I think we could all do with some kind of conversation between our heart-mind and our thinky head.
I remember some years back already knowing exactly what to think and do, Dharma-wise, when undergoing a break up, and even clearly understanding that I was far better off without this person. My head knew all this very well. But still my heart would yearn for him.
The heart wants what the heart wants, so I realized I needed to change at a heart level. To meditate from a deeper level of awareness, if possible, so as to overcome the deluded habit of attachment and develop wisdom wishes at a more sustainable level.
Do you ever feel there are two of you – the wise person who sits in meditation and understands what’s really going on, and the crazy monkey-mind person who goes about their busy day getting overwhelmed by everything, sucked into the vast panoply of appearances, unknowingly driven here and there by the invisible habits of countless lives? “Deceived by grasping at things as they appear”, as it says in Essence of Vajrayana.
There can be a struggle between these inner and outer selves. After all, if there is a disconnect between our heart and our head, superficial determinations to change may be drowned out in our habit-driven distracted daily lives and personas. How long did this year’s New Year’s resolutions last, for example?! How long did this morning’s resolutions last in the hurly burly of the day?
You should not let your habits dominate your behavior or act as if you are sleepwalking.
We are currently controlled by our mental habits and past actions. Our habits are anchored in the mind, engrained by repetition, programming us to act and respond in certain ways, such as automatic irritation when we would much rather be patient, or automatic yearning when we would much rather be content. We probably all sense this, so what can we do about it?
Luckily, lots. There is extraordinary spiritual technology available to us.
The stillness within
Before we launch into contemplative stages of the path (Lamrim) meditations, we need to be sure we’re feeling it. Any of these 3 methods can help get us there.
Even the simplest breathing meditation, designed to let go of scattered thoughts, brings our awareness inward. Eventually we learn to “Leave the object alone”, as my friend Gen Losang puts it.
We are a bit addicted to movement, our monkey mind jumping all over the place. All this going outwards to objects of distraction is dualistic conception – me over here, the world and all its stuff over there. It feels different already just to bring our awareness inwards to examine the mind — already we sense the space around our thoughts, how we are not our thoughts. It is very relaxing just to stay a bit stiller for a while.
The slightest experience of peace indicates that lasting peace is possible, so we identify with that. We can learn to live more and more in our heart, where we know and feel things most deeply, where true happiness is. We are connecting to our Buddha nature, which is in fact unfathomably profound, and we can sense that.
Never meditate in your head. You can’t anyway.
And at those times we can believe we are accessing a subtler or deeper level of mind because, even if we are not yet using it directly, we can still know this mind. It also really helps to recognize that our peaceful mind is mixed with the blessings of all enlightened beings, their minds, because for sure we’ll feel ourselves going deeper if we do that.
Clarity of mind
An even more powerful method for dissolving away distractions and going deep is meditating on the clarity of the mind.
Absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thoughts
And then we also have this wonderful meditation on accessing our subtle mind by remaining “unmoving, with a mind as impassive as wood.”
This meditation on turning our mind to wood temporarily shuts down all the deluded habits of ignorance, attachment, and worry etc. going outwards. It stops the projector, so that we can meditate at a deeper level and so change at a deeper more sustainable level. We are using absorption of cessation to stop the projector of the gross mind, which is only projecting mental images that aren’t really out there.
It doesn’t seem to work to superimpose Lamrim thoughts on top of hallucinatory thoughts. We need to scrap this movie or dream altogether and start again. Every day, until it takes.
The heart wants what the heart wants
Since the heart wants what the heart wants, it is best to start each Lamrim meditation in the heart, identified with our boundless Buddha nature, ideally mixed inseparably with the blessings of our Spiritual Guide, Buddha. We can observe self-limiting habits and conditioning in the light and space of our own indestructible potential, letting them fade away like mist in sunshine.
Having dissolved away our gross over-thinky thoughts and ordinary conceptions, we can generate the new ideas and language of Lamrim, the new naming, labelling, and discrimination at a subtler level. This will then show up in our lives, as our lives. In the beginning was the word, and the word was made flesh, as my favorite line in the Bible would have it.
By the way, as mentioned in this article Start where you are, it is effective to tune into an example of whatever object it is you’re going to meditate on, eg, the love you already have inside you for a nephew or a pet. This is because we have the seeds for every single stage of the path, so we are watering these, rather than adding something that is not there.
So we do our Lamrim meditations in our heart, with a peaceful undistracted mind. On this basis we reinvent ourselves – having dissolved everything away into inner empty space, we now have a chance to start from scratch. This is because everything is empty and therefore entirely unfixed, including, and especially, ourselves.
Moreover, we need to identify deeply with these new understandings and determinations, believing “I am a being of boundless potential who has a precious human life,” to take the first Lamrim meditation as an example. This wisdom discrimination will bring about very different actions and results in our daily life, don’t you think?, than the deluded discrimination that we cannot change, “I am pathetic. I can’t help even the people I want to help, and my life is going nowhere.” We might feel guilty or doomed, like we’re a total loser who is wasting this precious opportunity … instead of inspired, feeling that we are the luckiest person alive.
We don’t use the word “subconscious” in Buddhism, but, if we did, I think this would be what I’d be talking about, changing at a subtler level.
I like to practice Lamrim in this way, in the light of our boundless potential that is part and parcel of our increasingly blissful levels of mind. (You can learn all about how to identify and realize the three levels of mind in Mahamudra Tantra.)
This is part of the union of Sutra and Tantra that is the hallmark of the Kadampa tradition. We are basically going with the deepening heart bliss (taught in Tantra) on the one hand and the infinite possibilities of the wisdom realizing emptiness (taught in Sutra) on the other – thereby rebooting and completely transforming our reality from a samsara of suffering, ordinariness, and fixed existence into a Pure Land of bliss and the endless possibilities of emptiness.
As it says in Request to the Lord of all Lineages:
Through enjoying great bliss and the emptiness of all phenomena I have pacified all ordinary appearances and conceptions,
And thus I have accomplished the real meaning of human life.
We are waking up so that we can wake everyone else up as well.
And, one last thing for Tantric practitioners …
In Highest Yoga Tantra completion stage, just so you know, we are aiming to get the energy winds from the left and right channels into the central channel for a completely blissful non-dual experience of the mind and its objects – that gap between them vanishes because it is an optical illusion of the ignorance that rides upon impure winds. With this manifest very subtle mind mounted on pure wisdom winds, we are finished with the powerlessness of confusion.An explanation of how to do this is given in The Oral Instructions of the Mahamudra.
Over to you. How do you keep your meditation determinations, or practical plans to apply the teachings, alive and well in your busy life?
In this recent article on the absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thought, Emergency aid for a troubled mind, I talked about the practical, easy, but also surprisingly effective practice for quickly overcoming disturbed minds and distractions so that we can go deep in meditation.
When we do this meditation we have a chance to shut down our gross conceptual thoughts, which seems to me a bit like switching off a movie projector.
In his Medicine Buddha teachings of 2006, when Geshe Kelsang explained this practice in some detail, he says that conceptual thoughts are our mind thinking, “This is a microphone, this is my friend, this is my body, this is my car, this is me”, and so forth, and then imputing a name. The verbal name comes from the conceptual thought. He goes on to say:
All our daily delusions — such as our anger, our attachment, our ignorance of self-grasping — are gross conceptual thoughts. When we awake from sleep during the day, we use only gross minds (including sense awarenesses) and gross conceptual thoughts. We have no ability to use our subtle mind.
(Just to reiterate, “subtle” means a deeper level of awareness and “gross” means as opposed to subtle — not as in “yuk”. My dad wanted me to point that out.)
Our peaceful subtle mind manifests when we fall asleep (and die), but our memory or mindfulness is really not much use at that time and so we cannot take advantage of it. Which is a shame because it means we are doomed in general to only being able to use our rough often uncontrollable waking minds. However, we can learn to do something about this, including this meditation:
We can accomplish this absorption through training in meditation. Whenever our gross conceptual thoughts cease, our self-grasping and other delusions also cease, because they are gross conceptual thoughts.
If we get good at this, we can even bring about a cessation of painful feelings related to being ill, which would be — to put it mildly — a very useful skill:
Normally when our body is seriously ill we experience painful feelings because we are grasping at it strongly. If we stop this grasping, there is no problem.
This meditation is therefore a wonderful method for bringing about a temporary cessation of delusions, providing us with some sorely needed relief, and giving us space and peace.
Deprogramming at a deeper level
Of course, to get rid of delusions permanently we need to train in the stages of the path to enlightenment, and especially in emptiness. Combining this meditation with transforming the mind at a subtler level allows us to liberate ourselves quickly from deeply embedded painful habits such as anger, hurt, and compulsions, as well as our limited sense of self.
The meditation is explained here. As a quick reminder of how to do it, after relaxing into a good posture and dropping into our heart, we can follow Shantideva’s advice in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:
First, I should check to see how my mind is;
And, if I see it is polluted with negativity,
I should remain unmoving,
With a mind as impassive as wood. ~ Guarding Alertness, verse 34.
