Just who do you think you are?!

I saw someone at the airport recently carrying just a wallet and a skateboard. That’s it. Now, that is traveling light, I thought. And this dude was smiling at everyone.

traveling light

I was thinking it’d be even more wonderful not to be weighed down by our self-grasping and projections, our emotional baggage that we’ve been lugging around from life to life, including this one. Just to skate lightly through this life, loving everyone we meet, with an open, accommodating heart, knowing we are all just passing through.

Putting 2 and 2 together and making 5

In How to Transform Your Life, Geshe Kelsang says quite directly: 

We may have the sincere wish to avoid suffering permanently, but we never think to abandon our delusions.

Do you ever wake up wanting to suffer? Thought not. This means that you do want to avoid suffering permanently; and presumably you’d also prefer to always wake up peaceful and relaxed if you could. But we keep getting the real causes of suffering and happiness all wrong.

Why do you think we are never deeply happy for very long, even though that’s all we want? Buddha’s diagnosis is that it is because of our delusions, and especially the self-grasping ignorance that “always abides at our heart destroying our inner peace.” There is always some tension and discomfort in our minds, or, if not, the threat of it. There is always some underlying dissatisfaction, feeling cut off, or needing something else — even in the midst of supposedly enjoying ourselves. And a world of pain when we are not.

ignorance is bliss

And all this suffering is because “The foolish mind of self-grasping believes or grasps at I, mine, and all other phenomena as truly existent.” This wrong awareness creates our other delusions, negative karma, and their suffering karmic results in life after life.

And it is also the basis for all our everyday annoyances — I think that “grasping” is a good descriptor for it, because we squeeze and we push, rarely able to relax into a non-dual experience of deep peace and wholeness.

The thing we grasp at most tightly is our own self or me. It’s exhausting, actually. We are all wandering around day and night clinging to this painful limited version of ourselves, one that no one else can even see; and it is incredibly important to see exactly how we are doing it and then stop doing it.

Four essential points

So I have been wanting for a long time to talk about the four essential points, or steps, for meditating on the emptiness of the self, like I did for meditating on the emptiness of the body. In brief, if the self, me, or I that we normally perceive exists, it must be findable in its parts or separate from its parts. We should be able to point to it without pointing at anything that is not it – that’s only fair.

But luckily we cannot find a real me anywhere if we look for it with analytical wisdom. I am not the body, not the mind, and not the collection of the body and mind – yet take the body and mind away and I disappear. It’s like trying to pin down a mirage. I’ll expand on those four steps now, hoping you have a few undistracted minutes to read this.

A Tale of Two Selves

But before we start, may I suggest we take a moment to connect to the peace at our heart, recognizing it as our limitless potential for change, our Buddha nature. Our principal peace of mind arises from our connection to enlightened beings (however we envisage them), especially through our Spiritual Guide. We are already communing with them the moment we experience just a little bit of peace at our heart, so we can receive their blessings and connect with their truth not by grasping or “working it”, but just by relaxing and abiding in it, letting go. Then this peace feels limitless. We have a deeper knowing. And we identify with this, thinking “This is me.”

There is more on how to do this explained here

lotus reflectionWe now have the space to take a step back and watch our painful limited self in action = Step One, below. It is a bit like A Tale of Two Selves – and their different paths and results. Here on the one hand is my Buddha nature – relating to and nurturing that will lead me to enlightenment. Here on the other hand is my hurt and limited self – relating to and nurturing that will lead me to more neurosis.

Our choice.

Step One: Identifying the negated object

When we meditate on the emptiness of the self, it is very helpful to start with the painful, limited self that we are currently holding onto – this is our target into which we fire the arrows of wisdom.

So, bring to mind the limited, painful self you are grasping at today.

If we are having any kind of delusion, this will not be too hard to do. For center stage of all our delusions is a big sense of Me or ego – and the stronger the delusion, the stronger that sense of me.

Let’s say we are really worried about something or someone. We even want to help them so bad, but we can’t, and it makes us feel inadequate, helpless, or infuriated.

What is going on here? Three things. We have a perception of that person as being in a bad way and it seems fixed. And we have a perception of ourself as someone helpless and hopeless, and this too seems fixed. And we are also grasping at the perception itself as real or fixed. These are called the “three spheres of emptiness” because none of these exists in the way that they appear, ie, real. We can learn to dissolve them all away.

