Doing meditation retreat

divingJanuary is just around the corner – which means for a lot of lucky people that they get to do extra meditation because this is traditional retreat month in the Kadampa Buddhist tradition.

So, I thought I’d say something about retreat in the hope that some of you can do some. I know a lot of you, probably most, have to work and are not able to take a month or even a week off for retreat; so this article is also a bit of encouragement simply to get meditating in general ☺️

On retreat we stop all forms of business and extraneous activities so as to emphasize a particular spiritual practice. ~ New Guide to Dakini Land 

Starting several decades ago, when Geshe Kelsang first came to the West in 1977, up to six weeks each year have been put aside in the larger Kadampa centers for retreat. I personally benefited from this for many years, when I lived at Madhyamaka Centre and everything closed down for retreat. Sometimes we were even snowed in = bliss. We didn’t have Facebook back then to lure us away from thinking deep thoughts – heck, we didn’t even have the Internet. I count myself lucky that I didn’t need any will power whatsoever back then to turn all the gadgets off.the-internet

And I can honestly say that I have never gotten bored in retreat. Quite the opposite. It is those mindless habits of wanting or expecting endless distraction that really bore me. I tend also to have fewer delusions on retreat – and delusions are pretty tedious.

These January retreats engendered in me a love for using this bleak mid-winter time to go deep — to dive below the surface of the crazy ocean waves of samsaric suffering & overly complicated conceptual thoughts into clarity and bliss, into Lamrim and Tantra. They are the best possible way to start the new year, and my hands down favorite times.

We could all aim to do a few extra good deep meditations at home this month to get some control over these mad, mad times and set 2017 up in the way we’d like it to continue… how’s that for a new year’s resolution?

And if you haven’t learned to meditate at all yet, now could be a really great time to start 😊

2016

If ever there was a good time to get some perspective and space from all the craziness, the beginning of 2017 would seem to be it. Still four days of the strange 2016 to go, and the last two days alone have brought us the deaths of George Michael and Carrie Fisher (and just now her mother, Debbie Reynolds). Closer to home, this year, we lost Patti, Tessa, and Mimi.

This is all skirting dangerously close now to the one-by-one steady dropping off of everyone in my generation. Soon, not a person I grew up with will be left. And it is certain that I am no longer going to die young.

Plus, the number of celebrity and personally-known deaths of course barely scratches the surface of the millions of other deaths in the last few days, let alone in the last year. (An average of 55.3 million humans and untold billions of animals and others.) Any illusion we may be under that we are long-term residents of this world is just that, an illusion. We’re here on a month-by-month rental with nary a day’s notice.

Making the most of our precious time

george-michael-leaving-his-home-in-north-london-britain-17-oct-2012Our most valuable and rare possession is our precious human life, but we don’t have a whole lot of time left with it. All we have to look forward to, really, is spiritual realizations, insofar as everything else is dust in the wind. And to gain these realizations – actualizing our full potential and bringing about an end to suffering — we need time.

And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate
Hanging on to hope
When there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late
So maybe we should all be praying for time. ~ George Michael

To have time, we need to MAKE time.

This is what going deeper into our center, our spiritual heart, as explained here for example, can do for us – it can make us more time. It gives us a certain sense of timelessness in fact. Identifying with our pure inexhaustible potential instead of with our annoying off-kilter delusions makes us feel far more alive and present, and so time slows down. We might even feel for a change that we have all the time in the world.

I hear a lot of people, including me, complaining that life is too busy – and ordinarily it can feel that way; but I think that a lot of that feeling of busyness comes not from all that we have to get done but from not having sufficient mindfulness and concentration. These qualities, which improve on retreat, give us all the time, space, and freedom from surplus worrying thoughts we need to do what needs to be done.

We are none of us strangers to suffering, but Dharma gives us the ability to break free, and retreat gives us the opportunity to spend more time in Dharma. What’s not to love about spending several hours each day in freedom and happiness?! Even with poor concentration, we are generally more peaceful on retreat than in our ordinary fast-paced, externalized lives. We can become ridiculously happy.

dream-like-elephantIt’s very relaxing not to buy into the hallucinations of the gross mind for a while — to let these fevered imaginings die down, stop taking them quite so seriously. Meditation gives us the chance to see them for what they are and to let them go so we can enjoy the peace and bliss of our own mind in deep rest. I have yet to find anything more relaxing than giving up on trying to find this peace and bliss in objects of attachment or in getting one over my enemies.

Even one breathing meditation allows us to stop shaking our mind and discover that an unshaken mind is naturally peaceful. A whole week or month of doing this gives us invaluable insight and confidence.

