Unplugged

6.5 mins read.

kids in Khayelitsha
Going home after meditation

My visit to South Africa made me grateful to my teacher Venerable Geshe Kelsang, to the resident teachers and warm-hearted community in the 3 South African Kadampa centres – ground-breaking hard-working pioneers, and to the tireless always-travelling Gen-las who have visited several times. It is inspiring to watch how things might unfurl here due to this patient networking, planting roots that in time will be popping up like grass all over and in unexpected places.

Carrying on from this article.

For sure, material poverty is no obstacle to gaining realizations of inner peace, compassion, and so on, to which Buddha Shakyamuni himself bore witness by wandering from place to place teaching everyone from kings to beggars. As Sangkyong put it, renunciation is also not so difficult here. Give it some time, sow some seeds, and who knows.

kids in kids in Khayelitsha

Go to where the people are, as Geshe Kelsang once told me; don’t wait for them to come to you. And, as he also said, we don’t need any agenda of making people into Buddhists or even using Dharma terminology — just give them “advice for a happy life”.

In the townships, a lot of the teenage girls at COSAT High School, younger kids I met, and social workers seemed to have a naturally easier engagement and focus than a lot of people I’ve met back home. Addictive technology has done a number on us. I wouldn’t wish the hardship and dearth of opportunity on anyone, and pray for a steady improvement in South African society (maybe by swapping over black and white babies at birth?! Hehe. You know I’m kidding, right?! But you have to admit, it could speed equality up considerably … ) However, I don’t think people are missing too much by not having access/addiction to a screen and headphones 24/7. COSAT girls

My own African tech karma was such that the moment I set out for Heathrow my iPhone 5S started to overheat, become erratic, and increasingly cut out, and then once in Cape Town I dropped it on the floor so chunks of the screen fell off. As I stuck on the sellotape some days later in Durban, I said with zero sarcasm: “Hey, look, that’s much better!” to have my new friend Kelsang Jampel compliment me that I was becoming a real African now. It was surprisingly not annoying but refreshing to be cut loose from a smartphone in a place I had assumed I really needed one. (Postscript: My first-world karma re-ripened just before I left for London, with the unexpected offer of a barely used iPhone 7 from brand new friends. Thanks, G and S!)

Talking of freedom from pervasive technology – I was impressed by how much spontaneous enjoyment thousands of people were having on the Golden Mile, where no one I saw had their head stuck into a phone. I feel like I haven’t seen that kind of unplugged party since I was young, before the technology took over our lives – people were laughing in the streets and jumping over the waves for hours without getting bored. Just saying.

I am not suggesting that life in laid-back (apparently to a fault) Durban is perfect, obviously — the hugely overcrowded underfunded government hospitals looming grimly over parts of that same Durban beach are, according to a doctor I met, a nightmarish death trap for a start. But this friendly gathering of the healthy seemed like an improvement over the isolation and ever-diminishing eye contact of so many lives in thrall to the internet.  (I even got to swim in the ocean with this crowd, one of many highlights on this trip — like that party scene in the Matrix, oh, never mind …)

Maybe people were having more fun than usual because South Africa had just won the Rugby world cup; but from what I hear this is just how it is at weekends. Even on Mango Airlines between Durban and Jozi, my fellow passengers seemed far better at making the most of being on a plane, singing across the aisles. No one seems as addicted to their technology.

(By the way, to be fair, I was on Parliament Hill yesterday back in London, and for some reason found an unplugged happy pile of strangers up there as well, albeit wrapped up against the cold. One common denominator to having fun = put the phones down and pay attention to the people around us?!) Parliament Hill London

Buddhism 101 tells us that happiness depends on the mind. If we are in a good mood, it is all fun. If we are in a bad mood, it is no fun at all. As those sayings go, you can run but you can’t hide. Wherever you go, there you are … especially once the novelty has worn off.

How to get into a better mood

Meditation is about getting more peaceful inside and therefore, frankly, having more fun:

The only way to do this is by training our mind through spiritual practice—gradually reducing and eliminating our negative, disturbed states of mind and replacing them with positive, peaceful states. Eventually, through continuing to improve our inner peace we will experience permanent inner peace, or nirvana. Once we have attained nirvana we will be happy throughout our life, and in life after life. ~ Transform Your Life, p. 6-7

As I like to say, thoughts are free. We can learn to choose them. While it is clearly impossible to avoid all difficult situations and conditions, it turns out that through training the mind in Buddhist meditation we can upend those troubling situations and use them to our advantage. This practice of “transforming adverse conditions into the path” enables us to integrate everything we come across into our spiritual training. If we can learn to live more skillfully like this, our whole life becomes meaningful, creative, and, yes, fun.

Durban beach 3The first step to thinking differently is the patience which accepts that our negative disturbed thoughts are there without panicking. Otherwise, how are we supposed to be able to let them go?

