Dealing with fears

8.5 mins read.

There’s a lot of anxiety, fear, and sadness going around this year. It is arguably leading to people feeling fragile and on a shorter fuse, more upset and angry than usual with each other and with everything that seems to be going on in our world. If we check where a lot of this is coming from, it comes because deep down most people are scared not just of losing the way of life they’ve known but of dying.

For this reason, to get rid of the underlying fear, it is really important that we don’t shy away from contemplating what is inevitable for all of us. That we come to terms with it, come to accept it, and even come to welcome it! After all, there is no getting around it. As Buddha says in Sutra Addressed to a King:

Ageing is like an immovable mountain. 
Decay is like an immoveable mountain.
Sickness is like an immoveable mountain.
Death is like an immoveable mountain.

Many people hold off thinking about things like serious illness, ageing, and death for as long as possible because they don’t know how to deal with them — they just seem catastrophic, terrifying. Like when the Doctor tells you or a loved one some test results, “I’m afraid it is not good news,” and our heart sinks — we just want to run away, even though there is nowhere to run to. However, we can face whatever happens not alone and scared but within the context of refuge – feeling safe, protected, okay. Also, if we can accept death, we find we can far more easily accept all the other things that go wrong with our lives.

We are all mortals made of flesh and bone, and the purpose of contemplating the mortal facts of sickness, ageing, death, and rebirth every day is not to paralyze us but to give rise to deep refuge in what will actually help us – and not just when these things happen, but now, straightaway. This includes, as we’ll see more in the next article, tuning into the blessings or protection of countless enlightened beings that are always on tap, and making an effort to apply the Dharma teachings that enable us to stay peaceful regardless of what is going on. With these we can stay happy in the present, and we are also ready for the illness and death when they come. We become fearless.

There is nothing to fear but fear itself, as the saying goes. And it turns out that our fear and anxiety, along with all our other unpeaceful thoughts, are delusions arising from grasping at something that is not there, such as a real body, or a real self, or a self that is more important than everyone else. Our fears are directly proportional to how tightly we are grasping. Luckily we can all learn to let go of these thoughts, to stop grasping. And it is helpful to remember that our mind is naturally peaceful, we are just shaking it up with our own inappropriate thoughts.

Getting started

We can start to relax straightaway through a few minutes breathing exercize or clarity of mind or turning the mind to wood. As Geshe Kelsang says:

So much of the stress and tension we normally experience comes from our mind, and many of the problems we experience, including ill health, are caused or aggravated by this stress. Just by doing breathing meditation for ten or fifteen minutes each day, we will be able to reduce this stress.

A lot of our ill health is enormously exacerbated – sometimes even brought on — by anxiety and tension in the mind. Therefore it would be great to start practicing these simple strategies now on a daily basis because they will be very healing. Then, through using wisdom and compassion to get rid of our grasping once and for all, we will become free from all sickness permanently.

Inner and outer problems

With our world in turmoil and anxiety, we have to learn how to keep our mind peaceful and calm. If we are peaceful, we are happy. We are also strong, which means we can help others stay strong too.

If we understand the difference between inner and outer problems we can understand why being able to keep a peaceful mind is the actual solution when things are going wrong. A quick reminder: if our car breaks down, that is an outer problem belonging to the car. It can be fixed (or not) depending on outer means, such as taking it to the garage, and it can be fixed by other people.

If we get upset that the car has broken down, that is an inner problem, an unpleasant feeling in our own mind. This is what makes us unhappy and is therefore our actual problem. It can ONLY be fixed by internal means, and by ourself.

It is never too late to start controlling our own mind – on one level it is not hard, it just takes a decision to get started, to make it a priority.

Dharma solves inner problems, that is its actual function. And on one level the solution to these problems is so very simple. If we let go of self-cherishing (believing we are more important than others) and self-grasping (believing everything is real, existing from its own side), the whole house of cards will come tumbling down. If we do not, then even if we manage to get over one fear or upset, this is a temporary relief – another is already on its way. It’s endless, life after life.