I also think that when we meditate a lot our lives start to flow – we are not so much living second-hand through Facebook or the news or Netflix, trying to get our thrills vicariously, or even in the made up narratives of our own lives, the product solely of our conceptual thoughts. We start to abide in the reality of wisdom and compassion, our true nature, and freedomeverything flows naturally from there.

Silence is golden

Whether in retreat doing the traditional four meditation sessions a day, or in the space of our own house once a day or so during January, we can let go of the demands of our daily life and reconnect to the stillness within ourselves. We can be quiet, for a change, verbally and mentally. As it mentions here, and I’ll now loosely quote:

“Silence is powerful. It creates space in our mind and fundamentally changes the way we connect with the teachings and meditations. Observing silence is a powerful method to disengage us from busyness, and it leads us naturally to deeper levels of being. Our heart begins to open and we feel the blessings of all Buddhas pouring into and filling our mind.

Through deepening our experience of meditation we can take our spiritual practice up to the next level (and this will keep us going in the following months when we are back at work.) By integrating this meditative experience into our daily activities we will improve the quality of our life and bring happiness to our family and friends.”

I think diving deep below the froth of the ocean waves is also an incredibly important way to identify with our pure potential and disengage from endless feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy, and lack of control that come from identifying with a limited, painful self. We need self-confidence during these difficult times if we are to be of any help to anyone. We don’t need discouragement.

Who am I?

In each of the stages of the path (Lamrim) meditations, therefore, we can get into the habit of identifying with our Buddha nature and the result of that meditation, asking each time, “Who am I?” For example, instead of “I am angry”, “I am lonely”, “I am hurt”, “I am useless at this”, etc., we can think, “I am someone with a precious human life”, “I am someone who is on their way out from this prison of samsara”, “I am someone who has compassion for everyone”, etc.

In this way we can enter the Pure Land of Lamrim, enjoying ourselves each day with these beautiful minds, getting in the habit of identifying with them so much that we can then keep doing that the whole rest of the year.

Blessed monthheruka-vajrayogini

January is also Heruka and Vajrayogini month. Again, even if our concentration is not brilliant yet, there are a lot of blessings flying around this month, so we may as well tune in the radio receiver of faith as often as we can.

Check out this recent Onion article if you get a moment, ‘I Can’t Do This Anymore,’ Think 320 Million Americans Quietly Going About Day. Spoof though it is, it still shows how we can all fall prey to humdrum mediocrity, even when things are not going particularly wrong in our lives; and how mediocrity doesn’t make us happy. If you have a chance to do some Tantric retreat, this immersion can be a swift way to transform these ordinary conceptions and appearances into an experience of great bliss and emptiness, transforming your world into the real Pure Land of the Dakinis.

(All this makes me think it should be called “Advance”, really, not “Retreat”.)

One day at a time

I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier
I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist
Like it doesn’t exist ~ Sia

Some of my best advice on doing retreat is to take one day at a time – once you’re in retreat you put up so-called “retreat boundaries” of body, speech, and mind, which basically means you’re not thinking of anything outside of the retreat; so there is in fact no need to plan. (And there is never any need to wallow in nostalgia). This means you have a good shot at living in the moment, remembering that today is your first and possibly also your last day. This is really quite unbelievably relaxing.

Practical plan

kailashIf you have lots of time, you could think about booking into one of the big residential KMCs such as KMC Manjushri or KMC New York, or into an other-worldly retreat center such as Kailash in Switzerland.  These offer incredibly special retreat programs with experienced meditation leaders that “address the needs of anyone wishing to deepen their experience of Kadam Dharma in modern day times.”

If you have medium amounts of time — say a day here or there, or a few days, or a week — check out this link for retreats near you, including in Denver, where I live.

If you can’t take any whole days off, you could think about using January to get along to some inspiring meditation classes and establish a good meditation habit for 2017. Check out this link for meditation classes in your area.

Over to you. Do you have any encouragement to share from retreats you may have done in the past?

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Ain’t no thing

BuddhaIn the last few days I’ve had a few things go wrong with this body – none of them worth writing home about, but, added together, annoying enough. Bad allergies, stomach pains, an infected finger, a fever, and less of my taken-for-granted ability to dive into my heart and stay there.

High time to transform this physical suffering because that is what Kadampa Buddhists do – we love suffering! Don’t we?! Hmmm. Maybe. Or at least we try not to mind it too much, and use it to make spiritual progress. Eventually, yes, we love it, for I have met lots of practitioners who love quite major suffering already. I admire them and aspire to their attainments, for then suffering will hold no fear. The end goal is to put a stop to our own and others’ suffering forever, and we use the appearance of suffering to help us get there. So this is a short tale of what I tried today.

