What is purification practice?

karma 4
Vajrasattva.png

See p. 87-88 of Oral Instructions for a Vajrasattva purification practice — short & sweet, but powerful.

For the inner demons who do not come out into the open, or at least only in such shadowy ways that we cannot properly identify them, purification is immensely helpful. It is also very helpful when we are overwhelmed by appearances and need extra help in overcoming them.

Lay down that burden

A lot of people are laboring under a heavy burden of unresolved sadness, which may be why they don’t like being left alone with their own thoughts for even 12 minutes.

Stubborn recurrent sadness is still no match for purification practice – and we can feel that we are purifying not just that karmic appearance or karmic tendency but ALL similar versions since beginningless time. For example, if you have been suffering from attachment, you can use that as an example, and purify all your attachment since karma 4beginningless time. If you have been getting irritated with the sweet people around you despite your best intentions, you can purify your needless irritation since beginningless time. If you are feeling depressed because “things just aren’t what they used to be!”, you can even purify all that despondency since beginningless time.

Magnet for misfortune

Bad karma is a magnet for misfortune. And it ripens in different ways, for example irritation or anger we have had in the past can ripen as an experience (eg, someone does something we find really annoying) or in the tendencies we have to react in a certain way (eg, we get really annoyed.) Karma also ripens in the way our environment in general appears to us (eg, not quite right, uncomfortable), and even in the type of rebirth we have taken. You can read all about these four fascinating effects of karma in that chapter in Joyful Path of Good Fortune. They explain a lot.

karma 3So if we don’t like something that is happening to us or how we feel about it or indeed how we are reacting, this is a perfect reminder to us to purify this karma. Taking responsibility for our karma can turn our lives around, as Gen-la Khyenrab said the other day.

The power of promise

The power of promise is one of the four opponent powers of good purification practice, and it purifies our heavy tendencies to negativity that we lug around with us from familiarity with these in the past. So after a good purification practice, we promise not to do that thing, whatever it is, again. But, as a friend of mine was saying yesterday, sometimes it’s hard to know what exactly to promise. For example, declaring “I will never get angry again!” and a host of other big promises is unrealistic – we are likely to forget them sooner or later and blow it. So we then get discouraged that we are not keeping our promises, wondering if we’ll ever remember them for longer than ten minutes, and whether there is even any point in making any more promises when we are so useless at keeping them.

What I like to do to make effective promises, I told her, is tie in my purification practice to whatever is coming up in my life – as part of my mind-training, transforming difficulties. For example, in her case, she has been feeling despondent because something she really wanted to happen didn’t happen, and she also blames herself because that is her tendency. Soooo, what I would do in that situation, having recognized karmathat tendency in me, is purify that situation, and while I am at it to purify all my tendencies to feeling despondent and lacking self-worth since beginningless time. Then, once my mind felt all cleaned up from this tendency due to a good purification practice, I’d promise to not feel despondent again in similar circumstances. I am likely to remember that promise as it ties into what I am up against and I therefore have a vested interest in remembering it, in incorporating it into my mind-training. And it is powerful because I want it; it is not a vague open-ended promise, but one stemming from my everyday wishes to stay happy despite this thing or that thing not working out.

Phew! I can get rid of all of it!

35-Confession-BuddhasEven when we are a bit vaguer about all the negative actions we need to purify and the kinds of effects these are specifically wreaking on our day-to-day lives, it still works very well to do a general spring-clean of our mind. I really enjoy doing prostrations to the 35 Confession Buddhas first thing in the morning (and before you get impressed, it takes less than 10 minutes), purifying basically everything I could possibly ever have done. There are some great words in that Mahayana Sutra (written by Buddha Shakyamuni himself), such as “I confess without concealing or hiding anything.” The Buddhas know exactly what we need to purify even if we don’t; that’s an advantage of omniscience. So we praise them: “Who have become witnesses, who have become valid, who see with their wisdom.”

Dry rot creeps up on us without us noticing, until the fabric of our house is destroyed. We’ve forgotten the vast majority of our negative minds and actions, which is why we contemplate these when we purify – not to feel bad but because we want all the mold, visible or not, to be gone as it is affecting our minds and our lives. We purify our greatest delusion first, whatever keeps coming up; but at the same time we want to purify the whole lot, and we can. Our negativity is mere imputation and literally no match for omniscient wisdom.

Turn on the lights for goodness sake!

You know how horror movies always take place at night in the pitch black and you just wish someone would turn on all the lights? And you know the darkness of our ignorance? The Confession Buddhas and Buddha Vajrasattva throw open the shutters to broad cosmic daylight and the sunshine streams in everywhere.karma 1

The ultimate purification is mixing with the mind of bliss and emptiness so that we destroy our ordinary appearances and conceptions – that is what will tear the whole samsaric moldy structure down so we can build ourselves and others a celestial mansion of delight. So we request Vajrasattva:

Please permanently purify my non-virtues, downfalls, and ordinary appearances and conceptions.

And then let him enter through our crown, dissolving into our “inner darkness”, vanquishing it instantly and permanently.

Whether we are doing Vajrasattva purification or the 35 Confession Buddhas practice, we feel their purity flooding into us, we don’t hold back. Our negativity doesn’t exist from its own side – like everything else, it is mere aspect of mind. Purify the mind by mixing it with the extraordinary bliss and wisdom of enlightened beings and where’s that negativity going to go? Nowhere, is where — it disappears, because it is only appearance to mind.

karma 2Build some purification practice into our daily lives, therefore, and we can relax — as Gen-la Khyenrab also said the other day. And it doesn’t have to take long, especially if you are convinced it is working. How long does it take to switch the lights on?

I believe there is nothing that a well-aimed Vajrasattva mantra cannot purify.

