This too shall pass

Our guest author is a single parent and a professional based in London, UK.

this too shall pass

When my husband and I first met we had a lot in common — mutual friends, common interests, same sense of humour, we laughed all the time at the silliest of things — but I clearly remember the moment when we really connected, like I had never connected with anyone before. It was when we both admitted that we had often in our lives seriously contemplated suicide.

If any of our mutual friends had been present at that conversation they would undoubtedly have been deeply shocked, as externally neither he nor I showed any signs of having such thoughts. It was at this point that our relationship moved on to a much more committed level, as though we had shared our darkest secret and still been accepted by the other. Not long afterwards we were married, and soon there was a baby on the way.

You see we were not without hope, we still thought we could ‘get it right’; but at times we just couldn’t work out what the purpose was in life and why we couldn’t make life turn out the way we wanted. I think we both had a sense that we were somehow ‘owed’ happiness but someone ‘up there’ didn’t seem to have got that memo; instead our lives had been complicated and painful, very painful.

When we married, the UK was in the middle of the economic crisis of the late 80s. As mortgage rates soared, my husband’s business disintegrated and finally collapsed, and we faced a mountain of debts as well as the understanding we would have to move out of our lovely home. One night, having gone to bed before my husband after what I thought had been a positive discussion of plans for our future, I was woken by a continuous ringing on our doorbell.

The two policemen informed me that my husband had been killed by a train — a train that he was kneeling in front of as it came around the corner. Our daughter was seventeen months old.

crunkled manThis story is shocking I know, but not unusual. All those statistics about suicide are about people like you and me. All those deaths devastate the lives of the people left behind, people like you and me.

I thought I had known pain before, but it was nothing like this — so powerful that my mind would turn to stone to protect me, or I would find myself gasping for breath, feeling that the pain would, in fact, kill me.

Everything changes

The recovery was very long, many years, with good times when everyone thought I was ‘over it’, followed by deep, dark troughs of grief and confusion. But significant things happened along the way. The first came two weeks after his death when I took my daughter to the park on a beautiful, sunny, spring morning. She laughed, the sun shone, the crocus bulbs bloomed, and I realised he would never see any of these things again: no changes in the seasons, no child growing into the beautiful young woman she is now, no opportunity for the sadness and confusion to heal and happiness to arise again.

In that moment I realised that ‘everything changes’ and that, no matter how terrible things may seem, they will change. ‘This too shall pass.’ In that moment I decided that no matter how bad things seemed I would stay for my daughter, that I no longer had the choice my husband had taken, that she needed me and I would live my life for her. crocuses in snow

People would say to me, ‘It must be so much harder for you with a child to look after,’ and I would think, ‘She is what keeps me putting one foot in front of the other.’ This is how compassion and love work. By thinking of her and wanting her to be happy, by wanting to protect her, I was no longer paralysed by my grief. My love for her took me away from my pain.

Wherever you go, there you are

I am sorry if the next few paragraphs are a bit ‘out there’ for some of you. I am in general a very practical Dharma practitioner, not ‘airy fairy’. I believe Buddha’s teachings are scientific; if you create the causes the effects will happen, and Buddha teaches us how to create the best possible effects. However, the following ‘out there’ things did happen, and I am telling you about them in the hope it will help others.

A couple of years after my husband died I was fortunate enough to be offered a teaching job in the Bahamas (I know!). Such idyllic conditions for myself and my daughter, good friends, great job, beautiful beaches with white sand and sapphire seas, and an incredible social life with millionaires and rock stars. And yet one day I found myself sitting on a beach feeling the familiar crushing sense of despair. I just couldn’t find what I was looking for. Apart from the joy of my daughter, I could not find a happiness that wasn’t superficial and short lived; everything led me back to pain.

BahamasI was sitting on the silky, white sand, looking at the jewel-like sea, knowing I couldn’t die but not knowing how I could find the energy, or wish, to go on. Then, as clearly as if the person was standing right over me, I heard:

‘I will always take care of you.’

I quickly turned but there was no one there. I even stood up to look all around — no one. I just knew in my heart that what they said was true, that I would be alright; and I went home and booked us on a flight back to England.

