Love, the great Protector

10 mins read.

Once upon a time, about 3 weeks ago, when human beings roamed freely upon the Earth, two neighbors brushed right past each other without so much as a smile.

Screen Shot 2020-04-03 at 3.28.18 PMAll that changed in early 2020. These are indeed more surreal times than most of us can probably remember, and immensely challenging for just about everybody; but a lot of people are being amazing and brave when it comes right down to it. Despite the physical distancing, they are finding ways to connect with one another and to support their families and neighbors in this time of crisis, with kind gestures being made across the world to combat the dislocation, isolation, and potential insanity being brought on by the COVID-19 lockdown.

As I mentioned in this last article, people’s Buddha nature is shining. Not only do we owe a huge debt to the beautiful people on the frontlines of this battle, but people everywhere are trying hard to make a difference. Volunteers are making free deliveries. Sewing experts have been cranking out medical masks. Restaurants have been giving away food to employees, passers by, and the elderly. Individuals, including some children, are raising huge amounts of money for those in need and volunteering to run errands for high-risk people. Some are breaking into spontaneous song to cheer each other up from balconies, or making music on the Internet, including this beautiful offering: 

Even from beyond the grave, poignantly, an 88-year-old man in North Manchester who died of the virus has asked friends and family to carry out acts of kindness in his memory rather than offer flowers.

If there is any silver lining to this crisis, it is that people are experiencing more empathy at the moment because we all perhaps realize, for a change, that we are in the same boat. For example, I read this:

“This is the first time lots of us have looked at shelves and thought actually I need something and I can’t have it, and so we’re better able to relate to people living in poverty who feel like that quite a lot of the time.”

A friend just texted me:

“The neighbors have been quite enjoyable lately … very kind and compassionate, offering whatever needed to get by, coming together, communal.”

Stories have been appearing of people currently embracing the values of kindness, cooperation, self-sacrifice, and patience over materialistic values where every man or woman is out for themselves. People are finding plenty of free ways to spread love and cheer, such as costumes, parodies, front-lawn jam sessions, and this chalked sign I just walked past on the sidewalk.

we're in this togetherMoney, reputation, and so on clearly do not buy happiness because external conditions can never be the true source of happiness, or meaning for that matter. They never have been and never will be; and, at times like this, it is more obvious.

Of course we need basic human conditions because we are human beings …

as Venerable Geshe Kelsang puts it in The New Meditation Handbook,

… but external conditions can only make us happy if our mind is peaceful.

Cells in the same body of life

Peace and love are not some utopian fantasy, nor optional extras in our pursuit of happiness — they ARE our happiness.

Starting with a deeply encouraging understanding of our true nature, our potentially boundless good heart, Buddha revealed 84,000 methods that allow us to embrace and fully realize our Buddha nature. I plan on sharing a few of these to help us change our fundamental way of seeing ourselves and others, whether we are safe at home in lockdown or in the midst of the frightening overcrowded chaos of the hospitals. These simple considerations can help us become more loving, wise, and selfless, making both ourselves and others more peaceful and happy in the process.

Screen Shot 2020-03-26 at 12.27.39 AMWe don’t always see so clearly how we are all completely interdependent like cells in the same body of life — distinct yet intimately bound up with others. There are two ways to understand this, both of which help us to develop empathy and love. One is that we are interconnected in a web of kindness from which it is impossible to separate ourselves, and the other is that in all the ways that count we are exactly the same.

Our interconnectedness

We depend upon others for everything – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life (available as a free eBook here):

All the time our day-to-day needs are provided through the kindness of others. We brought nothing with us from our former life, yet as soon as we were born, we were given a home, food, clothes, and everything we needed – all provided through the kindness of others.

And nothing in that sense has changed since the day of our birth — all our day-to-day needs are still provided through the kindness of others. When we wander through aisles empty of toilet paper in the grocery store, we complain – but when those aisles are full, how often do we consider the incredible amount of people involved in inventing toilet paper, manufacturing it, transporting it, and stocking the shelves?

