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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Who wants an existential wake-up call?!

8 min read 

past-life-signsLast night I dreamt that my spiritual teacher showed me all my lifetimes so far. These were not at all vivid, but I got a sense of the non-stop and varied installments in this interminable story of my samsara; and this was powerful. I cannot get it out of my mind – and nor do I want to.

It made me realize that if I don’t get my spiritual act together in this short life I am set to experience infinitely more chapters in this cycle of existence. Why am I at all interested, still, in buying into all these dramas, especially now that I have tasted the alternative of wisdom?

Then I woke to a foster kitten jumping onto my bed, and the recognition that this purring creature now kneading me with his paws was in yet another installment of his own beginningless story as well. This time, a cat book, filled with cat chapters. And right now our story is overlapping for a few paragraphs, but we will soon be moving on. Forced to move on. And I felt very sad for him because he has no way of understanding what all this means or what is in store for him, much less any way of escaping. And his confusion and suffering have already been going on for far too long.

Loved and lost

And then I thought of some of the humans I have loved and lost in this life alone, and realized that our endless stories had also intersected for just a few pages. At the time, it seemed that those relationships were deeply significant, and maybe in some ways they were. But they were never permanent – just a few shared paragraphs in the never-ending tomes of samsara.

Talk about getting things into perspective …! I am sorry to sound existentially terrifying, but a more realistic perspective brings us some measure of peace, and this has.

23622102_10155844260527442_2370081359763870875_nNo difference between those loved & lost humans and this kitten, really – at least, the only difference being a very small matter of time. As the equanimity meditation shows, I have been as close to this kitten in the past as I ever was to them. And it is this kitten, not them, who is currently appearing directly to my senses in this latest story line, and who is the one I can show love to directly.

Fleeting narratives

So each lifetime is like a new book, and within each book, whether short or long, are the transient chapters of that life. Within the chapters are paragraphs, including sentences and words. These make up the narrative of our lives, and the narrative we have largely been telling ourselves all these eons. For there is nothing behind these tales, or even these characters, when we look. Everything is mere name.

The common denominator holding this narrative together life after life is grasping at ME. Even though that me is changing all the time, even day by day, we believe it it real, that it is there, not just a projection of our thoughts. And then our self-cherishing, attachment, aversion, and other delusions emanate from that grasping in life after life, like a spider weaving her web. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:

 We need to understand that the inherently existent I that we grasp at so firmly and continuously does not exist at all. It never has existed and never will. It is merely the fabrication of our self-grasping ignorance. ~ page 51.

Moreover, our stories with each other may have interwoven in extraordinary or mundane ways, but they have all been, thus far, entirely ephemeral. And pretty much entirely out of our control.

We don’t own others. We cannot begin to own them. We don’t even own ourselves.

Swept along

201306-orig-past-life-949x534Most of the time – maybe the whole of beginningless time — we have been swept along by each unfolding drama and its bardo interludes, believing in it as if was the be-all and end-all, as if there was something solid behind those mental projections. We have clung on for dear life to every appearance – trying to solve our problems and get happy through the use of ignorance, attachment, and aversion all trying to manipulate the objects outside our mind. We have not yet realized that all subject minds and object things co-arise and subside simultaneously, like waves from an infinitely deeper source, the ocean of our own root mind that goes from life to life.

You may have noticed — we cannot solve an attachment problem with the attachment that is in fact creating the problem in the first place. Same for aversion. We can’t force the objects of our attachment or aversion to behave better while at the same time allowing our attachment and aversion to stay put. We can’t solve any actual problems or unpleasant feelings outside of changing our thoughts. But we sure do try.

If we cannot gain control over our mind through wisdom, we will have no choice but to believe in and be carried along by its projections or mistaken appearances. As Je Tsongkhapa says, in a graphic depiction of our real predicament:

Swept along by the currents of the four powerful rivers,
Tightly bound by the chains of karma, so hard to release,
Ensnared within the iron net of self-grasping,
Completely enveloped by the pitch-black darkness of ignorance,

Taking rebirth after rebirth in boundless samsara,
And unceasingly tormented by the three sufferings —
Through contemplating the state of your mothers in conditions such as these,
Generate a supreme mind of bodhichitta. ~ The Three Principal Aspects of the Path  

The imperative to get enlightened

beyond-1157000_960_720How can we help others, really help them, if we are as helplessly carried along as they are, and incapable of staying with any of them for very long, much less forever? Even the people we love the dearest in this life, who have always been there for us, such as our parents – we cannot even hold onto them. My mom turns 80 in two short days, on December 24th. I have known her for over half a century, I think about her every single day, I feel like I have never not known her, but …

This all adds up to … we have to become enlightened. We need to be the clear light of omniscience itself, the wisdom of bliss and emptiness, and to allow all new books, chapters, paragraphs, and even commas to appear within that completely purified, transformed, and blissful mind.

