Blink, and it’s a new world

too much to do todayWhen we feel overwhelmed with busyness it is usually because all our activities are bleeding into each other. With thoughts of impermanence, they don’t. We can focus on the here and now. We have walls up (as described in this last article). We can still plan — put the things we need to do in a Google calendar or excel spreadsheet or regular to-do list — but then we don’t need to think much about it again until we need to do it. Tomorrow is plenty of time to take care of tomorrow’s business. 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.

So in the interactions we have today, we bring as much love and kindness into them as we can. We try to keep our mind peaceful, free from anger. We put our energy into these things as they are inside the wall. And because we are not spending so much time outside the wall, we have a lot more energy to do that, we’re a lot more successful. Living in the moment is very much to do with cultivating the habit in our mind of staying here, in the present, not going off.

I’m not getting angry ever again!?!

As Gen Samten puts it, what is harder, not getting angry for a lifetime, or not getting angry for a day? “I could never do the former!” we might think. But can we avoid anger today? Yes, probably, with a bit of effort. So that is all we have to do. Within this wall I’m not going to get angry.

We realize we can do a lot of spiritual practices that may have daunted us previously. “I could never have universal compassion for all living beings!” But could we contemplate universal compassion just today?! Yes, we could give it a try. It might take a little effort and work and by the end of the day we might feel tired — but good tired, not todaybad tired, because we have used our energy wisely. Then we can rest, and wake up in the morning – a new day, a new wall. If we screwed up, we start again.

Etch a sketch. Every moment, let alone every day, is brand new. Geshe Kelsang said that when we close our eyes and then open them again, everything has changed. Blink, and it’s a new world.

Shorter periods of time

In this way we can build up a really helpful mental habit – if we are determined to build this wall, we’ll do it. And we’ll find that this habit begins to apply to shorter and shorter periods of time. For example, if we’re having breakfast with our family and have a hard day at work ahead, we can think: “I’m not going to worry about work, it is outside the wall around breakfast”, and instead concentrate on having a good time with our family, bringing kindness and love into that. When we get to work, that’s a new situation, and one I will be involved in then.

This will overcome basically all our worry. The habit of worry is the habit of thinking about things outside the wall. By remembering subtle impermanence and that we may die today, we build a wall around today.

I’m going to add here what Tim Larcombe just said in the comments as I think this could be a very practical reminder throughout our day:

We can be reminded of “the wall” when people say “Have a good day” to us. And we can wish for them to be worry-free when we say it to them 🙂

Necessity vs meaning

Our emphasis begins to shift from what is meaningless to what is meaningful. If we just focus on things like career, wealth, a good social life, relationships, a hot body, etc, when we get to a certain age we experience a crisis. If we make these the compelling narrative of our life, sooner or later, and certainly by the end of our life, we’ll find them to be hollow. Sometimes people despair, they don’t know what they’ve done with their lives. There is even a delusion all of its own about this, called self-satisfaction:

The definition of self-satisfaction is a deluded mental factor that observes our own physical beauty, wealth or other good qualities, and, being concerned only with these, has no interest in spiritual development. ~ How to Understand the Mind p. 155

It’s a bit like trying to scoop the foam off an ocean, I think, and trying to make it last. And while we are preoccupied with doing that, we are ignoring the limitless potential of our mind for lasting happiness and freedom, and the vast and profound ocean of Dharma practices that will give us this.

time is running out 1Acquainting ourselves with the thought “I may die today” connects us with the real meaning of our life. It stops us focusing on things that are completely banal, unnecessary, even negative. If we spend the hours not already working surfing the internet or watching Netflix, for example, and it’s not so hard to do, does this bring any real happiness?

What about the things we do need eg, food, clothing, health insurance, etc? Buddha taught four necessities of life: food, clothing, medicine, and shelter. These may be necessary, but if make them the meaning of our life, we will neglect cultivating our inner qualities.