(Look, admittedly, this is not going to be an inspiring account of how I transformed cancer. A few minor ailments are nothing in the grand scheme of things, I know that, in fact it is sort of the point; but you have to start somewhere and the important thing is to deal with whatever is arising for you.)

The tale of a sore finger

So this story starts first thing this morning with my finger, or, more precisely, the top inch of my finger. Who knew that such a small area of the body could throb so much! It makes me realize that there is not an inch of my body that is not ready to hurt me, that inevitably will hurt me if I insist on identifying myself with meat and nerve endings.

finger
Yuk.

I made the mistake of looking up infected fingers on Google, to discover the horrible truth that, left untreated, I was about to lose my whole finger… and that the infection could spread to other fingers and (left unsaid but I could see where this was going) I would soon lose my entire hand!!! Aarggh! My finger is now the most important finger in the whole wide world! It has to be saved! Moral of the tale: stop surfing the internet while under the influence of self-cherishing, it doesn’t help. To be fair, Google was useful on the home remedies front, and I’ve been dutifully dipping said finger into a mixture of warm water and apple cider vinegar for 15 minutes several times a day, during which times it is interesting to see how little else gets done.

kitten
Jampa the Kitten

Between finger-soaking and nose-blowing and stomach clutching and general woe-is-me’ness, early this morning I decided to be nice and wash some of the soiled litter off the tiny soft paws of this harmless-looking round kitten. But appearances are deceptive, I discovered not for the first time, when he yowled and sunk his nasty scratchy sharp nails right into my poor swollen finger. I allowed myself a little optimism as the blood spurted, “Perhaps he has lanced this wound, saving me a visit to the doctor for surgery and amputation!”, but alternatively, I then thought, he might have added cat scratch fever to my list of ailments. I’m never going to foster horrible little kittens again …

Aarrghh! self-cherishing feeling sorry for itself and blaming others again … Clearly it was time for some contemplation on all of this, or my day was going to get away from me.

Lesson #1 ~ renunciation

Samsara throws up one problem after another, waves on an ocean. No sooner have we dealt with one thing — the thing we thought was all that was standing in the way of us and unbounded happiness – then something else comes up.

“There’s always something”, as my friend M said to me last week, “until there isn’t.”

And that “isn’t” time will only come when we recognize, reduce, and abandon permanently our self-grasping ignorance, destroying the ocean of samsaric suffering once and for all.

If we think about our suffering out of self-grasping and self-cherishing, we suffer. If we think about it to inspire us to overcome true sufferings and true origins, we have the liberating thought of renunciation, not suffering.lotus 1

This sore finger ain’t no thing — doesn’t matter — as they say, compared with the sufferings of my countless future lives.

We blame others, even kittens, whining away like “childish ones”, as Buddha described us; but all the blame can rightfully be laid on our own self-grasping. Not understanding that the things we normally see do not exist, grasping at a world outside of the mind, we develop self-cherishing, anger, and attachment, which in turn create the contaminated karma that cause our endless problems to appear. Other living beings and situations can only ever be conditions for our own karma to ripen.

Lesson # 2 ~ no self, no problem

To destroy the whole of our samsara with its literally endless problems, we only need to re-think the way we are viewing things. How hard is that, given that we currently have access to all the teachings on how to do it? As the great Yogi Saraha says, in one of my favorite quotes:

lotus 2If your mind is released permanently from self-grasping, there is no doubt that you will be released permanently from suffering.

Or, put this way:

No self, no problem.

The things we normally see do not exist, and that includes ourself, sore fingers, and everything else.

I cannot be found anywhere in my body or mind, and nor can I be found anywhere else. I hurt because I mush my sense of I up with my finger, but I am not my finger. You cannot find me in there, even though I say “Ow, I hurt”, or “This is hurting me,” or even “My finger hurts”. Where is the I that owns the finger? 
Geshe-la

Also, Geshe Kelsang says:

It is true that our body that we normally see does not exist, and there is no body other than this; but we mistakenly believe that our body that we normally see actually exists and, because of this, we experience sufferings of the body such as sickness as a hallucination, as a mistaken appearance, as like a dream. ~ How to Understand the Mind, p. 311

My finger cannot be found in its parts or anywhere else — try pointing to your finger without pointing at its parts.

So the suffering finger that I normally see is not really there — it is like an hallucination, like the suffering in a dream.

This sore finger ain’t no thing, for it cannot be found anywhere.

Lesson # 3 ~ compassion

I decided that my finger was like a portal into the lives of others — those, for example, who have lost limbs in fighting, or those not born with any limbs to begin with, or burn victims with large parts of their skin in agony. Let alone all those in the lower realms. I wouldn’t necessarily think about these people if I didn’t have to transform this paltry finger pain, and so my compassion would not develop.