A reunion

Over the coming years I found myself moving quite a lot and not finding what I was looking for – difference being that I now had a sense that there was something to look for. I wanted to find the source of the voice. I ended up in Brighton, and in the local paper I saw a photo of the teacher at the newly opened Bodhisattva Centre. I knew nothing about Buddhism, but immediately had an overwhelming sense that I knew this teacher very well, that I loved him dearly. It was like finding a long-lost brother. I had to go to the class. The feeling of knowing him never left me but, out of shyness, I never spoke to him. It seems like he was one of the lamps to the path.

Bodhisattva Centre
Bodhisattva Centre, Brighton

I loved the statues in the Centre, the prayers, but I particularly loved the practical nature of the teachings. To be told that samsara was the nature of suffering but that a spiritual path could take us out of it was such a relief for me. After attending classes for a few years, I was persuaded to attend the Festival in Portugal for Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s last teachings. The best two weeks of my life, I spent most of it crying with joy. I was home.

A protector

While I was there I noticed a young mum with a little girl in the video link tent who seemed to be without help, so I offered to look after the child the next day so that she could go into the temple itself. The girl slept as I held her and, looking down at her, she seemed just the same as my daughter in the weeks after my husband’s death. The same warmth against my skin, the same weight in my arms, the same peaceful sleeping expression and soft curling hair — it was beautiful and painful at the same time.

Later I paused under an ancient tree in the park next to the temple, and the moment I sat and my hand touched the root of the tree, the last years of my life played across my mind like a film. The death, my daughter, the recovery, the beach, the voice, Bodhisattva Centre … all the way through to me sitting under the tree, next to the temple where Venerable Geshe-la was teaching. Then I knew, as clear as day, that Venerable Geshe-la was the source of that voice. He had been guiding me all the way along, gently and imperceptibly leading me to this moment, to this temple, back to him.

i will always be with youSomeone told me not long ago that when their girlfriend met Geshe-la for the first time, he took her hand and told her, ‘I have been taking care of you since you were a little girl.’

‘Yes,’ I thought when I heard that, ‘he was.’ He was looking after her, and me, and indeed all the people who end up meeting him through his centres, books, disciples, and so on. So that even when we thought we were alone and isolated in our suffering, he was blessing us and drawing us closer.

The way out

Now, through meeting him, I understand that in samsara no one is owed happiness and the only happiness we experience is temporary. That instead of seeking death what I was really seeking was renunciation, the desire to get out of samsara channelled in the right direction.

I pray often that people who are having suicidal thoughts and fantasies should come to know renunciation. They are correct that this contaminated life is the nature of suffering, that their own and other people’s suffering is sometimes too painful to bear. travel path to liberationIt’s just that the solution they think they have found is no solution. The escape from the suffering is not death – it is seeking permanent mental freedom for ourselves and others through liberation and enlightenment.

If you are suffering today, please remember that no matter how bad it appears to be now, everything changes. ‘This too shall pass.’ Remember that you are always being taken care of by spiritual guides such as Venerable Geshe-la — he is praying for us and our families. Remember that you will always find the solution if you go for refuge to the Three Jewels.

A request

I would be grateful if after reading this you would turn your thoughts and prayers to those affected by suicide.

I pray that my husband and all those who take their own life find the everlasting peace of enlightenment. May everyone be happy. May everyone be free from misery.

(Editor’s note: September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month).

Comments welcome.

Related articles

A Buddhist perspective on suicide

Reaching out — more Buddhist thoughts on suicide

Do you really want freedom? 

 

Beneficial believing

To carry on from here, I want to add that conventional reality is not just a question of agreeing with each other. There is no safety in numbers. I was just reading about the odd phenomenon of presumptive nominee Trump:

The internet creates a sense of universality; it’s easy to think your bubble is more representative than it actually is. Facebook curates our feeds so we get more of the stuff we ‘like.’ What do we ‘like’? People and posts that agree with us. It’s sort of a mass delusion. ~ The Week

hallucination 1We can all be wrong about something and agree; in fact we often are. So my point about conventional reality being collective hallucination in the last article only goes that way around – collective hallucination is not necessarily conventional reality, it can just be sheer madness with no basis in any reality. For we are hallucinating both conventional truths and non-existents.