Let’s focus on this perception of Me and ask ourselves: does this me feel limited? Does it seem fixed? Does it feel real, as if it is actually there? Does it seem to exist from its own side, nothing to do with anything, including the body and mind? Does it seem to be just arising independently, just arising on its own? Just a big distended me sitting here, existing in and of itself? 

self-cherishing 1As Geshe Kelsang suggests in Joyful Path of Good Fortune

We begin our meditation by considering, “How am I grasping at self? What is the I that appears to my mind?”

This real me is in fact the non-existent object of the wrong awareness of self-grasping. But this is certainly not how it appears — it seems to exist solidly and have nothing to do with our thoughts. It appears to be real. If this me is not real, what is?!?

Hard ego capsule

This me seems so solid and real, it’s a wonder no one else can see it. But they can’t, so where is it? If it was really there, outside our private thoughts, someone should be able to see it, surely?! 

So in this first step we bring to mind this inherently existent me or I as strongly as we can, such that we wonder, “If this me doesn’t exist, what on earth does?!” We want maximum impact on our mind when we go onto realize that this me doesn’t exist.

This is the worried self we want to serve and protect – but it is difficult because this depends on the other person cooperating and not worrying us anymore. This is on them – they are worrying me. The stronger the worry, the stronger the sense of the worried me and the stronger the sense of the problematic person causing my worry.

We can also use examples of embarrassment or fear. If we are standing next to the train tracks losing our balance, for example, we are not thinking, “My body is about to fall!” or “My mind is about to fall!”, but “I am about to fall!”; and that I appears to be something different from, and independent of, our body and mind.

about to fallEven if we are just sitting here reading this blog, we can consider what Geshe Kelsang says in Joyful Path of Good Fortune:

We do not feel that “I am reading this book” means the same as “My body is reading this book” or “My mind is reading this book.” The I appears to exist from its own side. This independent I, if it exists, is the inherently existent I, the I we cherish.

Although we cannot find that me (as we shall see), for as long as we continue to believe it and cherish it not a day will go by when we don’t experience problems and suffering. And this will continue in our future lives as well, as we hallucinate one painful and/or circumscribed self after another. We need to wake up from the nightmare of this ignorance and wake everyone else up too.

So in this first step we have to get this I in our sights. Allowing it to manifest obviously by remembering situations where we have a strong delusion functioning and we are self-centered — “What is that me that is so upset?!” — and then simply stepping back to observe it.

The worried sense of self. The hurt sense of self – imagine someone says something hurtful and the hurt self pops up. Or the neglected sense of self. The irritated sense of self. The needy sense of self. Something real and vivid. There it is! Recognize how you immediately believe it. So fast — it is instant. I am now in pain. And we want to serve and protect that self – it feels inherently in pain and therefore needs protection.

emptiness mirrorsWe all have a playlist of our personal greatest hits. So you apply your meditation not to an abstract notion of who you are, but to YOU. This way our meditations will change us.

This fixed me comes up all the time depending on our delusions.  We can see how our horizons shrink very small whenever we are caught and wrapped up in this painful, bounded, fixed self. When we have delusions, pretty much all our valuable energy goes into protecting this real me or I, leaving very little left over for other people.  We inhabit a very small universe. We are fragile — it is so easy for us to feel slighted and even more upset. Someone looks at us funny …  even someone walking past us can seem deeply personal!

I think our self or I can feel sometimes like a hard ego capsule, sometimes an insoluble one. But when we meditate on emptiness or selflessness we find it is not as solid as it appears and we can dissolve it away.

Freedom is just some wisdom away

The thoughts of a real me are just thoughts. If we go looking for this real me, we won’t find it.  Once we identify how we are grasping at the me or I that we normally perceive, there are many ways to understand how this is grasping at a false me or I – for example, everyone is me, so I cannot be the real me. And, as we will see, we cannot find this me anywhere.

Good to bear in mind that we are capable of wisdom, of understanding everything, of having infinite love and compassion for everyone. With self-grasping and self-cherishing, we stick our head in a thick obstructing cloud — oblivious to our potential and oblivious to other people. If our head is stuck in a cloud, it doesn’t much matter that there is infinite sky around it because we can’t see it. We are just thinking about me. 