Suppressing negative thoughts and feelings is not an option — that just makes them more intrusive, like a jack popping out from the box, and we have to work even harder to keep them at bay. However, we can bear in mind that our mind is like the wide spacious sky and our unpeaceful thoughts are just weather passing through. Our thoughts are really nowhere near as scary as they try to make out.

(By the way, a few people recently have asked me the difference between thoughts (as in discriminations) and feelings because they have the impression that they can train their thoughts but not their feelings. Not quite true. Discriminations and feelings are both so-called “all-accompanying mental factors”, which means they form part of every moment of mind and always share the same object. Change one, change the other. Maybe more on that another day — it is one of hundreds of unfinished articles. Meantime, pick up How to Understand the Mind Mango airlinesfor a perfect explanation.

Inner peace and space solve problems and make us happier. This is our sanity. So this is where we need to start. We can stop fighting our own thoughts because our mind is actually on our side – stop giving energy to our delusions and our mind naturally wants to settle into peace and sanity.

As I talk about here, right now it may seem as though our problems are getting in the way of our inner peace — but the only thing getting in the way is that we’re clutching onto our problems and determined to solve them all out there. Peace is destroyed when we feel an excessive need to do this because our mind is more and more shaken up with distorted thinking or so-called “inappropriate attention” – dwelling, exaggerating, conceptualizing, elaborating. Whether it’s our relationships, our politicians, our health, our work, our travel, our accommodations, our technology, we’re like a dog with a bone, we can’t let go.

Cape Town water

Even when we know this, we are in the bad habit of trying to solve our delusion problems with more delusions. And ironically the harder we try to do this the less and less in control we feel, because our mind IS less and less in control. It’s far more effective to unplug and sort out our outer problems from the sanity of inner peace, as suggested by this Kadampa motto by Geshe Chekhawa:

Always rely upon a happy mind alone.

More on this subject coming up soon. Meantime, I’d love your comments.

 

 

Courage for our changing times

Within patient acceptance — now that we have given ourselves the space to see what is happening in our minds – we can then do something productive, such as stopping inappropriate attention and applying the opponents to delusions. A real hero or heroine is someone who does this, who courageously faces the actual enemies, not blaming it all on everybody else.

If we train in patient acceptance all the time, it will become second nature. Then our mind will be as strong as a blacksmith’s anvil – no matter how hard it is hit, we stay totally fine. Syrian refugees 2Courageous, even.

Migrating to new lands

I was watching a documentary called Exodus last night on the good old BBC iPlayer in the soggy green Lake District  – feeling contrastingly warm and cosy in my borrowed caravan. For I was watching refugees and their families leaving their entire lives in Syria and Afghanistan to escape the hellish civil war or the impossible Taliban and endeavor to start over in the West. This for me was an eye opener — not just because I wanted them to come live with me in this gorge in little England, but because I was so uplifted by the patience they showed. They kept encouraging each other, “Be patient!”, “Don’t worry!”, even as their overcrowded dinghy was sinking. One 11-year-old girl, Isra’a, was always touchingly, resiliently cheerful, except once when, finally overwhelmed by it all, she quietly cried. And it was heartbreaking.

Syrian refugeesHer mother also demonstrated to me how relative worldly pleasure is – she had lost everything in Aleppo, their house bombed to smithereens, and was facing a totally unknown future at the mercy of strangers. Yet, as they trudged mile after mile along an uncertain road in the pouring rain, she threw her arms in the air and declared triumphantly: “I feel so free!”

The refugees filmed on these hidden camera phones gave each other a lot of affection – not just their families but total strangers, such as the other refugees, perhaps because they recognized that they were (literally) in the same boat.

As are we all, really, when it comes right down to it. We are all migrators in the great ocean of samsara, just sometimes it is more obvious. I hope that by the time it happens to me I will have prepared deep reserves of patience and love, and that I meet with a kind welcome in those strange new lands.

Who wants world peace?!

Patience is essential all the time, and perhaps we all need to watch our minds more keenly than ever at the moment, when fear and its partner-in-crime, anger, threaten to hold sway and bring out the worst in all of us. Nowadays it seems to me that a lot of people aren’t even attempting to lip synch about harmony, tolerance, and peace – instead spouting racism, hatred, and intolerance is seen as increasingly acceptable. Are we desensitizing? Are all the adults leaving the room?! The lowest common denominator in the rise of all these behaviors = self-cherishing, me me me, what about me. Buddha called those with self-cherishing “childish” – I just hope we don’t end up in Lord of the Flies. Pokemon Go

Ah well, there is always Pokemon Go …

Seeing clearly

So, a bit more on patience and how we can cultivate it. Here might be a good place to point out that patient acceptance is for unhappy thoughts once they have already risen; it is not the same as indulging in inappropriate attention. We are not building up these thoughts, but getting them into perspective within the space of acceptance and seeing clearly where they are coming from. As my teacher (himself once a refugee who came to England) puts it:

Patience allows us to see clearly the mental habit patterns that keep us locked in samsara, and thereby enables us to begin to undo them. ~ How to Solve our Human Problems 

In this way we are removing their power over us rather than suppressing them; and we can then genuinely change the subject.

temple at Manjushri
For why I am really in the Lake District, click on image.

