The life-changing power of small stories

By a guest writer, SG, who, amongst other things, uses art to bring about change in prisons and among vulnerable populations.

We are living in unparalleled times; it seems that extreme ideologies are gathering momentum. The increase of terrorist atrocities, sensationalised by a media pursuing a fear-based narrative, is causing bewilderment and anxiety.

As our economic structures fragment, poverty and a surge towards the politics of divide and rule inevitably escalate. Meanwhile, demagogic leaders are arising at the same time as fascism in Europe and America is rearing its ugly head.21325683_10155010321930847_566859715_n

These world events trickle down and affect ordinary people: In the UK, hate crimes have increased 41 percent since the Brexit vote. Since the elections in the US, the latest FBI statistics show hate crimes against Muslims have risen by 67 percent.

What to do?

What is a meaningful Buddhist response? What are we to do?

Firstly, it seems vital we work to reduce any divide between self and other. When facing those who hold extreme opposite viewpoints to ourselves, it is important not to ‘other-ize’ them. We can be mindful that people act in harmful ways only because of their delusions. When delusions are manifest, there is no control over the mind.

If we begin to ‘Monster’ others, we are externalising evil, which is a recipe for more insidious discord.

The current rise of racism and fascism is a symptom of fear, that fear is arising (conventionally) from a societal system collapsing. This collapse is due in large part to a resolute belief in external sources being able to secure a means to happiness. This view invariably leads to conflict and suffering. As Geshe Kelsang says:

If we consider why nations go to war we shall find that the basic reason is very simple. Human beings cannot be content with their own wealth and resources but must appropriate more and more. Millions of people have died as a result of humankind’s collective discontent.

Wrath vs anger

Recently, I have been thinking about wrath. In Buddhism, there is a vast difference between wrath and anger. It is possible to be wrathful without being angry. When we see images of wrathful protector Buddhas such as Dorje Shugden or Vajrapani, they are not angry. Motivated solely by compassion, they exist only to relieve the suffering of others. Afraid of nothing and no one, they display the aspect of anger toward the delusions while simultaneously being completely free from anger toward living beings.

Imagine being able to harness that energy, having the confidence and wisdom to know that we were always responding in the best manner, with the best set of actions.

21322857_10155010323290847_414830036_nWhen large crowds of people take to the streets espousing violence and hatred, imagine being a fearless opponent, able to perform wrathful actions while never straying from wisdom and compassion. Surely this would be most welcome? Could this be a way to think about challenging oppressive hate-fuelled actions while still practising modern Buddhism purely?

I think before we begin thinking about performing wrathful actions, however, we first have to spend time nurturing our compassion and wisdom. Otherwise, our “wrathful” actions could just be more anger, and end up causing more harm than good!

In the past I have tried engaging in wrathful actions — it didn’t work out well. I just ended up angry and frustrated. If we are to be wrathful, we need to be completely free of delusions such as anger and pride. We have to be free of the idea that before us stands an enemy and understand that the person in front of us is a suffering being, unable to fulfill or even express their unmet needs.

The importance of understanding

Can we try to enter into the frames of reference of those who engage in extreme hateful actions? To understand is not to condone. Many causes and conditions lead people to the views they hold.

Imagine being brought up with those very same causes and conditions, imagine having that very same karma — it becomes easier to see how we might then go on to develop those views. If we can do this, then we can learn to separate the person from their delusions and actions. Then we no longer see a monster, and instead become someone capable of developing genuine love and compassion.

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With love, compassion, and wisdom in our hearts, we can find innovative and creative ways to respond to age-old problems.

No man is an island

We can also strengthen our faith in the power of virtuous actions. Last month, I attended the Summer Festival at Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre, where Kadam Morten led the second week’s retreat. He read an excerpt from Geshe Kelsang’s How to Transform Your Life:

In short, we need others for our physical, emotional and spiritual well being. Without others we are nothing. Our sense that we are an island, an independent, self-sufficient individual, bears no relation to reality … 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.

I have heard these lines many times before, but this time something was different. One of the most beautiful things about Dharma is that it always holds the potential to surprise you, to completely change your world view, to transform your life.

Everything we do …

Three words rang out, ‘Everything we do.’ Every single thing we do affects others.

I was reminded of a podcast I listened to last year, when the interviewee (a famous and respected counsellor) recalled a story his father told him. Years ago, his father was involved in the Spanish Civil war, during which time a village into which he had ventured was surrounded by fascists belonging to General Franco, and there seemed to be no escape. For days, the father remained in the village, hiding. There was no food in the village — all he had was a piece of stale bread, which he nibbled on each day. Then one day he encountered an ill, starving, old man and, without thinking, he gave him his last piece of bread.

Years later, the father returned to the village with his son to show him where the siege had taken place. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a woman came running out and hugged him. The old man’s daughter, she had never forgotten this stranger’s kindness, telling them that it had always been an act of great importance both to her father and to her.

The son went on to say that watching this tale unfold was instrumental in him becoming a counsellor. He also mentioned that he had told this story to many people, many times, and he believed that they too had gone on to repeat it to inspire others.

This story is now being read by hundreds of you, too!