Otherwise everything that appears to us (other than to our very subtle mind) is going to remain as the mistaken and often painful projection of self-grasping. We will keep trying to believe in it as the truth, but like any hallucination or mirage it will thus forever and always keep letting us down.

Buddha_sunBuddha is the “supreme unchanging friend”. Enlightened beings are brighter than the sun, constantly shining in our lives, in all our lives. They are more stable than the great earth. They are omniscient wisdom mixed with universal compassion that pervades all beings. They have pulled this off as they have directly realized the non-duality of subject and object. We are mere aspects of their completely purified mind already, even if we don’t realize it.

Through following Buddha’s teachings, eventually we too will attain the non-conceptual mind of great bliss. With this we have direct experience that there is only one truth – ultimate truth emptiness – and that all conventional truths, ie, all story lines without exception, are mere appearances not other than ultimate truth.

Start here

If we want to help other people a lot, we can’t keep losing them. We can’t settle with just throwing them temporary lifelines as they drift in and out of our range. And how can any lifeline be enough if we are floundering in the waves ourselves?

We need to have everyone in our story all the time — not outside our mind, nor we outside theirs — sharing our mandala now and for always.

Leonard CohenI know that this may sound a very long way off, but we can start straightaway. There is nothing to lose, and every step we take will make our existential situation better.

What is the first step? Trusting in our own inner peace. We can start with just one simple breath carrying us into our heart.

What’s step two? High-quality encounters day by day. Learning to love people unconditionally in the moment. If we hold and remember people with love, they will not feel wrenched from our mind even when appearances change. We need not feel separate from them. We are always losing people through attachment, let alone aversion, so we must learn to dissolve these deluded conceptual thoughts and their objects away. As William Blake said along these lines:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

We can practice day by day to increase our love and compassion within the understanding of impermanence and space-like emptiness, until, as a Buddha, we can hold everyone all the time.

This way we will become supreme unchanging friends for the people we already adore, and for everyone else we have forgotten we adored in the past.

This may not be the Christmassy article you were hoping for, sorry; but it’s what I’ve been thinking about since I woke up 😁 Blame my mother — I wouldn’t be typing this fast if she hadn’t forced me to do a typing course back in the day. Or if she hadn’t given me my fingers.

That said, please join me in wishing her the most pure and peaceful of birthdays and years ahead!

Related articles
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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.

 

 

 

Equanimity and the Dalai Lama

Unkind DL
Click on image for Dalai Lama’s own speeches on the ban

This blog is about applying meditation to transform daily life, and as my own daily life of late has included protesting the Dalai Lama, I am going to write an article about what I did with that.Kind DL

 

I don’t feel the need to explain again why I was at the demonstrations, I did that here. The media are now at any rate asking more probing questions of both sides, and this means the tide is turning and our efforts at free speech feel well placed. But I did want to say a bit about how it has been as a long-term Buddhist to be participating in demonstrations at all. I didn’t sign up as a Buddhist all those years ago with a view to one day protesting the Dalai Lama, but I do find this unusual experience has opened my mind and heart in some helpful ways.

Tibetan demonstrating 4
Some fellow demonstrators, now on the Tibetan administration’s wanted list

hit list These were peaceful demonstrations, with hundreds of Westerners and Tibetans requesting religious freedom and an end to slander, all to the beat of some very melodious drums. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood and, more importantly, personally dedicated to practicing what they were making so much noise about — the freedom for everyone to practice the religion of their choosing, to live together in harmony, free from slander and persecution.

many Tibetan followers of Dorje Shugden
There are many Dorje Shugden Buddhists worldwide. But the Dalai Lama has banned their religion.

