How to stop being so down on ourselves

I was thinking the other day that perhaps it is no wonder self-hatred is a thing — if we have the inner poison of anger and spend 24/7 with ourselves, we are bound to get angry with ourselves sooner or later! self-hate 1

Someone I know, who btw is fabulous and has literally nothing wrong with them, wrote this to me:

Wow, self hatred, it is what it all comes down to! I make some headway, blessings get in here and there, but that is always what I slap back too. Of course, this blocks everything! I always feel like there is just this huge block to my creativity, imagination, like a numbness that I am increasingly aware of. It’s this, it’s self hatred. When I perceive anything as going wrong, or I say something I wish I hadn’t, or I perceive someone in a way that is not in the best light, I catch myself saying to myself, “I hate myself.” It’s fast, it’s constant. Keep these articles coming.

So, carrying on from Toward an empowered sense of self, I am keeping these articles coming.

To effectively get rid of self-dislike and indeed all delusions, we need to see how our sense of self changes entirely in dependence upon our thoughts. For this purpose it is very helpful to understand the relationship between our experience, view (or sense) of self, intentions, actions, and results/life.

A talented guest writer just wrote about this dependent relationship in this incredibly  helpful article, The meditation game changer. Please read it if you get a chance! I will now attempt to apply the same principles specifically to overcoming being so hard on ourselves.

Stack of pebbles in shallow water with blue sky background

  1. Experience

Our sense of self is shifting constantly, depending on what parts of the body or mind we are identifying our self with, or, to use a technical phrase, imputing our self on.

A person’s so called “basis of imputation” is in general their body and mind or, usually (at any given moment) parts of their body and mind. As my teacher Geshe Kelsang says:

We normally refer to our body and mind as “my body” and “my mind,” in the same way as we refer to our other possessions. This indicates that they are different from our I. The body and mind are the basis upon which we establish our I, not the I itself. ~ How to Transform Your Life (download the free ebook)

We have a body and we have a mind, but we are not a body and we are not a mind. However, even though they are not the same, we make the mistake of identifying our self as our body and mind, conflating the imputed object (the self) with its basis of imputation (the body and mind). For example, if my stomach hurts I may believe, “I am stick-figure-and-clouds-vector-14506555in pain”; and when unhappy experiences occur I may believe “I am unhappy.” This as opposed to “My stomach aches” or “Unhappy cloud-like feelings are arising in my sky-like mind.” 

Maybe this’d be fine and dandy if it didn’t lead to all our physical and mental suffering, over and over again, in lifetime after lifetime. As it is, imputing ourselves on painful experiences is not fine at all. It is the main thing standing in the way between us and inner peace and freedom.

For example, applying this to our sense of a never-good-enough-self, this self or Me is imputed on the basis of self-critical thoughts, which usually have two things in common: they’re very painful, and they’re founded on a feeling or experience that we’re not good enough. They may sound like: “I’ll never amount to anything,” “I’m so lazy,” “I always ruin relationships,” “I should have achieved a lot more by this stage in my life!”, “Look at me compared to so and so, no wonder I keep being passed over!”, “I’m a lousy cook/mom/dad/friend/worker/person.” Etc.

Also the disconnect between the self-imposed pressure to be impossibly perfect (from a worldly point of view) but feeling crummy inside can start at any age. As someone said to me the other day: self-critism 2

In these times, even when I observe my children and their friends (they are about 18 years old), there is so much self-hatred, doubts, and a very strong pressure to make everything PERFECT, to look perfect … sometimes it is overwhelming to observe that tendency. Maybe it’s because of all these Internet platforms, where everything looks perfect… I don’t know.

  1. Sense of self

Identifying ourselves with this painful limited experience/feeling/thought (of not being good enough) leads to a painful limited sense of self. So we need to stop doing it.

First we can check to see what we are holding onto or believing to be our “self”? What is Me? Who is Me? We have this so-called self-grasping ignorance where we hold our me, I, or self to be a fixed limited entity, independent of anything. As Geshe Kelsang puts it in How to Transform Your Life: “The object we grasp at most strongly is our self or I.” We have this sense of me or I somehow lurking IN our body or mind, findable in its basis of imputation. As Geshe Kelsang goes onto say:

This I appears to be completely solid and real, existing from its own side without depending upon the body or the mind.

This self is appearing solid and real, plus it is the only real me and the center of my known universe, so of course I have to serve and protect it.