21291263_10155010321605847_37033674_nIf a simple act of giving a piece of stale bread to one person can become a catalyst for positive change for thousands of people, what power does an action hold if it is motivated by bodhichitta — the wish to become enlightened for the lasting happiness of all living beings? Imagine if we had faith or trust in the often hidden consequences of our developing such a mind? What encouragement it would give us, what strength. How much faster we could move towards developing the wisdom and compassion needed to engage in actions that can bring about genuine world peace, actual nirvana (liberation) in the minds of all living beings?

Even the smallest of our actions performed with a big beneficial intention, therefore, can be a cause of ridding this world of even the most violent and destructive actions. As Geshe Kelsang says:

Others are affected by everything we do.

Over to you. Questions and comments welcome.

Related articles

People are not their delusions 

Can Buddhism help society? 

What is bodhichitta? 

A vision of hope in troubled times 

 

 

 

Want to banish stress?

I am on the road again, this time to Glasgow. The tube was delayed into Heathrow by some undisclosed incident on the tracks, and after 10 minutes a young boy started to stress 1whimper, “We’re going to miss our plane!” His patient mother explained several times why they still had plenty of time, and when that didn’t work she told him firmly, “You will have to learn how to cope with stress if you are going to survive life.” And then his dad added, “There is nothing we can do so we just have to accept this; stop worrying.” Advice to live by. Not that their son seemed too convinced at the time.

I have just overheard in this busy terminal, in short order, a man confiding into his phone, “Today has been a disaster so far and I’m on holiday so that makes it even more annoying.” And then a woman into her phone, “Everyone here is having a hard day as far as I can see.”

And it is not just here, of course, that everyone’s having a hard day. Today’s headlines out of Charlottesville, Virginia indicate the vicious and stupid racism that is still alive and well in America, for example. Plus, is anyone else around here wondering whether humankind is about to atomized, with all this adolescent tension between the US and North Korea? A friend said yesterday that we may as well not worry about the chaotic fumbling disaster that is Brexit because at this rate we won’t be around long enough for it to happen.

She kind of had a point. When we remember we will be dying before too long — let alone our countless past and future lives and all the big sufferings we have experienced and yet have to experience in samsara — it interestingly gets all our other problems into perspective. The individual details of samsara don’t have the power to crowd our mind, to overwhelm us, when we are focused on the big picture. We have the space and mental peaceful mind quotecontrol to develop renunciation (the determination to get permanently free) and bodhichitta (the determination to get everyone permanently free) instead.

But first things first. As indicated in this last article on how to overcome anxiety, we could all do with learning to relax as a matter of priority, which we can do using a breathing meditation that gives us the peace of mind to reboot and cope.

It is not selfish to take the time to do this, for how are we going to sort out this world if we cannot sort out ourselves? I thought I’d “guide” a simple but effective meditation here so you have something to do next time you’re trapped on a hot tube with anxious travelers or experiencing heart palpitations from headlines like, “North Korea’s nuclear threat is real and terrifying”.

We will all be Buddhas one day

Breathing meditation is all the rage these days. But have you ever wondered why a simple meditation on our breath has the power to make us feel so much better? After all, we are breathing all the time. I think it proves that our mind is naturally peaceful, and that to access this peaceful mind we simply need to stop churning it up with uncontrolled thoughts (which are like a speedboat churning up the deep water of a still Scottish loch). We don’t need to add peace to our minds, for we already have it going on inside.

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It is quite profound, really. When we do the following meditation, we get a glimpse of our Buddha nature, our infinite depth – our natural inner peace that is full of the seeds of universal love and compassion, omniscient wisdom, everlasting peace, and the ability to help everyone. It is like an indestructible gold nugget hiding out in the muck of our delusions.

If we want the incredible inspiration required to keep going day after day in our pursuit of freeing the world of suffering, we must always relate to this fundamental purity in both ourselves and others, looking past our delusions to see the future Buddhas within. The alternative is to go around feeling moreorless bad about ourselves and everyone else, too demoralized to do much about all these complications we see everywhere. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says in the free Buddhist e-book How to Transform Your Life:

Unlike the seeds of our delusions, which can be destroyed, this potential is utterly indestructible and is the pure, essential nature of every living being … Recognizing everyone as a future Buddha, out of love and compassion we will naturally help and encourage this potential to ripen.

And we can do this happily and without getting so exhausted. I think we have to clear the muck aside, at least for a moment, by doing some meditation every day, or we will inevitably forget about our own and others’ gold nuggets and simply remain part of the problem/muck. So, here goes.IMG_1391

15-minute peace meditation

First get into a good meditation posture with a straight but relaxed back, level shoulders, and head tilted a little forward. Your mouth and eyes are lightly closed or, if you prefer, your eyes can be slightly open. Take a moment to settle into this posture and forget about everything else.

Feel contented to be here doing this — accessing your potential for limitless peace and the ability to help others in this troubled world — and determined to concentrate as best you can.

Spend a couple of minutes doing some simple breathing meditation, focusing on the sensation of your breath as it enters and leaves through your nostrils. Tune into this, disregarding all static distractions.

As a result of your mind settling a little in this way, feel that you drop from your head into your heart – your spiritual heart or heart chakra right in the center of your chest. Feel already some space opening up, some peace. Feel as though your wave-like problems and distractions have dissolved away into the boundless ocean of clarity at your heart; just imagine.

Now, to become even more absorbed, think that everything outside your body disappears, melts into light in all directions. There is nothing out there to think about.