I got to see parts of America that I may never have visited otherwise – in Birmingham Alabama we ironically demonstrated in Kelly Ingram park in front of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and from there we travelled to the privileged Princeton where we were the first demonstrators ever to be permitted to march through campus. I saw the value of taking the self out of it, remembering to abide in a dream. Like in a drama, I felt the need to play my part Kelly Ingram Park 1because it is very important to me to stand up for this tradition and preserve it for all future generations. But though this is a serious issue, it doesn’t have to be a heavy one – and the protestors did not seem heavy in the least. The police everywhere said that we were the most considerate or well-behaved Kelly Ingram Park 3demonstrators they have ever seen. They didn’t need to control us, some of them said, but mainly protect us from the Dalai Lama’s unruly followers. At one point, for example, out leafleting and explaining the issue to the general public, two NYC police officers escorted me away from some angry Tibetans, stopping the traffic so we could cross the road, “for my own safety.”

One of many signs
One of many signs

The Dalai Lama’s supporters have not taken to the protests very well. Sometimes, if I got too close to the Dalai Lama’s followers and counter-demonstrators, I was spat at, told I was going to hell, told I was only a westerner with no understanding of Buddhism, told to go away and practice my spirit worship elsewhere, and had money shoved in my face (apparently the Chinese pay me for demonstrating).

Typical conversations with Dalai Lama supporters during the protests:

“You worship a spirit!” “No I don’t.” “Yes you do.” “Okay, then.”
“You are paid by the Chinese!” “No I’m not.” “Yes you are.” “Okay, then.”

That is why I generally avoid conversations with die-hard Dalai Lama supporters. I find I get more results from hitting my head against a brick wall.

(A friend of mine at the most recent demonstrations in London, September 2015, has just had this experience: “Tibetan followers were getting really nasty and aggressive. Following N & me all over the place. Shouting in our faces – calling me “ugly face – horrible face” – etc etc. And I apparently am speaking to the Chinese government through my phone head set. And they seem to really believe that.” She added: “It was a stark reminder of what we are up against, just trying to speak up, as the Dalai Lama has all the power and this was just a small experience of what it must it be like for the Tibetans under his power. I got to walk away, they don’t.”)

To be fair, not all the followers were aggressive and angry, some did seem to be practicing the values of tolerance and compassion that Buddhism is famous for, and a lot of people have started asking questions.

In any event, the demonstrations afforded me a fantastic if unexpected opportunity to meditate on equanimity. When you are obviously disliked and everyone is staring at you as if they just wiped you off their shoe (just as Dorje Shugden practitioners are pretty much every day in the exile communities and I Do not enter 5was while out leafletting near ardent followers of the Dalai Lama), it is a good time to get your self out of the way and just try to love your “enemies”. Otherwise, you might get tense, fearful, or angry, and want to leave. When you get back in your own demonstration pen, with your own “tribe”, and those peaceful Buddhist practitioners are requesting religious freedom and an end to deception — it is all too easy to think “Phew, I like these people, they’re brave and good-tempered, and they like me.” But it was also a perfect opportunity to see them and the crowd opposite as equally my kind mothers and closest friends, the only difference between them being time. And then, again out leafleting, there were the masses of pedestrians walking by on the street who were total strangers – or, were they?! An interesting challenge too to watch their reactions – some sympathetic, some a bit hostile, others utterly indifferent — and not be swayed to feel close to some and averse to others.

autumn leaves fallingI was lucky enough to be in Boston in the Fall – everyone says you should visit New England when the leaves turn, and thanks to the Dalai Lama I had my chance. The falling of the leaves always reminds me of the meditation on equanimity. Leaves that have been together, side by side, for all their lives are blown by the wind to all directions, some landing close to each other again, some so far away, subsequent gusts of wind possibly bringing them together again, but rarely. When we die, we will be blown by the winds of karma to our new lives, worlds, identities, companions – and all the companions of this life will have moved away, maybe or maybe not to reappear later, but in unrecognizable forms. In the light of this existential situation, it makes no sense to have attachment, aversion, and indifference – better to open our hearts wide enough to include everyone everywhere.

Buddhist advice for worrywarts

We probably all worry unduly sometimes, which makes us all worrywarts according to the dictionary. Here are some more practical solutions for this unpleasant state of mind.