But am I as solid and real as I appear? That’s the trillion-dollar question. The answer is priceless, in fact, because it will set us free after aeons of mental bondage.

grand canyon

Our sense of self changes all the time. Here’s an example. I was walking down the Grand Canyon last year on a narrow path with a ridiculously steep drop on one side. One moment I was all relaxed, chatting with friends – that was happy-Me, it felt real enough. The next moment a tourist brushed past me with his large rucksack and I found myself about to lose my footing … my sense of me suddenly changed, and that about-to-fall-to-my-death-Me also felt pretty darned real. Then I regained my footing and my sense of me changed into relieved-Me. Also real.

What does that say about our Me? In each of those 3 cases, that is who I thought I was. But if the Me that appeared so solid, fixed, and real actually existed as it appeared, ie, solid, fixed, and real, how could it change? Where did it go? If it existed from its own side, independent of body and mind, how could it vanish from one minute to the next?

But my sense of self did vanish and change — in dependence upon what? My thoughts. The self I thought I saw existing from its own side, independent of thought, was just the product of thought – relaxed thoughts, terrified thoughts, then relieved thoughts. This shows that the fixed or real me was never there to begin with. The self we normally see is a mental image – if we look for a real self that corresponds to the image, or is behind the image, it cannot be found anywhere.

(Meanwhile, everyone else also sees a completely different person when they look at us. My companions on the cliff edge could not see any of those 3 Me’s, which also indicates that those Me’s did not exist outside my view of them.) who are we

So if the self or ego cannot be found anywhere, who are we? Who we are depends on who we think we are which is, as mentioned, changing all the time. Because our thoughts change, who we are changes. Far from being independent or inherently existent, it is the opposite – our self is 100% dependent. Take away the thoughts and it disappears.

Which means we are not fixed. Which is really very good news. We can validly think, “There is nothing solid or intrinsic about me at all. I can and do change in dependence on my thoughts.”

Take away our deluded thoughts, such as our self-loathing, and our deluded suffering self will disappear.

  1. Intentions

Have you noticed how who we think we are determines what we want? If we wake up with negative thoughts about ourself, thinking we’re a waste of space, what do we want to do all day? Nothing edifying! But if we think we are kind, or grateful, or a Bodhisattva, we intend and act accordingly.

Therefore, for as long as we grasp onto a intrinsically limited painful unworthy self, our intentions or wishes will follow suit.

Because we always want to be happy and free from suffering, we feel that the way to do that is by serving and protecting this limited self. So we won’t, for example, attempt things in case we fail, or we crack the whip on ourself for fear that, if we don’t, the disapproval and rejection that seems imminent will become our reality.

  1. Actions

We always try to do what we want. Everything we do depends on what we want or intend. Therefore, these intentions or wishes to serve or protect this limited self in turn lead to actions such as self-sabotage or criticizing others, which may sometimes lead to brief relief, but no release. we do what we want

Even when we do something well, we won’t jump for joy but merely breathe a sigh of relief: we’ve escaped from being criticized or censored. But that relief lasts only until the next expectation presents itself. It’s the perfect setup for anxiety and depression. We are engaged in a self-fulfilling prophecy, a vicious cycle, in which the stress is unremitting.

People with a strong inner critic tend to have one thing in common: however great their success, they don’t feel it’s genuine. The inner critic won’t let them see their past achievements as ‘real’ for fear that, if they do, they’ll slack off and end up failing. So they may push themselves more, with diminishing returns, driven more by fear of failure or judgment than by inspiration.

We really don’t need to be hard on ourselves — our delusions are already doing a fabulous job at that. It’s one reason we still feel so stuck in samsara, even though we have everything we need right now to get out.

  1. Results/Life

 self-hateThese actions in turn create our life. We are reinforced in our lack of self-esteem, believing that self to be limited, in pain, and in need. It is a vicious cycle and, if we’re not careful, our whole life can go by like that.

Not to mention that each of our mental actions or intentions leaves a karmic potential in our root mind for similar experiences and tendencies in the future, leading to a longer-term and even more vicious cycle.

 Summary

 To summarize, this is all stemming from a painful experience that, because we identify with it, leads to a limited painful sense of self. This self doesn’t actually exist, there is just a mental image of it; but, believing that it does exist, we wish to serve and protect it, and then we act upon those wishes or intentions. Because we act upon them, we get the same results, the same underwhelming life, which in turn brings us more painful experiences and reinforces our limited sense of self.