Now this light gathers into you, leaving behind only empty space, like a mist lifting, until all that remains is your body suspended in empty space.

Also everything up until this moment melts into light and disappears. The past evaporates like last night’s dream, for it is no more substantial than that.

And everything after this moment also melts into light and disappears. There is no future other than our thoughts about it, so let these go.

In this way, you are still and quiet, in your heart, in the present moment. There is only here and now. You are fully present, fully alive.

Now feel all the tension and weight fall away from your body. As it falls away, all your muscles relax and your body melts into light. Your body is hollow and translucent, as if you could pass your hand right through it without resistance. You think, “My body is as light as air, as if I am floating or flying.”

IMG_1368Then, “My body is like a rainbow body and my mind is like clear light.” Just imagine.

Now, still in your heart, imagine any problems you’re having — physical, emotional, mental, political, relationship, money problems etc. — appearing as heavy smoke or clouds. All unpleasant feelings and unhappy thoughts take form.

Think, “These are just thoughts and feelings, nothing more, nothing less. I don’t need to think them. I don’t need to identify with them. I can let them go.”

As you exhale through your nostrils, let them go. They disappear completely, never to arise again. You are breathing away your problems — with every breath your mind becoming purer and calmer. Concentrate on this for a couple of minutes and, if a distraction arises, breathe that out as well.

For the last few out-breaths, breathe out the last of the thick smoke.

Then, as you breathe in, imagine that your breath is in the aspect of blissful light. Ride this light into your heart, where it joins the inner light of your Buddha nature. Feel happier and lighter with every breath. Do this for a few minutes.

Now focus on this peaceful clarity at your heart, like a clear sky, infinitely spacious.

You can think, “This peace, however relative or slight, is the natural peace of my own mind. This peace is always in my mind. It indicates my potential for deep lasting happiness. There is plenty more where it came from. It is my Buddha nature. It is who I really am.” And feel happy about all that.

This peace is also not separate from the peace of enlightenment. Knowing this, you receive blessings

Allow yourself to abide with this peace, to enjoy it, thinking, “This is me. I don’t have a care in the world.”

Then you can think, “How wonderful it would be if everyone felt this peaceful and free, or for that matter completely peaceful and free.” With compassion, you can spend some time getting ready for the day ahead. Who are you going IMG_1392to meet? How do you want to relate to them? I usually request some inner guidance at this point from Buddha in my heart, so I have the opportunities and skill to help people in the best possible way that day. It usually seems to work.

It is now safe to go out 😁

I hope this helps. You can find more advice on breathing meditation in these articles

Did you enjoy this meditation?! How did you get on?

(ps, pictures are of Inchmurrin Island on Loch Lomond, where KMC Glasgow holds regular meditation retreats.)

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Our bodies barely exist

“It’s a good day to have a good day”, said the sign on the side of the carpet van I just saw in Charlotte, NC. I couldn’t agree more. But it’s not always easy because our delusions keep interfering with us, destroying our inner peace and happiness. As ignorance underpins all good day to have a good day.jpegour delusions, the best way to have a good day today — and every day — is to break free from ignorance and stop going round and round in circles. How? By realizing the true nature of things. So, with the wish for you all to have a really lovely day, I’m going to continue these articles on the emptiness, or true nature, of our body. And please bear with the new terms if you are not yet used to them, it’s worth it.

That experience of not finding our body, as explained in this last article, is the experience of emptiness. We are experiencing the non-existence of the body we normally perceive, the non-existence of the inherently existent or objectively existing body. We are not looking at nothingness, but at the mere absence of inherent existence of the body. This is a deeply meaningful absence and the most profound object of knowledge.

So, what is my body?

Our body does not exist in the way that it appears, which is findable and real and outside the mind. This does not mean that our body does not exist at all, but that it “barely exists”, as Geshe Kelsang has said – it exists as mere appearance or projection of mind. We normally don’t think of our body as mere appearance — we believe it is really there, just as we believe that objects in a dream are really there (until we wake up). And that wrong belief or wrong conception is ignorance.

And we don’t just do this with our body – we are doing it with everything. It is absurd. And it is causing all our suffering.

We think there is a reality out there, existing from its own side, appearing at us, solid. And so we grasp with ignorance – when things appear attractive we have to have them, for example, and when they appear unattractive we want rid of them. In dependence upon these three poisons of ignorance, attachment, and anger, and their subsidiary delusions, we create karma that causes us to keep circling in dream-like samsara. We are failing to recognize that we are creating our whole reality with our thoughts.

“Look, everyone!”

It’s like believing there’s something real out there when watching a movie, as if there really are people there, as if something really is happening, as if there is something coming from the side of the screen. Whereas in reality everything little-boy-at-moviecomes from the mind — is dependent upon conceptual imputation or label or projection. 

A small boy standing in the gangway at a movie was looking at the screen and then back at the projector and then back at the screen again, with a growing expression of surprise on his face. Then, pointing at the screen, he yelled happily, and loud enough for all of us to hear, “Look, mommy! The movie isn’t coming from out there!” Then, practically jumping up and down with glee, he pointed at the projector: “It’s coming from over here!!!” We all laughed. He may have ruined the magical illusion of the movie for some, but to me he seemed like a little Buddha emanation granting the relief of realizing that things do not exist from the side of the object but are projected by our mind.