Similar to renunciation, if we think about our own suffering out of self-cherishing we suffer, but if we use it to think about others’ suffering we develop the wish to free them, which is the peaceful mind of compassion, not suffering. 

Just as I was thinking this, the kittens climbed up onto my shoulders, where they are now as well, and started snuffling into my ears. (Sometime in their journey to safety from the kill shelter in Pampa, Texas they developed upper respiratory problems). It was not hard to see that my suffering is NOTHING compared with theirs, and all I want is for them to be out of those kitten bodies and into human bodies or better, ASAP. How is that going to happen if I don’t make it happen?

This sore finger ain’t no thing compared with the sufferings of countless other living beings.

Lesson # 4 ~ Tantra

There is no suffering in the Pure Land. If out of renunciation and compassion I dissolve everything into bliss and the wisdom realizing that all the things I normally see do not exist — including my entire meaty body, self, mind, and world — I can then appear myself Buddha's handsas Buddha Vajrayogini in the Pure Land, and the basis of suffering has gone for ever. Buddhas’ fingers give rise to nothing but endless bliss and benefit.

So my sore finger is reminding me to go straight away, now, to the Pure Land — why hang out any longer in a meaty body that can hurt all over, and sooner or later no doubt will, especially given my increasing age? Let alone all the bodies I’ll have to keep taking in all my future lives. Nasty stuff. It has to stop now, I have to stop ordinary conceptions and appearances.

I am switching to Keajra channel and staying there, resisting any temptation to flick back to samsara channel on the frankly remote chance that something better might be on. That hasn’t happened yet.

This sore finger ain’t no thing in the Pure Land.

Conclusion

Having had quite some success with this contemplation despite my fever, and feeling pretty darned good by now, I then applied these lines of thought to my running nose and my stomach ache, and threw in a few emotional issues too while I was at it. And, just as Buddha promised, I felt better and better the more grist I threw to the mill.

rainbow swingI even came to the conclusion that I’m loving me some suffering! (However, lets not push it … )

The ability to transform our everyday appearances of suffering into something immensely meaningful and joyful is HUGE, and a major hallmark of a genuine Kadampa. So I’d like to open this conversation up to you — inspire us, have you used Buddha’s teachings to transform your suffering?

Ps, My finger miraculously cured itself while I was writing this.

 

Thanking our lucky stars, thanking everyone

thank you 2I’ve been thinking about Thanksgiving, probably because it is Thanksgiving today – and I’m thinking that Buddhism teaches two very good reasons to give thanks, both of which have universal relevance.

The first is being thankful because we have such a precious human life right now. The second is being thankful to others, because without them this life would be impossible. Contemplating our good fortune makes us feel lucky to have it – and feeling lucky is feeling happy. Contemplating others’ kindness opens our heart to gratitude and appreciation, and feeling grateful is also feeling happy. Feeling happy in turn makes us value what we have and value others, and then we are far more likely to use what we have to pay others back.

So, if we really want to embrace the full meaning of “Thanksgiving” and feel doubly happy and energized to pay it forward, it seems like a win-win meditation to put these 2 meditations together … therefore I thought I would quickly offer a few ideas, providing I can get this written before I fall into a sugar coma (I ate already.)

richerAs for the first, we have everything we need to make spiritual progress in this life. And even leaving the opportunity for attaining permanent freedom and enlightenment out of it,  from a mundane point of view we are also far luckier than most of the other humans in this world, not to mention all other living beings, such as the cat on my lap. In an earlier article I listed the results of some research showing what happens if the whole world is to be shrunk to a village of 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same. That list of what could be but isn’t shows us where we fit in the grand scheme of things, and it occurred to me that every one of these good fortunes comes entirely from others. As a kind of contemplation, therefore, I’m going to list each one and then explain (1) how lucky that makes me, and (2) how this luck is all thanks to others.