We need to step out from under the dark shadow of these ignorant, self-destructive thoughts and actions. How? By shining the light of wisdom, wherein these dark shadows will have no choice but to disappear. More in this next installment, Giving up self-hatred once and for all.

Over to you … have you suffered from self-doubt or self-criticism? Do you recognize this process? Your feedback is very welcome.

Related articles

Saying bye bye to the painful limited self

Feel free to change your mind

Change our thoughts, change our world

 

 

 

Aligning with reality

8.5 mins read

impossible jigsaw puzzleDo you ever find yourself attempting to fit all the jigsaw pieces of life together to make a perfect picture, the one they promised on the box, only to discover (yet again) that life is not remotely neat or tidy, much less perfect? Moreover, our outwardly-oriented desires are constantly bringing us into conflict with others, who have different ideas of which pieces should be placed first or go where, or — more often than not — have a different picture on the box!

On the other hand, when we drop from our head into our heart and experience some depth and peace, we can feel our inner energy winds starting to draw inwards, toward our heart, instead of flowing outwards. If we pay attention, we can actually feel some absorption or gathering of winds taking place (a bit like water absorbing into a sponge, or waves gathering or sucking back into the ocean).

Carrying on from the themes of these two articles, Deep healing and The most important journey of our life.

Why do we need to know this? Because, bottom line, we could all do with more inner peace.

Check this out for a moment: Where do you feel peaceful? Is it in your head? Where do you feel things most deeply? Is that in your head?

No, it all happens in our heart. Everyone knows this really (even those who insist the mind is the brain); which is why ❤️ is the universally understood symbol for love.

love uWe drop into our heart by simply believing we are now centered there, not in our head. Just close your eyes for a moment and imagine you are there, starting to feel that extra bit of space and peace.

We immediately start to feel less of a gap between “in here and out there” – and more peaceful. There is less of a pull toward sorting out everything and everyone “outside” and a deepening feeling of being sorted out already inside.

How do I do this???

The question on your lips now may be, “Okaaay, I sort of get it, but I am so used to being in my head! Do you have any useful tips for dropping into my heart?!”

Yes, I do, actually. One is feeling that our awareness at our head is like a dense drop of water that falls into a clear ocean-like awareness at our heart. Another is to imagine descending in an elevator.

Even a simple breathing meditation, such as this one, can help us drop into our hearts. As can the clarity of mind meditation.

Spending a few minutes turning the mind to wood, as described in this recent article, is another really good way to be heart-centered.

Mantra recitation and/or focusing on a seed letter at our heart is always very helpful.

Spiritual Guide at heart

And what I probably find most effective is to start all my meditations by dissolving a trusted holy being into my heart. He or she comes to our crown, facing the way we face; and then his body of wisdom light diminishes to the size of a thumb and he enters our crown, gradually sliding down to our heart. (If we want more detail on that, we can imagine that he descends through our central channel — like a drop of dew rolling down a blade of grass). We go with him, feeling this powerful holy being at our heart, and even feeling our mind mixing with his mind like water mixing with water.

Aligning with reality

Abiding in our heart, we come to rely less on the push and the pull of aversion and attachment, resting beyond the fray in the space of our own peaceful mind.

Gradually we come to understand that there is in fact no “out there” or, for that matter, “in here”. Our dualistic appearances subside and we come to experience how everything is the same nature as our mind. There is no gap between subject mind and object things, like a reflection held in a lake is inseparable from it, unextractable. Where the reflecting lake goes, the reflection goes, and vice versa.

Moreover, we can also come to observe and realize that everything is the same nature as not just an ordinary mind but as the bliss and emptiness of enlightened mind. Enlightenment is, after all, reality. Reality is enlightenment.

lotus from mud

In Tantra we can learn not only to recognize and experience the infinite bliss and emptiness of enlightenment, but to identify ourselves with it, thinking “This is me”, Buddha Heruka. Even more profoundly, we can learn to impute or label ourselves on the infinite bliss and emptiness of our Spiritual Guide’s enlightenment, Guru Heruka, mixing our mind with his.