A lot of Western scientists believe that consciousness is a by-product of matter, even if they haven’t quite figured out how. But it is in fact the complete opposite – our body and the entire physical world are created by our mind, like a dream.

Pile of stones

pile-of-stones

Although it is beyond wonderful that Buddha explained all this, we don’t have to take his word for it. We can see the truth for ourselves, using our own wisdom.

In Step One, identifying the negated object, we get to the point when we think, “If this body is not real, what is real?! This is the body I’ve cherished my entire life. Whenever it feels uncomfortable or sick or fat or rejected by someone, I feel sad. Are you telling me I have been wasting all this energy, all these moods!, on a mere figment, a mental elaboration?

In the remaining three steps we try to find something that matches exactly this vividly appearing real body. But when we look for our body, we find nothing that corresponds to the vividly appearing body that we normally perceive. We look everywhere that it could possibly be, so, if we don’t find it, we have to conclude that it doesn’t exist. It is like mistaking a pile of stones at dusk for a man, as Shantideva says:

Therefore, there is no body, but out of ignorance
The thought of “body” arises through perceiving hands and so forth;
Just like developing the thought of a man
Through perceiving a pile of stones. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Within the parts of the body we think there is a real body — but if we go looking for it we cannot find it anywhere. It is an hallucination, like being startled upon seeing a man out there in a pile of stones, only to relax by realizing we made him up.

Maybe if I just look a little deeper?! …

But maybe, we think, if I just looked a little deeper I would find something out there. For example, maybe we think that the parts of the body are real, so there is some sense after all in imputing a body onto them and holding onto it. There is something out there on which to pin my body. My arms and legs, for example, must be real, or my hands. Of course stones are not a suitable basis for thinking “body”, but the parts of my body surely are!!!?

emptiness-quote(By the way, we need to bring our contemplation on the non-existence of the real body to a conclusion and meditate on that emptiness before we delve further into looking for its parts. These are different contemplations — emptiness of the body, emptiness of the hand, etc.)

To be continued in the next exciting article, when we’re going to look for the very building blocks of the universe … !

Once again, if you are enjoying this subject, please download this free ebook, How to Transform Your Life, and take your time reading the chapter on Ultimate Truth, where it is explained clearly and perfectly.

Related articles

Appearance and reality

The Non-Thingyness of Things

There is no depth other than emptiness

Meditating on the emptiness of our body

We have the target, the body we normally perceive, the independent body. Here is my body appearing to me, existing from its own side, generating sky-2awareness of itself. It’s really there. Like a lump. A monolithic lump. Can’t miss it.

As Geshe Kelsang says in Joyful Path of Good Fortune:

We have a mental image of our body as something different from its parts. When we think “My body is attractive” we are not thinking “My feet are attractive, my elbows are attractive, my forehead is attractive …”, and so forth, but we apprehend an independent body.

And we believe with all our heart that this body we are apprehending does exist. Our life revolves around it. Could I point to it? Yes, of course I could, it’s right here isn’t it?!

Carrying on from this article on the four essential points.

At this point, once we have identified the negated object, we are ready to go looking for it using Steps Two to Four.

Ditching samsara

Just a couple of things first, though, before we continue. When we do this meditation on emptiness, it’s important to remember why we’re doing it. This would be because samsara sucks and we are trying to dissolve it away for everyone. How? By realizing it is empty of inherent existence.

I was thinking recently how innocent the term “samsara” might sound to the new ear. A Buddhist once ruefully told me he had named his two kids Sam and Sara before he knew better. Sweet kids, too. Samsara even has a perfume named after it. But there is nothing sweet about samsara. Monstrousara, evilara, deceptivara, sufferingara, cesspitara, crazyara, etc is more like it. A prize for the best word …

dissolving-body-4Also, when we do this contemplation, it is good to do it in our heart not our head, and not in a big hurry at first — for example after a little breathing or clarity of mind meditation, taking refuge in our own inner peace and pure potential mixed with the wisdom of Buddha.

Step Two: Ascertaining the pervasion

So if our body is as solid and real as it appears, if there is a body there appearing to me, then I will be able to find it if I look for it. In fact, the more I investigate, the clearer it’ll become. If there is mayonnaise in the fridge, for example, then a search should reveal it more and more clearly.

And if my body exists inherently or objectively — if it can be found outside the mind, existing from its own side, as it appears — then I must be able to find it or point to it without pointing at something that is NOT it. That’s only fair, isn’t it? If I’m looking for the mayo in the fridge, I can’t go pointing at the ketchup and say “Found it!”

And there are only two places where my body could possibly be — within its parts or somewhere else. No third possibility. Agreed?

(“Ascertaining the pervasion” is just a fancy way of saying that we become certain that our search pervades or covers everywhere our body could possibly be.)

So in this step we set up the parameters of our search so that we can know when to stop looking. I’m going to look for my body within its parts or somewhere else and, if I don’t find it there, I know I have looked everywhere it could possibly be and so there is no point in looking for it further.

lost-glassesFor example, if I have lost my glasses somewhere in the house, they are either in my bedroom or outside my bedroom. If I look in both places and fail to find them, I can conclude that there are no glasses in the house.