We don’t talk about the subconscious in Buddhism but we do talk about subtle and very subtle levels of mind and, even if we can’t yet reach these directly ourselves, the Buddhas certainly can as, in fact, this is their abode, their being. It’s where they hang out. Kind of fun to hang out with them, don’t you think?!

Good purification is like having a massive spring clean of the mind, it feels amazing, uplifting. We feel that we can do anything now, for the slate is clear, today is a brand new day.

Over to you! Comments and queries on purification practice are welcome.

Doped up on the 8 worldly concerns?!

integrity

This continues from this article, In praise of integrity. And talking of pedestals, a good friend of mine went to the same high school as John Cleese, and told me this tale about him. In front of the school is a tall pillar, on which Field Marshall Haig had stood for almost a hundred years, until parents and guests turned up to graduation one year to find footsteps leading from the pillar to the building and back again… Even famous commanders can’t live on a pedestal, but have to get down to use the restroom sooner or later.

The 8 worldly concerns (attached to receiving praise, pleasure, a good reputation, and gain, and aversion to their opposite) are insidious and very damaging. Practicing Buddhism, or Dharma, under their influence, with an impure motivation, is said to be like eating healthy food mixed with poison – we might derive some short-term benefit but in the long-term we’re going to be in pain. In his book Joyful Path, Geshe Kelsang says:

If we have been practicing Dharma for some time but cannot feel any of its benefits, the reason is that we are not yet practicing pure Dharma.impure motivation is like food laced with poison

What’s more, as the scriptures say, the higher we are in the tree of ambition, the thinner the branches, and the further we have to fall.

You do know this is not it?

“That was good, but you do know this is not it?” The words spoken by his friend to a prominent teacher in my Buddhist tradition, the New Kadampa Tradition, after he had just finished teaching at a large Festival. The teacher was telling me this, saying how glad he had friends around him to keep him real so that he did not become “doped up” on praise, love, or prostration mudras. Teaching success is no substitute for spiritual success.

We were also chatting about what happens when we become so unused to criticism by dint of a high position that, if we’re not careful, it becomes harder and harder to handle criticism when it does come our way  – clearly the opposite of what is supposed to happen for a Kadampa!

Praise etc doesn’t help us while we have it, and once we’re off our pedestal it quickly dries up as well. If we have come to depend on it we’re in trouble, and if it has become part of our self-image we’ll have to pretty much reinvent ourselves.

humility in BuddhismI believe that the 8 worldly concerns stop spiritual progress. It is easier to make progress when you feel normal, like everyone else, rather than special.  Lucky, yes, perhaps, but special, no. Pride drives a wedge between us and those we are trying to help, which is one reason there’s so much emphasis on humility for Bodhisattvas.

I like this Alanis Morrissette lyric as it speaks to me of genuinely spiritual people, such as a Bodhisattva, who are the only ones who really deserve to be on a pedestal, though you’ll never catch them up there:

And I am fascinated by the spiritual man;
I am humbled by his humble nature.

The main job

Always being in performance mode can be bad for one’s own practice. The Buddhas can take us wherever we want to go, but we don’t need to keep looking over our shoulder to see if others are watching us. I once visited Geshe Kelsang seeking advice on something, and just by way of preamble I stated what I thought was the obvious: “I know that my main job is to teach Dharma, but …”

I could not get another word out of my mouth as he interrupted me, quite forcibly:

overcoming the 8 worldly concerns

Your main job is practicing Dharma. Everything else will follow naturally from that.

That has been true for me on many levels, and it makes more sense to me with each passing year.  My main job is being a practitioner first and whatever else second.

If we feel that our job is inherently worthy, and feel carried along by it, this can make us lazy in training our minds and undermine our inner development by allowing worldly concerns to creep in. And the worst part? We might not even realize this is happening, while the precious years for practice pass us by.

There are numerous stories in the Buddhist scriptures of people being expelled or otherwise leaving their high or cushy positions in the monastery or society to go off on their ownsome to gain realizations, and to me these are an inspiring example of the need to let go of the eight worldly concerns even whilst we stay amongst others.

Flavor of the month

don't need to be flavor of the month It really doesn’t matter whether or not we are flavor of the month. It does matter whether or not we stick to our principles of compassion and wisdom. And if these are our principles, rather than the 8 worldly concerns, this allows a lot of room for flexibility in accordance with the changing needs of others. For example, Geshe Kelsang has shown extraordinary month-by-month flexibility in adapting Buddhism from the reclusive monastic situation in Tibet to the connected, transparent modern world without sacrificing his principles and seemingly caring not a jot for the 8 worldly concerns.

Humility helps us remain flexible even as we stick to what we know is right, not just fashionable. Also, true change comes from inside, not from changing others; so we can be tolerant of others’ shortcomings whilst overcoming our own. As Atisha says, in what I regard as one of the most helpful all-time Buddhist quotes:

Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.

Don’t you think this means not just in general, but also on a rigorous daily basis, knowing what our mind is doing and taming our own delusions before we go trying to tame others?

Shrinking or expanding world?

The 8 worldly concerns shrink our world and I think can make us institutionalized if we take our small world a little too seriously — whether this is the world of our family and friends, our business or workplace, or even our place of worship. To expand our world again we can remember that we’ll be leaving this life soon; we have at most a few hundred months left before we find ourselves in our next life. Remembering death and impermanence is the antidote to the 8 worldly concerns.

Can you remember back to this time last year, what were your overriding concerns/anxieties/things you really wanted? Are they the same today? Fast forward to this time next year, will the concerns/anxieties/things you really want today still be the same then? If the answer is no, as it pretty generally is, I find this helps me let go of worrying about whatever I happen to be currently worrying about, for it seems a waste of mental energy! We can relax instead into what endures year after year, our spiritual journey.