No dream, no dreamer

It is so helpful to use our dreams to delve into reality, as explained here. Geshe Kelsang gives this beautiful verse in The Oral Instructions of Mahamudra:

All my appearances in dreams teach me
That all my appearances when awake do not exist;
Thus for me all my dream appearances
Are the supreme instructions of my Guru.

I often think too, when I wake up and the dream has disappeared, the dream has gone and so has the dreamer. If there was never a real dream, where was the real dreamer? So where is the I who is now awake also? Dream minds, people (including ourself), and objects are all created by the self-grasping dream mind. Waking minds, people, and objects are all created by the self-grasping waking mind.

Beneficial believing

Understanding lack of true existence is the wisdom realizing emptiness and it will set us free from samsara permanently. However, although a direct loverealization of emptiness is our goal, we also need to learn what to do with appearances for our own and others’ sake. Eventually we will come to see appearances and emptiness (lack of true existence) as one object, at which point those appearances are no longer technically conventional truths, but ultimate truth.

Ultimate truth appearing.

So, meanwhile, until we realize this union of appearance and reality directly, how are we to navigate through the false appearances, the hallucinations, and make our lives meaningful?

I think through “beneficial believing,” as Geshe Kelsang has called it — believing things not because they are true from their own side, but because they are beneficial and will lead us in the right direction. This includes toward the one and only true object, the only truth that exists in the way that it appears — emptiness or lack of true existence — realized by our very subtle mind, the clear light of bliss.

(By the way, even ultimate truth is not ultimately true – even emptiness is empty of inherent existence.)

Buddha’s teachings are divided into two: the instructions for directly realizing emptiness (wisdom practices) and everything else (method practices). Method practices such as renunciation and compassion do not apprehend ultimate truth directly, but they do apprehend the best of the conventional or relative truths, and they lead us to relative happiness, including the requisite merit or good karma for developing the Form Body of a Buddha. Method practices nurture the growth of our Buddha nature and wisdom practices free it from obstructions.

Fulfilling our two basic wishes

To reiterate, as Geshe Kelsang says in Modern Buddhism:

All conventional truths are false objects because the way they appear and the way they exist do not correspond. ~ p. 129

bear quiz
This may help me, relatively, up the mountain.
In other words, conventional truths are all fake. However, some conventional truths are more useful than others; so those are the ones we need to focus on to go in the direction we want to go in. Which is? We all want to be happy all the time, and we never want to suffer. Anything that takes us toward the fulfillment of those wishes can be described as beneficial believing, or even wisdom.

For example, although neither me nor you exist from our own sides and are creations of self-grasping, understanding the equality and interdependence of ourselves and all other living beings (as explained in the mind-training teachings) is far more realistic and valid, and therefore beneficial, than grasping onto an isolated or inherently existent self and other. These do not exist even relatively, do not appear to any valid mind; for no one in the universe can agree, for example, that I am the only real me.

Here is an example.

“I don’t understand it!”

If we ever wonder why we get so confused in our dealings with others, we need look no further than the fact we are all hallucinating and not all our hallucinations match up. A sad friend told me this week that someone broke up with them and they can’t understand it — they were sure they were getting on so well and that the other person really liked them too. And according to them that felt like the truth; but according to their ex-lover it did not. So where did that truth exist? Did it exist at all?

Unlike a chair that we are agreed we can sit on, what was appearing so vividly to their attachment never existed. All they had was their own version of events, total projection, and in this instance no shared reality. The ex-lover’s apparent truth, that this person was no longer love 1interesting or whatever, was also not objective but a mere reflection of her own mind. In this instance, these reflections did not coincide. Their perceptions were not in agreement, in fact they clashed, and so pain arose. It’s happening all the time with all of us.

When we manage to let go of our delusion of attachment for people, all we are losing is our illusions. Letting go of illusion, we are now free to experience a totally different and more realistic relationship. It seems that the best “truth” to be salvaged from these kinds of situation is love and compassion recognizing our equality and interdependence and wishing the other person to be happy and free. That mind is valid, for its object does have a relative truth to it. And it fulfills our basic wish, it makes us happy again.

More coming soon. Meantime, your comments are most welcome! Just use the box below 🙂

Do you really want freedom?