Once we are sure of this, we are ready for the next step in the meditation. We are going to look for the body within its parts and separate from its parts to find out, “Is my body really there, or is it just appearing to be really there?”

And we need to search “without prejudice”, as Geshe-la says in Joyful Path, not “Oh yeah, Buddha already told us that the body is unfindable, so I only need to go through the motions to come to that conclusion.” There is no point being half-assed about the search, but rather we can be like a child playing hide and seek — if anything expecting to find what we are looking for. Then the experience of not finding it — if that indeed is what happens — is all the more impactful, “What the heck?! Where’d it go? Are you telling me I have been grasping at an illusion all this time?! Phew, that’s actually seriously cool.”

Step Three: Ascertaining the absence of oneness

This is where we look for our body within its parts – is there anything in the parts of our body that matches up with the image of the body we’re looking for?

body-word-mat-2Is my back the body? No. It’s a back. My head? My arms? My internal organs? Etc. No. They are all just parts of the body, and the body is the part-possessor.

Each part is in fact a not-body.

What about if we add all these parts together? Eh voilà, a body?! No. We still only have a collection of not-bodies. If you collect a lot of not-sheep together, such as goats, you don’t suddenly, magically, get a sheep. You just have a bunch of goats.

(“Ascertaining the absence of oneness” is just a fancy way of saying that we become certain that our body is not one with, or identical to, its parts.)

The body is labelled on its parts, or imputed on its parts, like a forest imputed on a collection of trees, as explained here – but we can find absolutely nothing within the parts that corresponds to the body we are searching for.

Step Four: Ascertaining the absence of difference

If our body is different from its parts, then we should be able to get rid of all the parts and still be left with a body.

dissolving-body-2We can imagine our head, trunk, arms, legs, etc all dissolving away into nothingness. Is there anything left that is the body? No.

If you check, whenever we try to point to our body, we point at a part of our body.

(“Ascertaining the absence of difference just means we become certain that our body is not separate from its parts.)

Conclusion of our search

So, we’ve looked for our body everywhere it could possibly be found, as ascertained in Step Two — both one with or separate from its parts. And we have found nothing that corresponds to, or matches up with (“Snap!”), the vividly appearing body we normally cherish so much. This means that this body doesn’t exist — there is no body existing from its own side.

This absence of the body we normally perceive is the emptiness or ultimate nature of the body. It is a very meaningful absence, as explained here. It is the only truth of the body. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:

It is almost as if our body does not exist. Indeed, the only sense in which we can say that our body does exist is if we are satisfied with the mere name “body” and do not expect to find a real body behind the name. If we try to find, or point to, a real body to which the name “body” refers, we shall not find anything at all.

emptiness of the car.png
Where is the car?

We should focus on this space-like unfindability or emptiness of the body – the mere absence of the body we normally perceive – for as long as we can. Every second we mix our mind with this emptiness we are reducing our ignorance that grasps at or believes in a real or inherently existent body, and are moving along the path toward permanent bliss.

It is worth it

You know, this meditation is not so difficult if you go through these steps. And when we get it right, there is nothing that compares with the relief and joy of meditating on emptiness. We can also see for ourselves how it is the truth. It might be the first time since beginningless time that we have been privy to the truth.

There is nothing abstract or airy fairy about this meditation. Emptiness is reality itself. It is going around grasping at things that are not there, things created by ignorance, which is our fantasy. The more we stop our self-grasping ignorance, therefore, the happier and freer we become. And when, for example, our body is ill, it no longer bothers us; which has got to be a good thing as I, for one, hate physical pain.

Out of space. More coming soon. If you like this subject, please download this free ebook, How to Transform Your Life, and read the chapter on Ultimate Truth – I don’t think there’s an easier explanation anywhere.

Related articles

What’s stopping us from dissolving everything into emptiness?

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For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible

 

 

 

Want better relationships?

love-v-attachmentBy distinguishing attachment from love, Buddha has saved a great many friendships and relationships over the centuries, no doubt, and prevented and healed countless broken hearts.

In brief, attachment is that “sticky desire” that seeks happiness outside of ourselves and wants YOU to make ME happy. Love is an open-hearted wish for you to be happy, no strings attached. A lot of ordinary relationships and friendships are a mixture of the two — we alternate, sometimes quickly, between love and attachment – so they may seem all mushed up to to someone who doesn’t know the difference. However, they have no common denominator, and they do not coexist. They are very different thoughts.

We do need them

And by the way, in Buddhism, learning to get along with people is not just more fun and fulfilling on a daily basis, but also the path to enlightenment. We need to increase our love and compassion and reduce our attachment and dislike – so every time someone gives us this opportunity, we see them as our spiritual practice, not in the way of it. No one can make us grow our love, we alone are responsible for applying that effort; but the people around us are the very kind objects of our love, without whom it is impossible, so we can appreciate them. In a beautiful section in How to Transform Your Life, Geshe Kelsang says:

If we are skillful, friends can be like treasure chests, from whom we can obtain the precious wealth of love, compassion, patience, and so forth. For our friends to function in this way, however, our love for them must be free from attachment. ~ page 177

Uncontrolled desire

 Attachment is also called “uncontrolled desire” – and I like to think of this in two ways. (1) For as long as we have attachment, we are moreorless out of control, and (2) we cannot control the object of that sticky desire because they tend to have their own ideas and feelings about everything.

new-york-subway-1Talking of uncontrolled thoughts, I spent a lot of time on the New York subway recently – and at weekends the trains had a weird habit of not going where they said they were going and ending up in places I didn’t want to be. Our thoughts can be like that. We have to go along with them if we have no control over them, no space between us and them, or no notion that we are not our thoughts and don’t have to think them. And that means wherever they take us, even if that is on an express train to Brooklyn when you wanted to end up at 23rd street.