Kadampa Buddha 2We can also broaden our horizons by developing bodhichitta, changing what we really want out of life by contemplating every day how wonderful it would actually be to have freedom from all mistaken, suffering appearances and the ability to help each and every living being. (With bodhichitta motivation, putting a crumb on a bird table is far more valuable and satisfying than giving a diamond out of attachment to the 8 worldly concerns. That example from Joyful Path shows how, if we change what we want, life can actually become simpler and deeper at the same time!)

Everything is deceptive, except for… 

Wisdom: Everything is moreorless deceptive while we have ignorance – things are never exactly as they appear, and when we have strong delusions or agitated minds, such as the 8 worldly concerns, we can be sure that what we are seeing has very little resemblance to what’s really going on. Therefore, we need to rely on the wisdom of emptiness to do away with the false appearance of inherent existence, understanding that the things we normally see do not exist.

Compassion: The other day, I mentioned to J on the stairs in passing: “Everything is deceptive except wisdom.” He looked at me with his big eyes and asked, “And love?” And he is right. Love itself doesn’t grasp at an inherently existent person, its object is simply wishing others happiness, which is the great protector against suffering for ourselves and the people around us. Compassion is our love focused on others’ suffering, wishing them to be freed from it. Our so-called “method” minds of renunciation, love, compassion, patience, and so on are entirely more trustworthy than our attachment and aversion, and they keep us sane and happy, hence the Kadampa motto:

integrityAlways rely upon a happy mind alone.

I count myself lucky to know people with lots of integrity, who’re trying their best to change for the better, every day. They are flexible, but not blown about by the changing winds of how things are done or not done this week, month, or year, at the expense of common sense or indeed basic human kindness; they are not sticklers for rules for rules’ own sake. They are more inspired by the enduring rules of wisdom and compassion.

We can always find our way if we stick to wisdom and compassion.

Happy Thanksgiving, One and All!

Forget Christmas, let every day be Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is here again in the States and, although I was not brought up with it and often barely eat more than a tofurkey sandwich unless people invite me over (hint?!), it has become my favorite holiday. People everywhere stop to count their blessings, and this makes them feel grateful and appreciative, so it is a good day. (Not for turkeys, however, not a good day for them at all. I don’t like the role that turkeys are forced to play. So p’raps don’t invite me over for the meal part after all… or the football… but the rest of it, yeah!)

Back in the day, from what I’m told, the first settlers gave thanks for good harvests. Nowadays most of us are a good deal more removed from the source of our food, which means that what it takes to get food onto our plates every day is hidden from us unless we really stop to think about it. But although I may not be thinking about the background of my frozen peas as I plop them in the pan and then gobble them down with my tofurkey, I am just as dependent on those who planted, grew, harvested, packaged and delivered my food as the early settlers were. In fact, the chances are that these days a good deal more people are involved in the process of getting food into my stomach to sustain my life for another 24 hours. On Thanksgiving we have a better chance of remembering this, and the thought pleases us for we feel supported.

I’d like to have Thanksgiving every day (no turkey, no football, no lines at the airport, but the good bits!). And I can, there is nothing stopping me. For one thing, I can remember how lucky I am to have this precious human life. For another, I can remember how this precious human life and every single one of my needs and enjoyments come from the kindness of others.

Lucky me

prize: precious human life

In the meditation on our precious human life we count our blessings because this life is right now giving us an unprecedented opportunity to make serious spiritual progress even on a daily basis, yet it is so almost unbelievably rare — a fact that becomes obvious if we compare our situation to that of most other living beings. Even the simplest things in life are precious, such as being able to walk or talk or write or taste, something we often don’t realize until we no longer have them due to sickness, disability or death. Traditionally in Buddhism we count 18 blessings, called the eight freedoms and the ten endowments – chances are you have every one of these (if you want to know for sure, you can check out Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

Don’t let this be true for you: “You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone.”

Thanks to others!

Then in the kindness of others meditation we contemplate in as much personal detail as we can where exactly each of these blessings comes from?! Quick answer: Others.

Geshe Kelsang says:

Our body is the result not only of our parents but of countless beings who have provided it with food, shelter and so forth. It is because we have this present body with human faculties that we are able to enjoy all the pleasures and opportunities of human life… Our skills and abilities all come from the kindness of others—we had to be taught how to eat, how to walk, how to talk, and how to read and write… Our spiritual development and the pure happiness of full enlightenment also depend on the kindness of living beings. ~ Transform Your Life

Great full

Remembering all this makes us feel grateful. We feel “full” for all that is “great”! We need gratitude to feel good about our lives and also as a foundation for love and compassion for others. Whenever we recall any kindness someone has shown us, studies and our own experience show that we feel instantly better, and closer to them. (A 15th century etymology for gratitude is “pleasing to the mind”). Gratitude predisposes us to many positive states of mind. So when we take a little time to itemize all the kindness we have received since the day we were born, we can overflow with happiness! As we fill up with happiness, it seems to push all our negative, selfish minds out, for there isn’t room for both – like scum being pushed out the top of a bottle when we fill it up with clean liquid.

On the other hand, when we feel depleted, exhausted or ungrateful it is easy for the negative moods to settle in. We feel we are lacking something, hollow, and project that on the world around us, which feels bereft of happiness and support. We can develop attachment for external objects to fill us up, and if we see others’ experiencing good things we can easily feel envy for the things we feel we don’t have.

“Hang on a minute”, I hear some of you say. “I don’t have that much to be thankful for – my life is in fact a huge mess and it is all their fault.” If we find ourselves pursuing this depressing line of thought, we can go back to the precious human life meditation. To be able to even think about these things means we must have a precious human life – so with that established we can stop dwelling on what is wrong with our lives and instead remember everything we have going for us. Then we can ask ourselves where each of our freedoms and opportunities actually comes from. (Answer above!)

