Want your meditation to flow?

water flowing

What do you do when your meditation isn’t flowing as you wish?water flowing

Sometimes we feel disconnected. All these teachings and meditations sound good, great even; but they are out there separated from us.

First bit of advice: Never push for an experience, and never get caught up in a “should” mentality – “I should be feeling love! But I’m not! Therefore, I’m no good.” The aim is not to self-generate as a bad person.

So the first thing we have to do when the mind is not moving is to accept it. Rather than thinking “Oh no!”, we think “Oh yes! This is what I have to work with now, this is what is appearing.” Once we let go of the resistance, within that space of acceptance we just need to find our way back to our basic spiritual foundation. Rather than pushing forward, we can step back to find our way forward. You can try this if you like:

Disengage from the unhappy thoughts for a moment, enough time to allow yourself to relax a little. Follow your breath if it helps, or simply sit there in your heart. Then turn  your attention to something that is generally guaranteed to put a smile on your face, such as your niece, or some kindness you have received. It doesn’t have to be much, something simple, just enough to shift your attention. You stop focusing on the things that are agitating your mind, so the natural peace of your mind can reassert itself.

inner peace 3No pushing to peace

If we stop shaking our mind, our mind will stop shaking. We don’t press our mind into peace; we just stop agitating our mind and it becomes peaceful. We can build more peace from there. No point wrestling with unhappy thoughts like a dog with a bone in order to sort them out, “I gotta sort this out! It’s getting in the way of my meditation!” No need to apply any opponents to our delusions just yet. We just relax back to some peace, however slight, and the rest of our meditation can take place in the space of a basically peaceful mind. Identifying with the peace, we can then apply the opponents later.

How do I meditate to get some feeling?

Someone who has been meditating for a long time but not enjoying it as much as she might asked me the other day how to meditate to get some feeling. This is what I suggested.

We need to start where we are, with our own experience, not pushing for a result that is somewhere outside of us. Start by getting into your heart and simply imagining there is some peace there. Find an inroad into that peace by connecting to a thought of gratitude and love that comes relatively easily to you, that works for you — like the last time you saw your dog, or the appreciation you feel for a friend. Then understand that the peace is your own Buddha nature, it is you, it is Dharma, and it is also not different to the peace of your Spiritual Guide, Buddha. Basking in the feeling of faith increases the peace even more, and on that basis you can spread out the feeling of gratitude or the feeling of love to more people, bringing them into its orbit.

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Foster kitten works for me.

Only once you have relaxed in this way, feeling in your heart the confidence that arises from your own experience, start your actual meditation.

If you like, while abiding in that space of refuge, do some blessed prayers as a way to purify the mind, increase your good karma, and receive even more inspiration for the meditation you want to do. It can help focus the mind too if you briefly generate the object of meditation before the prayers, and then recite the prayers with the implicit request to deepen and stabilize that particular realization.

I think this is where we need to start if we are not to be overwhelmed by appearances/distractions or identified with delusions and pain. There is more meditation advice along these lines here.

Our mind is on our side

Always remember: Your mind is on your side. Happiness arises naturally by letting go and abiding. We don’t have to force happy thoughts back into our head or push our mind for an experience of peace; we just need to let go of the thoughts that are shaking our mind.Digital Camera Exif JPEG

Imagine getting out of a perfectly functioning Ferrari to push it along the highway. Crazy, right? But no crazier than trying to push your mind when it is already perfectly capable of moving itself.

So, in summary, we don’t identify with ourselves as being blocked, negative, not able to meditate. That’s wasted time. Our mind is on our side, and even the slightest peace indicates its nature and potential for lasting peace, indeed permanent bliss. So it indicates our unbelievable potential, our Buddha nature. We can always go back to basics and identify with our Buddha nature. If we connect to our potential, we can feel that we are fortunate, and our peace will increase. If we allow ourselves to just relax into the nature of our mind, sooner or later this peace expands, takes on a life of its own, is pervaded by blessings; and we will feel that we can meditate on anything.

More about our Buddha nature and acceptance in the next article. Meanwhile, your comments and shared experience of overcoming obstacles in meditation are very appreciated.

Dealing with our demons

monster in the cellar

Light in cellarOf the three steps to overcoming our delusions taught in the mind-training teachings of Buddhism, the first is recognizing or identifying them. And that means not just intellectually but in our own minds. We identify them but we don’t identify WITH them — the difference is crucial. (The next two steps are overcoming them by applying their opponents and uprooting them completely with the wisdom that realizes emptiness.)

Monsters in the cellar

It is far better not to repress those bits of our mind that we don’t like. These delusions and the bad karmic appearances they spawn are not intrinsic to our mind but, while we fail to accept that they are there, they continue to lurk in our mental cellar. Even when they don’t jump out and terrify us, they still haunt us. They cause us unease and painful feelings without our even knowing why we are feeling this way. Do you ever find life a bit spooky, or is that just me? I think life is a bit spooky when we are living under the influence of unacknowledged mental monsters. We sort of know they’re all there, which is why we try to keep that cellar door firmly shut and bolted.

We have various strategies to avoid them, as mentioned here, but they’re not really working. You’ve seen horror movies, maybe — you know what people do to try and pretend there are no monsters in the cellar. They blame the creepy neighbors, distract themselves, and/or get blind drunk. Or they try to leave the house, but of course that never goes well (we cannot leave our minds.)monster in the cellar

Whatever they do, the terror still creeps up the stairs and through the cracks in the doors and windows; and it always seems to maintain the element of surprise. They know that, so they are never truly comfortable; they live in fear.

Our refusal to own our delusions pushes them into the cellar, where they exert enormous unseen influence over what we do in life. We need instead to have the confidence and authenticity to bring these inner demons of the delusions out into the open, invite them to show their faces in the light of our pure, indestructible potential, so we can (1) see that there is nothing to be scared of, they are not so intolerable, and we are far bigger and stronger than them; and (2) be prepared to learn from them to see what is really happening in our mind. Check out this article for more on how to do this.

Moving beyond

We cannot completely and whole-heartedly accept who we are or where we’re at if there are aspects of our mind that we are too afraid (or alternatively too self-satisfied) to explore. And if we cannot accept who we are, we cannot change who we are. If we want to improve, we need to take ownership and responsibility for our delusions, taking a good honest look at them rather than denying them or rejecting them outright.