Stop paying inappropriate attention

Drag your thoughts away from your troubles… by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it.  ~Mark Twain

You’re not inherently a nervous Nellie, no one is. As mentioned earlier, all habits are made to be broken. Delusions, including their inappropriate attention, are not intrinsic parts of mind, they are just thoughts that arise and have no ability to exist if we don’t think them. And they are certainly not us.

A lot of you may have come across this quote somewhere ‘cos it’s a good one:

An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies, & ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, & truth.” The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

If we are not careful, our thoughts think us rather than the other way round. Shirley Austin on Facebook says: “The first fault of delusion identified by Shantideva is “delusion give us no choice”. This is so true. Once we start to follow a delusion we become hooked and it is hard to let go of it. It is so juicy!” We need constructively to replace inappropriate attention with appropriate attention as soon as we notice we are beginning to dwell on our problems. Take away the oxygen of inappropriate attention, and worry (a type of delusion) will quickly expire. Adam Head agreed we need to be creative: “Move forward, make something new, make something happen! This creative/constructive energy doesn’t really tolerate worry and hand-wringing, where the mind can repeatedly chundle on and on about stuff without realising how futile it is.”

It is very helpful to understand how inappropriate attention is running the show. Look and see what you’re focusing on — I bet you are accentuating the negative and editing out the positive. Start doing the opposite, see what happens. Buddha said that with our thoughts we create our world. It is so true.

Feeling responsible for others without the guilt

Feeling solely responsible for another’s welfare makes us worry if we’re not careful, and as mentioned above can wrap us up in guilt, which is an even heavier mantle to remove. Superior intention is the noble, compassionate mind that feels entirely responsible for every living being throughout space and time, but the person who possesses it has no worry at all in their minds. So where are we going wrong?!

One reason I decided to write these articles is because of late I have felt more immediately or physically responsible for the life, health and safety of dependents than usual. Perhaps because I am out of practice at that, I find details strangely worrying when normally I never worry about much at all. This is proving useful because I thought I had the whole not worrying thing under control, but clearly I have more work to do! I enjoy the challenge of looking at what is going on in the mind when I worry and getting to the bottom of it once and for all. (This sort of reminds me of when I first got interested in Buddhism – after a few months I was quite sure I had equanimity down as I thought I liked everyone equally, “Hey, this is really EASY guys!!” Then a boyfriend materialized and I realized my attachment had just been on the back burner for a year.)

I’m finding this whole process of being responsible for various animals, starting with Ralph and Nelson, good training for being a Bodhisattva and even a Buddha. I can view each one of them as an example of all the animals and other living beings in the world who need help, and train in taking on the personal responsibility while freeing the mind from worry or guilt. I meditate on superior intention regularly, and now is my chance to apply it, without turning into an over-protective mommy while I’m at it! This situation is helping me see the difference between compassion and worry, and how compassion itself is not a sad mind, although worrying and guilt are horrible.

Parents of human children (especially in these challenging times), I take my hat off to you – you surely have worry and guilt licked to stay sane for even a day?!

Here is one random example of a run-away train of thought traveling from worry to guilt and back again. “What can I worry about today?! Oh, I know, Nelson’s bad cheek, it is more swollen than ever. Oh, so now that reminds me that I can worry (again) about how I’ve already brought his vet’s appointment forward by four days, but maybe he won’t be alright for another two whole days? It is Saturday morning and they are not open til Monday. Oh, that reminds me, I have to CATCH him! I’m dreading it, he will hate being in lock-down all night. Or maybe I won’t be able to catch him?! But I need to because of his cheek. And what is actually wrong with his cheek? It looks scary. Cancer? A mysterious abscess that might go to his brain?!” Then comes the guilt: “Oh I’m not doing enough for him! I’m so useless at this!” Then more variations on a theme — fraught scenarios complete with everything that could go wrong. etc

Just one illustration today amongst gazillions in the minds of living beings: trains of undesirable thoughts that we have inadvertently boarded, which are taking us from Worry Station right through to Panic Stations! We have to get off!!

Stop worrying right into the future

We allow our thoughts to run riot and way into the future. Chewing over the various possibilities of something that hasn’t even happened is the cause of much of our anxiety and stress.

You know, tomorrow really does take care of itself. We’ll have all day tomorrow to focus on tomorrow’s problems. We can be more like Charlie Brown:

I’ve developed a new philosophy… I only dread one day at a time.

