Twenty rules of life

6.5 mins read.

I surfed into an article while on the Internet late last night (as one does, even when one would be better off asleep) – commenting on 20 rules for a happy and fulfilled life written by a Japanese Buddhist 400 years ago. It was a pleasant and indeed Samuraimeaningful alternative to political shenanigans, climate catastrophes, Brexiteering, and other woesome late-night annoyances and, since I was still thinking about it this morning, I thought I’d shamelessly plagiarize and comment on all 20, ‘cos who doesn’t like lists?!

So, 400 years on, here are 20 rules of life updated by one modern Buddhist:*

1. Learn to accept life as it comes

I see this as the practice of patiently accepting whatever arises without wishing it were otherwise. There’s no point not accepting what is happening in the moment, given that it is happening. That’s like trying to fight reality – we can’t win.

Rather than starting from from aversion, from that internal thought “Nooooo!!!!”, we can learn to say “Yes, that’s ok, I can do something with this.” Then on the basis of peaceful acceptance we can not only grow stronger as people but also improve our own and others’ external situation as needs be and as much as we can. More articles on this here.

2. Abandon any obsession to achieving pleasure

“As humans we spend a lot of time chasing down pleasure …” We keep pursuing happiness outside of ourselves instead of relaxing and enjoying the happiness we already have within us — the contentment of our own peaceful and positive minds. We actually distract ourselves from our own happiness on the hedonistic treadmill of selfish desire, and feel worn out and discouraged in the process

hedonistic treadmillThe author suggests “we should try simply to live life in the moment and enjoy pleasure when it comes to us naturally instead of striving for it.” This is so true that I have nothing more to add. More on how to live in the moment here.

3. Do not act on an impulsive emotion

Intuition can be a good thing, as long as we know that’s what it really is as opposed to a deluded gut reaction. I find the Kadampa advice to “Rely upon a happy mind alone” to be helpful for telling the difference. If our mind is peaceful and positive, and we find we are popping with seemingly good ideas, we can generally trust those ideas. But if our mind is agitated or over-excited, and popping with ideas, maybe not so much.

4. Do not obsess over yourself

The biggest truth in Buddhism. The article says, “These days, we are so focused on online presence, taking a perfect selfie and striving for perfection, that we forget what matters in life.” There is an alarming increase in anxiety, depression, and even suicide due to addiction to social media, especially among young women.self-cherishing giraffe

(I met with a very interesting woman last week, a friend of a friend, who has written a Buddhist guide to social media based on sociology degrees and a long practice of Buddhism. It is fascinating material and highly relevant to our times, so I’ll let you know when it is out.)

Social media seems to be a modern-day manifestation of the insecurity that necessarily arises from an obsession with self. Self-cherishing is self-defeating, so we may as well just stop it, as explained here. Self-cherishing also makes for a cruel world. We are more worried about our own diets, for example, than about the fact that mankind is on the brink of its biggest starvation in Yemen.

5. Never allow jealousy to rule your life

The author advises us “never to be jealous of others, and to simply be thankful for what you yourself have.” Jealousy and competitiveness come from that obsession with self, insecurity, and feeling bad or inadequate about ourselves compared with others.

FacebookGratitude for everything we have and are, learning to be a whole lot nicer to ourselves, is one excellent antidote. Another one is rejoicing, ie, being happy about others’ happiness and good luck – after all, these things don’t come around too often, why begrudge them? Not to mention that people’s perfect lives as seen on social media are as curated as the pictures we post of our own, so not the greatest yardstick for our self-worth.

I think it’s good to remember that we actually have nothing to prove. What is going on inside us is far more significant to our happiness than what is going on around us; so we can learn to focus on that rather than on what other people may or may not be up to.

6. Abandon attachment to desire

I like the way this is phrased because we are indeed attached not just to objects of attachment but to desirous attachment itself, having relied upon it since beginningless time as the way to get happy. We may even envisage a life without attachment as unexciting or humdrum. However, it is attachment that is boring and blocks the way to true bliss. It also tortures us every day, making us repeatedly have to scratch an itch, or drink salt water to slake our thirst.

7. Never live in regret

no regretsI agree with the author that dwelling on what we did wrong in the past is pointless because the past me, the past situation, and the past delusion have all gone. Dwelling on the past and wishing it were otherwise is as futile and frustrating as dwelling on last night’s dream and wishing it didn’t happen.