  • 80 would live in substandard housing. Yesterday I was standing outside in Denver waiting for someone to givehomeless me a ride home as it felt bitterly cold and I was carrying shopping. I waited next to a guy in his twenties whose face was blue with cold. He had a skinny Chihuahua with him, and they were walking quickly up and down the sidewalk to keep warm. “When are they going to get a chance to get warm?”, I thought, for they were both homeless. I on the other hand live in a well-built house, and it comes entirely from others’ kindness, as I have never built a house in my life and wouldn’t know where to begin.
  • 67 would be unable to read. How much I take for granted my ability to read and write. When I read writewas staying in a remote Brazilian rain forest some years ago in meditation retreat, none of the valley dwellers had a reading age past 12, and as a result their world was quite confined. Primary school teachers spent many hours or even years teaching me to read and write, skills I use hugely every day; and I can’t even remember their names.
  • 50 would be malnourished and 1 dying of starvation. I just ate a huge dinner, every morsel of which came from others. I brought some peas, it is true; but, honestly, all I had to do is open the freezer door, provided by others, take out the frozen peas, grown, harvested, and packaged by others, put them in a saucepan manufactured by others, add boiling water from plumbing and a kettle provided by others, boil them on a stove made by others … anyway, you get the point. And I still took the credit when people thanked ME for the peas! (not that they did, but had they …)
  • 33 would be without access to a safe water supply. I may complain when the water doesn’t come out of the faucet, but we know how far many people have to walk each day just to carry back a bowl of water, the amount I probably use washing a few pieces of cutlery. And all the water I take for granted comes entirely from the kindness of others.
  • 39 would lack access to improved sanitation. I certainly take my bathroom for granted. But why!!? And how water scarcitykind of others to provide me with sanitation so I don’t have to use a hole in the ground or wash once a year. 
  • 24 would not have any electricity. It’s been cold outside, as I said. But I am very cozy and warm inside. I can also stay cool in summer. The lights are on; I just have to flip a switch. Yes, it is worth thinking this one through – the moment by moment infrastructure of my life is a result of others.
  • 7 people would have access to the Internet. I am able to write and post this, for a start. And all I have to do is move my fingers over the keyboard – fingers provided for me by my parents and typing taught me by … again, I’m afraid I’ve forgotten their name.
  • 1 would have a college education. The fact that we have any education is a blessing, and it all comes from others.
  • 2 would be near birth; 1 near death. I will indeed be near death before too long, in that regard we are all the same; however, I have better chances of good health and a long life than most due to doctors, good nutrition, etc. – all again coming from the kindness of others.
  • 5 would control 32% of the entire world’s wealth; all 5 would be from the US. Hmmm. The richer we are, the MORE we depend on others.

Also, in the same article I spoke of how much religious freedom we have compared with most people in the world. And, again, this makes us both very lucky, and also very indebted to those who provide us with everything we need to make spiritual progress and bring an end to suffering.icing on cake

All told, we are outrageously lucky and it is worth thinking about this from time to time rather than focusing on what is wrong with our life – of course we all have problems, but our problems are a walk in the park compared with those of others (see above.) Better to count our blessings on a regular basis. We may not have all the icing, but we DO have the cake.

I hope you enjoy your cake and eat it this Thanksgiving, and indeed every day. We can thank our lucky stars for being so lucky, and thank pretty much every living being as they have all directly or indirectly had a hand in bringing us this good fortune. And now we can pay it forward — using these current great conditions to become a better person, hopefully even a Buddha, for others’ sake.

Tantra: bliss and emptiness

In the previous article on Tantra, I explain a meditation for overcoming attachment and other delusions that is derived from Buddha’s Tantric methods. Now I want to say a few more things about why I think this meditation is so helpful, practical, and profound.

follow your blissBliss improves concentration

As the experience arising from this meditation is so pleasurable, naturally our mind likes it. When we are experiencing bliss, it is easier to stay concentrated because our mind naturally wants to stay put, to absorb. Ordinarily, it is the opposite – our mind wants to wander. Distractions are overwhelmingly interesting to our monkey mind (even paradoxically when they’re boring or anxiety-provoking), and so concentration is difficult. Now concentration feels easier and distractions relatively powerless.

Buddha understood very well that we like bliss – we love to be ecstatically happy. Our problem is that our bliss is very brief. Ordinarily, we achieve bliss through stimulating ourselves with sense pleasures, from seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching beautiful things, and this bliss is fleeting. Yet, we build our lives around it. We chase that high, which is about as successful as trying to grab onto a mirage. If we can give the mind pleasurable feelings, or even bliss, by itself, the attachment within us becomes redundant. We have what we want, so we no longer crave external objects to get us there. Who wants to go chasing after a pizza or a yacht or a boyfriend when we already have it all? The bliss can last. It can cause us to enjoy everything that appears to our mind.

Bliss is in fact in the nature of concentration and a state of mind ­– so the source of our bliss comes from within the mind, not from grasping at external objects.

Once we can dissolve our inner winds into our central channel through Tantric completion stage practice, we experience an unparalleled bliss and level of concentration. As it says in Modern Buddhism p. 194:

The stronger this bliss becomes, the more subtle our mind becomes. Gradually our mind becomes very peaceful, all conceptual distractions disappear, and we experience very special suppleness.

photo 2Use a blissful mind to meditate on other objects

We can use our blissful concentration, at whatever level we are at, to focus on any object of meditation that we choose. For example, we can generate bliss through this method and then meditate on love for all living beings: “May everyone be happy.” And naturally we’ll be able to hold that mind of love much more easily than with an ordinary, crunchy, distracted, non-blissful mind. Most of our objects of distraction are in fact objects of attachment — we want to be somewhere else. What’s for supper? The mind is going somewhere else so we have to keep reining it back in, even when meditating on something as beautiful as love. It is much easier with bliss to stay on our object.