Being trapped in so-called samsara, the cycle of impure life, is not being trapped in an external prison – it simply means that we still have self-cherishing and self-grasping. If we learn how we are creating this prison, we can dismantle it. It is useful to let our daily problems remind us not that we are doomed, but instead:

Man, this health/financial/political/relationship problem is really showing me how much self-cherishing and self-grasping suck! Luckily they are just ignorant thoughts, bubbles arising from the ocean of my root mind. Therefore, I’m going to learn to stop thinking them and get used to not thinking them. And then help others to do the same.

Rinse and repeat. This way, it’s like our run of the mill outer and inner problems are giving us practice in getting rid of all of our problems once and for all!

Can we be ill and happy at the same time?!

But surely being ill is an inner problem? you may be thinking. No. It is our body’s problem, not our mind’s problem. We can include bodily ailments within outer problems. We believe our feelings of pain are coming from our body, but our body is inanimate and doesn’t feel anything. The pain is our bodily awareness, which pervades our body, but which is part of our mind. And the painful bodily feelings arise only because we have self-grasping ignorance, believing our body is inherently existent. If we get a direct realization of emptiness, we never feel any physical (or mental) pain again. Meantime, we can also have unpleasant bodily feelings while at the same time having peaceful mental feelings, such as compassion or renunciation.

Soooo…  if we make a point of stopping self-cherishing and self-grasping with respect to our body, we will be able to stay increasingly pain-free and happy even when we’re getting older, sicker, and deader. And how important is that!!

I’ve had some practice with this of late — for example my lungs got a bit infected by all the wildfire smoke and I had to have laser surgery for a torn retina – and this fear (aargh, I have lung cancer and I’m going blind!) and loathing (why did this happen to me!? I was so happy before! I don’t like it!) has given me ample incentive to contemplate that my body is not my mind, and nor is it me. It is just a possession I use, like my car or my carrot peeler. It is inanimate. Plus it is not inherently existent. (Despite numerous contemplations on the subject over the years, I think I was still kinda hoping I might get away with not having to go through all that aging and sickness stuff, just drop dead one day and go to the Pure Land. Been having to rethink my strategy 😂).

At times when things go wrong with my body, I naturally turn to think of practitioners who are really good at transforming sickness and creeping fears; and there is actually no shortage of inspiration. Lhatse Geshe visited us at Madhyamaka Centre many years ago, possibly the happiest most fun-loving person in the world. He came for a week and stayed 3 months, and we never knew till after he’d left that he’d had migraines almost every day. (He and I stayed in touch for years, and a long time later he also had an awesome death — I’ll tell you that story another day.)

One senior Kadampa nun I know has experienced painful and debilitating arthritis for years, but she is always genuinely smiling and kind. The other day someone asked her how she was and she replied:

I am fine. I am not a sick person. I just have a body that is problematical.

I find this really helpful to contemplate.

Another 40-something Kadampa has recently come through cancer but she told me that she’d happily do it all again if it meant COVID would go away for everyone else. Shows how much authentic compassion she developed in the course of her illness and treatment.

A good friend with a degenerative illness replied to me the other day:

My physical health is getting worse. My spiritual practice is getting better.

Another friend told me that if he hadn’t suffered from so much ill health, he would never have turned so much to Dharma or led such a good and basically happy life, so he doesn’t regret any of it (even the operations where there was no anaesthesia ….) What about Harriet Tubman, still running the equivalent of five marathons to save people from slavery despite the horrendous headaches that would have floored less inspired people?

And something for the Tantric practitioners amongst you … You know those car stickers you see on old bangers, “My other car is a Mercedes?” I remember conversations with my ancient friend Eileen, who suffered sickness and old age for years, when she would say,

This meaty body is not my real body. My other body is a Deity body.

Which brings me to my Mom, too. She’s had a lot of serious health challenges in her life, but manages most all of the time to stay peaceful and keep enjoying life. If she isn’t happy she isn’t one to complain, she generally just waits patiently for it to pass. This is because she can be rather wise. The other day she was saying that our body is a thing, it is not us. It is a tool or an instrument that we use. Our mind is more important. She told me she makes an effort to think about things that are “important”, not to worry about small things. The main thing is to keep our mind peaceful and happy, not to worry about all the external things that we can do nothing about, which is pointless because we can do nothing about them. That includes all the things that can go wrong with our problematical body and, as she said, hers has been that.