Or else our thoughts end up going nowhere – like being stuck at 50th street because there is an obstruction at 42nd street, at which point it seems easier to give up and go back to bed. Attachment, as with all delusions, renders us powerless and discouraged – our thoughts go round and round in boring circles, or they end up somewhere horrible and we have to find a way to come all the way back again to where we started, weeks, months, or even years later. If we check all our previous attachments, they can follow a similar loop regardless of the person we are attached to – the only difference is some details.

On the halted train at 50th street, I noticed that the savvy New Yorkers didn’t wait around for more than a couple of minutes – they started leaving the carriage at the first incoherent mumble on the tannoy of “obstruction ahead …”, clearly flexible enough to make alternate travel plans. Me, on the other hand … after fifteen minutes of vainly expecting things to get better on their own, I finally decided that enough was enough if I was to make it on time. I needed to be proactive, take control over my own destiny; so I too left the station and started to run. Then, around Times Square, realizing that running alone would not be quick enough, I jumped in a yellow cab. And I made it. Point being, once we are savvy at mastering our minds, we can get off the train more quickly, be far more flexible, not bother thinking those thoughts we don’t want to think, find alternative ones that work better at getting us where we want to be.23rd-street

We waste so much of our lives with attachment – if we “can’t wait” to see our lover at the weekend, for example, it’s excruciating to watch the clock tick-tock slowly from Monday to Friday, having to wait. For who likes waiting? We hate the powerlessness of queues or stopped trains. And while we wait, we are missing out on the present moment, the deep peace right here inside us and available 24/7.

You’re magnetic!

If we want our relationships to last, we have to ditch the attachment and work on increasing the love. As Geshe Kelsang says in Buddhism in the Tibetan Tradition:

If we have no enduring love, our relationships with others will be unstable, like a married couple whose initial strong love soon subsides. Our love should be constant like a river that has always been present and will always remain.

Ever been in a relationship like two magnets – first fiercely attracted to each other — slam, stuck — and then repelled far apart?! Maybe there was a time when just one of the magnets started to turn around, and the second magnet got all confused because they couldn’t understand what was going on and why the first magnet didn’t like them any more. Maybe Magnet #2 fires off one text after another to try and connect again (just as we are advised by every agony aunt not to do) – and sure enough all those texts freefall into the dismissive void.

But sooner or later both magnets get all turned around, strong attachment replaced with strong dislike, maybe settling over time into strong indifference. And maybe one day the first magnet says to the second, just because they happen to be in the same neighborhood, “Hey, do you want a coffee and a catch up?” and the second thinks, “Ermm, how on earth could we ever catch up with each other?! Over one cup of coffee?! We are way too far apart for that now.”

The radiance of the sun

Anyway, one thing I do know is that love is very different. Love is like the sun, endlessly radiating, warming both people and any other people around as well. Even in the midst of the attraction/repellence there can be moments of love and respect, a genuine wish for the other person to be happy. And regardless of what has gone before, or when, we can always build upon those.

Affectionate love is when we are delighted to see others and they appear pleasant to us. How is that different to attachment, you might ask. They appear pleasant not because of what they can do for us, such as assuage our loneliness, make us look cool, accompany us to the movies, or scratch our back. They appear pleasant just in their own right. We have a “tender regard” or “warm heart” as Geshe-la says in Joyful Path, regardless of what they look like or what they are doing for us.

dogI was thinking earlier today that it is a bit like looking at your old dog lying in front of the fireplace with her ears twitching – you don’t want anything from her, you just love her with all your heart, and on that basis you can easily cherish her as important and wish for her happiness (the other two types of love). You want her to be warm and comfortable and happy as can be, and have nothing bad ever happen to her.

Sure, you don’t want to date your dog – but the point is that, whether in a romantic relationship or not, we all need the good heart of love if we really want to be happy. It is never too late to start changing the balance of love and attachment in our current and past romantic relationships, and it is always worth remembering that the love part is guaranteed to help us:

Even if our love is mixed with attachment, it can still be beneficial. ~ Buddhism in the Tibetan Tradition

How to tell the difference between them?

One way to tell whether attachment or love is functioning is to observe the energy of our thoughts to see if they are going outwards (in order to drag our object of desire back toward us) or staying centered inside, not having to go anywhere as the object of love is already there.

If our thoughts are going outward, trying to grasp happiness out there somewhere, that is attachment at work; and this always leads to a disconnect, a feeling of frustrated separation. This is because oscar-wildethere is a strong sense of dualism, a sense of the real me over here and real other or you over there, as described more here. Whereas love feels non-dual, like its object is already inside the heart, which has room for everything and everyone – it is a feeling of connection, fulfillment, joy, completion, intimacy, oneness. All the things that attachment craves but doesn’t get.