The idea in Buddhism is to oppose every delusion with its opposite, positive state of mind – eg, oppose hatred with love, or attachment with contentment. However, once, for example, strong dislike has already arisen toward someone, we need to accept that it is there and let the worst of it subside first so we experience some peace. Otherwise opposing it by thinking grimly and agitatedly, “No, no, I love this person!” (when in fact at that moment we really don’t) can be like trying to overlay one thought with another thought. We can end up with layers of conceptuality not freeing us but trapping us in suppression or over-elaboration.

Mental dead-end streets

If we notice ourselves just beginning to get agitated or deluded, remembering for example how someone cheated on us, it is a very good idea to change the subject before we get stuck in — just not go there. Avoid the inappropriate attention, as explained here. Trust the natural peace of the mind and don’t shake it. Stay confident and in control.

dead end streetI find people always reply “Yes!” if I ask them “Do your ever find your thoughts just boring?” We can think whatever we want, including such interesting things, but instead we keep putting on the same old cracked record. We have thought all these boring thoughts already, umpteen times — there is nothing to add to them except further elaboration or speculation.

A lot of our thoughts are like mental dead-end streets – we know we will end up discouraged and de-energized if we go any further down that road only to have to come all the way back up it again. So if we get in early enough — just as the inappropriate attention is about to land us down a cul de sac — we can decide not to follow it.

 Shift into neutral first

However  …. if the mind is already shaken because the inappropriate attention is already strong, I think we need to allow some settling time; and this is tied in with all this advice to practice acceptance.

rainbow clothAs Geshe Kelsang points out, for example, (when explaining how breathing meditation clears the mind), dark cloth needs to be bleached before it can be dyed our favorite colors. In the same way, we need to let a negative thought dissolve back into the natural peace of our mind before we dye our mind with our favorite thoughts.

Another example is driving a stick shift car – if we are in reverse gear we have to shift into neutral before we can move into forward gear. Likewise if our mind is feeling hideous we generally have to allow it to shift into some peacefulness before moving it into a fabulous mood.

Over to you. Do you agree that we need courageous acceptance if we are to survive?!

 

Looking back at this life

We will all be dead soon, waking up in our next life. This’ll happen within a few hundred months at most, or maybe even next year, or next month, or next week, or tomorrow, or even today. All that’s going with me is my mind, more or less purified and controlled, and the karmic potentials from the actions I have done.

Trish, a friend of mine aged around 55, once asked me with great interest: “What would you do if you had only two months left to live?” This wasn’t just a theoretical question — she had just been diagnosed with cancer and deathdied two months later. And if you think about it, this never is just a theoretical question, for we have no idea how long we have left in this life.

A very helpful practice, I find, for instantly getting perspective on what is valuable today is to think that I’m already in my next life looking back on this life, which is now my past life, and seeing whether I am satisfied with what I did in this life? Would I thank myself?! Would I have done anything differently? What is important?

(You know those interviews where people describe, for example, “52 things I wish I could tell my younger self”?! It’s a bit like that, only on a more cosmic scale.)

This makes me appreciate what a precious human life I have now, and how, as Buddha said, this world is not my permanent home, I am just a traveler passing through.

Life is suffering, of course, while we remain in samsara, and we have many challenges. Lots of horrible, sad things happen, including the loss of everything we like sooner or later, having to encounter things we don’t like on pretty much a daily basis, and so on. However, a characteristic of a precious human life, such as the one you have now, is that we are not so overwhelmed by our sufferings that we can do nothing about them.

What upsets us the most?
chickens scratching in dirt
Looking in the wrong place?!

I think it’s always worth remembering is that whenever we do not succumb to inappropriate attention, delusions cannot arise, and our mind remains peaceful and free. It remains peaceful and free because it is naturally peaceful and free. Our mind free from delusions is happy, content, and whole. We have everything we need. The ONLY thing that upsets our happiness and makes us experience mental pain is our delusions. The delusion of ignorance also make us believe that both solutions to this pain and ways to be happy are to be found outside the mind, so we waste our time scratching around; when in fact there is nothing there outside the mind.

However, the sooner we are convinced of the entirely creative power of our own minds, the sooner we will know that we can make ourselves happy; and that if we can gradually gain control over our thoughts and lives, the good times, no the best times, lie ahead, not behind, starting now. This is a proper relief. Looking back, I know I will appreciate the times I stopped myself following just my short-term preoccupations, and used my thoughts to fulfill my deepest wishes for happiness and freedom rather than subverting them. Instead of wasting valuable time thinking, for example, “Oh woe is me! I wish that person would talk to me! My life is going nowhere! My job is exhausting! My taxes are stressing me out!” I could be thinking “I’m so darned lucky, I have everything I need to make spiritual progress every single day and hour. I don’t care if that person talks to me or not, my happiness doesn’t actually depend on them but on love, and I can love them unconditionally whether they like it or not. My life is so going places because I’m training my mind. My job gives me a chance to help people, practice patience, remember other’s kindness, etc. Nothing will stress me out if I look at it the right way and I have that choice.”