We choose what we think about, so we might as well choose to smell the roses rather than stick our nose in the stinky garbage can.

Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Mister Turkey

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Please give this article to anyone who might like it.

(Postscript: despite the title of this article, Christmas can be cool too… more later.)

(I wrote this article last year but it still seems relevant this year!)

Please like Kadampa Life on Facebook if you do.

Who will buy this wonderful morning?

don't wish our life away

Are we only as lucky as we feel?

I think one thing is for sure, we won’t make the most of any good luck we have if we don’t realize we have it, and especially if we are focused instead on what we don’t have.

Feeling lucky is one of the best feelings in the world, as well as one of the most useful.

are you feeling luckyBuddhism is eminently optimistic because it recognizes that at heart everyone is pure and everyone is good. In fact, there’s no difference between any of us in that we all have equally flawless potential, our Buddha nature. Whether we fulfill that potential or not depends on whether or not we use our human life to help both ourselves and others.

In The New Meditation Handbook, my teacher says we need to encourage ourselves to put the Buddhist teachings into practice for the compelling reason that we can then:

“permanently cure the inner sickness of our delusions and all suffering, and achieve everlasting happiness.”

What friend is encouraging us to do that? They are probably few and far between, and in any case who has time to be giving us thought aid all day long? So Buddha likened the first meditation of the so-called stages of the path to enlightenment (Lamrim in Tibetan), the one on our precious human life, to our “best friend” because it gives us all the good advice and encouragement we need, whenever we need it.

foster kitten BuddhismI have just been landed with three more foster kittens. They are scrawny, sickly, hissy, and currently clueless as to what is going on.* I will try and give them the best possible start to life, and they each have just the same potential as me. However, it is not going to be possible for them to travel the spiritual path while still in their animal body. I find that the animals in my life help me as much if not more than I help them. Taking care of them reminds me daily of how lucky I am by comparison, and so how important it is to make spiritual progress myself so that one day I can help them do the same. It is not fair otherwise.

Even if I compare myself to other humans, it is clear that I have ridiculous resources compared to most people in the world. I have had a roof over my head every day and night, I can read, I can write, I’m drinking coffee, I’m eating a delicious sandwich, I have options. Other people look at us, or watch us on TV, and think that we’re like gods, the luckiest people on the planet, at least materially.

This relative well-being comes about not because we are better or more special than others, but because we are really very, very lucky. That luck comes from many causes and conditions, the substantial cause being good karma, because we have created the causes for well-being in the past. We were able to create these causes entirely thanks to others, who gave us the opportunities to be kind, generous, patient, and so on. The main contributory cause of our good fortune is also other people’s goodness to us – bringing us up, giving us jobs, building our roads and other infrastructure, supporting us on every level since we got here. This much is clear from the meditation on the kindness of others. (Look at this blog article for more on this point).  I'm feeling lucky Buddhism

Buddha said there was nothing we couldn’t accomplish with a precious human life, spiritually speaking. In this first meditation of the Lamrim, he spelled out our options like a tour guide: “Now that you’re here, you can collect all the inner treasure you need to help you in all your future lives, you can attain complete mental freedom and overcome suffering, and/or you can attain the state of omniscient bliss and wisdom and help everyone …”

Harrods is a large department store in London, so luxurious that people from all over the world travel there to shop. It has the best and most desirable of everything. Imagine for a moment that we won a prize of ten minutes in Harrods when everything we can put into a shopping cart is ours. We might well rub our hands in glee, “This is my chance!” But imagine that instead of rushing straight to the jewelry section, we bump into someone rather attractive in the lobby and we linger a while, “Interesting person, maybe we’ll get together later.” Then we think, “Hmm, I’m feeling a little peckish,” and we head over to the cafe for a nice free croissant and latte. There we find a queue full of annoying people who are in our way, and we get distracted by that thought for a while.

Suddenly we realize we have just a minute left and we’re three floors away from anything we actually want or need. If we made a plan, we have not stuck to it. Too late. That’s how we are, we get distracted. We need that motivating knowledge of our opportunity front and foremost in our mind if we are to not to waste whatever time we have left.

The hugely influential Indian meditator Nagarjuna, when he woke up each morning, said:

“How fortunate that my breath has sustained me through the night!”

We could be like this, jumping out of bed happy each morning. As a kid, I was touched by the movie Oliver  Twist, about the orphan who was suddenly plucked from poverty due to his birthright and given all the opportunity he could desire. That scene on the balcony when he sings:

Who will buy this wonderful morning? 
Such a sky you never did see!
Who will tie it up with a ribbon
And put it in a box for me?   

Who will buy this wonderful feeling?
I'm so high I swear I could fly.
Me, oh my!  I don't want to lose it
So what am I to do
To keep the sky so blue?

We could feel this ecstatic every day if we wanted to.

don't wish our life away

Are we wishing our life away…?!

We can’t afford to take this opportunity for granted, given how fragile and short-lived it actually is. Life is not a dress rehearsal, as they say. We only have this shot at getting it right. It is very hard for animals and even most humans to avoid suffering and control their minds. We always have the potential, the Buddha nature — it is our birthright. Right now we also have the conditions — we have the freedom to become free! Joyful Path of Good Fortune has a checklist of good fortune — the freedoms and endowments. If we discover we have these, I think we discover we have everything.

Over to you: What is more valuable to you, one minute of life or one thousand dollars?

(*Day 4: The foster kittens are coming along in leaps and bounds. I like to think of their new purring as tuning into the Dharmakaya, receiving blessings. May it one day be as easy for us to give ALL living beings food, medicine, shelter, safety, entertainment, and love.) tuning into Buddha's enlightened mind, blessings

Try a short meditation

man meditating on pier

Remember that new year’s resolution!? Here are two meditations you can practice at home. All you need is a comfortable chair or cushion and five to ten minutes’ free time.