However, if we dissolve away that me that doesn’t exist, we no longer have to change the world to suit it. We just get rid of it.  We can feel happy. Full. Contented. Not needing anything; we are free. If we see how we are not that limited needy person, we no longer need to try to manipulate and control others around us. The urge to do that has gone because we now feel fine. for whom emptiness is possible

And we are now also free to think “I am a being bound for liberation!” Or “I am a Bodhisattva!” I am not fixed so I can be anyone. That is who I am. That is what I want to be. We are in the driver’s seat now. 

Therefore, now that we have a fix on this negated object — the real me, the one we normally perceive — we can now use Steps Two to Four to dissolve it away. You can find those here.

Comments welcome!

Doing meditation retreat

divingJanuary is just around the corner – which means for a lot of lucky people that they get to do extra meditation because this is traditional retreat month in the Kadampa Buddhist tradition.

So, I thought I’d say something about retreat in the hope that some of you can do some. I know a lot of you, probably most, have to work and are not able to take a month or even a week off for retreat; so this article is also a bit of encouragement simply to get meditating in general ☺️

On retreat we stop all forms of business and extraneous activities so as to emphasize a particular spiritual practice. ~ New Guide to Dakini Land 

Starting several decades ago, when Geshe Kelsang first came to the West in 1977, up to six weeks each year have been put aside in the larger Kadampa centers for retreat. I personally benefited from this for many years, when I lived at Madhyamaka Centre and everything closed down for retreat. Sometimes we were even snowed in = bliss. We didn’t have Facebook back then to lure us away from thinking deep thoughts – heck, we didn’t even have the Internet. I count myself lucky that I didn’t need any will power whatsoever back then to turn all the gadgets off.the-internet

And I can honestly say that I have never gotten bored in retreat. Quite the opposite. It is those mindless habits of wanting or expecting endless distraction that really bore me. I tend also to have fewer delusions on retreat – and delusions are pretty tedious.

These January retreats engendered in me a love for using this bleak mid-winter time to go deep — to dive below the surface of the crazy ocean waves of samsaric suffering & overly complicated conceptual thoughts into clarity and bliss, into Lamrim and Tantra. They are the best possible way to start the new year, and my hands down favorite times.

We could all aim to do a few extra good deep meditations at home this month to get some control over these mad, mad times and set 2018 up in the way we’d like it to continue… how’s that for a new year’s resolution?

And if you haven’t learned to meditate at all yet, now could be a really great time to start 😊

2016

(I wrote this article last year — and 2017 has proved to be an even weirder year in many ways! Retreat is very needed in our world if we have the chance to do some, holding the space for others.)

If ever there was a good time to get some perspective and space from all the craziness, the beginning of 2017 would seem to be it. Still four days of the strange 2016 to go, and the last two days alone have brought us the deaths of George Michael and Carrie Fisher (and just now her mother, Debbie Reynolds). Closer to home, this year, we lost Patti, Tessa, and Mimi.

This is all skirting dangerously close now to the one-by-one steady dropping off of everyone in my generation. Soon, not a person I grew up with will be left. And it is certain that I am no longer going to die young.

Plus, the number of celebrity and personally-known deaths of course barely scratches the surface of the millions of other deaths in the last few days, let alone in the last year. (An average of 55.3 million humans and untold billions of animals and others.) Any illusion we may be under that we are long-term residents of this world is just that, an illusion. We’re here on a month-by-month rental with nary a day’s notice.

Making the most of our precious time

george-michael-leaving-his-home-in-north-london-britain-17-oct-2012Our most valuable and rare possession is our precious human life, but we don’t have a whole lot of time left with it. All we have to look forward to, really, is spiritual realizations, insofar as everything else is dust in the wind. And to gain these realizations – actualizing our full potential and bringing about an end to suffering — we need time.

And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate
Hanging on to hope
When there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late
So maybe we should all be praying for time. ~ George Michael

To have time, we need to MAKE time.