Those are just examples, of course, off the top of my head – but whenever we notice ourselves experiencing any disgruntlement or mental pain whatsoever, it’s guaranteed that inappropriate attention is at work. We can learn to change our thoughts to take our minds and lives in another happier direction, on the path to liberation and enlightenment. Looking back, we’ll be very pleased that we did.

planet earth from spacePlus it’s a win-win because with the same positive thoughts we also enjoy ourselves now, in this life, as well as setting ourselves up for a great future – the same minds work for both.

Imagining ourselves as the person we’ll be in our next life and looking back at this one also helps us stop identifying so tightly with the self and hang-ups of this life – maybe a bit like someone in space looking back at Planet Earth. Space solves problems, grabbing on tightly does not.

Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha

Geshe-la meditating in his roomWhen I look back, what always strikes me the most is how lucky I am to have found my teacher, Geshe Kelsang. I feel like he’s been around me this entire life. His real nature is omniscient bliss and emptiness, and I consider him to be the kindest emanation of enlightened beings, who will take me wherever I want to go if I let him. I want to be sure that I never take this cosmic connection for granted, but to make it stronger in this life. I need for him to follow me into the next life and to stick around until I attain enlightenment. That is the one thing that is guaranteed to end my suffering and enable me to help others once and for all.

Looking back at this life from the next, I am quite amazed at this unprecedented opportunity to generate renunciation, love, compassion, wisdom, and Mahamudra realizations. These have the power to solve my problems both now – instantly – and in the future, and to make me and others totally happy. I have not found a problem yet that cannot be solved by applying the so-called “five seeds” of renunciation, bodhichitta, the wisdom realizing emptiness, generation stage Tantra, and completion stage Tantra. And I have access to all of these, maybe for the first time in aeons, if ever; as well as the companionship of tens of thousands of people also practicing this Dharma, including some spectacular friends. My life need be no different to the lives of the past Yogis, Mahasiddhas, and scholars whom I so much admire, who took advantage of their teacher and the Buddhist teachings. This includes of course Geshe-la himself, whose devotion to his own teacher Trijang Rinpoche I find inspiring.

If I look back and see that I have wasted my chance to gain deep realizations — to partake of this banquet of delight while it was all laid out before me — what would I say to my past self?

Forget the sideshows

side showWhat kind of relationships do we really want to have had with others, once we are looking back at these? Surely not sticky relationships that are built on the inappropriate attention of attachment? For not only do these end in pain, but in retrospect they seem like a massive waste of time, sideshows distracting us from the main attraction of this life.

An arresting (for me) verse in Geshe Kelsang’s new book The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra:

Like mistakenly  believing
A poisonous drink to be nectar,
Attachment with grasping at objects of desire
Is the cause of great danger.

I have been deeply attached to every single living being at one point or another over countless previous lives, I have suffered grievously on their behalf; and where exactly has that got me, or us? Also, because attachment undermines our interest in anyone other than our object of attachment, it thwarts our love and compassion too, it seems to me. It’s about time I gave up the attachment that has sabotaged all my previous lives, and cultivated bodhichitta in its place.

Kind people

speaking of kindnessI find it helpful to look at my connections of this life and see how I would have wanted these to go if I was looking back at them, especially perhaps for people who have been kind to me. Hindsight is 20/20 after all. Today, for example, thinking about my parents, I realized again that I could never have asked for better ones, I couldn’t have invented better ones. Half a century of unconditional love and support, and counting. Wonderful people, kind examples; and my life has been interesting and brilliant thanks to them. Even Geshe-la said, rubbing his heart, that they were “very spiritual”. Chances of having such good parents the next time around?! Very slim. Depends on creating a huge number of good causes. So, am I making the most of these ones? And am I doing as much for them as I can? Maybe I need to ask them – hey, anything more I can do for you, ma and pa?! (They are reading this, because they also support my blog 😉  They are probably also embarrassed because they are modest and British. But, hey, life is short, and why wait to say stuff like this in the obituaries.)

I’d be interested to hear the perspective you gain when you look back at yourself in this life?

There is nothing there to grasp at

Discovering self-graspingEverything is dream-like. Anything that appears to be more than dreamlike is an inherently existent thing. And our delusion of ignorance that grasps at inherently existent things is dominating our lives at the moment, causing us to experience all our other delusions with all their pain and suffering.