Enjoy!

Meditation 1 – Finding a still point

Finding a still point in meditation – where busy mental activity subsides for a few moments – helps you to relieve stress and keep a clear head throughout the day.

  1. Sit comfortably with your back straight but relaxed.
  2. Close your eyes and become aware of your breath.
  3. Breathing normally, try to follow the inhalation and exhalation with your mind. Follow your breath, not your thoughts.
  4. Every time your mind is distracted by a thought, bring it back to the breath.
  5. Gradually you will feel the stress in your body and mind melt away and experience a deep, inner stillness and peace.
  6. Stay with this stillness for a while, giving yourself permission to enjoy it.
  7. Before you rise, mentally dedicate the merit from your meditation to the happiness of all.
  8. Throughout the day, try to remember the still point you reached in meditation and return to it as often as you can.

You can find our more about this meditation here.

Meditation 2 – Clearing the inner energies

Most of our problems come from our negative states of mind, which depend upon negative energy inside us. This meditation helps to eliminate negative energy and build up positive energy.

  1. Sit comfortably with your back straight but relaxed.
  2. Close your eyes and become aware of your breath.
  3. Breathing normally, try to follow the inhalation and exhalation.
  4. Follow your breath, not your thoughts. Every time your mind is distracted by a thought, bring it back to the breath.
  5. As you breathe out, imagine you exhale all your negative energy in the form of thick smoke, which completely disappears into space.
  6. As you breathe in, imagine you inhale blissful, positive energy in the form of clear light, which fills your entire body and mind.
  7. Continue in this way for a few minutes, then conclude by focusing on the clean, blissful feeling pervading your body and mind.
  8. Before you rise, mentally dedicate the good karma from your meditation to the happiness of all.
  9. Throughout the day, try to keep this clean, blissful feeling inside and make it the starting point for all your thoughts, words, and actions.

You can find out more about this meditation in Joyful Path of Good Fortune, pages 51-2.

If any of your family or friends have expressed interest in learning to meditate, please feel free to pass on this article, and/or this related article.

“Let Every Day be Thanksgiving!”

thanksgiving 11
Forget Christmas, let every day be Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is here again in the States and, although I was not brought up with it and often barely eat more than a tofurkey sandwich unless people invite me over (hint?!), it has become my favorite holiday. People everywhere stop to count their blessings, and this makes them feel grateful and appreciative, so it is a good day. (Not for turkeys, however, not a good day for them at all. I don’t like the role that turkeys are forced to play. So p’raps don’t invite me over for the meal part after all… or the football… but the rest of it, yeah!)

Back in the day, from what I’m told, the first settlers gave thanks for good harvests. Nowadays most of us are a good deal more removed from the source of our food, which means that what it takes to get food onto our plates every day is hidden from us unless we really stop to think about it. But although I may not be thinking about the background of my frozen peas as I plop them in the pan and then gobble them down with my tofurkey, I am just as dependent on those who planted, grew, harvested, packaged and delivered my food as the early settlers were. In fact, the chances are that these days a good deal more people are involved in the process of getting food into my stomach to sustain my life for another 24 hours. On Thanksgiving we have a better chance of remembering this, and the thought pleases us for we feel supported.

I’d like to have Thanksgiving every day (no turkey, no football, no lines at the airport, but the good bits!). And I can, there is nothing stopping me. For one thing, I can remember how lucky I am to have this precious human life. For another, I can remember how this precious human life and every single one of my needs and enjoyments come from the kindness of others.

Lucky me

prize: precious human life

In the meditation on our precious human life we count our blessings because this life is right now giving us an unprecedented opportunity to make serious spiritual progress even on a daily basis, yet it is so almost unbelievably rare — a fact that becomes obvious if we compare our situation to that of most other living beings. Even the simplest things in life are precious, such as being able to walk or talk or write or taste, something we often don’t realize until we no longer have them due to sickness, disability or death. Traditionally in Buddhism we count 18 blessings, called the eight freedoms and the ten endowments – chances are you have every one of these (if you want to know for sure, you can check out Joyful Path of Good Fortune.

Don’t let this be true for you: “You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone.”

Thanks to others!

Then in the kindness of others meditation we contemplate in as much personal detail as we can where exactly each of these blessings comes from?! Quick answer: Others.

Geshe Kelsang says:

Our body is the result not only of our parents but of countless beings who have provided it with food, shelter and so forth. It is because we have this present body with human faculties that we are able to enjoy all the pleasures and opportunities of human life… Our skills and abilities all come from the kindness of others—we had to be taught how to eat, how to walk, how to talk, and how to read and write… Our spiritual development and the pure happiness of full enlightenment also depend on the kindness of living beings. ~ Transform Your Life

Great full

Remembering all this makes us feel grateful. We feel “full” for all that is “great”! We need gratitude to feel good about our lives and also as a foundation for love and compassion for others. Whenever we recall any kindness someone has shown us, studies and our own experience show that we feel instantly better, and closer to them. (A 15th century etymology for gratitude is “pleasing to the mind”). Gratitude predisposes us to many positive states of mind. So when we take a little time to itemize all the kindness we have received since the day we were born, we can overflow with happiness! As we fill up with happiness, it seems to push all our negative, selfish minds out, for there isn’t room for both – like scum being pushed out the top of a bottle when we fill it up with clean liquid.

On the other hand, when we feel depleted, exhausted or ungrateful it is easy for the negative moods to settle in. We feel we are lacking something, hollow, and project that on the world around us, which feels bereft of happiness and support. We can develop attachment for external objects to fill us up, and if we see others’ experiencing good things we can easily feel envy for the things we feel we don’t have.