By remembering impermanence, especially subtle impermanence, we can learn to reinvent ourselves anew. Whatever happened in the past, we can let go of the baggage of that old story we keep telling ourselves (and others), and embark on a new narrative for our life. And we can do this one day at a time, living freshly without being weighed down by regret.

This advice is not contradictory to developing regret for the negative potentials we have planted in our mental continuum through our delusions and negative karma. This regret is the first opponent power of purification practice, and akin to wishing to dispel poison we have accidentally ingested so that it does not harm us. We don’t identify with that poison, thinking “I am a poisonous person!”; we just purify our system by getting rid of it. In a similar way, how can we purify/get rid of our negative karma while at the same time thinking “I am a negative/bad person!” – ie, feeling guilty and holding onto it?

8. Do not dwell on a sad separation

“Constantly thinking on a sad parting of friends and family prevents us from moving on and continuing our lives.” The law of (samsaric) entropy means that everything is being flung apart all the time — however urgently or impossibly we try to hold it all together with self-grasping, permanent grasping, and/or attachment.

separation.pngAs the author says, there is no way to bring back the dead. However, with love and wisdom we might find we don’t need to as we can learn to relate to that person in the present, wherever they are, and understand that we are not truly separated. Moving on and continuing our lives doesn’t mean we have to forget about loving them. In fact, it is better if we don’t forget to love them!

9. Complaining should have no place in your life

“Dwelling on what is going wrong only prolongs the past’s hold over your life.” Patient acceptance, again, is key. It is tiring to complain and it is tiring for others to be around us if we are always complaining. My suggestion is that if we have to complain, complain not about other people but about our collective self-grasping and self-cherishing. “Gather all blame into one” as it says in the mind-training (Lojong) teachings.

the life you complain about(There might be such a thing as making a complaint with a good motivation, eg, to get things improved, but I take the meaning of complain here to be the peevish self-pitying kind.)

I can’t vouch for this but someone told me the other day that Geshe Kelsang apparently said in a meeting that it’s okay to be annoyed about something for five minutes (if we can’t help it, I guess, and because we have to start somewhere); but after that we need to be patient.

It is more energizing to be part of the solution, using gripes to spur us into positive thought and action rather than wasting time exaggerating the faults we think we see and whining about them. We can’t be wringing our hands and rolling up our sleeves at the same time.

10. Don’t let lust rule your life

… “instead strive for love and lasting relationships”.

Good advice in the age of Tinder, #Metoo, sex bots, Cam girls, and the modern slave trade.

Okay, your coffee break is probably up, so I cover the remaining ten in this article.

Meantime, if you like lists of practical advice for daily living, you can find some cool time-tested Kadampa Buddhist “rules” in the books Universal Compassion (the precepts and commitments of training the mind) and The Bodhisattva Vow.

(*ie, me. You might have other ideas on these, or you may have other “rules” altogether — feel free to share them below.)

Ever had self-loathing?

Delusions are inner diseases. When our mind is uncomfortable or ill at ease, we can accept that we are experiencing mental dis-ease, some level of uneasiness, without thinking, “I am a disease.”

(By the way, Dad, the definition of delusion is “A mental factor (state of mind) that arises from inappropriate attention and functions to make the overcoming delusionsmind unpeaceful and uncontrolled.”)

Contaminated identity

Abuse victims often report to feeling guilty or unworthy, even dirty; and this is because they have internalized the faults of their attackers. I read a terrifying book last summer, Escape from Camp 14, about someone who quite recently escaped from a North Korean prison camp, where he had been imprisoned since birth due to the “crimes” of his relatives, and where humans are still right now, as we speak, being treated even worse than animals, if that is possible. Amongst many other rules Shin In Geun had to memorize and live by from a very young age, if he didn’t want to be shot, here is one example:

Anyone who harbors ill will toward or fails to demonstrate total compliance with a guard’s instructions will be shot immediately.

(I find this book quite useful whenever I feel like complaining about anyone … )

Shin “saw himself through the eyes of the guards in the camp,” even after he had escaped to America by a series of miracles, pretty much the only person who ever has managed it, and with every right to feel pleased with himself. Concentration camp survivors the world over apparently move through life with what Harvard psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman calls a “contaminated identity.”