We usually try to sort out our appearances or projections, solving our problems and finding happiness outside our mind rather than inside it, rather like wandering over there somewhere to rearrange things on the movie screen instead of simply switching off the projector at the wall. But now we are not thinking or feeling or projecting anything.
Normally the subtle mind manifests when we are falling asleep and the gross levels of mind dissolve away naturally – we stop projecting today’s waking world. It is not real, existing from its own side – it is just appearance with nothing behind it, so it can and does disappear.
We think the things that appear to our sense awarenesses are so solid and real, somehow more real than the objects of our conceptual thoughts – but they are perhaps the flimsiest objects of all because our sense awarenesses are highly fleeting and unstable. Yet, curiously, almost all our objects of attachment and dread are sense objects, for example food, sex, movies, jobs. There is no deep pleasure to be found here, unless we combine our enjoyment with an understanding of their infinite empty nature. There is no depth other than emptiness.
Take a nap
By the way, while not a substitute for this meditation, and while we don’t have to go as far as suggested in The Week, falling asleep can sometimes help a bit:
Being awake is frequently a horror show! Thankfully, naps are the safest way to gently disengage from reality while also getting to recharge in a world that otherwise demands you run on all cylinders.
My teacher’s teacher (my Grandteacher!) was a Tibetan Buddhist Master called Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, who was highly beloved and revered throughout his life. He recommended just falling asleep sometimes as emergency aid for a troubled mind — saying that whenever we are deeply unhappy and can’t do anything about it, just go to sleep, and naturally, when we wake up, our mind will have changed.
When Geshe Kelsang taught the six stages of Mahamudra in 2003, he said:
Distraction is the real enemy of inner peace, of concentration, of meditation. Distraction directly interferes with our inner peace. Although many people want to accomplish Dharma realizations, pure concentration and meditation, the good results of meditation, and so forth, the main problem is that it is difficult to control distractions. Our objects of distraction are the objects of attachment, anger, jealousy, or ignorance. There is no pure object in this world! All we see are the objects of either self-grasping or attachment or anger or jealousy, so it is very difficult to maintain mental peace, a peaceful mind. Therefore, there is no real happiness in this world.
Dissolving away all our sense awarenesses and gross conceptual thoughts allows us to dive below the surface waves & froth of our mind, accessing a deeper less distracted mind. Because inappropriate attention now has nothing to go on, delusions such attachment and anger cannot be sustained. Even our gross self-grasping ignorance is decreased, bringing us at least temporarily closer to an experience of emptiness.
Within the six stages of Mahamudra, this is part of the important journey to identifying and realizing our very subtle mind and attaining enlightenment. But, as mentioned in the last article, we can also use it per Shantideva to overcome distractions in general.
With this respite from distraction, we can use our subtler more peaceful awareness now to meditate on Lamrim truths, healing our mental continuum at a deeper level. It’s like shutting down and rebooting the mind. If we don’t like the movie, we can simply learn how to project a new one.
Seems amazing, really, to still have this spiritual technology available for us to use whenever we want – if we would just shut down our overly thinky minds long enough to try it out 😉 Geshe Kelsang says:
From skillful wisdom, through giving skillful instruction, we have a special method for identifying our subtle mind during waking time – this is the close instruction that belongs to the Ganden Oral Lineage, which came from Je Tsongkhapa’s wisdom.
Do you ever wish you had a quick fix for an unhappy mind? Like you even know what you could be doing to feel better, but your mind is just too roiled to be able to do it? The craving is just too strong and convincing, the irritation just too, well, irritating?
Well, I’ve been wanting to talk for ages about a really helpful meditation that has a lot of benefits, including being emergency aid for strong delusions (unpeaceful, uncontrolled thoughts). Called “absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thought”, it’s surprisingly easy to do and takes as long as we have, even if that is only five to fifteen minutes.
In addition, we can also use this meditation to absorb deeply into our heart, into a subtler level of our consciousness, as explained below. And this happens to be perfect preparation for success in other meditations, including all our Lamrim or Tantric meditations.
I’ll talk about some of its benefits and then outline how to do it below.
Switch off unhappy thoughts
To bring about instant, temporary freedom from a very disturbed or deluded mind, Shantideva, the great 8th century Indian Buddhist Master, advises us to “remain like a mindless piece of wood” for a few minutes.
One effective way to deal with this strong arising of delusions is to remain for a short while as if we were a piece of wood: unmoving, non-reactive, and without thoughts. ~ Meaningful to Behold page 143
Briefly, after relaxing into a good posture and dropping into our heart, we imagine we become an inanimate object, as if made of wood or stone, devoid of thought and feeling. We switch off our thoughts like switching off the TV.
We should merely be as unresponsive as possible to the thoughts flooding our mind. By depriving them of energy in this way, we shall prevent our delusions from motivating our behaviour and they will soon fade away of their own accord. ~ page 147
A “technique of non-reaction,” as Shantideva puts it, this temporarily solves all our problems. And Geshe Kelsang explained it during the 2006 Medicine Buddha teachings in upstate New York:
Meditation on this absorption is very useful for solving human problems temporarily because through this method we can temporarily cease gross conceptual thoughts, such that there are no unpleasant feelings, painful feelings, unhappiness. This is a very special method, and very simple; and it can be practiced by both Buddhists and non-Buddhists, anyone.
Remaining impassive like wood for a few minutes will calm us down and give us a welcome break from unhappiness. Geshe Kelsang also said:
Practicing this is not difficult, it is very easy. The only thing we need is interest, energy, and effort.
You can stop reading the article here and try it out, if you need to!
It can also be a means to an end because we can then, optionally, advance to a second stage of the absorption of cessation (as described below).
Advance through neutral
If we are driving 150 MPH in reverse, taken over by strong annoyance for example, it is hard to go straight from there to 150 MPH in the right direction, with, for example, loving kindness. If you’ve ever driven a shift stick you’ll know we have to go through neutral first. Breathing meditation, clarity of mind meditation, and this absorption of cessation meditation all bring us back to a peaceful center, so any of them is helpful preparation for productive meditation on a positive object.
Overcome distractions quickly
In the same Medicine Buddha teachings, Geshe Kelsang defines this meditation:
The absorption of cessation of gross conceptual thought is a subtle mind that is single-pointedly absorbed or focused on the cessation of gross conceptual thought.
He explains that our various gross minds are “very rough, uncontrolled, disturbing, distracting, and interfering with our inner peace” whereas our subtle mind is “a very special mind” that is “very calm, peaceful, controlled, tranquil, without distraction, and so forth.”
Normally we only have subtle minds when we sleep or die, which is not that helpful at the moment because we don’t have the mindfulness to enjoy them. By becoming as impassive as wood, we can manifest a subtler mind even while awake:
At this point in reality we have established a cessation of gross feeling and discrimination on our subtle consciousness. Because we stopped gross feeling and discrimination, there is no gross mind. Therefore, only our subtle mind remains. ~ Geshe Kelsang, Sutra Mahamudra teachings 2003
So as well as temporarily giving us a break from unhappy thoughts, this method frees us quickly and effectively from all inappropriate attention and distraction, enabling us to experience a more subtle, spacious, mindful, and joyful mind.
We are calmed down and set up, if we wish, to meditate more deeply on whatever object we choose, including the mind itself, or a Lamrim object. As Geshe Kelsang explains:
With this subtle mind, this absorption, we can concentrate on any virtuous object, including emptiness, bodhichitta, or compassion.
Journey to enlightenment
In Mahamudra Tantra, this meditation is included in the third stage of training in the six stages of Mahamudra, allowing our mind to become more and more subtle. As such, it is a time-honored part of a profound, blissful, direct journey to enlightenment itself, providing we’re doing it with bodhichitta motivation.
How to do the meditation
We make a strong determination to cease our gross conceptual thoughts, self-grasping, and other delusions, remembering how they are the source of our daily problems. Then we follow the instructions in Mahamudra Tantra:
First, we stop paying attention to any object; we should not think about anything but remain like a stone or a piece of wood, without experiencing or perceiving anything. We remain in this state for few minutes.
We bring about a temporary cessation of our gross conceptual thoughts, or thinky minds, by thinking “I am completely inanimate, as if made of wood or stone. I am not perceiving, paying attention to, or feeling anything. It is as if the TV has been switched off. There is no more projecting going on. I am as if unconscious. All my thoughts have ceased, including all my delusions and anxieties.
We remain as an inanimate block of wood without feeling or attention for a few minutes.
NB: We can stop the meditation here if we only want to calm down and stop giving energy to our disturbed thoughts. Or we can continue to meditate on identifying our subtle mind as follows.
And then we imagine that all our gross minds dissolve into our subtle mind like water bubbles disappearing into the water from which they arose. ~ Mahamudra Tantra
Through generating this cessation of all gross conceptual thoughts, these distracting, superficial thoughts subside like bubbles into water. As a result, a naturally quieter, deeper, calmer, more lucid, less distracted, and more blissful level of mind manifests or surfaces; and we understand this to be our subtle mind at our heart.