“Hang on a minute”, I hear some of you say. “I don’t have that much to be thankful for – my life is in fact a huge mess and it is all their fault.” If we find ourselves pursuing this depressing line of thought, we can go back to the precious human life meditation. To be able to even think about these things means we must have a precious human life – so with that established we can stop dwelling on what is wrong with our lives and instead remember everything we have going for us. Then we can ask ourselves where each of our freedoms and opportunities actually comes from. (Answer above!)

We choose what we think about, so we might as well choose to smell the roses rather than stick our nose in the stinky garbage can.

Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Mister Turkey

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Please give this article to anyone who might like it.

(Postscript: despite the title of this article, Christmas can be cool too… more later.)

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Dealing with anger … more from our social worker

Mental Health (2)

This is the fourth article from a guest writer, Kadampa Buddhist and student social worker. For the others, see Guest Articles.

Who is mentally healthy?

My second placement in my social work training was for a mental health charity. I found myself being attracted to the ethos of this organisation. They believe that we all experience mental health, and at times mental ill health or mental health distress.  Mental health distress only becomes a ‘mental health problem’ or mental ill health when our daily life is interfered with to such an extent that we are prevented from holding down a job or being able to live in stable accommodation.

Buddha would certainly agree with this ethos! In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says we are all sick as we suffer from desirous attachment, hatred, ignorance, and other diseases of the mind (Gyatso, 2006). I think that it is good to remember every day that these so-called delusions are our only enemy and that we all get them and the daily habits that come with them. Geshe Kelsang reminds us to have this awareness before we meditate or go into a Dharma teaching, to seek medicine for our mind through Dharma.

These teachings can also help us develop compassion for people we come into contact with in our daily lives and especially have compassion for those with strong delusions. Working in a mental health care setting I believe I came across people with strong delusions and some who had had quite horrendous and negative lives but their delusions, behaviour and wishes were perhaps most of the time no different to mine.

Anger management classes

On this placement I found myself helping run anger management classes, encouraging young men that anger and violence were not the best ways of coping when having relationship problems. The classes were based upon CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and I found the content and format quite similar to the practicalities of some of the teachings in the General Programme Classes run by Kadampa Buddhist Centres. I assisted the teacher in encouraging the service users to realise what triggers their anger, to recall/examine their thoughts and feelings the moment before they got angry and how to have nice thoughts about yourself.

During these classes I found my knowledge and experience of Shantideva’s teachings on anger in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life very helpful and beneficial. I recalled teachings on the faults of anger from How to Solve Our Human Problems, Gyatso 2005:

Anger robs us of our reason and good sense.

and why we get angry:

Anger is a response to feelings of unhappiness.

I would put this experience into practice by relaying these ideas in more everyday language to them without mentioning Buddhism or that I am a Buddhist e.g.

Have you ever wondered why you get angry? From my experience it is when I am disappointed and often my main triggers occur when I am tired.”

At times I could really relate to the guys on the course, the relationship problems they were having and the attachment that was causing their anger and jealousy. I didn’t see much difference between myself and them perhaps only in that I have in the past been aware enough not to do physical actions through anger whereas these men had acted out with their anger such as head-butting strangers, physically lashing out on their partners and attempting to commit suicide.

 It’s been challenging coming across people who commit really negative actions but the Buddhist meditation on universal compassion has helped here. – that you can take a step back from the person or situation and see and feel a bigger picture leading to compassion for those who are creating the cause to experience suffering in the future as well as those who are experiencing suffering now (Transform Your Life, Gyatso, 2006). Also to distinguish between delusions and persons:

The fault I see is not the fault of the person, but the fault of delusion.

(Eight Steps to Happiness, Gyatso, 2006).

Through reading about mental health care and various therapies I can see similarities between them and Buddhism and I could relate to the more psychodynamic therapies that recognise that feelings precede thoughts. Meditation, relaxation and complimentary therapies are becoming popular in mental health care settings. At the end of the anger management classes I co-facilitated we went through relaxation exercises similar to meditation. I would encourage service users to do these exercises and I would talk about the benefits of meditation to them such as a calm and peaceful mind, less fluctuations of mood, improved health and better relationships with others (The New Meditation Handbook, Gyatso, 2008). The meditation CD’s that Tharpa Publications produce are becoming popular throughout the world and could be utilised more in the mental health care world.

Has anyone else got experience of using these CD’s in workplaces or with the general public?

Rioting on the streets of England and in our own minds

map of UK on fire

What do you make of all these riots sweeping across England right now? People are getting hurt.

They are reminding me of two things:

(1)   The uncontrollable nature of anger

(2)   How influenced we are by others

In the newspaper I was reading online, a commentator tries to figure out what exact grievances are leading to the riots, e.g. poor housing, drugs, sink schools, gangs. But he concludes:

“While these phenomena may explain many forms of crime, my attendance at some of these occasions made me aware of the sheer momentum of a mob sensing a licence for an orgy of destructive mischief.”

A good friend of mine in Manchester just emailed me to say moreorless the same thing, which got me thinking. And what I am thinking is: “This sounds just like my mind of anger!” Anger starts with some pretext and then dwells on perceived grievances with inappropriate attention and the next thing you know the mind is on fire. It is far easier to put out a match than a forest fire. If no effort is made in anger’s early stages to control it, it rapidly spins us out of control. And it often thinks that it’s enjoying itself at the time, and that it’s valid, especially while we are still surrounded by other like-minded, over-excited “friends”. It’s only later, when the inappropriate attention has died down, that any remorse kicks in and we realize what destructive idiots we’ve been. There were other ways to do this, whatever it is.

