassion, we are already changing the make-up of our world because everything starts and ends in our minds. Avalokiteshvara, the Compassion Buddha, is known as “the most powerful one of all” because compassion is infinitely more powerful than the delusions of hate and attachment, it is an indestructible response to the way things are.
We identify with the gold nugget of our Buddha nature, not the dirt of the delusions. If we do this, it is not hard to get rid of the dirt – but if we are trying to get rid of the dirt while identifying with the dirt, we will get nowhere.
We identify also with our natural warmth (or our “instinctive compassion” as Queen Elizabeth referred to it the other day.)
We think that everyone is sitting around us – countless in number. Everyone wants to be happy and free from suffering just as I do. We can choose one person first, contemplate their life and wishes until our heart moves, and then expand this affection to others.
We understand that each one of them is exactly like us. It is only our delusions that are isolating us and cutting us off from others, as if we are a cell existing in a vacuum all on our own.
We are all equally cells in body of life, all parts of the same whole. Everyone is equally important and equally deserving of happiness and freedom. In this way, we develop love, concern, and compassion for all living beings.
If we like, why not, we can finish off by putting a Buddha on everyone’s crown. We can think, for example, that the compassion of all enlightened beings is appearing as Avalokiteshvara on their crowns, pouring blessings into them, healing their body and mind.
Over to you – what have you been up to during these unusual times?!
You may know this already, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded, that people the world over are all the same in the ways that really count.
For one thing, samsara sucks for everyone. Birth, sickness, old age, and death – who is immune from these four great rivers or from having to watch loved ones helplessly tossed around upon them?
Carrying straight on from this article,where I started talking about transforming adverse conditions into the path.
The day I arrived in South Africa, I heard that my beloved cat Rousseau, the king of the neighborhood, had met his match. He was torn to death by a coyote.
No words, really. A nightmare for him. Despite his own murderous ways, he had a heart of sweetness under those terrible instincts, and he deserved so much better. Everybody does. I am so very grateful for the hundreds of prayers that many of you offered for him, and that Venerable Geshe-la enquired after him. As cats go, despite his terrifying and painful death, he was still blessed. Only a tiny fraction of wild animals get to die peacefully in their sleep, and infinitely fewer still have anyone paying any attention to them, let alone a great spiritual master. However, it still makes me ask, for the thousandth time — how do people cope with losses like this without Dharma?
Over a month later, the panther is still on my mind. But that is not him anymore. Where are you, my dear? Why can we never know where people have gone. A friend of mine once went missing in Florida – two agonizing weeks for everyone who loved her, the just not knowing. Then she was found drowned, her car having overshot a bridge in the middle of the night; and everyone was “Well, at least we know now.” But of course we don’t know; she is still missing. We have no clue where she is. That alone is reason enough to become a Buddha, if you ask me – so that we can keep eyes on everyone always, like Avalokiteshvara with his thousand arms and eyes, because they are now always mere aspects of our omniscient blissful mind.
Rousseau’s other mom Donna asked for my input into his gravestone and I chose a stone Buddha statue from Walmart. I hope through seeing Buddha that she and all the other humans and animals in his old stomping grounds will receive continuous blessings. Even the coyote.
Outer problems in South Africa can clearly be a good deal more challenging than my own usual first-world problems. For example, I don’t need the daily fear of a deadly crash in the crazy communal taxi I rely on to get to work.
These taxis are everywhere, sidling alongside your car in the same lane, viewing every gap in the road as an opportunity to get ahead because, at the end of the day, payment depends upon meeting impossible quotas. South African traffic is crazy!!! As my old friend Cas put it in his laconic way when I asked why people didn’t follow the road rules, “They are more like guidelines.” (Some of you know Cas as no-shoes John from the Festivals – and it may please you to know that he was the first Kadampa in South Africa, requesting the first teachings.) Or I could be living in a place with zero privacy, several family members in a noisy one-roomed house, or no electricity, or insufficient money for supper. And so on.
But life is not easy back here in the States either, despite it still being the richest country in the world. For example, a friend of mine, JW, who is doing a study on senior homelessness often tells me stories of his clients’ wretched conditions in Oakland CA. This one just in:
Work today was nonstop. It was also a bit gloomy. I had an interview with a homeless gentleman who is in extremely poor health. He has a broken bone in his shoulder, another broken in his leg and has had countless falls in the past couple of months due to having problems with his balance. He is outside and the rains are beginning to fall. He is in serious need of help but is having a hard time finding it.
JW is not allowed to “interfere,” because this study is to reveal what senior homeless people need and so those results cannot be skewed. So:
All I could do for him was to give him a few large garbage bags to us as a poncho or for shelter. Sad.