Once we acknowledge instead of avoiding one of these dark traits or habit patterns, it will cease to have the same control over us. We will also see more clearly that we are not our delusions, that they come and go like clouds in a clear sky, like weather.

For example, we cannot move beyond our habitual dislike for others — that, “I don’t really like people very much, at least till I get to know them, and even then…” mind — until we realize we possess this mind of self-protective aversion, which is projecting unlikeability onto the mess of humanity (probably starting with ourselves). At the same time, we need to see that we are not the aversion, that our real nature is connectivity and affection.

One of the most valuable things I did during my longish retreat a few years ago was look at my delusions head on in this way, not papering them over with unapplied generalities of Dharma, not shoving them under the carpet, not pretending they were not shadow 1.JPGthere. I came to discover that when I had a strong delusion, my subsequent meditation session was even stronger as a result, such that I actively came to enjoy my delusions in a funny kind of way, certainly they lost a lot of their power to scare me or influence me. They became more objects of curiosity, of challenge. I’m not saying I have anywhere near mastered this yet, of course; it is a life-long practice and our delusions have many levels. (We always have to be on the look out for complacency and self-satisfaction too, which can rear their lazy heads when our mind is feeling comfortable.) But I do have total confidence in the possibility of genuinely accepting all our delusions, however shadowy, and letting them go with the help of applied Dharma.

More coming later! Meanwhile, please share your comments below on how you deal with the monsters in your cellar.

Accepting unhappiness without panicking

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Another instinctive reaction to hurt feelings (accentuated these days by 24/7 availability) is to try and distract ourselves from them, hoping that by sweeping them under the carpet they’ll go away.

Carrying straight on from this articlejack in the box

Maybe we switch on a miniseries on Netflix for 6 hours, get drunk, run away, try and put ourselves somewhere else. We are trying to get away from our own thoughts, but what we resist persists; and by ignoring, repressing, or denying what is going on inside the more intrusive our thoughts become. Undealt with thoughts have a habit of coming back and biting us even harder the next time. What happens to a jack in the box when we try to push him down?

Do you remember me mentioning this experiment in Science Journal? The scientists got 700 people to sit in a room on their own, that was the experiment! But … they took away their smartphones. Horror! And how long do you think those poor souls lasted? Apparently all of 6 to 15 minutes before they preferred to administer themselves with electric shocks than endure any more time in solitary confinement. People are seemingly incapable of sitting with their thoughts due to unaccepted and unprocessed grief, loss, sadness – so, when left alone, they started to get sad. People everywhere have lost the art of accepting, processing, working through, letting go, moving on.

IMG_6725So, suppressing our unhappy thoughts is not the way to get rid of them, whereas accepting that they are there, like clouds, is the beginning of being able to transform them. We need to let them be, without panicking. As Ven Geshe Kelsang says in How to Solve Our Human Problems:

Unfortunately, by reacting so quickly we do not give ourself the time to see what is actually going on in our mind. In reality, the painful feelings that arise on such occasions are not intolerable. They are only feelings, a few moments of bad weather in the mind, with no power to cause us any lasting harm. There is no need to take them so seriously.

Phew, what a relief!

No need for internal conflict

12743909_945984215455688_7422037828919330423_nSo, instead of trying to immediately get rid of an unpleasant feeling with blame, suppression, or distraction, we can instead be confident enough to welcome it, saying: “Come in! Sit down! Join us! I find you not so intolerable really, you are in fact quite interesting, like a weird grey cloud formation; but bear in mind that I don’t believe a word you are saying, not for a moment. Your advice has always been blinkered and disastrous. I prefer the advice of my wise friends over here, my friend patience for example. You’re acting all self-important as usual, but there is plenty else going on in my life and my mind if I think about it.” We have perspective. However bombastic or seductive they may be, we stop giving them the platform, stop listening to them, stop writing stories about them. We realize our delusions are ludicrous and self-seeking and stop taking them so seriously. (Hmmm, could be writing this about the upcoming US elections.)

DON’T PANIC!

Geshe Kelsang says:

Just as there is room in the sky for a thunderstorm, so there is room in the vast space of our mind for a few painful feelings; and just as a storm has no power to destroy the sky, so unpleasant feelings have no power to destroy our mind. When painful feelings arise in our mind, there is no need to panic.

don't panic.jpgLove that last line. It reminds me of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When I read this book in the past, I started saying this to myself when thoughts seemed to be racing away with themselves, “DON’T PANIC!” We panic – “I can’t handle this!”, and we spin out of control because we can’t handle this feeling of being upset or betrayed or lonely. It fills our mind and we overreact. We give our thoughts power, not realizing that there is nothing behind them. Literally nothing. We really don’t like being unhappy and because we have no patience with it, we are not accepting it, we feel actually hurt by it — which means it sits there looking inherently horrible, all solid and real.

How effective is it to cling onto misery really tightly while at the same time wishing it would go away?

I was in New York in January for the monster Storm Jonas, but within a day the sky was crystal clear again. We know this about weather, so we don’t panic that we are never going to see the sun again. I used to even enjoy the raging thunderstorms in Florida, knowing that in a day or two the sky would be blue once more. We can be more like this with our minds and our moods.

So we don’t pretend that unhappiness is not there, but we do know that this thunderstorm is not all that big shakes, that it’ll pass, that it is never going to destroy my sky-like mind. This gives us the 12744175_1002357209802864_5939240562791456254_nspace and wisdom to see more deeply why we feel mad or jealous or anxious or saturated with longing — how these painful appearances, however overwhelming they seem, are arising, for example, from the unfurling of the karma in our mind — just karmic projection.

Lamrim has solutions

If we have studied and appreciate the Lamrim meditations, we can think for example that this unhappiness is reminding me to clean up the projector of my delusions and negative karma while I still have the time to do so, while I am still breathing, in this precious human life. I am on parole from the lower realms – states of existence where suffering appearances are so overpowering that there is no longer anything we can do about them and we have no idea that we even have a choice. I’m going to break parole and flee to12717396_1002005613171357_141140646733730239_n the Pure Land, I owe nothing to Officers Self-Grasping & Self-Cherishing, I’m not going back with them. Then I’ll be in a position to start busting everyone else out of samsara’s prison too because they don’t belong here any more than I do.