Meditation should never be abstract, but grounded in our own experience.

friend or enemyThe self we normally see doesn’t exist. But it is hard to spot that self if we are clinging too tightly onto it, too closely identified with it. So here is a meditation that will hopefully help us to sit back and look at it, and to witness how samsara twists around it. This will naturally lead us to the light, happy mind of renunciation, wishing to be free from the creeping vine of self-grasping and all other delusions.

First we can do some breathing meditation to settle into the peaceful experience of our mind at our heart. We breathe out whatever’s on our mind in the form of thick smoke, and experience our in-breath as clear radiant light that has the nature of peace. We can ride these light rays into our heart chakra, where they join the inner light of our own peaceful good heart, our Buddha nature.

Even if our mind is only slightly more peaceful, we let ourselves rest there — recognizing that this peace is part of the indestructible quality of our mind, within which is the potentiality for limitless peace. No rush. No agenda. No “Ok, got my peaceful experience, check. Next!” We give ourself time and permission to enjoy this, to identify with it, thinking “This is me.” Pausing in the pursuit of happiness to just be happy. I don’t have a care in the world.

Connecting to our limitless potential is a crucial stepping stone – renunciation is the wish for permanent peace and freedom, but if we don’t believe this is possible how can we develop this wish?

Also, abiding in this peaceful experience we have a heart connection to the peaceful mind of all enlightened beings, their blessings.

beautiful heartWe can allow that Buddha’s peace to manifest as our Spiritual Guide in the aspect of Buddha Shakyamuni, if we wish, do the Liberating Prayer, and spend a little time receiving blessings in the form of lights and nectars or just feeling the mind to mind transmission. Again, we give ourselves permission to abide there, enjoying that, feeling our Spiritual Guide’s bliss of permanent liberation flowing into our own mind. With our mind empowered by our Spiritual Guide’s realizations, we can easily gain his experience of renunciation and the wisdom realizing emptiness. We can believe that we already have his experience.

We get an intuitive sense of what liberation is like so it is no longer an abstract idea but grounded in our own experience and we WANT it and know we can have it. We are sampling it – a bit like how in Trader Joe’s the other day a store assistant gave me a sample of delicious pineapple juice and I decided to buy the whole carton.  So the wish to attain liberation is already growing within us naturally, even before we get to our actual meditation!

In general, suffering has inner causes. These are the negative actions or karma that are created by our delusions, the root of which is self-grasping ignorance.

Now we can bring to mind the self that we normally see. That self appears all the time and in different aspects so we can start with a very manifest version, perhaps a painful one, when we felt hurt for example. We stay in the peaceful space of our heart and see how we believed this sense of I, poor hurt me. Grasping is believing.

delusional unicornThen we built our samsara around it. We wanted to serve and protect this I (self-cherishing) — we wanted to arrange the world to make this I feel better, for example by getting the other person to be nice to it again; and uncontrolled desire was born. And anything that got in the way made us upset, and anger was born. In dependence upon those three poisons and other delusions, we then engaged in actions or karma to protect this limited self and fulfill its wishes. All this entrenched us in contaminated life, subjecting us to yet another episode of its continuous unrelenting suffering.

We can witness this dynamic in action and ask, “Is this what I want?” Compared with the peace we are experiencing in our heart at the moment, that would be a definite “No” to self-grasping and “Yes” to liberation from it. We also need some forward thinking. The danger is that we have been building up these samsaric (not-so-)merry-go-rounds since beginningless time, and if we keep doing this we will continue to suffer. The best we can hope for while grasping at a limited self is temporary liberation from particular sufferings, and this is not good enough for this life or countless future lives.

Naturally, then, the wish to attain permanent liberation arises — not because a wise person is urging us to develop this wish or because we think in some vague abstruse way that we ought to, but because we are seeing the unviability of self-grasping for ourselves. Our own insight leads us to the certain knowledge that we need to destroy our self-grasping ignorance once and for all. We want to realize directly that the self we graspignorance is not bliss at and cherish does not exist so that we no longer have any inclination to grasp at and cherish the stupid thing. How wonderful to have this freedom! We hold this wish for as long as we can so as to become deeply familiar with it.

Then we can apply this to others to develop compassion, for everyone is traipsing around from life to life in a futile attempt to protect and serve a painful, limited self that doesn’t even exist. And just as no one else really knows what sense of me we are desperately clinging to and protecting most of the time, so we have no clue what private hells others are concocting for themselves on a daily basis.