(This is carrying on from this article.) For example, if something appears to us as attractive and we latch onto it as real, then what happens? We exaggerate its good qualities or power from its own side to make us happy, believing that any of its apparent good qualities are within it, intrinsic to it. If the object is real, its good qualities are real. So attachment arises.

If something is out there that is real and inherently attractive, we naturally want it – we mentally or physically try to go out to it and pull it toward us. I want this. I need it. I must have it. It’s going to make me happy from its own side. Nothing to do with the way I’m looking at it. It just is absolutely essential to my well-being. I just have to eat this pizza right now. Or I just have to get this person’s phone number right now. Or I have to climb the career ladder right now. Or whatever it is. The holy grail of happiness is always out there. I’m always going to go after it; it’s always going to feel real. And I’m going to go after it, and after it, and after it until I feel happy. Because that’s what happiness it. It’s out there.

shark circlingWhile we remain with ignorance, there will always be items of attachment appearing to our mind. As soon as anything appears nice to us, which happens because of our karma, then we want it. And we’re not happy without it. And if we lose it we suffer. So we are continually like some sort of shark circling around, never resting, trying to absorb that next juicy morsel — something, anything, that will make us happy.

I read recently about a dating site called Tinder, where people are stacked up like virtual cards – you swipe the ones you like to the right and the ones you don’t like to the left. It’s apparently addictive — you can never settle on any person because you think the next person just might be better. People get together socially and play with their Tinder app! Even if the first person is gorgeous, if you don’t swipe them to the left you’ll never know what you are missing. There is always someone better one swipe away.

I found Tinder a good example (or analogy?) for modern society having so much on demand these days – overwhelming choice means that there is always something better out there than what we are looking at at the moment. It used to take five minutes browsing the TV guide to choose what channel to watch at what time, and then you would just have to settle down to watch it! Now, thanks to Netflix etc., it takes half the evening to choose Tinderellawhat to watch, and then we’re still a little bit unsettled, “Meh, that other movie might have been better.” We’re constantly searching to find the next best thing. This is what we are like with attachment. There is always something better around the corner, so the mind is in a constant state of overstimulation, trying to find happiness out there. And why do we have attachment? Because we have ignorance. We think that everything is attractive from its own side. It has nothing to do with the way we are looking at it.

Also, from the delusion of ignorance, aversion is born. Due to our karma, something can appear unpleasant or unattractive, and because it appears that way we mistake its appearance for reality, thinking it really is that way. Things are really unpleasant. Instead of recognizing that that person who just took my parking spot right in front of me is just appearing unpleasant to my mind due to some bad karma ripening, and letting it go, the inappropriate attention of anger begins to dwell on all the faults of that incredibly annoying spot-stealing person in the car: “They must do this all the time! They think the world is created just for them. They have no idea that I have to go shopping!” The exaggeration just digs in and, before we know it, we have full-blown irritation, aversion, annoyance. We think that they exist as they appear, and they appear annoying.

stealing parking spotThis is why with anger, attachment, and all the delusions we try to get in there before we start exaggerating. In this instance, for example, we can think, “Maybe this person has a massively important doctor’s appointment or maybe they have to catch their dying mother.” We just put our mind in a different direction so we don’t see all these apparent faults that we have created and exaggerated – clearly exaggerated as we have never met this person in our life, have barely glimpsed them through the car window, and we now have a list as long as our arm about how horrific they are.

Where did that all come from? In the case of anger, we are paying inappropriate attention to all their apparent faults. We exaggerate them, we hone in on them, we make them more real. And the reason we seized on their faults is because of our ignorance. With ignorance with have “subtle inappropriate attention,” which functions in our mind all the time and focuses on things being real. So there is someone behind that appearance of someone stealing our spot. They appear annoying, therefore they are annoying. There really is someone from their own side who is annoying, nothing to do with my mind. It’s because of this subtle inappropriate attention that we develop the gross inappropriate attention of anger, attachment, jealousy, fear, selfishness, you name it.

Do you want to go around relating to a world that doesn’t exist? I don’t.

For as Geshe Kelsang says in Modern Buddhism:

The truth is, although things appear to our senses to be truly or inherently existent, in reality all phenomena lack, or are empty of, true existence. This book, our body, our friends, we ourself and the whole universe are actually just appearances to mind, like things seen in a dream.

There is nothing there to grasp at. There is no one there to grasp at.

Next installment here. Meanwhile, your comments are welcome.

How to catch a problem before it catches you

This carries on directly from this last article.

My lovely dad turned 80 on October 2nd, and we were discussing the meaning of (the rest of his) life. He told me he’d been perusing the obituaries to get a sense of how long he had to live and worked out (by some strange and somewhat optimistic algorithm known only to himself) that most people die at 82. And he has been thinking about what he can accomplish in this remaining time. He thinks making his family happy might be it. I’m quite happy to go along with that 😉  “And how about accomplishing inner peace?”, I suggested. He liked that, so this article is for you, dad. (Your comments are welcome in the comments section below if you can figure out how to get it to work. Just scroll way down the first page of this blog til you see “I’d love to hear from you”, write your comment in that box, and hit the button that says “Post comment”. Anyone else reading this is also welcome to do this!)