Another way to tell the difference, if we check, is that attachment just doesn’t feel very good. It can feel excited, but never peaceful – in its 3 phases of scheming, indulging, and recovering, there is always something a bit missing, out of our hands, even in the midst of the most rewarding indulgence. It is always ready to flip over into disappointment and dislike. Whereas:

When our mind has the nature of love we naturally feel happy and peaceful. With such a state of mind it is impossible to become disturbed or depressed or to develop anger of jealousy. ~ Joyful Path

As Geshe Kelsang also says:

Sometimes we may observe a married couple who are materially very poor, yet somehow their lives seem to be happy. They have a deep understanding between them. When we consider the basis of their fulfilling relationship, we find that their happiness is based on the foundation of love. Even if a married couple have all the material comforts they desire, without the foundation of love for each other they will have dissatisfaction, poor communication, and much mental suffering. If they have no practice of love at all, many complications will develop.

When I look back and analyze my relationships, the happiest times have been the moments I really loved the other person and wanted them happy – I was happy to see them happy, with not much Me involvement. This has made me realize that I can feel that good all the time — as happy with everyone I meet, even as happinessblissful. Which figures, given that happiness, bliss, connection, union, and even transcendence are states of our own mind, they don’t come from outside the mind. With love, we are already in the other’s place, there is no gap separating us to bridge, we are like one.

I find that because of Buddha’s skill in explaining the difference between attachment and love I have been able to keep and even grow the love for my various exes. This means that although we have “moved on” and our lives are different now, and on the surface of things we may not have much to talk about, there is still nothing I would not do if they needed anything — they need only ask. (Except for one of them*)

In fact, when I stop to think about it, I really want them quickly to become Bodhisattvas and attain enlightenment. And that goes for their families too.

So, given that we have dated everyone in our beginningless lives, just as everyone has been our mother, why not spread the affection around?!

Happy Valentine’s Day 😉 😘

(*only kidding 😄 )

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Just love

This is going to be short and sweet, hopefully like Christmas.

lucy-dogThis morning I had a simple, heart-warming experience. Visiting my brother’s family, I was walking their dog, my namesake L, aged 7 months. She had spent the last hour tugging at the leash to meet everyone she could in the streets of St. Albans, jumping up on them with muddy paws if they so much as looked at her. She loves everyone. Not everyone was loving her back.

Until we got to Verulam House, Nursing and Residential Home. My sister-in-law and I dropped in to see her mother, Christine, where we found her in a big circle of old folks under the care of James, a youngish man who clearly takes a genuine interest in each one of them and was getting them all to chat.

And L jumped straight onto the lap of an unsuspecting old man, who almost spilled his sippy cup of lukewarm coffee. Luckily, he beamed. Other wavery voices then called out, “Let her come here!” So I took her around to each person in the room, and she lit them up. We had a party! So simple — just love — yet so effective. Everyone was in a good mood. It cost nothing.

James was very pleased to see everyone enjoying themselves, and I was thinking how much he deserves to be, as does every other under-paid, over-worked Bodhisattva care worker looking after the old, the lonely, the sick, and the homeless this Christmas and every other day of the year. And these unsung heroes and heroines will get what they deserve as a result of their kindness. They’ll get happiness.HTTYL-bookcovers.png

Get rid of self-cherishing, and everything works. Don’t get rid of it and nothing works. Self-grasping and self-cherishing are believing in and cherishing a real and important self that does not exist, as explained here, so they are doomed to fail every time.

Last week, Venerable Geshe Kelsang gave everyone a free book, called How to Transform Your Life, spreading warmth and light across the globe. Much of this book shows how self-cherishing has never worked, for what do we have to show for it? Just problems and grumpiness every single day, and ending up no closer to that lasting freedom and joy we all long for. But cherishing others always solves our problems and leads to all our temporary and ultimate happiness. When we finally figure this out, and then actually bother to remember it, we will be inspired to get rid of our self cherishing — all of it — and cherish others instead. Every day will then be a party.

happy-holidays
Contemplate these “four immeasurables” and a happy festive season is pretty much guaranteed.

And if, maybe, we think, “Hey, self-cherishing is not that bad! Look at my lovely life! I do have something to show for my selfishness!!” we can dig deeper to see that none of the good things in our life has come from self-cherishing. More despite our self-cherishing. We experience good friendships, loyalty, things going our way, happiness, resources, etc, because of our cherishing others now and in the past, not because of our self-cherishing.

And that’s it for today, folks! Wishing you and your loved ones and their loved ones and their loved ones and so on ad infinitum a very happy holiday.

Going wide means going deep

Yesterday I ran into a cool guy at the Colorado Mills Outlet Mall – he was smiling so broadly as he served his customers that I couldn’t help saying to him when it was my turn,mountain-1 “You’re in a really great mood!” And he replied, “Yes, I’m always happy. It’s a choice, you know. I have also spent a lot of time in the past not being happy.” And then apropos nothing, except, who knows, maybe apprehension about this Tuesday’s election (or perhaps that’s just me), “Being black in this country is not always easy. But I have made a choice.” I told him I was a meditator, and he was of course all over that; and then he asked me if I had made the mala on my wrist myself (I hadn’t, I never make anything, but I liked that he knew the word.)