Slowly but surely we take responsibility to transform our minds to view the world in different ways, ways that don’t engender feelings of unhappiness and further delusions in the first place. Eventually we learn to control what weather comes up in our mind, which will help us now and always, and allow us to be there for others.

More coming soon.

Getting perspective on hurt feelings

Vajrayogini

I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought
And I ain’t got the power anymore. ~ Quicksand

As mentioned in the previous article, step one in transforming our mind — gaining power over our lives and destinies — is to start by focusing on the breath. One reason for this is that we are all breathing, whereas we’re not all necessarily experiencing universal love or an insight into the ultimate nature of reality. So the breath is the easiest object to find and serves the purpose of allowing us to gain some control over where we put our thoughts. Thmeditation and realityis way, they can no longer suck us down like quicksand.

Trust clarity

It’s worth noting too that a still body of water reflects everything very accurately — the trees and the birds for example – we can trust those reflections. But when water is churned up, everything is distorted and reflections become deceptive. Similarly, when the mind is quiet and settled, relatively free from strong delusions and distractions, it is not only naturally peaceful but naturally still and clear, and as a result it reflects reality far more accurately. This is unlike our delusions, which arise from inappropriate attention and distort and exaggerate like a storm ruffling a lake. With anger, for example, we effectively don’t know what is going on. Our delusions are never reliable — on the contrary, their job is to deceive us. That’s one reason why I like this Kadampa motto:

Always rely upon a happy mind alone.

Meditation is therefore not an escape from reality — it puts us far more in touch with the truth of what is going on inside, and by extension outside, in our lives.

Plenty more where that came from

So as soon as our mind quietens down and we get a mini-vacation from our delusions and distractions, we feel some peace within. It is really important to recognize that this peace is the seed of lasting happiness and freedom, that there is plenty more where that came from; and to identify with the sense of potentially boundless serenity inside, like an open endless sky, more than with the passing clouds.

IMG_6770I was watching the sky yesterday, on a sunny-cloudy Denver day here in Cheesman Park, and the dramatic clouds were making the sky even more beautiful in a way because I was feeling the space of the sky, the clarity that IS the sky. It is all pervasive, it is not in any conflict with the clouds, clouds have room to be, they come and go. They come from the clear light like all other cloud-like thoughts — the only difference is that they arise in dependence upon unrealistic or inappropriate attention and so their suggestions are not to be trusted. Stop identifying with them and the pain associated with them also goes, and we are no longer stuck. And then we realize we can transform them — for example, the pain of grief or disappointment can remind us of everyone’s pain, and become the object of our vast blissful compassion, metamorphosized.

In any event, as mentioned in this article, our thoughts and their appearances cannot be separated out from the clarity of the mind; they are aspects of that clarity. Change the mind, change everything.

Just a mortal with potential of a superman

We need to spark our clear light, the extraordinarily deep Buddha nature that we all share. Every being on this planet has this really quite incredible spiritual potential, and the soVajrayoginioner we can relate to it and identify with it, the sooner it will manifest and get strong. It is all waiting to come out, we don’t need to add anything. But for as long as we skid about on the surface of our minds, caught up in our “flavor of the day” reasons why we are unhappy, we are neglecting who we really are and what we are capable of, and we’ll not give ourselves any choice but to stay stuck in bad habits of suffering.

The key to letting go of unhappy thoughts is to stop identifying with them. And how do we do that? By identifying instead with our natural peace and potential. We need the kind of confidence knowing that we’ve really got it going on inside and no one can take it away from us. It’s ours. It’s the NATURE of our mind. If our mind doesn’t feel peaceful, it’s because uncontrolled thoughts are destroying that peace. But let them settle and we get a sense of the peace that is possible, and we can be happy with that, contented. 

There’s room in the sky

There is more than enough room in the sky for clouds — there is even room for rain, thunderstorms, snow, cyclones, hail the size of golf balls, every imaginable weather. No weather ever alters the fact that the sky is by nature clear, and that clarity can never be destroyed, only temporarily IMG_6676obscured. We tend to identify with our anger or worry or attachment as if it is everything, as if it is what is actually going on, as if it’s reality. “I’m angry and that person is horrific” or “I NEED her, she’s so cool, I’ll die without her!” – we are all wrapped up in it at the moment, but we can learn to recognize that the thoughts of anger or attachment are arising within spectacular boundless clarity. We can observe them and know they are not actually me. They are temporary fleeting clouds, but I am identified with clarity and peace. I don’t need to freak out here.

Instead of grasping at every fleeting thought as the be all and end all of everything, we get a taste for this boundless potential we have inside. This is me, this is my sky-like mind, and I want to be able to access this whenever I want.

If we get good at experiencing some peace and identifying with it, we start to have a lot of space in our minds and our lives; and then when unhappiness arises we are not so quick to think, “This is a total catastrophe, I need a bottle of sleeping pills.” We are not caught up in it, so we can let it go and/or transmute it.

What do we normally do?

I’m going to quote some bits from How to Solve our Human Problems in the next few articles, but treat yourself by reading the whole book if you can because it is so very practical and helpful:

Normally our need to escape from unpleasant feelings is so urgent that we do not give ourself the time to discover where these feelings actually come from.hallucinating

Geshe Kelsang gives some examples, such as someone we have helped responding with ingratitude, but I can think of countless occasions when we want to escape our feelings. Gazillion things hurt us at the moment, we are quite sensitive, our mind rather like an open wound, our uncontrolled thoughts like quicksand ready to swallow us whole. So what do we do?

These things hurt, and our instinctive reaction is to to try immediately to escape the painful feelings in our mind by becoming defensive, blaming the other person, retaliating, or simply hardening our heart.

“Our instinctive reaction” is I cannot handle this, I have to get rid of it, so we defend ourselves, our poor hurt sense of me. Have you noticed that we never let pain just float around in our mind, we always try and pin it down? There HAS to be a reason for the way I’m feeling and that reason is outside my mind somewhere. Even when there isn’t anything obviously wrong, we just woke up disgruntled for instance, we try and figure it out — “It has to be because of this, that, or the other!”