This is what going deeper into our center, our spiritual heart, as explained here for example, can do for us – it can make us more time. It gives us a certain sense of timelessness in fact. Identifying with our pure inexhaustible potential instead of with our annoying off-kilter delusions makes us feel far more alive and present, and so time slows down. We might even feel for a change that we have all the time in the world.

I hear a lot of people, including me, complaining that life is too busy – and ordinarily it can feel that way; but I think that a lot of that feeling of busyness comes not from all that we have to get done but from not having sufficient mindfulness and concentration. These qualities, which improve on retreat, give us all the time, space, and freedom from surplus worrying thoughts we need to do what needs to be done.

We are none of us strangers to suffering, but Dharma gives us the ability to break free, and retreat gives us the opportunity to spend more time in Dharma. What’s not to love about spending several hours each day in freedom and happiness?! Even with poor concentration, we are generally more peaceful on retreat than in our ordinary fast-paced, externalized lives. We can become ridiculously happy.

dream-like-elephantIt’s very relaxing not to buy into the hallucinations of the gross mind for a while — to let these fevered imaginings die down, stop taking them quite so seriously. Meditation gives us the chance to see them for what they are and to let them go so we can enjoy the peace and bliss of our own mind in deep rest. I have yet to find anything more relaxing than giving up on trying to find this peace and bliss in objects of attachment or in getting one over my enemies.

Even one breathing meditation allows us to stop shaking our mind and discover that an unshaken mind is naturally peaceful. A whole week or month of doing this gives us invaluable insight and confidence.

I also think that when we meditate a lot our lives start to flow – we are not so much living second-hand through Facebook or the news or Netflix, trying to get our thrills vicariously, or even in the made up narratives of our own lives, the product solely of our conceptual thoughts. We start to abide in the reality of wisdom and compassion, our true nature, and freedomeverything flows naturally from there.

Silence is golden

Whether in retreat doing the traditional four meditation sessions a day, or in the space of our own house once a day or so during January, we can let go of the demands of our daily life and reconnect to the stillness within ourselves. We can be quiet, for a change, verbally and mentally. As it mentions here, and I’ll now loosely quote:

“Silence is powerful. It creates space in our mind and fundamentally changes the way we connect with the teachings and meditations. Observing silence is a powerful method to disengage us from busyness, and it leads us naturally to deeper levels of being. Our heart begins to open and we feel the blessings of all Buddhas pouring into and filling our mind.

Through deepening our experience of meditation we can take our spiritual practice up to the next level (and this will keep us going in the following months when we are back at work.) By integrating this meditative experience into our daily activities we will improve the quality of our life and bring happiness to our family and friends.”

I think diving deep below the froth of the ocean waves is also an incredibly important way to identify with our pure potential and disengage from endless feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy, and lack of control that come from identifying with a limited, painful self. We need self-confidence during these difficult times if we are to be of any help to anyone. We don’t need discouragement.

Who am I?

In each of the stages of the path (Lamrim) meditations, therefore, we can get into the habit of identifying with our Buddha nature and the result of that meditation, asking each time, “Who am I?” For example, instead of “I am angry”, “I am lonely”, “I am hurt”, “I am useless at this”, etc., we can think, “I am someone with a precious human life”, “I am someone who is on their way out from this prison of samsara”, “I am someone who has compassion for everyone”, etc.

In this way we can enter the Pure Land of Lamrim, enjoying ourselves each day with these beautiful minds, getting in the habit of identifying with them so much that we can then keep doing that the whole rest of the year.

Blessed monthheruka-vajrayogini

January is also Heruka and Vajrayogini month. Again, even if our concentration is not brilliant yet, there are a lot of blessings flying around this month, so we may as well tune in the radio receiver of faith as often as we can.

Check out this Onion article if you get a moment, ‘I Can’t Do This Anymore,’ Think 320 Million Americans Quietly Going About Day. Spoof though it is, it still shows how we can all fall prey to humdrum mediocrity, even when things are not going particularly wrong in our lives; and how mediocrity doesn’t make us happy. If you have a chance to do some Tantric retreat, this immersion can be a swift way to transform these ordinary conceptions and appearances into an experience of great bliss and emptiness, transforming your world into the real Pure Land of the Dakinis.

(All this makes me think it should be called “Advance”, really, not “Retreat”.)