Encounters like this are more and more frequent with the passing years – this has just reminded me that an immigration official at Atlanta airport, upon noticing the mala on my wrist, recently reached below the fingerprint machine to pull out his well-thumbed copy of Eight Steps to Happiness. This is all a far cry from the start of my interest in meditation (1981), when people looked at me funny if I even mentioned the word, let alone that I was into Buddhism — “You, ermm, what?!”

i-had-help
Had help writing this article.

I think this growing awareness is a very good thing because the world could do with more people making the conscious effort to be happy, for lord knows there are enough unhappy people about, as my teacher Venerable Geshe-la once put it. And if the cover story of this week’s Time magazine, “Anxiety, depression, and the American adolescent” is anything to go by, unhappiness would appear to be on the rise in our modern society, and society needs help.

(I also hope that article will raise attention that will help stem the tide for young people. For it’s important that possible medical diagnoses of clinical anxiety and depression are considered by all concerned and treated where necessary by qualified authorities.)

I think the choice to be happy is one of the main choices we have to make in order to succeed in life – probably even more important than the choice of President (though please go vote in any case!) Luckily Buddha gave loads of practical advice that anyone can follow on how we can make that choice and stick to it. It’s not just for our own sakes either — if we are happy, we are in a far stronger position to make others happy. That guy in Aeropostale was helping make people’s day.

Getting over ourselves

As Buddha pointed out again and again, the best way to become happier is to get over ourselves and cherish others instead. But this can give rise to some trepidation; namely, if I care more and more about others, and take responsibility for them, won’t I just end up more stressed out than I am already?! It’s already bad enough worrying non-stop about the kids and the aged parents and the people at work and the refugees and the shelter animals — how can I add limitless living beings to the mix and not go mad? And when will I ever get another moment off? There’ll always be something to worry about, something that I have to do.

The other day I told the story of Patti Joshua in South Africa, who brought Buddha’s teachings to over 11,000 children in the rural areas of KwaZulu Natal; and I quoted her friend as saying, “There was always space in her heart for one more.” But she never worried. She had such a huge heart that there was plenty of room in it for everyone, with space left over. By increasing our compassion we can widen our own heart space, and with wisdom we can deepen it.mountain-3

Spread too thin?

With compassion to liberate all living beings, we understand that everybody hurts sometimes, and we want to take the suffering away from all of them, until we feel responsible for everyone — possessing the superior intention of a Bodhisattva. But we need to learn to do this without being overwhelmed or anxious.

Worry and existential tiredness, however, do not come from the concern we have for others but from a tightness born of ignorance about our true nature, and attachment to externals, to appearances. So to go wide, I think, without spreading ourselves thin, we have to go deep.

As Buddha pointed out, our mind is like a vast clear boundless ocean, with limitless potential. All his teachings are relating to that potential, which we all share – the spiritual path is about accessing more and more of that inner peace, love, wisdom, compassion, faith, and utter happiness, where we end up with not a care in the world even as we work for the welfare of all.

Take time out

There are many ways to go about this, to go deeper so we can go wider. Simply taking some time out each day to meditate and experience the restorative nature of our own peaceful mountain-4minds, even through a simple breathing meditation for example, is invaluable. And I bet we can all find ten or fifteen minutes for this if we really want to. For me, absorbing in meditation each day has always been the happiest and sanest part of my life, setting me up for the rest of the day. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang says in How to Transform Your Life:

Unless we make some time every day to meditate, we will find it very difficult to maintain peaceful and positive minds in our daily life, and our spiritual practice as a whole will suffer. Since the real purpose of meditation is to increase our capacity to help others, taking time each day to meditate is not selfish.

You know what happens if you never get off the couch to exercise, the results are not pretty. In a similar way, we need to tune daily into our Buddha nature and faith in our own potential — ideally in our own enlightenment — or we are almost bound to get swept up in superficials and feel overly busy and out of our depth.

If we are so busy changing externals that we have no time to change our mind, we are, according to Buddhism, being lazy and wasting time. It’s a bit like trying to chop down an old oak tree with a blunt axe for hours or days on end, not taking out the necessary few minutes to sharpen it.

Your happy seat

But if we enjoy some time out to relax into our hearts and experience the peace and clarity of our mind, observing in our own experience how all our thoughts arise from and fall into our root awareness, we will be able to let go of our busy, overwrought imaginings for we will no longer be grasping at them. If we make our deep ocean-like mind peaceful, wise, and loving, its emerging waves will be too. Otherwise, we can become so identified with mountain-2the waves and froth on the surface of the ocean that we forget where they’re coming from and think that they are arising under their own power, out of our control. And the detail then feels overwhelming; we easily lose the plot. As Geshe-la says:

We have to manage our time and energy in such a way that we can be of maximum benefit to others, and to do this effectively we need time alone to recover our strength, collect our thoughts, and see things in perspective.

Who doesn’t love vacations!? Most people I know love the idea of being able to get away from their worries and enjoy space and freedom. Frankly, we could be doing this every day of our lives if we wanted to, sans the expense and jet lag. Tibetan meditators called their meditation seat “the happy seat” for good reason.  

This ability to relax and go deep, to access our own inner peace in order to cope, has always been important. But in our complicated, fast, over-stimulated modern society, I would argue that it is now a crucial life skill that everyone needs to learn as soon as possible.

More in the next article. Meanwhile, I’d like to invite you to share any practical experience on how you cherish others without letting the responsibility worry you.

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