Our outer wealth is our possessions, friends, etc, and our inner wealth is our compassion, patience, and so on. Outer wealth may be a necessity of life, but it doesn’t enrich our life. It is our inner wealth that enriches our life. Without love, for example,  no matter how many possessions we have, we feel poor. But with a mind full of love, regardless of whether we have many or few possessions, we feel like the richest person in the world.

Magic pill

magic pillIf you have any problem at all, see what happens if you apply those four words: “I may die today”. If you are worried about something, try saying this to yourself for a couple of minutes – see how you are brought back into the present and recalibrate, focusing on what is meaningful again. If you’re getting angry, repeat these words, and think, “This may be the last time I ever speak to this person! I want it to be a good conversation.” When we are angry with someone, we are assuming on some level that they’re going to be there tomorrow. (Which is why we are angry!)

This thought is like a magic pill — we can use it many times each day whenever we’re unhappy, and find that we naturally come back to this peaceful feeling, centered in the present moment, on what is meaningful.

This magic pill is also very helpful for meditating. If our mind is distracted, we can think, “I may die today, I may die in this meditation”, and see what happens! We build boundaries around that meditation, keeping our thoughts inside the meditation, not outside. This mental habit can greatly improve our concentration.

Meditation

And here is a bit of meditation to bring this together.

We’ll think there is a wall around today and I’m not going to worry about anything outside that wall.

woman meditating under treeWe sit comfortably, and allow our mind to become centered through breathing meditation. We can drop from our head into our heart and feel the peace and potential of our Buddha nature.

We can contemplate the truth, “I may die today, I may die today.” As we do this, we can allow two things to happen. The first is that a boundary begins to form around today – we’ll begin to feel that since I may die today I don’t need to think about tomorrow, and I am not going to let my thoughts wonder outside of this boundary. And we can just enjoy the feeling of peace and happiness that comes from that.

And secondly we will begin to develop a strong determination to focus on what is meaningful, on what makes us truly human. To bring as much kindness, love, patience, and wisdom into all the situations that we encounter today.

Then we remember this for the rest of the day!

(Thank you again to Gen Samten for all his valuable input into this subject. Next installment is here …)

No time like the present

First, a little anecdote

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

Why the emotional resistance?

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

See the beauty

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

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

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

Another little anecdote

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

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

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

We’re all gonna die!

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a wonderful life

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

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

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

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

Create a boundary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next installment is here.

Breaking the ties that bind

letting go 2Now that we have developed some wisdom on the subject of subtle impermanence, we need to use the second approach, which is making a determination.

We are in such a bad habit of grasping at the ties that bind, even when this is painful and we already know on one level that it is futile. So we need to be a bit determined now, to push our mind, to strong-arm it, telling it, “Stop! Stop grasping at the past!” One thing that you might like to do is to say, almost like a wrathful mantra:

I will stop grasping at the past because it no longer exists.

We don’t just say it gently, we say it strongly. And we can spell it out more: “I will stop grasping at past me, people, and situations because they no longer exist.”

  1. I will stop grasping at past me

For example, let’s suppose we were in a conversation earlier today — and we like to come across as intelligent but we said something stupid. Now the other people have all moved on in this conversation, but we’re back five minutes ago, “Why did I say that, what was I thinking?!”, writhing in embarrassment. At that time we need to say, “I will stop grasping at that me because it no longer exists.” Why are we tormenting ourselves? Let’s just enjoy the conversation. So impermanence allows us to move on moment by moment, not tormenting ourselves but living life newly.

  1. I will stop grasping at past people

Or maybe we meet someone, we like them, maybe it even gets serious; and then 18 months later we say, “You’ve changed!” It’s like an accusation – “You’re not the person I got together with, you’ve changed!” Well come on, duh. Of course they’ve changed, moment by moment. So have we. Why is that a problem for us? Because we want them to be that person we were interested in 18 months ago. So the problem is not impermanence 2that they’ve changed, but that we are grasping at how they were; and if we stopped grasping at how they were we might find we are quite happy with how they are now. So at that time we need to remember subtle impermanence and think, “I will stop grasping at this past person because they no longer exist.” Why hold onto something that isn’t there?! That person isn’t there!