One day at a time

I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier
I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist
Like it doesn’t exist ~ Sia

Some of my best advice on doing retreat is to take one day at a time – once you’re in retreat you put up so-called “retreat boundaries” of body, speech, and mind, which basically means you’re not thinking of anything outside of the retreat; so there is in fact no need to plan. (And there is never any need to wallow in nostalgia). This means you have a good shot at living in the moment, remembering that today is your first and possibly also your last day. This is really quite unbelievably relaxing.

Practical plan

kailashIf you have lots of time, you could think about booking into one of the big residential KMCs such as KMC Manjushri or KMC New York, or into an other-worldly retreat center such as Kailash in Switzerland. And, now, in 2017, we have the incredible International Retreat Center (IRC) Grand Canyon just opening up, and the opportunity to do six weeks of Lamrim retreat with Kadam Morten.

These IRCs and KMCs all offer incredibly special retreat programs with experienced meditation leaders that “address the needs of anyone wishing to deepen their experience of Kadam Dharma in modern day times.”

If you have medium amounts of time — say a day here or there, or a few days, or a week — check out this link for retreats near you, including in Denver, where I live.

If you can’t take any whole days off, you could think about using January to get along to some inspiring meditation classes and establish a good meditation habit for 2018. Check out this link for meditation classes in your area.

Over to you. Do you have any encouragement to share from retreats you may have done in the past?

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The Non-Thingyness of Things

ThingnessThe other day I was sitting among exotic plants, hearing the trickling of a small waterfall and the call of wild birds. Could this be Florida?! But a quick glance upwards reminded me that I am still in Denver —  this was not a “real” tropical paradise but a giant greenhouse at the Botanical Gardens. Rather like a virtual reality tropical forest, like Avatar the movie or something. But I was sitting there feeling just as blissful as I do when I am in the tropics, experiencing this beauty as arising from a blissful mind, beauty that could be found nowhere out there. So it got me thinking, What is the real difference? Where is the real difference? I’ll leave you to ponder that and let me know in the comments

First clear some space

When thinking about Buddha’s wisdom teachings on emptiness, it is a good idea to do so from the standpoint of some flexible wisdom and good motivation rather than graspy ignorance and self-cherishing. We can clear some space first – drop from our thinky head into our heart center and let some of our grosser conceptions dissolve away into the peaceful spacious clarity of our own mind. Imagine, if you like, that all your water-bubble-like thoughts melt back into the water-like-consciousness from which they arise and of which they are made, in the ocean of your root mind at your heart. We can invite Buddha to join us there.

Outside the greenhouse, therefore more real?!
Outside the greenhouse, therefore more the real Colorado?!

Then we can remember why we don’t WANT things to be real in the first place, and how clinging at our own thoughts & projections as if they are independent of the mind binds us needlessly to suffering, like tying ourselves in knots in the sky. We can develop a warm heart thinking how utterly wonderful it will be when our friends and everyone else has transcendent mental freedom and bliss, having let go of grasping.

Emptiness is naturally beautiful. It will free both ourselves and others. If we appreciate that beauty with admiring faith, we want to drink it in, spend time with it, rather than see it as a spiritual chore that is a struggle to comprehend.

Now we are ready to think about emptiness!

Thingy-ness

(I am carrying on from this article, Appearance and Reality.)

Thingyness 1aEmptiness has a specific meaning; it is not nothingness. Emptiness is the lack of inherent existence, not the lack of existence. This is where contemplating appearance and reality comes in handy because we can say that things do exist but they exist as mere appearance. There is nothing behind the mere appearance. There is nothing we can point to and say, “There it is!”

So what our ignorance does for us is that it grasps at a reality behind and within things. It grasps at a thingy-ness. Everything seems to have a thingyness. There is something really there. I think that “thingyness” can be a helpful way to describe inherent existence, which is the technical term.

The truth or thingyness behind appearance. There is something out there and it is appearing in a certain way.  Buddha is not arguing that there is no tree at all. Our problem is that we think there is something that is REALLY the tree. That the tree is more than just mere appearance or reflection, there is a real tree there.