The object that we mainly use bliss to meditate on is the ultimate nature of reality, emptiness, the actual dreamlike nature of things. There are many levels of bliss and, at its deepest most qualified level it is free from mistaken or dualistic appearance and utterly undistracted. Buddha taught how to use this concentrated mind of bliss to meditate on emptiness, the ultimate nature of reality, so that we experience the union of bliss and emptiness or Mahamudra. This mind of the clear light of bliss and its main object emptiness mix together like water mixed with water, they go together very well, they belong together. In fact, once you receive a Highest Yoga Tantra empowerment we have the commitment to generate bliss six times a photo 2day and then use it to meditate on emptiness. I have wondered what there is not to love about a tradition that obliges you to feel blissful six times a day?!

You can find out more about this essential practice — perhaps the ultimate meditation of the Buddhist Kadampa tradition, the meditation to which all other meditations lead — in the incredible book Mahamudra Tantra.

Even more benefits next time…

Going on 92

Eileen with SilverI was able to visit my friend Eileen again a couple of weeks ago (you may remember her from this article), and after four years I found her skinnier, frailer, and walking a lot more slowly. The other day a doctor exclaimed: “Are you still walking around on those feet?!” Eileen replied that indeed she was. “And you do know that you have two dislocated toes?!” Eileen knows it all too well. As well as hobbling around on broken toes due to advanced rheumatoid arthritis, Eileen is losing her previously reliable eyesight to macular degeneration, and wonders how and if she will drive for much longer, read, see… Despite all these curtailments, Eileen is still loving her daily meditations on Mahamudra, the clarity of the mind, and still delights in life – a delight that seems extra qualified these days by a deepening patience. We had a lot of fun that weekend. I told her of the interest her last article generated on this blog, and asked her to give us an update on the ageing process from the point of view of a meditator and Kadampa Buddhist; and she has sent this snapshot.

Going on 92

At the request of my friends, here I am again to update the subject of Ageing…

Over a year has passed since I wrote about coping with an ageing body, and now the disparity between that body and the mind, which I am happy to say remains much as it ever was, is more obvious every day.

I will give you an example that happened only in the last few days. My lovely daughter who is now 61 spoke to me on Skype – oh yes, I do keep up with modern technology! – to see where I would like to go for a trip this year. For the past few years we have treated ourselves to a short break in some exciting European city, Barcelona, Marrakesh, Warsaw…  and so now she wanted to know “Where this year?!

I so much wanted to go with her but I also knew that it would be foolish to make this ageing body attempt the trip. So with a foot on each side of the fence, I replied: “Well, darling, where would YOU like to go?” Quick as a flash the answer came, “Let’s go to Prague!”

Now Prague is one of my favorite European cities. I have always loved the idea of visiting the river Vltava, about which the composer Smetana wrote such eloquent music – for although I have visited Prague many years ago, I have never been on that river.

So how to resolve this conflict? To go or not to go? That is the question!

Perhaps the salutary experience I had the next day was provided for me by the Buddhas to bring me to my senses.

A lovely new friend, a Buddhist monk, had taken me to a seaside town on the Yorkshire coast for some sea air. The day was beautiful and the sun warm, even though it is only February. We were strolling along the promenade, my arthritic feet doing reasonably well, and I suggested descending to the lower promenade to be closer to the sea. This involved negotiating a flight of 15 steep concrete steps, but off I set, with my teenage mind and my ancient body. Big mistake! All was fine until we reached the fifth step from the bottom, at which point my legs gave way and I fell head first, landing in a sprawling heap on the ground, to my poor friend’s horror.

Struggling to my feet I tested out my legs. They held my weight, no broken bones – just a large swathe of skin flapping off my lower calf. Dramatically bloody, I must admit, and not a pretty sight. That and a sprained wrist seemed to be all the damage. It could have been so much worse – a fractured skull, a broken hip.

Was this a timely warning to “Be my age!?” To use the time I have left in this life to better advantage? Not to give in to my attachment for beautiful cities, rivers, and above all music? Years ago I asked a well-known Buddhist teacher, “How do you know if you have attachment for something?” and he replied, “If you want it again.”

I took this to mean if I want something again because I think it makes me happy from its own side. It is a major part of our Buddhist endeavours to overcome the 3 poisons of anger, attachment, and ignorance – three snakes in a basket on our lap vying for supremacy and ready to bite any time. Is this an opportunity to deal with attachment? “But hang on…”, objects my unruly mind, “Would it not be an act of giving to go to Prague and make your daughter happy? Giving is, after all, one of the six perfections of a Bodhisattva!!” Prevaricating, my mind hops from one side of the fence to the other.