Inappropriate attention is #6 of the six causes of delusion identified in Buddha’s teachings. Take anger for example. Cause #1 is the seed – we all have the seed of anger within us until we have abandoned our delusions by means of the wisdom realizing emptiness, and meantime we can prevent it ripening by stopping the other five causes. #2 is the object – we need some pretext for our anger, great or small. Nothing is inherently irritating but if we’re not careful anything can set us off, especially if we are prone to anger through familiarity with it – and #5 is familiarity. Bad habits, #4, don’t help, such as generally doing lots of stealing, drugs, arguing, watching violent movies and so on. Which leaves us with # 3, distraction and being influenced by others, which really does seem to be a major factor in what is going on in the streets of England as we speak.

In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, Geshe Kelsang says:

Our friendships have a powerful influence over us. Since we tend to imitate our friends, we need to associate with friends who admire spiritual training and who apply themselves to it with joy.

That is, of course, if we want to make spiritual progress as opposed to get off with as many stolen video games as we can cram into our stolen shopping carts, have a good laugh at others’ expense, and possibly end up behind bars. Compare the riots to people’s uplifting accounts of the friendships made at the recent NKT Summer Festival, for example!

Anyway, a sad but useful reminder that until we uproot the six causes of our delusions, no one is safe, not even on the usually calm suburban streets of Croydon or in our own minds.

Putting things in perspective

red bicycle

We make up our own storyline as we go along. So we might as well make it a good one.

I just heard that our two $700 bicycles that I ride all the time have been stolen. The upstairs tenants left them unlocked in the front yard. (I’m property manager but away at the moment).

I know straightaway that these things happen all the time – that things appear and disappear, even every moment. The bikes appeared out of nowhere in the first place, someone generously gave them to us when they left the area.

Inappropriate attention v appropriate attention

But my initial response is nonetheless one of disappointment followed fast on its heels by its best friend annoyance. And I can easily increase both these states of mind if I want to, for example by dwelling on detailed memories of the red and blue bikes with their cute convenient little key holders, the perfect distance between the seat and the handlebars, the 21 gears, the way I could sail up and over the bridge…. and how that is now all gone!! And the greater the disappointed lather I work myself up into, the greater the annoyance at Irena and the other Russian tenants who’ve ruined my fun: “I never said they could use those bikes! What were they thinking?! How careless!! How can we get $1400 out of them?” And kicking myself too for good measure: “You idiot, why did you trust them with the shed key in the first place?”

The definition of delusion is:

“A mental factor (state of mind) that arises from inappropriate attention and functions to make the mind unpeaceful and uncontrolled.”

(You can find out everything you need to know about delusions and how to get rid of them in Joyful Path of Good Fortune.)

With the delusion of anger (including aversion, annoyance, irritation, resentment etc), we pay inappropriate attention by mentally exaggerating the seeming bad qualities of a person or object until we consider it undesirable and become antagonistic and averse, wanting to push it away or even harm it/destroy it.

Korska, Russian for "cat"

There are so many ways in which inappropriate attention can run riot and take down our peace of mind! And within that inappropriate attention is a corresponding editing out of anything that inconveniently contradicts it e.g. the good qualities of Irena. Appropriate attention could be thoughts like: “This same Irena is looking after my feral cat Korska, who now apparently loves her and whom she even named, she empties all the smelly trash cans, she waters all my newly planted flowers, she spent ages trying her healing techniques on little Ralph… she’s actually a good person and probably feels bad about the bikes herself.” But annoyance doesn’t want to think about any of that stuff because it commits hari kiri if it does.

We choose what we focus on. And Irena only annoys me if I focus on her seeming bad qualities, not if I don’t.

Solving nothing

What vital things are going on in the world!?

We can find plenty of things to annoy us every day of our lives (and being currently in England, the land of the Daily Mail, reminds me how superbly daily tabloids can tap into our potential for whininess.) Alternatively we can choose to follow any number of positive lines of thought and deeper meanings, like those explained in Buddha’s teachings. For example, when something is stolen from us we can practice patience by remembering karma and impermanence, or what a downer attachment is and how great it is to live lightly, or compassion for those who have lost far more than a bicycle in the recent tornadoes in southern US, or the children in the horn of Africa who desperately need our attention, or how there is no point giving people a hard time when life is hard enough already, etc. I can even mentally give the bikes away so that the (quite possibly homeless) person who stole them doesn’t incur negative karma, advice I magnanimously gave to someone else just weeks ago 😉

After all, the bikes are gone whether I choose to get disappointed and annoyed or not, and so the disappointment and annoyance solve nothing.

Perspective

storm in a teacup

I have this theory that if you’re going to get your perspective back sooner or later anyway, you may as well skip out the annoying bit in the middle. We can hold onto certain things for years (our anger turning into the even worse delusion of resentment) due to stuck-record inappropriate attention, but don’t you find that we usually get bored of our negative thoughts sooner or later and end up dropping them? For example, what were you annoyed about this time last month, or last year? Can you even remember? And will the stealing of the bikes be any more than an anecdote in a matter of months, weeks, or even days?

There were two kids at Madhyamaka Centre long ago, brothers Edmund and Tamlin, who’d play with a third kid called Stephen, who was a bit of a handful. One day they fell out very badly with him and didn’t want to talk to him ever again.

Madhyamaka Centre, Geshe Kelsang's first centre

They tell me this, so I test out my theory on them: “Have you ever liked Stephen in the past, like yesterday for example did you play with him?” They consider this for a moment, then: “Yeah”. “Can you see a time when you might like to play with him again in the future, for example if he lets you use his space cowboy gun?” Pause while they think about this. “Errr, yeah, probably.” “How about then just saving time and energy by liking him now as you’re going to end up liking him again anyway?”

They both got it. They nodded their heads and laughed, and the three of them were playing again that very afternoon.