  1. I will stop grasping at past situations

Also, how much time do we spend living in past situations, feeling nostalgia, melancholy for what we have lost? Perhaps we feel that all the good times are behind us, that the happiest time of our life was the summer of  ‘69. And at that time we need to say, “I will stop grasping at past situations because they no longer exist. Why am I grasping at something that is not there?!” We keep telling ourselves this till our mind changes. And our mind will change, very much for the better.

Analogy of a tug boat

It’s not letting go, but holding on, that’s painful.

To expand on stopping grasping at other people … Let’s say the other person has become less interested in you, but you hold forlornly onto the relationship as having life because you are relating to the past relationship still, not the present one. I don’t know if this analogy will help you but it has helped me before. Let’s say you are a boat on the ocean, joined by a rope to another boat. At first the rope is slack as you’re both being pulled along by similar karmic currents and winds, so a lot of the time you don’t even notice the rope is there. But after a while you find you have effectively become a tug boat pulling along a second old (moreorless reluctant) boat, and the rope is sliding through your hands. Perhaps, as they start drifting off, you get a few currents making it appear as if you are both still alongside; but they are slowly pulling away, the currents of karma and changing minds being what they are. You have rope burn, and one day you think, “I am just going to let go!” There is relief and lightness as you both sail off, wishing each other well on your way. We can once again enjoy the space around us, the blue sky, the sunshine, unfettered.

tugboatWe can love that person from then on in the moment, wherever they are and whatever they are doing. We are still grateful for the lessons they taught us. And we also have more energy and attention now for the other people and animals around us who need and want our love, because everyone needs and wants love.

Going with the flow of subtle impermanence is great because as soon as we let go of grasping no further thought is required. No rationalizations. No elaborations. We can make the most of the new moment without thinking too much because there is nothing there to think about, eg, “Should we stay friends? How are we supposed to do this? What if this happens? Maybe she does like me but just didn’t get my message? Surely something here is worth preserving? What do I do when we bump into each other again?” etc. The moment we truly let go, the endless speculation — all our conceptual bubble-like thoughts — dissolve away into the clarity of the mind; and we have lightness, freedom, and life.

Due to habits, we may find ourself still tugging from time to time, still experiencing some rope burn; but we will be able to let go more easily if we revisit our wisdom and our determination: “I will not grasp at this past person or relationship because they do not exist.”

And, you know what? We come to enjoy letting go every bit as much as we enjoyed clinging on, in fact a great deal more.

Ocean of love and wisdom

Leonard CohenNow this might be taking this tugboat analogy too far but, like I said, it works for me. The tugboats are being tossed around on the vast ocean of the root mind. Our mind and its appearances are changing all the time due to karmic potentials or seeds ripening, like waves and currents in an ever-changing ocean.

As Buddha said, all meetings end in parting. This is because appearances inevitably change but, you know something, the love can remain.

This is because love and wisdom are like the ocean itself.

Buddhas and Yogis have learned this and can therefore love everyone literally unconditionally, not affected by the superficial vagaries of changed circumstances or appearances. And so can we.

When we have a taste of pure love, wishing others to be totally happy, we can understand too that it is Dharma Jewel and no different to the ocean of love possessed by the Buddhas or by the Sangha, spiritual friends past and present. We can experience immutable refuge and happiness in the vast and profound ocean of love and wisdom, despite the ever-changing world.

Do we want to mourn something we can’t have, ie, happiness from something that has disappeared, or do we want to fully enjoy what we DO have, ie, the peace and bliss of our own mind? In his Mahamudra teachings, Venerable Geshe-la teaches us to dissolve all conceptual bubble-like thoughts grasping at permanence into the peace and clarity of our own mind. We really enjoy that profound peace. Then, day by day, moment by moment, we can also enjoy all the appearances that arise from that mind.

Thank you again to Gen Samten for his insights. Still more on this subject here! Hope you are finding it helpful because I am 🙂 Please leave comments below.