We have a well-worn habit of immediately casting around for something or someone else to blame. “I’m in a bad mood because of THIS situation”, and therefore I have to fix something out there. I was sitting here quite happily reading my book, you came into the room and made a face at me, I got upset, two plus two = five, it’s your fault. That’s the logic of the annoyed mind.

But could it simply be “I’m in a bad mood because I am in a bad mood”, and therefore need to let these thoughts go and practice love instead?

For example, on Tuesday we are upset with Jack, and on Wednesday it is Bob, and at the weekend it is Mary. Same old same old, just different packaging. The only reason there are upsetting people in our life is because of the unprocessed upset in our minds. If we try patience with Jack on Tuesday and get some result, then we can try it with Bob on Wednesday, and then with Mary at the weekend; and they can all become objects of love and patience. We become defensive, as Geshe-la says, blaming the object for our negative minds; but it is our irritated minds that are responsible for the irritating people. To someone whose mind is tamed, everyone is a friend.

Meanwhile, more coming up in the next article about accepting unhappiness without panicking.

Exploring our potential for peace and omniscience

magnified sand

We all need to be able to let go of our unhappiness. This, to put it mildly, is a Very Useful Skill – unless of course we don’t mind hanging onto misery for a few more years, a few more decades, a few more lifetimes…

let-goConsidering that we probably do mind that, quite a lot in fact, why would we hang on?

Carrying on from this article.

No one ever wants to suffer and everyone always wants to be happy. These are the two most basic wishes of all living beings. Do you ever wake up and want a truckload of suffering? … I didn’t think so. We always want to be happy and we hate suffering, that’s why we call it suffering. But still we relentlessly hold onto it. Why?

One reason is that we have to think thoughts without control – for example frustrated thoughts, lonely thoughts, worried thoughts, jealous thoughts, depressed thoughts. We don’t particularly want to think these unhappy thoughts but we can’t help it, and that’s why we are unhappy.  When we are not thinking these thoughts, we are just fine.

The whole purpose of meditation is to understand our own mind, including which states of mind give rise to our chronic mental aches and pains. Buddhism teaches many meditations to dig deeper and see where unhappiness is coming from so that we can uncover and uproot those causes and cultivate our natural capacity for real happiness instead. We come to see how our so-called delusions have no basis in reality and we switch them out for their opposite, eg, switching out hatred for love. While we are loving someone, we are not hating them at the same time with the same mind – wishing them to be happy is opposite to wishing them to suffer, like turning on a dimmer switch extinguishing the darkness.IMG_6686

First step

Before we get to this point of transforming our thoughts, we first need to learn to let go of our distractions and deeply relax and enjoy the natural peace and space of our own minds. Then within that – as the second step, if you like — we can accept whatever is going on in our minds so that we can work with it.

The most common way to quieten our mind is breathing meditation (or we can meditate on the peaceful clarity of our own mind). Some space opens up – we can remember Buddha’s example of our mind being like a boundless clear ocean. Generally we are so caught up with externals, such as our body, our job, our relationships, and other things that are not our thoughts – constantly discriminating “Oh I like the look of that”, “Ooh he’s ugly”, “Hmm that’s pretty cool”, “Yeah, that sucks”, while neglecting to discriminate what’s going on in our own mind, “Whoah, that’s a cool thought! Yikes, that thought is ugly!” But it is only by discriminating what is going on within our mind that we can plumb our real potential – focusing on externals is like being caught up in just the froth, the waves, the bubbles, neglecting this enormous wellspring of power and freedom within us, failing to recognize that it is our thoughts that make our world, not the other way around.

IMG_6764We try to master the world we dualistically perceive to be around us, outside us, trying to get other people to behave (how is that working out for you?!), while neglecting to master our own minds. We identify with our passing emotions, our fleeting likes and dislikes, making them solid and thinking that this is what life is about; and meantime we neglect the extraordinary opportunity we find ourselves in at the moment to end all suffering. So we are not diving into this incredible thing we have all the time within us, our Buddha nature — our clear light mind and its emptiness — and because of this we are accessing a mere fraction of our spiritual potential.

Omniscience ~ a little digression
earth

Can you see Earth?!

And we have the potential not just for peace but for full enlightenment, for omniscience. Our mind is vaster than the universe, than all universes, including their time and space, which are all merely reflection of our mind that cannot be separated out from it. So by removing our ignorance and its imprints we can come to see fully and directly the interrelationship and totality of all phenomena; and how, because nothing exists from its own side, all minds and their appearances arise from the emptiness of the clear light.

When we realize the emptiness, or lack of inherent existence, of our own mind, we come to see also that it is not separate from the emptiness of the clear light mind of all enlightened beings and of all living beings; and that all phenomena, both their conventional and ultimate nature, including our individual and collective karma, are mere appearance to this clear light. We are not, nor ever have been, separated from any other being.

I have loved this William Blake quote since I was a teenager – it shone a light into my mind before I met Buddhism:

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

magnified sand

Magnified sand.

Omniscience is not a gathering of facts and data outside our mind, as it were, or a knowledge describing all phenomena down to the finest detail, but the experience of an unobstructed mind that has understood the interdependence and non-duality of all phenomena, the union of conventional and ultimate truth.

At present we are hallucinating what is NOT there and we are overpowered by these appearances. We need first to stop being taken in by these appearances, which involves destroying our ignorance and other delusions (the obstructions to liberation). Then we need to remove the imprints of these delusions that cause everything to appear real (the obstructions to omniscience). At this point, we will see what exists. (I have a lot more to say on the subject of omniscience if you’re interested – like I said, I’ve been thinking about it for a while.)

Meanwhile, more in the next article about getting perspective on our hurt feelings.

I could not stay another day

birth and death

I can’t believe it’s happening.

So said the beautiful Ruth to me, in tears, at the wake of her fiancé John, last night in Jersey City.

I mentioned that he and I had spoken the morning that he died. She acknowledged this and added:

He was so excited about his new snowblower, he couldn’t wait to try it out. I can’t compute. This doesn’t seem real.