The reality is that there is nothing behind the appearance of tree but what our ignorance does is grasp at a thingyness or (it)self of tree – it is called “self-grasping ignorance” and it grasps at things as if they exist in-and-of themselves. Because our mind is grasping all the time at things being real – at real bodies, real tables, real annoying people, really delicious pizza, really horrible death — we suffer. All our delusions come from grasping at things to be more solid or real than they actually are. The wisdom realizing emptiness is the opposite of self-grasping because it realizes there is no thingyness anywhere to be found, and that lack of thingyness, or that lack of inherent existence, is emptiness. The mere absence of thingyness is emptiness itself. Thingyness 2

As mentioned, emptiness does not mean a lack or absence of everything. Emptiness is not nothingness. There is still a tree, but it’s just not a real tree. Identifying what it is we are grasping at, which is inherent existence, is called “identifying the object of negation” in Buddhist meditation on emptiness. And I think considering appearance and reality helps us to make this identification.

Purple dye

For example, let’s say that at birth you’d been injected with a purple dye and because of this you saw everything as purple. You see things like doors, your house, your friends, and even yourself as purple. And always have done since birth. Then someone comes along and says, “Ahem, you’ve got some strange pollution in you and it’s causing everything to appear purple. Things are not purple.” And you think, “OH, she’s saying nothing exists. If things aren’t purple, how can they exist?” But, in fact, she is not saying that things don’t exist at all, but that purple things don’t exist, or that things don’t exist in the way that they appear, ie, purple.

Likewise, what Buddha is saying when he says that things are empty of inherent existence is not that things don’t exist at all, but that inherently existent things don’t exist, or that things don’t exist in the way that they appear, ie, inherently existent.

Thingyness 3
Ok, this has become an excuse to post my latest CO photos …

All these things still exist, but they are not purple. The appearance of purple is misleading us into thinking that things are really purple. But they are not really purple. It is distortion in the mind that is causing everything to appear purple. It is a pollutant or contamination in the mind, and to decontaminate or purify the mind we need to see things as they are. What is that pollution, that distortion? It’s ignorance, the root of all suffering.

In Modern Buddhism, available as a free download, there is a beautiful chapter on emptiness called Training in Ultimate Bodhichitta. It is well worth the time to read the whole chapter slowly, deliberately, and contemplatively and take it to heart because it is liberating wisdom from Buddha. There is a section in this chapter called What is Emptiness? (p. 104)

Emptiness is the way things really are. It is the way things exist as opposed to the way that they appear.

If we are still an ordinary being who has not yet realized emptiness …

we naturally believe that the things we see around us, such as tables, chairs, and houses, are truly existent, because we believe that they exist in exactly the way that they appear.

They are true as opposed to fake because their appearance and reality coincide, and this means that they are real because they appear real.

Due to our beginningless grasping at things as being real, at the moment whatever appears to us appears to exist Thingyness 4from its own side. It appears to be real. A bit like you’ve been injected with purple dye at birth and that is all you’ve ever seen, so you have deep familiarity with that. In the same way, through our familiarity with self-grasping, not just in this life but in countless previous lives as well, the imprints of this ignorance are causing everything that appears to us to seem to exist from its own side, under its own power. A thing unto itself. But in fact no thing exists like that.

It is our ignorance that causes us to perceive things in that way and then to grasp things in that way. There are two things going on. First off, due to our previous ignorance and the imprints of that ignorance, everything already appears to us as if existing from its own side.  I’m over here, you’re over there, stars and planets are over there. This thing we’re reading seems discrete, independent of the mind — we don’t feel our mind has had anything to do with bringing it into existence. It just IS. A minute ago, before you Thingyness 6logged onto the blog, you had nothing to do with this article – then it suddenly appeared from its own side and generated a consciousness of itself.

That’s how things appear at the moment. Even we ourselves appear that way to ourselves. We feel real. Our body and breakfast feel real. Everything appears real to us. That’s the first thing that happens

Then, instead of distrusting that appearance and wondering if things really are as real as they appear, our ignorance immediately latches onto that appearance and assents to it, “Yes. This is how things are.”

It’s just a deep-seated almost instinctive grasping — it’s not like we’re going around saying, “That’s how are they are, that’s how they are.” We are just blindly assenting because we haven’t yet examined to see if they really do exist in that way. A bit like just grasping at things being purple rather than ever examining to see whether things actually are purple.

This carries on here