The self or ego that we normally perceive, on the other hand, is conflated with a contaminated or inherently existent body and mind, aka a sore meaty body and a deluded mind. For example, when our body is sick, we think “I am sick!” And when our thoughts are irritated, we think “I am irritated!” No wonder we feel bad a lot, but it is pointless because, in fact, we are neither our body nor our mind.

Here is a brilliant quote from Kadam Morten Clausen, when he led a six-week retreat early this year at the new Arizona International Kadampa Retreat Center near the Grand Canyon:

Abiding in correct self-identification in alignment with reality is an essential part of our practice. We need to get to the point where we WANT TO BE Buddha Heruka—shining, instead of hiding and hoping no one notices how much pain we’re in.

Fall Festival

Where is my real, limited, painful self?

This self that we normally perceive — that concrete, limited, often painful self — is just the object of an idea, a really stupid idea at that, made up by our self-grasping ignorance. However, relating to it as if it actually exists makes us want stuff for it all the time and to constantly try to push its problems away with aversion.

mirage

Our Me or I cannot be found anywhere in the body or the mind – when we go looking for it, it disappears like a mirage, as explained in detail here.

So although we normally perceive it, upon analysis we can never find a self that exists from its own side, concretely, in and of itself.

To give you a bit more sense of what I’m talking about, here’s an example. I was looking at Denver recently from a great distance, being as I was up a big mountain. Someone standing a few feet away from me pointed for their friend, “There’s the city.”

But where exactly? I could see even with my eye awareness that none of the buildings in the distance was a city – each one was not a city, was not Denver, whatever we imagine Denver to be. We cannot find an actual Denver in any one of those buildings; it could never fit.

If we have a clear idea of what we think Denver is, we should then spend some time letting it sink in how each building is NOT Denver, because Denver for a start couldn’t fit in each building and there is far more to Denver than one building.

If we do take the time to let this sink in, then when we look at the collection of buildings we can see clearly that it is just a bunch of things that are not Denver — non-Denvers.

Yet, take those non-Denvers away, and Denver is not there either.Denver graffitti

So what is Denver? Just a name or label that we are smearing over those buildings, like mayonnaise or something. Denver is mere name, mere label, mere appearance, as explained more in this forest example. If we try to find something behind that label, we can’t. Denver disappears upon analysis, which means that it’s not really there, which means that it exists entirely in dependence upon thought/conceptual imputation/projection.

And since our thoughts are free and we are able to choose how we impute or think, we are free to impute or think something new and different, such as Heruka’s blissful mandala, and that will function for us. This is called correct imagination.

This is true of EVERYTHING. Nothing exists concretely, findable, from its own side. Everything depends on mere name. Including me. Including you.

Look, even this kitten has figured out that everything is mere name and so there’s no real problem …

Living from our heart

Some of you know all this, so for you (and me) all I’m doing here is encouraging us to be a bit more direct and to go for it. We can stop approaching Dharma from a timid place. We don’t need to keep being intimidated by our ordinary suffering deluded self – instead, whenever it appears to us, it can simply be a reminder that it doesn’t exist!

We can be very happy in the fact that our ordinary suffering limited self doesn’t exist, so nor do any of its neuroses or issues — which is by far and away the best thing about them. This leaves us free to relate to ourselves as a being with boundless potential instead. And I mean from the get-go.

After all, the inherently existent self doesn’t exist so it has no hope of changing or attaining enlightenment, so what is the point of even attempting to meditate from its perspective?

Therefore, before we do anything else by way of meditation practice, we can take a few minutes to dissolve this self away by realizing it cannot be found anywhere. Then we can start by already being who we want to be and who we need to be for our own and others’ sake, Denvermeditating from that perspective, bringing that result into the path. And we need to do it today, before ordinary appearances and conceptions close back in again, and because there is (literally) no time like the present.

For those of you who are newer to meditation and Buddhism, I’d just like to encourage you to get into good habits from the start – in particular, before you do anything else, by dropping into your heart to sense some depth and peace, and letting this remind you that you’re actually a being of boundless potential. Be confident in these methods you’re learning because they are not incremental but revolutionary, and can work very fast if you go about them the right way.

Over to you. Feedback and questions welcome.