Between the blowing and the shoveling, John had a heart attack. Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive. And at times like this, when things go disastrously wrong and we simply can’t compute, I think we are shocked out of our permanent grasping and get glimpses of how nothing is as it seems, glimpses of the illusory, dream-like nature of things. We don’t always know what to make of that understanding — but we do know at those times that we want to wake up.

Kadampa Buddha 1

Awakened One

I said to Ruth, “It feels dream-like, yes?” And she stared at me and shook her head, “Yes, yes, that’s it. Like a nightmare.”

During this wake, we were greeted by John’s almost identical and equally charming brother James, who was gracious enough to introduce us to the whole family, even though France and Julian were just neighbors and I had known John for approximately ten minutes. The atmosphere was far from gloomy, despite the tears. Even as John lay there with his spectacles on (I wondered why, seeing as he wasn’t even wearing them when his eyes worked), this large African American assembly were all greeting each other warmly, laughing in the midst of tears. Earlier in the day, when Julian and I delivered food to John’s circle of friends in his home, encountering this rich-hearted community struck me with the realization that each living home in this road was not separated out as it appears from the outside, but connected in a million ways. People just like me live in all these houses, drive all these cars. We are all in this together.

Now, at the wake, it was not hard to see what Shantideva meant when he talked about us all being “walking corpses”. John’s body was so waxy. Bodies are so obviously just lumps of meat – it so clearly was not John laying there. So where did he go?! Where are people really headed as they walk their bodies up and down the streets of Manhattan or drive their cars along the road? Where are we all really headed, given that our bodies will all be laying there like this before we know it?

madame tussauds

Look the same, could not be more different.

You know how you see pictures of celebrities with their doubles at Madame Tussaud’s? These bodies are made of wax, but it doesn’t seem so different to the lifelessness of our actual bodies when they are no longer animated by consciousness.

So what is the relationship between the mind and the body?

I started musing on this subject in this article, Buddha & the Brain, which has garnered some good comments from people who have pondered this subject. Plus, I intend to write more about the mind-matter connection soon, so in the meantime please leave your comments so I can incorporate them.

madame tussauds 2

Appearances are deceptive.

I once took some people to visit a morgue with the idea that it would help our death awareness, and it did, it certainly did. The mortician was delighted at having young people voluntarily visit him and ask about what he did all day, he said his friends never asked about it, in fact he didn’t have any friends. For days after seeing those waxy bodies, I could not help but see cities of animated corpses, including the squirrels. We are not our bodies, that much is clear. And it may seem morbid but I also find it utterly realistic and therefore helpful to envisage myself lying there, like John, and to envisage people I am attached to lying there, like John. For that is what is going to happen. Better to prepare for that now, get things in perspective now, live each remaining day fully now. Seriously, folks, we are all going to be dead very soon.

Ruth had chosen a beautiful poem, adaptable to whichever holy being we have faith in,
given to us all on the back of this card. Hopefully “that place” is the Pure Land, where John now John at wakefinds himself thanks to his positive mind and the thousands of prayers he has created the causes to receive.

I’m Free

Don’t grieve for me, for now I’m free,
I’m following the path God laid for me.
I took his hand when I heard Him call.
I turned my back and left it all.

I could not stay another day
To laugh, to love, to work, or play,
Tasks left undone must stay that way.
I found that place at the close of the day.

Perhaps my time seemed all too brief.
Don’t lengthen it now with undue grief.

What is there to grasp at?

letting go 3

letting go 3If something doesn’t remain for even a moment — if it is gone as soon as it arises — then what is there to hold onto??! (Carrying on from this article.) For example, we meet someone we like – but if they’re gone the moment we meet them, what is there to get attached to? If we go out for a meal with some friends, and each moment is gone as soon as it arises, what is there to grasp at? If someone unfriends you on Facebook, who is there to get upset with? They’re already gone. A new car or iPad — gone as soon as we’ve got it — what is there to get attached to? We can enjoy people and things moment by moment, but as nothing remains for the tiniest moment there is nothing to get stuck to with attachment. And however unfairly people behave, we can avoid the futility of holding hurt in our heart.

We don’t have to cover everyone and everything with the superglue of permanent grasping so that they cannot change and/or so that we cannot see them differently.

Key insight of Buddha

friend or enemyThis is the heart of Buddha’s key insight into why there is suffering in the world. Suffering doesn’t come because we are bad, it is not inflicted on us by some creator, it doesn’t come randomly out of nowhere – it all comes because we grasp. We grasp at something being there when in reality it isn’t. Grasping at my friend/enemy being there is grasping at an illusion, a rainbow. He cannot be found. And this simple act of grasping is the cause of all our suffering because if we like the thing we are grasping, we develop craving because we think there is something there. If we don’t like it, we develop anger or the wish to destroy it.

What do babies do?

Gen Samten shared a tale of his school days learning about the instincts of new-born babies — sucking and grasping. It apparently has no control even over its eyes. It also has a third instinct, which is yelling! Yelling, sucking, and grasping. The baby grasps: if it likes it, it sucks; and if it doesn’t, it yells. This seems to indicate the existence of past lives — the moment we pop out we carry on from where we left off. Then we grow up. And what is the definition of growing up? Learning to pretend to be a rational, thinking human being while still grasping, sucking, and yelling?! And we wonder why we suffer!baby yelling

Subtle impermanence cuts through all that because it teaches us there is nothing to grasp at. As soon as something has arisen, it has gone. We can ask ourselves, if we are attached to a person: “This person went the moment they arose. What am I getting attached to?”

Perhaps this makes us nervous, particularly if we really like someone, “I don’t like this!” As soon as we realize that we ourselves, for example, are gone the moment we arise, just gone, we want there to be something we can hold onto and say “me”; but there isn’t. Gone. Gone again. Gone again. As soon as I try to hold onto something it is not there anymore.

Pure states of mind instead of grasping

But when we can let go, we open up to experiencing pure states of mind such as love and compassion. Grasping always gets in the way of these. For example, if we grasp at someone, how can we love them? For if they are pleasant we develop attachment, if unpleasant, anger. The only way for our love to be pure is to love them without grasping at them as being there to love.

“But how can I love someone who’s not there?” we may protest.

