To the rescue!

While working on an article filled with your ideas on how Buddhists can (and need to) help in the current world turmoil, someone sent me this:

In a recent retreat, after teaching on emptiness and how the appearances in this life are like dreams, Gen Losang went on to say that a compassionate way to help people is to skilfully reduce the importance of what is appearing to them, rather than increasing it. He meant skilfully, not shutting them down with, “Oh, it’s all emptiness.” 

wisdom

What do you think about this? It reminded me of this analogy (below) for helping people on different levels and in accordance with their needs that I hope you might also find helpful.

To help anyone, we need compassion. And true compassion, or deep compassion, arises from renunciation – we develop renunciation for ourselves and for everyone else.

Renunciation is when we stop buying into samsara, hoping that things in samsara will one day work themselves out – they will not. We cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as they say. For as long as our minds are impure, our worlds will be impure.

“Reducing the importance of what is appearing to them, rather than increasing it” depends on the degree of suffering and crazy appearances the person is experiencing.

If we are helping someone who has a little space in their lives, and who is suffering, for example, from a relationship problem – yes, this advice can really help.

For someone whose home and country have just been washed away or burned to the ground, maybe not so much. (Unless they already have experience of this deep spiritual truth and just want reminding.)

The swamp

Imagine living beings are trying to navigate a huge, deep swamp that happens to be full of alligators and other monsters with very big teeth and hungry bellies. It is dusky — hard to see clearly or far. There are stepping stones, but it’s challenging to see how to tread safely. Here and there are small patches of dry land where people can catch a bit of a breather, and some of those patches even seem relatively pretty or interesting.

alligator in swampImagine that we are also in that swamp, but that we know, at least intellectually, something profound – this swamp is false, merely an appearance to mind, like a dream or a movie.

The need for renunciation

In that scenario, we need renunciation ourselves, wishing to get out of this swamp of samsara entirely and forever rather than remaining intrigued by it. We need to know that for as long as we have delusions, we’re going to keep projecting monsters wherever we look.

dystopia

Speaking for myself, I know that the times I feel anxious, overwhelmed, heavy, or graspy is when I have forgotten my renunciation, which is a light, joyful, and confident wish for liberation. My compassion then is far less effective. I have thoughts like, “There are so many people, including animals, needing help! So many people demanding the attention that I’m not giving them – it’s coming from all sides. How am I going to save them all from the alligators?! Especially when I’m feeling trapped or overwhelmed myself?” I feel like going back to bed and pulling the covers over my head. Or distracting myself with Netflix. It also doesn’t help if we are bound to our own selfish attachments needing things or people to go our way.

If we don’t have the non-attachment of renunciation, we have only momentary relief when a plan pans out – but it is short lived, whereas the disappointments can seem to pile up effortlessly. This is because of attachment. It leads to the suffering of change, not to deep satisfaction or solutions.

The need for wisdom

We also need some wisdom understanding the illusory nature of the swamp or we will soon be joining in the collective panic, “Aarggh, I’m freaking out over here! We’re going to be swallowed whole.” We will be part of the problem, swept up in the drama, overwhelmed by appearances or the 24/7 news cycle.

Without wisdom, compassion fatigue sets in because it is exhausting to try and solve “real” problems — it is like wading through treacle with no end in sight. It can also make us feel guilty as we can never do enough.

With the compassion born of renunciation and wisdom, we won’t get discouraged. The context is different – we have set it up differently. We therefore can “try and not worry”, as Geshe Kelsang says. We are “only trying to help people”, he also says, “so why worry?”

Back to the analogy … Let’s say we are lucky enough to have a flashlight. The flashlight is the teachings illuminating the path — we don’t know how long we have this flashlight, but it is very effective. How strong it is depends on the strength of our experience. Perhaps we understand the dream-like nature of reality and — even though for now things may also still seem real to us — we know we have to get ourselves and others to the firm ground of wisdom.

Tread here!

swampWhat we need to do, if we care about the people around us, is to stop them being eaten by swamp monsters. The first thing we need to do is encourage them to get to the patches of dry land … tread here, avoid those jaws, hold my hand, look at the light. You’ll be ok, let me help.” Although there are no real dangers there, they are not necessarily ready to hear us say so: “Stop being an idiot! There are no swamp monsters! This is just a dream! It’s all empty!” We understand how it is all appearing to them as real, and so we give them the relevant advice for their situation. We empathize with their hopes and fears. We give them material help, “Here, have some water.” They need water.

Once they reach dry land, and have had a chance to rest up, we can then tell them:

“Believe it or not, this is all just a bad dream. You are in no real danger. And now let me explain how.”

We can explain how it is possible for them to stay on firm ground forever, and help get everyone else out as well.

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We may not be able to do this with everyone straightaway, of course — for example all I can do with these foster kittens is give them food, shelter, love, temporary safety, and entertainment. But we never give up trying until everyone is permanently safe and free. That is a Bodhisattva‘s mentality.

Calm the waters

I’ll finish by sharing what my friend wrote about Gen Losang’s advice:

The key for me here is genuine compassion. I say that because if we try to practice this without genuine compassion as a motivation then we just end up unskillfully minimising people’s feelings. It can be very hurtful to be feeling pain and have someone tell you, “It’s all emptiness.” Unless you have high realisations, that pain exists for you, just as a child’s fears exist even if the nightmare doesn’t.