As mentioned in this article, our role model in Mahayana Buddhism, called a “Bodhisattva”, works on solving both outer and inner problems — trying to come to the aid of those in need whenever the opportunity is there to do so.
But although outer problems vary from place to place and time to time, our inner problems do not — they come from our delusions grasping at me and mine, they distort our perceptions, they destroy our peace, and inside they feel the same. And these problems can only be finally solved for any of us when we get around to purifying and transforming our minds.
Our states of mind feel exactly the same – whether that be worry, irritation, or the pleasure of changing suffering. If you are really p***** off with George, does that not feel the same as someone else feeling really p****** off with Mary? Your grief or your annoyance or your depression or your attachment feels the same as mine, for example; only the object varies.
We are funny really – all feeling like we are the center of the universe and somehow different and unique. We have so little real clue about the vast majority of the world’s population of humans, let alone animals; but I think we are safe in assuming that everyday life everywhere is a mixture of the same array of negative, neutral, and virtuous minds, just in varying ratios. That makes our stories and priorities similar, world over, regardless of our background or culture; and knowing that could help us to understand and empathize with each other.
If you want to check whether Buddha’s explanation of all living beings’ negative, neutral, and virtuous states of mind actually applies to you or not, I recommend you read How to Understand the Mind. Go see if he has left any of your thoughts out.
On the basis of allowing our delusions to subside temporarily through allowing the mind to settle even a little, for example with this meditation, connecting with some natural inner peace, we can then gradually learn strategies or ways of thinking to (a) pre-empt our future problems and/or (b) deal with them or transform them as they start to arise.
With the help of mind-training (Lojong) in particular, in which we learn to apply Buddha’s teachings directly to our difficulties, we can develop a huge repertoire of coping mechanisms.
Just for starters, whatever problem we are having today, instead of thinking of it as inherently bad we can try labelling or imputing it as a useful teaching. For the sake of argument, let’s say that today you notice a strange lesion on your skin – you had been thinking it was a scratch but it’s been there 2 months and is now ominously growing. You send a photo to a friend, who sends it to a dermatologist, who texts back, “Skin cancer until proven otherwise.”
Meantime you have been chucked off Medicaid due to not filing the correct paperwork in time.
Okay. After the initial freakout — spending a panicky half hour looking at all the Google images for skin cancer and discovering that, yes, it could be benign, as your friend is trying to tell you, but on the other hand it could also be the worst possible most malignant melanoma and you have approximately 2 years left to live — you decide to slow down and, for the sake of your sanity, think about this from a Dharma point of view. Instead of grasping so tightly at me and mine, maybe you decide to let those thoughts dissolve into the peaceful clarity of your own mind, like bubbles into water, going for refuge in the peace of your own Buddha nature and/or in holy beings.
Within the mental flexibility or freedom that opens up in that space, this small but very present skin lesion can now remind us of all sorts of things, such as:
I need more inner peace, in fact lasting inner peace; and I need to identify my self with this peace, not with this mental pain and possible physical suffering.
This is what life is like for others, so it’s giving me a window into empathy – for example for people experiencing dread or fear when they receive bad news from a doctor. When we get over ourselves, we finally start to relax.
This is not inherently bad because it can make me stronger. Me myself, this lesion, and my experience of this lesion, far from being solid or fixed, all depend upon my thoughts. I can come to enjoy the challenge of transforming this problem into a solution! Why? Because I want to be a better person.
This is a true story that happened to someone I know, probably many people actually — and this way of thinking has worked for them, they feel peaceful again, inner problem solved for now. They are also dealing with the outer problem by getting on the phone to Medicaid and finding a doctor who can see them next week.
This also works for transforming other people’s problems. Someone in Joburg told me that all vegans are depressed, including her, because things are changing so slowly – and how can she transform that kind of stress? Again, heart-rending as it is when it comes to animals and other vulnerable people, we cannot immediately sort out all their outer problems, any more than one drowning person can save another drowning person, however much they want to. But as well as doing the best we can, knowing that every little bit helps someone, we can use these situations to increase our compassion and our wish to become a Buddha as quickly as possible for their sake.
As we progressively free ourselves from depression, discouragement, and other delusions and as we increase our wisdom, patience, and good heart, we can become more skillful, creative, and full of the tireless courage we need if we are to free everybody.
Happy Holidays! If you’re at home this holidays trying to help make the people around you happy, but are feeling a bit discouraged because it’s not working as well as you’d like, here are some ideas.
I’ve often thought my main job in life is to try help others be happier. Even when I’m in a funk because of uncontrolled thoughts (delusions), I still generally want the humans and animals around me to be happy; and that has often turned out to be the saving grace that gets me out of my despondency. Which of course makes sense if we understand the countless benefits of cherishing others.