Related articles

Unleashing our potential

Moving from the head to the heart

Relaxing in your heart  

Deep healing

8 mins & a video

An old friend of mine, a naturopath, has had a lot of success in healing people simply by telling them — confidently — to drop down into their hearts and feel they’re experiencing their own pure, peaceful natures, the restorative power of their own deep clear light awareness. He has been healing people like this for years, sometimes from intractable mental and physical problems that other medicines and therapies have not been able to touch.

beautiful heartExtraordinary, really, and it speaks to me of the importance of being direct and confident in our spiritual or meditation practice as well, not beating about the bush but heading straight for the source. So I thought I’d say a few things about that, starting with a little background.

The journey into the heart

We can travel all the way to enlightenment by learning to absorb deeply into our heart chakra, such that we manifest our own clear light mind. In fact, it is the only way to do it. As Buddha Shakyamuni says:

If you realize your own mind you will become a Buddha. You should not seek Buddhahood elsewhere.

As the saying goes, the most important journey we will ever make is the journey into our heart.

It is inspiring to understand that inside us, at all times, is this indestructible potential for lasting happiness, healing, and freedom from all suffering. It is called our Buddha nature. Everyone has it.

There are different ways of talking about this potential – in The New Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe Kelsang says our compassion is our Buddha nature or Buddha seed because it is our compassion that will grow into enlightenment.

Elsewhere he says that our very subtle mind and body are our Buddha nature because these are the substantial causes of the mind and body of an enlightened being (rather as a rose seed is the substantial cause of a rose bush). In other words, we already have the actual ingredients for enlightenment inside us; nothing needs to be added, we just need to grow it.

Sometimes our Buddha nature refers to the emptiness of our clear light mind, which allows for everything and anything to appear and exist.

Through any of these explanations, we can understand that our mind is not set in concrete, however much it may seem like that some days; but can heal, purify, and transform completely. This means that we ourselves are also not at all fixed, but can and will one day become completely different people.

Whatever has happened up to now, if we go on this spiritual journey our future will be an entirely better story. We will end up completely free and blissful, day and night, life  radiate loveafter life, and able to bring others to the same state.

The goal …

The goal of Buddhist meditation is to use Tantric technology to deliberately manifest our very subtle mind of great bliss and use it to realize its perceived object, the emptiness of all phenomena. This bliss radiates eternally to all living beings as compassion, blessing them with mental peace. It mixes with the true nature of all phenomena, emptiness, like water mixing with water.

So cultivating bliss and emptiness, compassion and wisdom, are the way to go and the way to grow! And we also impute ourselves on this bliss and emptiness with correct imagination, thinking “This is me”, to attain enlightenment as fast as possible, even in this one short life.

Here is an illuminating extract from the teachings by Gen-la Khyenrab at the recent International Kadampa Festival in Portugal:

… is within reach already

Modern Buddhism emphasizes bringing this goal, or result, into the path. In other words, rather than laboriously working our way through all the stages of the path in a dualistic fashion — wherein we are over here all restricted and the realizations are light years away over there all transcendent — we can dip into them every day. Bathe in them, even.

Then we don’t have to wait forever to have them.

Try this for a moment if you like …

Gently close your eyes and imagine you drop from your head into your heart chakra (in the center of your chest cavity). Feel that your cloud-like distractions and worries have dissolved into an empty-like space in your heart, an inner light, like an infinite clear sky — just imagine. Feel your way into that peace, and think “This peace, however slight or relative, is my indestructible Buddha nature, my potential for lasting peace and mental freedom. It is who I really am.” It is also tuned into the enlightenment of all Buddhas. I can trust it. Believe that everything has dissolved away into the emptiness of this mind because nothing is as solid or as concrete as you thought. Bathe in that for a few moments or longer.

(By the way, if you’re not a Buddhist you can still do this — tuning into whatever holy or divine being works for you.)

reflection emptiness 2

So we dive or drop into our hearts and simply imagine, based on whatever understanding we have so far, that we are experiencing that bliss and wisdom right now. This is not make-believe going nowhere – as Gen-la Khyenrab says in that video above, imagination functions. All our thoughts are paths leading somewhere. Everything starts in the imagination. Then we can do all our step-by-step meditations in that context, not in the context of being an ordinary, deluded, inherently miserable person.