As it says in Mahamudra Tantra:
We then try to perceive our subtle mind by contemplating:
Its nature is the cessation of all gross minds, and its function is to perceive an empty like space.
With our subtle mind we very gently recognize the cessation of all our gross conceptual thoughts, including all delusions and unhappiness, and perceive an empty like space.
We have found the main object of meditation according to the third stage of the six stages of Mahamudra training.
We remember this cessation and stay in this deeply peaceful absorption for as long as we can, without forgetting and also without pushing, just very relaxed.
(According to his Sutra Mahamudra teachings in 2003, Venerable Geshe-la adds that as we gain familiarity with this meditation, “instead of observing the cessation we are observing the subtle mind itself.” And we can then also, if we wish, perceive that its nature and function are clarity and cognizing, like all minds.)
We may only be able to focus on this meditation object for a few minutes or seconds to begin with. If so, depending on our time, we can rinse and repeat. If our mind starts moving and distractions re-emerge such that we lose our object, we repeat steps 1 to 3, seeking and finding our object through first turning our mind to wood and so on.
Optional: I like to do my other meditations with this mind. As mentioned above, unlike our gross minds, which tend to be rough, uncontrolled, disturbing, and interfering of our inner peace, our subtle mind is very calm, peaceful, controlled, tranquil, and free from distraction – making it a great deal easier to stay concentrated.
As we prepare to arise from the meditation, we can think:
I will carry this deep experience of being still and centered, free from unhappy minds, out of the meditation and into my everyday life.
Our day then arises from a place of stillness within, rather than bombarding us from all directions in a stressful or aggravating manner.
As we gently relax our concentration, we become aware again of our body. Then we become aware again of the room, but staying centered at our heart. We can learn to carry this deep inner feeling of stillness and freedom into our everyday life. We are not in the world, the world is in us, is what I like to think.
We need to get in the habit of identifying with our deep peace, knowing that however weirdly life appears or however crazy our gross minds become, we can always drop into our hearts and return to this.
And, by the way, in case you were wondering, feeling peaceful inside doesn’t mean we stop trying to solve outer problems such as climate change and so on. As Geshe Kelsang put it, our main aim to solve all our inner problems, but:
Of course, we human beings need external conditions. Of course, whatever problem we see, we need to solve it. For example if I have torn my yellow robe, I need to repair it. If I need anything, I need to prepare it. If I am sick, I can rely on a doctor and medicine, of course; this is normal. But no matter how hard we work to solve outer problems, our real or inner problems never reduce. So in this way we need to try to solve both our outer and inner problems.
And here is the meditation in brief
Remain like a piece of wood for a few minutes.
Our gross conceptual thoughts dissolve into the subtle mind, like bubbles into water.
With our subtle mind, we very gently recognize the cessation of all gross thoughts and perceive an empty like space.
If we like, we do other meditations now that our mind is peaceful and concentrated.
We carry this peace into our day, as the background to solving outer problems.
“I feel like I’m losing control of my life! I have to go! Let me go! I need to go to my house!”
And Jim gently replied:
“I’m so sorry. That is what it feels like when we are dying. But please don’t worry, you are here with us now. You are too confused to leave; it is not safe to let you go. We are going to take care of you.”
With that, he turned on the prayer playlist Aubree always wanted by her side – nowadays it was on pretty loud all night at her request to remind her of her Spiritual Guide when she fell unconscious, because her greatest fear was forgetting him when she died.
Jim and his wife Karin have been taking extraordinarily good care of Aubree for well over a year now, day and night – it used to be just weekends but towards the end they kindly took her into their house full-time because hospice was not a possibility. (The reason it was not a possibility is because her disturbed sister would not release the name of her oncologist and, despite calling every hospital in town, Jim was not able to locate him. It was maddening.)
Jim offered her the anti-seizure medicine she has been taking for two years, but she gagged and choked and said she couldn’t swallow any pills. “Don’t worry”, he said again, as he crushed her Ativan and put it in her food, which for the past year has amounted to approximately a tiny bit of mush per day. She had to eat something, and the meds were to help her with the seizures. But this time she was really freaking out. She was very confused, it seemed, and she snapped at them uncharacteristically, “Let me go! You have kidnapped me!!!”
A modern-day Upala
Aubree’s story is incredible. Here are some of the salient details she wrote herself when requesting prayers:
“I was diagnosed with cancer almost a year ago, am an epileptic, and will likely die very soon. My seizures have been so bad that I have been resuscitated 3 times recently, my breathing is very labored, I am usually unable to eat more than a tablespoon a day, and I have a lot of physical pain. I have had nightmares and fearful flashbacks most of my adult life, ever since a violent attack in College, but these lessened considerably when I met dharma 2 years ago. However, with my illness, it is hard for me to have a formal meditation practice and I struggle to keep a peaceful mind, but I am trying to keep you at my heart at all times. Please be with me when I die and guide me through death and rebirth.
I want everyone to be happy and not to suffer. I feel so lucky and know there are many other living beings with more suffering. I especially want my family to be happy, but they are having a difficult time letting go. Please pray for my mother who is struggling with losing me. She is unhappy and responding to the situation poorly and recently tried to kill me 3 times out of delusion, once by kicking me in the stomach while I was unconscious, once by pushing me down stairs, and once by stabbing me in my side. My sister also is struggling with me dying and needed to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. My brothers are very sad and are unable to accept the situation and let me go. I want them all to be happy and to find peace. Please keep them all in your prayers.”
And it is not just her mother, sister, and brothers. A little while ago Aubree went missing for a week, at the end of which time she texted to say that her father had been keeping her locked up at his house and wouldn’t let her have her phone nor read any Dharma books. She said she was now terrified of him as well.
A few months ago her best childhood friend was on her way to visiting her when she went missing for 4 days. It was a scary 4 days, at the end of which time her friend’s body was tragically discovered by a state trooper in Texas – she had gone off her meds and committed suicide. So sad. She was supposed to be getting married next month.
Something dramatic happened pretty much every week – including too many brinks of death to count. Aubree was a modern-day Upala (see Joyful Path of Good Fortune). We all hoped that this was Aubree’s incredible purification too, and that she was swiftly earning her place in the Pure Land.
It was painful for all of us to watch Aubree dying like this, experiencing so many epileptic or PNES seizures lying clenched and shaking on the floor, so many night terrors, so much head-banging pain, some of which Jim successfully treated with acupuncture –needles stuck in an inch and a half, up to 50 at a time, because she said she couldn’t feel them. This treatment would take hours, and she would look like a pin cushion. When we first met her, she would have hellish-sounding night terrors every single night, reliving the trauma of her abduction and rape, and she’d wake up very frightened. It felt as if she was living in both the human world and an occasional hell at the same time – but at least these terrors largely subsided a few months after meeting Dharma.
And so many trips to the ER, where we watched them pump her full with Ativan or resuscitate her and then send her home with another big bill. Her grueling chemo treatments causing her to vomit and lose her hair, her arm in a sling for weeks after her mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, the bruises from falling into walls, the mini-strokes and increasing confusion, the stab wounds inflicted by her alcoholic mother (now thankfully in jail). She could not walk without support, she needed constant attention. She could hardly talk by the end, barely a whisper, and she weighed 90 lbs; but still through all of this she smiled radiantly and inspired us all with her courage and good humor. She bought out a good deal of compassion in her spiritual community, and no one felt like complaining when she was around because, frankly, compared to her what did any of us have to complain about?! And she never complained – in her quavering voice she would call herself “the luckiest person in the world” and all she ever said she wanted was for us to pray for her poor, deluded, suffering family.
It was also amazing how many Festivals, teachings, and retreats she managed to get to, and how many NKT luminaries she managed to meet. Plus her story captured the heart, and she had hundreds of people praying for her.
It was not just us caring for her. Her brother in law, Tom, was a deaf mute and busy traveling, but for months he was able to arrange her visiting schedule all the way from Houston and the road. I texted and emailed back and forth with him several times, and Karin and Jim had hundreds of communications with him and Aubree’s sister. I also was in communication with her full time caregiver Matt, and a couple of other friends. They would keep us informed with messages like:
“Aubree has had severe seizures and breathing issues. She is confused and upset. Please pray.
Aubree’s sister here! Let’s plan on a visit Friday at 11. We will confirm with you. Aubree has been unwell and I am hoping we do not have any issues that cause us to be at hospital again. She is looking forward to seeing you.
Aubree thinks she is actively dying. Her experience of her body has changed significantly, she wasn’t able to get out bed at all today (was at our house), and has been having very long and difficult seizures and intense pain. She was with her brothers this last week and was admitted into the hospital (against her wishes) and was resuscitated (her brothers ignored her DNR because they were scared). That would have been it, but the CPR brought her back, however she doesn’t want CPR again, and says she is ready to die.
Aubree is with her friend Kayla, who thinks she is dying. Aubree has stopped breathing and is changing color.
By yesterday evening she didn’t even know who she was. I would call her name and she would look at me and say “Aubree?” while touching her chest then say “am I Aubree?”