There is literally no point following the inappropriate attention of anxiety or fear when it comes to our body. We don’t freak out (much) when the car is dented, we just take it to the garage. In a similar way, we can learn to patiently accept whatever is coming up with the body while taking it to the doctor.

Kadampa Geshes would pray to have a mind like a blacksmith’s anvil, undaunted however hard it is hit. Sounds good to me! Shortly after Venerable Geshe Kelsang came over to the West to help us, in the early 1980s, he developed tuberculosis and almost passed away. After he had recovered, I remember his doctor telling us that he saw absolutely no difference in Geshe-la’s way of being when he was well and when he was gravely ill. He said you couldn’t tell he was ill.

More coming up soon. Meantime, over to you! In particular, do you have any helpful experiences to share on transforming bodily ailments or physical pain in particular?

Before you go … I really recommend the International Kadampa Fall Festival that started on Friday (and is available for a couple of weeks)– for one thing Gen-la Dekyong just gave a beautiful commentary on inner and outer problems and what actually is physical pain, based on Venerable Geshe-la’s Medicine Buddha teachings in New York in 2006. Simply stunning. As was the empowerment today. Still plenty of time to tune in.

Judge not …

7.5 mins read

Our Buddha nature is likened to a golden nugget in filth for it can never perish, it is utterly indestructible. I find it pretty inspiring to think about that.

gold nugget in dirtNo matter how disgusting a person’s delusions may be, the real nature of their mind remains undefiled, like pure gold. In the heart of even the cruelest and most degenerate person exists the potential for limitless love, compassion and wisdom. Unlike the seeds of our delusions, which can be destroyed, this potential is utterly indestructible, and is the pure essential nature of every living being. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Nothing we ever think, say, or do, however heinous, could destroy the vajra-like purity of our own or others’ root minds, any more than clouds can destroy the space of the sky. We can dive into that reality every day because it is the truth, and it heals us.

An encounter on Frontier

With this understanding of what lies at the heart of every single one of us, it’s a good idea not to judge ourselves or others on the basis of the fleeting thoughts in our mind or indeed the words coming out of our mouths. These are not who any of us really are. We can totally disagree with people’s ideas and actions of course, but judging the person themselves on the basis of their ideas and actions is superficial, often uninformed, and unhelpful. I relearned this lesson on Frontier Airlines last night coming back from DC.

IMG_4733I was sitting by the window, and squished in the middle seat was a portly man in his seventies. He soon became very interested in my reading the unwieldy pages of The Washington Post on Sunday, which I had bought because, hey, I was in the nation’s capital.

And he started asking me, in an unplaceable foreign accent, about where I lived and who my senators were and so on and so forth, and it soon became apparent that we were not of the same political persuasion and that he was going to vote for someone I was not. Raised eyebrows on both sides, this segued into a conversation about equality – he arguing that someone who worked hard to get an education and look after his family was not equal to someone who never mowed his lawn or picked up his trash, citing as an example his two next-door neighbors. I said they were still equal because we are all equal, and that different backgrounds and baked-in circumstances led to different opportunities and it was not on us to judge. This devolved into whether or not a physician should earn more than a school teacher because they had trained longer, me arguing that money didn’t buy happiness or measure success, that healing people could be its own reward, and he arguing that of course it did, that I was only able to fly on this plane because of money. I suggested that happiness depended not on the money in the bank but the thoughts in our mind, and he at least paused to consider that. But I could tell it was going to be an uphill battle to get him to agree with me on pretty much anything!

In any event, we were getting quite animated, but I confess I was also getting a bit annoyed by his seemingly hardline views and insistence on arguing about every point; and I was also beginning to think that he was way too big for his seat and physically squishing me as well. So I escaped by feigning sleep and then actually falling asleep. This was me:

With self-cherishing we hold our opinions and interests very strongly and are not willing to see a situation from another point of view. As a consequence we easily get angry and wish to harm others verbally or even physically. ~ How to Transform Your Life, page 97

Just before I started ignoring him, though, he looked at me and said, “We are not arguing! No, not at all. We are only debating!” And he had the sweetest look in his big old watery eyes.