Eileen doorsWhat to do? I am sitting here, looking out into my garden, and my little cat Silver jumps onto my knee. Two wood pigeons preen themselves in the cherry tree, and it is almost Spring. A wave of wondrous contentment envelops me. How foolish I am, wishing to be somewhere else. Isn’t this the teaching of Buddha, to dwell in contentment and rely on a happy mind? I see it now…Eileen with Silver 2

Dear daughter, don’t be disappointed. Go with a young friend, and later, when you visit me — and we’re sitting by my window with the clematis like a pink waterfall, the early roses scenting the air, and the little cat lying in the sun — you can tell me all about it.

A sliver of life, finger food for thought


Rousseau, Buddhism
I just went out to buy a collar for Rousseau* at a local supermarket, as he managed to lose his during his nocturnal ramblings. I got him a pink one this time – embarrassing for a Real He Man Cat but, I figured, more visible.

The 30-something Salvation Army guy outside had appointed himself as guardian of my bike. He praised me for taking the exercize and volunteered that he had just put on 30 pounds in two months. The way he spoke about it, it was like as if something had happened TO him, without him even noticing. “I used to exercise but for the last two months I was just laid about on the couch after work.” “Did you have an injury?” “Oh no, I just felt like laying around. And I ate a lot. In fact, I noticed that I had drunk a crate of sodas in the last two weeks. Weighed myself on that scale in there today, 30 pounds! Bit of a shock! Yeah, when I come to think of it, my clothes don’t fit so good neither.” If he lost that 30 pounds, he’d be a very decent weight, so how did he not notice that the pounds had been creeping on? He just didn’t. He sort of answered a question I have about people who put on a lot of weight without seeming to notice; the way he was talking, it was as if it was an unfortunate accident. Perhaps it was. (Perhaps it is time for me to weigh myself again, something I usually studiously avoid, weighing yourselfpreferring to rely on the scientific method of how tight my trousers feel.)

He was a nice guy, and I was thinking that although this was curious and a little disappointing for him, far worse is our inability to notice when our mind is becoming incrementally more heavy or sad, without our taking early or preventative steps to exercise it with positive thinking or feed it with the healthy food of meditation. In any event, we agreed that if he didn’t buy any more sodas he’d not be inclined to drink them, and that if he took up exercise again he’d be 30 pounds lighter when I next saw him. I hope so. (Though I think dieting can be harder work than training our mind…? Or, to put it more encouragingly, training the mind can be easier than dieting… What do you reckon?)

A few minutes later I found myself caught up in a small military parade of infantry men who had definitely kept themselves together physically. They were marching right where I normally bike home, for some unknown reason, and I ended up having to follow them. They were crisply dressed in their deep blue uniforms with yellow piping, their pressed trousers ending just above their shiny black shoes, in exactly the same point on the ankle. They were holding sleek but intimidating rifles with bayonets and they walked in step beautifully, effortlessly throwing the bayonet from one hand to the other. I found myself thinking: “I hope they have as much control over their minds as they do over their bodies.”

On the home stretch, my bike chain came unstuck and I got my hands all oily fixing it.

Rousseau the cat and Buddhism Then, remember that pink collar I just bought?! Well, when I got home, I noticed something blue and shiny dangling from my postbox. Much to Rousseau’s relief, some kind stranger had returned his manly collar.

This errand took all of half an hour from beginning to end. Just a normal slice of life, taking its unexpected small (in this case) twists and turns. But it was another reminder that the appearances of life, whether good or bad, are always changeable and unpredictable.

Although we like to feel we have tabs on the general narrative of our lives, we have really no idea who or what we are going to meet from one minute to the next, let alone from one year to the next, and forget about from one lifetime to the food for thought and meditationnext!

The only thing we can learn to control is our mind; and seen in that context every one of our encounters is food for thought, with a potential to nourish our compassion and/or wisdom.

*(I wrote this article six months ago. Nowadays, I’ve given up on collars for Rousseau, manly or otherwise.)

Your turn: which encounters have fed you the most food for thought recently?

 

Five ways to deal with criticism, part 2

This continues on from Five ways to deal with criticism.

How to deal with criticism and overcome our faults without feeling guilty or inadequate

If we have any self-cherishing, criticism will probably sting us to a greater or lesser extent. As Christopher Penny put it: “It depends on how high my self-cherishing dial is turned up!” But if we are cherishing others and also if we have a strong wish to improve, the criticism will not upset our mind, as Geshe Kelsang’s comments above indicate.