Because to accomplish inner peace, I think, we have to understand that our mind is naturally peaceful. That natural peace is constantly being disturbed, however–but by inner problems, not outer ones.

waves on samsaric ocean In this article I talk about how according to Buddha all our problems fit into a pattern of seven types of problem, and all of these can be recognized as stemming from our delusions. The very day after we spoke, my father emailed me about a problem he’d been having with a car and possibly a policeman … even that would seem to fit into the category of having to encounter what we do not like.

So without understanding the nature and causes of our problems (as described in the last article), and if we try instead of fixing our delusions just to fix one outer problem at a time, our problems will continue to arise like endless waves on an ocean. My dad said he was using the car thing as a way to practice inner peace — if he manages it, his actual problem will be over, even if he still has to do something external to make the policeman happy. And also he’ll be better set up to solve the next problem that comes his way. Inner peace, just as much as anxiety, is habit-forming.

When was your last problem-free day?
should i tell him
We’re looking in the wrong place!

This time next year we will still be having a problem. It may well appear in a different shape and size to the one we have been having today, but it will still fill our mind, just like today’s problem. The chances are we will have no clue then what today’s problem was, it’ll be long forgotten. I don’t even remember what problem I was having this time last week. However, we’ll still be thinking: “All I need to do is solve this particular problem and I’ll be happy again!” This won’t work. We won’t be happy again, or at least not for more than a few minutes or hours. Something else will have come up. This is pretty much what has been happening for as long as we can remember – can you remember having even one completely problem-free day?

We have to heal our mind, our mental continuum. The causes of our problems have been lurking in our mind since beginningless time – now is the time to address these, not their symptoms.

Essential advice: catch them early

And it is a very good idea to come to understand how the delusions each operate in our own minds so that we can spot them early. Spotting the inappropriate attention as it is about to arise and dealing with it is like extinguishing a match before it becomes a forest fire. match

For example, if we feel the murmurings of disappointed attachment arising, “Why is it not as good as it used to be?” and we run with that, rather than letting it go and turning our thoughts to compassion or some other actual source of happiness, it will quickly take over our mind and make us feel despondent and lethargic. It will be hard to apply the antidotes to attachment once it has taken over the mind. If we let our delusions or so-called “afflictions” take over our mind, we have no choice but to ride them out or pray for a massive blessing to zap them away. We quickly become stuck and confused and powerless.

On the other hand, when the first murmuring of unhappiness aka delusion does arise, I like to ask myself:

Who are you, thought!? And where do you come from? Where are you going?

I let it dissolve away into emptiness and/or the clarity of my root mind, like a snowflake dissolving onto a hot roof. Then I think about something else, such as faith, or love, or wisdom. I know that my real pleasure always comes from these positive, wise thoughts, and that the changing suffering of attachment is always a disaster — so enough already.

anger 4For anger, I think it is particularly essential to catch it early if we want to control it. It is the most self-justifying delusion – once it has arisen in the mind, it brooks no discussion. So, if for example we feel the rumblings of discontent or dislike, and are about to hone in on someone’s faults and get mighty annoyed, thus ruining a perfectly good day, we can go into the restroom and remember just 3 good things about that person to derail the runaway anger train.

We can learn a thousand wise, positive ways of thinking to which we gently turn our mind as soon as we notice that it is getting agitated. In this way, over time, we can stay in control, stay spacious, stay light, stay content, stay free.

It is a great pity to let delusions/problems take over our mind if we have a choice not to do that.  And we do have a choice. We can understand how delusions arise in dependence upon causes and conditions that we can change, ie, from inappropriate, unhelpful thoughts that we don’t need to think if we just catch them early enough and learn not to indulge them. Then we can stay happy and problem-free instead.

In this way, we can remain with our natural inner peace and let it gradually increase — first for one hour, then one day, then two, then a week, then a month, then a year, then two years, then for the rest of this life, however long that may be, and then for all our future lives. May my dad and everyone else accomplish this permanent inner peace.

Being realistic

ice cream makes you happyMore on delusions and how to get rid of them.

Just before any delusion develops, we have an inch of space to change things around. For example, we have the seed of attachment in our mind, and let’s say we have an attractive object, such as a donut. This does not guarantee a delusion. Why not?

The advertising agency in our mind

For attachment to arise for the jelly donut, we have to think about the jelly donut — how yummy it’ll taste, how it’s capable of giving us pleasure, how it’ll go really well with our coffee, and so on. We conveniently edit out all the things it won’t do for us – how it’ll rot our teeth causing pain at the dentist, how it’ll make us fat and flabby, how no one will fancy us any more, etc. The mind of attachment exaggerates the good and edits out anything unpleasant about the object, like an advertising agency in our mind.