That is one small comfort of life, among others too numerous to count – so what about the plumbing, for a start, something we also take for granted until the plumber is too sick with the virus to sort out the blocked pipes. What about our life and health themselves – if this pandemic is showing us anything, it is the enormous debt we owe to those who have trained so long and work so hard to look after us when we are not well. Plus all the people who support them. Plus all the people who support them. And so on.

kindness of front linesWhen the infrastructure starts to crumble, as it is rapidly doing — when health workers and computer specialists and food manufacturers and school teachers are not able to do their work — it is not hard to see how much we have been taking them for granted. Ask any parent! Even WordPress has been acting up since this all started, making me appreciate how much I depend on it (100%) to get these articles out.

Through the meditation on the kindness of others, we see how we are in every way completely bound up with other living beings – none of us can separate ourselves out.

Our sense that we are an island, an independent, self-sufficient individual, bears no relation to reality. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Trying to split ourselves off from others is not realistic and so it doesn’t work:

It is closer to the truth to picture ourself as a cell in the vast body of life, distinct yet intimately bound up with all living beings. We cannot exist without others, and they in turn are affected by everything we do. The idea that it is possible to secure our own welfare while neglecting that of others, or even at the expense of others, is completely unrealistic.

If we sit with this image for a while and let it touch our heart, we naturally wish for the health and happiness of the entire body. All the other cells of this body make up our very infrastructure. If we started to hand back everything others have given us, within seconds there will be literally nothing left of us. Try doing it and see.

Every gesture connects us to the entire world

Every gesture we make and every step we take is evidence that we are all cells in the same body of life. If I lean over to pick up this glass of water, how many people are involved in that one gesture alone? The arm comes from my parents, for a start, plus all the food that comes from others. I had nothing to do with the invention, manufacturing, or delivery of that glass, yet without it the water would be all over the table. Only there wouldn’t be a table without others. Or water, for that matter.

I read a great book called “Thanks a Thousand”, where the author “decided to thank every single person involved in producing his morning cup of coffee. The resulting journey takes him across the globe, transforms his life, and reveals secrets about how gratitude can make us all happier, more generous, and more connected.” Well worth a read – far more uplifting than an hour of the news.

Thanks a thousandOthers matter. That is what cherishing others mean – we think they matter, and that their happiness and freedom are important. So we try to make them happy and we try to do nothing to harm them because why would we harm the body of which we are a part?

The role of animals

This is also a really good time to remember not just our human but our billions of animal neighbors with whom we share this planet, who are also cells of this same body of life. We hate being made to stay inside even our own home – but we have been keeping animals trapped inside in alien cages in despicable conditions for decades for our own purposes with scant regard to how they feel.

As I read in an email about factory farming:

The COVID-19 crisis is concrete evidence of our interdependence. Our health and wellbeing is impacted by the health and wellbeing of others, including the animals who are raised for food.

Virtually every other recent pandemic threat—like swine flu H1N1 or bird flu H5N1—has been directly linked to factory farms. This is arguably why, while we are on the subject:

There is no other public health measure that could so dramatically reduce the risk of another pandemic virus emerging as reforming industrial animal agriculture.

factory farmPublic health measures start with a change of heart, and I hope that one thing this crisis might bring about is a more widespread understanding of how harming animals is really harming us human beings as well. This is both in the short term because it gives rise to a profoundly unhealthy way of life, as well as in the long term because of the awful karmic causes we are creating to experience similar conditions ourselves. It makes perfect sense for all of us to overcome both our selfish desires that harm animals and our senseless human exceptionalism.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were as responsive to being told to stop abusing animals for our own and others’ good as we are to being told to stay inside for our own and others’ good?

The health of this body

In a body, the health and happiness of one cell depends upon the health and happiness of the whole body and vice versa. It is never just about little old me. Putting ourselves first doesn’t help us or anyone else. If one rogue cell decides out of egotistical selfishness to do its own thing, maybe co-opting others to its selfish aims in return for favors … what would we call that?!

Cancer. Which in the process of destroying the body also destroys itself. No one wins.

Grasping at an independent self who is more important than all the others selves or Me’s leads to disaster for that self and for everyone else sooner or later. Self-cherishing both creates our suffering by leading to delusions and negative karma, and is the basis for our suffering because it makes our mind deluded and unpeaceful. And we can see why it doesn’t work if we understand that we are all equally cells in the body of life and therefore the welfare of the collective matters.

kindness of othersBy caring for the whole, we are caring for the parts. By caring for all the parts, we are caring for the whole, which includes us. If we care for others our needs will sooner or later be met through creating the right karmic causes and keeping a peaceful, positive mind despite any difficulties. Everybody wins.