 

The circle of life ~ rebirth part 3  

time is emptyIf we do the meditation described in the last article on rebirth, we get a sense of the flow of our mind – what it is, where it’s coming from, where it’s going. This helps us understand rebirth.  There are 5 different ways in general to understand rebirth, and understanding the continuum of consciousness is in some ways the best because, if we can meditate on our own mind, we can come to see in our own experience how our mind is continuously forming, becoming, evolving, flowing. It never stops. It is beginningless and endless. It is impermanent but never-ending. But this body we have right now, the physical body, although also impermanent (ie, changing moment by moment) is highly temporary. It arises in dependence on its physical causes, the sperm and egg of our parents, food, etc.; and when those causes deteriorate and disappear, this body vanishes. It has a very limited shelf life.

Which means that this life that we’re in at the moment is very temporary as well, and will not last for more than a few hundred more months, at most. Luckily, this is not who we are.

skeleton in mirrorIf we never give any thought to the nature of our consciousness, if we don’t understand its function or its continuum, then we will inevitably identify with this body very strongly, and with its infrastructure. We’ll identify with the things of this life; they will become what is most important to us. We’ll think that our job is most important to us, our career, our house, the amount of money we have in the bank, what restaurants we frequent, the friends around us. We will continually be externalizing the causes of our happiness and the sense of who we are. We think: “This is who I am.”

Me, for example, I’m 25 years old (yah!). I’m a Buddhist. I’m either American or English (depending on how I feel). I currently live and work in Denver, Colorado, I don’t have a lot of money in my bank account, but luckily or foolishly I don’t care too much. My mother is called Sally, my friend is called so and so. I am currently looking after a foster kitten called Dexton. I do a bit of editing. I like walking in the Botanical Gardens. Etc. I used to live here, there, everywhere. This is who I am.” But of course that’s not who we are! (Certainly not who you are – but also not who I am!) Nowhere close. We don’t really know who we are unless we understand our mind.

As a friend of mine put it the other day, we need to embrace the consciousness that is at the heart of life.  For our life is our mind, our mind is our life. If we think about what life is, it is animation, isn’t it? It is awareness, it is experience, it is mind. It’s not body. Shantideva goes so far as to say that we are animated corpses! When we see a dead body, especially if it belonged to someone close to us, it is clear that it is not them, that they’ve left.

Our life, our mind, is continuously becoming, continuously flowing. From life to life we go through stages of consciousness — we’re alive, then we go through the death process, then we go through an intermediate state or “bardo”, which is like a dream state, after which we “wake up” in another life. You can read about this cycle of consciousness in the chapter on Understanding the Mind in Introduction to Buddhism. With powerful mindfulness and concentration we can be cognizant of this cycle of consciousness and remember past lives – without mindfulness we can barely remember what we had for lunch last Wednesday. Based on his first-hand experience, Buddha Shakyamuni and many other realized meditators since his time have had a lot to say about the cycle of life. For example, Clear Light of Bliss gives a very detailed description of what happens during the death process from the subjective point of view of the person who is dying rather than the onlookers. (This is very helpful for us and also helps us help others who are dying.)

Does anyone remember their dreaming last night? I dreamt that I was about to crash in an airplane. I’m happy to sayShantideva leather that on this occasion I managed to go for refuge and not be alarmed. (I am not always so sanguine.) In our dreams we enter a different reality, we even have a different body, a dream body. And then we wake up from that in this meaty body again, in our bedroom. Constantly our mind is throwing up different appearances, but whatever is going on, dreaming or waking, we are thoroughly invested in it. When we’re dreaming, our dream world is our world at that time. When we wake up, this is our world. During deep sleep, everything disappears except emptiness. In the same way that we fall asleep and wake up every night and day, so we die and take rebirth life after life. Buddha said sleeping, dreaming, and waking are like a microcosm of dying, bardo, and rebirth. Our next life — months, weeks, or even days away — will be like waking up in a new life, with a new body, new parents, new environment, and so on.

time is running outOur mental continuum is perpetual, a ceaseless cycle of consciousness; whereas our physical bodies are exceedingly fragile and impermanent. Buddha says we are travelers bound for our future lives. This world is not our eternal home; there’s nothing eternal about it at all. So it is not who we are.