Her pain increased alarmingly last night. She has had intense liver area pain. At midnight we woke up to her screaming (I didn’t think she had such a strong voice left) “HELP ME, HELP ME!” while crying and curled up in a ball. She is not on pain meds now because they interfered with her seizure meds.”
I was surprised and frankly a little relieved that Aubree never had a seizure on my watch, and, even though she did choke and go blue a couple of times, she rallied before I had to call an ambulance. And I am even more relieved that I never had to obey her end of life care document. This slightly spooky manifesto was drawn up recently by her medical power of attorney, Jim, after she pleaded for no more medical interventions; and it called for her visitors to just hold her, turn up the playlist, and let her die right there and then.
We wrote to tell Venerable Geshe-la she was dying, perhaps would die that very day, and could he give her a message. A couple of leisurely days later he wrote back and told her to read and contemplate Modern Buddhism.
That was a surprise. She was lying on her deathbed and couldn’t read at all! And Modern Buddhism is a long book!
Clearly she was not as close to death as we had thought. But her visitors duly took turns reading her Modern Buddhism for the next several weeks. Which she loved, though her health continued to decline.
The kidnapping accusation was a dilemma because last Friday Karin and Jim felt obliged to let Aubree go back to her empty house and wait for her brother-in-law to fly in and take her back to Houston. We did see her on Saturday, after Tom had dropped her off at her house to pick up some things, and she seemed a bit better, though still weak and confused. We then spent the weekend texting Tom back and forth, trying to meet up with him to figure out what was best to do, but we never managed to meet. Then her disturbed sister Jude flew into town and all hell broke loose. It seemed that Tom was the only sane member of the family left, and the only hope for Aubree, and it was frustrating that we couldn’t talk to him on the phone because of his deafness.
Some extracts of messages from Tom sent last Monday:
“Hi! Tom here. I need to reschedule the time. I can’t leave Aubree and Jude to meet you. Aubree is not doing well…. Do either of you sign? Jude is falling apart. … Things with Aubree are spiraling quickly… Jude is struggling. Feeling like I can’t leave them right now…. Family is being weird. I want to shoot for 4 but Aubree is really not doing well and Jude has fallen apart.”
Then something strange happened.
One of Aubree’s work colleagues happened to get in touch, and Jim sent her one of Tom’s health updates. This was what she replied:
“Tom has not emailed so thank you. It is very strange. I see her and talk to her occasionally at work and she is 100% Aubree. Lucid and clear and intelligent and focused. If I hadn’t seen her in the late afternoon/evening those couple days, I wouldn’t believe that report on how she is doing. It is really hard to believe. She is still working during the day and that is a bit strange but probably good for her. I am trying to arrange to meet her for lunch one day so I can check in with her. She absolutely will not acknowledge that anything is wrong while she is in work mode so I can’t talk to her or see how she is feeling or even offer her support. That is hard but I’m trying to respect her need for compartmentalizing.”
When, Jim asked, was she last at work?!!!?!!!@!
“On Monday” was the reply. She drove there, apparently. And on Friday evening she had two drinks at the bar, to which she had walked completely unaided as usual, and then she wolfed down a huge Mexican meal. (Yes, she must have been pretty hungry after a whole week of mush at Karin and Jim’s.)
The web of deception
With a sinking feeling, Jim started to contact other people whom Aubree had mentioned in passing. Her ex-roommate Lindsay, whom we’d never happened to overlap with at Aubree’s house, surprise, surprise, said: “I lived with Aubree for 2 years, and not once did I see her have a seizure.” Matt the caretaker doesn’t exist — Lindsay had never heard of him, his number was listed as 000-0000.
What about all those emails and texts, I asked Karin in confusion as all this was slowly coming to light — how could Aubree go to work while Tom was with her, he would have noticed?!
“That’s the point. I don’t think there is a Tom.”
That was one of the spookiest moments of my life.
The gig was up, but we still didn’t know the extent of it. We got online and managed to find real emails for Tom and Jude, as opposed to the ones created by Aubree, and even a phone number. Late as it was, Jim called them straightaway.
They were fast asleep in bed in Houston.
And they knew nothing about any of this.
They called the parents to go pick up Aubree and take her to their house, worried that she would try to kill herself now that it was all over. Turns out her mother is not a murderer nor her father an abuser. Her colluding brothers turn out to be rather innocent as well.
Since then we have all been putting together the pieces, or rather unravelling the web of deception. It has been by turns spooky, surreal, and desperately sad, but also at times absurdly, darkly humorous. Aubree is brilliantly intelligent; we always knew that, even with all her stroke activity. And this was the performance of a lifetime. Did she have spreadsheets; how did she keep all these lies together?! Aubree had every single person she met duped. Everyone, that is, except Geshe-la.
For sure, all of us probably wondered once or twice, “Could this really all be happening to her at this pace? Is she really that ill, how come she hasn’t died yet?” Someone gave her a pain-relieving massage, for example, and was surprised her tumors were not more noticeable. But we pushed these thoughts aside as uncharitable – she only weighs 90lbs for goodness sake, and those seizures are ghastly! And yes, she had some good days where she rallied remarkably to get to things and talk weakly to people – but that must have been all our prayers! Poor brave girl.
Meeting the family
At dinner we sat in a booth at Racines with her murdering mother (supposedly in jail), her psychotic sister (supposedly in a psych ward), and her abusive father. (The only person missing was her deaf-mute long-suffering brother-in-law, who was on a lecture tour.) And these were three of the sweetest people you could imagine. I’d hang out happily with any of them.
With a family like this, and with several loyal old friends, Aubree has no need to crave attention. Clearly her self-hatred is not rational. I suppose which of our delusions is?
We wondered how the seizures had been so convincing, and her dad explained the time he took her to Yale epilepsy clinic when she was 22 (the last time he saw her have a fit) and they stressed to her that she must never take Ativan as it brought on the seizures. She had been eating it like candy, at least with us, though clearly not at work.
We wondered how she managed to choke and turn blue from not being able to breathe. Her mom, a nurse (somewhat the opposite to a killer), said that Aubree must have been holding her breath.
Impressive willfulness, we all agreed.
But her dad said, “This is so confusing for me. I hate to say this but I think I’d prefer it if she had cancer. At least we could understand that.” And “She is my daughter but I cannot protect her; this is the hardest thing in my life.”
It was her own dad who suggested grimly that this would make a very good 10-part miniseries. I have included only the salient details in this already long article – there is enough material for it. And the weekly suspense has certainly kept a lot of people on the edges of their seats for two years.
Her sister said: “What you showed her, that love, that part was all true, pure. We are so grateful to you.”
We had a good evening – it was helpful for all of us. We even laughed quite a bit. They were so relieved with our reaction, said we were cool. I think Dharma is cool. Knowing about Buddha nature is cool.
And, hey, our prayers worked!!! Aubree is cancer-free! She is no longer dying! What a miracle. And her family have all magically recovered and become loving, reasonable people!!
Also, btw, remember that friend who committed suicide? Happily oblivious to the fact that she is dead, she is getting married next month, and Aubree has been invited to the wedding.
Our road of caring for Aubree has come to an end, and her family are taking it from here. She has confessed to lying. They have hopefully found a good place for her to receive help. I wish them all the best.
Echoes of “Misery”
See, go back to the first paragraph of this article and read it again, and perhaps you will understand why Aubree was panicking 😉 She was out in the middle of nowhere, far from her house. Two days of pretense was one thing, but this was a week already and she had to get to work, she was ravenous, she was being force-fed pills, and she couldn’t sleep at night because of her medicine-induced seizures and full-volume playlist.
Some lessons learned on this crazy train
Lesson #1 ~ What can we rely on?
At dinner, her sister commented that we must be angry, and we replied truthfully that we were not because we haven’t lost anything, not really, and we gained a great deal from Aubree. And inside there is definitely a dear, lovely person with potential, one that did shine through, despite her desperate need for attention, despite her mental illness.
Jim put it this way yesterday when he spoke to the Sangha:
“Although everything we knew about Aubree was wrong, the love and compassion she brought out of me was true. I had no idea I had these reserves of patience in me and could, for example, survive happily on so little sleep! And therefore I don’t regret it. For me, Aubree was an emanation of all the stages of the path from precious human life, death, and the fears of lower rebirth all the way through to love, compassion, and patience. And now I am learning the greatest lesson of all, the hallucinatory, deceptive nature of samsara. Dharma now is also what is healing any hurt I have.”
Both Jim and Karin have emerged as Bodhisattvas in my book. Their Sangha is impressed with them.
Buddhas emanate whatever we need, and Aubree did bring out the best in us so who knows who she is. Jim quoted the verse from the mind-training teachings:
Even if someone I have helped
And of whom I had great hopes
Nevertheless harms me intentionally
May I see him as my holy Spiritual Guide.
We have lost nothing, even if Aubree has. She has taught us much. As one friend puts it, Aubree was “for us”.
So, other than the wisdom that sees right through it all, including the “polluted memories” as someone sadly put it, what can we rely upon in this crazy mixed up world of illusion? (I address that a bit in this article.) We can rely upon love and compassion. And honesty (see below). We can rely upon the Dharma Jewel of Lamrim.