When I first went to America decades ago for a visit, I discovered the most extraordinary invention, one that in my mind had Americans living up to their reputation for being innovative and smart. Anyone who could take chocolate, which is good from its own side, and then combine it with peanut butter, also good from its own side, and then combine them…. well, Mr. Reese must have been a genius.

things are not as they appear
Things are not as they appear

I developed a very strong liking for his peanut butter cups—and I would share them with others, my bags full of them whenever I returned to England. I tried to turn everyone else on to them, for their sakes. This went on for about three years! But you already know the end of this story. One day I ate one too many (“just one more wafer-thin mint!”), and I was struck with the thought: “I cannot put another one of these in my mouth!” I realized that whoever invented this sickly thing was an idiot. Now when I think about Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, I simply can’t stand them. I could talk about their bad qualities for a long time… Yet I have to concede that the manufacturers haven’t changed anything in them at all. I cannot blame them for letting me down.

Unrealistic attention

The way I was thinking about Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups was not appropriate because it was not realistic. Inappropriate attention, which was introduced in the last article, is like unrealistic attention. We’re paying attention to something in a way that is not going to work because that peanut butter cup for example is not capable of giving me the pleasure it pretends to give me. It can temporarily satisfy an itch, the hungry or bored craving for something both sugary and savory, and that’s about it. We can do a lot better than that.

It is the same with objects of irritation, such as the example of someone who walks into our room while we’re peacefully reading, and “annoying” us, as described in this article. We’re like a dog with a bone, we can’t let it go. “He’s ignoring me again! He is always ignoring me!” That song in Guys ‘n Dolls that goes something like this:

“You promise me this, you promise me that…. when I think of the tiiiiimes gone by, I could honestly die.”

We’re mentally writing a shopping list of all their failings while conveniently editing out all the nice things about them, like the fact that we’ve been married to them for 20 years and borne their children.

once you realize we're all mad And the next thing we know, we’re mad. Literally mad. We say, “I’m mad at you.” I think that we do go a little bit mad, sometimes very mad. It’s the same with “I’m mad about peanut butter cups.”  We are actually mad when a delusion arises, why? Because of this inappropriate or unrealistic attention. We’ve honed in on the object and we have totally exaggerated either its good qualities (in the case of attachment) or its bad qualities (in the case of anger.) We do something similar with jealousy, pride, and miserliness — they’ve all got unrealistic attention in them, they wouldn’t be here without them. If we didn’t pay that inappropriate attention, the delusion could not get a foothold and our mind would stay peaceful and happy.

We wouldn’t feel so helpless. We would stay in control of our minds and our lives. Sounds good to me.

An inch of space

So, there is an inch of space we have with every delusion before inappropriate attention gets going. For example, in the case of the irritating person, we have a choice. We may not take the choice, but we do have it. (1) We can follow the path of least resistance and start itemizing the laundry list of their faults, leading to a negative, uncontrolled mind, and a hundred clever, barbed comments to say to them next time we meet. This is the easiest thing to do because we are so used to doing it, it’s a bad habit. Or (2) we can choose to stop that train wreck before it starts, and with that inch of space we have before the inappropriate attention starts, catch ourselves as we’re about to get annoyed, and take our mind away from the object and put it somewhere better and more enjoyable.

Three good things

captain sparrow quote about problemsUntil we’re trained in this, we may even want to go to the restroom or something to get away from the object and steer our mind in a different direction. We can do a little bit of breathing meditation to forget the object, that’s very helpful, and then we can think, “Okay, this person is appearing really annoying to me right now, but I’m not going to get annoyed — I’m actually going to think about their good qualities.”

One of my good friends has a wonderful, practical method for staying positive that has stood him in good stead for decades, so I use it too. He comes up with, for example, three good things about this person. Or, if he can’t do three, if that is too much of a tall order, he does one! Anything that takes our mind away from inappropriate attention toward appropriate attention will do. And there is always something. Perhaps Mister Annoying has a dog they rescued who loves them — focus on that! How nice! We avert the irritation, and our mind stays under control and peaceful.

These three—the seed, the object, and inappropriate attention–are the main causes of delusion, and the stage of inappropriate attention is the weakest link and the opportunity to change things around. We can do this through learning meditation, slowly but surely putting it into practice in our daily lives. This is definitely possible. It is how people learn to control their minds to actualize their potential for lasting peace, happiness, and fulfillment.

My choice

We have the choice. Right now it may seem we don’t have much choice because our habits are so strong, but they are just habits, they are not us; and if we understand the causes of delusion, then we know that we do actually have a moment of choice there. We can continue to follow the same old frustrating rigmarole, taking the path of least resistance, or we can change; and the choice is ours for the taking if we understand how delusions develop.