He has a point. We worry far more if we worry ahead. John Newton (not sure who he is, but I like this quote) says:

We can easily manage if we will only take, each day, the burden appointed to it.  But the load will be too heavy for us if we carry yesterday’s burden over again today, and then add the burden of the morrow before we are required to bear it.

What were you worrying about a year ago today?! Can you even begin to remember?! Will you have the worry you have today a year hence? I find these thoughts useful too.

We can make a plan, for sure, for example to get the cat to the vet; but then, in the inimitable words of my brother, something can be time-consuming without being mind-consuming. Make a plan, be prepared to see it change, and meantime stop thinking about that plan and just live. The best is if we can keep our thoughts focused on today or even this hour or even just now, having the very best experience and creating the very best intention in every moment. Then the future tends to take care of itself!

I don’t know who he is either, but Oliver Wendell Holmes said, and I agree:

What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

But just to get a bit philosophical on you for a moment: actually, there are no past things and future things, only pasts of things and futures of things. That sense we have of linear time stretching behind and ahead like train tracks is an illusion. All (functioning) things are necessarily present. This means that “our past” and “our future” are entirely dependent on our present state of mind, rather as a rubber band being twisted in one spot alters the entire rubber band. Past, present and future are only imputed by mind and have no existence from their own side. We cannot point to where the past ends and the present begins. So we can take it moment by moment and go with the flow. I hope to write more on this, a favorite subject, in another article. See Ocean of Nectar for the explanation of the emptiness of time.

This is the fourth article in an occasional series on how to worry less using Buddhist techniques. The first three are Don’t worry, be happy, How to stop worrying about anything, everything and nothing and DON’T PANIC. (All of the anti-worry articles can now be found here, when you have a spare half hour or so to read them.)

It’s your turn. What methods have you used to overcome worry (especially about the future) and guilt? Please use the comments box below. And please share this article if you like it.

A Buddhist solution to boredom

UK riots

The unexpected riots and looting in England left all of us wondering where they sprung from. There were some extenuating external factors but, as I said in this last article, I think they certainly were inflamed by inappropriate attention and the baleful influence of unhelpful “friends”. I also agree with those who say that they arose from attachment/greed (no shop was safe, no matter how innocent), the “me first” mind of self-cherishing and even plain boredom. A lot of vandalism in general is primarily motivated by boredom, and even back in the Roman days a graffitist wrote:

“Wall, I wonder that you haven’t fallen down in ruin, when you have to support all the boredom of your inscribers.”

Rioting might have seemed like a lot more fun than slouching around on another street corner or trying to find something to watch on summertime British TV. Perhaps the 24/7 access to You Tube, Xbox, Google and Facebook had also at least temporarily lost its ability to charm and distract, I’m sure we all know that feeling.

Santino the Chimp
Santino the Chimp

A chimp called Santino collects rocks before his Swedish zoo opens in the morning so he can pelt them at the roughly 300 humans who come to stare at him. Is he bad-tempered, seeking relief from boredom, or a bit of both?

Where does boredom come from?

Do you ever feel bored? Or how about ennui, lethargy, inertia, melancholy, flatness, or any of its other close cousins!? What does it feel like? What do you do about it? It seems to be a universal predicament in all age groups and income brackets. Kids during endless summer holidays get bored, adolescents notoriously get bored, people working day in and day out at dead-end jobs get bored, people with no jobs get bored, old people stuck in their houses get bored, caged animals get bored, and even people with comparatively nothing to be bored about get bored (think mid-life crisis). Perhaps we all get bored sometimes unless we are just too busy, which may be the opposite problem?! Nor is it just a recent phenomenon – humans and animals have been getting bored for as long as they’ve had minds, namely since beginningless time.

So where does boredom come from? The reason it is so common is probably that it is a facet of one of the three main mental poisons – ignorance. One reason I think this is that in the meditation on equanimity we get rid of our three poisons of: (1) closeness for our friends out of attachment, (2) distance for our enemies out of anger, and (3) indifference for boring strangers out of ignorance. And we can also develop equanimity with respect to inanimate objects, overcoming attachment, aversion and indifference/boredom for them too.