As Aubree earnestly texted me herself a few months back:
“If negative actions occur in this life despite trying to go for refuge and show compassion, can a precious human life be maintained?”
Even if this is the weirdest route to finding a Spiritual Guide and Dharma that I have ever seen, I am praying that some of the Dharma Aubree professed and seemed to love really did go in, and that it will help her now.
How could you be so stupid? …
… someone at his work asked Jim. Were we duped? Yes, most heartily. Are we embarrassed? Yes, maybe a little. But that was an Oscar-winning performance. She had actual seizures for hours on end. She went blue in the face. She was skin and bone. She held her body differently for days on end, faltered on her legs, talked in a strained way, and so on. Fifteen years ago she pulled another stunt and managed to dupe a whole team of care-workers including a psychologist. And embarrassment doesn’t hurt us. But being mistaken is okay if our hearts are true and we come to realize our mistake. Now we can all work on our wisdom.
In Heart of Wisdom, Geshe Kelsang talks about someone driving in the wrong direction to London and suddenly realizing he has been wrong all along. Finding out about Aubree was one of those heart-stopping moments, WHAT??! Have we really been on this crazy train for two years?
But in fact we have been on a crazy train since beginningless time. As Geshe-la says, when this man realizes he has made a serious mistake, he turns back, and:
… hopefully follows the correct road to London. In a similar way, before realizing emptiness we are following incorrect paths… At present we believe that whatever appears to our mind is truly existent and then we follow the paths of cyclic existence.
It is past time we all got off this crazy train. As Geshe-la says:
We shall know that hitherto we have been completely misled and mistaken. We shall realize that what appeared to us, what we apprehended, and the attitudes we developed were all completely wrong. Then, hopefully, we will begin to follow the path to liberation, the path that really does lead to peace and happiness.
Lesson # 2 ~ Hold space
This drama has increased my will to get into my heart every day and let all the elaborations fall away. Ideally we can learn over time to abide in our very subtle mind mixed with the nature of ultimate truth — bliss and emptiness, Mahamudra. There’s a beautiful line about this in Vajrayogini Tantra:
Then the youth of my mind, exhausted by its elaborations,
Came to rest in the forest hut beyond expression.
Do we not live these days in an overstimulated world of so many false appearances bombarding us daily? Special effects, political echo chambers, virtual reality, video games, all those iSomethings, AI robots, Pokémon Go, self-seeking lies, idle gossip, FOMO, etc, etc, etc. These days, we apparently spend 10+ hours on our screens, much of that precious time sucked into a made-up world one way or another.
But we need peace. We can’t be happy without it. Excited, maybe… but happy? No. We need to hang out at least some of our time in that forest hut. At the very least we need to allow our otherwise endless distractions to subside through breathing meditation to access the natural peace, clarity, and stillness of our own minds. We need to identify with and enjoy our vast and profound true nature, our Buddha nature. For this to happen, at least a little meditation regularly is crucial.
And this is not just for ourselves. As one friend puts it, we need to “hold space” for everyone. Become a refuge, a Sangha Jewel.
Why instead use the few remaining months we have left to seek out more confusion and trickery? What’s the point?
Lesson # 3 ~ Be honest, always
It is not worth adding extra elaborations to samsara. Better to be scrupulously honest, not deliberately deceiving others by lying. We are all already in a web of deception, so please let’s not make it worse.
Our self-protective minds of self-grasping and self-cherishing already have a tendency to weave little lies just to sustain the illusion of a non-existent self, both for ourselves and for others. Sometimes we know we are doing it, sometimes we don’t. Aubree just took this fake identity to a whole new level.
Gotta stop stirring. Some slander is true to utter, and some is false (see Joyful Path). Either way, if our words turn people against each other they are to be avoided. We need to talk about others’ good qualities rather than their faults, see the best in them, bring out the best.
So much of our conversation is gossip and hyperbole! We don’t need to keep talking nonsense with no wish to help others (namely, idle chatter.) We are already wrapped in nonsense.
I find it interesting that these 3 of the 4 non-virtuous actions of speech explained by Buddha (see Joyful Path) — lying, slander, and idle gossip – all have something to do with deceiving or at best distracting each other. Harmony is key to happiness, and distrust kills it. Avoiding these negative verbal actions is especially important in our spiritual communities.
Thank you for getting this far. As Aubree once requested: “If you guys want to post photos some place, please do not tag me and if you use names, please be careful. As you know, my family is crazy and I can’t have things on my webpage.” For different reasons, to really protect the innocent, I have changed all names and withheld all photographic evidence. And, not for the first time, I request your prayers for poor Aubree and her confused and reeling family. But these are different prayers.
A guest article by a modern Buddhist practitioner who works full time as a manager of software development teams.
Leveraging objects of desire as a basis for rapid inner transformation is part of the quick path to enlightenment. To accomplish this transformation, we need to practice on the basis of a pure motivation and some understanding of ultimate truth, emptiness. These practices also require some experience of Buddhism and a Tantric empowerment. See the article Tantra: Transforming enjoyments for a similar practice that anyone can do.
Before engaging in them we develop the motivation of bodhichitta, a determination to become a fully enlightened being in order to liberate all living beings permanently from suffering. With this motivation we then recall our knowledge of emptiness, remembering that nothing exists from its own side. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso summarizes this preliminary practice in Part Four of The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra:
We should first develop the supreme good heart, bodhichitta, that sincerely wishes to liberate all living beings from suffering permanently by ourself becoming the enlightened being Heruka, and the understanding and belief that our body, our self and all the other phenomena that we normally see or perceive do not exist at all. ~ page 124
Learning to transform objects of desire
How can we begin learning to transform objects of desire? When we gaze upon an attractive person in the meditation break, or eat some delicious food, it induces a feeling of bliss in our mind. If we train our mind to recognize and hold this blissful feeling, we can use it as an object of meditation. With this feeling of bliss, we then contemplate emptiness by recalling that: 1) this appearance is not independent of our mind and 2) this appearance is not outside of our mind:
If the pleasurable experience is independent of our mind, then everyone would perceive that person or object as attractive. Since the experience depends on our mind, the person we normally perceive, the independent person, does not exist at all.
If the pleasurable experience is outside of our mind, then we could not experience it. Since pleasure is a feeling in the mind, this indicates that our mind is creating both the experience and the person or object who is the object of that experience, rather like an experience in a dream. Another way of saying this is that the person is an appearance of our mind, appearing to our mind.
These are very profound topics, but they will start to make sense naturally if we build familiarity with them now. Thinking in this way we can mix the feeling of bliss with the knowledge of emptiness. This recollection helps to oppose the mind of attachment that would suck our mind into the object. Instead, we can be like a bee extracting pollen from a flower, understanding that the pleasurable feeling is arising within the space of our mind. We can enhance this entire experience by connecting it to our Spiritual Guide’s mind of spontaneous great bliss at our heart.
Taking refuge in our own inner bliss
This process helps to train our mind in refuge, which is the foundation of being a Buddhist. We are learning to turn within to our experience to find the happiness and freedom we seek. With familiarity, this bliss within our heart will grow and we will naturally rely on it to find satisfaction. Over time it will become infinitely more satisfying than any of our ordinary enjoyments.
According to Lamrim, a mind of refuge contains faith in Buddha, his teachings the Dharma, and the Sangha practitioners. To incorporate this we can remember that this experience of bliss and emptiness is Dharma, protecting us from delusions and suffering. It is also mixed with the mind of our Spiritual Guide inseparable from Buddha, as well as the experience of the past and present Sangha Yogis and Yoginis.
By enjoying objects of desire in this way, we can come to understand how these practices destroy attachment, like a fire consuming the wood that started it. Every object of desire will take us straight into our heart to build an increasingly transcendental experience there.
Bringing the experience of bliss into the meditation session
Once we have some experience of enjoying objects of desire in the meditation break we can learn to apply this to the meditation session. For example, we can learn how to generate bliss in the meditation session by gazing upon a visualized god or goddess. This is easily done if we recall the bliss experienced from the meditation break.
There are many times in the meditation session that we can apply this in the context of our sadhana, or practice — for example, after dissolving our Spiritual Guide into our heart and before meditating on bringing death into the path of the Truth Body. In Tantric Grounds and Paths Geshe Kelsang says:
At first our experience of bliss will not be very strong, but if we develop familiarity with this meditation we shall gradually develop a special feeling of bliss. We should maintain this experience and keep our own subtle mind focused on this feeling single-pointedly. ~ page 243
In this way, we use the meditation break to enhance our meditation session and vice versa.
Four complete purities of generation stage Tantra
We train in the practice of transforming objects of desire explained above on the basis of the four complete purities. In generation stage, this means enjoying objects while imagining we have complete purity of 1) place, 2) body, 3) activities, and 4) enjoyments. This means that we feel we are in an enlightened world, have the body of an enlightened being, and benefit all beings without exception, and that all our enjoyments are free from impurity. This correct imagination helps us to dissolve away the contaminated ordinary characteristics of our enjoyments and to experience them in a pure way.