This virus is showing us our profound interconnectedness and requisite social obligations by in some ways forcing us to adopt ways of thinking and behaviors that transcend the individual and help everyone collectively, including us. Once it is all over, let’s hope these lessons remain learned and our society becomes far healthier and happier as a result.

Out of time for now, I will conclude this topic in the next article. Meantime, please share how are you are doing under lockdown, including anything you have found helpful.

Related articles

The kindness of mother beings 

Others are the gift that keeps on giving 

A Buddhist take on factory farming 

Choosing to be grateful is choosing to be happy

turkeyAs mentioned in the last article, giving thanks, or being grateful, is an effective way to feel good. It can also help us help others, inspiring us to repay kindness instead of taking it for granted, ignoring it, and/or focusing on others’ faults.

And gratitude is not something we either have or don’t have – we can deliberately cultivate it until it becomes a strong, natural habit that inspires us every day.

For example, researchers in one 2003 study randomly assigned one group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed hassles or neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the others. Other studies have shown the same pattern and lead to the same conclusion. ~New York Times, 11/22/2015 

Buddhism can help us feel grateful on a large life-altering scale. The entire Lamrim, or stages of the path, teaches umpteen reasons for feeling lucky and grateful, and not just small ones either — some of these reasons are existentially cosmic, or cosmically existential, if you know what I mean.

Precious human life

world hurtsIt starts with our precious human life, realizing what we have compared with the sheer enormity of suffering of people in the lower realms right now, such as Butters, who is not only a small cat with zero control over his life (or bowels at the moment) but who also has to be jabbed with a needle twice a day to overcome his nausea. Or the flood of scared, exhausted refugees. Or the bundled up, unwashed man who keeps trying to play Frisbee with himself in the snowy park, muttering and shaking his head as he yet again walks after it to pick it up. Or …, or …, or …?  Or even compared just with those who don’t know at all how to make themselves or the friends around them happy, even though that is all they have ever wanted?

We have the option in this life to attempt whatever we want, spiritually speaking, including developing bodhichitta and becoming a Buddha. There’s a great story in Meaningful to Behold about a one-legged man who falls off a cliff on to the back of a wild horse. As the horse gallops off, the villagers yell at him to get off, but, knowing this horse ride is an almost impossibly rare opportunity, he replies: “Not on your life!”

“That’s awesome!”

In Buddhism, the precursor meditation to developing gratitude and love for all living beings as our mothers is recognizing that they are all our mothers. The other day I overheard someone after receiving his first teaching on this: “That’s awesome!” he said, nodding his head a lot and smiling. Pause, then: “But life would be so much fun then, if we thought that. Where would the suffering be?” Another pause, before he answered his own question. “I guess we’re all still experiencing suffering and I’d want to get us ALL out.” Such confidence he had at that moment to deal with suffering, coming from a feeling of being whole and connected, not from a feeling of being bereft and helpless.

Waves on an ocean

We receive kindness from everyone every day – we are like waves in an ocean. A wave in an ocean may put up his watery hand and say, “Look at me! I’m distinct! I’m unique!” In a way he is right, and we’re all distinct and unique; but if we scratch beneath the surface we can understand that this wave is made up entirely of all the other waves. In the same way, we cannot exist on any level without others, we owe them everything, we are already in a symbiotic relationship with them all. Check out Eight Steps to Happiness for the meditation.  gratitude 5

Takes some contemplation to get there, and for it to be emotionally authentic; but we do come to see that others are the very infrastructure of our being, the very part and parcel of our existence – and that holding onto a separation between self and other is like trying to cut the sky in two with a knife.

Contemplating our interdependence naturally leads to gratitude and a feeling of richness and completeness – after all, as a wave, you have all the other waves in you already, you are missing nothing. (Did you know, by the way, that the word “whole” comes from the Old English hal, meaning “entire, unhurt, healthy”?)

3 reasons to feel good

Next time you’re feeling low you could check and see if you are assuming anything along the following lines: “Of course, the causes of my depression are out there in my lost friendship, my dead-end job, or my miserable life! It’s obvious. Plus, although I’m trying to be a happy Buddhist, what about all that endless suffering I keep hearing about! I’m doomed! I can’t handle all this. And look at everyone else having so much fun without me!”