In some ways, if we are not in a state of attachment or aversion and things appear just neutral, boredom may be our kind of natural default! We feel unengaged, indifferent and distanced from the things we find neutral. At the same time, we paradoxically feel more hemmed in because everything seems more solid and real. What do you think?! In the mind-training book Universal Compassion, Geshe Kelsang says that for ordinary beings:

Attractive objects cause desirous attachment to arise, unattractive objects cause anger, and neutral objects cause ignorance… Those with special interest in training the mind, however, should try to change this and develop the three virtuous minds instead of the three poisons.

We become bored by supposed predictability and unavoidable and unchanging circumstances that seem beyond our control – not understanding that our own minds are the creators of our ever-changing and indeed unpredictable circumstances, and that we can take control of our minds. In terms of the inappropriate attention that accompanies all delusions, I would think that we are exaggerating the apparent solidity, permanence, and inherent existence of our situation whenever we are bored.

I agree with a Facebook friend Matthew who says that the boredom of the UK rioters is related to impatience (a type of anger) and attachment too:

“I think boredom is a form of impatience. Therefore patience is an antidote – so is contentment. It is said that young people tend to equate happiness with excitement while older people equate happiness with peace. Boredom in the young is related to attachment to excitement.”

 It could be that in this age of instant ever-shifting entertainment in our pockets it is harder in general to stay interested and absorbed, and boredom is likelier to crop up. But I think that the lack of excitement or pleasure itself comes from an ignorance grasping strongly at an inherently existent world outside the mind and thus feeling alienated from it, adrift, unconnected, unable to enjoy. Boredom also comes from fruitlessly seeking happiness in that inherently existent external world for, as Jenny on Facebook puts it:

“Maybe it arises from lack of understanding of where true happiness is to be found – surely if we didn’t search for happiness in external things we would have no reason to be bored?”

Are these the causes or symptoms of boredom that Kelsang Dorje describes on Facebook?:

“A lack of feeling of any place in the community or world. A feeling of impotence and disenchantment for a world that seems to ignore one and holds no opportunity for productive action or pleasure.”

The stronger we grasp at the world existing outside of ourselves, the more isolated, alienated, impotent, bored, and yes, ignored, we are going to feel. Then we are naturally going to start craving anything that will excite us and become impatient when nothing exciting enough seems to be forthcoming to relieve the monotony and feeling of being hemmed in.

Lack of or too much identity?

It is paradoxical that young rioters are described as suffering from a “lack of identity” because although on one level that is true insofar as they are demonstrating no healthy sense of self-worth, when we are bored our sense of identity is more concrete than ever. We are holding ourself separate from the rest of the world, me versus them. It is just not a very constructive or wise sense of self as it ignores our profound connection to others on every level. Although we can be bored on our own or in the company of others, loneliness also seems to be boredom’s never far-straying twin.

Creativity v. boredom

Whenever as a kid I complained of having nothing to do, my mother would say that annoying old-fashioned thing:

“If you’re bored, you’re boring.”

Thing is though, I could see she had a point. Boredom is the opposite of creativity. While we’re bored we feel like a victim of our circumstances, we feel disenfranchised, we don’t feel creative, we don’t feel in charge. When I heard teachings on emptiness I realized I had lost my excuse to be bored ever again because I was creating my own reality moment by moment through conceptual imputation – and there is nothing boring about an act of creation that cosmic! It doesn’t mean that I have yet completely conquered boredom though, I still detect it sometimes – which is partly why I am interested in the subject. The best antidote for me is to meditate, which is creative and uplifting, and in particular to remember emptiness. Wisdom, I find, dismantles the temporal and spatial walls erected by boredom. For an amazingly clear introduction to the wisdom realizing emptiness, you can download this free Buddhist eBook Modern Buddhism and read the chapter called “Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta”.

Because boredom lacks creativity, it is understandable that graffiti artists, for example, try to assuage it by writing on walls in an act of creation that may or may not annoy everyone else in the neighborhood. We can of course try to change our circumstances in helpful ways to alleviate boredom if the opportunity is there — seeking a more challenging job, for example, or meeting new people, or taking up a hobby, or simply taking ourself out of the house for a walk in a new area. This can be helpful, especially if we are well motivated. Boredom, in other words, can lead us to creativity and useful innovation. But as the main cause of boredom is internal (ignorance), the main creative solution is also to be found within our own minds – dismiss that fact, and we may soon enough find ourselves becoming bored by our new job, companions, trees, or hobbies. After all, we’ve been trying to change the circumstances of our lives to solve our boredom since beginningless time, yet here we all are, still finding ourselves bored.