An ex once told me (when feeling unusually complimentary), “You have a talent for making people happy.” But to be fair I don’t make everyone happy, by no means. Not even close. And my frustration in past relationships has often been that the other person won’t let me make them happy!
Which has over the years led me to the inescapable conclusion that attachment to making others happy is no good, in fact is just another form of attachment. It is tied in with attachment to MY friends, MY family, anyone we consider “mine” somehow. It may be more subtle or harder to identify than the attachment wanting others to make US happy, but it is attachment nonetheless.
(It’s a bit like those kids who squeeze their pets so tightly out of “love” that they suffocate them.)
In these scenarios, their happiness is making us happy not because of the love but because of the attachment. And I can tell this is the case because (a) my own happiness is conditional on their being happy, and (b) when I weed out the attachment for them, and keep or grow the love, the problem of frustration or disappointment goes away even when they refuse to cooperate with my wish for them to be happy.
This kind of attachment is commonly seen in parents for children who just cannot get their acts together; or in children for parents who refuse to listen to good modern advice; or in partners for partners who refuse to be happy even though that makes no sense because they have the good fortune to be going out with us 😉
One partner used to say, “You can’t make me happy; I have to do that for myself.” I absolutely agree, of course, but even so one part of me is still, “Yeah, but, if you listened to my excellent advice and allowed yourself to feel the warmth of my love, you’d get happier a lot quicker.” There may or may not be some truth in that, but being attached to that kind of idea undermines our ability to help them. (And drives us slowly mad.)
“It’d be so good for you!”
This attachment can also spill over into our wish for the MY people in our lives to practice meditation or Dharma. I confess that, as far as I’m concerned, pretty much everyone could use Dharma, regardless of their background or belief system, because it is supercharged common sense that solves the inner problems of our delusions and mental pain. However, do we care extra about our own friends and family learning about it?
If so, one way to dilute that attachment and share (perhaps magnify) the love is to spread that wish out to everyone we meet, wanting them all to solve their problems through overcoming their delusions. Our concern is than less Me oriented and more Other oriented. We can relax about our friends and family, being happy to let them find their own way to Dharma with or without the help of our fine example.
One other thing while I’m on this subject, BTW … I know it’s not ME who makes others happy. I simply have the good luck of knowing lots of helpful Buddhist advice thanks entirely to my Spiritual Guide, which means I have this medicine or nectar to give away. It’s not an ego thing, except when it is and attachment creeps in.
Not just wishing others’ more samsara
We can also check what it is that we are actually wishing for our loved ones — are we just wishing them more samsara? In which case, we can deepen our compassion, and that also has the effect of reducing our attachment to results. There’s more about that in this article.
Our happiness is your reward
Someone once wrote to me in a communal thank you card, “Our happiness is your reward.”I liked this because it rang true: although I had no attachment to making this particular person happy, because as it happened I didn’t even know who they were, it seemed it was in fact enough for me that they were happy.
It reminded me of Shantideva saying in the teachings on exchanging self with others that we need to get rid of suffering not because of who it belongs to but just because it hurts. Similarly, I need an unconditional wish to make others happy regardless of whether or not they have anything to “do” with me – their happiness in and of itself is enough, whoever they are, just because happiness feels good.
The more happiness we can spread, the better. It doesn’t really matter who the happiness and suffering belong to, especially as everyone equally wants to be happy and free — we can start to develop a Buddha’s (com)passionate love for everyone without exception. No one loses out, including our nearest and dearest. For this way our love will start to flow unconstricted by ego concerns, less and less dual, enough for everyone, like sunshine warming everywhere.
Over to you. Hope your holidays are going well enough?
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.
(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?
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.
“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.
Which 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 violently 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!”
By 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.
Addition 2020: This strange year seems to have shown even more obviously that samsara has nothing worth grasping onto. So just one more thing on the subject of leaves — another thing I like to do in Fall when I see the leaves fly off the trees is to imagine and/or pray that every living being flies through the higher sky of bliss and emptiness to land in a Pure Land, either at the time of death or sooner.
I seem to do most of the talking around here! Would love to hear from you in the comments below 😃
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 straightforward 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.
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.
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!!! 😉
Everyone 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.
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?
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
When 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.
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 our 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.
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, what 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
In 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?
We always think we know stuff about people — yeah 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.
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.
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.
Or 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 projected 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 peace being sidetracked by the three poisons. As Geshe-la says inJoyful 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.
I 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 article) can 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 …)
It’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.
This 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.
Sometimes 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.
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.