One answer I think is that positive minds are always in the present moment. With love, we want that person to be happy now, wherever they are. With compassion we want them to be free from suffering. With patience we accept whole-heartedly whatever is arising in the present moment. With wisdom we go with the flow of life and deathfleeting appearances to mind. Delusions on the other hand always seem to be ranging over the past and future. This tells me something else about why it is a good idea to learn to live in the moment, and that it goes both ways — we are also able to live more in the moment when we cultivate these positive minds.

Also, in Ocean of Nectar page 28 Geshe-la explains compassion observing phenomena, which observes living beings who are realized as impermanent and wishes to protect them from suffering:

Because living beings are impermanent they are transient like the moon reflected in rippling water.

This is a deeper compassion because we realize that one profound reason why living beings suffer is because they are transient, imputing themselves on a fleeting (and entropic) body and mind, but, not realizing this, they experience permanent grasping.

Also, most people enjoy rainbows. And we can’t find them – that is one of the loveliest things about them.

I would like to hear your examples in the comments section as to how understanding subtle impermanence has enabled you to let go of grasping and other delusions and been a catalyst for positive minds such as love.

Surfing analogy

Has anyone here ever gone surfing? Our ability to surf doesn’t depend upon grasping but upon letting go. We have to go with that wave — and if we grasp and want to find security by freezing time, it won’t work. We know everything is changing, not remaining even for a moment; so the only way to surf that is to move with it. And that is part of the joy of surfing.

Life is like a wave, it doesn’t stay put even for a moment. So surf it. The daily situations in our life are different waves — am I surfing this wave or trying to freeze it to find security?

Old photosbasis of imputation changes naturally

Thanks to the kindness of some friends, my stuff recently arrived in a truck from Florida, including statues, clothes, and photos. When I look at these, especially the photos, although I recognize them, they now look subtly (and not so subtly) different — they are brand new old photos. Life events and relationships between now and when I last saw these photos a few years ago have totally changed, and so has their meaning, their existence.

Final installment is here!

Nothing sticks around

letting go 4

We can understand subtle impermanence in two ways. (And I am once again unabashedly going to borrow Gen Samten’s explanations on the subject.)

  1. No carry over 

letting go 4The first we have looked at already, vis there is no carry over — no element of the past carries over, the present is completely new. Just to remind you: The building we walk past on the way to work each day is a completely different building each day – not the same building that has just changed a little bit. The building is a continuum of moments, causally related, each of which is different from the previous one. The second moment of the building is different to the first – or another way of putting it is that the building in the second moment is completely different to the building in the first moment.

Likewise, the friendship we have with someone today is not the one we had yesterday – it is not the same friendship that has changed a little, but a completely different friendship. When we go to work every day we don’t go to work in the same job we had yesterday – it is a new job every day.

This is even the case for the person we are today. You today are as different from yesterday’s you as I am different from you! There is that degree of difference. Yesterday’s you had to go out of existence for today’s you to arise.

So everything and everyone is completely different every moment – there is not even the slightest carry over from one moment to the next. Now is brand new.

  1. Nothing sticks around for even a moment

letting go 6Secondly, there is no such thing as abiding. Abiding exists at the level of gross impermanence, but not at the level of subtle impermanence. For example, the building is built, it remains, it is destroyed. We can identify three sequential stages – production, remaining (or abiding), and destruction (or cessation).

What about when we move from this gross level to a subtle level? Subtle impermanence is momentary change. Is it that the first moment arises, then there is a little bit of remaining, then there is destruction? No. There is no remaining. There is no abiding. According to Buddha’s teachings on subtle impermanence, production and cessation happen simultaneously. A moment doesn’t remain even for a moment. Think about that!

Sometimes we can define subtle impermanence as “momentary disintegration”. This is a good way of thinking about it for it means that every moment is a moment of disintegration. This body is one moment of disintegration after another.

Another way to define it is “simultaneous production and cessation” – in each moment of our body, for example, production and cessation occur at the same time. This means that as soon as it is there, it is gone!

Just a point about function. Things undergo gross impermanence when they stop performing their function. For example, an iPhone is arguably still an iPhone when we crack the screen (depending on how fussy we are); but if we drop it down the toilet and don’t scoop it out fast enough it can no longer perform its function, so we smashed iphonesay it has undergone gross impermanence and gone altogether. What is the function of each moment of subtle impermanence, you might ask? The function of one moment of the iPhone is to give rise to the next moment, which is also functioning to let you send texts, browse this article, etc. The point with subtle impermanence is not that each moment doesn’t perform a function, but that we cannot hold onto anything that is performing that function — for example an iPhone can take photos but there is nothing there to grasp onto. So you cannot get attached to your iPhone! And you won’t be upset when you drop it.

Wild, huh. Our permanent grasping mind can hardly compute, but it is well worth contemplating as it opens new doorways in the mind.

Fresh eyes

life is too shortLet’s apply this to a practical challenge. Suppose we’re a manager working with people. This involves trying to understand their strengths etc., something that is built up over time. So if we’re seeing someone with new eyes, can we not take their history into account? Do we have to start each day, each moment, with a clean slate?

You’re welcome to address this in the comments section. My answer would be yes and no. A habit or tendency someone shows today is related as an effect to a habit or tendency they had in the past, but it is not the same habit or tendency. So if they show a similar tendency to a strength or a weakness today, we can take it into account; but by remembering subtle impermanence we can also understand that nothing is fixed. We can see new potential in them by not seeing them through the eyes of yesterday. I think subtle impermanence helps us to respond better because it opens our mind to infinite possibilities about this person. There is a lot more to them. Things are less fixed, more changeable. Every time we look at someone, we can see them with fresh eyes.

Ninth (and penultimate) installment is here.

No time like the present

boundary
First, a little anecdote

stop and smell the rosesI wrote this about a dog and me a few years ago. “I am leaving today. Earlier, I was a little melancholy to think this was the last walk Mr. Frodo and I would be taking down to the bay, until it occurred to me that it wasn’t a last walk at all. It was a first walk. Due to subtle impermanence, nothing stays the same even for a moment, and every step we were taking was brand new and different. Every Olympian leap Frodo made into the air to catch the yellow tennis ball was a new leap. Every ripple on the water was a first ripple. My permanent grasping abated. Each moment was fun, full, and vibrant. One of the best walks of my life.”

Why the emotional resistance?