Self-confidence can handle criticism, whereas deluded pride (and/or feelings of unworthiness) cannot. (Check out the chapter on effort in the book Meaningful to Behold for the difference between these states of mind.)

Michael Hume said: “I hope I can develop to the point of taking direct comments as this is a much more powerful way to improve. We all need to know our faults, so anyone who criticises with any intention is in fact being very kind.” Rosanne Brancatelli added: “When we have love and compassion (even a little) it doesn’t sound like a criticism, it sounds more like an advice. If we have the determination to become a better human being (as the listener), we are more open to advice.” Someone else (sorry, lost your name!) put it this way: “I suppose the very strong Dharma practitioner would react positively and constructively no matter what the criticism seemed to be coming from, and that is a goal to keep in mind. Being objective in reaction as well, keeping the ego out of it — is it true? Yes — then change it. Is it not? Well don’t worry then! Just maybe try to calm the upset or pain of the criticiser.”

Venerable Atisha

The ancient Kadampas used to enjoy being criticized as it helped them see their faults more clearly. They aimed at getting to the point where they actively loved criticism, especially from their Spiritual Guide, as it was a direct assault on their worst enemy, self-cherishing. Seen in that light, we are in it together with our Spiritual Guides, teachers and friends when they criticize our limited, faulty, samsaric self because we agree with them that it has to go!

Over the years, I’ve gotten better and better at taking criticism from others, especially from my Spiritual Guide 🙂 I know when my teacher seems to disapprove that he is relating to my pure potential and not to my faults – it is as if he and the pure blissful actual me of my Buddha nature are ganging up on the limited faulty samsaric fake me apprehended by my self-grasping and self-cherishing. “She’s got to go”, we both agree.

It is incredibly helpful to have help from holy beings when identifying and overcoming our faults. If we can mix our mind with theirs, we can look at ourself from within that wide-open accepting and loving perspective. This is the best place to work on ourselves as it guarantees we will not identify with our faults and feel inadequate, unworthy or guilty.

This only works if we are clear on the difference between our pure potential and the limited, faulty self we identify with when we have any delusions. Clearly we don’t want to end up hating ourselves; that would be entirely missing the point.

Kelsang Chogma describes it well: “I think if we can stop identifying with our faults, then we can take criticism from others and it also stops us from feeling discouraged and overwhelmed when we notice our faults ourself. I think there’s a strong relationship between these two. If we feel that we are an inherently faulty, deluded, impure, degenerate person then we don’t like it when others can see this too. If we contemplate how we are not our delusions, this helps. Then we can honestly say, “yes I have faults and I’m trying to do something about them”. That’s what I’ve found helpful anyway.”

Wrathful blessings

The wrathful blessings of the Spiritual Guide were always considered to be the most powerful for removing obstructions from the mind. There are four so-called “siddhis” or attainments possessed by holy beings. Nowadays, our Spiritual Guide generally has to rely on the first three — peaceful, increasing and occasionally controlling attainments — for if he displays wrath, the chances are we’ll run a mile! Our Spiritual Guides would never get away with actually beating us as they did in the old days, when the old Mahasiddhas would view it as Yamantaka’s hand (see Great Treasury of Merit page 94)! But, occasionally, if we’re lucky, our Spiritual Guide may be pretty direct with us; and during these times we have an unprecedented opportunity to cleanse our negativities and change quickly for the better.

Maria Tonella agreed: “What about when you don’t even know you are doing something bad? Or you have incorrect instructions? Or when your Teacher points you out something you should change for the better..?” Jas Varmana said: “Yes, I was thinking how my teacher can be sharply critical but so clearly wants you to live up to your potential that it’s empowering rather than hurtful.”

The point is, if our Spiritual Guide criticizes us, it usually is for a good reason as he or she has no wish to make us feel bad just for the heck of it. He or she can help us face up to faults that we never knew we had and get rid of them. Certainly this has been true in my case.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread…

Sometimes we may be tempted to jump on the moral bandwagon when we see a peer being criticized or demoted by the powers that be, including our teachers, and decide it is okay for us to lay into them too! (This happens in all human societies, even in Buddhist ones, and I reckon it is often due to our own feelings of inadequacy and schadenfreude.) But the truth is that if we don’t actually possess any wrathful siddhis, we might not want to emulate our teachers in this respect 😉 Wrath is motivated by compassion alone; it possesses no trace of anger or pride. It’s important to have worked our way up through peaceful, increasing and controlling siddhis first! In fact, really it is safest to stick to entirely peaceful methods unless we can be absolutely sure we know what we are doing… Always be kind, not judgmental, is the Kadampa way. Related to that… (this article will be finished in part 3, coming shortly, and including us (not) criticizing others, the advice of the Kadampas, and emptiness….)