When I woke later and took a sideways glance at him, I saw that he had, as a matter of fact, a very kind face. And there was something poignant about him. This idea came to my mind:

Buddha natureWhenever we meet other people, rather than focusing on their delusions we should focus on the gold of their Buddha nature. This will not only enable us to regard them as special and unique, but also help to bring out their good qualities. ~ How to Transform Your Life

A twist in the tale

I decided I didn’t want to spend the rest of our 4-hour journey ignoring him because he had really been enjoying our conversation even if I hadn’t, so I asked him, Which country did you come from originally?

“Syria”, he replied. I got interested and asked him more. It turned out that he came over here in 1970 and then tried to live in Syria again later, but “I was forced to leave permanently a few years ago because I was in danger.”

“Why?”

“My brother was killed.”

Was his brother involved in politics? No, a quiet man, not political, only the wrong sect of Islam. Shot. And he told me that in a country of 21 million people, 1 million people have been killed, 7 million people have been forced to leave as refugees, and the children have not been at school for 7 going on 8 years, an entire generation lost. The country is bitterly divided. Nowhere is safe. He said all this very sadly. He has two elderly sisters still there who are alright only because, like a lot of people, they never dare go outside. He asked me what I thought could be done about Syria. He asked me several impossible questions on this plane journey, genuinely wanting to know what I thought.

It was sobering. I had never felt this close to Syria or its people before, realized in person how they were just like me. I don’t need to mention how much it put other problems into perspective.world peace

I had realized by now that I had (mis)judged him. I had not immediately related to his Buddha nature but to the words coming out of his mouth in our first conversation, even though they were based on just a few of his fleeting thoughts, thoughts I didn’t even remotely know the context for as it turned out, and thoughts that were not him. I could have saved myself all those slightly irked and uncharitable thoughts if I had related instead to his good heart from the get-go.

Then he added that he believed rich people had a duty to look after poor people. And that the only reason he was going to vote in the way he was going to vote is not because he believed in the person or politics at all, in fact he thought they were bad and … (here he twirled his finger around his temple), but because he believed that the only chance for Iran to be stopped from destroying his country was if their money dried up due to sanctions.

I have of course never given that geopolitical perspective a moment’s thought before. It made me wonder what other perspectives I had never bothered to entertain in this almost infinite complex web of causes and conditions that make up our globe, assuming the correctness of my own.

Can these problems ever be solved?

outer space shelleyAll we can each trust when it comes to the immensity of our outer problems, it seems to me, is doing our level best to do the right thing, the ethical thing, the wise thing, the compassionate thing. But how that shows up in practice is probably going to turn out different depending upon our positioning, amongst other things. Whether we live in Syria, or Iran, or America, for example, and whereabouts in those countries we live.

Because, to the deluded mind, our own needs and wishes seem so often contradictory with others’, in an apparently zero sum game, how can we ever hope to solve all outer problems with only outer means? It makes me even more determined to solve all the inner problems of the delusions and hallucinations of inherent existence instead, for only then will the outer problems finally go away.

He also asked me about Buddhism and what we believed in because he didn’t know the first thing about it, though he had heard of meditation being good for relaxation. He said the world was created by a superpower, not a “being”; and we got a bit philosophical there for a while.inner problems outer problems

My new friend’s name is Osama, “as in Osama Bin Laden” he said slightly ruefully. We plan to talk again. He is the sweetest person. And, Dad, if you’re reading this, he reminded me ever so slightly of you.

I will leave you with a final insight brought home by this encounter with Osama, one that Geshe Kelsang has said would lead to world peace if we all adopted it:

It is because they distinguish between delusions and persons that Buddhas are able to see the fault of delusions without ever seeing a single fault in any sentient being. Consequently their love and compassion for sentient beings never diminish. Failing to make this distinction, we, on the other hand, are constantly finding fault with other people but do not recognize the faults of delusions, even those within our own mind.

Over to you. Comments welcome.

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The age-old foes of our people

The difference between inner and outer problems