Knowing about subtle impermanence (carrying on from this articlecan in fact make life fun, full, and vibrant. To begin with, however, thinking about all this constant changing can make us feel a bit insecure, like there is nothing to hold on to. “I want something to hold on to!” We may feel a little threatened, even though it is such a beautiful truth, which makes it hard to open our heart to this teaching. How can we overcome this emotional resistance?

See the beauty

Gen Samten says that the secret, he feels, is to approach these teachings from point of view of seeing their beauty. If we see them as threatening, we’ll have resistance, but if we see them as beautiful we’ll naturally open up to them. It’s a bit like loving poetry or a work of art. My mother has an always open poetry book on her kitchen counter, and can quote reams of the stuff by heart. She finds the poems beautiful and so reads them in a certain way — enjoys contemplating the nuances and drinking them in (and all while cooking the supper …)

dew drops 1It’s the same with subtle impermanence (and indeed any teaching). If we can see it as beautiful, we will want to explore it and drink it in and see its subtle implications in our life. This all comes down to seeing the beauty in it. That’s our job. Not to force ourselves to meditate on it as an onerous task, but to let ourselves discover the beauty (even while we are busy doing other things).

This, basically, is faith, particularly what is called “admiring faith”. Society may be a bit confused in general about faith, and even see it as contrary to wisdom (it’s not, they are mutually compatible). But in reality faith is one of most basic human emotions and is intrinsic to inner transformation. Buddhism teaches believing faith, admiring faith, and wishing faith. Here, we come to believe in the truth of the teaching, that everything changes moment by moment, and this is believing faith. Then we appreciate it, finding beauty in its special qualities, and this increases our admiring faith. As a result we wish to practice this truth in our lives, and this is wishing faith.

Another little anecdote

Not unusually for this blog, I am writing this article on a plane – this one from Denver to London via Charlotte. Just now I was waiting outside the restroom and trying to make the most of each moment by looking at the rows of heads in front of me, thinking: “What is their life like?” And then the verse on equalizing self and others/developing affectionate love from Offering to the Spiritual Guide:

In that no one ever wishes for even the slightest suffering,
Or is ever content with the happiness they have,
There is no difference between myself and others;
Realizing this, I seek your blessings joyfully to make others happy.

That way I was having that pleasant feeling that I was no more important than anyone else on the plane, including the person taking a rather long time in the restroom. Ten minutes later he came out, a young man with a huge beam on his face, carrying the book “The Power of Now”. So make of that what you will.

We’re all gonna die!

Buddha taught that there are two levels of impermanence – gross and subtle. For example, with respect to a house, its subtle impermanence is the moment by moment changes that happen continually for the duration of its existence; and its gross impermanence is when it falls down, finishes. We can see this everywhere – a tree grows and changes constantly, which is subtle impermanence; and then it dies, gross impermanence.

To live our lives in the moment, in the light of subtle impermanence, we have to learn to live it in the light of gross impermanence, which means living our life with an understanding of the truth that we are going to die.

death awarenessThis thought, contrary to popular opinion, is one of the most liberating and beautiful understandings we can cultivate.

Consider these two possibilities in relation to yourself: “I will die today” and “I won’t die today”. Seems to cover all options!

Now if we ask ourselves which of these applies to me …? We can’t say. All we can say is “I may die today. I may not, but I may.” Both those statements are true.

However, if we go around assuming “I won’t die today”, our life doesn’t do anything special. If somebody gives us something valuable and we treat it as worthless, we will waste it, of course. Our life is so valuable, but if we treat it as something mundane or never-ending we will waste it. However, if we think “I may die today”, we extract the meaning and the preciousness of our life. We will treat it as valuable, and we will stop taking it for granted.

It’s a wonderful life

One great benefit from understanding that we may die today is that we stop worrying about tomorrow. Instead we wake in the morning and think, “I want to live today in a way that is very meaningful, show kindness to others, make today special, without worrying about tomorrow.” It’s like our only mission is to make today a wonderful day.

drop of waterSometimes we think that making our life meaningful means making some mega changes. But on a day to day level, and on a mind level, perhaps, our life doesn’t change. We don’t change.

So what is a meaningful life, a wonderful life? Is it not made up of meaningful years, months, weeks, and days?

On the one hand, we can stop dwelling on the past because it has gone — every day is a new day. And on the other hand we can stop worrying about the future – I may die today. All that is real for us is today. And then we just focus our energy on today. Then, day by day, naturally our whole life will be meaningful.

Create a boundary

Boundaries can be useful for protecting our minds, and perhaps one of the most useful is a boundary around today. Gen Samten uses the example of food that is vacuum packed to keep it fresh — we can keep today new and fresh, not contaminated by worries of what might happen tomorrow. Through the power of our determination we can think:

I’m not going to worry about what might happen tomorrow or next week or next month. I may die today. All I will focus on is enjoying today in a meaningful manner.

It is like we need to build a wall around today and focus our mental energy within it. Otherwise, worry is a big problem for us and one we have little control over – our thoughts are running around in a non-existent future: “How will I be able to cope if that happens?” If we focus just on today, our mind will be peaceful. This is such a good habit to build.boundary

The wall goes behind us as well — I’m not going to dwell on the past. Maybe I screwed up terribly yesterday but that is outside the wall. I am not going to recreate that today. And then we are freed from the burden of all the mistakes we have made because they are outside the wall and we just focus on what is inside.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t learn from our mistakes or make plans for the future, but it does mean that we spend most of our energy on today. Reverse that original percentage — spend 10% of our energy thinking about the past and future and 90% concentrating on today! Building any wall takes time – we can’t just throw it up, it takes time to build up this mental habit. But it is very do-able.

Today is your first day. It may also be your last…

Next installment is here.

Does time heal?

Letting Go 1

Letting Go 1“Time heals” because over time we forget. But why wait to forget?! Waiting passively for things to happen to us is not much fun, we don’t much like waiting in line for example. Some people take months or years to get over a broken heart, and it is agony. They are waiting to forget. They are waiting to think differently about things. They are waiting for the penny to drop, “It is all gone, it is really over”, so they can move on. But it has gone already, it was gone the moment it started; and by bringing that wisdom into our hearts we can move on far, far more quickly. (Carrying on from this article on subtle impermanence.)