If we understand and identify our life as our mind, and if we understand that our mind is beginingless and endless, we start to get a very, very different understanding of who we are, do we not? We understand we are travelers, that this life is a detail — to be honest it’s got no more substantial reality than last night’s dream. It feels endless while it’s going on because of our permanent grasping. We think that this is all that there is. It’s me and this body and these friends, this job, this house, etc. It feels like it is really going on while its happening, doesn’t it?  But, when we die it disappears like last night’s dream. Sometimes a dream seems to go on forever – but the moment we wake up it has gone. This life is like that. As we approach our death, we’ll see that this life was a completely fleeting dream-like appearance. It feels real because of our ignorance, because we’re grasping it as real, not because it is real. We’re also grasping it as if it is permanent, but that doesn’t mean that it is. We need to question appearances more deeply if we are to figure out who we are and what is going on.

samsara's oceanWe have had innumerable dreams in this life, and each of our countless previous lives is also a dream-like mere appearance to our mind. We will continue to dream forever — and those dreams will be out of our control and full of suffering until we overcome our inertia, our attachment to the status quo, and realize the ultimate nature of things, that they have no more reality than a dream. Then, as Buddha Shakyamuni and countless others have done, we will wake up from the sleep of ignorance to experience the lasting happiness of liberation.

Part 4 is here.

What’s YOUR problem?! :-)

Beware of Whinging PomsA recent survey discovered that people in the UK “feel fully fit and well only 61 days of the year”. Some Australian commentators apparently reacted to this report as typical of the “whinging Poms”, but the fact is that other studies show that this level of health worry is just about normal throughout the Western world (including the land of giant deadly insects and combative kangaroos).

And these are not the seriously ill or dying people who are in hospital, say, but people who are out and about. Based on this survey, people claim to be suffering 304 days a year from colds, backaches, bitten tongues, cricked necks, headaches, heartburn, old sporting injuries, ear infections – you name it, and we’ve got it.

Our bodies are pain machines. Sometimes I see people on the jogging trail outside my window in Liverpool run past with an incredible spring in their step, smoothly and effortlessly, and I like it; but this level of fitness and health seems to be the exception. Sometimes the body cooperates, sometimes you just feel you have to lug it around with you — you know that thought when running, I’m sure it is not just me, “Please, can I stop now?!” Most of us have aches, pains, and a lack of energy a lot of the time. Have you ever met anyone who can say that they always feel comfortable in their bodies? I sometimes marvel at how well the body functions at all, given that it is made of meat, bones, skin, fat, and a bunch of weird organs squashed really tightly together. (I used to think there was loads of space inside me, between, eg, my kidneys and my heart, but that was before I went to the Body Worlds exhibition about 15 years ago – quite the wake-up call.) discover the mysteries

I work at editing and project-managing medical magazines, which daily reveals to me bizarre symptoms it is apparently possible for humans to get, some of them exceedingly awful. I try not to look at my Dorland’s medical dictionary too much – a fat tome full of all the things that can go dreadfully wrong, many in body parts I’ve never heard of! This week I was editing a dermatology article on a rare autoimmune blistering disease affecting the subepidermis called bullous pemphigoid, and musing how I had never met anyone with this, which is perhaps just as well as it sounds really nasty. But then today I just happened to visit a poorly bed-ridden friend of my parents who has been itching like crazy for months… her husband said no one has ever heard of what she’s got, so I said “try me”, and guess what. Maybe it’s just me, but the sheer unexpectedness of having things go horribly wrong in layers of skin you never even knew you had (and your painful condition possessing a daft, no-one’s-ever-heard-of-it name like bullous pemphigoid) strikes me as a tad, oh I don’t know, unreasonable …?

Buddha pointed out that greater or lesser suffering is normal in a contaminated body (that arises from ignorance and delusions, and the karma created by these). The 4 “great rivers” of suffering are birth, ageing, sickness, and death, and we’re constantly being tossed around in their cruel waters. And this is not even taking into account the mental pain and agitation we feel every day as a result of our uncontrolled, oversensitive minds!

The point of looking at this physical and mental suffering head on is to decide we don’t want any of it anymore and to ask the question, “What can we do about it?”