For the point is, the limited self we normally see and relate to doesn’t even exist; so there is really not much point in practicing Dharma, or meditation, in the context of that self, while believing in that self and buying into its limitations. It is far more effective and enjoyable to learn to practice in the context of feeling blissful, believing in and buying into the adamantine purity and goodness of our root mind. I mentioned this a bit before in an article where I explained how I like to meditate “backwards”, as it were.  

emptiness reflection 2I don’t think it matters how vague this bliss and emptiness are to begin with, it is still worth getting started. If we don’t take a few moments each day to dive in — to imagine dissolving ourselves and everything else away into this bliss and emptiness — our ordinary appearances and conceptions will for sure overpower us. We will go round continuing to assume that we are ordinary, others are ordinary, this world is ordinary. These ideas are not true, and both they and their objects are false hallucinations projected by the impure minds of self-grasping and ordinary conceptions. But they are so convincing and so deceptive that we can spend years lost in them.

I have met a lot of people who stop practicing meditation because they get immersed in appearances, too closely involved in the external situation as Geshe Kelsang puts it, like a dog with a bone; and in the “real” busyness of ordinary life simply forget to journey within. Only years later, when they come back to a meditation class or retreat, they realize, “I forgot who I really was! I forgot this alternative existed.” I think this scenario is something to watch out for because we are all subject to forgetfulness.

Healing ourselves, healing others

Now that we know that there’s an alternative to samsaric selves, places, and enjoyments, I think we owe it to ourselves not to forget. We can take a little time daily to taste the restorative, healing power of our own peaceful mind, for then we can regularly observe for ourselves that the neurotic or unlovable or unloving version of ourself doesn’t actually exist. So we’ll know for ourselves that we may as well stop right now trying to make that self we normally see happy or to solve its hallucinatory issues because it’s literally a fool’s game.

We can dive into our heart and experience the deeply healing power of truth, versus pandering to the barely existing but psychotropic projections that our ignorant mind takes to be concrete reality. We can let go of the thought and the labels “self”, “mine”, and “other”. “Stop grasping at labels” as Venerable Geshe Kelsang said in his Universal Compassion oral teachings. After all, everything is unfindable upon analysis. Everything is mere name. So why not rename ourselves?

No one is forcing us to keep grasping at a concrete reality that is not there. Believe me, no one needs us to be doing this.

Just as one drowning person cannot save another, however fervently he or she may wish to, so we cannot help others much if we are drowning ourselves. We need to be on at least some dry patch of reality.

I think that most of us could probably do with more confidence and directness in our approach to meditation. Bringing the result into the path is hallmark of our tradition, starting from the outset of our practice. We don’t need to skirt around the bliss and emptiness that is reality; we need to go for it as soon as possible — why not right now? We can trust it, take refuge in it. Then we can sort out our issues within the perspective of infinite space and freedom — and this process becomes so much more enjoyable, not to mention effective!

wings of a birdDharma teachings are not intended to make us all hung up on what is inherently wrong with us – there is nothing inherently nor permanently wrong with us, our problems and delusions are ephemeral clouds in the sky. (Check out these articles for more tips on how to overcome our faults and delusions without buying into them.)

We are not working our way up to blissful non-dualistic wholeness from a distant ordinary place, an OTHER place, a place of inherent lack. We are realizing that this is who we already are from one perspective, and we just need to gain this perspective. This is the quickest path to transformation.

Practicing as if no one is watching

And, by the way, while we’re working on getting enlightened we don’t need to prove anything to ourselves or to anyone else. Thinking that we do is just another elaboration, another ego game. It is another way we distance ourselves from our own wellbeing and reify our painful, limited sense of self by feeling alternately proud and/or bad about it. I personally like to practice as if no one is watching.

If you have time, check Part Two and Part Three of this article, including some tips and tricks for getting quickly into our heart. Meanwhile, over to you … was this helpful or not? Anything to add?

Related articles

Enlightenment is reality 

Meditating “backwards”

Bringing the result into the path 

Start where you are 

Being Buddha Tara

Who is supposed to be looking after all these animals?

stargazerMost of the animals we can see are in our human realm, of course, because that is where we are. But there are countless more. According to Buddha’s explanation of the six realms of samsara, the vast majority of animals are packed together in the animal realm. In Washington DC a few weeks ago, at the Smithsonian museum, I watched a short documentary showing the outlandish creatures not long ago discovered right at the bottom of the ocean, under the seabed, all stacked one upon the other, much like the scriptural description of the animal realm.