The past is no more substantial than last night’s dream. How many dreams have we had in this life, let alone in countless previous lives? (And I refer here to dreams when we are sleeping and dreams while we are awake.) In samsara, all our dreams are broken in the end, as Geshe Kelsang says. We have forgotten the vast majority of them, and if we wait long enough we’ll forget whatever dreams we are holding onto now. But rather than just wait it out, why not cultivate an understanding of subtle impermanence and live by it? It will save us so much sorrow.

We can keep repeating that sentence to stop grasping:

I will stop grasping at past me, people, and situations because they do not exist.

Combining our wisdom with determination, our mind will begin to change and we will experience an enormous feeling of liberation and joy. We will let go of our emotional baggage. This is an amazing experience to have and it is possible for all of us, whatever our past. We don’t have to do anything unusual, we don’t have to change our external situation or our job or whatever; we just change the way we think, and remain natural while changing our aspiration, as the old Kadampa saying goes.

Meditation

Here is a little meditation to help us do this.

We sit comfortably with our back straight and relaxed, our eyes closed, and imagine that deep in our heart we feel quiet and peaceful.

And from that quiet and peaceful place we simply focus our attention single-pointedly on the sensation of our breath within the nostrils — the cool air as we inhale and the warm air as we exhale.

And as our mind begins to settle, we enjoy the feeling of clarity and peace that arises in our heart.

Now we can spend a bit of time reflecting upon subtle impermanence in general. We can think about the things in our own life and try to cultivate some insight and wisdom realizing that the past no longer exists. We can start big and then make the chunks of time smaller and smaller, eg, we can think “The person I was when I was a child no longer exists, and then the person I was a year ago no longer exists, and then the person I was a week ago no longer exists. The person who had coffee this morning no longer exists. The person who started this meditation no longer exists, is completely different from the person who is meditating now.” By taking examples like this in meditation we begin to cultivate some insight into this subject. We just reflect on it.

We can now move on in our meditation to bring to mind a situation where we are recreating the past in the present. It could be one that is related to people, either ourself or others. It could be one that is related to a particular situation or event that happened in the past. It could be one that is related to certain possessions we had in the past. And we say to ourself strongly:

I will stop grasping at past people, situations, and possessions because they no longer exist.

Thinking of this situation, we keep repeating this statement strongly, and imagine that we gradually begin to let go. We just enjoy the feeling of being a completely new person and meditate on this.

Then we arise from our meditation, keeping this special feeling in our heart.

No room for the past in the present

letting go 3In this way we can try to deepen our awareness of impermanence and the realization that the past, including the recent past, even just a few seconds ago, no longer exists; and then stop grasping at it because we can’t hold onto something that isn’t there. In this way we can stop recreating the past in the present moment. There is no room for both; one of them has to give.

We can lay down our heavy burdens. Stop feeling melancholy. I also find it helpful to ponder how we decide what to grasp at?! The past is endless! Which me, which person, which situation do we choose to have inappropriate attention about?! To grasp at the permanence of?! There is nothing and no one that we haven’t grasped at, and where has that got us since beginningless time?

The truth will set us free

In Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (page 20) Shantideva expresses this beautifully:

And yet my friends will become nothing
And others will also become nothing.
Even I shall become nothing;
Likewise, everything will become nothing.

Just like an experience in a dream,
Everything I now enjoy
Will become a mere recollection,
For what has passed cannot be seen again.

Yeah, you could read this when you are in the throes of attachment and find it a bit depressing or scary – but what is being said is not that we don’t enjoy ourselves and each other moment by moment, but that we stop clinging to things that no longer exist. We need in fact to stop clinging even right now to things that do not exist in the way that they appear to exist, outside our mind, or we will inevitably experience the suffering of separation and loss.

time lapse 1Living in accordance with the reality of impermanence, on the other hand, can bring us nothing but joy and freedom. The truth sets us free.

When he was on his deathbed, aged 100, having been hit by a car on one of his long walks, my grandpa said to my brother:

In the light of eternity I can see clearly now that there is no difference between one moment and one hundred years.

Not abandoning anyone

Someone wrote to me the other day to say that since the death a year ago of her young son she did not feel she had permission to move on as that would be traitorous to his memory; so she was still suffering a great deal. However, it is not very helpful to hold to a painful memory of someone who no longer exists. Embracing change does not mean we forget or abandon the people we loved who are now gone. In a way, it’s the opposite. This is because in fact they are not really gone, they are just somewhere else; so we love them strongly wherever they are, whoever they are, in the present.

Bubbles

I was in Cheesman Park the other day, along with some fellow park-goers, enjoying a show of gigantic soap bubbles. When each big beautiful bubble burst, I didn’t hear anyone groan, “Awww! I was enjoying that! The bubble’s gone!” I didn’t hear anyone speculate, “I wonder what bubble she will create in ten minutes time?”, completely missing out on the bubble she was creating now. I also didn’t overhear anyone distractedly saying, “Do you remember that bubble she made a little while back, that was cool/ugly.” No, we were all just enjoying the bubbles in the present as they arose and almost immediately evaporated. Why? Because we know the nature of bubbles, and their beauty is not divorced from their impermanence. This can be the same for everything if we familiarize ourself with the momentary nature of all things.

When a bubble is burst, what is left? Is it the same basic bubble that transforms? No, the bubble has gone completely. Rousseau for Donna 4So we can spend our time dwelling on past bubbles we have blown, those lovely or traumatic soap bubbles I blew a couple of weeks ago; or worrying about the soap bubbles we might blow in the future — what if it is too small? what will my friends think of me? Or we can get with subtle impermanence and enjoy the bubble we are blowing now.

There’s a difference between me and a soap bubble, surely?!

However old we are, we are no more permanent than a soap bubble. We are just as fleeting. Some things seem to last longer than others — mountains and the sky for example — but they are still just as momentary, completely new. The 100,000 year-old rocks in the Science Museum may seem more permanent, but we are seeing them newly in each moment, and they are as fleeting/changing as anything else. It’s just that related to our life span they may seem to last longer. 100,000 year-old rocks can appear in dreams too, with a seemingly eternal past and rock solid future; but how long are dreams?

Continued here.

Over to you. Comments and feedback very welcome🙂

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