Samsara

Sailboat on the Ocean in a Storm

The seventh Dalai Lama, who lived in 18th century Tibet, said:

Whoever I behold, of high position or low, ordained or lay, male or female, they differ only in appearance, dress, behavior and status. In essence they are all equal. They all experience problems in their lives.

Buddha identified 7 categories of suffering for every human in what he called “samsara“: birth, ageing, sickness, death, having to part with what we like, having to encounter what we do not like, and failing to satisfy our desires.

Our problems are neither unusual nor special, but part of a monotonous pattern.

If I were to ask you: “Have you had any problems today?”, I’m almost prepared to bet that you’ll say yes. If you don’t mind, could you recall today’s problem for a moment…

Does this problem fall into any of the 7 categories described by Buddha – does it have anything to do with sickness, say? Or ageing? Or failing to satisfy your desires? Or losing something you liked?

Or is your problem in a category all of its own? Such as “bullous pemphigoid” perhaps? Nope, even bullous pemphigoid is part of sickness. complaint

Again, I’m prepared to bet that any problem you care to name can be placed in one or more of these 7 categories.

Normally we labor intensively to solve one problem at a time – thinking “If only I didn’t have this splitting headache, I’d be so happy! Look at all those lucky people without headaches, they must be sooo happy!” (Are they?) Or “There is no way I can relax with all these money problems — I have to have more money so I can finally stop worrying!” (Would you?)

It’s not that we don’t try to fix our problems and experience temporary reliefs. However, there is wisdom in recognizing that just trying to solve one external problem at a time is an endless process because as soon as one problem is solved another arises to take its place, like waves in an ocean. Even on a relatively good day we may get rid of our headache, only to find that someone at work says something annoying; then we deal with that problem, only to find ourselves stuck in traffic on the way home; and then we get home eventually, only to find that the Internet is down and we can’t go surfing. We may earn some more money for our family, which is a relief for a while, until the next big problem such as a major teenage rebellion comes along to occupy our thoughts. We may take a medication that fixes our itchiness for a while, but then our liver starts to play up from the toxicity. There is literally no end to problems in samsara. There is also no end to worries while we have a mind to worry. This is not even factoring in the really BIG wave-like sufferings of life, such as bereavement, terrorist attacks, and collapsing buildings, which can literally knock us flat.

Renunciation

According to Buddhism, we have to wake up to problems every day in life after life – many of them far more hideous than those we face now. The wave-like sufferings of samsara’s ocean can never stop rolling in; samsara has to stop first.

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang often says:

“Temporary liberation from a particular suffering is not good enough.”

Never a day goes by when we don’t want to be rid of our problems — big or small they fill our minds. As someone on Facebook posted the other day:

“I want more problems today!” said nobody ever.

We rarely if ever wake up and think, “Hey, bring it on! I want loads of things to worry about today!” If you think about it, this means that we actually want permanent freedom from problems.

giving ourselves permission to be happyFor this, it is not enough to tinker about with the various symptoms as they arise; we need to work to overcome the actual causes of all our problems, which lie within our mental continuum in the form of delusions and negative karma. Only then can we experience permanent liberation from every type of suffering, called in Buddhism “liberation” or “nirvana”.

Having studied and understood this, if we develop a wish for actual, permanent liberation from physical and mental suffering, we have “renunciation”. This is described in the scriptures as a “light and happy mind”. Not getting mentally stuck to one heavy problem after another is liberating in itself. With less attachment and aversion — kept at bay by our renunciation — our daily moods are happier. With this uplifting wish front and foremost, everything we think or do will take us in the direction of liberation – we will be working our way out of samsara even as we take a headache pill, lie ill in bed, cart the kids to school, sip our latte, or strive to drum up business on the Internet.

Bodhichitta

We can also know that everyone equally experiences these problems. Ask a room of people, “Did anyone have a problem today?” and the chances are that pretty much everyone will say “Oh, yes!” Whatever problem we are having, we can guarantee that everyone else also has to experience it sooner or later. We are all in this together. And, as Jim Morrison of The Doors said, “No one here gets out alive.” This understanding can lead to compassion and then “bodhichitta” and, with this empathetic, empowering, meaningful wish front and foremost, everything we do will be taking us in the direction of enlightenment.