So, who is Irena? — the warm smiling woman who risks life and limb to stroke Korska or the woman chatting carelessly to her friends while she goes inside leaving our $700 bikes unattended? Do I waste mental energy and time itemizing her faults or do I recall how much easier she made my life by taking on my property manager responsibilities? Stand up the real Irena! But the fact is she cannot because nothing and no one exists independent of mind. Can you point to a world outside of your experience of the world? Where is it? And the world we experience is the world we are focusing on.

Thinking differently is not that hard once we decide to do it. You might be objecting: “But I can’t help feeling disappointed and annoyed when things don’t go my way!” But I reckon you can. If I can, you can. We all can. Start with small annoyances and work your way up. If you want to do it, there are a gazillion enjoyable ways to do it.

Postscript:

Well, dear reader, guess what? I have just heard that it was their own bikes that the Russians left in the front yard, not ours, thus rendering all those mental acrobatics unnecessary. But I’m putting up this article anyway because they still happened and so I can now use this article to also underscore another point: Many of our objects of disappointment, anger and annoyance, major or minor, do not have even the slightest basis of imputation to begin with e.g. imagined slights, fear of future unlikely events, etc, yet the deluded thought processes are the same.

Want quicker results from your meditation? Start where you are.

meditator

Earlier today I was drinking tea and half-watching my (borrowed) cats. One of them made her happy Meow sound at me, and I felt a sudden surge of love for her, thinking “May she find temporary and ultimate happiness.” I then felt like meditating, and my heart-mind was in just the right place for it to be a good one. Truth is, I always start my meditations by connecting to something immediately present and taking it from there, which could be why I never have any problem wanting to meditate.

Buddhist meditation is about training in happiness — authentic happiness that comes from a peaceful and positive mind as opposed to the excitement that arises from attachment and/or the ephemeral pleasant feelings from worldly pleasures that are actually changing suffering. (For more on changing suffering, see the beautiful big Lamrim book, Joyful Path of Good Fortune.)

The Tibetan word for meditation, “gom”, literally means “to familiarize” – so meditation is familiarizing our mind with positive, beneficial ways of looking at the world and other people. We can do formal meditation sessions on our meditation seats, and — luckily for us in our crazy time-consumed lives — we can also learn to stay positive all day long whatever we are doing. We don’t have to spend hours and hours in meditation sessions or be fantastically proficient at single-pointed concentration to familiarize our mind with positivity; we simply need to watch our mind throughout the day and check that we are always coming back to our heart as a starting point of positivity and peace.

To be able to come back to a place of positivity and peace, we need to know what that feels like! In other words, we need to get happy as our first priority. Being a miserable meditator is a contradiction in terms. If you feel that you are a miserable meditator, you might want to change your approach.

Every morning before the day’s activities have fully kicked in and we have even five or ten minutes of free space, we can meditate on happiness in a meditation session. We can do this in any number of spectacular ways by meditating on the stages of the path, training the mind, or Mahamudra… slowly but surely over the years we fill a huge reservoir with blissful liberating nectar-like meditations that will always be there for us to draw upon.

But however advanced we feel we are along the spiritual path, it is always very effective to start each meditation session simply by connecting to a happy mind that we are already familiar with. (You can do the following before or after a simple traditional breathing meditation if you wish.)

If you have faith in any holy beings, you can invite them into your heart and feel that your mind flows into their cosmically blissful and loving mind like a small stream flowing into a vast ocean, and feel as blissful as you can. And/or, for example, you can manifest your mind of love, which is guaranteed to come with happiness.

We already have the seed of universal love in us and we can water it with no further ado by bringing to mind someone whom we love already. This can be anyone – a niece, your mother, your best friend, your cat or dog. Think about how lovely they are, how they look at you, and how much you want them to be happy. Allow a feeling of warmth to arise in your heart and hold it there for as long as you can. Identify with that happy affectionate feeling, thinking,

“This is me; this is part of my sky-like Buddha nature. All my agitated, unpeaceful states of mind are not me — they are like clouds in the sky, not the sky itself.”

Then do your meditation, however long or short it is, from that starting point. What a big difference it makes! In other words, use what you have inside already, which is a lot. Don’t feel the results you seek are somewhere else and you need to strain in contemplation and meditation to bring them about. That dualistic way of meditating is no fun and sooner or later you’ll tire of it as it is like trying to sail to an ever-receding horizon.

Then throughout the busy day, check just one thing: “Am I happy?” We have a motto in the Kadampa tradition:

“Always rely upon a happy mind alone.”

If our mind is not happy, I think it is fair to say that we are not being mindful of any meditation object, even if we are superficially going through the motions of virtue. On the other hand, if our mind is relatively contented or happy (not excited, remember, but peaceful spacious happy), we can know for sure that we are practicing meditation and making progress.

Throughout the day we can adjust and fine-tune the mind so that we are relying upon — or only trusting — a happy mind alone. If we notice our mind becoming agitated, we know not to rely on the evidence that mind seems to present us with, because delusions distort reality like a storm destroying the accurate reflections in a still ocean. We can pause for a few valuable minutes to reconnect to whatever can instantly bring us joy, such as love for our dog with those big brown eyes. And then carry on.

Talking of dogs, my close friend and excellent Buddhist teacher uses the analogy of taking a dog for a walk. The main part of your attention is on walking along, enjoying the scenery and getting to where you have to go, but one part of your mind is always aware of what the dog is up to. It is possible that he will need to be called to heel before he wreaks destruction in someone’s flower bed or eats a pigeon. In the same way, in our daily life we need to focus on what needs to be done at work and so on, but with one part of our mind we are checking to see whether or not we are happy and, if we’re not, we can do something about that.

Comments most welcome! Please share this article if you like it.

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