All beings are actual Heroes and Heroines. Everything is immaculately pure, Without even the name of mistaken impure appearance.
By enjoying in this way, we are making offerings to all the Buddhas. As Geshe Kelsang says in The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra:
… we enjoy any objects of desire as offerings to the holy beings who reside in the Temple of our body. This practice is a special method to transform our daily enjoyments into the quick path to enlightenment. This is Tantric technology! ~ page 104
Four complete purities of completion stage Tantra
In completion stage, we enjoy objects of desire in dependence upon the great bliss developed from meditation on the central channel. The bliss developed in dependence upon completion stage is vastly superior to any other experience of bliss. This experience develops in the root mind at our heart and contains the four complete purities. It is a non-conceptual experience of emptiness, which means it is free from gross and subtle appearances. This realization of the true nature of things with a very subtle mind is free from mistaken appearance. Due to this, there are no impure places, bodies, enjoyments, and activities appearing to it.
One practice I like to do in accordance with completion stage is offering the blissful experience to myself generated as the Dharmakaya or Truth Body of my personal Deity, such as Dharmakaya Heruka. This, in turn, enhances my mind of bliss and deepens my experience of emptiness. I offer my experience of the four complete purities of great bliss and emptiness to my Spiritual Guide’s mind mixed with my own mind at my heart. This practice feels like a mandala offering in that it fills my mind with good karma and joy!
Progress through practice and familiarity
This practice of transforming enjoyments encapsulates every aspect of Buddha’s teachings. If we gain familiarity with developing bliss in this way, our winds will gradually come closer to abiding in our central channel. Buddha teaches that when this happens we will experience a bliss that is stable and subtle, and that gives rise to unceasing physical and mental suppleness. Our mind will become lucid and flexible, and in this space we can let go of delusions quickly and easily.
This mental suppleness allows us to easily mix virtuous Lamrim minds into everything that happens, every appearance, both in and out of meditation. As a result we will experience deep inner peace and happiness day and night. Accomplishing this is the real meaning of our human life. Once we do, we will possess a wishfulfilling jewel of a mind that bestows endless benefit on ourselves and others.
January 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.
(Update 2020: In this year of 2021, there is even more choice than usual because of the numerous livestream retreats on offer! Scroll to the bottom to see some of your options.)
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 ☺️ (Update 2020: Or to join in for individual sessions as and when you can, given the live stream options …)
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.
Nowadays addiction to being always “on” is a serious problem for people who want to go deep and stay deep. If we’re not careful, not only can these addictions take us away from a guaranteed source of peace in terms of using up our time and interest, but we end up going for refuge to them, seeking relief in them instead of Dharma.
I know how I feel when I go for refuge to social media or entertainment rather than to the guaranteed peace, joy, and satisfaction I get whenever I bother to take Dharma to heart. And it’s not that nice, to be honest. How about you?
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 this new decade up in the way we’d like it to continue… how’s that for a new year’s resolution?
(Update: I wrote this article several years ago — and the years since, particular this year of 2020, have all proved to be even weirder! Retreat is very needed in our world if we have the chance to do any at all, holding the space for others.)
If ever there was a good time to get some perspective and space from all the craziness, the beginning of 2017 (and 2021, ed) 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
Our 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.
It’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 everything 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.
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.
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 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 2021
Like I mentioned above, there is so much on offer this January!
These IRCs and KMCs all 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.”
And check out this link for retreats at your local Centers.
You can also think about using January to get along to some inspiring meditation classes and establish a good meditation habit for 2021, including this free public talk on New Year’s Day. 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?
By the way, during that meditation I described on the meditation on the nature of the mind, the moment we notice we are distracted we can ask the same question, “What is it that is aware?” so that we return to the clarity of the mind, allowing the distracting concern to dissolve back into the clarity like a wave settling into a still ocean.
There are other legitimate things to do as well if we find ourselves too tempted to get involved with our thoughts — we can recall subtle impermanence, that these things are already gone, and in that way let them dissolve spontaneously away. Or we can recall the suffering nature of contaminated phenomena, that the end of collection is dispersion and so on, motivating us to deepen our meditation. These ways into the clarity of the mind were taught by Venerable Geshe Kelsang in his fantastic 2000 AD teachings combining Mahamudra and the four seals, and I’d love to get around to talking about them some day as they have helped me immeasurably. The main object of meditation is clarity, so once we have found that we stick with it; but we can use various contemplations to help us get there.
This article is part of a series of Mahamudra articles. Those of you who know about Lamrim, or the stages of the path to enlightenment, may wonder where meditating on the nature of the mind appears in the 21 meditations? It doesn’t explicitly, but it is our favored object of tranquil abiding (#19), and it does appear in many other places in the Kadampa books, such as How to Understand the Mind and Mahamudra Tantra, and in detail in two chapters of Clear Light of Bliss. It also features in Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s new book,The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, in which the first of the five stages of the actual practice of Mahamudra is identifying our own mind and meditating on tranquil abiding.
Prayers and blessings
You may have noticed that in this tradition we like to practice in conjunction with prayers (whether we say them out loud or not). When some of you first encounter the prayers, you think, “How wonderful, I love them!” … but there are not many of you. A lot of people’s initial response is “What? I thought they didn’t have this in Buddhism! I came to relax and now you want me to sing?!” And then we reconcile ourselves to the idea: “Ah well, I’ll settle my mind with the breathing meditation, let my mind rest and ramble during the prayers, and then focus again when I am back on the meditation.” That, of course, is not the idea. As Geshe Kelsang has warned us many times, we don’t want to get into the bad habit of parroting the prayers. Instead we can start off really well by communing with enlightened beings.
The main purpose of prayers is to change our mind in a good direction and to receive blessings. With blessings we are essentially connecting our mind to an enlightened being’s mind and, in doing so, adding a lot of power and fluidity to our meditations. This exponentially facilitates and deepens our experience.
This meditation on the nature of the mind is part of the Mahamudra practice, which is the heart essence of our lineage, the Ganden Oral Lineage, and lies at the very heart of our Spiritual Guide’s experience. So this particular Mahamudra lineage that we are receiving comes directly from Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the new Kadampa tradition; and it is exceedingly blessed. As Venerable Geshe-la says in Great Treasury of Merit, thousands of Je Tsongkhapa’s disciples gained deep experience through putting these methods into practice, attaining the illusory body, clear light, and full enlightenment.
It is very important for us to recognize and think about blessings, for otherwise, when we meditate, WE try to meditate. Meaning that while identifying ourselves in an ordinary limited way, we try to coerce our mind into having very profound experiences of the subtle dimensions of reality. Basically, we are TRYING in the wrong way. We are putting the onus on our SELF, and in particular our ordinary sense of self.
I think often when we sit down to meditate we immediately bring up an association with our self, the one that is not that good at meditating. We only think about this sense of self when it is time to meditate, when we feel we need to cajole it, “This time, you are going to do it!”, and then basically push to have an experience of the clarity of the mind. And of course what can happen is that we end up not having this experience, which in a rather subconscious gratifying way affirms what we knew all along, ie, that we are not very good at meditating. It reinforces our underlying sense of discouragement, a common type of laziness.
This is a great shame with this great gift of Mahamudra. Hence, blessings.
Buddha is not outside our mind
Everything we experience is not outside our mind, nothing is outside the mind. For example, is the sound of the bird inside or outside? You cannot separate it from your perception, you cannot draw a line between the perception and the sound; so it is inside. Your experience of your friend is your experience of your friend, inside, not out.
So when we bring to mind Buddha, he or she is not outside my mind. There is no need to buy into the dualistic appearance of a gap or separation – my isolated meditation over here and the Awakened Ones having a great time over there. When we pray, we are not petitioning external forces but awakening our own potential by recognizing it is not separate from the minds of all enlightened beings. And we are doing this for everyone.
Venerable Geshe Kelsang says every single peaceful mind and happiness arises through Buddha’s blessings. (There is a great explanation of that in this guest article.) According to Geshe-la:
Enlightenment is the inner light of wisdom that is permanently free from all mistaken appearance, and whose function is to bestow mental peace upon each and every living being every day. Only human beings can attain this through practicing meditation. How fortunate we are! ~ The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, p. 3.
We can understand that whenever we develop a positive mind, in that moment, when we allow ourselves to be happy, we have disengaged from delusions to some extent. We have allowed our mind to come into alignment with a Buddha’s non-deluded reality, which is pervaded by peace, joy, love, etc; tapping into a profound enlightenment.
So we need to allow that to happen rather than the clutching “Yikes, grab my peace, it’s disappearing!” rodeo experience of meditating. Our meditation should not be a rodeo; it should feel instead like a settling. The word we use, in Clear Light of Bliss for example, is “Settling like a still ocean.” We use our own experience of peace to help settle into a vast transcendent experience of peace, joy, etc.
My peace is already connected to Buddha’s peace, great! So we start not from disconnection but from connection, from refuge, and allow the prayers to deepen that experience naturally. Geshe Kelsang has likened prayers to an old man’s stick, a reminder to their meaning. So we let the words suggest the minds, as opposed to forcing the minds and getting tired and distracted. We enjoy what we’re saying, saying it from the heart, while abiding in that communion.