Within that, I try not to draw attention to the awful things that are happening. Also, when people are sharing their worries with me, I try to reduce the drama rather than adding to it, whilst still being sympathetic. I point out possible alternative explanations for the actions they have witnessed, or suggest a better possible outcome. In a way I try to steer their dream in a more positive direction. If a mother comforts a child after a nightmare, she doesn’t do this by agreeing the monsters were just horrific and are probably still there …IMG_2085

If we are not careful, we can just spread the hype (and there is also no shortage of “fake news” out there). We can end up pointing out the monsters in their nightmares that they missed the first time, instead of shining the flashlight under the bed and saying, “Look, there is no one there!”

A parent comforts their children when they have been terrified or upset by a dream by sympathising with their pain but skilfully reducing the sense that what they experienced was the truth. Then, once they are comforted to some extent, they can move their attention to something that will soothe or comfort them, rather than harping on about their own horrific nightmares or asking them for more details. 

What I am working on now is responding in the way Losang suggested, calming the waters, not swirling them around. 

As always, your comments are welcome below.

Related articles

Renunciation 

Change your future by changing your mind

How to help on different levels

Developing confidence

 

How to be kind according to Buddhism

Buddha kindWith consideration for others we determine to avoid negativity because we don’t want to hurt others. (This carries on from this article.) Non-harmfulness is the guiding principle in Buddhism. No one who deliberately harms others is a follower of Buddha ~ the chief refuge commitment he gave to be a Buddhist is:

Not to harm others.

So we develop love and compassion in our hearts, and then put our money where our mouth is, as it were, by developing the determination to avoid actions that would disturb or harm others. Our self-cherishing desires are like a black hole that can never be filled, so, as it says in Transform Your Life:

Before we act on a wish we should consider whether it will disturb or harm others, and if we think that it will we should not do it.

That’s a good rule of thumb.

Also we need to try and practice consideration whenever we are with other people, as Geshe Kelsang says – which means any other people! Not just a few people whom we want to impress. Buddhist moral discipline is practical, not abstract – there is no point developing compassion for all those people in China and then acting crazy around our co-workers. How we behave with the people under our nose, whether these are the people we’d choose to be with or not, is where the rubber hits the road, where we get to really manifest what is going on in our hearts in our verbal and physical actions. One of my favorite sayings is in Meaningful to Behold:

We should not act as if we are sleepwalking or allow our habits to dominate our behavior.

Making a determination is moral discipline, and it means we are awake due to mindfulness, not allowing ourselves to be dominated by our habitual delusions. Who else are we going to practice this with, if not the people we are presented with each day, whether friend, enemy, or total stranger?

Way to make friends

If we are considerate, Geshe Kelsang says, people will like and respect us. Makes sense – people like us generally based on the way we make them feel, as opposed to whether we are scintillatingly fascinating, witty, and gorgeous to look at (I’m talking about like as in affection, not attachment, here.) If the people around us think that we are basically trustworthy, that we are not out to get them, and that in fact we are interested in their welfare, they will probably like us. (Doesn’t mean we can’t be fascinating too …)

Genuinely goodgreatest test

Integrity is important – the same study showed that we try to get away with appearing better than we are, whereas would it not be more cool to appear good because we ARE good?! (Funny how the Sanskrit word for moral discipline, “shi la”, literally means “coolness”.)

Sense of shame and consideration help us overcome this disconnect, this hypocrisy, this pretension and deceit, and become genuinely good people. As it says in Transform Your Life:

Whether we are a good person or a bad person depends upon whether or not we have sense of shame and consideration for others.

No guilt though

Confession time. When I took Marty out one day, in the big “historic” January New York blizzard that never was, he pooped right in the middle of a wide and deep puddle. I had on shoes, not boots, and I tried to get to it, but the puddle was about 9 inches deep, so I gave up. I did notice that I had self-cherishing attachment to my dry feet over someone else’s stepping in poop, and it wasn’t pretty. But, having acknowledged that, I did not let myself feel too bad about it. Why?!clean up after dog

Because sense of shame is not guilt — perhaps it is the opposite as guilt holds onto the baggage and identifies with the negativity, “Oh, I’m such a horrible person! What’s the point!” We feel worthless and unmotivated. Whereas with sense of shame or consideration, when we do something less than stellar we don’t beat ourselves up but recognize we did it under the influence of our enemy, the delusions, and so we can purify and move on.

We are not fixed or inherently anything — in fact the me who didn’t pick up after my dog has already gone out of existence, thanks to impermanence, leaving me free to identify with my pure nature and re-impute or re-identify myself as a decent dog-owner once again, to greet the new moment and Marty’s new bowel movement. (Wish I could say I picked up another dog’s poop to make up for it, and to make me seem better than I am … but I didn’t 😉  Ah well, at least I picked up all Marty’s poop after that, making sure I always had on my Wellies.)

You are your own witness

And others cannot police us; we have to just do this thing ourselves. I will leave you as I started in the last article, with another piece of memorable advice from Buddha: You are your own witness

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.