They suffer not only from a classic post-traumatic syndrome but also from profound alterations in their relations with God, with other people, and with themselves. Most survivors are preoccupied with shame, self-loathing, and a sense of failure.

 selfloathing 1We may not have found ourselves in such extreme circumstances as Shin, in this life at least, but it seems most of us are still not immune to identifying with a contaminated identity and at least occasional self-loathing. For example, if we are fired we might feel unworthy and useless, letting our job (or lack of it) define us. If we are rejected we can feel unlovable because we are internalizing that the person we love doesn’t love us back, making it our fault. I was struck by these Alanis Morissette lyrics recently in a song about being dumped:

I can feel so unsexy for someone so beautiful
So unloved for someone so fine
I can feel so boring for someone so interesting
So ignorant for someone of sound mind  ~ So UnSexy

Who is the real enemy?

selfloathing 4Dharma helps us get past the bad habit of feeling no good. When recurrent delusions attack us, rather than feeling bad about ourselves, guaranteeing more anxiety and heaviness, we can remember that these are our enemies, not us. As Geshe Kelsang says, why blame a victim for the faults of their attacker? We are full of potential to love deeply and unconditionally, which is an endless source of feeling good about ourselves; and we in turn are deeply loved by holy beings and sustained by the kindness of others. We can drop our burdens, we don’t need the sack cloth and ashes.

It is odd, don’t you think, that whenever we feel the slightest bit unpeaceful we automatically try to pin it on something outside us – “I am feeling this way because this and that has happened.” A friend of mine is dealing with jealousy of an ex-lover who had almost instantaneously started dating someone else. Yes, as he pointed out, her parading her new love interest in front of him may have been a condition for his jealousy and self-doubt to arise, but this is not the main cause or reason – beginningless familiarity with jealousy is the main reason. And if it wasn’t this, therefore, it would be that. Until we get rid of the delusion, the outer problems will just keep arising in some form or another. There will always be the potential to feel this way, ie, jealous or inadequate, about something.

It’s gonna happen anyway

Same for anger, irritation, discouragement, insecurity, attachment, you name it. So we can say, as we do, “Oh if only this hadn’t happened and so and so hadn’t run off with so and so”, but it wouldn’t actually have made the blindest bit of difference if they hadn’t, at least not in the overall scheme of things, because if we have the delusion (and the karma) it’s gonna happen anyway, one way or another, sooner or later.

selfloathing 3We can instead allow our unpleasant feelings to remind us not that we hate our boss, or our ex and her creepy new boyfriend, but that we hate our delusions and would like never to feel this way again about anyone ever. Considering the faults of jealousy, in other words, rather than the faults of the external situation.

Then we will be motivated to purify and overcome our delusions and feel happy all the time, so even if our lover runs off with our best friend, both jeering at us as they do so (or whatever our worst nightmare might be), we won’t care a whit, they could get married and have ten children for all we care, and we will genuinely wish them well on their way. Free at last.

It’s probably a good idea to practice this now, in this precious human life, before we find ourselves in the extreme, overwhelming circumstances of a North Korean labor camp.

Ocean of samsara

If we don’t, if we instead keep blaming our problems on something or someone else, we will just stay trapped. I hope Gen Rabten doesn’t mind me quoting verbatim a bit of his awesome introduction to the Kadampa Summer Festival a couple of weeks ago:

Every moment in our life there’s something wrong and it’s common that we feel “I’ve just got to get through this – this week, this illness, this divorce, this deadline.” And the subtext of that is “I’ve just got to get through this and then it’ll be alright.” Which is why all our energy goes just into getting through that. But Buddha tells us samsara is like an ocean and suffering is like waves. So there’s a wave crashing down right now. We think we can hold our breath and come out the other side, “Great, I got through that!” And we open our eyes and what do we see? Another wave. And the waves of samsara never stop. And Buddha is on the shore with a loud hailer yelling, “Get out of the ocean!” Mostly we can’t hear him because the waves are crashing down so loud. Sometimes we do hear him, and we think, “Nah, I like it here. This is alright.”

It’s helpful to check, “What is happening in my mind?” and “What is going to happen?” Is that thought getting us out of the ocean, or keeping us in? We can look and know, “Am I getting out of the ocean or am I being sucked in? Because if I stay in the ocean, the waves don’t stop.”

Over to you. Comments welcome.

PS, thank you for letting me share some photos from the Summer Exhibition at the RA 🙂