Then when it is time to meditate, we do so while continuing to bathe in that experience – we don’t LEAVE the blessings. It’s not like filling our car up with gas and then driving off, here I am all on my own again. We meditate WITH blessings, we can even let the Spiritual Guide do the meditation for us for he really wants to help and he is very good at this. Instead of combat with obstacles, nay-saying, and distractions, we can really relax. From the point of view of the Spiritual Guide, there are no obstacles, and we are already fantastic. We could do a lot worse than to get into the habit of seeing ourself through his eyes.
Look in the mirror
Do you want to know what else I do?! I look at a picture of my favorite enlightened being and think I am looking in the mirror. We don’t have to feel that we are unworthy or light years away from our Spiritual Guide or the Buddhas. That is ordinary appearance, and they don’t ever see us as ordinary or limited.
So feel free at any time during the meditation to reconnect with the Spiritual Guide and simply ask, “Please help me with clarity.” If we throw a pebble in the pond and wait, ripples will gradually arise. We ask for some guidance or inspiration, and then we wait.
Do leave a comment to add anything else that is helpful or ask questions.
As mentioned in the last article, giving thanks, or being grateful, is an effective way to feel good. It can also help us help others, inspiring us to repay kindness instead of taking it for granted, ignoring it, and/or focusing on others’ faults.
And gratitude is not something we either have or don’t have – we can deliberately cultivate it until it becomes a strong, natural habit that inspires us every day.
For example, researchers in one 2003 study randomly assigned one group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed hassles or neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the others. Other studies have shown the same pattern and lead to the same conclusion. ~New York Times, 11/22/2015
Buddhism can help us feel grateful on a large life-altering scale. The entire Lamrim, or stages of the path, teaches umpteen reasons for feeling lucky and grateful, and not just small ones either — some of these reasons are existentially cosmic, or cosmically existential, if you know what I mean.
Precious human life
It starts with our precious human life, realizing what we have compared with the sheer enormity of suffering of people in the lower realms right now, such as Butters, who is not only a small cat with zero control over his life (or bowels at the moment) but who also has to be jabbed with a needle twice a day to overcome his nausea. Or the flood of scared, exhausted refugees. Or the bundled up, unwashed man who keeps trying to play Frisbee with himself in the snowy park, muttering and shaking his head as he yet again walks after it to pick it up. Or …, or …, or …? Or even compared just with those who don’t know at all how to make themselves or the friends around them happy, even though that is all they have ever wanted?
We have the option in this life to attempt whatever we want, spiritually speaking, including developing bodhichitta and becoming a Buddha. There’s a great story in Meaningful to Behold about a one-legged man who falls off a cliff on to the back of a wild horse. As the horse gallops off, the villagers yell at him to get off, but, knowing this horse ride is an almost impossibly rare opportunity, he replies: “Not on your life!”
In Buddhism, the precursor meditation to developing gratitude and love for all living beings as our mothers is recognizing that they are all our mothers. The other day I overheard someone after receiving his first teaching on this: “That’s awesome!” he said, nodding his head a lot and smiling. Pause, then: “But life would be so much fun then, if we thought that. Where would the suffering be?” Another pause, before he answered his own question. “I guess we’re all still experiencing suffering and I’d want to get us ALL out.” Such confidence he had at that moment to deal with suffering, coming from a feeling of being whole and connected, not from a feeling of being bereft and helpless.
Waves on an ocean
We receive kindness from everyone every day – we are like waves in an ocean. A wave in an ocean may put up his watery hand and say, “Look at me! I’m distinct! I’m unique!” In a way he is right, and we’re all distinct and unique; but if we scratch beneath the surface we can understand that this wave is made up entirely of all the other waves. In the same way, we cannot exist on any level without others, we owe them everything, we are already in a symbiotic relationship with them all. Check out Eight Steps to Happiness for the meditation.
Takes some contemplation to get there, and for it to be emotionally authentic; but we do come to see that others are the very infrastructure of our being, the very part and parcel of our existence – and that holding onto a separation between self and other is like trying to cut the sky in two with a knife.
Contemplating our interdependence naturally leads to gratitude and a feeling of richness and completeness – after all, as a wave, you have all the other waves in you already, you are missing nothing. (Did you know, by the way, that the word “whole” comes from the Old English hal, meaning “entire, unhurt, healthy”?)
3 reasons to feel good
Next time you’re feeling low you could check and see if you are assuming anything along the following lines: “Of course, the causes of my depression are out there in my lost friendship, my dead-end job, or my miserable life! It’s obvious. Plus, although I’m trying to be a happy Buddhist, what about all that endless suffering I keep hearing about! I’m doomed! I can’t handle all this. And look at everyone else having so much fun without me!”
By the way, I know this is true (taken from that same article today in the New York Times):
For many people, gratitude is difficult, because life is difficult. Even beyond deprivation and depression, there are many ordinary circumstances in which gratitude doesn’t come easily.
But I still think it is worth the effort to cultivate gratitude, and maybe we only need to think of 3 things — just 3 will do — that we can be grateful for to open that door.
Maybe pick from these 3 categories (just a suggestion, as is of course everything else you read on here.) Any order will do.
My potential.I do already have all the seeds for great happiness and freedom within. My Buddha nature is indestructible. It is there, I just have to re-access it and give myself a break from focusing on all that’s wrong with me, that limited painful self.
Something existential/big picture of our life. For example, I have a precious human life! That’s about as likely as a blind turtle managing to stick its head through a golden yoke that is floating on an immense ocean, but I’ve managed it. Or, another example, I have found Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and/or a Spiritual Guide who can take me wherever I want to go! Or, another example, others are immensely kind all the time in every way. No wonder Geshe Kelsang keeps saying, “How fortunate we are.”
Something in our daily life.For example, today I get to be indoors and warm even though it is snowing out there, and the trees are beautiful in the Fall light, and I’ll be able to hang out with some lovely people, and … whatever, just start counting your blessings however you like, big or small, and see where you end up.
Thinking about these things, hopefully we’ll feel gratitude, we’ll feel lucky. And I reckon we are only as lucky as we feel.
We can then think, if we like: “How come I have all these things?” They pretty much all come from others. In that way we’ll feel even more thankful, and even better.
As the same NYT article says:
It’s science, but also common sense: Choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things. As my teenage kids would say, “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”
Is no news good news?
“No news is good news,” we say, maybe because we do so want things to stay predictable and our boat not to be rocked. However, as everything is impermanent, everything is news, in that everything is new every moment. There’s a Kadampa rejoicing group on Facebook where people just share things to feel good about – it is all news, but sometimes it lifts the heart. If we take the time to spell out the good stuff in our lives, we will feel gratitude. And we will naturally want to share it with others.
Taking things for granted is the opposite of gratitude.
I like his anecdote:
I was on an airplane and there was internet – high speed internet – on the airplane. That’s the newest thing that I know exists. And I’m sitting on the plane and they go, “Open up your laptops. You can go on the internet.” And it’s fast and I’m watching YouTube clips – it’s amazing – I’m in an airplane! And then it breaks down. And they apologize, “The internet’s not working.” The guy next to me goes, “This is bullshit.” Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago.
Can gratitude help prevent worry?
Our thoughts are not fixed and we can re-arrange them to our advantage. I find I am having to do that today as the foster kitten Butters is really very sickly. He has transformed from a bouncy butterball into a skinny little thing weighing less than a pound, just lying there listlessly. I can (1) uselessly worry that he’s going to die etc, which helps neither of us; or (2) feel grateful to him for giving me this opportunity to cherish someone else for a change, even when they are pooping over everything. I’ve been doing #2 as much as I can, and can report a considerable difference in terms of peace of mind.*
Try counting them
Finally, here’s another method I use to feel good. I don’t know if it’ll work for you but feel free to give it a try. Love is known as “the great protector” — it always protects us from mental pain and makes us happy, so the more of it the better. If you could wave a magic wand and make people happy, who would they be? Count them all. Think about them a bit. Then, as they feel the same about their friends and relatives, wave your magic wand for their people as well. And so on. And then, if this is going well, you might find it pretty easy to feel quite spontaneously grateful for just how much opportunity you have to love others, grateful for just how many people there are to love. Seriously. This can work!
Heartburn or heartwarm?!
Thanksgiving, when this article was originally written, is the official day to give thanks in the United States. It can be an excuse to slaughter defenseless turkeys, get indigestion, and argue with relatives, or it can be a heartwarming reminder of our good fortune. What would happen, do you think, if 300 million people stopped blaming & complaining for a whole day, and instead focused with gratitude on what we have?
This article is of course by no means exhaustive about what we have to feel grateful about, so please add your ideas to the comments.
*Update on Butters
He died in my arms at 2am on 11/25. Many people were kind enough to pray for him, including Venerable Geshe-la. May all living beings be loved like Butters.