Precious human life

Paul on FB suggested the rioters:

“Meditate on ur precious human life!”

which is a good starting point providing someone lets them know that they have one! In fact it is the starting point for all of us, realizing that we have more choices and prospects than we knew. Nick Vujicic, who I wrote about in this article, has no arms or legs and therefore seemingly far fewer opportunities than the rest of us; but try telling him that!

Summary

According to Buddhism, when we’re attached, the main opponent is non-attachment or the wish for true mental freedom. When we’re angry the main opponent is patience or love. When we are indifferent, or bored, the main opponent is non-ignorance, or the wisdom realizing emptiness and an understanding of the mind’s power to create. There is always something creative to do. Loren Jay Shaw managed to find creative ways to stave off boredom for three years in solitary confinement!

As with all opponents to delusions, however, we need to know about them before we can apply them. Once again I find myself grateful for Buddha’s teachings, or to be honest I think I too would be bored out of my mind with samsara by now.

Do you have any good solutions for boredom? Please share them. And share this article with anyone who might be getting bored during these long dog days of summer!

Have you ever fallen for a perfect stranger?!

With just a few twists and turns we can and do bump into perfect strangers who become part of our hearts and lives for a lifetime. In fact, apart from our immediate family, which of our closest friends did not start off as a stranger?!

Sparky and Joe
The happy tail of Winston

A marvelous encounter took place in heat-drenched Manhattan yesterday. I was meeting my friend J (her of Ralph’s story) to do some shopping for a laptop. Right next to Best Buy was Pet Smart and so I said entirely jokingly: “Let’s go in there and I’ll buy a small dog.” J agreed that she needed to go in there anyway to buy some cat treats so we visited with the adoptive cats for a while and then made to leave.

At the doorway, a cute dog stopped us in our tracks, and we bent to pet him. Then we noticed his owner sitting on the window ledge with tears in his eyes. Joe told us in a delightful but sad Irish brogue that he was being forced to bring Sparky back as he was severely allergic to him and that he and his girlfriend Julia were gutted, absolutely gutted. This half-Peke half-ShihTzu ”Shinese” was the best dog in the world and this was obvious even though they’d only had him for a week. Joe had been trying everything to work a way around the allergies, but “I feel like I’ve swallowed a furball and if I cuddle him I just can’t breathe.” The tears in his eyes came from the allergy and the fact that he was finding it agony to hand him back in. The shelter woman hadn’t arrived yet, he was waiting.

We asked him where Sparky came from – he and his family were in a house fire and wasn’t allowed in their shelter, and then his family were not able to have him back as they lost everything. He is just one year old. He was in a cage for weeks.

I looked at J. She looked back at me. It was obvious what she was thinking. “What is there to lose?” I rather naughtily encouraged her half under my breath. “Perhaps he could just spend the weekend with you and F and then, if F or the cats object, you can bring him back on Monday? Delay his re-entry into the cold lonely cage?”

Thing about J is that she is a pushover when it comes to animals… but there was just something about Sparky.

The 29-year-old DJ sized up the situation and seized his chance: “Hey girls, how about we take Sparky for a walk to the dog park? It’s not too far. You can see how good he is with the other dogs.” (Said Sparky is apparently spectacularly well behaved and friendly with every life form on earth, if Joe with the blarney stone is to be believed, and of course, smitten by Sparky, we believed him.)

We walked miles through the sweltering heat, Sparky tugging on the end of J’s green leash, his panty pink tongue hanging out. He is a human-magnet. And it is true that he managed to make friends with all the dogs in the park within a matter of minutes. Then Joe sloshed him with water to cool him down, and we started walking back.

“Why not cut out the middleman”, I proffered. “Just lend Sparky to J and you could both meet up again next week at Pet Smart if it doesn’t work out?”