And we don’t have to look far to see that most animals inhabit a terrifying and hostile world. In the summer of 2009 I went to the aquarium in Plymouth with my good friend Kelsang L, and I wrote at the time: “I need to remember these images. A large flat fish with a distinct face is flailing out of the water at L, perhaps some part of him recognizing her robes, who knows, and working his mouth as if to cry “Help me!” Tiny sea horses, the size of a fingernail, have no future to write home about. Sharp-teethed sharks move incessantly around a large tank above our heads, avoided for dear life by the terrified fish forced to share their space. L and I didn’t realize we had come across the tank for fighting crabs until we spotted their body limbs strewn all over the ground, all the remaining crabs lying on top of each other in exhaustion. Limpets and other crustaceans are stuck fast to the rocks, with such settled ignorance of their surroundings that they could be the very epitome of self-cherishing. Enormous salamanders and eels are confined in cruelly tiny spaces. Unsuspecting prawns are dumped in the tanks with the anemones, to serve as their supper.

Dumbo octopusThe “HOMES” display is a poignant reminder of how every creature in the sea desperately wants one – they try to make their homes on rocks, under rocks, under the sand, even in the waves of the water itself. In samsara, we all have attachment to places, enjoyments, and bodies — but real estate in the Ocean is hard to come by, and most people down here are not able to keep their home even when they do manage to find one.

“Who is looking after these living beings?”, I find myself asking, as thousands of mouths open and shut in a Munchian scream for help. “How am I going to get you out of this lower realm?”

Buddha Tara, you are needed

Tara is the embodiment of swift compassionate action, so it seems to me that to become more like her we need to ripen our potential for this by taking on others’ suffering both in and out of meditation. As Geshe Kelsang says in The New Meditation Handbook:

We should alleviate others’ suffering whenever we can and happily accept our own suffering as a method to release all other living beings from their suffering. In this way … the power of our compassionate activities will strengthen.

Tara 5

Taking away everyone’s suffering is Tara’s very nature. As a Buddha, she has already exchanged self with others, imputed her I on all living beings, including the prawns; so living beings’ suffering IS her suffering and she has already happily accepted it, purified it, and transformed it into bliss. We can do that too, generate ourselves as a Buddha, purify everyone through imagination that becomes reality. Everything starts and ends in the imagination. We need to be part of that creative solution if samsara is ever to stop.

During meditation, we mentally take on the suffering of others upon ourself, using imagination. Having gained deep experience of this meditation, we shall then be able happily to accept our own suffering in order to release all other living beings from their suffering. In this way, we are physically taking the suffering of others upon ourself. ~ The New Meditation Handbook

Tara’s legs remind me that it is pointless rushing around like a headless chicken – one of her legs is out, showing her readiness to leap up to help, but the other is drawn in, showing that she can help others precisely and only because  she is an ever-present manifestation of bliss and emptiness. In fact, she only ever need take one step.

Please give me that!

To be like Tara, we can learn to take on others’ burdens, first mentally, then physically — “Hey, let me carry that for you!” “Give me your suffering!” Walking one day up one of those notoriously steep hills in San Francisco, and seeing an old hunched woman trying to ascend an even steeper set of stairs to her front door carrying two huge shopping bags, I ran up and carried them the rest of the way for her. However, although it worked that time and she seemed relieved, a friend’s similar but different story reminded me that we need to be happy to help others in the way that they want, without imposing our ideas of what that may be. In his case, seeing a homeless man pushing a trolley with three wheels that got stuck on the tarmac he also ran up, only to be greeted with outrage: “I don’t know you! I don’t want your help!” It’s best to pray to be whatever it is others may want, for example a fourth wheel. People want their suffering solved in a certain way, so we want to be that, remembering that it is after all OUR OWN suffering, we are the one pushing the trolley.Tara picture

Suffering sticks to a real me – ageing, sickness, death, and so on – and it is hard to stop obsessing on that for long enough to focus on others. To develop a depth of compassion, we need to realize that the self we normally see and cherish does not even exist, so we can get it out of the way.

And as we can impute whatever we want — choose how we discriminate the world as Geshe-la says in Understanding the Mind — we can impute that others are our mothers, that they are kind, that they are more important than me, that they ARE me. We can make that work, as Buddha Tara does.

Once we share her realizations, we will also be completely free from any mistaken appearances or hallucinations (and hallucinations don’t get much weirder than those to be found at the bottom of the ocean or in the Plymouth Aquarium). We will be able to bestow blessings/peace on each and every living being every day, including every forgotten sea creature in existence. They need this. We all need it.

Happy Tara Day!