A few days ago I was in the English Lake District, walking in Tarn Haws, contemplating water flow – sometimes gushing fast down a waterfall, sometimes collecting briefly in pools created by rocks in the river, but always, always moving. Even in the stillest parts of the stream, the water did not remain the same even for a moment. Our consciousness too may pool in one world for a time, with the relatively superficial swirls and eddies of change — perhaps we will move around, or change friends, or raise a family, or advance in our careers, or retire. But one day it will inexorably exit through the rocks to move on.
We deny impermanence at great cost to our peace of mind. If we do not go with the flow – if we think our current companions and infrastructure are moreorless permanent and the be all and end all of our life, thus investing us and them with self-grasping ignorance, attachment, aversion – it’s like trying to stay the water of a river. As Heraclitus put it, we can’t step in the same river twice. In fact he said we cannot step in the same river once – but, either way, living within an understanding of impermanence is vital to our spiritual and emotional well-being. Our mind is a constant flow, a constant becoming. We need to purify and transform our river-like mental continuum in the now – immersing it in the Dharma of compassion and wisdom. Mixing it with the blessings of the Guru, Buddhas, and Sangha, with their mental continuum, flowing into the vast and profound ocean of bliss and emptiness.
So, that is what I was thinking as I watched the river flow. I recommend that walk in Tarn Haws sometime 🙂
Expanding the mind
At any given moment, we are a being who is identified with this time traveler — that is our sense of who we are. Through coming to understand the continuum of our mind and that it is our life, as explained in these articles, this particular human life we have now becomes very meaningful.
Sometimes when people hear about future lives and how important it is to work for their happiness, they assume that this one short life is not important, that happiness must be deferred. But this is not true – this life becomes immensely important because we understand that it is a crucial part of this journey, in which we can prepare for the entire journey ahead. If we want to be happy in the future, we need to learn to be happy now. And we currently have all the conditions we need for spiritual practice. We have all obstacles out of our way. If we want to purify, liberate our mind, and so on, we can do so as much as we want with this precious human life. This is not the case with everyone — not everyone has this opportunity that we have right now. These conditions are very temporary, but at the moment we have them.
Our sights expand. If you have spent your life living in a castle, even a big one, and have never been outside, and one dawn you go up to the keep and peek your head over the parapets, you may think, “I never knew! There is a vast world out there!” I think that these meditations on the nature and function of the mind, on death and impermanence, on rebirth, on the cycle of consciousness, the cycle of life — these meditations are the dawning of spiritual awareness.
Geshe Kelsang, my Spiritual Guide, has said that we grow when we develop these understandings. We grow from what is called a “small initial scope being” to a “special initial scope being”. This means that our “being”, or who we are, has grown as our understanding and capacity has increased.
To explain a little … within Transform Your Life, for example, is contained all the stages of the path to enlightenment (Lamrim for short), the whole journey to enlightenment with all its increasing scopes of growing capacity. The first scope is called “initial scope”. Within initial scope are small initial scope and special initial scope. Small initial scope is where we’re at before we start getting interested in the continuum of consciousness, who we are, where we’re going, where we came from — we’re just interested in the things of this life. That’s who we are, that’s what we want, that’s all we are coping with.
Then, through understanding these teachings of Buddha, we grow from a small initial scope being to a special initial scope being, which means we have become someone who is actually interested in spiritual awareness and spiritual development. We are no long just stuck inside the castle, but looking over the parapets and seeing the vast wonder of the continuum of mind and its possibilities. Our mind is opening. Our awareness is expanding and we start getting interested in spiritual training.
Right now everything depends upon our mind, whether we are sad, happy, non-deluded, deluded, etc. Tomorrow everything is still going to depend upon our mind; next week it’s the same story. In ten years’ time our life is going to entirely depend upon our mind, just as it does today. When we die our life is still going to depend upon our mind. In the intermediate state, in our next life, everything is still going to be created by our mind and dependent upon our mind. Now if that’s the case, if our mind is of such profound importance, is in fact the creator of everything, indeed it is our life, then it makes a lot of sense to realize its full potential through spiritual practice.
If we think that our mind is just our body, if we never explore these things and never meditate on them and never come to understand them, then there does not seem to be a huge incentive to practice a spiritual path. Then we’re just a lump of lard. If it’s just the things of this life that are important to us, then we sell ourselves incredibly short.
Everyone reading this most likely has a precious human life at the moment. Even comparing ourselves with other human beings, we are really very lucky. Today, if the whole world were shrunk to a village of 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same, the demographics would apparently look something like this:
80 would live in substandard housing;
67 would be unable to read;
50 would be malnourished and 1 dying of starvation;
33 would be without access to a safe water supply;
39 would lack access to improved sanitation;
24 would not have any electricity;
7 people would have access to the Internet;
1 would have a college education;
1 would have HIV;
2 would be near birth; 1 near death;
5 would control 32% of the entire world’s wealth; all 5 would be from the US.
Where do you fit into all this? Also, in 2009, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life performed a study on religious freedom in the world. According to the results, nearly 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with heavy restrictions on religious freedom. But us? We can read spiritual books, go to meditation classes, go to church, go to the temple, go to yoga classes, practice at home… No one is stopping us from training our mind, fulfilling our true potential and becoming completely happy, except perhaps ourselves. That’s why this meditation on our precious human life comes first in the Lamrim cycle.
So, what is the meaning of life?!
The trillion-dollar question, but one I think we really need to have some kind of answer to if we are to have a meaningful life. ‘Course, meaning depends also on what we want and what we think we can get out of life.
Buddha explained how our life can be precious in three ways: from a temporary point of view, from an ultimate point of view, and in every moment. All the things we like doing to experience pleasure and purpose are only possible because we were born as a human being, and we can create the cause for more human life in the future. Not only that, but human beings can make enormous spiritual progress. We can reduce and even totally abandon our delusions, and increase our love, compassion and wisdom as much as we want, if we learn the methods. According to Buddha, within this short life we could even develop all our good qualities to their highest level, enlightenment. From that ultimate point of view, we are also incredibly lucky. Also, right here and now, and in every moment, we can learn to enjoy everything, as well as create the causes for future happiness. You can read all about all of this in the big Lamrim book, Joyful Path of Good Fortune.
When we attain enlightenment we will have fulfilled our own wishes, and we can fulfil the wishes of all other living beings; we will have liberated ourself permanently from the sufferings of this life and countless future lives, and we can directly benefit each and every living being every day.
I personally think that does sound impossible to beat. Plus, I believe it is entirely possible for you and me to attain enlightenment. So, I agree with my teacher:
The attainment of enlightenment is therefore the real meaning of human life.
Same actions, different outcomes
As mentioned in this article, we “remain natural while changing our aspiration.” We still do what we do as humans, and we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater by running off to live the rest of our life in a cave (if that were even possible). But at the same time we are using this life to journey to liberation and enlightenment by changing our view and intentions. In Kadampa Buddhism, we try to transform everything into the spiritual path. In How to Solve Our Human Problems, Geshe Kelsang says:
Buddha did not encourage us to abandon daily activities that provide necessary conditions for living, or that prevent poverty, environmental problems, particular diseases, and so forth. However, no matter how successful we are in these activities, we shall never achieve permanent cessation of such problems…. Therefore, we should not be satisfied with just temporary freedom from particular sufferings, but apply great effort to attain permanent freedom while we have this opportunity.
We can even keep enjoying the things we like enjoying, probably more if we can find a way to make them meaningful and not a cause of attachment and disappointment/aversion. I just watched my new team, the Denver Broncos, being crushed by the Seattle Seahawks. I don’t understand the game at all, but even I could see they were being massacred. I am now seriously having to consider going back to supporting the Tampa Bay Bucs. Or… Geshe Kelsang was once asked by a diehard football enthusiast how to transform watching football into the spiritual path. Geshe-la replied:
Rejoice for the winners, and have compassion for the losers.
Those are actually the two main practices of a Buddha — if we managed to do that, instead of staring sadly and disbelievingly at the telly, even watching the Super Bowl could be meaningful. Could be. Depends. (I am not in fact a football enthusiast myself, but was invited to a gathering near South Park in the snow-capped Rockies, and want to get to know my new neighbors; plus I do like the snacks. We left at half-time, full of compassion …)
A star in the midday sky
Not only is our current opportunity really precious, it is also exceedingly unusual – according to Buddha, as rare as a star seen in the midday sky.
If we think about all the daily ways in which we can make our life meaningful, we’ll come to realize that we are very lucky – this deep experience stays with us all the time and changes everything. Have you ever seen the rabbit in the moon? Funnily enough, it was the rabbit I always saw as a kid, never the man in the moon. Years later I discovered that the Tibetans call the moon the “rabbit-bearer” because they also see the clear shape of a rabbit on its surface. You may have glanced up at the moon for many years and not seen it, perhaps because you’ve never heard of it. Then, one day, “Got it!” From that moment on you’ll always see the rabbit whenever you see the moon. I think realizations are rather like this. Once we have realized our good fortune we are uplifted – never separated from the happy mind that appreciates and wants to make the most of it.
(This article is a continuation from this one … and your comments are very welcome.)