And so we came to be carrying Sparky home in a shopping bag via Bleeker Street subway to the World Trade Center and the Park line back to New Jersey to an unsuspecting fiancé who never knew what hit him until it was too late and he’d fallen for him at first sight 🙂

And there he is to this day. Well, it is only a day later, but it looks like he has stolen the hearts of his new family and will not be going back into a cage anytime soon. Even the cats liked him instantly, and when it comes to Fluffer that is really saying something. And the landlords say he can stay, even though they don’t allow dogs. He is now called Winston because of his Churchillian jaw. Sir Winston, to be precise.

So in one chance meeting, this perfect stranger entered the hearts and lives of a family who weren’t looking for a dog but will love him for his whole life. Joe, all smiles, says he thinks he ran into angels this sweltering summer’s day in Soho. But it was the other way round.

Meet your daughter (again)

Another friend sent me an ultrasound of his daughter in her mother’s womb yesterday. She is lying in the position in which Buddha entered paranirvana, and he is chuffed: “It’s quite something when you see your daughter facing straight at you on the big flat screen TV, lying on her right side, with her head on her hand (not sucking her thumb)! I can’t say that’s her orientation relative to anything in the outside world, as she floats in her ambionic fluid, but it was very clear on the screen and I rejoice in my projection!”

He has not officially met her yet but already he adores her: “As I said to my wife when they confirmed her gender, ‘I guess I’ll be saying yes to just about anything from now on!’” When did that love happen?! Why did it happen?! In beginningless lifetimes, we have all been each other’s father and each other’s daughter. That recognition – for example when the facts are staring us in the face on a flat screen TV — is enough to bring out our innate love, our Buddha nature. However, we don’t have to wait countless lifetimes to be everyone’s father and daughter again; we can recognize that relationship right now if we want to greatly speed up our love for everyone.

Actually, although it is true that our best friends started off as strangers, if we go back even further we’ll see that they also started off as our kind mothers. Take any slice of time and our bodies and relationships will appear different; but the fact is that once someone is our mother, they are always our mother. Look at a photo of your mom before you were born — is she your mother or not?! Yes, we say “That’s a picture of my mom before I was born.” And let’s say she dies and a trusted person with clairvoyance introduces you to her in another form, won’t you still recognize her as your mother and wish for her happiness and safety?

Sure, we can argue that we’ve all been each others’ enemies too, but not only is thinking in that way unproductive, we were also only each others’ enemies when we had ignorantly forgotten our mutual dependence, close relationship and lovability, and were under the influence of anger’s inappropriate attention.

We are generally superficial in our perceptions and as a result love does not flow. I reckon the three poisons actually depend on superficiality, on taking appearances at face value, on confusing appearance for reality. Someone appears disagreeable and we believe that they are, inherently so, even though stacks of evidence points to the contrary.

We can love anyone so we might as well love everyone

Our relationships with others are never stuck or fixed; we can accelerate our universal love by understanding this. We don’t need to wait for “chance” meetings like that of Winston, we don’t need to wait for someone to become pregnant, we don’t need to wait for things to change physically. We can imagine these changes happening, as we do in the meditation on equanimity, and our relationships will change dramatically. We can bring everyone up to the level of our mother, our best friend, or even our child. Genuine love entails noticing and accepting that everything and everyone changes all the time while it itself endures. Love does not take appearances at face value. Love does not judge the book by its cover. If love depends on everything and everyone staying the same, it is actually not love at all but attachment.

Sir Winston of New York

Useful tip: If you find it hard seeing everyone as your kind mother, as in the Buddhist Lamrim meditation, or you have as yet unresolved grievances with your mother, you can try seeing people as your pet dog instead to begin with! Do whatever works. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso calls meditation “beneficial believing”. It is endlessly creative — not just repeating things to ourselves, but tuning into our own experience and building on that. Geshe Kelsang says in Eight Steps to Happiness (page 148):

Since an object’s nature and characteristics depend upon the mind that beholds it, we can change the objects we see by changing the way we see them. We can choose to view ourselves, other people and our world in whatever way is most beneficial. By steadfastly maintaining a positive view we gradually come to inhabit a positive world, and eventually a Pure Land.

To conclude, we’re all going to become Bodhisattvas and enlightened beings at some point because we have the potential to and the methods exist – sooner or later these two conditions will come together and we’ll travel the spiritual path. Therefore, I always think I may as well get started now! I’ll save myself and others a lot of unnecessary heartache if I do …

Your comments are most welcome, and please share this article if you like it.