It all depends how we’re looking at it

dolphins and meditationSo I have recently moved from Florida (80 degrees, wall to wall sunshine, sea breezes, pelicans and dolphins) to Liverpool (frozen lake, not quite wall to wall sunshine, bracing wind, swans and Lambananas.)

Just now I was scooting down the stairs to the World Peace Café that is conveniently placed inside the large house I’m living in, meaning I don’t have to go outside, ever, if I don’t want to. At 3.48pm, it is already getting dark out there, and I was wondering whether to feel sorry for myself when I ran into J on the stairs.

“How are you doing, J?” “Great, thanks.” “What about this getting dark at 3.30, then?” “Oh, I love it! I love the winter.” “You do?!” “Yes, I love it. I love the spring and the summer too.” “Hmmm. I daresay you love the Fall, erm Autumn, as well?” “Oh yes, I love it! I love all four seasons.” Just as I was pondering mentally how anyone could love winter with such enthusiasm, and perhaps he had nothing to compare it with, he added, “I lived in Fort Lauderdale and Miami for three years when I was younger, and it was lovely, but I really missed the seasons!” lambananas in liverpool and kadampa life

“Well”, I told him, “That really shows how everything depends on the mind! And now I’m going to love the four seasons too.” So, dear reader, if you catch me complaining, please remind me of this conversation. As a friend told me the other day, there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. (It reminded us of Shantideva’s famous analogy about leather on the feet.)

In the last article on delusions, I talked about the object of delusion. While our delusions are still rampant, there is not an awful lot we can do about objects of delusion. Geshe Kelsang sums this up:

Even if we were to live in an isolated cave there would be some parts of the cave that would appear more attractive than other parts, and some kinds of weather that would seem more pleasant than others. We would soon find ourselves preferring this sort of birdsong to that sort of birdsong, and we would still have all the memories of other objects of delusion. ~ Understanding the Mind

It sounds like a pretty nice idea to me: “I’m going to get away from it all, get away from all these trying people and/or objects of temptation that surround me wherever I go. I’ll go to the countryside on retreat, or on top of a mountain in Brazil or Switzerland, or perhaps even a cave in the Himalayas. Hey, that’s awesome, that’s the answer!” meditating in a cave retreat season in NKT

Actually, it can be very helpful to go away sometimes from our usual environment and work on our minds, for example in meditation retreat. January is retreat month in the New Kadampa Tradition and it provides a refreshing and significant start to the year. However, by itself, getting away from it all is not going to solve the problem because, as they say, wherever we go, there we are. Our deluded mind comes along for the ride.

Cause of delusion # 3, inappropriate attention

As mentioned in this first article on the delusions, there are six causes of our delusions. These are like a chain that bind us to suffering and problems. To break a chain, especially one as strong as this, it makes sense to find its weakest link.

We just saw how the object is not the weakest link – it is hard to isolate ourselves from all objects of delusion because they are going to pop up wherever we take our deluded minds. We can run, but we cannot hide. Sooo, what to do?

Now we come to the weakest link in the chain that binds us to suffering, insofar as it is the easiest one for us to break at the moment. This is very lucky for us. We can work on all six causes of our problems to a certain extent, of course, but this is the one where we can really get in there and stop the course of the delusion.

I keep saying a delusion is an unpeaceful, uncontrolled mind, and this is true, but strictly speaking the actual definition of a delusion is “An unpeaceful, uncontrolled mind that arises from inappropriate attention.” Even if our mind meets an object of anger, say, we will only get angry if we let inappropriate attention develop. delusions distort

Inappropriate attention is that function of honing in on a jelly donut, for example, and exaggerating its power to make our day, or honing in on someone who annoys us and letting our peace be destroyed ostensibly by that person but actually by our inappropriate attention toward that person.

There are many levels of inappropriate attention, from very subtle to very gross. At the moment, whenever we see an object we naturally apprehend it as being inherently existent, as independent of the mind, nothing to do with us. This itself is an exaggeration and the most subtle form of inappropriate attention. It is also our ignorance of self-grasping.

attachment to jelly donutBecause we are grasping at things as if they were outside the mind, we then believe that their apparent desireability or distastefulness inhere in them, and have nothing to do with the way we are perceiving them. If something out there looks nice, we naturally want to pull it toward us, and attachment is born. If something out there looks nasty, we naturally want to push it away from us, and anger or aversion is born. Due to our initial exaggeration of the object’s ontological status as being inherently existent as opposed to a mere projection of our mind, like a dream object, we then engage in even more exaggeration: “That donut out there on the cake dish is really nice (ie, from its own side) – just look at that red jelly oozing out of it, and the sugar sprinklings, and think how well it will go with the Cappuchino from the World Peace Café downstairs?!” This is gross inappropriate attention, leading to attachment.

We can overcome subtle inappropriate attention with wisdom, and we can overcome gross inappropriate attention with mindfulness, alertness, and conscientiousness, applying the opponents to delusions as described here.

More on this subject later … over to you for now 🙂