By the way, I know this is true (taken from that same article today in the New York Times):

For many people, gratitude is difficult, because life is difficult. Even beyond deprivation and depression, there are many ordinary circumstances in which gratitude doesn’t come easily.

But I still think it is worth the effort to cultivate gratitude, and maybe we only need to think of 3 things — just 3 will do — that we can be grateful for to open that door.

gratitude 4Maybe pick from these 3 categories (just a suggestion, as is of course everything else you read on here.) Any order will do.

  • My potential. I do already have all the seeds for great happiness and freedom within. My Buddha nature is indestructible. It is there, I just have to re-access it and give myself a break from focusing on all that’s wrong with me, that limited painful self.
  • Something existential/big picture of our life. For example, I have a precious human life! That’s about as likely as a blind turtle managing to stick its head through a golden yoke that is floating on an immense ocean, but I’ve managed it. Or, another example, I have found Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and/or a Spiritual Guide who can take me wherever I want to go! Or, another example, others are immensely kind all the time in every way. No wonder Geshe Kelsang keeps saying, “How fortunate we are.”
  • Something in our daily life. For example, today I get to be indoors and warm even though it is snowing out there, and the trees are beautiful in the Fall light, and I’ll be able to hang out with some lovely people, and … whatever, just start counting your blessings however you like, big or small, and see where you end up.

Thinking about these things, hopefully we’ll feel gratitude, we’ll feel lucky. And I reckon we are only as lucky as we feel.

gratitude 7We can then think, if we like: “How come I have all these things?” They pretty much all come from others. In that way we’ll feel even more thankful, and even better.

As the same NYT article says:

It’s science, but also common sense: Choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things. As my teenage kids would say, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”

Is no news good news?

“No news is good news,” we say, maybe because we do so want things to stay predictable and our boat not to be rocked. However, as everything is impermanent, everything is news, in that everything is new every moment. There’s a Kadampa rejoicing group on Facebook where people just share things to feel good about – it is all news, but sometimes it lifts the heart. If we take the time to spell out the good stuff in our lives, we will feel gratitude. And we will naturally want to share it with others.

Opposite of taking things for granted

Also, as Louis CK says in this video:

Taking things for granted is the opposite of gratitude.

I like his anecdote:

I was on an airplane and there was internet – high speed internet – on the airplane. That’s the newest thing that I know exists. And I’m sitting on the plane and they go, “Open up your laptops. You can go on the internet.” And it’s fast and I’m watching YouTube clips – it’s amazing – I’m in an airplane! And then it breaks down. And they apologize, “The internet’s not working.” The guy next to me goes, “This is bullshit.” Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago.

Can gratitude help prevent worry?
Mighty Quinn and Butters
Butters (behind) when he was still a butter ball.

Our thoughts are not fixed and we can re-arrange them to our advantage. I find I am having to do that today as the foster kitten Butters is really very sickly. He has transformed from a bouncy butterball into a skinny little thing weighing less than a pound, just lying there listlessly. I can (1) uselessly worry that he’s going to die etc, which helps neither of us; or (2) feel grateful to him for giving me this opportunity to cherish someone else for a change, even when they are pooping over everything. I’ve been doing #2 as much as I can, and can report a considerable difference in terms of peace of mind.*

Try counting them

Finally, here’s another method I use to feel good. I don’t know if it’ll work for you but feel free to give it a try. Love is known as “the great protector” — it always protects us from mental pain and makes us happy, so the more of it the better. If you could wave a magic wand and make people happy, who would they be? Count them all. Think about them a bit. Then, as they feel the same about their friends and relatives, wave your magic wand for their people as well. And so on. And then, if this is going well, you might find it pretty easy to feel quite spontaneously grateful for just how much opportunity you have to love others, grateful for just how many people there are to love. Seriously. This can work!

Heartburn or heartwarm?!

Thanksgiving, when this article was originally written, is the official day to give thanks in the United States. It can be an excuse to slaughter defenseless turkeys, get indigestion, and argue with relatives, or it can be a heartwarming reminder of our good fortune. What would happen, do you think, if 300 million people stopped blaming & complaining for a whole day, and instead focused with gratitude on what we have?

This article is of course by no means exhaustive about what we have to feel grateful about, so please add your ideas to the comments.

*Update on ButtersButters
He died in my arms at 2am on 11/25. Many people were kind enough to pray for him, including Venerable Geshe-la. May all living beings be loved like Butters.